Category Archives: new york city transit

MTA Signals: Can Technology Save Us From Politics?

Most of those who will read this post know the financial issues with New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.  Decades ago, funding for the agency’s capital plan was cut, and some capital funds were diverted to the operating budget as “reimbursable expenditures.” At the same time, effective fares were cut when the Metrocard was introduced, and current and – in particular former – MTA workers benefitted from a huge pension increase in 2000. The cost of capital construction contracts soared, due to pension increases for union construction workers and managers, and construction union pension underfunding, at about the same time.  It was a political win for everyone – who is no longer around.  The cost of all of this was borrowed or deferred, and today much of the money being paid to the MTA, in taxes, tolls and fares, is being sucked into the past.

As the years pass, meanwhile, major systems and components of the subway and commuter rail network continue to age, and eventually reach the point where they will either have to be replaced or start to fail and disrupt service more and more frequently.  Perhaps to the point where entire lines have to be abandoned for years or decades, as two tracks on the Manhattan Bridge were.  Or permanently, as the West Side Highway was.  One of those systems is the signal system on the New York City subway, which is aging even as the cost of replacing the signaling on a line has exploded.  The plan had been to gradually replace conventional railroad signaling with Communications Based Train Control (CBTC).   But after decades of borrowing the MTA Capital plan came to a near halt after the Great Recession, and compared with the plans in place 17 years ago the MTA is way behind, without any hope, at recent prices, of ever being able to catch up.  Can technology provide a way out?

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The National Transit Database: Comparative Operating Cost and Fare Revenue Trends from 2008 to 2018

It has been just under three years since I last downloaded and tabulated data from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database.

https://larrylittlefield.wordpress.com/2017/05/11/metro-ny-transit-costs-data-from-the-2015-national-transit-database/

Since the data is published every year, I have long hoped that some other organization would use the data and publish reports showing what it says, having someone else to it as part of their job.  That hope increased after the New York Times used the data as part of its series on the New York City Subway.   And after Governor Cuomo directed the MTA to hire a consultant to study “MTA Reinvention.”  Moreover, the NTD now includes a spreadsheet titled “Metrics” with almost all the basic cost and service efficiency ratios one might want to see. As of the date of this post that spreadsheet for 2018 is on page 2 (tab at the page bottom), though it will be moving down as 2019 data is published.

https://www.transit.dot.gov/ntd/ntd-data

There has been, however, no public discussion of what National Transit Database data shows about New York’s transit system since the NY Times articles.   So rather than allow this information to remain among the unsaid, I decided to at least analyze the operating budget.  (I’m not sure there really is a capital budget, since under the prior MTA capital plan, regardless of what officially passed, most of the money never actually arrived and most of the work was never actually done).

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The Sold Out Future By State Analysis Reprised

About a year ago I published an analysis based on U.S. Census Bureau government finances data, for all states and all available years from 1972 to 2016, that showed the extent to which each state’s future (with New York City and the rest of NY State analyzed separately, and the District of Columbia also included) has been sold out. Sold out by past decisions, non-decisions, deals and favors with regard to state and local government debt, past infrastructure investment, and under funded and/or retroactively increased public employee pensions.  The analysis was well received, and best of all many people downloaded the spreadsheet with all the data for all 50 states, all the tables, and almost all of the charts.  I always put up a post encouraging people to download the spreadsheets, look at the data themselves, and make up their own minds before reading my subsequent posts and getting my take on it. Generally people had downloaded charts, but not spreadsheets.  Last year that changed.

What I had forgotten last year, however, but have since remembered, is the multi-step process needed to put readable tables, in JPEG format, into the posts on WordPress.   So this year I added the tables to the posts I just completed on state and local government employment and payroll data from the 2017 Census of Governments, and I found that many people had downloaded them.  I don’t know why some people might prefer pictures of numbers to actual numbers, but apparently some people do.  So I plan to rectify last year’s omission of tables – except for people who downloaded the spreadsheet — from the Sold Out Futures posts with a brief reprise.   The data shows that while the blame for our sold out future is widely shared, New York City’s past taxpayers are the most the most blameless in the entire United States.  And New York City’s public employee unions and contractors have been the most unfair to other city residents.  And nowhere else is even close.

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Infrastructure: Census of Governments Employment and Payroll Data for 2017

This series of posts based on Census of Governments state and local government employment and payroll data for March 2017 (and 2007 and 1997) continues with a post on infrastructure functions:  highways and streets, mass transit, air transportation, water transportation, government-run electric and gas utilities, water supply, sewerage, and solid waste management.  Along with related private sector activity.  When I joined New York City Transit out of graduate school in 1986, I was told it was the largest industrial/blue collar employer in New York City.  It probably still is, with the other functions described adding as many blue collar jobs, and jobs with contractors many more.

