Right Sizing the MTA: Cuts too far and the MTA’s Budget Efficiencies

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Each year the MTA makes cuts to “right size” its operating agencies

Many think of the MTA as being a bloated agency, bursting at the gills with unnecessary employees and government largesse. Since the mid-2000s, the agency has been working to eliminate such fat, through a series of initiatives called Programs to Eliminate the Gap (PEGs) and Budget Reduction Programs (BRPs). Each year, the MTA’s operating agencies — Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North Railroad, MTA Headquarters, NYC Transit, and MTA Bus — are given quotas of these cuts that they must make to “right size” their operating budgets. Cumulatively, over one billion dollars in spending has been eliminated in this way, a testament to the agency’s unrelenting drive towards monetary efficiency.

However, in pursuit of financial rationality, the MTA has lost sight of the harm that incessant cuts can have on its ability to execute its mission. While excess is present in every organization, the agency’s efforts at rationalizing have gone too far.

Cuts in workforce paired with strong ridership growth threaten the wellbeing of the system

Consider the case of the New York City Transit Authority. By far the largest of the MTA’s operating agencies, it provides the lion share of reductions. These cuts, combined with attrition, have caused the agency’s workforce to decline by over five hundred positions since 2001. While such change sounds like a rationalization gone right, what these reductions have caused is a serious staffing decline during a period of strong ridership growth.

Since 2001, annual subway ridership grew by over three hundred fifty million trips, an increase that even without staffing reductions would stress any system. Simply put, since 2001 the subways added more riders than the entire population of the United States. With these cuts, however, what would be a manageable situation becomes one that threatens the very operation of the network. With both assets and employees spread thin, the system is unable to handle the traffic resulting in what seems to be an unending series of service delays.

Between 2008 and 2009 the maintenance department was cut by close to ten percent

To make matters worse, many of these excisions have been in NYC Transit’s maintenance departments, the very people we task with identifying system weaknesses and correcting them. During the early and mid-2000s, the agency was increasing its workforce in that sector, cognizant of the increasing challenges that come with the maintenance of a 100 year old subway. However, during the financial crisis in 2008-09, these critical forces suffered, losing close to ten percent in two years.

NYCT Maintenance Employees over time

*Source: 2005-2017 MTA Financial Plans

 

Lhota must reinstate the staffing level needed to healthfully sustain our transit network.  

To his credit, recently appointed MTA Chairman Joe Lhota recognizes the devastation of those staffing cuts and in his Subway Action Plan has directed the MTA to add back many of those jobs, but given increasing ridership and system age, their return to previous peak levels may not be adequate for the task at hand.

Going forward it is critical to have a greater understanding of where reductions are undertaken. While the lack of adequate funding for the capital program garners much attention in the press, it is also imperative that the MTA’s operating budget is right-sized for its task. We cannot ignore the lack of funding for the actual operation of our unique, hundred plus year old, trillion dollar asset that carries eight million of us every day and makes up the foundation of our metropolitan economy. For if we do, the system, understaffed and overstressed, will slouch further towards bedlam, dragging the city with it.

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