Riders are returning to mass transit offerings like the Long Island Rail Road — they’re just not doing it as fast as transportation officials say is necessary to keep the system running smoothly, and keep it solvent.
Because of that, in just weeks, fares are being hiked across the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Subway and bus fares in New York City will climb to $2.90 per trip, and LIRR fares could increase as much as 10 percent.
And even if you’re not taking the train or a bus, you could still feel the financial pinch. Tolls on bridges and tunnels controlled by the MTA will go up by 6 percent for those with E-ZPass. Everyone else could see those tolls spike by 10 percent. And let’s not even get started on congestion pricing.
All of this is necessary, the MTA says, in order to plug a budget deficit of some $600 million, which continues to expand. The MTA depends on fares to cover at least a quarter of its nearly $20 billion budget — just under $7 billion.
That’s a lot of money — by comparison, the state spends just one-tenth that amount on roads each year, although most of the financial burden for maintaining roads and streets falls to local governments. But one thing is clear: If the MTA wants more money from riders and from the state, it should be required to get costs under control.
More than 58 percent of the MTA’s budget is dedicated to labor — salaries, health benefits, pensions and the like. But more than $1 billion is spent each year on overtime. A report by the watchdog group Empire Center for Public Policy revealed that more than 1,100 of the MTA’s 70,000 employees collected so much overtime that it doubled their salaries. Half of them took home more than $100,000 in overtime, and some actually tripled their salary.
The MTA blames the reliance on overtime on employee shortages caused not just by the coronavirus pandemic, but also by union contracts. Yet Empire Center points out that half of the new money to be collected with the upcoming fare hikes will be eaten up by this overtime.
And while the MTA works to modernize its system, many of the benefits aren’t being realized. For example, the agency employs more than 3,000 conductors on subways — the need for whom technology all but eliminates. Granted, many New York City lines still use switching technology that’s nearly a century old, but even on lines where conductors aren’t needed, they remain.
Unions say that trains are safer with conductors, but many cities outside the New York metropolitan area use only a single operator on their trains, and their safety statistics are comparable.
But it’s not just payroll. Many critics point out that the MTA pays far more for capital projects than it should. A 2017 investigation by The New York Times revealed that while most transit construction plans cost about $500 million per track mile, for the MTA, those costs range from $1.5 billion to $3.5 billion — up to seven times what they should.
The Times blamed those costs on sweetheart deals, limited oversight, and no motivation to control costs. More recently, Gov. Kathy Hochul has called for the MTA to tighten the purse strings, but no one is expecting much to come of that.
In the meantime, we are the ones who pay — whether it be in fares, tolls or through our taxes.
Mass transit is designed to provide an economic, and environmentally friendly, way of moving people from one point to another in a dense urban and suburban environment. But even with price controls — like efforts by the MTA to limit the weekly cost of taking transit — it could become a prohibitively expensive prospect, especially for those who don’t qualify for reduced fares.
A report last year from the state comptroller showed that more commuters in New York City chose public transit over car ownership — which is unique to the city. Across the metro area, however, more than 70 percent of commuters own cars, while 30 percent take trains or buses.
Fares on public transit are going to remain a fact of life, but we must demand a more efficient MTA. Bloat is costly, and it’s all of us who have to pick up the tab.