Home MTA Politics An MTA surplus and the games politicians play

An MTA surplus and the games politicians play

by Benjamin Kabak

Now that the MTA has a $40 million operating surplus, everyone wants a piece of the action. The TWU has already argued that this one-time windfall should go toward a raise for all unionized employees, and politicians from all over New York are clamoring for a rollback of the 2010 service cuts. One story from Brooklyn though highlights the hypocrisy of the whole thing and the need to figure out just what services should be restored.

Last week, a group of Brooklyn officials gathered to rally for the B37. The Brooklyn Eagle was on hand to file a report. Paula Katinas writes:

One lawmaker, state Sen. Diane Savino (D-Brooklyn-Staten Island), indicated that she’s not above playing a little hardball with the MTA to get the B37 bus back. Savino, whose district includes a section of Bay Ridge, told local residents at the May 19 rally that she wants to extract a promise from MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast nominee that he would restore the shuttered bus line and other transit services when he faces the state senate at his confirmation hearing in two weeks. Governor Andrew Cuomo nominated Prendergast to replace Joseph Lhota, the former MTA chairman who is now running for mayor.

“The only way to get that job is through the New York State Senate,” she said, hinting that she’ll give Prendergast a hard time if he doesn’t cooperate. “It’s time for us to get back on the bus,” Savino said.

The B37 bus ran from Bay Ridge to downtown Brooklyn until the MTA eliminated the bus line in 2010 during a major budget cutting move in which dozens of transit lines were scrapped. The B37 ran on Third Avenue for a long portion of its route and lawmakers and transit advocacy groups charged that the elimination of the bus line is a hardship for senior citizens and the physically disabled who can’t use the R train on Fourth Avenue as an alternative because they can’t navigate the subway stairs. The R train stations in Bay Ridge and Sunset Park are not equipped with elevators.

I’ve highlighted Savino for a reason, and I’ll return to her for a second. The rest of Katinas’ story focuses on the interest groups fighting for the return of the B37. They include seniors who cannot navigate the Bay Ridge subway stops and merchants along 3rd Ave. who understand the need for public transit along their commercial corridor.

It’s hard to say in a vacuum if they’re right. After all, the MTA cut the B37 because barely 3000 people per weekday rode it, and the agency was losing significant money while operating the route. As the MTA addresses this $40 million surprise, its planners will have to figure out how to boost service without re-implementing too many routes that ran empty or near-empty most of the time.

But let’s get back to Savino. In the past, she has freaked out over the plans to send the 7 to Secaucus while Staten Island remains without a subway connection to Manhattan, but that’s hardly her worst offense. In 2010, when the MTA had to cut service, Savino admitted that she voted for a bill that striped $143 million from the agency’s coffers without bothering to read or understand it first. She eventually owned up to the mistake, but the damage was done.

If Savino were alone in her hypocrisy and dereliction of duty, perhaps transit would be better off in New York City, but she’s not. Countless state representatives refuse to stand up for smart investment in the network and argue for spending only when the MTA is flush with money. That’s no way to build a transit system.

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Andrew May 27, 2013 - 11:07 pm

As you point out in your second sentence, it’s a one-time windfall. One-time windfalls should never go toward permanent service improvements. (And, by the way, Cuomo’s already stolen half of it.)

If this is a sign of an improving financial outlook for the long term, of course, that changes everything.

State Senator Diane Savino is an example of the absolute worst sort of politician. First she votes to use the MTA as a $143 million piggy bank, then she threatens to block the confirmation of a highly qualified chairman if the MTA doesn’t bend over backwards to give her what she wants. It’s a large city, Diane, and, even if there is long-term funding available, there’s a chance that somebody else needs it more than you do. You really want the B37 back? Then put your money where your mouth is and cover its operating costs.

Patrick May 28, 2013 - 12:19 am

Exactly. The problem with one-time influxes of money like these is that if you were to restore service to a particular route, you may have the money to pay for it now, but will you in ten years? Then you have to go through all the trouble and hoops to cut the service again to stay within your means.

Money like this, unless there is a very good prospect of surpluses like these for many years down the road, should be spend on one-time projects like station renovations or other capital projects. Push Fulton Street along or kick some of that money into moving SAS along. Don’t extend the G to Forest Hills only to have to cut it back in two years time.

Spend wisely, MTA.

