Streetsblog Q&A With TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen

Last December, John Samuelsen was elected president of TWU Local 100, the union that represents 38,000 subway and bus workers in the New York City region. He assumed the leadership from former president Roger Toussaint at a troubled time for the transit system. With transit tax revenues in free fall and state lawmakers raiding MTA coffers to plug holes in the general budget, transit riders and transit jobs were under threat.

samuelsen.jpgJohn Samuelsen, left, at a rally for federal transit funding with Reverend Jesse Jackson earlier this month. Photo: Noah Kazis

The package of cost-cutting measures approved by the MTA Board last month — including the elimination of two subway lines and dozens of bus routes, reduced service across the city, and laying off 500 station agents — didn’t signal the end of the crisis. The MTA is still facing a budget gap in the hundreds of millions of dollars that’s poised to grow even larger.

Streetsblog readers often ask about the role New York’s biggest transit union is playing in tough legislative fights over issues like road pricing and bus lane enforcement. Under Toussaint, the TWU was quiet in the campaigns to win transit funding in Albany by enacting congestion pricing or bridge tolls. Recently, Samuelsen has perhaps been most visible on the national scene, joining social justice and environmental advocates to push for increased federal funding for transit service.

Last week we got on the phone with Samuelsen to talk about what his union is up to at City Hall, Albany, and Capitol Hill, why you seldom see Local 100 teaming up with MTA management to lobby lawmakers, and what his membership thinks of congestion pricing and bridge tolls. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Ben Fried: The big transit story of the year is the service cuts that are on the table and which the MTA Board has voted to enact. Lets start by outlining how the TWU is responding to the cuts.

John Samuelsen: There are significant lobbying efforts going on in Albany with some bills in the mix that have the potential of stopping the whole thing. First of all let me backtrack. [MTA Chair Jay] Walder and the MTA were given a billion dollars in federal stimulus money in 2009. Out of that billion dollars they could have used roughly $100 million to pay down the service cuts and to use for the operating budget.

So Walder, who had that money in the bank, and probably still has that money in the bank, refused to use that $100 million, and instead enacted $93 million in cuts across the board, Long Island Railroad, Metro North, and New York City Transit, and MTA bus. So that’s the first thing I wanted to say, because that sets the tone for a lot of our reaction.

"There’s a recognition by the union that we don’t want to hurt middle or working class people that have to drive their cars into Manhattan, or small business owners. But there’s also a recognition on our part that that’s an excellent funding mechanism for mass transit, and that it’s green, it’s good for the economy."

And one thing we’ve done is we’re working on a bill in Albany that’s being carried by Joan Millman in the Assembly, and by Bill Perkins in the Senate, that will force the MTA to use 30 million of that available 100 million. It’s essentially the state legislature directing Jay Walder to use available funds that he has in order to stop the service cuts. That’s the first item in Albany.

The second item in Albany is the bill that’s being carried by Keith Wright in the Assembly that would put a two year moratorium on any kind of service cut that the MTA proposes that could have a potential negative impact on rider safety in the subway. And it’s being carried by Dilan in the Senate. Those are two items that we’re working on heavily now in Albany.

In addition, working with the transportation committees on both sides, and the authorities committees to come up with enough budgetary cash in order to give the MTA the savings equivalent that they would make from laying off the 500 or so station agents. Also bearing in mind that a lot of the statutory funding that is earmarked for the MTA was confiscated by the state and put into the general budget.

BF: Has the TWU conveyed concerns to the legislature about the way they confiscated those funds? Could you share your thoughts on how to ensure that transit taxes actually go towards transit?

JS: We certainly have conveyed to the legislature, the Senate transportation committee, as well as folks on the Assembly side, are working on getting that money back for the MTA, right now as we speak. And the union has explored and is still exploring the potential for acting against the New York State government for taking money that’s ours that we’d earmarked towards mass transit, and using it elsewhere.

BF: What form would that legal action take?

JS: We’re exploring the possibility of a lawsuit against the state for redirecting funds that are earmarked to the MTA, and putting them to use elsewhere.

BF: Has anyone mentioned the possibility of crafting legislation that would function as a lock box? The idea that surfaced a few years ago when congestion pricing was being debated, to legally set aside transit taxes in a way that current law does not.

JS: Yeah. I think the Senate transportation committee is exploring that, and that absolutely needs to be done. Because otherwise every time the state finds itself in a crisis, transit is going to take a hit in New York.

