I want to tell you a story. I do this realizing the following violates the maxim that stories are the study of anomaly, that any tale worth mentioning involves change in the face of stagnation, the specific coinciding with the general. If you’re a New York City resident, there’s little doubt your own experiences with bureaucratic blundering — especially those involving our beloved Metropolitan Transportation Authority — are somewhat wearingly familiar at this point. For once, it’s a rule I’m willing to overlook.
Several weeks ago — it was a Monday night, to be specific — I was taking the subway home from the West Village. I entered the station and, after swiping my card, discovered the train I needed had been abruptly pulled from service to that station for the evening. In classic MTA fashion, signs informing the public of this important development had yet to be posted. Loudspeaker announcements — phonetically challenged, inaudible under waves of static — had yet to be made.
Minutes later I was told by an MTA employee (she was running yellow tape across the turnstiles to prevent further commuters from entering, natch) that only two stations were affected by the outage. As a solution, she said I could catch a shuttle bus upstairs that would take me across town to where the train resumed.
I went outside. There was no shuttle bus.
Very quickly I realized, in that reflexive transit-problem-solving faculty that has grafted onto many New Yorkers’ frontal lobes, that I could take a cab across 14th Street to the 1st Ave station, where I could catch the resuming Brooklyn-bound train. I did. Note that by this point I was out $2.25, plus the $6 it would cost in cab fare to make the trek to the operating station.
When I arrived at the Brooklyn-bound side of the 1st Ave stop I noticed there was no attendant on duty. Big surprise. I swiped my card, descended the stairs and waited. And waited. The platform began to fill with commuters. Several minutes later, riders from the opposing platform began to yell at us from across the tracks: the Brooklyn-bound train was coming into the station. On the Manhattan-bound side.
What followed was a kind of animated, 2010 rendition of a Rockwell painting: Imagine fifty people running up the stairs and into 14th Street’s oncoming traffic, to a chorus of screeching tires and honking horns. By the time most of us got into the Manhattan-bound station the Brooklyn-bound train had left. Meanwhile, on the other side of the platform, unsuspecting subway riders were still entering (and paying for) a train that would never come.
No signs. No announcements. Unlike the regularity of their mobile fleet, the MTA’s penchant for comedic timing never faltered: a lone attendant, who sat in a booth at the Manhattan bound terminal, screamed at us as she filed her nails. “No Brooklyn-bound trains!” No kidding. A second cab back to Brooklyn, coupled with a second wasted train fare, and by the time I got home my losses totaled about $20.
I called the MTA customer service hotline to make a complaint. Their offices were closed for the evening. I called again the following morning. After some keypad finagling I finally managed to speak with a representative, with whom I lodged a formal complaint. He took my name and address and promised the MTA would reimburse me for my lost fare. Several weeks have gone by. I’m still waiting for that $5.50.
Pay more, get less
My own experience can be seen as a microcosm for the MTA’s performance in the past year. The agency’s widely reported budget woes — a staggering deficit of nearly $900 million — has placed them in the most unfavorable public position possible: we’re forced to deal with some of the worst subway and bus service cuts in recent history, and to top it off we’re expected to pay more for it, with fare hikes set to go into effect at the end of this year — now the third year in a row.
As of January, the 30-day unlimited-ride Metro Card will jump in price by a whopping 17%, from $89 to $104 (an increase of 65% since it was introduced in 1998). Meanwhile, all or part of three subway lines were killed, three dozen bus routes were terminated, more than 550 bus stops eliminated, and hundreds of station attendants were laid off. The result? While New York City has grown exponentially in the past decade, transit numbers actually dropped last year by nearly 3%.
“Subway service was pretty horrible in the early '80s, there was terrible quality of service due to lack of support, and rider levels in 1981 had fallen to the lowest since 1917,” said Gene Russianoff, Staff Attorney for the Straphangers Campaign. “I don’t want to wax nostalgic about the bad ole’ days, but we’re getting pretty close to it again today.”
In December, Straphangers released their “Top 10 Best and Worst Events in New York City Transit in 2010,” which highlighted fare hikes, service cuts and near-historic deficits as partial reasons for New Yorkers’ biggest transit headaches. Commenting on the report, Russianoff referred to 2010 as “an awful year for subway and bus riders.”
Granted, not all of it is the MTA’s fault. At least part of the agency’s staggering $800 million-plus operating deficit can be blamed on the state legislature, which famously shorted them $160 million this year. The remaining $700 million-plus comes from painful losses on projected payroll tax revenues, state taxes, corporate income taxes and $2 billion in annual interest to pay off old debts.
