Twenty-One NYC Reps Back Brodsky’s Student Fare Falsehood

On Friday we noted that Assembly Member Richard Brodsky’s latest anti-transit argument — that "the actual cost of free and discounted student fares is close to zero" — doesn’t hold water. A letter from Brodsky addressed to MTA CEO Jay Walder calls for reinstating student MetroCards, laying blame for the program’s potential elimination at the MTA’s feet while neglecting to mention Albany’s leading role in reducing funds for student transport

Brodsky’s office sent us a copy of the letter [PDF], which is copied in full below. Among its 24 signatories, the overwhelming majority represent New York City:

Dear Hon. Walder,

We write to you as long-standing advocates for mass transit funding, as those who have regularly supported state funding for the MTA’s capital and operating needs, and as those who represent students and parents across the MTA region.  We understand the continuing difficulties caused by the national recession, and the difficult decisions you are making as a consequence.  We believe that we share a desire to reform, expand, and improve the MTA, even as new leadership takes over, and as PARA 2009 makes real changes in legal, operational and fiduciary practices at the MTA. 

That being said, we write to make sure you understand the depth of our concern about MTA plans to end free and discounted student travel.  We cannot criticize any exercise that reviews all MTA expenditures and services in the face of the economic downturn.  But we reject any decision by the MTA to end free and discounted student travel as an element of a final package of changes. 

We reject that decision because it is not an accurate or intelligent analysis of the MTA’s fisc [sic]. While the MTA asserts it needs $214 million in additional state and city aid to preserve the program, the actual cost of free and discounted student fares is close to zero.  We reject the MTA’s assertion that the program must be valued at the ostensible lost revenue, and point out that state and city funding for the program actually exceeds the cost of providing the service. 

We reject that decision because it is a dangerous, unfair, and self-defeating political tactic. We understand the use of political tactics in budget controversies.  But there are limits, and the decision to put students and families out there as a pawn in the struggle to increase City and State funding crosses a line.

Simply stated, we ask that you immediately withdraw the threat to student fares, that you review the actual cost of the program across the MTA region, that you ensure that all students in the region be treated equally, and that you work with us to develop a fairer, clearer, and more successful negotiating strategy to get the MTA more money. For better of worse, this issue is becoming a defining moment for transit advocates in and out of the Legislature. In the spirit of fairness and cooperation, we ask for a timely response to this letter.

Best wishes,

Richard Brodsky

Michael Benedetto

Michael Benjamin

Jonathan Bing

James Brennan

Marcos Crespo

Jeffrey Dinowitz

Carl Heastie

Andrew Hevesi

Micah Kellner

Rory Lancman

Joseph Lentol

Margaret Markey

Grace Meng

Joan Millman

Audrey Pheffer

Peter Rivera

Linda Rosenthal

Michael Spano

Fred Thiele Jr.

Matthew Titone

Carmen Arroyo

Vivian Cook

Rhoda Jacobs

The only signatories who do not represent New York City districts are Brodsky and Spano, who represent Westchester, and Thiele, who represents Suffolk.

  • Larry Littlefield

    James Brennan. Ugh. When I got fed up enough to run against this non-entity in 2004, the NY Times wrote that unless your state legislator was a real reformer, like Brennan or a couple of other pols mentioned, voters should listen to what challengers had to say. Which means by logical deduction they shouldn’t listen to what I had to say.

    What finally pushed me over the edge was Brennan (and DeBlasio) showing up in Windsor Terrace to hold a meeting protesting the closing of a little used token booth on the north side of the Prospect Park 15th Street station, at an early phase of the MTA’s Albany-enginnered financial crisis. I laid out some of the future consequences of the past state budgets he had voted for, and asked if he would vote against the next one.

    He (honestly) said he couldn’t. Why? Probably because if anyone voted against the budget, they’d be cut out of the member items they get to dispense that make them look like the good guys even as taxes soared budget collapsed. Brennan was evidently neutered after being part of a challenge to Silver years ago.

    He also had his picture in the newspaper standing on Brooklyn Bridge opposing bridge tolls, standing next to Marty.

    Anyway, I hope the Times is happy with the representation we’ve gotten from the “reformers” over the years. I keep seeing 212 to 0 votes on non-reforms.

  • Has anyone put forth a credible estimate of the cost to the MTA of providing the incremental bus and train services to transport the students who enjoy the free Metrocards? I’ve no idea and thus far it appears neither does anyone else. I’d like to be enlightened.

  • J:Lai

    This is such a smart (albeit devious) political tactic on the part of the legislature.

    It is really difficult to put a price on something like the actual cost to the MTA of transporting students to and from school – so you can credibly argue for just about any number between 0 and the cost of the full fare (or actually even higher, given that fare revenue funds less than 100% of the MTA budget.)

    It’s a classic red herring. It shifts the focus of the public discourse to a debate about the actual cost, makes the MTA look bad no matter what it says, and distracts everyone from the fact that the state and the city should be paying for student transportation.

    One legitimate way to assign a cost to student metrocards would be the replacement value of this benefit. If students had to be transported on private buses, like they are in the rest of the state, how much would that cost?

  • Larry Littlefield

    I wonder if the city’s state legislators would sign a letter demanding that the state legislature provide state aid for school transportation to New York City in proportion to the number of public school students in the city?

    Probably not.

