Watchdog: Average MTA Board Member Earns 10x More than Average Rider

To better serve transit riders, MTA officials need to understand who they are and what they need, Reinvent Albany says.

The board room at 2 Broadway. Photo: MTA/Flickr
The board room at 2 Broadway. Photo: MTA/Flickr

They’re rich. They’re white. They don’t live in the city.

The future of New York City’s transit system is in their hands.

They’re the 17 members of the MTA board. And a new analysis from government watchdog Reinvent Albany charges that they’re out of touch with riders — and seemingly uninterested in changing that [PDF].

MTA board members don't reflect the riders they represent and serve. Image: Reinvent Albany
MTA board members don’t reflect the riders they represent and serve. Image: Reinvent Albany

The group crunched the numbers and they are nothing short of scandalous: 89 percent of MTA riders live in New York City, but only 41 percent of MTA board members live in the five boroughs. The average board member’s income was nearly 10-times that of the average rider. Yet the last time the agency released any ridership demographic data was in 2008.

“When you have a board that isn’t representative of the ridership, it’s no wonder that they haven’t prioritized getting an accurate and transparent assessment of who’s riding transit and what the needs are that aren’t being addressed by the current system,” said Ben Fried of TransitCenter, which funded the Reinvent Albany study.

The good government group’s report recommends that the agency collect and publicly release demographic data related to age, income, race, ethnicity, gender, profession, disability, and geography — all of which help inform various aspects of its operations.

The problem, according to Fried and other transit analysts, is not necessarily that the data doesn’t exist, but that the MTA fails to make use of it. Rider demographic data is rarely referenced when making case for controversial projects. Board members make decisions and set priorities without considering the needs or concerns of riders. And the MTA has little idea how its customers actually feel about the system — its customer surveys merely measure ask riders once whether they are satisfied with various aspects of service.

“Ridership demographic data matters because presumably MTA is basing policy and service decision on these findings,” said Sarah Kaufman, associate director of the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation. She cited the connections between ethnicity data and providing translation services, gender data and safety questions, and income data and fare policies.

The 2008 data, for example, as well as data obtained by Streetsblog two years later, helped reshape the public discussion about the subway’s single-ride options. Since then, the MTA has emphasized keeping the base fare steady even as the cost of weekly and monthly Metrocards increase, since the poor are more likely to pay per ride.

The demographics of the board are changing thanks to the recent replacement of a number of wealthy white men with women and people of color. But board members are unpaid, which limits participation to people who have time to spare. As a result, they tend to be well-connected people with high-paying day jobs, like outgoing members Peter Ward, Charles Moerdler, and Scott Rechler, or continuing Finance Chair Larry Schwartz.

All four are white men appointed by Gov. Cuomo. Ward is the powerful president of the Hotel Trades Council, Moerdler an attorney who was more than once spotted abusing his parking placard to illegally park his Mercedes. Rechler is a real estate developer and Cuomo supporter who serves as president of the Regional Plan Association. Schwartz was previously Cuomo’s top aide and is now an airport concessions executive; notably, he recently conceded that he wasn’t familiar with how fares are collected on city buses.

Yet the new crop of board members doesn’t appear to be significantly more representative: new appointees include the former C.E.O. of Sony, a Long Island business group leader, the Mets’ external affairs chief, and a former Obama administration transportation official who spent most of her career in D.C.

Governor Cuomo recently nominated former federal rail official Sarah Feinberg, right, to the MTA. Feinberg now chairs the board's transit committee. Video still via MTA
Gov. Cuomo recently nominated former federal rail official Sarah Feinberg, right, to the MTA board. Feinberg now chairs the transit committee. Photo: MTA

Recent board conversations about fare evasion highlight the shortcomings in the MTA’s approach to public data: After getting an earful at fare hike hearings about turnstile-jumpers, board members pressed the MTA to take a proactive stance — and transit officials responded by calling for increased police presence at subway stations and on buses. But the MTA’s data was specious — based on visual survey of key routes and stations, then extrapolated for the entire system. The agency hasn’t released any breakdowns by borough, route or demographics.

“In order for people to trust what the MTA is saying, they actually have to tell people how they are conducting these studies of fare evasion,” Fried said. “They release data ad hoc as it serves the purposes of the moment for the agency. They should be releasing a well-defined set of data about their ridership on a regular basis — that’s not bound to the news cycle, that’s just in the service of informing the public.”

  • Larry Littlefield

    How do MTA employees compare with the riders? In addition to the demographics above, include data on those who drive to work.

    It isn’t surprising that older and richer people are on the board, because that correlates with experience and (increasingly loosely but at least at some point in the past) accomplishment.

    The problem is generational. You can’t count on this generation of older and richer people to care about those born later and their future, and those poorer.

  • Fool

    Did streetsblog cover the MTA geometry train operator making more the 500k per year and spiking his pension?

    Or does that go against some political narrative?

  • Larry Littlefield

    LIRR.

    Talking about “MTA” featherbedding and grifting when considering what needs to happen on the subway is also going against a political narrative.

    “There is waste and fraud in New York (State). Therefore we need to cut spending in New York City”…to fund it.

  • Joe R.

    There’s absolutely zero justification for counting overtime pay when calculating pensions. Not only should be practice be discontinued immediately, but we should retroactively lower the pensions of everyone who did so in the past, and also try to recoup the excess monies already paid. The city must have had its head up its ass when it agreed to a contract clause allowing pensions to be spiked with overtime.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The state legislature did it. The city had no choice. It isn’t in the contract.

  • cjstephens

    Enough with the identity politics and class envy. I don’t care much about the race, gender or income of MTA board members. What I _do _ care about is whether they actually use the system. In the private sector, I think this is known as “eating your own dog food”. I would much rather have a board member (of any race, gender or income level) who rides the trains every day to work than one who checks off all the progressive boxes but is driven around all day in a taxpayer-funded car (cough, Tish James, cough). At the moment NYCT and the commuter railroads are run by people who rely on those trains to get to work every day. This is a good start, and this is the demographic the board members should reflect.

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    After five yrs I chosen to give up my previous occupation and it changed my daily life… I proceeded doing a task through the internet, for a company I saw on internet, for several hrs each day, and I rake in even more than I has been doing on my previous job… Last payment I acquired was 9k… Marvelous thing about this is that I get more time for my friends and family. Try it yourself, what it’s all about… http://aisd.org/7p

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