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Henry J. Stern

Henry J. Stern

Posted: July 1, 2010 02:57 PM

Today was the third workday New Yorkers have coped with more crowding in subways and buses, and delays at those bus stops that are still operating. These problems have been aggravated by the MTA's service cuts necessitated by its substantial deficit which, in part, is the result of reduced appropriations by the state legislature.

Service is highly unlikely to be restored by the MTA as long as the fiscal crisis continues, which will be a prolonged period of time.

We do not believe the public should be deprived of necessary service just because the MTA cannot operate without losing money.

Why don't the black cabs or other transit vehicles take over and serve the locations that the MTA has abandoned?

There are enough vehicles and enough drivers to serve the majority of the riders who have been shucked by the MTA, which incur much higher operating costs than necessity requires.

This is a field in which Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and Taxi & Limousine Commissioner, former Councilmember David Yassky should take the initiative. (By the way, both these posts were held during portions of the Giuliani Administration by Christopher R. Lynn.)

Mayor Bloomberg's new Deputy Mayor, Stephen Goldsmith (former Mayor of Indianapolis) is noted for his past success in privatizing municipal services. What better area is there to try out privatization than one in which the public agency in charge has abandoned for financial reasons its commitment to provide service?

The advocates of 'planned shrinkage' a generation ago did not, as far as I know, actually withdraw services from neighborhoods they predicted would shrink. In this case, service is also being curtailed in stable or growing areas, simply because it is uneconomic for the MTA to operate it. The reason transit is a public service rather than a private operation is because service is assumed to be maintained as a basic civic amenity, whether it is profitable for the transit provider or not.

Three years ago the MTA acquired seven private bus lines which had received city subsidies, mostly in Queens, and assumed their obligations. Could their financial picture have changed so drastically that the lines the MTA (capital budget tax dollars) bought and paid for are now incapable of operating without substantially increasing the transit agency's deficit? Why buy the lines if you weren't going to operate them?

The entire affair undermines to some extent the credibility of the long-suffering MTA, which is wrongly accused as much as it is properly faulted. Whenever the MTA is short of money, existing subway and bus lines it operates are at risk of abandonment.

How do you build a community, or persuade home buyers to invest in it, if its lifeline of transportation is likely to be cut any year the agency has a fiscal shortfall - which, of course, will be every year since they appear incapable of containing their labor costs?

This is not to say that no lines should be eliminated. Some express buses are substantially underutilized. The MTA cannot provide taxi service for a handful of passengers. But when calculations begin after the number of reductions is fixed, some routes are likely to be abolished which provide valuable service. Tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of people, may now be more than a half-mile from a subway station. Think of the consequences in rain or snow, and on the disabled who cannot be accommodated by Access-a-Ride.

The picture is made more complex by the division of responsibility for the MTA between the state and the city. The governor has ten appointees on the board, plus fractionals. The Mayor has four. This enables the Mayor to escape responsibility for the decisions made by the agency, including resource allocation decisions for lines within the City of New York, which should be within his purview.

The City Council has used its budget authority to keep firehouses and senior centers open, and to reduce cuts for libraries. Yet it seems powerless to do anything about the MTA's abandonment of subway and bus service, although these cuts will have more impact on peoples' daily lives than the cuts that were restored. The MTA is insulated from elected officials, and the farcical 'hearings' held for each borough, although required by law, are no substitute for civic participation. The non-elected MTA board members, who are unknown to the public except for the lady who is dating Paul McCartney, either follow their own wishes, or the desires of the person who appointed them.

As Chris Lynn has suggested, the lines should be made available to private operators, who can determine whether the market will support them. One such entrepreneur, Joel Azumah of Brooklyn, says the MTA is discouraging riders from taking his buses.

The News reports the situation today in an article by Barry Paddock, "CHARTER BIZMAN VOWS TO MOTOR ON":

The young entrepreneur running private buses along discontinued MTA bus lines blames his lower than expected ridership on interference from the city. Joel Azumah says the Department of Transportation is scaring his customers away by claiming he's not legally authorized to pick riders off the street.

We wondered whether and why this was so, and called DOT to find out. Here is the agency's response:

"We have asked the operator to submit documentation to show cause why they believe they can operate without the required authorizations and we await their reply. Until we have an opportunity to review their submissions, we have directed them to cease and desist from operation."

To us, this attitude evokes the story of the dog in the manger, one of Aesop's immortal fables.

One afternoon a dog lay down to sleep in a manger (a trough or open box in a stable designed to hold feed or fodder for livestock). When he woke up, he kept the cattle from eating the hay he had rested on, although he was unable to eat it himself. (Dogs don't eat hay.) A hungry ox uttered the moral: "People often begrudge others what they cannot enjoy themselves."

The MTA and the DOT should not try to prevent others from using a service that they are no longer able to provide.

As long as we are moralizing, allow us to call to your attention to a Daily News editorial from Monday, "THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY: These Pols Slashed Transit Funds Then Blamed the MTA." Click, it reads much better than our synopsis.

Last December, both houses in Albany, with the governor's consent, reduced state aid to the MTA by $143 million. In order to make up for a portion of this newly-imposed addition to its deficit, the MTA board felt compelled to reduce operating costs by $93 million through service cuts. Then, the same legislators who voted to cut the MTA funds had the gall to denounce the agency for the service reductions necessitated by their actions. The News, irate at what it considers hypocrisy and showboating, lists the 64 members who voted to take $143 million from the MTA, and then denounced the agency for $93 million in service reductions.

We now quote the News editorial:

What these lawmakers excel at is deceiving their constituents.


The MTA's service area is represented by 142 members of the assembly and senate. Fully 64 of them wrote letters, testified or issued statements railing about planned transit cuts, after voting to cut the MTA's funding.

They had the gall to posture as champions of a furious public. Each of these weasels must be held to account. Here are all of their names in alphabetic order.


Click here to see if your Senator and Assemblymember are on this list.

What could the legislators' excuses be? Experience gives us some hints as to what they might say.

1) If we are all guilty, then none of us is guilty.

2) Albany, like Sodom, is a city of liars, why pick on us?

3) The devil (Speaker Silver) made us do it.

4) I thought the cuts would be in the other guy's district.

5) We'll make it up in a supplemental budget.

6) The MTA is no good anyway, why should you believe them instead of me?

7) I didn't make that statement. It was an error by staff.

8) Any combination of the previous seven excuses, whatever sticks to the wall.

Readers are invited to submit their excuses for the legislators who the Daily News dubs weasels. Actually, that characterization is unfair. The weasel is small (6 to 14 inches long, not counting their tails which can be just as long) and furry. It is a mammal that burrows underground. Their family includes ferrets, stoats and ermines. They eat frogs, toads and small rabbits, and are certainly no enemies of human beings.

Merriam-Webster defines a weasel as "a sneaky, untrustworthy or insincere person." This is rampant speciesism. Weasels of the world, unite. Help prevent hate speech about innocent creatures.

P.S. The budget is now 90 days late. The distance between bases in baseball is 90 feet. A right angle is 90 degrees. The latitude of the North and South Pole is 90 N or S. And as we now know, there are 90 minutes in a soccer match. When we were very young, 90 in school was a grade of A, and rarely achieved. Interstate 90 includes the Massachusetts Turnpike and the New York Thruway, which was named for Gov. Thomas E. Dewey (1943-54), whose reputation by comparison rises daily.

 

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