For the MTA, 2010 was not what I would consider to be a banner year. The authority had to enact sweeping service cuts in June that saw two subway lines and countless bus routes wiped from the map, and then in December, the agency jacked up fares for the third year in a row. Still, spurred on by an early January promise, Jay Walder did his best to make every dollar count, and he’s doing it again this year even as the MTA’s financial picture darkens.
This past Friday afternoon, Walder and the MTA released their agenda for 2011. In keeping with the 2010 theme, this year’s report is again titled “Making Every Dollar Count,” and it builds upon the progress the MTA made last year in both improving its customer relations and shoring up its bloated bureaucracy. “It’s a new year, but our focus remains unchanged,” Walder said in a statement. “We will make every dollar count. We will continue to cut costs to create a more efficient MTA. We will continue to improve service for our customers. We brought change to the MTA in 2010, and we’re going to build on that success in 2011.”
While acknowledging the financial problems facing the MTA and the current capital funding crunch, Walder in his report highlights the MTA’s savings from 2010. “As our customers faced service reductions and an end-of-year fare increase, we sought to ensure that we were doing everything possible to reduce operating expenses. This effort—the most aggressive cost-cutting in the history of the MTA—helped limit the impact of a devastating economic downturn,” the report says. “The emergency cost cutting we implemented in 2010 will set the stage for a more fundamental reshaping of the MTA, with cumulative cost savings expected to reach $3.8 billion in 2011.”
Of course, that’s well and good. We’ve heard a lot about the MTA’s push for internal reorganization, and we know what the authority is doing to save dollars and what it could be doing to save even more. That’s not the sexy part. Yet, within the 2011 report — available here as a PDF — are the progress items the MTA hopes to implement this year. The highlights involve better bus service and more real-time information. A new fare card is on the horizon as well. Let’s see how this shakes down.
Bus Improvements: According to the MTA, 2011 will be a banner year for bus improvements. Leading the charge will be bus lane cameras for 34th St. and Fordham Road in the Bronx. After a successful test run on 1st and 2nd Aves. this fall, the cameras have been shown to reduce congestion in the bus lanes. To expand this program though, the MTA will need authorization from Albany, and that has been slow to come. Buses will also soon sport security cameras to keep passengers and drivers safe.
Real-Time Information: Meanwhile, after years of no progress, real-time information is coming quickly to the MTA. Later this year, says the report, every bus on Staten Island will be equipped with BusTime, which tells riders via their phones or computers exactly where every bus in the borough will be. Signs on the B63 in Brooklyn promise BusTime later this week as well. Taking the guess work out of waiting for the bus will make it a more appealing mode of transportation.
Underground, the MTA is promising that over 200 stations will have countdown clocks by the end of 2011. Those include stations along the 7, which may be in line for an RFID-based train tracking system, and along Queens Boulevard. The real-time information screens in place at a few stations will expand to other key areas around the system as well, and Metro-North will join the LIRR on the MTA’s CooCoo service.
Station and Fare Improvements: Walder also tackled the MTA’s fare structure and physical plant as well. He anticipates that the next-generation fare payment system will be on all buses and subways by 2015. This year, the MTA will “begin entering into contracts for the behind-the-scenes work” that will allow for seamless integration amongst Transit, PATH, New Jersey Transit, LIRR and Metro-North. That’s an effort years in the making.
Finally, the MTA is vowing to clean up some subway stations. In 2010, the authority targeted 19 of its heavily-used stations for constant cleaning, and this year, the effort is going to expand to 96th St. on Broadway, the new Jay St.-MetroTech complex and 14 other stops. The authority is vowing “better-maintained stations,” but this is a prime example of something they must show instead of tell. As I mentioned over the weekend, the MTA’s physical plant is in terrible shape.
The report ends with a vow to produce a “leaner, more efficient and effective MTA,” and Walder has to stress that. Transit activists are worried about upcoming New York State budget cuts, and the five-year capital plan must be taken up again in Albany this year. The MTA is trying to move forward under difficult circumstances, and the economic storm may be gathering to halt this progress.
For now, the authority is talking a good game and producing results. To change public perception is nearly impossible, but if the MTA can show that it needs that capital investment and political support to keep improving services and providing transportation, perhaps Albany will listen. If every dollar counts, those that do trickle down to our transit system will be used for the good of us all.