2005-02-10 / This Week's Attitude

No Light At End Of Tunnel For Mismanaged MTA

This Week

Money Thrown Away is a more suitable name for the chronically debt-ridden MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority), which showed its magnanimity on New Year’s Day by holding a special excursion in support of the March of Dimes.

Too bad the mismanaged public transportation service isn’t as charitable or decent when it comes to the millions of riders who use the city’s subways and buses daily. Nor is it as prudent when it comes to managing its own operation.

Ya know, if the MTA was a publicly held company, shareholders would have revolted years ago and demanded a hasty overhaul and housecleaning from the top down. But, alas, it remains as poorly managed and operated today as it always has been — especially during its lean years in the late 70s and 80s — with its excess of political appointees.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad idea for the MTA to consider hiring one or more of Donald Trump’s “Apprentice” rejects. Call ‘em up and tell ‘em, “You’re hired!”

A few days before Christmas, the MTA board announced a fare increase would take effect in March. (Talk about your coal-filled stocking.) It’ll be the second increase for straphangers in as many years with another tentatively in the works for next year.

More regrettable is Governor Pataki’s latest budget proposal that falls miserably short of providing sufficient funding the MTA needs just for routine maintenance — never mind costly expansion projects.

And it’s necessary to point out that the city, which generates most of the revenue that fills Albany’s treasury compared to the rest of the state, has been shortchanged in a number of areas, most specifically education, and New York’s public transportation systems remains overwhelmed by debt thanks to a succession of inequitable Pataki budgets.

Something is obviously wrong with the MTA (its predecessors are no less guilty) since the city’s subways have experienced one financial crisis after another in its first century. Perhaps it’s impossible to manage and maintain that kind of municipal service in the black. But at least they could find competent bosses who aren’t simply selected as payback for political support. And we’ve all read about bloated salaries and bonuses for senior executives that keep increasing despite enduring troubles.

Recently, MTA chairman Peter S. Kalikow said he was willing to abandon some expansion projects, to save $17 billion that is needed just to keep the existing transit system in good repair. Nonetheless, the state budget proposed by the governor fell far short of that figure and will likely postpone, for the foreseeable future, several projects, including a link between Long Island Rail Road and Grand Central Station, as well as the interminable Second Avenue subway.

While it’s undoubtedly terribly costly to maintain a 100-year-old system that operates over hundreds of miles of track and on an equal number of city streets, there’s got be a better way to run a railroad.

Take for instance the recent fire at Chambers Street that knocked out the A and C lines. In a rush to assess the incident, the MTA abruptly announced it would take up to five years to complete repairs without even knowing the extent of the damage because of the ongoing investigation into its origin. However, eight days later — miracle of miracles — service on the two lines was practically restored to normal.

It’s also quite obvious the MTA’s political ties allowed it to offer its 13-acre property to the New York Jets for a controversial West Side sports complex at an under-appraised, bargain-basement price only to be somewhat taken aback last week when rival Cablevision offered to buy the valuable tract at a more reasonable rate to thwart the competition.

A proposal to have select subway stops named for corporate sponsors, in exchange for what hopefully will be fair market rates, sounds like an appealing notion for a steady influx of sorely needed revenue. In effect, a station’s name would be supplemented to promote a company name or product that could boost the MTA’s dire fiscal needs. Some critics op-pose the idea, but it’s just an expansion of subway advertising that has existed in subway cars and stations for decades.

New York’s demanding subway system has been drifting down the wrong track for too long and unless there’s some top secret plan to accumulate transit funds without forcing taxpayers to fork over more, it might not be a bad idea for the MTA itself to find an appropriate corporate sponsor to its name for a permanent revenue boost. Either that or rename it the Cash-Strapped Metropolitan Transit Authority.

The MTA’s managers and those politicians who visualize a positive outlook for the subways should open their eyes and fix current problems before looking down the track hoping to literally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

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