Not so fast on cuts to mass transit
by Richard J. Bocklett
Jan 12, 2010 | 1530 views | 0 0 comments | 37 37 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Just after the MTA board voted unanimously on December 16 to eliminate vital mass transit services to Queens and Brooklyn in its 2010-2011 operating budget, the phones of area politicians began to ring off the hook.

“A lot of our district people were alarmed. They didn’t know this was not immediate,” said an aide to State Senator Joseph Addabbo, Jr. “But actually, these cuts would start in July or later, and then only if no funding agreement is reached with legislators in Albany.”

The proposed cuts would be far-reaching and painful to outer-borough residents. They include the elimination of the W and Z subway lines, reduced service on the M and G trains, ending weekday service for five Queens and six Brooklyn bus routes, and cuts in overnight runs as well.

Door-to-door service on Access-A-Ride, which transports the elderly and disabled,

would change, and passengers would be dropped off at bus stops or the nearest handicap-accessible subway stop.

A real damaging proposal - the elimination of free MetroCards for school students over a two-year period – would put a fare payment burden on parents of approximately $900 per youngster for the academic year.

But politicians are urging public restraint while Albany starts its new legislative session armed with new oversight tools.

The Public Authorities Reform law, signed by the governor on December 11, establishes an independent budget office to set higher standards of transparency and provide oversight for state agencies and public authorities, such as the MTA, which up to present were outside the purview of both city and state examiners. Among its investigatory powers is the ability to audit MTA records, which have been unavailable to the public.

“In the past, we had no oversight jurisdiction with the MTA,” explained Addabbo. “In my days on the City Council Transportation Committee, when we called the MTA to testify, many times they didn’t show up - they didn’t have to.”

An audit will scrutinize the authority's books, revealing decision-making processes, operational procedures, and spending practices, which could in turn lead to a more efficient MTA.

Addabbo says money-saving steps could include halting replicate jobs, unsound contracting practices, and non-efficient business procedures. As well, money might be saved on capital projects by putting some on hold until finances pick up.

“The days of duplicative operations and wasteful spending boosting administrative costs should be over,” Addabbo said. “Either the MTA shows they’re spending money wisely, or there will be changes made.”

Addabbo says the legislature has time to act, as the MTA must conduct a round of public hearings for citizen reaction and proposals before taking another vote on possible service cuts.

“So no proposals would take effect probably until their timeline in September or thereabouts,” said Addabbo.

”I’m going to reassure my constituents that there’s a long way before the MTA starts to eliminate bus or train service or student MetroCards,” he said. “I am realistically optimistic we will find a way to preserve much of the services the MTA provides.”

One of State Senator George Onorato’s legislative aides noted that the Finance Committee is already asking for records from the MTA and other authorities, and the Transportation Committee likewise. Both committees have subpoena power to compel the authorities to testify, if necessary.

Austin Shafran, legislative aide to State Senator Martin Smith and spokesman for the Senate Democratic Majority Conference, is involved with composing the final budget package to be voted on by the legislature.

“When the governor’s budget is released the second week in January, we’ll see all agencies' monies and work with that to restore the MetroCard program,” he said.

A MTA financing and reform package – encompassing more transparency, accountability, and oversight in government programs - passed last April, and will provide legislators with the authority for action, according to Shafran.

“For years, the MTA kept two sets of books,” he said. ”They maintained thousands of duplicative management positions and hired costly consultants and all the time the public was stuck paying the bill.”

As part of the governor’s effort to avert default and a financial rating drop for the state, the Deficit Reduction Proposal last October lowered state transportation aid across the board by 10 percent. This year’s budgetary process seeks to restore those cuts.

“Now,” Shafran continued, “we’re going to do everything we can to get the MTA the money they need to maintain services – specifically restoring the student MetroCard program – but the MTA must do its share to work with us.”

Over the next few months, the Senate Democratic Majority Conference and others in Albany will go through the budget line by line to find areas of waste and get spending under control equaling real savings, he explained.

Shafran contends that wasteful items abound in the budget.

“Under a performance-based budgeting model, there will be program-by-program reviews in each agency to justify every dime of spending,” he stated. “What works is kept, what doesn’t is cut. Senate Democrats are optimistic we can reign in out-of-control spending and find the necessary savings to preserve vital services.”

Alex Christodoulides, State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky’s Communications Director, focused on the MetroCard elimination proposal's impact on Stavisky's district.

“This would set off a ripple effect because with the city closing several of the area high schools, the students would be forced to travel further, which is not a huge hardship with the free MetroCards,” she said. “But eliminating that benefit means that some families must choose between paying for transportation versus some other household expense.”

Christodoulides recalls that the MTA proposed similar transit cuts last year, which were ultimately rejected by Albany.

“Senator Stavisky opposed those cuts and they didn’t come to pass,” she said. “I’m sure she will fight tooth and nail to keep all of the MTA services in place that we currently have.”

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