As it stands today, the MTA has some deep-rooted financial problems. To anyone paying attention, this isn’t a surprise. The agency, backed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the TWU, has been fighting with Mayor Bill de Blasio over proper city contributions to the underfunded $28 billion 2015-2019 capital plan. But the MTA has other deep-rooted financial problems involving an utter inability to control costs or deliver projects at a budget comparable to similar transit systems throughout the world. That’s a problem more important than a political fight over a five-year capital plan.
Meanwhile, there is a state comptroller — an elected official — who could take a deeper dive into the MTA’s finances. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has threatened a forensic audit of the MTA on and off for a few years, and he’s never delivered. Most recently, two reports from his audits leave me skeptical that he’ll ever deliver. One regurgitated publicly available MTA materials, and the other comes across as great big whine about the frequency of trash cans. If this is the best we can get on MTA finances, we’ll be stuck with insane costs for the foreseeable future.
Let’s start with DiNapoli’s trash can audit. He took at look at the MTA’s unnecessarily controversial pilot program to remove trash cans from certain subway stations in an effort to cut down on trash that sits in stations. Noting that trash collection and the rat population at stations without garbage cans is down, the MTA recently expanded the pilot. DiNapoli, however, is not impressed, but it’s not clear why.
He starts his announcement of his audit essentially validating some of the MTA’s claims. “There’s no doubt that removing garbage cans from subway stations saved work and possibly some money for the MTA,” he said. “It’s not clear that it met MTA’s goals of improving straphangers’ experience and making stations cleaner and there’s no evidence it reduced the number of rats in subway stations. After four years the best one can say about this experiment is that it’s inconclusive, except for the fact that riders have a harder time finding a trash can.”
So the MTA doesn’t spend as much on garbage collection, there may or may not be fewer rats in stations without garbage cans and riders have a harder time finding a trash can. To me, that sounds exactly like the point the MTA is trying to prove and a whine from DiNapoli because he might not be able to throw out his trash right away. The rest of the audit [pdf] covers similar territory. Ultimately, DiNapoli’s view must be reconciled with the question of whether the MTA should be in the trash business or the transportation business. PATH, for instance, has no garbage cans, and it works. Numerous other transit agency also eschew garbage collection, and people cart out their trash. Either way, this is low hanging fruit.
The other “audit” is hardly that. Taking information from the MTA’s recent sets of board meeting materials or perhaps just Tweets from transit reporters, DiNapoli has determined that the agency has a capital funding gap at a time of record high ridership. His platitude sums it up: “The MTA is looking to the state and the city to close the remaining $9.8 billion funding gap in its five-year capital program. While we don’t yet know how the gap will be closed, we do know that the public mass transportation system is critical to the state and city economies. If the MTA doesn’t get the funding it needs, the MTA will have to choose between cutting the size of the capital program or borrowing more, which could lead to less reliable service or higher fares and tolls.”
If you want to read his financial outlook, check out this pdf report. I say tell us something we don’t know. Tell us why it cost $2.4 billion to build the 7 line extension — a project that should have cost $1 billion. Tell us why the 2nd Ave. Subway is four years behind schedule. Tell us why it cost over $4 billion. What can the MTA do to save on capital construction spending so the money it can access is enough, as it would be in nearly every other nation in the world? That’s what DiNapoli should do. Until we have a comptroller willing to ask these questions though, the MTA can get away with its monopoly money budgets, and Cuomo and de Blasio will continue to fight.