View all Articles
Commentary By Nicole Gelinas

Where The MTA Should Be Saving

Cities, Cities New York City

At next week’s public MTA hearings on its proposed token-booth closings and other customer-service reduc tions, city and state lawmakers will talk tough about sticking up for the straphanger against the big, bad MTA. But none of the pols will say the obvious: Modest wage concessions from transit and railroad workers could save us from some of these cuts.

These workers took home an average of $69,500 last year -- not counting health-care and pension benefits far more generous than the average New Yorker, let alone the average straphanger, enjoys.

Yes, the MTA is wasteful and inefficient, spends too much on lawyers and black cars and all the rest of the usual complaints. But big savings have to come from its workforce -- or at the expense of its customers.

Two weeks ago, the MTA’s first round of cuts eliminated two subway lines and 37 bus routes, reduced frequency of other buses and trains -- and cut basic cleaning. But much more is ahead.

These early cuts, including nearly 1,000 jobs, will save just $93 million -- less than a quarter of the MTA’s $400 million budget shortfall.

And the budget hole is growing. The new tax on downstate payrolls, created in last year’s MTA bailout, was supposed to bring in $1.5 billion a year. But that didn’t allow for the continued stagnation of the local economy. Last month, the MTA had to slash its forecasted take from the tax by $56 million -- on top of a $280 million writedown this spring. The agency’s revenues from taxes on real-estate transactions are $58 million short, too.

So we’ll see even more drastic plans in the next few months -- less service and more trash, and a January fare hike that could bring a monthly MetroCard’s cost to $105, up from $89 now.

But service cuts are a losing game. They inflict pain on the riding public and area economy, without saving the MTA very much.

Consider: Even as it cuts trains, buses, maintenance and (probably) capital spending, the MTA’s huge payroll costs are still going up.

In 2009, the MTA’s 74,708 workers took home nearly $5.92 billion in cash pay (not including health or pensions). That represents 54 percent of the authority’s budget -- and was up nearly 1.5 percent, or $75 million, from the 2008 figure.

In other words: The MTA could have saved nearly as much as it will wring from this first service-cut round just by freezing the payroll.

Last year, personal income fell in New York City by 3.3 percent. So an MTA wage freeze would have left its workers still doing better than the rest of us.

Had the MTA been able to hold average token-booth pay to the 2008 level of $54,100 a year instead of watching it rise to $58,400 over two years, it could have saved 32 jobs, where it’s cutting 400.

Of other job titles that comprise the remaining 600 or so of the MTA’s cuts, it could have saved 48, including:

* Subway cleaners: Had the MTA been able to hold wages to the 2008 average of $44,000, it could have saved 20 jobs.

* Subway maintainers: Holding payroll to 2008 levels -- $65,200 -- could have saved 19 jobs.

To put things in perspective: MTA chief Jay Walder said a few weeks back that keeping the booth clerks would’ve cost $40,000 a day. But the rise in MTA wages from 2008 to 2009 works out to more than $200,000 a day.

It’s simple. By paying workers modestly less -- and still more than the market demands -- the MTA could employ more people for the same amount of money.

That’s not to say that the MTA can’t stand some job cuts. The Post caught a couple of subway maintainers -- Frank Ryan, who made $63,900 in 2009, and Robert Malandrino, $63,500 -- clocking in last Thursday before driving off for a two-hour snooze.

But the same union contracts that protect Ryan and Maladrino also prevent the MTA from freezing wages. The Transport Workers Union did offer payroll concessions to save jobs a few weeks ago -- but the union wanted a future no-layoffs clause in return, too big a price.

Unless politicians are willing to stick up for the public (rather than supporting the union in backroom negotiations), the TWU will never accept economic reality.

At next week’s public hearings, the public should remember: Any pol who stands up and criticizes the MTA without acknowledging that sops to unions have made more than half of the authority’s budget impervious to easy cuts is taking you for a ride.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post

This piece originally appeared in New York Post