These are not the best of times for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The economy has been slow to pull out of recession. The payroll mobility tax -- meant to make up for recession-lost revenues -- is stalled by litigation. Tough contract talks are looming, and fares and tolls could rise at triple the rate of inflation in the next three years.
But this much is certain in a dicey and turbulent era: The MTA remains an irresistible honey pot for some Long Island Rail Road employees.
MTA Inspector General Barry Kluger released a report last week documenting wanton waste, lax supervision and systemic performance problems in the railroad's Structural Maintenance Division, which is charged with keeping stations, bridges and other facilities in repair.
Among his findings:
At the Great Neck station, it took a crew 115 working days and 5,677 labor hours over six months to repair a staircase at a cost in labor alone of $261,000. Kluger says the job should have taken 21/2 months with 2,500 in labor hours at a cost of $98,000. He says workers arrived late at the site and left early. Yet when questioned, their supervisor couldn't say why the project took so long to finish. Here's one hint: On at least 13 mornings, the LIRR vehicle tracking system found the crew spending time -- 20 to 30 minutes -- at a Bayside delicatessen.
On Thompson Shore Road in Manhasset, another crew replaced about 1,000 feet of chain-link fencing. The job should have taken seven days. But in fact, says the inspector general, it took five weeks. This crew, too, typically arrived late and left early. And it used a manual posthole digger instead of power equipment to set fence posts, a method Kluger calls inefficient and time-consuming.
At the Deer Park station, workers replaced aluminum stairs on eastbound and westbound platforms between mid-March and early July of 2011. But they lost 334 labor hours with late arrivals and early departures, and the project weighed in with a labor cost of $84,396.
This kind of behavior fits a pattern within the LIRR.
The result pushes up costs and forces fare-paying riders to cover the extra freight.
Another example of this behavior is the LIRR pension scandal. So far, say prosecutors, 32 individuals have been charged in the massive fraud scheme, which involves LIRR workers who allegedly claimed disabilities upon early retirement to win pension benefits from the federal Railroad Retirement Board that they weren't entitled to have.
Had it not been detected, the scheme might have forced the board to pay out $1 billion in unwarranted benefits, say authorities. That would have raised the LIRR's pension contributions, and riders would ultimately have borne the cost.
Here's a question that Joseph Lhota, the MTA's chairman and chief executive, needs to ask: Can anything besides relentlessly vigilant enforcement turn around such bad behavior by its workers? Cooked time sheets and willful pension fraud are not victimless acts.
As New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli noted last week when he released a report on the MTA's financial outlook: The planned fare and toll increases will put "a burden on working men and women across the metropolitan region."
That's bad enough. But to intensify the financial burden for commuters with corner-cutting and other forms of money-burning waste is outrageous. If it can happen at the LIRR, it can likely happen anywhere in the system.
With 65,000 employees, the MTA oversees New York City's subway and bus system, the Metro-North commuter railroad, two tunnels and seven toll bridges, in addition to the LIRR.
Its mission now is to stop these employees from taking the public for a ride.