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Best and Worst in NYC Transit in 2009

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Believe it or not, some good things happened for city subway and bus riders in 2009 -- along with the predictably bad. So here's my list of the best and worst in transit during the year that's just ending.

Not surprisingly, a few of the best things sometimes also have a bit of the worst in them. And vice versa.

First the best:

1. The MTA Bailout: After months of wrangling, in May the state legislature passed a package of six revenue measures to address a $1.8 billion deficit for 2010 MTA. The heart of the deal asked all the beneficiaries of transit - riders, drivers and businesses - to chip in to rescue the transit system. In the wake of the bailout, the fare went up (see Worst #6), but only to $2.25 instead of $2.50 as first proposed. In addition, a host of major service cuts were rescinded (but see Worst #7 and #8.)

2. Jay Walder and Tom Prendergast: In October, Jay Walder started as MTA Chair (appointed by Governor Paterson) and Walder picked Tom Prendergast as president of city subways and buses. Both men are life-long transit professionals and both have experience managing transit here in New York and around the world. In London, Walder had great success introducing a "smart card" that's more convenient and flexible than the MetroCard. He also strongly favors improving bus service; buses in London move twice as many people as the Underground, just the reverse here, where the subways move 5.1 million riders each weekday compared to 2.3 million bus riders. (But see Worst #9.)

3. Reform of Public Authorities: In December, sweeping legislation was passed to make the state's powerful public authorities - like the MTA - more accountable and transparent. The sum of the changes represents the most serious reform of New York's system of public authorities in generations. Among the strongest features of the new law are: 1) an independent Authorities Budget Office in the Department of State with the ability to investigate public complaints about authorities; 2) new powers for the state comptroller to review no-bid authorities contracts; 3) a requirement for authority staff to record lobbyist contacts; and 4) new protections for whistleblowers at authorities.

4. Line General Managers: If you go to mta.info and click on "E-Mail Your Line General Manager," you can find the human being responsible for your line. The agency has moved from an organization divided solely by function - such as car equipment and stations - to one substantially by subway lines The goal is for managers to be more responsive to rider concerns and view service more comprehensively across departmental lines. So far, the line general managers have yielded tangible benefits: 1) For example, the 7 and L - the first two lines in the line general manager program and which were given new managers and more cleaners - came out on top on the Straphangers Campaign's annual "state of the subways" report card both in July 2008 and July 2009; and 2) the line general managers program has spurred initiatives, yielding such innovations as: a video display monitor on L station platforms that shows where all the trains are on the line. This innovation let's riders know car location and spacing and helps them determine if there really is a "train behind this one." Such a system can inform riders' judgments about whether to wait for a less crowded train;

5. More transparency: The new MTA Chairman Jay Walder is committed to making the MTA more transparent and credible. As a significant start, he's put on line the materials given to MTA Board members for meetings. The agendas contain a wealth of materials about how the city and suburban systems are performing, both in their operations and their finances. Look for the MTA to take additional steps to get valuable information to the public.

And now the worst:

6. The Fare Hike in June: Nobody likes a fare increase, especially in a tough economy. Subway and bus riders and suburban commuters pay the largest percentage of transit operating costs in the nation. MTA New York City Transit's riders pay 43% of operating expenses. The numbers are even higher for the suburban railroads: MetroNorth (57%) and LIRR (46%). The national average for the 50 top systems is 34%. Some examples are: Chicago Transit Authority (41%); New Jersey Transit (40%); Washington, DC (38%); Philadelphia (36%); PATH (33%); Boston (32%); and Los Angeles (23%.) Only one system has a higher ratio, San Francisco's BART, which charges on a distance basis and is a combined city/suburban system.

7. Service Cuts 1: Despite promises made that the MTA bailout would prevent drastic service cuts, the MTA went ahead with axing hundreds of station customer agents and dozens of cleaners and car maintainers. The result: many scary unstaffed entrances to the subways and much inconvenience to tourists, the elderly and the handicapped that rely on station agents for information and assistance. And dirtier and less well maintained subways.

8. Service Cuts and Student MetroCards 2?: This December, the MTA was saddled with a new financial mess not of its own making. Governor Paterson and the state Legislature cut the MTA's budget by $143 million. There was also a shortfall of $200 million in proceeds from a new payroll tax. And a state court upheld a binding arbitration award that the MTA says will cost it $91 million in 2010. As a result, the MTA's is considering reviving about $113 million in cuts in subway and bus service, $40 million cuts of paratransit and the elimination of student MetroCards. This would be a disaster for riders and for the MTA. For transit riders, these cuts would mean longer waits, more crowding, the death of several subway lines and many bus routes and many hundreds of dollars a year for the families of students. For the MTA, reviving these cuts would shred their credibility. The riding public was told last May that there would be no service cuts when the legislature bailed out the MTA. Riders held up their part of the bargain with a fare hike last June, yet now they are threatened with getting substantially less while paying more. The Straphangers Campaign believes the MTA has the resources to prevent the service cuts, especially available federal stimulus funds and capital funds now coming out of the operating budget.

9. Lee Sander and Howard Roberts, Jr.: For a chunk of 2009, these men were respectively the CEO of the MTA and the President of MTA New York City Transit. They did their jobs well, listened to the riders, and changed transit management direction and culture. Unfortunately, their tenure came to an end in 2009. They will be missed.

10. Poor Labor Relations: The current relationship between the MTA and the Transport Workers Union is not good. Labor and management both went to "binding arbitration" this year following an impasse on the TWU's contract. The TWU was happy with the outcome, but the MTA was not and sued to re-open the arbitration decision. The union said it followed the rules and the MTA was not accepting binding arbitration. The MTA said it could not afford the arbitration decision and that it did not fully take into account its ability to pay. The MTA's is considering reviving about $113 million in cuts in subway and bus service. Justice O. Peter Sherwood decided for the union in mid-December.