Home MTA Economics Amidst budget talks, Walder wants better tech but no fare hikes

Amidst budget talks, Walder wants better tech but no fare hikes

by Benjamin Kabak

When yesterday’s news broke that the state would reduce its funding commitments to the MTA by $140 million, the F word emerged. Two MTA Board Members mentioned fare hikes as a way to meet any potential budget gaps brought on by the latest round of state cuts. Jay Walder, the MTA’s CEO and chairman, downplayed those fears.

Walder, talking after a hearing on the MTA’s ambitious 2010-2014 capital plan, stressed the agency’s commitment to its current plan. He did, however, hedge his bets. “It is my intent to stay with the schedule of fare hikes that was agreed with the Legislature in May, which does not call for a fare hike in 2010,” Walder said to reporters. “It is my intent to stay with that.”

By using “intent,” Walder is certainly keeping the option to raise fares on the table, but he stressed the MTA’s need to streamline their internal operations. “We have a responsibility now to be able to try to show how we can tighten our belt and how we can do things more efficiently and productively,” he said.

If the agency begins to run low on cash, as Michael Grynbaum and Colin Moynihan noted, the MTA will have few options. The decision to eliminate station agents system-wide saved just a few million dollars. To find $140 million worth of service cuts would result in a death blow to efficient subway service. Hopefully, the economy will hold, and we will be saved a small fare hike before a larger one arrives, as scheduled, in 2011.

Meanwhile, as the bad news from Albany overshadowed Walder’s appearance in front of the State Senate on Thursday, the MTA head tried to forge ahead with his vision to bring technological innovations to an agency sorely lacking in that field. “I have to tell you, when I first arrived at the MTA, people kept telling me the MTA doesn’t do technology,” Walder said. “Well, that’s simply not acceptable.”

The State Senators were far more skeptical and questioned the need for basic transit technologies such as train and bus arrival boards. Sen. Craig Johnson, a Democrat from North Hempstead called these clocks “a very nice idea” but was otherwise dismissive. “New Yorkers, whether you’re a suburbanite commuter or you live in the five boroughs, have been living without time clocks for a number of years,” Thompson said. “It seems a little bit like a luxury.”

According to our elected officials, then, a modern transit network and up-to-date infrastructure technology is a luxury. No wonder it has become a struggle to secure sensible funding for public transportation in New York.

More ominous, though, were Senate warnings about the MTA’s proposed $28.8 billion five-year capital plan. For the first time since these capital investments dragged the MTA out of the mire of the 1970s, the Senate does not know how it will fund a proposed five-year plan. The agency has secured money for all but $10 billion, but that gap represents a third of the planned spending. “Do you have a way to come up with the $10 billion? I don’t think Albany is coming up with $10 billion,” Johnson said.

For the MTA, a less-than-fully funded plan will lead to some serious capital soul searching. The next five-year plan includes money for the East Side Access project and another $1.5 billion for Phase I of the Second Ave. Subway. The MTA simply cannot cut those projects. The Second Ave. Subway, in particular, has burned through too much money, has taken too much time and has disrupted too many lives for the MTA to yet again seal up Second Ave. without a subway underneath it.

So we are left with another sorry reflection on the state of politics and economics in New York City: no money for transit; no will to explore modern-day technological innovations; and no respect for the future development of the city. The cuts may come; the fare hikes will definitely come; and because the state will not adequately fund the underground engine that drives New York’s economy, the MTA is left spinning its wheels and begging, time after time, for more money.

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john December 4, 2009 - 1:14 am

Ugh the capital thing is why I’m very in favor of full fare (i.e., charging cost)… just cut out the state altogether and provide reasonable service to fully paying customers, so increases in ridership decrease the financial burden on the MTA instead of increasing it. But that really doesn’t solve their capital problems. Beats me what to do about this. It just sucks. I hope the Feds have deep pockets.

Marc Shepherd December 4, 2009 - 9:56 am

I think you already know the answer: the Feds don’t have deep pockets. In addition, the Feds tend to look more generously on projects that have a large local contribution. Cutting state investment is not the way to get more from Washington.

Of course, “full fare” will never happen. For as long as the legislature has been under-funding transit, it has been equally adamant that fares must be kept below their economic cost. If the MTA charged at a full recovery rate, the fare out to Far Rockaway would be about $10.

Anon256 December 4, 2009 - 9:55 am

How much would system-wide single-person train operation save?