BF: We see the MTA and the city pushing for bus rapid transit as the avenue where they can expand access to transit and improve service the most. Can you tell me about the TWU’s views on Select Bus Service?

JS: You’re talking about bus rapid transit on Second Avenue, right, and Third Avenue, and Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn?

BF: Right. First and Second in Manhattan, and Nostrand in Brooklyn, yeah.

JS: Local 100’s in favor of better service for our New York City transit riders, and of course we’re in favor if more people start riding the buses, that’s more jobs for Local 100 members.

BF: Has the TWU taken a position on the bus lane enforcement camera legislation?

JS: We’re not against it as long as it doesn’t have a negative impact on our operators, and as long as it doesn’t give the MTA some back door reason to bring disciplinary action against bus operators.

BF: So as long as the cameras are strictly focused on the street, on the road?

JS: Yeah. Are you talking about a bus pulling into a bus stop and there’s a car parked in the bus stop, and the camera takes a picture of the plate, and the car with the plate gets a ticket in the mail? We don’t have a problem with that, particularly if it raises revenues for the MTA.

BF: How would you characterize the relationship between the TWU and transit advocates? I saw Reverend Jackson’s appearance a few weeks ago where the TWU was joining with advocates to call for a greater federal funding of operations.

"There has to be a paradigm shift in the way decision makers in this country think about funding mass transit. It’s an essential service along the lines of sanitation service, fire service, police service."

JS: We’ve joined not only with a bunch of other transit unions, but with wider advocacy groups, community groups, environmental groups. We’ve formed this coalition called Keep America Moving. The Rainbow PUSH Coalition and the Reverend Jackson are on board. And we find common ground with everybody, with the possible exception of some — of the New York MTA for instance.

There’s a recognition on the part of the riding public that mass transit is an essential service that needs to be properly funded by government, and that recognition also exists in the labor movement. There’s a recognition that transit services are green jobs, and are good for environment, that every bus that goes by, or every train that goes by takes 60 or 100 cars off the road. There’s a recognition by the labor movement, and by President Obama’s administration, as well as rider and environmental groups, that that’s the case.

So mass transit is the future, and the government has to start funding it as if it is the future. And there has to be a paradigm shift in the way decision makers in this country think about funding mass transit. It’s an essential service along the lines of sanitation service, fire service, police service.

BF: So along those lines, do you think there’s a role for road pricing in New York to fund transit service? Congestion pricing or bridge tolls, those sorts of things.

JS: Those issues are still under discussion at our executive level, and the local is still fleshing out its position on those issues.

BF: What sort of debate comes up at the local about whether these are good ideas?

JS: There’s a recognition by the union that we don’t want to hurt middle or working class people that have to drive their cars into Manhattan, or small business owners. But there’s also a recognition on our part that that’s an excellent funding mechanism for mass transit, and that it’s green, it’s good for the economy. And we’re down with that. So we’re still debating that amongst ourselves, what our exact position is going to be on that.

BF: In this budget session we’ve seen the hospital operators and the SEIU team up and ask for new revenue streams from the state, and we haven’t seen the MTA and the TWU team up that sort of way.

"The union has explored and is still exploring the potential for acting against the New York State government for taking money that’s ours that we’d earmarked towards mass transit, and using it elsewhere."

JS: I don’t quite have the answer on the MTA’s end, but I know I sent a letter directly to Jay Walder shortly after assuming office asking him to go to Washington and to lobby there for Local 100 members as well as the MTA to procure federal stimulus funding for operating expenses. He didn’t take me up on that offer. I know that we are pressuring right now, we are heavily lobbying the legislature to restore the money that was earmarked for our mass transit from the mortgage recording tax, and such other things.

BF: That’s an area where management and the union are not asking for the same thing together?

JS: I think we’re asking for the same thing, but due to the history of the relationship it wouldn’t be precise to say that we’re asking for it together. They have a diametrically opposed position to us on some of the financial issues, on some of the fiscal issues, and that’s a big problem. They actually refused to use the $100 million available from the billion dollars in stimulus money that they got in 2009 to pay down the operating budget. They just engaged in $93 million worth of cuts that would have been avoided had they used the $100 million available to them from the stimulus money they got in 2009.

BF: Have they told you why they won’t go that route?

