Newsday
March 5, 2010

At MTA, Light in Tunnel Is a Train Carrying Pain

Plan 1,000-Plus Layoffs

By ARI PAUL

Transit advocates at the end of last year sensed further service cuts like anxious subway passengers on the platform peering down the tunnel: they might not have seen the train coming, but knew it was only a matter of time.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board approved a doomsday budget last year that included the layoff of 700 New York City Transit workers— mostly Station Agents and Bus Operators—and the agency’s Chairman and CEO, Jay Walder, noted at the outset of 2010 that the state and MTA budgets actually looked grimmer than initially expected. The payroll mobility tax enacted last year to avert similar cuts, the agency said, has not realized enough revenue. The service cuts that the board approved would worsen, transit advocates surmised, and so would the job reductions.

   
 
The Chief-Leader/Michel Friang
 

IF YOU THINK IT’S BAD NOW. . . : Jay Walder, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Chairman and CEO, didn’t sugarcoat the financial situation of the agency, noting that the more-than 1,000 planned layoffs would help meet widening budget constraints, but that more cuts are sure to be needed down the line. ‘I sometimes feel like we’re running up a down escalator,’ he said.

Attrition Not Enough

Last week, the MTA announced that it would lay off more than 1,000 workers, half of them Station Agents, as well as non-union managers and administrators, noting that the concept of meeting revised budget constraints with attrition-based job reductions was no longer economically feasible.

During the MTA board meeting Feb. 24, Mr. Walder said “the sum of the shortfall for the MTA is $750 million, and it’s happening in just a few short months,” and that the growing financial problems justified his plan to “permanently reduce our cost structure.”

What’s more, he warned, more austerity measures are sure to be on the way.

“As painful as all this is—and there’s nothing easy about anything that we’ve just said—we’re far from out of the woods,” he said. “So we’re pursuing aggressively every idea that we’ve talked about. We’re cutting our overtime, we’re consolidating functions, we’re re-working all of our supplier contracts, and we are looking at our material, at our inventory and finding better ways to be able to control that. Every one of those pieces will provide some savings. What we don’t know is whether or not they’re enough.”

     
The Chief-Leader/Michel Friang  
PUTTING IN HIS TWO CENTS: Norman Seabrook, organized labor’s voting member on the MTA board, urged the agency to lobby lawmakers in New Jersey and Connecticut to put a two-cent tax on gasoline that would subsidize the MTA and at the same time encourage commuters to use public transit rather than drive.

 

He added, “I sometimes feel like we’re running up a down escalator.”

Won’t Dip Into Stimulus

Mr. Walder has defended the cuts as necessary in fixing the budget, rejecting the so-called Russianoff Plan — named for Straphangers Campaign leader Gene Russianoff — that would have the agency use 10 percent of Federal stimulus funding for operational use rather than keep it all in the capital budget. He has said that any shifting of money from capital expenses to operations would inevitably erode the condition of the transit system.

Correction Officers Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook, an MTA board member, proposed last week that the agency lobby lawmakers in New Jersey and Connecticut to impose a new two-cent gas tax to bring in new revenues.

“I think that would not only take the MTA out of the hole that it’s in, but I think it would also provide additional money for the State of New Jersey, additional money for the State of Connecticut. It would provide additional money for the City of New York,” he said.

Mr. Seabrook said such a tax would encourage more people to take public transportation and “it would give people the opportunity to save their jobs.”

Preferable to Job, Pass Cuts

The voting labor member of the board added that the job cuts and the elimination of free MetroCards for students would have profound social repercussions.

“A child that’s not going to school because he or she doesn’t have a bus pass or a train pass is going to walk from wherever it is, six blocks, eight blocks, 10 blocks, going to wait a few minutes, going to hop the subway, police officer’s going to arrest him, he’s not going to answer his summons, he’s going to want to become a police officer,or correction officer or a firefighter five years from now, a warrant’s going to pop up, he’s not going to get the job, and it’s just going to create such a nightmare in this state, it’s going to be kind of difficult to repair,” Mr. Seabrook said.

Transport Workers Union Local 100 officials are outraged by the Station Agent layoffs, and they endorse the Russianoff plan, saying that enough capital dollars could be shifted to avert layoffs and some of the service cuts without causing a significant problem for renovating and upgrading the system.

‘Going to Take It on the Chin’

“This has been on the table since 2008 and we’ve been warning our members since 2008 about it,” said Paul Piazza, a Station Agent and Local 100 executive board member, about the layoffs. “At one point we thought it was safe because of some deals made in Albany, but now they’re declaring a financial emergency and we’re going to take it on the chin, as usual.”

The MTA has argued that Station Agent jobs are being made redundant with the mechanized MetroCard systems, though Mr. Piazza countered that Station Agents provide help for passengers with directions and with operating the machines, and play a vital security role in the subways.

“They don’t have enough [transit police officers]. Cameras can only record a crime, not prevent a crime,” he said. “I wouldn’t let my family go down there without a Station Agent in the booth.”

Mr. Piazza said that this was especially necessary when the public is concerned about terrorism on the subway. Noting that terror suspect Najibullah Zazi pleaded guilty in Brooklyn Federal court Feb. 22 to charges of plotting a subway bombing, Mr. Piazza added, borrowing the MTA’s oft-advertised phrase, “Who’s going to see something and say something if this guy comes back?”

PBA: ‘A Deterrent to Crime’

The main NYPD union believes transit cops need the back-up from Station Agents to secure the subways. Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch said in a statement, “There are 6,000 fewer police officers today than in 2001 and that shortage has seriously reduced staffing in precincts, transit districts and housing public service areas. Station Agents not only serve as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the police, but are a visible deterrent to crime by their mere presence. Laying off Station Agents without increasing police presence will most certainly make subway stations more dangerous.”

Local 100 has long stated that the MTA needs to meet the yawning budget gap by trimming its managerial operations, and while the current staff cuts include a 15-percent reduction in the administrative payroll and what an agency statement called “deeper cuts at MTA headquarters,” Mr. Piazza said it still needs to do more.

“That means they’re going to cut the guy in the mailroom and the secretary,” he said. “They’re not going to cut the plethora of General Managers and very high-salaried employees that they have.”