Imagine Alan Mullaly, Rick Wagoner and Bob Nardelli, CEOs of the "Big Three" automakers, cooly telling the Senate finance committee that unless congress subsidizes them, they'll be forced to raise prices by 50% on every make and model of car sold in the United States. Now imagine they're the only car makers from whom you can buy.
Congratulations - you're now one step closer to understanding the situation New Yorkers face with the MTA.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the arranged marriage of many formerly independent rail and bus lines around the New York metro area (circa 1968) holds its first hearing this evening on a proposed new "fare hike" to cover - ghasp - yawning budget shortfalls. It's an old story to New Yorkers, who turn out en masse every few years to attend the dog-and-pony shows laughably called "hearings", broach their concerns vigorously, then watch the fare hike pass anyway.
But we New York straphangers (and perhaps Chicagoans) are in the unique position to understand just why it makes us so mad. You see, service on the MTA is perched on the precipice between viable alternative to driving your car and complete joke. For the last three weeks I've been keeping a tally, and literally five out of eight rides at various times on the MTA are interrupted by some kind of service disruption. Five out of ten cause a meaningful delay (as in, enough to make you late when you would have arrived early). I won't go into great detail, but evidence of the MTA's neglect of basic tenets of good service abound - from 3-year-old trains that routinely "stall", to construction projects that drag on for months, interrupt service and achieve no meaningful improvement, to inadequate and inconsistent notification about service changes and delays. It's clear that the company suffers from top-down mismanagement, morale problems, and sheer incompetence.
And why shouldn't they? They have every incentive to be that way.
You see, the MTA is a private corporation, with a monopoly, subsidized by taxpayer monies. In English that means they're cloistered enough that we don't have any oversight or influence into the way the organization is run, yet they take our money. And we don't have any alternatives.
Either of the logical alternatives - a group of private companies competing with one-another (though I'm not sure how that would work) or a fully government-run company - would be volumes better. Government-run railroads like those in Japan and Taiwan answer to the taxpayers. If they want to raise fares, citizens can ask questions like, "what have you done to reduce your dependence on fares as a revenue stream," or "what are your plans to improve service," or even, "where will each and every cent of extra revenue go" and reasonably expect answers. If they want to get rid of the management, they can.
Private corporations in a free market, of course, have to compete for customers. That's why GM, Ford, and Chrysler can't just arbitrarily raise prices on cars. Let them try - it would be suicide. Imagine if the MTA had to compete with other organizations to run the city's subways and bus lines. Say another organization could put them out of business by cutting costs in smart ways (say, better management, smarter hires and more efficient allocation). Damn that feels good to picture. (Again, you really have to endure a 45-minute delay on the 6 train to understand.)
Of course, its next-to-impossible to imagine how to introduce competition on a closed-system. Like it or not, there is only one set of tracks. The next best thing is probably for the local government to buy a controlling interest in the MTA and force the changes it needs. But the MTA has no reason to accept such intervention as long as it can raise fares whenever it feels like it.
In short, there appears to be no easy solution for the MTA. Maybe there's a "breaking point" with the fare hikes beyond which it faces diminishing financial returns as riders find alternatives. (That's probably wishful thinking.) Maybe a cheap, compact electric "citycar" or some other such new technology would introduce sufficient competition to induce the TA to clean up its act.
For the time being, however, we're stuck enduring fare hike after fare hike, even as laughable-at-best service continues to decline. One small bit of advice: don't go to Europe or Asia and ride their subways - unless you want to be mad upon your return to New York.