JS: They haven’t really given me a precise answer as to why they won’t go that route. They’ve given me a specific answer, but I think the reason is they oppose the use of the stimulus money to pay down the operating budget. It has to do with the philosophical desire to get rid of the station agents. I don’t think they want the money to be dealt out. I don’t think they want the state or the federal government to hand them $20 million and say, “Keep all the station agents working.” I think that philosophically this new MTA leadership doesn’t believe what everybody else in New York City believes, which is that the station agents provide a vital role to the passengers of the New York City transit system. I think they just want to get rid of them, so they don’t want the dough.

BF: One of the problems that transit advocacy encounters is forming a coalition that’s strong enough. And the event with Reverend Jackson seems to hint at a potential broadening of the green jobs/transit advocacy coalition. Could you talk a little bit about how you see that coalition growing in the future?

JS: I think that the coalition is already at the point where we can make a difference in Washington, D.C. I think it’s the first time ever that there’s a wide array of organizations that have come under one umbrella to push for a permanent mass transit funding. I think it’s only going to grow and get stronger. And yes, I think we’re going to have the ability to really impact the way the decision makers in Washington think about mass transit.

BF: And in Albany, do you see that process happening at the state level?

JS: Well a year ago they passed a payroll mobility tax when they were facing the identical crisis that they’re facing now, except now it’s a little more severe. I think there’s more talk going on right now in Albany about the creation of new streams of dedicated funding, or increasing the existing streams of dedicated funding, so I think that’s going to happen too.

BF: What’s your trip to work like everyday? How do you get to work?

JS: If I take the train, I take the Q train from Brooklyn into Manhattan. If I have business in lower Manhattan I usually take the Q train to DeKalb and get on the R. I take it into lower Manhattan, or downtown Brooklyn. If I’m going to the Upper West Side where the union is, I drive. I ride the train a lot during the day, even if I drive to work.

  • And one thing we’ve done is we’re working on a bill in Albany that’s being carried by Joan Millman in the Assembly, and by Bill Perkins in the Senate, that will force the MTA to use 30 million of that available 100 million.

    Oh please. $30 million, when we’ve got a deficit of $700 million? I really wish everyone would shut up about the $100 million in stimulus funds. It’s such a red herring. Millman and Perkins were too scared to take a strong stance in favor of congestion pricing or bridge tolls – now the TWU is giving them a chance to posture as transit activists?

    Samuelson says some good things in this interview, but this is absolutely shameful.

  • So Samuelson’s legislative priorities are (1) forcing the MTA to use money that would cover less than 4% of their deficit and (2) preventing the MTA from making reasonable cuts to staffing of station agents and instead being forced to eliminate entire subway and bus lines to cover the deficit.

    He’s the head of the unions. It’s clear that he doesn’t care how the riders are affected as long as his precious jobs are protected.

  • *A* union… sorry.

  • peteBK

    what a hard hitting interview
    like sean hannity interviewing dick cheney

    there is no way you can be a “livable streets” advocate while ignoring the role TWU plays in marginalizing mass transit in NYC. instead, this blog has chosen time and time again to turn a blind eye to the greed, waste & corruption, and simply (or should i say simple-mindedly) push for “more funding”.

  • Ian Turner

    peteBK, the MTA may be inefficient or it may not. You’d have to make a detailed comparison to peer transit agencies financials to know. However, there is no question that the MTA is an economic win for New York even at ten times the price: The whole system costs about $12 billion a year to run and maintain, but without it the city would lose some $400 million per day in lost productivity and economic activity, or $146 billion per year.

    By all means, let’s make the MTA more efficient. But don’t starve New York of a transit system in the meantime. Cutting MTA funding because the agency is inefficient is like cutting off your own nose because it sometimes gets stuffy.

  • You’d have to make a detailed comparison to peer transit agencies financials to know.

    This is actually mentioned in the Every Dollar Counts report. New York consistently spends much more than peer cities to do a given task: it has 2 employees per subway train and 6 per commuter train, more station agents than necessary, long turnaround times, etc. This is especially brutal in capital construction. The cost of subway construction in New York is $1.3-1.7 billion per km, and deep-bore commuter tunnels cost even more; in peer cities, costs higher than $250 million per km are rare.

  • Shemp

    What’s with all the “ifs” on the bus camera legislative question? How about just reading the bill John? The cameras will be on-street, not in the buses.

