Free Perk Showdown Looming

Earlier this morning, I wrote about how the MTA Board Vice President David S. Mack only rides the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) because of his free pass. Free perks such as his pass have come under harsh criticism from riders, transit advocates, & elected officials such as New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. The backlash from these perks might even lead to a lawsuit headed by Mr. Cuomo  (more on that in the next entry). Before any such suit takes place, a showdown is looming between members of the board over these free perks.

William Neuman of the New York Times filed this report on City Room:

A revolt over free travel appeared to be brewing Wednesday on the normally docile board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, as several board members said they opposed a move backed by their own chairman to restrict their use of free E-ZPass tags and transit and commuter rail passes.

“I would say it’s probably going to be voted down,” said David S. Mack, a vice chairman of the authority, referring to a resolution that will come before the board next week to curtail its own perks. “The board is not happy.”

Controversies on the board are rare, and the discussion of free travel for board members — many of whom are wealthy — comes at a difficult financial time for the authority. The board raised fares and tolls in March and may propose another increase that would take effect next year.

The travel pass tempest began last month, when Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo wrote to the authority, saying that its longstanding custom of giving free E-ZPasses to its board members — and letting them keep them for life — violated a state law that requires the board members to serve without compensation.

In a meeting on May 28, the board vowed to fight Mr. Cuomo, saying it would ask a judge to decide whether the passes were a form of pay.

But the authority’s chairman, H. Dale Hemmerdinger, quickly reversed course, telephoning board members a day later to say that the E-ZPasses would be taken away from former members and that the 22 current members could use them only for official authority business, like traveling to a board meeting. He said that the same would be done with other free passes given to board members for travel on subways, buses and the commuter railroads.

But Mr. Hemmerdinger’s decision must be ratified by the board, setting the stage for a possible showdown when the members meet again on Wednesday.

Eight votes are needed to pass a resolution on the authority’s board. It appears that in addition to Mr. Hemmerdinger, the city’s four representatives on the board will vote to end unlimited use of the travel perk, said one of those board members, Jeffrey A. Kay. It was not clear how other board members would vote.

Mr. Mack said that it was important for board members to be familiar with the transportation system they oversaw and that free travel passes encouraged that. In their trips through the system, board members frequently notice problems that can be corrected swiftly with a phone call, he said.

“We’re invaluable,” Mr. Mack said, speaking to reporters during a break between meetings of two board committees that he heads, one on the Long Island Rail Road and Long Island Bus and the other on the authority’s bridges and tunnels.

“If you saw something and called it in, it goes right there,” he added, as he put his foot on top of a wastebasket. “When the normal public calls it in, you know what happens with the bureaucracy, they don’t get the response that a board member would get.”

But Mr. Mack, a Long Island resident who says he typically rides the railroad 5 to 10 times a year, said that if he had to pay, he might change his habits.

“Why should I ride and inconvenience myself when I can ride in a car?” he said.

Similarly, he said, without free E-ZPasses, some board members might use the city’s free bridges and avoid the authority’s tolled bridges and tunnels.

He said that he kept the telephone numbers of the managers of the authority’s bridges and tunnels in his car and that if he saw a problem, he called them from the road. He said he had instructed bridge managers to open an additional toll lane if there were long lines.

Mr. Mack also questioned Mr. Cuomo’s motives on the issue.

“What he’s trying to do was strictly a soap box, where it looks good to the common people,” Mr. Mack said.

Benjamin M. Lawsky, a special assistant to Mr. Cuomo, issued a statement saying that Mr. Hemmerdinger and the authority’s executive director, Elliot G. Sander, “have both indicated they now agree with the attorney general’s position.” He continued, “If the board rejects its own leadership, we are prepared to enforce our position because no one is above the law.”

Mr. Mack, a wealthy real estate executive and a member of a politically well-connected family with close ties to the Republican Party and former Gov. George E. Pataki, was appointed to the board in 1993. He is a senior partner of the Mack Company, a real estate development firm, and a director of Mack-Cali Realty. He also serves on the board of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.

An inventory in May showed that Mr. Mack, 66, had six free E-ZPass tags, but he said on Wednesday that he now uses regular tags of the paid variety.

Mr. Mack did not say whether he believed that former board members should be allowed to keep their passes.

Two other board members at the committee meetings on Wednesday also said that they opposed placing restrictions on the free travel passes.

“We’re the eyes and ears,” said Mitchell H. Pally, a board member from Suffolk County. “Our job is to use the system as much as possible.”

Francis H. Powers, a board member from Staten Island, said Mr. Cuomo was wrong to call the travel passes a form of pay. And he objected to the way that the board’s decision to take the matter to court was reversed. “It wasn’t handled right,” Mr. Powers said. “We should have outside counsel review this.”

The Daily News also reported this week that Mr. Sander received a raise increasing his total compensation package this year by $10,000, to $350,000.

The free passes and the salary increase in the face of fare and toll increases simply reinforce a common perception among transit riders that the leadership of the authority is out of touch with its customers, transit advocates say.

Mr. Hemmerdinger declined to comment.

According to this entry on Streetsblog, NYC Council Member Eric Gioia issued this statement in a press release today:

Vice Chairman Mack should either clarify his statement or resign. With sentiment like that it is no wonder that the MTA is in such dire straits. His comments represent an absolute disdain for the very entity which serves millions of hardworking New Yorker every day who don’t have a choice to just ‘take their car.’ This sense of entitlement and contemptuous thinking is what leads New Yorkers to rightly ask who is on their side at MTA headquarters.

While I questioned the thought process of Eric 3 days ago, I must say Eric is spot on with his statements. Hopefully he meant what he said & was not just saying “the right thing” to look like the “good guy” to the general public.

xoxo Transit Blogger

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