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New York Post

 

DC Missed the Train

August 25, 2010

By Nicole Gelinas

To see what the federal stimulus package really has accomplished, take a look at this week’s MTA news. Then, expect more of the same: paying more to ride on aging transit systems that break down all the time.

How so?

New York commuters got hit with a double whammy on Monday. First, an electrical fire brought on by floods took out century-old Long Island Rail Road switching equipment in Queens. The damage stopped LIRR trains and was still causing cancellations and delays yesterday.

Second, subway commuters learned that the MTA might hike 30-day MetroCard prices by 46 percent, from $89 to $130 -- instead of the $104 it proposed last month.

What’s that got to do with the stimulus?

If the deficit-ridden MTA wants to maintain service without asking commuters for higher fares, it has to cut future labor costs and squirrel away the savings for fixing infrastructure -- like replacing that old switching equipment.

The mother of all one-shots, the stimulus showered $1.1 billion in infrastructure funding on the MTA. The feds should have asked Albany to make some big labor reforms in return for the cash. But instead, the money had no strings attached -- and it’s nowhere near enough for needed investments, anyway. So the system got a quick sugar rush that let the politicians delay crucial reforms for another day.

But labor reforms are needed now. By 2014, the MTA’s annual labor costs will have risen by $1.1 billion -- the same amount that the feds pumped into the agency, incidentally -- to a total of $8 billion. Leading the way will be pension and health-benefit costs, which will rise by 37 percent from 2009 levels, to $2.8 billion. And because the MTA’s labor costs have long forced it to borrow in order to pay for even routine maintenance, its debt costs, too, will nearly double, to $2.6 billion annually.

Meanwhile, the MTA’s aging infrastructure is crumbling. The LIRR incident only highlights just how vulnerable it is to the elements. And not just the LIRR: Remember what that terrible fire did to the C subway line a few years ago?

As it happens, the LIRR has been upgrading its 1913-era equipment. The railroad should complete a $60 million switch project this year. Problem is, the MTA got its hands on this money as part of its last five-year capital plan, approved in 2005. The authority was supposed to start a new capital plan this year, with similarly vital projects -- for a total of $26.3 billion, including $2.6 billion for the LIRR. Yet it has no idea where it’s going to get the cash. For that purpose, the stimulus money was a drop in the bucket.

So, even with the stimulus, Nassau and Suffolk commuters face worse service -- and they can look forward to shouldering as much as a 9.4 percent fare hike in January. New York City commuters face the same lousy deal. Even if the MTA doesn’t go through with its proposal to charge $130 for a monthly MetroCard, the price likely will go above $100 -- and in two years’ time, will likely rise again.

The federal stimulus could have been a force for needed changes. President Obama should have pointed out that public-sector labor costs were why state entities like the MTA faced huge deficits after the economy tanked in 2008. Then, Congress should have made the stimulus conditional on voluntary pay freezes and long-term legislative and contractual trims to pension and health benefits -- “cash for cuts.”

But instead, the stimulus allowed the MTA and other such entities around the country to stretch out an unsustainable status quo for another year.

Congress and the White House may have a chance to right their error. States and cities still face massive budget deficits -- even after the $26 billion aid package authorized last month by Congress. The public should demand that any new aid to states stimulate the change that the economy needs: less public-sector labor spending and more infrastructure investment to support the private-sector economy.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/dc_missed_the_train_GdKBh60oGWEOIDx1y7wHTI

 

 
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