BREAKING NEWS: Just as we are about to publish, Crain's New York informs us that the MTA's budget deficit is $105 million greater than the agency had previously estimated. Real estate tax revenues based on property transfers were far short of expectations for the first six months of 2010. This will further stress the financially beleaguered agency, which this Sunday will impose substantial service reductions.
MTA Running on Fumes;
More Cuts are Predicted;
What About Big Earners?; and
Fares to Rise in January
The service cuts on bus and subway lines that will take effect Sunday morning have received less attention than they deserve. Apart from the usual suspects, transit buffs, local elected officials and neighborhood activists, there was no popular uprising in protest of the substantial reductions in bus routes. Nor did the mainstream media focus on what was being lost in the five boroughs.
The MTA is complying with fiscal realities in trying to balance its budget by the end of its fiscal year, June 30. To plug its $761 million shortfall – $378 million of which the MTA claims to have been made aware of only in February when it received revised State aid projections – the MTA has devised a multi-pronged, cost-cutting approach that calls for the elimination of 141 of 280 projects in the 2010 operating budget, renegotiating vendor and supply contracts, improving inventory management, and, of course, staff and service reductions.
The MTA told us that the authority would be reducing the size of its administrative staff by 15% – in terms of payroll, not necessarily people, across the MTA's constituent agencies – and 20% at MTA headquarters. All in all, the agency is expecting to lay off, buy out, or allow to leave by attrition around 3,000 employees, out of about 70,000 total. This total includes the nearly 500 station agents whose layoffs are currently pending due to a court order, 270 bus drivers whose positions will be eliminated by the service cuts, and 600 administrative and clerical workers.
How much the cuts will impact the MTA's leadership at 347 Madison Avenue, 2 Broadway and 130 Livingston Street – the hydra-headed agency’s triple set of headquarters buildings – is difficult to gauge. For most of us, it is a question of trust in the MTA's new executive director and chairman, Jay Walder, who was nominated by Governor Paterson on July 14, 2009 and confirmed by the State Senate eight weeks later.
On the surface, Walder appears highly qualified. Clearly not a political appointee, he is a mature professional who most recently was a partner in the consulting firm of McKinsey & Co. He began his career at the MTA in 1983, heading its capital program budget office before becoming the agency's chief of staff and ultimately executive director and chief financial officer. From 2001 to 2007 Walder was managing director for finance and planning at Transport for London (their MTA). He is credited with leading the development of the transportation plans for London’s successful bid for the 2012 Olympics, and introducing the Oyster card, their electronic ticket for public transportation.
All Politics is Local
From the worm's eye view of New York Civic, we have lost our bus route on Park Avenue South. The M1 has been cut back so that it goes south on Fifth Avenue and north on Madison. How much money will be saved by rerouting a handful of buses each hour from Park to Fifth is not clear. It is likely that the number of buses on existing routes will also be reduced, because savings come from cutting the number of buses, more than by changing a route to a parallel avenue two blocks east.
It is true that there is a 6 train underneath Park Avenue South (Fourth Avenue until 1950), making local stops at 33rd, 28th and 23rd Streets. The stairs from the platform to the street range from twenty (32nd northbound) to 40 (33rd southbound). There are no elevators at these stations. The buses about to disappear are handicapped-accessible. Bus riders headed north will have to walk west to Madison Avenue, those going south can walk east to Lexington Avenue.
We do not maintain that this reduction is the most onerous of all those being imposed. In fact, we heartily approve the elimination of certain express routes in Manhattan, where we have never seen more than a handful of people on board. We understand the MTA's tactic that, if one must make reductions, let them all take effect immediately to minimize the length of time that the issue will be open for discussion, and limit the controversy that could arise.
What’s in a Name?
DIGRESSION: Immediate action also results from the use of the guillotine, an instrument devised by a French physician and professor of anatomy at the faculty of medicine in Paris, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814). He designed the machine as a humanitarian device to protect the condemned from pain resulting from protracted swipes by a clumsy axeman, or one using a dull blade.
We read in Wikipedia that in 1784, when Dr. Franz Mesmer (who, like Dr. Guillotin, Nicolas Chauvin, Jean Martinet, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, and the Marquis de Sade, lives on in a word) publicized his theory of animal magnetism, Louis XVI, later to be a subject of Dr. Guillotin's machine, appointed a commission to investigate the theory, which some considered offensive. Dr. G was appointed a member of the royal commission, along with one Benjamin Franklin, who was Ambassador to France at the time. Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, was also a member of the commission, but that did not save him from the guillotine in 1794, during the Reign of Terror.
You can click here to learn more about the commission, its findings, and the history of the dealings of Lavoisier and the revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat, who had been dismissed by Lavoisier as a young scientist and blocked by the great chemist from becoming a member of the French Academy of Sciences.
The slight understandably earned Marat’s ire, and years later when Lavoisier was denounced as a public enemy for serving as a tax collector for the deposed king, Marat fanned the flames of public outrage by accusing Lavoisier of diluting commercial tobacco and cutting off Paris’s air supply by building a defensive wall around the city.
The additional charges assured Lavoisier's eventual beheading, although Marat did not get to enjoy the spectacle, having already been assassinated, stabbed to death in his bath by Charlotte Corday in July 1793.
The execution of Lavoisier has a tragic counterpart in the United States: the 1804 killing of former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton by Vice President Aaron Burr in a duel. One case was state action and the other was a private slaying, but both were outrageous. Burr’s side of the story is told by Gore Vidal in "Burr".
Billions Wasted; No Penalties
Returning to the MTA, we have over the years been highly critical of their capital program, which has been extravagant and wasteful. The Fulton Street Transit Center has consumed over a billion dollars and is far from complete. It does not add significant new service, but generally reconnects the platforms and prettifies the tunnels at enormous expense. The spur to Eleventh Avenue and 34th Street, constructed
solely at City expense, lacks a station at Tenth Avenue and 42nd Street, which would serve many more riders and accommodate the new residences in Midtown West.
We will go no further here into the mismanagement of the MTA over the years, its inability to deal with its unions and its overstaffing in some areas. These shortcomings are not yet the fault of the current management. Lee Sander tried to clean up the mess as best he could, but he got no help from the unions or from Governor Paterson, who refused even to speak to him.
If you look in the Starchives, you will find numerous articles on the MTA we have written in the past seven years. Now the agency is strained by a financial crisis over which it has little control. Its overreaching problem is its deficit, caused in part by a militant and aggressive union, timid political management, and improvident allocation of resources.
The MTA is blamed for events that are beyond its control, and escapes responsibility for matters it has mishandled. Governors and mayors, through their apathy and inaction, have contributed to the continuing transit crisis. Basic responsibility, however, lies with the offices and board of the authority, some of whom are empty suits.
Chairman Walder will be judged in large part on how he deals with a crisis he did not create. He demanded and received his own golden parachute if he is forced to leave the job early. At this point we hope he stays with it.