By Philip Newman
Transit officials have approved drastic subway and bus system cuts because of a nearly $400 million deficit, but the new MTA chairman as well as several MTA board members appeared to suggest the possibility of a way out or at least mitigating the worst of the dreaded plan.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Jay Walder listened to an hour of public speakers, most of them pleading for a delay in the vote and scolding transit officials Dec. 16 and afterward said: “This is the beginning, not the end.”
“We may be able to look at it,” Walder said. “We may be able to do a little bit better.”
The board approved by a vote of 12-0 the proposal to shut down the W and Z subway lines, shorten the G and M lines, end service on at least 21 bus lines and end free MetroCards for schoolchildren.
“How low can you go?” asked City Councilman Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn), referring to the proposed end of free transit passes for schoolchildren. “What do you wanted to do? Have them jump the turnstiles and turn them into criminals?”
Queens Council members Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) and Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) assailed the cutback plan, especially the abolition of student passes.
Walder told the board members that “you are not being asked to make a final decision here today,” adding that public hearings in early 2010 and another vote were required before carrying out the cutbacks, which would not take place until July.
Walder also suggested that more could be done to reduce costs within the MTA.
“In the two months that I’ve been here, it’s apparent to me that we don’t operate in a way that ensures that every taxpayer dollar that we receive is being used as effectively as possible,” Walder said.
“In short, we need to take this place apart. We have 70,000 people working in this agency and 5,000 of them in administration is too many.”
The MTA board was obligated to vote Dec. 16 because the panel was required by law to come up with a balanced budget by the end of 2009.
Whatever the outcome, the vote was a blow to multitudes of straphangers, who saw the specter of longer waits between subway trains and buses, severely reduced service overnight and curtailed service for the disabled who depend on the Access-A-Ride program. In some cases, entire bus lines would no longer run on weekends.
Residents of the Rockaways in Queens would lose their rebate on tolls when using the Cross Bay Bridge and three lines of the Long Island Rail Road would lose trains.
The plan also includes a 10 percent pay cut for MTA management, including Walder, and 700 layoffs, most of them maintenance workers.
The bad news that forced the MTA to come up with the plan came in little more than a week earlier when Gov. David Paterson took back the state’s $143 million contribution to the agency and it was discovered that the revenue from a 12-county payroll tax for the MTA turned out to be $200 million less than predicted.
A judge also upheld an arbitration ruling that upheld a 11.5 percent pay raise for thousands of transit workers — a pay raise MTA officials said was more than the agency could afford.
The result was a $383 million deficit.
It was little more than a year ago that the MTA issued a “doomsday” plan of shutdowns and service cuts. But the cuts were never carried out because of a bailout by the state Legislature.
The Queens Civic Council called the plan “unthinkable” and said the coalition of more than 110 organizations “insists the MTA look at other parts of its budget.”
Could the Obama administration come to New York City’s rescue?
Federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood mentioned no figures but talked that way last week on NY1.
“This is a priority of President Obama,” LaHood said of mass transit, “and we’re willing to work with the state of New York, with the governor, with the mayor and the Legislature to make sure that New York has a first-rate transportation system.”
Reach contributing writer Philip Newman by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 136.