The MTA has an inspection problem. As the investigation into falsified subway signal reports is ongoing, Thomas DiNapoli, New York State’s comptroller, released an audit yesterday damning the MTA’s bus inspection efforts. According to the report, nearly half of the MTA’s bus fleet has not been properly inspect, and the costs for these less-than-complete inspections are astronomical.
“New Yorkers aren’t getting what they pay for when it comes to bus service,” DiNapoli said. “Other cities across the nation spend much less on maintenance and get better results. The MTA needs to step up bus maintenance performance and bring down maintenance costs.”
The audit, available here as a PDF, paints a rather bleak picture of bus inspection efforts. For instance, of a random sample of 23 buses from various depots, 584 of the required 1255 inspections over a two-year time frame were “not performed on time, were not performed correctly, or were not performed at all.” Additionally, the engine inspections required for hybrid buses at 48,000 and 96,000 miles were not conducted on any of the 17 hybrid buses selection.
The news gets worse. Buses at 18 of the MTA’s 29 depots did not reach their performance goals. For instance, at one depot the mean distance between failures clocked in at 3581 miles while the target was 4674 miles. A whopping 52 percent of depots saw their buses break down well before scheduled maintenance intervals.
DiNapoli looked at costs as well. The report says: “The maintenance cost per bus mile is another measurement that is used in the evaluation of a maintenance program’s effectiveness. We compared this measurement at the MTA and eight other metropolitan transportation agencies in 2008, and found that the MTA’s maintenance cost of $5.53 per bus mile was at least 64 percent higher, and as much as 199 percent higher, than the cost at the other eight agencies. We question whether it is necessary for the MTA’s bus maintenance costs to be so much higher than the costs at other comparable transportation agencies. We recommend that the MTA identify the reasons for this discrepancy and develop a plan to reduce its bus maintenance costs, which exceed $770 million in 2008.”
Ultimately, DiNapoli’s office recommends a series of items that seem almost banal by comparison but strike at the heart of the problem. DiNapoli recommends better communication and monitoring of bus inspections; better enforcing standards for mean distances between failures and improving those numbers; and identifying ways to save money on the ridiculously high costs of bus maintenance. It’s up to the MTA to identify and control those costs.
In reply, the MTA essentially agreed with DiNapoli’s findings. While they questioned some of the technical aspects of the bus reliability measures and the focus on mean distance between failures as a benchmark, the authority admitted that their costs are simply too high. “The MTA agrees that our bus maintenance program must deliver both reliability and cost effectiveness,” agency COO Charles Monheim wrote. “During the past year, we have undertaken a number of initiatives to reduce bus maintenance costs, and we will continue to seek further improvements while minimizing the impact on customer service.”
In its response, the authority alleged that the unique nature of New York’s bus system leads to these high costs. Because bus utilization is up to four times higher in New York than in other cities and because buses operate at low speeds and along routes with “poor road conditions,” they suffer a higher degree of wear and tear than similarly situated vehicles in other cities. Furthermore, because the MTA’s labor costs are nine to 122 percent higher than the other systems cited in DiNapoli’s report, the costs add up.
DiNapoli’s findings certainly aren’t comforting. Our buses seem to be taxed heavily, and it costs too much to maintain them. Shirking on inspections only serves to put passengers in harm’s way, and that’s bad news for everyone.