Over the past year, as the MTA has struggled to maintain a balanced budget, “making every dollar count” has emerged as the authority’s mantra. Since finding itself on the wrong end of a budget crisis, the authority has identified over $500 million in annual savings and, amidst repeated cries for a forensic audit, has identified nearly $200 million more in savings with the potential to save on labor costs as well. But since the state comptroller can’t seem to figure out how to drill down on the MTA’s finances quickly, we have no way of knowing what the MTA should target and if their cuts are efficient.
To rectify that problem, the influential Citizens Budget Commission unveiled a report benchmarking the efficiencies — or lack thereof — at the MTA, and the findings may surprise a casual observer. The CBC found that the MTA’s subway operations are their most efficient and compare very favorably to subway systems across the country. The authority’s city-based bus network, however, is among the least efficient in the country, and their commuter rail network suffers as well. Across the board, the agency must rein in maintenance costs, the report noted.
“This benchmarking analysis highlights both the national leadership of the MTA and specific opportunities for improvement,” CBC President Carol Kellermann said. “It’s a very valuable tool for understanding the efficiencies and inefficiencies of the system and how the taxpayers’ money can be better spent.”
The report — available here as a PDF — is pretty straightforward in its methodology. Using readily available numbers, it compares the MTA’s costs of operations across a variety of metrics to assess efficiency. Using vehicle revenue miles and hours, unlinked passenger trips, passenger miles traveled and vehicles in use, CBC analysts determined a variety of unit cost measurements. It also examined employee productivity levels as well.
The CBC bulleted the findings in a top-line summary:
- New York’s subways are among the most efficient in the nation. Among the ten largest subway systems in the United States, the MTA has the lowest cost per passenger trip; it has the second-lowest cost per passenger mile (behind Atlanta) and second-lowest cost per hour of service (behind Chicago), and it is third (behind Philadelphia and Chicago) in cost per active vehicle. New York is fifth in cost per mile of service. In non-vehicle operations (stations and other facilities), the MTA scores only in the middle of the group – a notable opportunity for further improvement.
- The MTA’s bus operations are relatively inefficient. Among the ten largest urban bus systems in the nation, the New York City Transit bus operations rank last in three of five cost indicators: cost per mile of service; cost per hour of service, and cost per active vehicle. The MTA Bus Company ranks seventh or below in all five indicators; the other two being cost per passenger trip and cost per passenger mile.
- The two MTA commuter railroads, the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North, also are relatively inefficient. Among the ten largest commuter railroads in the nation, the Long Island Rail Road was at or near the bottom on three of five indicators (last on cost per passenger mile; ninth on cost per active vehicle; eighth on cost per mile of service) and below the median on the other two (seventh on cost per passenger trip and sixth on cost per hour of service). Metro-North was in the bottom half of the group on all five indicators (eighth on cost per active vehicle; seventh on cost per hour of service, and sixth on the other three indicators: cost per mile of service; cost per passenger trip, and cost per passenger mile).
When it comes to buses, the CBC fingers both poor road conditions and congestion as the likely culprits for the costs. Because our city roads are in such bad shape, MTA buses break down more frequently. Because the roads are so crowded, buses do not operate efficiently. The MTA has two of the nation’s three bus operators that run their vehicles at an average speed under 10 miles per hour.
Ultimately, this report doesn’t help to highlight specific ways in which the MTA can solve money. Being a leader in efficiency, at least on the subway side of things, doesn’t mean the MTA can’t spend less; they likely could. But these totals should help policy analysts pinpoint ways in which the MTA can save. Right now, buses — and to a lesser extent, commuter rail — remain the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Now who wants to tackle the problem?