~ Patrick @ The LIRR Today

John-2 May 27, 2013 - 11:16 pm

Unless you are assuming the $40 million windfall is not a one-time thing, or that the $40 million can be found someplace else, you don’t fund a continuing expense with a non-reoccurring fund, because you’re right back where you started from next year if the money doesn’t show up. You’re either cutting the B37 again or finding cuts that equal it taken out of schedules on other lines, or you’re even in worse shape if you’ve put the $40m to salaries, because now you either have to cut those back or cut personnel to make up for next year’s shortfall (I suppose a one-time stipend/bonus could be an option for using the $$$, except that the TWU would likely quibble about that ‘one time’ part).

There are oodles of maintenance of way and infrastructure upgrade projects the MTA has on it’s to-do list that are closer to one-time expenses, which is where a one-time windfall should go.

Bolwerk May 27, 2013 - 11:55 pm

As things stand now, I can’t see why anything should be on the table except either putting it toward paying down debt or investing it in the system somehow.

The union could have thrown its weight behind things like congestion pricing, back when it might have helped. It at least would have secured some capital funds.

D in Bushwick May 28, 2013 - 12:51 am

$40 million extra?
That should cover new light bulbs for the South Ferry Station start-over.

Stu Sutcliffe May 28, 2013 - 8:05 am

I’ll be curious to see if the Senator has the courage to reply to this. Most likely not.

Larry Littlefield May 28, 2013 - 9:16 am

How come no one ever says “the MTA needs X $billion per year for ongoing normal replacement in the capital plan.” Generation Greed polticians have provided almost nothing, and now the agency is $billions in debt. What are you going to do about it? People like you are destroying the state!

Larry Littlefield May 28, 2013 - 9:31 am

Let’s not let the MTA entirely off the hook here. When you are in the practice of advancing your career by selling off the future, by telling the politicians the lies they want to hear, you shouldn’t be surprised when they choose to believe those lies.

MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast could put a stop to this RIGHT NOW by telling the truth. Put those “reimburible” operating expenses back in the operating budget where they belong, where they were before the early 1990s when both the city and state cut funding for the MTA. And put “capital expenditures” like painting back in the operating budget too.

Voila. $800 million deficit, and one you can’t blame on the TWU either.

Eric F May 28, 2013 - 2:15 pm

“the MTA cut the B37 because barely 3000 people per weekday rode it”

I would have thought that 3,000 riders per day is quite a lot for a single bus route. Assuming you effectively double count commuters taking one trip in each direction, 1,500 people seems like a lot to me. I wonder what the cut off is for an express bus route to be considered well used.

Benjamin Kabak May 28, 2013 - 2:20 pm

If you charged express bus fares on the B37, then such low ridership would cover operating costs. As it stood, 3000 riders per day was good for 138th overall out of 151 bus routes.

Eric F May 28, 2013 - 2:40 pm

Thanks, I never would have guessed that the average bus line outside Manhattan had such high ridership. 3,000 riders per day would get an LIRR station into the top tier of stations, though you’d need closer to 6-8,000 to break into the top 10.

Benjamin Kabak May 28, 2013 - 2:42 pm

One way to think about it: Population density in Bay Ridge is 43,869 people per square mile. I’d imagine most LIRR stops aren’t even a quarter of that.

SEAN May 28, 2013 - 3:26 pm

It maybe surprising to some regarding bus usage outside Manhattan. Routes I have ridden include…

BX 12, 26, & 28 to & from Co-op City.

Q11, 23, & 60 in the Forest Hills/ Rego Park/ Elmhurst area.

There’s more ridership out there than one might notice at first glance. Even the Q52 ltd gets full loads despite 30 minute frequencies.

Eric F May 28, 2013 - 4:36 pm

I used to regularly ride MTA buses outside Manhattan actually. It’s quite a mental picture to imagine how many of those relatively little buses carrying 40-60 people have to be filled up to get into such massive ridership numbers.

AlexB May 28, 2013 - 10:04 pm

3,000 riders per day paying $2.50 or less distributed over 6 miles is not better than a LIRR line where 400 or so daily users/station each have $300+ monthly passes and the stations are spaced a couple miles apart. If the bus takes an hour and a half each way (including a rest at the end) and runs every 30 minutes, that takes a minimum of 6 buses and 6 drivers to offer that service. Most LIRR stops don’t have manned ticket booths and the cost of the train, conductor and ticket collector is shared with hundreds of riders per train. I do think the LIRR gets more resources than it deserves, but not compared to the B37, which is a waste.