Marc Shepherd December 4, 2009 - 9:57 am

It would save a lot, but most lines are not configured to run that way. On the lines where it is possible, it should absolutely be done. Naturally, it won’t.

drosejr December 4, 2009 - 10:09 am

If Johnson doesn’t think city residents are allowed to have a means of figuring out when the next train or bus is coming, like London and many other transport systems have had for years, perhaps his constituents in the North Shore of Long Island could wait a few more years for East Side Access to be completed. Countdown clocks for the many millions who travel by bus and subway each day are a drop in the bucket compared to the billions being thrown at the ~250,000 LIRR commuters, only some of whom will actually end up going to Grand Central.
This is what passes for leadership in the State Senate – don’t to look to us for basic needs, we would rather make sure our voters continue to fund $100k pensions for life for a bloated state government.

Benjamin Kabak December 4, 2009 - 10:48 am

The more I think about it, the more outraged I am. Sen. Johnson sounds like a typical suburban Luddite. Screw him.

AK December 4, 2009 - 10:55 am

I’m gonna disagree with the venom being thrown his way, in part. Comparing East Side Access– a structural benefit to transit– with countdown clocks, is absurd. Obviously, I wish more funds went to transit and I clearly think countdown clocks are useful and should be in any modern system. BUT, given political realities, I think the MTA would be well-advised to cut down on funds for things like count-down clocks, which are seen (for better or worse) by suburbanites and rural voters as luxuries, in exchange for additional funds for capital campaigns.

Remember, all Johnson said was, ““It seems a little bit like a luxury.” That’s not THAT outrageous, and clearly Johnson’s constituents feel similarly. I guess I wouldn’t expect SAS readers to be at all sympathetic to his position, but I’d only ask that we consider the real politik of the situation and ways to appeal to suburban/rural voters before branding them luddities…

Benjamin Kabak December 4, 2009 - 11:03 am

I doubt Johnson’s constituents feel that way, and even if they do, I’m inclined to give them no credit. We’re talking about a subway system that serves New York City and drives its economy in a major way. We need an updated system for the 21st Century.

AK December 4, 2009 - 11:24 am

“Need” is a relevant term, Ben. The need for a 21st century subway system must do battle with other “needs” in the political arena. I think Jonson’s constituents DO feel that way and, moreover, I think many non-NYCers feel that the City pooh-poohs Upstate/rural interests consistently. Instead of accusing these people of being dumb, backward, etc., we should try to explain (a) how NYC is actually underfunded, (b) how a modern subway system will IMPROVE the City (and in turn the State’s) fiscal forecast, and (c) why transit spending is a particularly efficient use of public funds. Its a political game, and transit advocates should learn how to play it more effectively.

Benjamin Kabak December 4, 2009 - 11:32 am

I don’t think the latter half of your comment is wrong. There is a lack of good political mobility among transit advocates, and I’ve explored that in the past.

But let me offer up something a rebuttal to Johnson’s constituents. He represents residents in North Hempstead in Nassau County. It butts up against Queens and enjoys service along the Port Washington, Port Jefferson and Oyster Bay branches of the LIRR. He represents a very high number of commuters, and if he were guarding the interests of his constituents, he would be focusing far more on transit funding than he is. As drosejr noted, he’ll enjoy the benefits of the East Side Access project but has continually rejected transit opportunities for his area. Simply put, he is the wrong man for the job and has a powerful voice Capital Program Review Board when he shouldn’t enjoy that position.

SEAN December 4, 2009 - 10:17 am

Tipical suburban mindset.

John December 4, 2009 - 12:48 pm

Strictly speaking, they are luxuries, for the very reasons he stated: the lines have gone on for this long without them. They would be useful, and I think they should happen, but they’re not necessary in the same way expansion projects like SAS or ESA are.

Alon Levy December 4, 2009 - 9:02 pm

The lines have also gone on without SAS and ESA. Crowding levels on the Lex lines are high by American standards, but not by Asian ones. Both SAS and countdown clocks are extra benefits.

Think twice December 4, 2009 - 4:30 pm

There were “Craig Johnsons” who said that switching from tokens to Metrocards was unnecessary and that a free bus-to-subway transfer was just a luxury to a city perfectly used to paying two fares or driving to or dropping off at the station by car for generations.

Countdown clocks, smart cards, interior & exterior cameras, email & text alerts, underground cell-phone & (dare I say it) free Wi-Fi reception, and all the rest will encourage more and more to ditch the car and incorporate the bus and train to daily life.


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