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New York Post

 

Trainwreck

December 16, 2009

By Nicole Gelinas

The state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority is threatening big service cuts next year, and even to make schoolkids pay a fare. But the “solution” from self-styled transit “advocates” and politicians is worse -- they want to raid the MTA’s capital budget.

Yet cutting investments in projects like the Second Avenue Subway won’t lead anywhere -- except to a decaying system and more trouble for New York’s economy.

The only real answer is to cut labor costs.

Even though it got a $2.1 billion bailout in May, the MTA faces a $383 million budget hole. This is Albany’s fault: Lawmakers stole $143 million of the MTA’s money for their own deficit. And it’s the MTA’s fault: The authority was overoptimistic about what taxes would bring in.

The MTA could solve more than half the problem by freezing wages. A freeze for the unionized city workforce alone would save $193 million next year -- and $272 million the year after.

It’s not like workers would go elsewhere -- they’d have to get in line with the unemployed.

These savings would replace drastic service cuts. The MTA’s plans to slash subway, bus and handicapped service and to make students pay half-fares will save only $133 million.

The agency certainly understands that it can’t ignore its biggest cost, personnel: It’s slashing pay for non-union workers by 10 percent to save $49 million.

But the MTA can’t take such a step with the union; it must do the opposite. Despite the deep recession and the agency’s plummeting revenues, the Transport Workers Union just got huge raises -- 11.5 percent over three years.

And though the MTA handled those labor negotiations abysmally, this failure is mostly polit ical. State arbitrators decided the raises based on what other unions have got -- specifically, the city’s DC-37. Last fall (a month after Lehman Bros. fell), Mayor Bloomberg awarded DC-37’s 100,000 workers the same generous wages as the TWU later got (albeit for two years, not three).

Bloomberg has professed outrage over the MTA deal -- but he set the tone for it. If he’d said in 2008 that nobody should get a hike in a fiscal crisis, the TWU might not have won the raises. It certainly would’ve made it harder for a state judge to say, in certifying the transit raises, “The award . . . is a rich package but not unique.”

When an agency gets a $2.1 bil lion bailout but still has to cut service, you’d think that the politicians and “advocates” might admit what’s really wrong.

Nope. Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign has actually called for the MTA to divert funds from its capital spending to cover its labor costs. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn agrees.

In other words, ruin service for straphangers of the future to appease union workers today.

Every dollar that the MTA spends on labor is a dollar it can’t spend on new train cars and construction. And its capital budget is billions of dollars short.

To its credit, the MTA is trying to save on debt by paying up front for some capital spending -- $50 million now, to start with. But the “transit advocates” are against such responsible thinking -- in fact, they want the MTA to instead hand $100 million in stimulus funds over to the unions.

The MTA can’t withstand the pressure forever: If it goes through with its school-fare plan, the pols may punish it by taking more of its money next year.

Bloomberg can help here -- but he hasn’t.

Yesterday from Copenhagen (where he’s off “solving” far loftier problems), the mayor told a CNBC reporter that the problem is -- still -- a lack of money. “You see all of these cutbacks in the MTA budget,” the mayor said. “The MTA has got to find another source. If we had done congestion pricing two years ago, perhaps they wouldn’t be in this situation.”

Sorry: The MTA would be “in this situation” -- because it got what it said it needed.

The mayor should agree to the MTA’s request that the city pay more for the $240 million cost of free student rides, and push Albany to do the same. (The city and state used to pay $50 million each, but Albany now wants to pay just $6 million, and the city’s contribution hasn’t risen with costs.)

This is an education cost, not a transit responsibility. If the city has money for six-figure teacher salaries, it has money to get the kids to school. (Maybe the teachers can take their own wage freeze to make up for it, since Bloomberg hasn’t signed their latest contract yet.)

That would help defray the cost of the raises that the MTA must pay because the mayor didn’t act when it counted -- and it would give the MTA more money for improvements in subway and bus infrastructure that the mayor wants for New York.

It’s a modest start, but better than making things worse.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/trainwreck_AlfjakwTsvAcepQNs5N2BK

 

 
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