Under Sander, How “Bloated and Wasteful” Is the MTA?

sander.jpgPhoto: Brad Aaron

A Monday editorial from Crain’s questioned the wisdom of sacrificing MTA head Lee Sander as part of any transit rescue plan, as rumors swirl that Governor David Paterson wants Marc Shaw to return to the agency’s top spot.

While making the seemingly obvious argument that maintaining a healthy transit system is vital to the region’s economy, the piece (behind the Crain’s pay wall) lays blame on the Pataki administration — during which Shaw previously served as MTA CEO — for having "loaded up the MTA with debt that’s now coming home to roost."

[Sander] has become a target for those who believe the MTA is bloated
and wasteful. In truth, Mr. Sander has wisely streamlined
operations and cut costs in his two years in the post. He hasn’t solved
all of the MTA’s problems. Who could in such a short time? And he hasn’t been
the most effective politician in selling what he has done. But is that
really a fault? Shouldn’t the job go to a seasoned transportation
professional rather than a politician?

We asked MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan about cost-cutting measures
initiated under Sander. The list is pretty extensive. Donovan points to the following efficiencies imposed "even as demand is at levels not seen since the early 1950s": elimination of 410 administrative positions;
establishment of Regional Bus Operations, merging three companies into one; creation of a Business Service Center to "consolidate duplicative back office functions"; assignment of managers to oversee individual subway lines;
formation of a blue-ribbon panel to "encourage competition and increase
bidding on capital construction projects"; and increases in advertising
revenue "from $38 million in 1997 to $125 million in 2008."

In addition, says Donovan:

Budget increases in recent years have come from uncontrollable factors
like increases in debt service, which cost the MTA $793 million in 2002
and is projected to rise to $2.3 billion by 2012. But we are
successfully trimming the expenses that we have control over. From 2004
to 2007, the MTA reduced its controllable costs by five percent. Building on that
reduction, Lee Sander called on the MTA and its agencies to cut our
budgets by six percent over four years. As the economic picture has
darkened, he accelerated that six percent cut so that it is now required to take
place over three years instead of four. All told, these cuts will
result in a cumulative 11 percent budget cut.

Crain’s editors also called on local business leaders — Republicans in particular — as well as the Real Estate Board of New York, to get behind the "fair and equitable" Ravitch plan to bolster MTA finances.

Do the likes of, say, Carl Kruger, care about Sander’s streamlining efforts as long as they can continue to cast the MTA as the villain of the funding debacle?

  • Somebody has to play the sacrificial lamb–especially for the ignorant public who place all the blame for this mess on the MTA. And lawmakers aren’t interested in any “facts” and “figures” that make their sacrifice look good, either.

  • There is no doubt in my book that specifically buses have been running extraordinarily better the last few years than I remember in my whole life. I have seen much more regular and on-time buses as well as less bus bunching.

    Chalk that up as one for experts vs. political cronies (or whatever Kalikow was).

    I feel like the MTA needs two leaders – one as the expert that really does the job, and a smooth-talking well connected salesperson to meet with legislators and the media.

  • BTW – Nice to see AD’s name on Streetsblog again.

  • The NYC transit system is not just critical to the regions economy, it’s critical to the nation’s economy, which in turn is critical to the global economy. Where NYC goes, so does the rest of the country. Where the USA goes, so does much of the rest of the world. Economic headlines over the last year have made this abundantly clear by now.

  • Utterly immaterial: on my ride to work this a.m. I saw Sander crossing 55th St. at 6th Ave.

    He looked like he had a lot on his mind (seriously).

  • NotReally

    But what money have those “cost-cutting” measures actually saved? MTA operating expenses are still rising, despite all that alleged parsimony. Lee’s stock in trade is shuffling around boxes on an org chart and pretending it does some good. It’s what he has done in every operational job he has had, as anyone who knows him from his NYCDOT, NYSDOT, or earlier MTA gigs could tell you.

    By many accounts from people within the MTA I’ve spoken to, nothing has changed with his methods, and he has not done anything to improve the authority’s financial health. How many of you can say that your transit experience has improved since Lee took over? I certainly can’t.

    He took over a large, out of control organization fraught with problems, so there’s a limit to how much blame he should get. However, I think it would be very difficult to find anyone who has actually dealt with Sander who has a positive opinion of him as an administrator/manager. He’s a nice enough guy, knows all the transpo policy buzzwords, and his heart is in the right place. But, he is not competent to run a major operation. Not to say that Shaw is any better (City OMB? OMG!), but Sander’s departure has never been any great loss to any organization he has been a part of.

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