Home Asides Russianoff: Next MTA head must be ‘vocal advocate for transit’

Russianoff: Next MTA head must be ‘vocal advocate for transit’

by Benjamin Kabak

In two days, Jay Walder will depart from his position atop the MTA and begin to prepare for his lucrative move to Hong Kong. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, then, will become front and center in the debate over transit. He will have to own up to the impact of making his own choice for head of the MTA and can no longer fall back on the idea that Walder was someone else’s choice and the MTA someone else’s problem. With rumors of Joseph Lhota’s impending nomination swirling, Cuomo has yet to make an official announcement, but that likely could come before Friday.

Once Cuomo does name names, all eyes in the transit community will shift to that person. We’ll inspect the process behind his nomination, his credentials and his plans for an agency eternally mired in an economic crisis. To that end, Gene Russianoff, head of the Straphanagers Campaign and a member of the search committee tasked with finding candidates to lead the MTA, has some ideas for Jay Walder’s eventual replacement. Ride the system, know the riders and their concerns and be an advocate for them, he says in a column in today’s Daily News. It’s obvious advice, but past heads have no always heeded such a call.

Beyond the need to restore customer relations as a priority at the MTA, Russianoff also urges the next MTA head to wade into the explosive politics surrounding transportation. The next MTA head needs to work with unions to smooth over rocky relationships while improving efficiency, and the person Cuomo names should urge the Governor to sign the Transit Lockbox Bill. Reducing borrowing while further improving transparency are on the list as well. It’s tough to argue with Gene’s list, and now we wait to find out if the next MTA Chair and CEO is up to the task.

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Andrew Smith October 19, 2011 - 12:51 pm

The next head of the MTA may genuinely wish to improve transit, but the system is set up to make it less likely than not.

Assuming Cuomo is a pragmatist, there’s only one question that matters in making this selection: Whose vote hinges on how the MTA is run and what kind of nominee will net me the most votes?

Now, despite the fact that there are millions of MTA riders and only thousands of MTA employees, I’d bet that very few New Yorkers cast their vote entirely — or even substantially — on how fast service worsens, but many, if not most, MTA employees cast their votes entirely on how much they get paid for how little work with how much security.

With those incentives in place, the system is basically designed to entice the governor to pick an MTA leader who will appease workers at the expense of riders and taxpayers. You may, on occasion, get a governor whose coalition shuns organized labor or who is popular enough that he can throw votes away to do something as crazy as helping the public — but the system design will make the vast majority of MTA chiefs fight the public interest.

Okay. The state’s current financial problems change the equation slightly. There’s so little money available that the next MTA chief will disappoint workers. But logic says that he’ll do so as little as he possibly can without producing a contract that loses the governor more taxpayer votes than it gains him from happy MTA workers.

And he has no incentive to negotiate anything beyond the financial, like a contract that demands harder work on things like cleaning stations. No one has ever voted against a governor because of rats in the subway stations but plenty of workers have grown to hate employers who make them work hard.

I realize that Russianoff is trying to change the calculation for Cuomo by creating political pressure for improvement. But he’s fighting a raging fire with an eye-dropper full of water.

Larry Littlefield October 19, 2011 - 2:31 pm

Well at least he didn’t demand that fare increases be cancelled and the MTA be financed by the hidden billions from the two sets of books.

But given the amount of accumulated damage from back when he did, in debt on the agency’s books, it really doesn’t matter what Russinaoff says or Cuomo does anymore.

BTW, the TWU is part of the problem, but a smaller part than in other public services at this point. Because they didn’t get a 20/50 pension when they went on strike for it, whereas the teachers did get their retirement age cut from 62 to 55.

nycpat October 20, 2011 - 12:46 am

THEY DID NOT GO ON STRIKE FOR 20/50! Slanderous nonsense!

Larry Littlefield October 20, 2011 - 7:01 am

At the risk of repeating myself, back in the day (and perhaps now) there were two factions fighting for control of the TWU, New Directions and the group affiliated with the national union.

New Directions eventually won out, on a platform that included, among other things, a 20/50 pension. That was their promise.

The got the legislature to pass the 20/50 pension, more than once as I recall, without a no vote. Pataki vetoed it, and said pension enhancements should come out of collective bargaining (which is technically illegal under the Taylor Law).

So the TWU demanded 20/50 publicly in the negotiations, Kalikow wanted pension CUTS, and the TWU went out on strike. My view is that having made the promise New Directions either had to get 20/50, or prove it could not be had after going to the wall for it.