The MTA is a public-benefit corporation. That is, it is a corporation funded partially by the state because, all joking aside, it provides a public benefit. It makes you wonder: If the MTA was a private corporation, if they were forced to abide by the free market’s ebb and flow, if there was a viable transportation alternative to a company that offers little aside from late trains, missing busses, stations without attendants, universally rude service and neglected, rodent-infested platforms lined with discarded bags of trash — how quickly would it be put to pasture? Apparently, bailouts aren’t just for banks anymore.
Conversely, if it was a public utility, one can’t help but imagine if it would be a safer or more reliable one, or at least a service prone to more in-house oversight. Indeed, many of the MTA’s problems go deeper than budget; some can just be blamed on ole’ fashioned ineptitude. In December the AP reported that MTA workers failed to perform tests on thousands of subway signals and in some cases, deliberately failed to report broken subway switches, which, despite being illegal, also poses an incredible danger to riders.
Then there’s the litany of capital projects the MTA has decided to embark on, hilariously, at a time when they don’t have the money to pay for them. There’s the celebrated Second Avenue Subway line (total estimated cost: $17 billion), and the 7 Line extension (total estimated cost: $2.1 billion), two projects the MTA has recently admitted they are several million short on paying for. Who do you suppose is going to pay for this? Granted, some of these projects were put into motion as far back as the ’90s. Yet a relatively primitive solution awaits: stop paying for things you can no longer afford.
Par for the course
As a journalist, I’m seldom surprised when a company’s ramshackle operations are mirrored by an equally bad communications strategy. One doesn’t always entail the other mind you, but the latter is often a sign that something is dreadfully afoul with the former.
For one, there’s the notably contradictory messages the MTA propagates on a day-to-day basis. Subway stations feature posters warning commuters not to run on the platform, yet to save money the MTA often enlists train cars that are shorter than the platform (on the dreadful G, for instance), causing commuters to … wait for it … run when the train comes into the station. They hang a range of Orwellian signs asking commuters to refrain from littering, posted aside ubiquitous bags of trash left on the platforms by attendants for hours, sometimes days, obstructing traffic and treating sewer rats to a subterranean buffet.
Over the years, I’ve written several stories about the MTA. I can say, without reservation, that their communications capabilities are hopelessly inept. Their press office is essentially an extension of their customer service line; in design, it is little more than a telemarketing center: call and a random employee picks up the phone. Ask a question they can’t answer — or one they don’t want to answer — and you either get the response of a petulant child or, more often than not, promises of a returned phone call that never comes. On the three separate occasions that I have called their communications office petitioning such a request, they have never returned a phone call. Not once.
Right now the MTA is public enemy number one for New York City residents, and it’s a position that’s rightfully deserved. It’s an even sadder notion when you consider that if the agency communicated their pending plans for recovery — if they told the public what they’re doing to fix the problem — they’d be much more likely to gain a sympathetic ear.
The MTA currently has a two-pronged approach which they hope will raise about $500 million in revenue during the next fiscal year: the first is the fare increases, which they hope will bring in about $420 million; the second is service cuts — less cleaning, reduced overtime, renegotiating contracts with vendors — which they hope will bring in another $100 million.
Trimming $100 million of fat is not an easy task. It’s that kind of noble effort that the MTA needs to flaunt to the public, something that says: “we know we screwed up — but we’re working on it.” That’s what PR crisis counsel is for. In case you were under a rock this year, companies and celebrities do it all the time.
“I think they have trouble getting their message out,” Russianoff said. “Part of it is they just have an unpopular position. I don’t think a lot of the public understands the MTA’s financial woes. But when you raise fares from $89 to $104, you might want to try to push the angle that at least you’re getting a better system. The only thing the public has taken away from this is we’re paying more for less.”
A good message alone isn’t a fix. Sadly, you don’t have to travel to Tokyo, Hong Kong or Singapore to see what a clean, moderately competent subway system looks like. Just take a trip to Chicago, Washington D.C. or Boston for a weekend sometime. Ours is an embarrassment, plain and simple.
It should be noted that I called the MTA communications office — again — to discuss this editorial and to give them the opportunity to reply to several questions and comments I had. This time, I was told to submit my questions via email. My cup runneth over. I sent the email per their request, and I’m still waiting for a reply. Not to mention my $5.50.