It’s tempting, if you’re sitting on a stalled subway train, to wonder: Why don’t we chuck the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority and start over?
Last week, the nonprofit Regional Plan Association proposed a mild version of just that, a spinoff for the subways. But it’s hard to make a fresh start with politicians as cynical as ours.
The RPA says what is self-evident: The MTA “is not capable of rebuilding the subway system.” For one, the MTA has too much to do: managing commuter rail, buses, bridges and tunnels in addition to the subway. And it’s never clear who’s in charge: the governor appoints more people than anyone else to the MTA’s board, but many New Yorkers think the mayor runs the subway.
Plus, the MTA builds stuff too slowly, and for too much money.
“Contracting, procurement and labor practices required by the MTA are inefficient and out-of-date,” the RPA says. “Work rules . . . lead to excessive staffing and unproductive work time,” and “requirements to use the operations workforce” — that is, day-to-day subway workers — “on construction projects . . . increase project costs and delivery times.”
Finally, “the MTA is $40 billion in debt . . . with expenses growing 30 percent faster than operating revenues due to rapidly escalating employee-benefit costs and debt.”
But we can’t just give up, either. “Let’s just not accept that it will take us 50 years to improve the subways,” says Tom Wright, RPA president. “The idea is you create a corporation that is not encumbered by these rules before you commit billions of extra dollars.”
The RPA wants to save the subways by taking them away from the MTA. It proposes a new “subway reconstruction public benefit corporation,” which would have just one job: to “completely rebuild the subway system.”
To do that, it would have more freedom than the MTA to set work and contracting rules. And the public would know who’s accountable: the governor. Although it would have a board, the governor would appoint most members.
There’s merit to starting over. New York does lots of new transportation projects — Citibike and the ferries — well outside of the MTA, to avoid the mess and keep costs down.
But there are also big questions.
First, this new corporation would need lots of new money. “Rebuilding the subway” even while cutting costs “would still significantly increase capital construction budgets,” the RPA notes.
The catch is that the politicos would expect New York City taxpayers to pay this tab . . . while also funding the “legacy” MTA. The “old” MTA’s debt is not going away.
The MTA already gets 76 percent of its fares from New York City riders, plus 61 percent of its tax funding from the city, and much of that money goes to projects that don’t benefit city commuters. From 2003 to 2019, the MTA will have spent more than half of its expansion investments on commuter rails, not on subway riders — even though commuter-rail customers are only 7 percent of total ridership.
The risk is obvious: The governor would expect the city to keep paying for all of this “old” stuff, and pay directly for “new” subways. You will pay, effectively, twice.
Speaking of the governor, it’s not clear why the state should be in charge. The money is coming from the city. And Gov. Cuomo has shown no interest in cutting costs when doing so annoys labor unions.
The new subway corporation, remember, is supposed to eliminate the problem of having the MTA’s workers do construction work at a high cost. But the MTA recently OK’d an agreement by which those workers will do lots of Con Ed electrical work underground.
“When the union that represents subway workers discovered that outside contractors would be conducting maintenance work,” it was “incensed,” reported Politico New York. The union struck a deal to be “partners,” watching Con Ed do only “small stuff.”
Finally, though the new entity would rebuild subways, the MTA would still run them. But without discipline over pension and health costs, that means even more money would go to higher benefits and not better service.
A new subway authority won’t be immune to the union pressures that keep these costs high. Smart politicians like Cuomo would create it — and shape it to suit them.