Sep
29

We be comptrollin’: Garbage and MTA capital spending

By · Published in 2015

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.



26 Responses to “We be comptrollin’: Garbage and MTA capital spending”

  1. Larry Littlefield says:

    The people who benefit from all this stuff are the people who put the Comptrollers in.

    In his first election, the Republicans put up someone serious against this guy rather than a hack. Were you paying attention? That was your chance.

    • LLQBTT says:

      You’re kidding, right? This is a Democratic town. The Republicans also put up a real, serious guy for NYC Comptroller, but all Stringer did was talk about the extreme right wing of the house GOP.

      Now, Repulblicans are indeed scary these days, but when you have a local candidate that makes all sorts of sense v. a machine politician, what vote makes sense?

  2. Maggie says:

    So why wouldn’t DiNapoli run a forensic audit on behalf of the public?

    Is he holding back out of deference to other officials? He feels like it’s an unneeded distraction where the MTA is running well for the public now? The audit would be more complex than he wants to take on?

    • Larry Littlefield says:

      How did that Moreland Commission thing turn out for the state legislature? DiNapoli was put in by Sheldon Silver. He is under indictment. So is the former Republican head of the State Senate, whose predecessor was convicted and overturned.

      Not to mention the lesser legislators.

      As noted, I got fed up enough to run against the local hack, who isn’t even the worst, back in 2004. But as it happens he IS the head of the committee responsible for the MTA Capital Plan. And he has been rather quiet.

  3. Herb Lehman says:

    Ugh, the garbage thing again. The MTA can say what it wants, but in my observation, all the trash can removal pilot has done so far is relocate the trash from the garbage cans to the tracks and the trains themselves. It’s not a customer-friendly policy, to put it mildly, and I can’t imagine it saves much money. I know that’s not really the point of this post, but if I’m skeptical of Mr. DiNapoli, it won’t be because of his whining about a dumb initiative that almost everyone hates.

    • Alex says:

      A friend of mine recent found herself changing her 2-year-old son’s diaper on the platform while waiting (an extended period) for a train. After she finished changing him, she realized there were no trashcans. She, being the upstanding citizen she is, put the wet diaper in her purse. I hate litter, but even I wouldn’t have done that. In some ways I like the trashcan removal idea, but this made me give it a serious second thought.

  4. BruceNY says:

    “PATH, for instance, has no garbage cans, and it works.”

    PATH also puts some effort into cleaning their stations overall, unlike the MTA whose stations are coated in soot and grime, to say nothing of the garbage on the tracks.

  5. Joe says:

    Isn’t it obvious why costs are so high – unconstrained union workforce with inflated pay and too-strict work rules. I’m okay with having unions but if train conductors are making $100k+ and the MTA can’t easily replace unproductive workers, then costs and construction time will spiral up. A good example: London’s Crossrail started construction in 2009 and is expected to finish in 2019. East Side Access started in 2007 and expected completion is now 2023 – despite the fact that Crossrail is considerably more complex and London also has unions and is an expensive city. The political will to tame the unions in the city is just not there, unfortunately.

    • adirondacker12800 says:

      It’s partly those nice white collar workers – suing each other. We’ve spent 600 million dollars on ARC and all we have to show for it is test borings. And an enormous pile of paperwork.

    • Tower18 says:

      There’s of course plenty to say about work rules and so forth, but I’m not sure how the salary of conductors has anything to do with capital construction costs.

    • WhatTheHell says:

      The construction unions in NYC are probably rotten to the core but the ESA project would probably be completed by now were it not for the horrible organizational problems the MTA has (why do we need that stupid cavern again?).

      The unions probably don’t help but that Cerberus we call a transit agency is as bad if not worse.

  6. Streater says:

    Has anyone thought that maybe these subways are so expensive per mile compared to other systems is the start up costs? The building in phases method may be the reason it’s so damn expensive… other cities are building 30 stations at a time… so they only pay the initial cost once, and it’s averaged across a whole line. While one station + initial startup cost will make it on average look more expensive.

