Friday, November 20, 2009

Us, them and our MTA

One of the most successful and persistent arguments against congestion pricing and then bridge tolls was, "Those crooks at the MTA don't deserve another penny." It's a hard one to refute. Here's an organization that's run by an unelected man who answers to an unelected board. Most of these people are uninformed real estate fat cats who collect Ferraris and are driven around in limos. The main qualification seems to be whether the governor owes you a favor.

Bus and subway riders understandably felt like they had no say. The Second Avenue Subway was repeatedly abandoned - after the Second and Third Avenue Els were torn down, resulting in a dramatic reduction in service. In the 1970s "deferred maintenance" period, the trains and platforms rotted and filled with trash and graffiti. Crime went unpunished and undeterred. Commuter railroads serving the wealthy suburbs got higher subsidies than the subways and buses.

Meanwhile, fares continued to rise and as they paid more and got less, passengers began to wonder where all the money was going. They got no clear answers from a self-perpetuating bureaucracy led by unaccountable officials. In 2003, State Comptroller Alan Hevesi famously found that the MTA kept two financial plans: one to fool the public and one for the board to know what was really going on. So it makes sense that people don't want to fund "those crooks at the MTA." As Dave Olsen found with Whidbey Island and Hasselt, even if transit doesn't make a profit, it can be well-funded through taxes - if the people feel like it's "our transit system."

It's gotten better. Some have argued that the "two sets of books" allegation was actually unfounded, but even so, the MTA seems to have cleaned up its act since then. After the storm of negative publicity they began putting more and more financial information on line. Governor Spitzer reorganized the agency to give Executive Director Lee Sander more power, and now Governor Paterson has combined the positions of Chairman and Executive Director into a "Chairman and CEO" position held by Jay Walder, who has moved towards even more openness. More importantly, the MTA leadership has been seen to serve at the pleasure of the governor, and to leave when the Governor is under pressure.

Here's the kicker, though: if the MTA has gotten more accountable and transparent, it doesn't seem to have improved its reputation. In poll after poll on congestion pricing and the Ravitch plan, New Yorkers showed skepticism as to whether the money raised from tolls would go to improved subway or bus service. This mistrust is skilfully exploited by pandering politicians to avoid restoring cuts to the agency from prior years. This week, some of these have added oversight to the MTA and the other "authorities," but they give no credit for any progress that's been made, and it remains to be seen whether these reforms will have any success.

Another part of the problem, I think, is that we expect to have to fund state agencies out of taxes. There are probably some agencies out there that are self-funding through user fees, fines or something like that, but those are usually spun off as nonprofits, for-profit corporations or public utilities. The MTA isn't an executive department, so people don't seem to expect it to have a steady stream of tax funding. It can't be "our transit system" if it's some authority.

Interestingly from the "us vs. them" point of view, there was a project called "FixMTA" for a while this year, and they've since changed their name to "OurMTA." They have a nice vision of accountable transit, but so far I don't see a way of getting there. The name, though, points towards a solution.

Here's a way to achieve that vision: state agencies are seen as straightforward extensions of the governor's power, and the public understands that if they have a problem, it's the governor's responsibility. They may be dissatisfied with the way the governor does things, but they seem comfortable with the idea that they can vote him out in the next election (although I'm still baffled as to why people kept re-electing Pataki). This works for the State Department of Transportation, the Department of Labor and all the other executive departments.

Almost exactly a year ago I recommended replacing the MTA with a state Department of Metropolitan Transportation. That way it would be similar to the existing state cabinet-level departments: funded and accountable. Taxation with representation. Our transportation system.


Ben K. said...

Two points:

You write, "Some have argued that the "two sets of books" allegation was actually unfounded."

I have a bone to pick with this argument and its continually presence in arguments about the MTA. It's not that "some have argued" the allegations were unfounded; it's that an appeals court found that, as a matter of law and fact, the allegations were unfounded. It's rather tough to doubt that conclusion.

Furthermore, the man who made those charges was eventually indicted on charges stemming from financial improprieties. That's a disgraced comptroller accusing an agency of keeping two books, and the myth won't die.

Second, I think the new authorities oversight bill may do what you want a DOT-managed MTA would do while keeping control of a transit agency out of the hands of politics and in the heads of those who, ideally, know what they're doing. In theory, public authorities will work. In practice, 12 years of political cronyism by Pataki striped those in charge of the MTA of much its exerptise.

Alon Levy said...

Given that most revenue for the MTA and almost all ridership is in New York, why not hand it to the city? Public transit agencies go beyond their government-specified areas all the time: the MTA reaches Connecticut, NJT reaches New York and Philadelphia, Tokyo city-owned Toei has some stops in the suburbs, and the Ile de France-funded RER makes a few stops in exurbs outside Ile de France.