If not 20/50, what the hell was that strike about anyway?

nycpat October 20, 2011 - 3:05 pm

The purported reason for the strike was the way new hires would be treated-“to protect the unborn”. The real reason was Toussaint’s personal agenda.
As you state the 20/50 thing was done legislatively. It would have to be because the Taylor Law prohibits it being done in contract negotiations.

sharon October 20, 2011 - 8:32 pm

The teachers are currently at 27/57 with an extra lifetime contribution of 1.98% and a reduction in other pension costs such as a 1% reduction from 8.5% to 7.5% in the TDA retirement accounts.
Another major thing it is much harder for a teacher to PAD the pension with overtime. Less overtime work available.

The transit workers and teachers must give up no work/no longer needed positions and other work rule changes where the real stealing of the public monies occure
At transit it is two person operated trains, express buses having to drive back to the outer boroughs empty, overpaid cleaners who have narrow job descriptions and other JOB padding work rules.

For teachers it’s the ATR list of teachers who no principal wants and have not a teaching job. Yes we are paying $80k cash for substitute teachers who can not even handle that and advocacy for special education staffing that requires 3-6 staff members to provide “services” for childen an many cases are uneducatable in any working meaning of the word.

sharon October 20, 2011 - 8:33 pm

And many female teachers have a hard time making it to 27 years becasue they take off for child care which does not count towards the years. So pension costs for teachers is not as much as you may think as compared to transit where many workers often increase theier pay with overtime 50% or more in thier retirement years

Larry Littlefield October 21, 2011 - 12:31 pm


The UFT sold out the unborn. What you describe is the deal for NEW teachers.

Which is still a better deal than the 30/62 pension with no inflation adjustment and with a 3 percent employee contribution that teachers now approaching retirement were promised when hired.

Which in turn is a better deal than anyone else gets.

But for those approaching retirement when the 2008 deal was done, it was retirement at age 55 after 25 years of work (like track workers, but without the physical demands) after paying 3 percent for the first ten years of work, nothing after until 2008, than 1.85% until age 55. Those age 55 at the time could walk out the door without paying an extra dime.

Tsuyoshi October 19, 2011 - 3:29 pm

I would say the odds of Cuomo appointing a vocal advocate for transit are extremely low. Let’s look at what he already did: he cut the MTA budget by $100 million and claimed it would have no effect on service. He is a lifelong driver and simply sees transit as a cost center.

Cuomo wants someone who will be able to figure out how to cut costs without anyone noticing adverse effects until his two or three terms in office are over. If we’re lucky, they will find millions and millions of dollars of waste and fraud. If we’re unlucky, they will discover the virtues of deferred maintenence.

I don’t personally think the unions are the main obstacle to service improvments, but in any case I doubt Cuomo is interested in paying transit workers more money. I expect the unions to be as angry at Walder’s replacement as they are with Walder himself.

sharon October 20, 2011 - 8:42 pm

Transit workers have too cave to serious work rule changes. Enough is enough, They have gotten raises in the past few years that no other in the workforce have gotten. Teachers have been without a contract for 2 years. Concidering the fact that the average transit guy with overtime make more than many teachers and they do not have college loans to pay back and work to bring home with them each night.

All public service workers have to rationalize their expectations. Health care costs have risen through the roof. Their pay package including benefits is quite generous. Cleaners making $26 a hour cash and another $20 + in benefits is more then generous.
Agree to changes that benefit the riders. Station agents need to take on new job functions such as activily monitoring cctv, sending police photo’s of fare beaters for them to aprehend. How much money can be recovered from fare beaters on buses and trains that now ride for free. And possibly installing die sprays to tag fare beaters and vandals to make it easier for police to catch . Train operators need to also operate the doors. On the new r-162 class cars they have two screens in front of them that they can view the platform . It is just as same as the current practice(condictors rely on cctv cams to see curved platforms. And yes the saving are north of $300 million a year if you include benefits .

Bolwerk October 19, 2011 - 4:19 pm

I don’t know that I agree with Russianoff’s ideas of transit advocacy. He almost seems as wrong as the other parties in these discussions, and it’s only mitigated by his relative unimportance. His organization’s push for a seat for every rider and his support for a conductor on every train is as untenable as Cuomo’s “any moron will do” approach.

Politicians need to run on solving real problems, or at least discussing what those problems might be. Until that happens, nothing changes, and policy gets decided by those who jerk their knee into politicians’ groins the fastest.