    Conclusion: build the second avenue subway in one phase… and build more lines IN ONE PHASE!

  7. Ryan says:

    Whether trash collection is a low-hanging fruit is far from the open and shut case you’re making it out to be.

    Whether or not the trash is actually getting carted out is still an open question. As mentioned, sometimes it ends up on the tracks or inside of the trains because of hand-wringing over the Broken Windows days that keeps us from enacting and enforcing meaningful laws against litter. In very rare cases it might make it out of the system to end up on the street or in a street trash can, but the more likely explanation is that the people who carting their trash off to somewhere else are in fact merely carting it off to the next en-trash-canned station. Expanding the program, then, wouldn’t reduce system-wide trash levels (and may not have had that effect even in this pilot’s limited scope), but merely concentrate more trash into less areas until eventually the balance tips back and more people simply resort to littering with impunity because there’s neither an appropriate place to discard their trash nor an effective measure to stop them from discarding it inappropriately.

    And as an aside, on a personal note: the MTA absolutely should be in the trash business. The real low-hanging fruit here is that they’ve abandoned all pretense of cleaning the subway system and people have allowed them to do this, choosing to blame nebulous “slobs” who cannot be effectively stopped from dirtying the system instead of the MTA’s own policies which are only barely better than ineffectual begging for people to help them abandon their responsibilities to their own quasi-public spaces. Even places with no trash cans clean their subway stations. Why should the MTA be exempt from doing that?

    • adirondacker12800 says:

      but the more likely explanation is that the people who carting their trash off to somewhere else are in fact merely carting it off to the next en-trash-canned station.

      No they aren’t. If want to get off at a station that doesn’t have trash cans I’m not going to go to the next station, drop off my candy wrapper, wait for another train and go back to where I want to get off.

      • Ryan says:

        You barely have to get off the train if you’re standing by the door that stops in front of a trash can on the platform. Plenty of stations between the one you got on at and the one you got off at and one of them is bound to have a conveniently located trash can near the door for you to discard the remnants of your takeout dinner bag between the time the doors open and the time they close again, no changing trains required.

        • adirondacker12800 says:

          Why isn’t that behavior is common now? If people are so desperate, yet so tidy, to get rid of trash…. they would be doing that now. They don’t and won’t.

    • Ralfff says:

      People don’t “resort” to “littering with impunity”. They do it… with impunity. If you are a litterer the availability of a trash can makes no difference. I’m not saying I’m a saint but I’ve managed to avoid consciously littering for years, it’s really not been some kind of great sacrifice.

      On one hand I agree that I’m loath to give the MTA a break on this issue when it seems to be yet another case of the agency abandoning responsibility in one sphere with no apparent improvement in other sectors.

      On the other… the public needs to take some goddamn responsibility. It’s not just the subway, it’s the buses, the streets, the beaches. This summer I was at Rockaway Beach on a normal weekday afternoon as the beach was emptying out, and it was absolutely strewn with trash. This was obviously a daily occurrence. There were ample trash bins on the boardwalk but the more responsible of the litterers selflessly threw trash next to an overstuffed can on the sand. No other city I’ve ever been to has this degree of personal irresponsibility when it comes to trash.

      Your bit about broken windows is also a red herring. As Bolwerk has posted in these comments before, broken windows was about running up tickets on a bunch of basically victimless crimes, like sleeping on a subway bench or the infamous ticket for sitting on a milk crate on the sidewalk. It had nothing to do with littering. It wasn’t like the city was any cleaner in the Giuliani years.

      • adirondacker12800 says:

        If the trash receptacle was full that means it’s too small, it’s not emptied often enough or there should be more of them. They coulda just dropped it someplace else.

      • Ryan says:

        It’s not a red herring at all. The last time I brought up actually enforcing litter laws, I was told that such things were impossible because of backlash from broken windows.

        Personally, I don’t buy the argument, but there it is.

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