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Newsday: Everyone must share the fiscal pain

by Benjamin Kabak

The transit discussion in New York this week have largely focused on fare hikes. Yet again, riders are being asked to pony up more for the same subway service so that the MTA can cover its outstanding obligations — including pension and benefits for retirees and debt assumed for capital projects. The riders aren’t alone though; over the past few years, the MTA has frozen salaries for non-union employees, cut its workforce and engaged in some serious internal cost-cutting.

There is more to be done though. The TWU, the MTA’s largest union, is currently without a contract, and Joe Lhota is toeing a hard line on wage increases. After salary bumps in the previous two contracts that far outpaced inflation and wage increases in the private sector over the past seven years, Lhota is vowing a net-zero increase in labor costs. In other words, if the union secures a wage increase, the MTA will once again start laying off workers. It’s all part of sharing the fiscal pain.

Today, Newsday, a paper from the bastion of ill will directed at the MTA, took the time to opine on the current fiscal happenings at the authority. It’s a balanced piece that asks the MTA to do more with internal reform. The paper writes:

If approved, the scheduled fare increase would be the MTA’s fourth in five years. The MTA’s board has little choice but to sign off on the fare hikes, already part of the budget, as a way to keep the system in good repair day after day. But riders must be given something of value in return, such as fundamental reforms to operations and labor contracts that ultimately will result in savings in the years to come…

A gigantic unknown for the MTA, its customers and its employees at the moment is the upcoming bargaining talks with the Transport Workers Union . The encouraging news is that MTA chairman Joseph Lhota knows his agency has no choice but to make its dollars go further than they’re currently going. As contract negotiations loom, Lhota has budgeted precisely $0.00 for raises that don’t entail money-saving changes in work rules — and good for him. Beyond work-rule changes, the MTA needs to streamline operations and consider selling off excess property.

The legislature enacted a partial rollback of the MTA payroll tax, but that’s as far as it should go. A legal challenge to the remaining part of the tax, which was successful in a lower court, is likely to fail on appeal, as it should. With recession-battered commuters at the breaking point, the MTA is taking a creative new approach. It’s something like this: workers, managers and riders making shared sacrifices along the way — to keep the system rolling. This week, riders learned what their part of the bill might look like. It isn’t pretty. Lhota must squeeze excess from management, and the unions need to step up. It’s hard to imagine anything else working.

From Long Island, we have a newspaper noting that the payroll tax needs to stand for economic reasons and will stand for legal reasons. But we also have a voice in the wilderness calling for real labor reform. Work rules aren’t sexy and don’t draw headlines, but they, as much as anything else, are responsible for the MTA’s fiscal ship leaning askew. Lhota’s ability to exact concessions from the union will determine the MTA’s future just as much as the looming fare hike will.

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Josh K October 18, 2012 - 1:27 pm

Where are all of these “excess properties” that all these politicians and pundits keep saying should be sold off? They talk as if there are great tracks of land, laying unused for any purpose that must be worth millions upon millions of dollars. Seriously, where are these properties? Cause I consider myself to be pretty knowledgeable about the MTA’s operations and I really can’t think of ANY.

In reality, this is just another one of those rhetorical hand-waving tricks to distract from the financial reality that not only have the politicians in Albany (both parties) taken dedicated transit funds to pay for their boondoggle pet projects, but on top of that they’ve been systematically reducing the amounts paid from the state’s general fund.

While we’re at it, the MTA is playing school bus for all these NYC school kids, but has also been systematically reducing its subsidies. Either these elected officials come up with the dough, enact some form of revenue generating legislation or we get fare hikes. Its as simple as that.

PS we need to stop blaming the current crisis on the MTA’s unionized workforce. If MTA officials don’t like the current pension system and work rules, they have only their predecessors to blame. Its their predecessors who negotiated and signed these contracts into effect. If they want to change the contract, they need to bargain, in good faith, and offer up some other sorts of incentives to get the unions to agree to the changes. The truth of the matter is that the MTA enacted these work rules and benefits to keep their experienced and dedicated employees on the job after the dark old days of malaise and infrastructure decay. Many of the MTA’s unionized jobs are back-breaking, exhausting and on crazy schedules. If you want a transit system that runs 24/7, you’re going to pay a premium for the labor to do that.

al October 18, 2012 - 6:39 pm

There are politicos who are just hot air. Then there are politicians who want those properties (rail yard and ROW air right, parking lots) to go to friends and families. Lastly there are few who are serious and want real reforms. The last group are few and far in between.

