I was a mass transit fan when mass transit wasn’t cool. My first job after graduate school was at New York City Transit, in logistics and inventory control in the mid-1980s, and I was a loyal transit rider for decades (though if I had gotten into bicycle transportation sooner, I might weigh 40 pounds less today). And I studied transit systems, read books about them, and after the development of the internet allowed those with similar interests but not much free time to communicate, made the acquaintance of other transit buffs and transit historians.
For much of the time from the late 1970s to today, metro New York’s rail transit system was on the upswing. Management improved, some of the worst labor abuses of the past were done away with (at least on the subway), and money was invested. As a result reliability improved, the inflation-adjusted cost per vehicle revenue hour fell until the mid-1990s, ridership increased and filled the trains, and the cost per rider fell even faster. Today ridership and revenues are vastly higher than 20 or 30 years ago on all major rail transit systems in metro New York, and those transit systems have been the engine of the New York Metro economy. If I and other transit buffs could go back in time 30 years, to the crime and grime and constant breakdowns of the 1980s, and know nothing of today other than how high ridership and transit revenues now are, what would we have thought the transit system would be like in 2017? We certainly would not have expected the disaster we seem to be facing. And collapsing systems despite soaring ridership are present elsewhere in the U.S. as well.
It has been a few years since I downloaded and compiled mass transit finance data from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database, so I redid the analysis to see if anything had changed since 2012. Boy, it sure has. Between 2012 and 2013, based on that data, the reported operating cost of the New York City subway soared by 27.2% in just one year, an increase of more than $1 billion. There were no similar spikes among other major transit agencies in Metro New York. Suddenly the share of the subway’s operating costs that is covered by the fare is merely somewhat better than Metro North and the Long Island Railroad, instead of much, much better. And the wages and benefits of NYC subway workers, per hour worked, are the second highest behind PATH among major U.S. rail systems, instead of lower than those of NYC bus workers.
I’m not saying the figures for either year are false. In fact, as you’ll read, I have a possible explanation. But the new figures sure solve a lot of political problems. For TWU head John Samuelsen, who came out of the bus division and might have been catching heat from subway workers. For Governor Cuomo and suburban politicians, who might have been catching heat for the vastly higher level of subsidy for the suburbs. And for LIRR workers and their unions, who might have been concerned that featherbedding and graft would become more of a public issue, despite their control of – actually I’m not sure which politicians they control. But let’s take a look at what the data now shows, for 2015 and over the past 25 years. This post will cover operating costs, and the next one revenues.
“The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money” – Margret Thatcher in 1976
“The problem with capitalism is that given enough inequality, eventually businesses trying to sell things run out of other people’s money” — Larry Littlefield, 2016
For 35 years, generations of Americans born after 1957 or so have been paid less but sold more, with the difference covered first by more household members in the workforce, then by inadequate requirement savings, and then by soaring public and private debt. The richest and most entitled generations in U.S. history worked hard and were very creative, but they over-consumed what even they were able to produce and expected too many years in retirement with too little in savings, at the expense of the poorer generations that have followed them. With some members of those generations grabbing far more than the others. With too much money in too few hands, the whole world economy has become dependent on Americans spending more than they had. And since America finally started to go broke with millions retiring into poverty, the world economy has faced a global crisis of demand.
When you put all the trends together, as I have below, it adds to a shocking picture that puts every current debate in context. Today’s young adults paid less than Generation Greed was paid at the same age in 1975, and forced by government policy to pay more for housing. Life expectancy falling. Personal and federal debts once again soaring, all the mistakes of the 2000s being repeated. Topping it off, we now have Donald Trump as President. Does this mean that the U.S. is finally prepared to admit, face and tackle its problems? Or does it mean that the most over-privileged and entitled members of the most over-privileged and entitled generations in U.S. history are just grabbing more, in one last economy orgy before the final collapse?
If there is one thing that virtually every public policy commentator and politician seems to believe, it is that more should be spent on infrastructure. And yet the direction of public policy has been in the exact opposite direction, with maintenance often unfunded or funded by debts that now soak up a large share of revenues dedicated to roads, bridges, airports, and transit, water and sewer systems. The trend has been at its worst in the Northeast. And as costs from the past, including pension funding and debt service, increased between FY 2004 and FY 2014, expenditures on the future – on the infrastructure – decreased when measured per $1,000 of personal income. It’s a trend that, according to anecdotal evidence, continues to this day, with consequences that continue to appear over time as the sold out future becomes the present.
In the 1990s there was an improving statistic that was as central to New York City’s turnaround as the decrease in the crime rate: the increase in mean distance between failures (MDBF) on the New York City subway. This figure, which measures how long the average subway car goes before it breaks down in service, is considered a key measure of the overall health of a railroad.
In any statistic there are random variations, in part due to temporary unusual conditions. That’s why a one-month increase or decrease in the crime rate, compared with a year earlier, or a one-year increase or decrease in school test scores, doesn’t really mean much. Once a trend is really established, however, it ought to be news. Which is why I was shocked to find, in the MTA Board materials, that MDBF has been falling for three years, not on a one-month basis but on a 12 month moving average basis. The decrease is now significant enough to affect service as people experience it, and may mark the start of a significant downward spiral for the system.
One of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s best innovations, from a truth telling point of view, was the introduction of a table in NYC budget documents that shows how much different government functions actually cost us. By allocating pension, fringe benefit and debt service costs to the different agencies. And by deducting federal and state aid that merely passed through the city’s budget, allowing everyone to see the money the city actually has to pay for in local taxes and fees for different functions. With a New York Democratic Administration coming back in, with an assumed attitude that what the serfs don’t know they don’t deserve to know, I wondered how far it would dare to go to restore the prior level of obfuscation.
The answer is that the Bloomberg table remains for the proposed budget, if in a stripped down format. But the identical tables for the prior fiscal year or two, and the change between the prior fiscal year and the current one, and the current one and the budget proposal, have been removed. So there is no longer an easy way to see what is changing. And yet the budget documents from prior fiscal years are still up on the website of the city’s Office of Management and Budget. Someone is apparently counting on the unwillingness of the City Hall press core and various pundits to type the data from the tables – only available in PDF format — into a spreadsheet, check it once or twice, and examine the results. I did so, however, and found that according to the Mayor’s optimistic estimate of NYC residents’ personal income in FY 2017, it will have increased 14.5% (adjusted for inflation) from FY 2007. And according to the Mayor’s budget proposal, NYC spending will have increased 23.8%, and city-funded spending will have increased by 29.9%.
There are places in this country, generally rural areas, where people don’t get very much from state and local government other than schools, state police, and a road. Instead of public water and sewer, they have private wells and cesspools. Instead of municipal garbage pickup and disposal, they have to take their trash to the dump or pay someone else to do it. Instead of public libraries and parks, they have their own books and backyards. And, as in most of the country, there is no mass transit, no roads that are safe to bicycle or walk, not even many shared rides. Drive your own vehicle or be stranded.
New York City is, at least or based on its state and local tax burden and charges for services ought to be, the complete opposite of this. It has municipal water, sewer, solid waste pick-up, and mass transit. Highly developed at a high density, with most people having small or no private yards, city residents rely on public parks and related facilities for exercise and recreation. And the city has a network of public libraries, most within walking distance, even as most information shifts to the internet. One would, therefore, expect New York City’s public employment in these categories to be higher than the U.S. average. But how much higher? And is this fair value compared with what people could purchase themselves?