In the past 10 years or so, subway riders have experienced a drastic decrease in their quality of life despite rising fares, relative to the very low inflation of the period.  This is something I have attributed to costs from the past – the big pension increase in 2000, with huge costs deferred until later, and decades of zero state and city funding for the MTA capital plan, with money borrowed instead.  But after reviewing the data for these functions, I have begun to wonder if even worse is coming. And not just at the MTA. But we will have water!

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Census of Governments Employment and Payroll Data for March 2017 (1997 and 2007)

The U.S Census Bureau conducts a Census of Governments every five years on the employment, payroll, revenues, expenditures, assets and debts of every state and local government in the country. (State-level estimates for state and local government are released in other years).   The data is reported by government function (police, schools, parks, etc.)  The Bureau recently released its employment and payroll data for March 2017, and I have spent a considerable number of hours tabulating it to get it into usable form.

I now have spreadsheets that show local government full-time equivalent employment (full time workers plus part time workers converted into full time workers based on hours worked), by function, for the United States, New York City, other areas of the state, every county in New York State and New Jersey, and other states and counties elsewhere in the country selected for comparison.  This is expressed per 100,000 residents of each area.  Selected private sector industries that are either substantially government-funded (health and social services and infrastructure construction) or a substitute for government services (private schools and automobile-related industries) are shown on the same basis.  And local government payroll per worker of each area, expressed as a percent higher or lower than the U.S average for that function, and compared with the extent that an area’s private sector earnings per worker are higher and lower than the U.S. average.  Similar data is provided for state government in for U.S. as a whole, compared with New York State, New Jersey, and other states I consider relevant.  This is a process I will repeat for the finance phase of the 2017 Census of Governments, when it is released.

As is my custom, this post will simply provide the data in tables and spreadsheets, explain where it comes from and how I tabulated it, and provide a brief overview of trends in total state and local government employment and payroll.  Function-by-function posts, with the data reorganized and charts included, will follow.  Read this post to fully understand what you are seeing.  Download the spreadsheets and look at the numbers to decide for yourself what they mean, before getting my take on them.  I’ll write more when I can.  But anyone else is free to use this information right now.

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Sold Out Futures by State in 2016: Debt and Infrastructure

Debt and infrastructure investment are supposed to go together.   State and local governments have operating budgets and capital budgets, and constitutions and charters that say that while money may be borrowed for capital improvements, the operating budget is supposed to be balanced.

During the Generation Greed era, however, that isn’t what has happened. For the U.S. as a whole, total state and local government debt increased from 14.1% of U.S. residents’ personal income in FY 1981 to 22.7% in FY 2010, even as infrastructure investment diminished. This was a matter of generational values, not just a matter of government.  One finds the same trend in business – more debt, less investment – during the same years, with the short term high of having more taken out relative to the amount put in contributing to perpetual political incumbency and sky-high executive pay.  A generation, it seems, has decided to cash in the United States of America and spend to proceeds before it passes away.

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Why Is the Right Answer for the L Train the Wrong Answer for the BQE?

New York City and city residents are going to pay a high price for the 14-month L-train (Canarsie line tunnel) shutdown.  With limited and already crowded alternatives, commuting will become hellish for hundreds of thousand of people, including those on other subway lines that will be impacted indirectly.  Some will move to other neighborhoods, driving up rents and creating housing shortages there.  Others might give up and leave the city altogether, at a moment when the availability of workers, particularly young educated or otherwise talented workers, has become the critical economic development asset.  Businesses and tax revenues will follow.

Faced with this reality, there were plenty of really bad ideas considered before the 14-month shutdown was approved.  Some wanted to rehab one track at a time to continue to provide very limited service, increasing the cost and time required for the project far in excess of any benefit provided.  Others demanded a new tunnel be built instead, at a cost of $billions, to temporarily maintain service while the existing tunnels were rebuilt.  But most subway riders have a limited sense of entitlement and a realistic sense of what the city and state can afford, given other priorities that are also demanding more and more money in exchange for decreased public services, and have accepted the L train shutdown, bad as it will be.

Then there is the replacement of the BQE viaduct under Brooklyn Heights, another necessary but disruptive project.  The plan for this seems to have been developed on a different planet.  Planet placard.

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