I fear Access-A-Ride has become a patronage and politically connected service that will make it hard to reform in a way that significantly reduces cost.

The problem is that two big pieces of MTA property has been sold off for under market prices. It is a shame considering the revenues they could have generated if the MTA followed the property development playbook Tokyo or Hong Kong do with their stations.

The NYC and NY State need to either pay up for student MetroCards, or shift school start time to decrease the surge students cause during AM rush at 8AM and 8:45AM class starts. Aviation HS AM start is one example that puts great strain on the Flushing Line.

As for work rules and workforce costs, OPTO and ATO are the norm with modern transit operation. The scandals with construction crews taking too much time and money to complete work on a LIRR stairway, and the exposure of widespread fraud to scam the Federal RR disability Fund are illustrative of what needs to change.

The past pensions are signed, but the MTA can negotiate contracts for future wages, benefits and pensions.

The MTA can get savings regarding healthcare if they can get reforms emphasizing early detection, health maintenance and improvement, and preventive care, as well as end of life care to contain end of life costs.

The MTA needs to get together with other government agencies to form a bloc with healthcare market influencing power to generate demand for best practices and innovations that will drive down healthcare costs. The writing is on the wall. Health care costs is a make or break for the future government solvency at all levels.

Fastrack is indicative of the direction the MTA is going with regards to 24hr operation. Shutting down lines for greater safely and productivity will yield savings. The same can be said for station component condition driven repairs.

Bolwerk October 18, 2012 - 9:45 pm

Well, maybe they have a few hundred million in property rights and building stock to sell, if they had to. With debt in the billions and growing, that only does so much. In short, yeah, it doesn’t fix the MTA’s structural problems, or even address them.

Larry Littlefield October 19, 2012 - 9:30 am

The MTA does not have air rights.

Construction in railroad rights of way, or using air rights from railroad rights of way, requires a special permit. And height limits would prevent the MTA from, for example, selling the floor area zoning rights of the Jamaica Yard for a 100 story building on an adjacent lot in Forest Hills.

And most of the subway lines themselves are on or over public streets.

Where the MTA does have some property to sell, political approval requires the money to go somewhere other than the MTA, which ends up spending money to acquire property elsewhere when it needs if for transit improvements.

These people are just scum. In part because no one ever comes back at them for what they did in the past. That conditions how they act in the present with regard to the future.

Bolwerk October 19, 2012 - 9:52 pm

Is 100 stories necessary? A sprawling development of large 8-story buildings can still hold hundreds of apartments, plus retail. This would be appropriate in, say, Sunnyside Yards.

But I agree, the political problem is key. In fact, the pols pushing such things probably are popping wood to sell such things to cronies at reduced prices like with Atlantic Yards. It’s the same time of cynicism that leads neo-cons to push for public-private partnerships, knowing some cronies get some revenue and the state is left holding an empty bag. The whole thing stinks.

Larry Littlefield October 20, 2012 - 6:43 pm

Rail yards should be used for rail yards: God isn’t making any more land in NYC. What I was referring to was an air rights deal, where whatever floor area the yards could theoretically hold would be transferred to an off site location, which would then build a very tall building.

As when the floor area of a golf course, which they wanted preserved, was transferred to this:


But that was a long time ago.

Larry Littlefield October 18, 2012 - 3:51 pm

“If MTA officials don’t like the current pension system and work rules, they have only their predecessors to blame. Its their predecessors who negotiated and signed these contracts into effect. If they want to change the contract, they need to bargain, in good faith, and offer up some other sorts of incentives to get the unions to agree to the changes.”

Not so. The retroactive pension enhancements of the late 1960s were passed by the city, and the retroactive pension enhancements of 1995 to the present were passed by the state. The unions got these deals not as a result of collective bargaining, which would in any event be illegal under the Taylor Law, but as a result of political power relative to the serfs.

That said, the pension increases for transit workers in this era were limited to those that went to all public employees — reduced employee contributions and a retroactive cost of living adjustment. They didn’t get additional increases the other unions did, notably the teachers (reduced retirement age) and police and fire (various automatic increase from 1/2 pay pensions to 3/4 pay pensions).

Tome May 8, 2024 - 4:05 am

I was listening to the news and the public was shouting about high fares, but why did the New York government do that? As normal passengers can not travel, the government should make decisions for them.

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