Democrats’ disappointing Election Day showing — control of the Senate is out of reach unless they win two runoff elections in Georgia — makes the prospects of a federal bailout of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority remote. At its monthly board meeting, the MTA threatened that without a $12 billion bailout, they would have to make severe service cuts: 40% reductions in frequency on subway service, halving of frequencies on commuter rail lines and elimination of many bus routes.
These massive cuts would be accompanied by firings of some workers. In total, 9,367 positions would be eliminated, or 11.3% of the agency’s workforce — unevenly distributed between agencies. NYC Transit, which runs the subways and buses within New York City, would see 8,238 employees cut, or 16.7% of its current workforce. MTA and Metro-North would lose only 933 workers, or 6.2% of their workers.44
The leaders of the Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents NYCT workers, have firmly rejected the plan. In a joint statement, president Tony Utano and former president John Samuelsen, an MTA board member, said that the state should look into raising other taxes to provide revenue and that they would not accept any firings.
It should be remarkable that such severe cutbacks in service would produce such small reductions in staffing — especially at the two commuter railroads, which are far more wasteful than NYCT but will see much smaller staff reductions. For example, according to the Empire Center’s See Through NY, the LIRR and Metro-North together employed 2,538 conductors in 2019 — almost triple the number of positions slated for cuts. Commuter rail conductors earned a total of $293.9 million plus benefits in 2019, for an average annual compensation of $119,700. Several dozen conductors earn more than $200,000 per year. (For comparison, NYCT’s bus drivers earn an average of only $80,700, for a far more taxing job.)
Conductors on commuter railroads, furthermore, are unnecessary. On passenger railways in Europe and an increasing number of transit systems in the United States (including the MTA’s own Select Bus Service), roving fare inspectors check tickets at random and fine anyone traveling without one — a system called “proof of payment.” Proof-of-payment could be adopted almost immediately.
The NYC subway also has conductors, who don’t check tickets but do open and close the doors at every stop. This position, likewise, is almost unique to NYC: Most world subway systems, including many busier than NYC’s, have one-person subway operation — and one of the few exceptions, Toronto, has been forging ahead with eliminating conductors. The No. 7 and L lines in the subway are also equipped for operation without conductors, but they still run with them after a legal challenge from TWU ended a pilot program.
Other ways to save money could focus on maintenance costs. Figures from the federal Department of Transportation’s 2018 National Transit Database show that the NYC subway system spends four times as much per track-mile on maintenance as any other American subway system; maintenance on the commuter railroads, especially LIRR, is also inefficient. Research by the Citizens Budget Commission suggests that improving subway maintenance practices, as well as getting LIRR maintenance productivity up to just Metro-North levels, could save $1 billion annually.
Improvements to NYCT buses could also save money by attracting new riders: A team from NYU’s Marron Institute has proposed that cheap improvements such as dedicated lanes, off-board fare collection, and consolidation of closely spaced bus stops could improve bus speeds in Brooklyn by 36%.
It’s hard not to feel sympathy for MTA workers, several thousand of whom, under any realistic plan, will have to find a new, likely lower-paying job in a bad economy. But ultimately, MTA labor unions bear much of the responsibility for the agency’s predicament. Transit unions elsewhere in the world have cooperated with reforms to increase productivity, using their leverage to gain wage increases and staff reductions via reduced hiring rather than layoffs.
But even though the fragility of MTA finances has been apparent for many years, the MTA’s labor unions have passed up several chances to negotiate such a bargain, even in a good economy when zero-layoff plans might have been possible. Just last year, for instance, TWU Local 100 pushed for a bill that would have enshrined a requirement in state statute for subway trains to operate with conductors.
No course of action for the MTA will be completely pain-free. Large-scale layoffs are likely inevitable, and the financial crisis is too pressing for long-term reforms to help more than marginally. But with some ingenuity, MTA management could save money with far less impact on its riders. The pandemic will not last forever, and New York City — as long as it has reliable, frequent subway and bus service — will still be a desirable place to live.
This piece originally appeared at New York Daily News
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