In March, New York City straphangers will experience what’s now become a new ritual: a subway fare hike. This year’s hike comes after fares were raised in 2013 and 2009. And subway and bus riders should get ready to shell out more again in 2017, when there’s a planned 7.5 percent fare hike.
The MTA is passing off the latest fare increase as good news, since it is only a 4.5 percent raise. Yes, we are ever so grateful to the largesse of the MTA board. However, the MTA fails to mention that the base fare in 2009 was $2.00, and with the fare jumping to $2.75 for a single ride, passengers are now facing a 37 percent increase in five years, far outpacing the cost of inflation during the same time period.
It would be one thing if New Yorkers had been getting better service for their money; it’s quite another when subway service is getting worse. What all regular subway riders suspect, has now been confirmed by the MTA’s own statistics. Subway car breakdowns rose by 11 percent in 2013, from every 172,700 to 153,382 miles, which means that you were 11 percent more likely to get to work late due to a subway malfunction than the year before. The “C” line got an “F” when it came to car malfunction, with a breakdown every 58,859 miles. In fact, subway delays are becoming so routine that the MTA has invested in a web site that will email you a late note for a doubting boss. The MTA calls this a “subway delay verification.” That’s a very thoughtful gesture, but solving subway car breakdowns and signal problems by issuing excuse notes is inexcusable.
While straphangers shouldn’t expect the subway experience to be like flying business class, they should have the right to expect a seat most of the time in return for their subway fare. But the unfortunate reality is that they will be lucky just to get a good standing spot next to a subway-car pole. With ridership at all-time highs, subway cars are more sardine-can-like than ever. The subway line with the best chance of getting a seat is the “R” train, where only 66 percent of riders were able to sit down. Contrast that with some of the busier lines where there’s a less than even chance of commuters getting the opportunity to rest their tired legs. Seats on the “Q” train, for example, are a rare commodity: there’s only a 23 percent chance of finding a seat.
True, there have been some improvements. The MTA proudly proclaims that the clarity of announcements has gone from 90 percent to 92 percent. But really, what does it cost to have clear subway announcements, other than having someone who can say “Stand clear of the closing doors” in ungarbled English?
So if subway service isn’t improving and fares keep going up, where’s the money going? It doesn’t take a forensic accountant to figure out that the MTA has a budgeting problem. Take their highly-touted new Fulton Street station, for example. The Fulton Street transit hub was scheduled to open in 2007 at a cost of $700 million. It missed that date by seven years, only opening last November, and with cost overruns that put the hub’s final price tag at $1.2 billion.
And then there’s the MTA runaway-train pension costs. MTA employees, unlike many other public union workers, can retire with a full pension at the age of 55, when they also are gifted with lifetime health benefits. Pension costs are eating away at the ability of the MTA to invest in subways, buses, rail equipment and technology. In 2014, pension costs were almost 30 percent of what its cost to pay its non-retired workers. A full 10 percent, or $1.3 billion of the budget, went to retirees. That’s a staggering increase from $314 million in 2004. Unless New York politicians have the courage to challenge the TWU and bring retiree costs down to earth, pension and health-care benefits will continue to skyrocket and New Yorkers will be looking at more frequent and greater fare increases in the future.
The MTA has been a thoroughly mismanaged agency for years, covering up its ineptitude at fiscal management and trying to cover its costs by imposing fare hikes on commuters. As a Columbia University report on the agency put it, if the MTA were a private company, given its debt, it would “fail in a day.” Given the clout of the TWU, it’s no wonder that governors have been fearful of confronting the union. But this latest increase has to be the final destination for the MTA’s express train to more fare hikes. Instead of treating the TWU as a political third-rail, the governor and the state legislature should have the courage to clean up the agency once and for all, providing New Yorkers with a clean, modern and affordable mass transit system.