A New York Times article on Thursday tries to explain why subway systems on the Eastern Seaboard have so many problems. Yet despite effectively cataloguing the complexity of the problems themselves, the Times settles on a rather simplistic explanation:
The subways in New York City and Boston, both more than half a century older than the system in Washington, need billions of dollars to replace aging infrastructure and to meet rising demand.
President Obama agrees:
President Obama tied the Metro’s problems to a broader lack of investment in infrastructure across the country, like the water pipes in Flint, Mich., and crumbling roads and bridges.
“It is just one more example of the underinvestments that have been made,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference. “Look, the D.C. Metro historically has been a great strength of this region. But over time, we underinvested in maintenance and repair.”
To say there has been underinvestment in maintenance and repair is merely to state the obvious. If, however, the implication is that the money just wasn’t there, then that’s wrong. The truth is that America’s largest metropolitan transportation systems have received even more funding than, for example, their European counterparts; they just spend it extraordinarily inefficiently. In a March report, Moody’s found that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) pays $3.15 per subway ride ($4.11 if you include the expensive MTA-operated commuter LIRR and MetroNorth lines). By contrast, Transport for London spends $2.61 per ride and the RATP pays $1.93 in Paris.
Why is mass transit so expensive to operate in the United States? There are lots of reasons, including the much higher construction costs that bedevil American infrastructure projects of all sorts. A single kilometer of new track for the Second Avenue NYC Subway extension costs $1.7 billion while Berlin and Paris managed to extend their systems for only about $250 million per kilometer (some of this has to do with challenge of boring into Manhattan schist). But the biggest mass transit expense is labor, which makes up 73 percent of Washington’s annual Metro budget and, according to Moody’s, 66 percent of the MTA’s (in London, labor is just 29 percent of total costs). Any accounting for the higher cost of American mass transit must therefore start by looking at personnel costs.
The first thing to observe when comparing labor costs in Europe with those in the United States is the effect of America’s expensive health care system. In France and the UK, the government pays for everyone’s health care and those costs don’t show up in agency budgets. Looking at the MTA, Moody’s estimates that $1 of that $4.11 goes to health care and other benefits like pensions. But even if you take those into account, the MTA still spends more, or at least about as much, as London on day-to-day operations. And costly benefits don’t explain why the NYC Subway runs on 1930s analog technology or why the MTA’s repeated efforts to upgrade to something more modern have been stymied.
To understand that, you have to look at the power of unions. It’s well-known that private sector unions in the United States don’t have anywhere near the power of organized labor in Europe. But public sector unions at the state and local levels are very powerful in the United States, and they’re very good at fleecing the government for generous salaries and benefits. As Nicole Gelinas has written, New York’s transportation unions have even managed to negotiate special retiree health care plans on top of the Medicare they, like all working Americans, are eligible to receive.
It might make sense to pay public employees above-market rates for vital government services, but union interests also pressure transportation agencies to hire many more employees than are needed. This is certainly true in Washington, where the WMATA payroll keeps growing despite declining service and ridership, but it’s an even bigger problem for New York’s aging system.
For decades, the MTA has been asking for technology that would let it automate operations and thus eliminate salaried engineers and conductors while allowing for trains to run closer together, but unions keep pushing back and lobbying against any upgrades in an effort to protect jobs. Even on the one line that now has more advanced systems (and as a result could run autonomously), union contracts stipulate that there be conductors on-board at all times.
It gets even worse: because the equipment is so old, no private contractors have the expertise or equipment to repair it. As a consequence, the MTA has a full-time staff of specialists who literally sit in a control room all day—receiving full wages, of course—waiting for something to break. To maintain this ancient system, the MTA needs to hire many more people than a modernized system would require. It’s great news if you’re a union employee—not so great if you’re a taxpayer or commuter paying ever-rising fares.
Blaming unions, however, isn’t a particularly productive strategy. For the most part, they’re advocating for their members’ interests like they’re supposed to be doing. The problem is that there’s no pushback against them from politicians—or from the editorial pages of the New York Times. The transportation crises in New York and Washington should be a wake-up call: Politicians and bureaucrats need to start prioritizing the interests of riders and ordinary citizens over those of the special interests.