For a few years, I’ve noted that the MTA suffers from something we could call “Didn’t Think Of It Ourselves-itis.” If someone at the MTA didn’t think of it — or if someone from the outside the MTA isn’t funding — the agency not only doesn’t embrace the idea but usually finds a way to dismiss any proposal out of hand with the variety of usual suspects. It’s too expensive; it’s too impractical; it’s too timely; it sets a bad precedent. The list goes on and on.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen this drama unfold in response to two different proposals. First, in mid-November, when politicians began to clamor for rationalized commuter rail fares to alleviate the stress of certain transit deserts within the city, the MTA dismissed its $70 million out of hand. “We just can’t agree to accept that kind of loss especially since we already lose so much money on other services,” Adam Lisberg said at the time.
A few weeks later, when the Riders Alliance proposed a free bus to Laguardia, a Transit spokesman issued a similar statement. “At the end of the day,” Kevin Ortiz said, “there is simply zero evidence that making it a free shuttle would increase ridership on subways to the point it would make the shuttle self-sustaining.”
These two statements seemed to embody Didn’t-Think-Of-It-Ourselves-itis. As I noted last month, when it comes to multi-billion-dollar expenses — and some projects that could rightfully be called boondoggles — the MTA doesn’t bat an eye, but when it comes to incremental operating costs for customer-friendly initiatives, the MTA suddenly cares deeply about efficient spending. It’s quite the paradox and one that MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast apparently wants addressed.
As the Daily News reported earlier this week, Prendergast has asked his staffers to listen to ideas for service improvements rather than simply dismissing them out of hand. It may seem like an obvious point to anyone watching from the outside, but it’s an important culture shift within the MTA. Dan Rivoli explains:
The MTA boss told agency staff to stop trashing ideas to give riders a break on fares and improve service “out-of-hand,” according to an emailed memo obtained by the Daily News. MTA officials’ response to some recent ideas — such as cheaper commuter fares for trips within the city or extra subway and bus service — “seemed to indicate that we were rejecting these proposals out-of-hand, mostly on the grounds that they were too costly,” MTA chief Tom Prendergast wrote in a message emailed to board members Nov. 29.
The quick criticism and cries of poverty had some MTA board members feeling sidelined from the decision-making process, transit officials said. “We must not and we will not give the appearance that this Board does not play a very thoughtful and active role in these decisions,” wrote Prendergast, who holds the dual role of the top MTA executive and chairman of the board…
Prendergast wrote that he told MTA staff to be “far less strident” when responding to proposals that affect fares and service…Board members have picked up on the dismissive remarks from the MTA about policy proposals aimed at helping passengers at a time of cramped rides and spotty, unreliable operations. “We need to operate essentially on the margin, doing some jerry rigging … to be able to provide some relief to our customers,” said MTA board member Allen Cappelli. “Yes, it will take money and time to do these things, but (riders) want us as an institution to think outside the box and not just go along with the way things are.”
How this will eventually manifest itself is still an open question, and the MTA is still likely to suffer from other symptoms of Didn’t-Think-Of-It-Ourselves-itis. But a time when service is suffering due to a system that’s too popular for its own good, an organization that can be as insular as the MTA should do all it can to attempt to improve the customer experience. If that means listening and implementing a few good ideas thought up by outsiders, so be it. It’s better, after all, than yet another cranky conductor yelling at riders trying to board a crush-loaded peak-hour train to “use all available doors” as though that will magically fix all of the system’s problems.