Benjamin Kabak October 19, 2011 - 4:21 pm

While I’ve had my disagreements with Gene and the Straphangers’ approach, I believe that stems from a matter of ideology. The Straphangers are self-professed rider advocates first and foremost. To them, that often mean advocating for contradictory positions including lower fares, more frequent service, more MTA employees underground, more measures we’d view as inefficient and costly from an operations standpoint, etc. With that in mind, his words make perfect sense.

Larry Littlefield October 19, 2011 - 8:01 pm

“The Straphangers are self-professed rider advocates first and foremost.”

They advocate for current riders. Not riders five of ten years from now. They are willing to deal as to the needs of those.

Think of the MTA’s finances as a giant game of chicken. Riders put it less (for a while). Taxpayers put it less (for a while). Pensions were enhanced. Contractor costs rose. Debt cover it all up.

Everyone went along with the deal, thinking that SOMEONE ELSE would be sacrificed when the game ended in disaster. Thus far, services and future riders (via maintenance) are the loser.

sharon October 20, 2011 - 8:48 pm

Straphangers campaign is a part of NYPIRG a liberal complain organization who mean well in their own way but views are contradictory to real world realities. If Conductors were removed from trains and un needed tooken booth closed 10 years ago with the money being channeled to paying down debt the mta would not be as bad finacial situation. Gene views are biased toward the labor movement and the views that those who have need to pay for those who do not. A view that does not work due to government corruption and the fact that billion of dollars are in the hands of unqualified cronies . Read some quotes from city council idiots such as the lady up in washington heights who is against a private developer who wants to build a apartment tower a but taller to allow for 40% afordable housing AND HE WANT NO GOV subsisdies. He comment was he should build it smaller and take tax dollars to make up the rest.

Bolwerk October 21, 2011 - 11:29 am

NYPIRG is about as conservative as you can get. Just like Schumer, NBBL, Russianoff, the TWU, and most of the NYC/NYS Democrats who have decided that nothing can ever be allowed to change because it will affect somebody – most of them do it because of political calculations more than because of ideology, of course. Even Cuomo falls into this category, at least on transportation. The liberals are the odd men out who actually think something should change, at least in theory for the better.

Scott E October 19, 2011 - 8:52 pm

I don’t disagree with Russianoff’s wish-list, though I do find it a bit overzealous in some aspects, and a bit lacking in others. Let us not forget that the MTA is not only about mass-transit. Whether or not we agree with it, they also operate nine toll bridges and tunnels with some of the highest, if not the highest, usage fees. (Many of them also compete with free bridges operated by NYCDOT).

I’m not quite sure what the next leaders’ position on these crossings should be, or even what he is empowered to do regarding these crossings, but they should not be overlooked.

sharon October 20, 2011 - 8:55 pm

No more toll increased until the UNION contributes thier fair share to cost reductions. The mta is over subsidized with usage fees and tolls and that is why it can get away with not holding the line on operating costs. It was not 10 years ago that advocates were against the mta from increasin it’s advertising in the subway and bus system on ideological reasons. It is a shame that the middle and working class in NYC get’s the shaft with higher tolls and taxes to pay for transit services they often do not even use. I do not mind help paying for a system even if I do not use it (I do ride buses and subways when appropiate) because without them the economy could not function but to place yet another tax on middle class NY’ers while so many are feeding off my hard work. A cleaner is not a middle class job and I should be under no obilgation to pay more than market rate +10% for that worker especially if he/she has jo security

Bolwerk October 21, 2011 - 11:38 am

The only working class or even middle class people in NYC who can afford to use the bridges, tolls or no, with any regularity are the ones who get the same over-generous union perks you keep complaining about – and government-subsidized parking to top it off. Almost anyone else who uses the bridges is probably either a paid driver or is upper middle class or above: lawyers, accountants, managers, doctors, etc..

Scott E October 21, 2011 - 4:54 pm

I disagree with you there, Bolwerk. I know plenty of people who commute from Queens or Long Island to New Jersey (or vice-versa) across MTA and PA bridges to get to work, because that’s where the job in their field is, and because there’s no reasonable mass-transit between the two points. I did it myself for awhile. There are also those who commute from Queens to the Bronx (or vice-versa) for work. The bridges and tunnels aren’t only for Manhattan-bound executives who are “too good” to take the train.

Ravitch: Bridge tolls should help fund transit :: Second Ave. Sagas October 20, 2011 - 11:39 am

[…] advocates are weighing on the challenges facing Jay Walder’s replacement. Yesterday, we heard from Gene Russianoff, and today, Richard Ravitch chimes in. In an interview with New York 1, he warned that the next MTA […]


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