Joan Millman Shows Why Pols Should Be Banned From Fare Hike Hearings

The MTA fare hike hearing circus is wrapping up, and while the first event in Manhattan was relatively free of political grandstanding, the Brooklyn Heights blog reports that the scene was different in Brooklyn Tuesday night. Assembly Member Joan Millman, a long-time incumbent who cruised to victory in her northwest Brooklyn district on primary day last week, had this to say to the MTA Board:

She sharply criticized MTA management for focusing on fare increases and service cuts to solve the Authority’s fiscal problems instead of rectifying what she said are serious management deficiencies that are costing the MTA “hundreds of millions of dollars each year” according to a report issued by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli. One of several areas in which Millman said the MTA could save money is in its management of real estate, pointing in particular to the huge office building at 370 Jay Street (photo above) which has sat unused and in a partial state of rehabilitation for years.

Millman also noted the MTA’s sale of the Atlantic Yards property for less than half of its appraised value, and its failure to demand that developers of new, large residential buildings along the Fourth Avenue corridor provide funds to assist in the rehabilitation of subway stations along the corridor affected by increased ridership. Finally, noting that she voted against repeal of the commuter tax, which was levied on suburbanites who work in the City in order that they pay their share of the cost of the City’s subway and bus systems, Ms. Millman accused the MTA of subsidizing commuter rail lines serving the suburbs “at the expense of hardworking New Yorkers.”

Millman represents one of the most transit-dependent districts in the city, and her constituents cope with torrents of traffic bound for free East River bridges every day. When she had the chance to get behind the single most transformative policy for the city’s streets and transit system — congestion pricing — she failed to say a word until it was much too late. If the MTA had $420 million in annual revenue from congestion pricing, its fiscal problems wouldn’t be so severe today.

By now, the MTA has been audited to death, and it’s clear that no amount of efficiency wrung out of the agency can offset the effects of long-term, systemic neglect and disinvestment on the part of the city and state — especially the state. It’s not clear which DiNapoli report Millman was referring to at the hearing, but recent findings from DiNapoli’s office have identified $56 million in potential overtime savings each year, and $13 million in potential annual savings on fuel contracts. Meanwhile, the agency had to plug an $800 million deficit this year, and its yearly debt payments are expected to increase $1.5 billion by 2020 [PDF].

There have been 13 MTA audits by the state comptroller’s office since 2007, according to Ben Kabak’s tally at Second Avenue Sagas, and that’s not counting the granddaddy of them all, the forensic audit that will finally inspect the agency’s ledgers like a murder scene in CSI.

The crime that Millman never mentioned in her testimony has nothing to do with the MTA Board and everything to do with the Assembly where she serves. Millman was one of the Assembly members who voted last December to take more than $100 million in dedicated transit taxes away from the MTA and deposit the revenue in the state’s general fund.

If only we had fare hike hearings where transit riders could vent at the people who are actually responsible for the fare hike.