Joseph Steindam May 28, 2013 - 2:38 pm

It’s interesting to compare the B37, which was cut to the B63, which runs a pretty similar route (Bay Ridge to Brooklyn Bridge Park Pier 6), but instead runs on 5th Avenue, which puts it closer to much of the commercial activity and population in Park Slope and Sunset Park. 2012 ridership was over 19,000, and was as high as 23,000 in 2007. Seeing as both the B63 and B37 run parallel to the 4th Avenue line, it was pretty clear which one was worth keeping based on ridership levels. Looking at the ridership you can see that quite a few bus routes are maintained despite low ridership, it would be interesting to examine the reasons for continued service.

Nick May 28, 2013 - 2:50 pm

The Fourth Avenue Line needs to be restored anyway. Every side-platform station has almost no character because of its giant tiles installed in the ’70s. The only station that has any elevators is 36th Street and that’s only because the D stops there. As a result, it’s probably the dreariest ride underground, supplemented by the creaky R46.

Joseph Steindam May 28, 2013 - 6:22 pm

36th Street is NOT ADA-accessible. It has the safety treads, but does not have elevators. I’m pretty sure it’s on the short list for elevators eventually, along with (I hope) 59th Street and either 86th Street or 95th Street.

Michael Cairl May 28, 2013 - 4:22 pm

A lot of people are saying the B37 should be restored, but who would benefit? Its ridership dropped by 50% between 1997 and 2009. Proposing the restoration of the B37 is simplistic, when other steps likely would benefit more people, have higher ridership, and optimize existing services. The B37’s progenitor was a streetcar line that came into being before 1900. A lot has changed in the corridor of 3rd/4th Avenues since 1900. The task should be to see how to implement transit service that would penetrate the communities north of 65th Street, provide access to the waterfront and to the 3rd/4th Avenues corridor, and connect easily with other bus and subway lines. Here are some suggestions:
1. Extend the B35 to connect with a subway station (preferably 36th Street) on 4th Avenue and perhaps extend to Lutheran Medical Center, thus giving people in northern Sunset Park direct access to Lutheran and to the Brooklyn Army Terminal, both major employers, and to smaller businesses along the waterfront.
2. Make the underutilized B103 a local north of the Prospect Expressway, operating along 3rd Avenue.
3. Explore with NYCT, explicitly on a trial basis, two bus circulators on 20-minute headways: in Sunset Park, from east of 5th Avenue to the waterfront and connecting with subway stations and bus lines; and in Park Slope/Gowanus/Carroll Gardens, also connecting with subway stations and bus lines. This would allow direct bus access to Whole Foods and to other businesses in Gowanus, for people on both sides of the Gowanus Canal.
Out of these admittedly overlapping suggestions should come new bus service that would be of real benefit to the affected communities.

Larry Littlefield May 28, 2013 - 5:14 pm

I tried to post this earlier, but it seems not to have taken.

If the MTA is going to tell the pols the lies they want to believe, it should not be surprised when they believe those lies. Case in point, the “surplus.”

How about taking all those “reimbursable” operating expenses and making them what they were before the early 1990s when the city and state de-funded the MTA: operating costs? Along with such “capital improvements” as painting. That’s what they really are, but they have been borrowed for during the past 30 years.

Go on Pendergast, do it. And instead of having them pander by seeking to hand out the “surplus” times five, see if any of the pols are interested in dealing with the deficit.

AlexB May 28, 2013 - 10:07 pm

The Third Avenue bus ran for most of its route underneath the Gowanus Expressway, in one of the most uninviting stretches of Brooklyn that exists. It was an anachronistic vestige of a trolley line that took the same route. Reviving it is dumb dumb dumb. If seniors in Bay Ridge need better bus service, please give them something better than the B37. Diane Savino is clearly trying to blame the MTA for her own mistakes and no one should listen.

Instead of spending a dime on the B37, they should focus on longer range plans like burying the Gowanus or re-building it with bus lanes and bus stations, adding elevators to the 12 stops on the R south of Atlantic, and flood-proofing the line against storms. Even a simple idea like making the 59th St station accessible and reviving the B37 south of 59th St would be a much better use of money.


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