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 worker if even worse is coming. And not just at the MTA. But we will have water!
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.
Four years ago I did an analysis of state and local government finance data from the U.S. Census Bureau, for all states and for New York City and the Rest of New York State separately, with data over 40 years, to determine the extent to which each state’s future had been sold out due to state and local government debts, inadequate past infrastructure investment, and underfunded and retroactively enriched public employee pensions. Having a sold out future means having a future of higher state and local government taxes, diminished public services, and lower pay and benefits for newly hired public employees, and that is what many parts of the United States – most, in reality – are facing.
Over the past month I have re-created that analysis with data through FY 2016, the latest available, rather than just FY 2012, while adding some details. This post and the next three will show what I found.
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.
I worked in capital budgeting for New York City Transit in the early 2000s, and was shocked to see the price of capital projects soar — despite a recession. The MTA’s construction costs have continue to soar ever since, contributing to the agency’s $41 billion in debt and deteriorating infrastructure, and this has become a political issue since the New York Times series on the decline of the subway late last year. Recently, MTA head Joe Lhota promised to implement reforms to reduce those costs.
“On some projects the MTA has shelled out seven times more money than European transit agencies have paid for similar initiatives. Lhota said the agency is working to reduce red tape and the high risk that causes contractors to inflate their bids on MTA projects or not bid at all. In theory, increased competition would drive down costs.”
Or at least admitted costs, since “reducing contractor risk” means reducing the MTA’s ability to get restitution when the contractors fail to perform.
What I didn’t know back in 2004, but have since learned, is that the MTA’s contractors have been jacking up their bids in large part not to pay for current workers doing current construction, but rather to pay for the underfunded construction union pension plans. This is something the MTA isn’t talking about, because both the construction unions and the real estate industry, two of the most politically powerful interests in New York, each benefit from the shift at that private debt to the public sector in general, and the MTA in particular.
One of the depressing aspects of reading the book Greater Gotham is seeing, summarized in one place, how a generation built much of the infrastructure and created most of the institutions that make New York City what it has been and is today. What a generation! Most of the firsts – the Brooklyn Bridge, Central and Prospect Parks, the first Croton Aqueduct and Reservoir, the first rapid transit lines, etc. had been built before the consolidation of the five boroughs into the City of New York in 1898. But after consolidation public investment went into a massive overdrive. One in stark contrast with the past 20 years, when despite addition of 600,000 jobs, 1 million people, and $billions in additional tax revenues, the city and state have failed expand the city’s infrastructure significantly and, in the case of the subway, failed to adequately maintain the infrastructure that already existed. That infrastructure and public amenities such as parks and libraries had been cash cowed and left to rot by the generations that departed to the suburbs, partially restored in a revival that few expected at the time (thanks to the best of another generation), but then left to rot once again by those same sorts of people who wrecked the city to start with, and who still control the state government, notably the state legislature.
But how many people are employed allowing New York City to fall apart, at the highest state and local government tax burden (excluding taxes on oil, gas and mineral extraction) in the country, while attempting to defer the consequences until another generation of insiders can retire to tax-free Florida? This post will use data from the Governments Division of the U.S. Census Bureau, and Employment and Wages data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to find out with regard to transportation.
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.