Sunday, January 25, 2009

So, MTA, are you screwing us or what?

Try as I might, I can't seem to get a satisfactory answer as to what's happening with the MTA's budget crisis. The gist is that "Albany's trying to work it out", but in the meantime I fear for what will happen to my beloved W line - and the price of my monthly unlimited ride metrocard. Of course I'm concerned about the bus lines getting axed, the longer waits between trains, the demise of the Z (I haven't gotten to ride it yet!), and all of the other nonsense - but those two factors are what will impact me most directly, and thus what weigh most heavily on my mind.

The only recent article I could find on the subject was this one from the Daily News. It strikes me as odd that for a topic so crucial to almost all New Yorkers, we're not getting the blow-by-blow. From what I can gather, the powers upstate are looking into two sources of money: 1) tolling of the East River and other bridges, and 2) a payroll tax to be paid by the employers of NYC.

I must say that suggestion number one makes a whole lot of sense to me. The tunnels are tolled, so why shouldn't the bridges be? Particularly those from the east side. No one, and I mean no one, needs to be driving into Manhattan over the 59th street bridge, when it's far cheaper to park in Long Island City and take the train in. If they still want to drive in why shouldn't they pay for the privilege?

And yet somehow, much like Bloomberg's congestion pricing suggestion, it is being decried as a "tax on working people". Are they effing kidding me? Shall we even begin to compare the numbers of "working people" who would be affected by increased subway fares and reduced bus services to those who would be impacted by tolls or congestion fees? I'm going to put this in terms of a real-life example. I work in a midtown law office that has something like 67 employees. Of those 67, I know of TWO who will SOMETIMES drive in to work... and both of them are lawyers. EVERYONE ELSE uses some combination of public transportation, be it buses, subways, or other trains like the LIRR. So, a tax on working people? Uh, more like a tax on rich mf'ers who don't need to be clogging up midtown with their damn SUVs anyway.

The fact is that most New Yorkers who even own cars don't drive them into Manhattan; there is far too much traffic to make it a practical way to get to work on time, and once you're in town you'll be very lucky to pay less than $50 dollars to park for the work day. And if you consider $50 a reasonable expense to park for a day, are you seriously going to tell me that you can't afford an $8 congestion fee? Pardon me if I find that just a bit hard to swallow. The whole thing makes me wonder if the people who are crying "unfair!" aren't the very same people who would end up having to pay, lest they be forced to join us public-transportation-riding plebeians.

It seems that The Powers are vastly preferring the payroll tax. On its face it doesn't sound like a bad idea - until you consider that we're in the middle of a recession. Employers are laying people off left and right, and cutting benefits and freezing salaries of the employees they're keeping. So I'm not sure that levying a tax on the PAYROLL will exactly encourage hiring new employees, or even keeping the ones already on the rolls. Yes, the MTA needs money, because the cuts they're proposing are absurd and will make the city borderline unlivable for many, many people. But this option really does seem like a tax on working people - because employers will ALWAYS transfer a new cost to its employees if at all possible.

Since the announcement of the deficit, I have been thinking often about the first winter I spent in New York City: the winter of 2005. The MTA, declaring a budget surplus of over $900 million, decided that the best thing to do with the money was to offer discounted fares for the holiday season. I think I got some benefit out of it - two extra days of rides or some such. But still, my feeling on the matter was mainly, what the hell is wrong with you people? Have you seen your trains? Have you seen your stations? You must be joking! They were also stating that they'd have a deficit of practically the same number only two years later. So... what the hell could they have been thinking? I don't think we ever quite figured it out.

Well, the MTA employees didn't seem to like the plan much either, and during the discounted time they went on strike - beginning on December 20, 2005. Compared to two previous strikes which respectively lasted 12 and 11 days, the two-day 2005 strike was pretty weak. But it was enough to make the city a whole new landscape amidst the ice and snow of that December. Of course, the reasons for the strike were ridiculous - pay increases for people already making over $50,ooo a year? Cry me a river. The strike was so short lived largely because their union did not support them.

When the discounts were announced, I got in lengthy debates about whether or not they were worthwhile. People, intelligent friends of mine whom I like and respect, were trying to argue that by effectively putting subway rides on sale, people would use the system more and it could be a net gain. To which I could only reply, uhhh, that's kind of like saying that if you make municipal water cheaper people will take more showers. It's a public service; people use it as they need it. Making it cheaper will save them a little tiny bit of money for the short while that the discount applies, but in the long run everyone loses. All they were really doing was losing the profit that could have been gained from all the Christmas shopping and tourism - those people were going to ride the subway regardless of what it cost.

Part of me is happy that other people also remember this little escapade. Part of me hates being right. Most of me just hopes that those who make decisions will free their collective heads from any and all orifices, and will find a way to do what's right for the REAL working people of New York City - those of us who depend on reliable subway and bus transportation to get to work each and every day.