  • Ian Turner

    Alon, can you provide a more specific citation? Agreed on construction costs but I’ve never seen any comparative numbers on operating costs and a google search for “every dollar counts” didn’t yield any more.

  • Yeah, it’s my bad – the name of the report is Making Every Dollar Count.

    The costs of subway construction in New York just come from taking the latest budgets and dividing by route length. SAS Phase 1 is at $5.1 billion and is 3 km long; the 7 extension is at $2.1 billion (about to be revise upward) and is 1.6-1.7 km long.

    Outside New York, I looked for recent extensions in other first-world cities. I don’t have time to give you links to everything right now, so here are the highlights:
    – Tokyo’s recent Fukutoshin Line section, which started construction in 2001, cost $280 million per km. Tokyo Metro puts the current costs at $500 million per km and says it’s so expensive it’s not going to build new lines.
    – Tokyo’s most recent Oedo Line extension (it’s in one of the technical datasheets on Toei’s English website) cost $460 million per km.
    – London’s Jubilee Line extension cost about $460 million per km in 2009 dollars, using a PPP conversion rate of 1 GBP = 1.6 USD. (Google it – there’s a link on Urban Transport Technology or Railway Technology).
    – Paris Metro Line 14 cost $250 million per km in 2009 dollars, using a PPP conversion rate of 1 EUR = 1.25 USD.
    – The proposed cost of Paris’s orbital RER subway, according to The Transport Politic, is $250 million per km as well.
    – Berlin’s U55 line cost $250 million per km.
    – Copenhagen’s proposed circular subway line is projected to cost $140 million per km, using Wikipedia’s numbers.
    – Madrid’s MetroSur cost $80 million per km in 2009 dollars.
    – Amsterdam’s new subway cost $200 million per km, if I remember correctly (link on one of the two websites mentioned for London).
    – If I’m not mistaken, Barcelona’s recent subway lines have come at about $70 million per km.

    I need to go somewhere now, but I’ll provide you with links later if you have trouble hunting them down.

  • Okay, I have links now. I misremembered a few of the numbers – the real numbers tend to be lower than what I wrote. The exceptions are Amsterdam, Barcelona, which have had severe cost overruns (but still have a fraction of New York’s per-km cost).

    The most expensive line in this bunch is the London Underground Jubilee line extension, a boondoggle whose cost escalated to 3.5 billion pounds for 15.9 km. At a PPP conversion rate of 1 pound = $1.6, it cost $7.2 billion in 2009 dollars, or $454 million per km. It is deep underground, crosses under multiple Underground lines and junctions in central London, and crosses under the River Thames four times. Only the outermost portion is above ground.

    Tokyo is the next most expensive, also due to infill. The city ran out of streets to build under, forcing it to build very deep underground. The Ikebukuro-Shibuya section of Tokyo Metro’s Fukutoshin Line cost 250 billion yen for 8.9 km. At 100 yen to the dollar and no inflation in Japan (in fact, Japan has deflation, and its currency is still worth less than 100 yen to the dollar in PPP terms), this is $280 million per km. Toei’s subway information sheet cites higher costs for its recent extensions – $343 million/km for 2000’s Oedo Line and $474 million/km for 2000’s Mita Line extension. Those lines are all fully underground.

    Paris Métro Line 14 is infill as well, running fully underground and crossing under multiple junctions as well as the river. Tunneling was difficult due to the catacombs. The total cost of the first two sections, totaling 8 km, was 1.133 billion Euros, opened in 1998 and then 2003. That’s $1.86 billion in 2009 dollars, or $233 million per km. A more recent extension, opened in 2007 and totaling 1 km, was budgeted at 111 million Euros according to the same link ($150 million in 2009), but the link is a few years out of date and there may have been cost overruns.

    Future extensions in Paris are budgeted at slightly lower cost, if anything. The Transport Politic’s post and associated map gives the orbital RER line’s cost at 20.5 billion Euros for 130 km ($197 million/km), the 1-km extension of the M12 at 199 million Euros ($249 million), and the 1-km extension of the M4 at 169 million Euros ($211 million). All of those are fully underground. Planned but not yet under-construction extensions, which I believe are all underground, include the M7 at $115 million/km, the M4 again at $177 million/km, and the M11 at $50 million/km. All of those are outbound, hence the lower cost.