  • The Dynamic Mumeshantz

    Of course 20+ support it. Probably many others. Why? It is the easy way out. That way they don’t have to do any tough work amongst their constituents and just paint the MTA as Darth Vader.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Charlie, so why is the MTA position not credible? They are subject to relentless review by an Audit Comittee and a team of outside auditors from on of the Big Six (formerly Big Seven, capitalism is a serious game). To what outside authorities are Mr. Brodsky’s allegation (ridiculous on the face of it) subject? And, if the MTA is so far-out on this subject for what purpose did Mr. Brodsky pass his latest “reform” of public agencies in New York State?

    Methinks the gentleman doth protesteth too much.

    And, more critically, is Mr. Brodsky equally concerned with the service cuts and concommitant layoffs?

  • Larry Littlefield

    Perhaps this is the first of several letters.

    One might blast local school districts for cutting education or raising property taxes, given that the cost of one additional child in the classroom is zero.

    Another will blast the Parks Department for closing parks, because the cost of one additional person on a big tract of land is zero.

    Another will demand that the hospitals not cut health care, because the cost of one more patient in an otherwise empty bed is zero.

    Naaah. More powerful political interests for the hospitals and schools, more direct accountabiity for the parks.

    How about this one: I demand no additional taxes, no cuts in services, and no increaes in debt, because we already pay more than anyone else in the country. The state legislature could tell its backers that all the sacrifice will be coming out of their hides, since they have taken too much.

  • glenn

    How embarrassing!!

  • Glad to see another Hevesi carrying on the grand tradition of having no clue when it comes to the MTA. I’m shocked they couldn’t get Felix Ortiz on board after his ridiculous statements this week.

    @Komanoff: The MTA says it will cost them $214 million with the city subsidy of $45 million and the state subsidy of $6 million to fund student transportation. For 2009, Transit’s farebox recovery ratio was around 35 percent, and the most recent numbers I have say 133.4 million student trips in 2007. Their numbers would seem to hold up.

  • Andrew

    The MTA operates separate “school open” and “school closed” bus schedules. The “school open” schedules include extra runs to accommodate students, and they only operate on days that schools are open. Subtract the daily cost of the “school closed” schedules from the “school open” schedules and multiply by the number of school days per year, and there’s an estimate of the annual cost to the MTA of accommodating students on buses.

    Coming up with a similar estimate for the subway is more difficult, since the subway operates on the same schedule whether schools are open or closed. Current schedules are presumably based on ridership on school days. To develop a similar estimate, the schedulers would have to send out traffic checkers on days that schools are closed and develop new schedules based on those ridership counts (i.e., what would be the “school closed” schedules if there were such a thing on the subway). Then, again, subtract the daily cost and multiply by the number of school days per year. It’s probably not worth the trouble, since the bulk of the cost is on the bus side. Although I’m sure service frequencies have to ramp up a bit earlier on some lines to accommodate school dismissals, most students probably ride trains where they wouldn’t affect train frequencies at all – either in the reverse-peak direction, or in the peak direction but not near the most crowded part of the line.

    So if NYCT only operated the subway system, then Brodsky and friends would probably be pretty much on target. Of course, NYCT also operates the largest bus system in North America, so ignoring the bus system is dishonest.

  • Steve Faust

    Andrew,
    An interesting analysis, but remember that the NYTA is carrying about a million school trips a day. While Brodsky may say this is trivial and you think there is spare subway space, what other transit system in the country even carries a million riders a day – total? Maybe LA or Chicago? Maybe?
    Even the NY subway schedules will change if a half a million or so riders were not there every day.

    NYC does move a lot of kids on yellow buses – some to parochial schools no less. How long would those bus companies carry the kids if the Dept of Education told them to take one third pay? Would they order their drivers to dump the kids immediately? Those buses cost between $2000 and $3000 per student per year – way more than the MTA is trying to charge.

    Check out the DOE budget – it’s on line in their web site. There is a big line item for Pupil Transportation, and most of it is going to the private buses, not the MTA. Complication – they don’t break down and report how many students are receiving what transport services – MTA vs private bus – but I made some informed guesses.

  • Maybe this is the beginning of making fares free for everyone?

    If the actual cost of providing a student ride is zero….isn’t the actual cost of providing a ride for me zero? Why should I pay?

  • Andrew

    Steve Faust:
    Believe me, I’m not on Brodsky’s side here – I agree with you completely. The MTA doesn’t waive the fare for other people who happen to be riding against the peak. I don’t think Brodsky’s terms are reasonable. But even according to his own terms, he’s very wrong when it comes to buses.

    jass:
    Good question!

  • Andrew: Thanks much for your analysis (#10). Do you have a sense of how many of the student rides are via buses vs. how many by subways?

    Ben Kabak: Thanks for those figures (#9). If I interpret them correctly, the MTA is representing that funding student transportation costs $265M per year ($214M MTA; $45M city subsidy; $6M state subsidy). That’s for 133.4M rides per year, which comes to $1.99 per ride, or two bucks per. Is that a fair representation of your figures? If so, why does that “hold up”? (I’m not challenging, I’m simply trying to understand.)

    Niccolo (#6): I never said, and didn’t mean to imply, that the MTA figure wasn’t credible. I didn’t even know what it was. I’m trying to work through the numbers, is all.

  • Don’t want to lose your student Metro Card? Come out and make your voice heard! The MTA is holding hearings next week in every borough! Click here for the hearings schedule: http://www.mta.info/news/pdf/public_hearing.pdf

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