A train's whistle just gets louder as it roars down the tracks, and this unmistakable signal of danger is getting more shrill every day as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority speeds toward a frightening budget gap.
The MTA has been perpetually close to going off the fiscal rails. This deep recession, however, has widened the budget hole to $760 million, a gap that no one can mind unless there are major cultural changes in the massive bureaucracy and its workforce.
MTA chief Jay Walder came on the job in October with the expectation that he would be the fiscal wizard tough enough to make a difference. In his first six months he cut the bloat at headquarters by 20 percent, designed a plan to consolidate back yard services between the Long Island Rail Road and Metro North, and renegotiated contracts with the authority's 50 largest vendors. Some 140 projects were eliminated from the operating budget - among them, justifiably, $3 million to replace the armrests that have torn the pockets of some suburban riders.
That still wasn't enough to stop the bleeding. Walder made deep service cuts on the commuter lines, subways and buses, and dramatically shrunk funding for the MTA's five-year capital plan down to two years.
There were few options. State support, never adequate, was cut by $143 million this year. The legislature tried to find another honeypot for the authority, but revenue from the unpopular payroll tax it enacted is down more than $200 million - 25 percent - below projection. Walder needed to slash wherever he could to send the message that he has no choice but to turn to the MTA's unionized workforce, where the real money lies.
Walder wants a workforce that is fairly paid and well trained so they are invested in the public safety and reliability of the system. So do we all. Good jobs are important for the local economy.
But the MTA's unions show no sign of realizing that the piggy bank is empty. Last year, the Transit Workers Union won an arbitration that awarded them an 11.5 percent increase over three years, while also freeing them from a previously negotiated provision that the workers contribute 10 percent of their health care costs.
The MTA lost an initial legal challenge to the arbitration, but it is pursuing part of the case on appeal. However, LIRR unions - which start negotiations this summer - are also expecting a 4 percent per year increase. It's difficult to see how those generous contract terms can be duplicated. There is certainly little public support for workers who pad their pensions with overtime just before retirement and then easily collect additional disability benefits as soon as they leave their jobs.
Even before the LIRR sits down at the table it should make a determined effort at changing the culture of entitlement. Antiquated work rules that rig overtime and can quadruple a salary and inflate a pension should be eliminated. While some rules might have to be negotiated, there are many past practices that have just been barnacled into place.
Doing the same thing, the same way costs the MTA well north of $500 million a year in overtime. While some overtime is always necessary in any workforce, a recent state audit found that 5 percent of the employees earn 30 percent of the overtime. Clamping down on the overtime is critical to the MTA's budget balancing.
The money woes of the MTA are not only damaging the current levels of service, they are also threatening Long Island's future growth.
In shrinking the 2010-2014 capital plan by $2 billion, Walder and LIRR president Helena Williams sensibly made continuation of East Side Access a priority. That will allow LIRR riders a direct route to Grand Central Terminal by 2015.
Long Island's rail future to the east, however, was stymied. Disappointingly, construction of a second track on the main line between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma won't start until after 2014. Only its design phase is being funded in the current plan.
As a result, there will be no progress on developing a new LIRR station in Farmingdale, which was to be the hub of new commercial and residential development along Route 110.
Williams says the railroad couldn't afford those projects and still meet a federal requirement to install a collision avoidance system by 2015. We have already called upon the Long Island congressional delegation to get the LIRR a waiver. The $350-million system the federal government wants is already 20-year-old technology, and it will be obsolete before it's installed.
If it does win an exception, however, the LIRR should make it a first priority to use that money to resurrect the Ronkonkoma double track and the Farmingdale station projects.
Even with all the cutbacks, the MTA is planning a 7.5 percent fare hike in January, one that might even come sooner if the budget gap can't be closed.
The MTA is confronted by taxpayers who refuse to pay more and employees who refuse to do more or take less. Walder is left trying to stop a runaway train in an election year, with little political support coming from Albany.
Can't we hear the whistle blowing. hN