    Berlin’s 2009 U55 line, an infill line that still connects to nothing and crosses under nothing, cost 320 million Euros for 1.8 km. Construction dragged for 13 years; using 2004 as a base year for inflation calculations gives $454 million in 2009 dollars, or $252 million/km.

    Brussels’ 2003 metro extension cost 100 million Euros for 2.7 km, including 4 stations, of which the outermost is at-grade and the rest underground (see this map). At a PPP conversion rate of 1 Euro = $1.25, this translates to $146 million in 2009 dollars, or $54 million per km. This cost is typical of outbound extensions; infill costs much more.

    Amsterdam’s north-south line is running severely over budget and is now expected to cost 3.1 billion Euros for 9.5 km. This is $408 million/km, and is widely criticized as a money waster.

    Copenhagen’s City Circle Line is budgeted at 15 billion Kroner, for 15.5 km, all underground, crossing twice under the older line. This is 967 million Kroner per km. In exchange rate terms, it’s $172 million/km. However, the Krone is severely overvalued – its GDP in PPP terms is 63% its GDP in exchange rate terms. This would reduce the projected cost to $110 million/km.

    Madrid’s MetroSur, a 40.5 km fully-underground circular line serving the southern suburbs opened in 2003, cost 1.6 billion Euros. That’s $58 million per km, in 2009 dollars. While the line is circular, it’s actually an outbound extension.

    Barcelona’s Line 9/10’s most recent budget estimate, from 2008, is up to 6.5 billion Euros, after a factor of 3 budget escalation (see also here). It’s 47.8 km, all underground, crossing under the entire city, and is close to completion. Unless the budget escalates further, the cost will be $170 million per km. (In other words: Barcelona’s severe cost overruns have led it to build subways at a full one tenth the cost of Second Avenue Subway.)

  • Did my comment providing links for the above figures just get eaten?

  • Yes, my comment did in fact get eaten. Excessive linking presumably indicates spam. Either wait for the admins to approve my comment with the links or shoot me an email.

  • Yes, Alon, any comment with more than two links gets held. It’s been released now. Why not post the whole thing on your blog?

  • Ian Turner

    Alon, to reiterate, it’s been well demonstrated that transit construction is more expensive in New York than elsewhere. But, as I noted in comment 7 above, “I’ve never seen any comparative numbers on operating costs”. Do you have such an analysis?

  • Carrier Man

    Has anyone done an analysis of the person chairing the MTA’s capital construction and real estate committee? Her credentials,her family business and it’s history?

  • I know what the operating costs are per passenger in a few cities, but it may not be revealing – busier lines are inherently cheaper per passenger than less buy lines. The one thing that’s relatively easy to control is the number of employees operating each subway train. New York has two, virtually every other city in the world has one or zero.

    If you want operating costs per passenger, I can compare New York to Paris and Tokyo. (I looked for data for Berlin, and found nothing metro area-wide). The bottom line is that Paris is a little cheaper than New York and Tokyo much cheaper.

    The only full numbers I have for Paris are from 2004, putting the budget at 7.22 billion Euros, total operating expenses at 6.58 billion, and total capital spending (not all of which is on-budget) at 1.29. In the New York area, total operating expenses for all agencies (the MTA agencies, NJT, PATH, NYCDOT, and Bee-Line) are $10.6 billion according to the National Transit Database, as of 2008. The different years aren’t a big problem – Google STIF budget and you’ll see that the total 2008 budget was 7.4 billion Euros. Ridership is about the same – 4.1 billion unlinked trips in New York, 3.65 in Paris. This makes Paris 12% cheaper per passenger.

    In Tokyo, I’m only considering Tokyo Metro and Toei versus New York City Transit, because I really don’t want to start hunting down data for nine different railroads, and at any rate it wouldn’t be comparable to any American commuter rail. Tokyo Metro and Toei have 262 billion yen operating costs, i.e. $2.62 billion; New York City Transit’s operating budget is $5.9 billion. NYCT ridership (linked within the subway system, unlinked for other transfers) is 2.4 billion; Tokyo Metro and Toei ridership, counted the same way except Tokyo Metro-Toei subway transfers are unlinked, is 3.26 billion. The bottom line is that Tokyo is about one third as expensive as New York. This is slightly apples to oranges because the Toei numbers are from 2005 and the Tokyo Metro numbers from 2007, but that’s not going to be enough to explain away a factor of 3 difference.

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