MTA report: LIRR crews wasting time, money

A pedestrian walks across train tracks at a A pedestrian walks across train tracks at a common crossing in Patchogue. (Aug. 29, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/Amanda Voisard

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Long Island Rail Road work crews start their days too late, end them too early and waste a lot of time and money in completing even routine construction projects, according to a report issued Wednesday by the MTA's internal watchdog.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority Inspector General Barry Kluger's office analyzed worker productivity at three recent construction projects -- staircase replacements at the Great Neck and Deer Park stations, and a fence installation in Manhasset.

In addition to starting late and leaving early, crew members also claimed time-and-a-half pay for working through lunch breaks even though there was no reason for the extra work, investigators reported.

At the Great Neck project, investigators found thousands of hours and "more than $160,000 were wasted through lax supervision of the crew."

The problems "appear to be systemic," the report said.

In Deer Park, investigators reported crews spent 13 percent of their time somewhere other than the work site. And in Manhasset, 13 percent of the total hours of labor were lost because "crew members left their headquarters late and returned early."

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The inspector general's office made a variety of recommendations for the LIRR, including developing work performance standards and tighter supervisory controls. The railroad accepted all of the recommendations, and managers have already met with supervisors about new procedures, according to the report.

Kluger's office was "encouraged by LIRR's response, but will monitor its implementation of our recommendations," the report said.

LIRR president Helena Williams Wednesday called the findings "troubling to the hardworking and dedicated employees at the LIRR."

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"The railroad has been working closely with the MTA inspector general to put in place new procedures and management oversight to make certain every construction job is properly supervised and completed in an efficient manner," Williams said in a statement. "We expect our employees to put in a full day of work for a full day's pay. Anything less is unacceptable."

Anthony Simon -- general chairman of the United Transportation Union Local 645, which represents the workers investigated by Kluger's office -- said the report found "isolated inefficiencies," but he added that he was confident improvements would be made as needed.

Chuck Brecher, research director of the Citizens Budget Commission, a Manhattan-based watchdog group, said "it remains to be seen" whether the LIRR's response to the report will make a difference.

"On one level, workers goofing off is not unexpected. But the notion that there's this degree of acceptance and collusion by the supervisors is particularly shocking," Brecher said. "They say they're going to change that, but you have to wonder about the organizational culture."

At Great Neck, crews took 115 days over six months to complete the project, using 5,677 hours of labor and costing the LIRR $261,000, according to the report. The inspector general's office concluded that the project could have been finished in 2.5 months, using 2,500 hours of labor with a price of $98,000 -- 62 percent less than what was spent.

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"The supervisor in charge of the project could not adequately explain why the staircase replacement at Great Neck took so long to complete," the report said.

Time also was wasted by using inefficient methods and tools, including digging holes with a manual posthole digger instead of power equipment. That made the fencing project take about twice as long as needed, the report said. At Great Neck, workers used manual tools to demolish an old staircase.

But Kluger's office said it was difficult to determine how much time was lost because project costs are "never calculated and progress is not tracked."

The inspector general recommended that the LIRR set clearly defined and enforced expectations for worker arrival and departure times, have supervisors use vehicle monitoring technology to check crews' arrival and departure times and begin using common management tools -- including status reports, schedules and budgets.

"It's extremely disturbing that in this day and age, when every consumer is watching every dollar, that the Long Island Rail Road's and the MTA's productivity performance is failing and wasting time and money," said State Sen. Charles Fuschillo (R-Merrick), who chairs his chamber's Transportation Committee.

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The report is proof that the MTA "still has a long way to go" in convincing the public that it is making the most of taxpayer dollars, Fuschillo said.

The report acknowledged that five- or six-person crews are dispersed over 700 miles of track, but noted that "the small size of these crews and their widespread geographical area . . . do not have to be obstacles to effective supervision, provided that appropriate steps are taken to address the weaknesses that we identified."

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