In response to the Riders Alliance’s call to improve transit access to LaGuardia Airport by rebranding the Q70 and eliminating its fare, the MTA came down hard against the idea. Despite the Riders Alliance’s contention that a fare-free service would likely generate more ridership, and thus more revenue, for the MTA, the agency opted to highlight the potential affect on its bottom line such a free service would have. Cost estimates ranged from a few hundred thousand to tens of millions, and while officials stopped short of uncategorically dismissing the idea, they might as well have.
“One-fourth of riders do not come from the subway and don’t use the free transfer, and thus we would lose money on one out of every four customers under their plan,” Transit spokesman Kevin Ortiz said to me in a statement. “If ridership would continue to grow on the route to the level they claim, we would have to add service, and that costs money. And where would we find the buses?”
Where would the MTA find the buses? Well, that must be the costs MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg had in mind when he later said on Twitter that the agency is “generally opposed” to ideas that “would cost the MTA tens of millions” of dollars. It’s hard to believe increasing service from every 12 minutes to every 10 for a few hours a day would have that much of an effect on the MTA’s budget, but that was the party line earlier this week.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t the only time the MTA, or its surrogates, relied on an argument over token amounts of money to reject a rider-friendly initiative. Earlier this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed a measure that would have upped MetroCard transfers on certain routes from one per two hours to two. The measure had bipartisan support, but Cuomo claimed it foisted an unfunded $40 million expense onto the MTA’s shoulders. “The bill,” he said in a veto message, “does not provide any funding to account for this expense. Such funding decisions should be addressed in the context of the state budget negotiations.” The MTA urged those riders who need the extra transfers to buy unlimited ride cards instead.
For the MTA, this recent attention to dollars lost around the edges of its $13 billion annual budget — a half a million here, $40 million there — is hardly a new development. The MTA’s operating budget has, for years, run on razor-thin margins, thanks in part to capital debt payments, and the agency has recently focused on penny-pinching when it comes to operations, often at the expense of rider-friendly initiatives. Costs matter.
Meanwhile, just a few weeks ago, the MTA secured $28 billion for its capital projects, and boy do costs not even come into consideration here. The MTA is currently building, along the East Side, the world’s most expensive subway and, underneath Grand Central, the world’s most expensive commuter rail terminal. The 7 line extension was the world’s second most expensive subway, and the Fulton St. Transit Center’s $1.4 billion price tag looks low only because the WTC PATH Hub across the street costs nearly three times as much. Meanwhile, future phases of the Second Ave. Subway are likely to cost even more, and no one at the MTA is decrying these dollar figures which are orders of magnitude higher than a free shuttle bus to the airport.
It’s hard to say that the MTA cares about construction costs. Outwardly, there’s been very little effort to get them under control, and project costs inch higher and higher with each passing year. Securing the dollars is a fight, and the money goes further everywhere else in the world. Government regulations, interest group politics, local NIMBYism, bad labor practices and plain old corruption seem to all play into the MTA’s costs, but no agency officials have claimed to lose money on capital expansion projects.
Ultimately, then, it seems that the MTA cares about money only around the margins. Usually, they don’t; sometimes, they do. And those times seem to implicate benefits for riders. This strikes me as a rather uneven response from an agency with so many customers that should be trying to attract more. If anything, it’s hypocritical and exhausting.