Comptroller: MTA Did ‘Transform’ Itself … Into A Worse Agency

File photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit
File photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit

This transformation has not exactly been caterpillar to butterfly.

A much-touted MTA efficiency plan unveiled during the Cuomo years failed to turn the agency into a leaner bureaucracy and instead only succeeded in saving money by firing actual people who work the buses and trains, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said in a new report issued on Tuesday. That staff shortage has already been ruining commutes across the city — and now leaves the agency less able to enhance service before congestion pricing begins, which experts have long said is essential.

DiNapoli’s report noted that the financially strapped agency did indeed meet its goal of eliminating 2,700 jobs without layoffs by September 2020. But instead of being a cause for celebration, the report shows that 1,840 out of the 2,725 eliminated jobs, or 80 percent, were hourly operations or maintenance employees — aka the people who make the trains and buses go. The loss of employees who “have a direct impact on service,” as the report calls them, has been the reason for the dreaded, “We are running as much service as we can with available crew” advisories that the MTA has been running since the late summer.

Customers weren’t buying it:

“These wait times are unacceptable New Yorkers rely on your service to get to where they need to be on time there always seems to be an issue fix it before it runs into rush out when people are trying to get to work and school on time come on now every day is something new,” rider Olga Morillo tweeted on Tuesday.

Manhattan Community Board 4 member and City Council candidate Leslie Boghosian Murphy added (with video), “Hey @MTA, if you want more people to use public transportation, you can’t have crowded platforms and packed trains at 12:08am on a Saturday night. More trains. More service.”

Advocates were stunned that the MTA undertook its so-called Transformation plan in such a backwards way.

“We support the MTA being a more efficient operation,” said Reinvent Albany Senior Researcher Rachael Fauss. “But efficiency is about making savings where it doesn’t hurt your mission. It’s trimming off the excess, where it doesn’t have an effect on your mission to provide transit service.”

Worst of all, DiNapoli noted that these savings, which amounted to $405 million in 2021 and $325 million per year after that, will probably drop as the MTA scrambles to hire people to make the buses and trains go, which again is why the MTA exists.

“Any increased hiring to meet operational and maintenance needs could also erode savings from the elimination of these positions, raising questions as to whether the savings the MTA has achieved from the transformation plan will be recurring after 2021,” he writes in the report.

The report also notes other financial threats to the agency’s future such as:

  • The continuing question of how often white-collar workers will be heading to offices. Per the report, if remote work is kept to around 1.5 days per week, fare revenue could be $300 million higher than projected in 2022. But if remote work is the dominant style of work — in the form of three or four work-from-home days — the agency could take a $500 million revenue hit.
  • Whether those clowns in Congress get their acts together. The bipartisan infrastructure bill’s future is currently in flux as Congressional moderates attempt to welsh on the previously-agreed upon deal to pass a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill at the same time as the infrastructure bill. If the infrastructure bill somehow goes down, DiNapoli writes that the agency may have to scale back it’s own 2020-2024 capital plan.
  • A debt load that will stay at at least 20 percent of the MTA’s operating budget over the life of the current financial plan. DiNapoli’s report says that the agency’s practice of taking out loans debt with deferred payments on the principal keeps the lights on and short-term debt down but hurts future budgets.

All of that leaves the MTA in a bind as it confronts its next major initiative: implementing congestion pricing. The tolling scheme is not expected to overwhelm the subways, but advocates and observers have said that suburbanites and outer borough residents will need the carrot of enhanced service to accept the stick of leaving their cars at home. Both Singapore and London introduced expanded bus service before starting their congestion pricing programs, for example; moving backwards on existing service can’t possibly be a good first step.

“One of the basic tenets of making congestion pricing successful is first implementing good, working transit service,” said Lisa Daglian, the executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “Obviously, it has never been implemented – yet – in a post-pandemic world, but the only way to increase ridership is to provide safe, reliable, accessible and affordable service. The premise behind Transformation was to cut redundancy and waste at the MTA in order to save money. Service is neither, it is the agency’s core mission. Saving money by cutting service is simply backwards, especially at a critical juncture in the life of the agency.”

The transformation plan was a brainchild of then-pre-disgrace Gov. Cuomo, who put the attempted streamlining idea into the same budget that included congestion pricing. Feared as something that would drive then-New York City Transit President Andy Byford out of the agency, the 2019 plan from consultant firm AlixPartners called for the elimination of 2,700 jobs within three years, with a heavy emphasis on consolidating certain human resources jobs and centralizing areas like capital construction and engineering. The transformation plan did manage to send Byford packing, but Tuesday’s report from DiNapoli suggested that it didn’t do much about redundant back office jobs.

That didn’t stop MTA CEO and Chairman Janno Lieber from recently raising a “Mission Accomplished” banner of sorts with a memo announcing that the Transformation Management Office itself would soon be transformed into dust, having achieved its goal of laying down the groundwork for “a foundation for central departments to better serve agency operations and ultimately our customers” according to the memo obtained by THE CITY. But with the MTA now staring down a path where it could have to undo its transformation into some type of re-transformation, Fauss said it was hard to see what the plan resulted in besides a pain in the neck for riders.

“The question is what did they achieve in terms of efficiencies that don’t relate to service, and maintenance? We still don’t really know. It’s alarming that the impact was so heavily focused on that because that was not what we were sold in terms of transformation plan,” she said.

A spokesperson for the MTA said that the agency is still working on the best ways to manage post-pandemic life.

“Predicting the pace of post-pandemic ridership recovery is difficult, but as revenue levels emerge and stabilize all stakeholders will need to evaluate strategies to address the deficit created by COVID’s impact on MTA farebox revenues,” said agency spokesperson Aaron Donovan. “For its part, the MTA will continue to identify cost efficiencies while aligning service to meet public needs.”

But advocates blamed the former governor for creating a headache for the current one.

“If former Gov. Cuomo hadn’t been focused on austerity before the pandemic, the MTA may well have moved more quickly to replace the frontline transit workers that riders depend on,” said Riders Alliance Policy and Communications Director Danny Pealrstein. “This is one problem with using a basic public service like transit as a political football. Gov. Hochul and her transit aides should be doing everything possible to improve service for the existing millions of transit riders — including hundreds of thousands of essential workers who never left — and also to make subways and buses as attractive as possible for those considering getting on board.”