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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7 Train Service Alert

The MTA has posted a service alert regarding train service. The service alert states:

Due to track work at the Queensboro Plaza Station, there are delays in train service in both directions at this time.

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I Only Ride Because It Is Free

MTA Board Vice Chairman David S. Mack; Photo courtesy of the MTA

This sentiment was shared by Metropolitan Transportation Authority Vice Chairman David S. Mack when discussing the Long Island Rail Road. His exact quote was:

Why should I ride and inconvenience myself when I can ride in a car?

He had even more to say even going as far as throwing the MTA under the bus when he compared him calling in to report problems on MTA Bridges & Tunnels to everyday riders doing so by stating:

If you saw something and called it in, it goes right there (he refers to a trash can). 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.

Here is a report by Steve Ritea of Newsday on Mr. Mack’s comments:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board’s vice chairman is all for taking the Long Island Rail Road — but only if it’s a free ride, courtesy of the systemwide passes he and his colleagues receive as perks.

“Why should I ride and inconvenience myself when I can ride in a car?” David S. Mack, Nassau County‘s only voting member on the 22-person board, said Wednesday when asked during a break in MTA committee meetings if he would use the LIRR if not for the free pass.

Mack, 66, a wealthy real estate investor who lives in Kings Point and was appointed to the MTA board in 1993, said he rides the railroad five to 10 times a year. A regular attendee at MTA board and committee meetings at least twice a month in Manhattan, Mack also is senior vice president of a construction firm based in Fort Lee, N.J.

His comments came a week before the MTA board is expected to decide whether to revise a policy that has allowed all 22 current board members and 37 former members to hold systemwide free passes — for all MTA bridge and tunnel crossings, the subway and both commuter rails — and use them freely.

Mack did not address former board members’ use of the passes.

Mack also said that when he drives across MTA bridges he regularly calls bridge managers to alert them to any problems he perceives while crossing.

“When I see it, I call it in immediately and it’s corrected,” he said.

“We’re invaluable,” he later added, referring to MTA board members.

“If you saw something and called it in, it goes right there,” he said, kicking the lid of a nearby trash can. “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.”

The MTA has encouraged riders to report suspicious activity through its “If you see something, say something” slogan and also solicits feedback through a variety of forums.

In a statement Wednesday, the agency did not respond specifically to Mack’s remarks. “Board members play a critical and unique role in overseeing the transit system,” the statement said. “We have also made enormous strides in gathering customer input, via rider report cards, webinars and public workshops, which has already helped shape policy at the MTA.”

Board chairman Dale Hemmerdinger, asked about Mack’s comments, declined to respond specifically.

“I think it would be a tragedy if the board members didn’t use the system whenever possible,” Hemmerdinger said.

Later in the conversation Wednesday, Mack seemed to backpedal on his statements, saying: “It has nothing to do with free or not free; we want to encourage to use it, so if they see something, they’ll say something.”

Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, said board members “lead by example” and “if people who run the system get a free pass, it’s a terrible message” to riders.

“It should hit them in the pocketbook the way it hits their customers,” Russianoff said.

Last month, Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo wrote a letter to the MTA asking that all free passes given to board members and former members, who hold lifetime passes for all segments of the system, be revoked. Cuomo called it “illegal compensation.”

Board members originally responded with a plan to ask for their own legal opinion on the matter. But a day later, the MTA announced plans to amend its policy, taking lifetime passes away from former members and asking sitting members to only use their passes “in the performance of their official MTA duties.”

Hemmerdinger acknowledged the new policy would be self-policing. A board vote is expected next week.

In a statement, Benjamin Lawsky, special assistant to Cuomo, said: “If the board rejects its own leadership, we are prepared to enforce our position, because no one is above the law.”

Here is Pete Donohue’s report on Mack’s comments:

In one of those believe-it-or-not moments, a top MTA honcho admitted Wednesday he wouldn’t use authority trains if he couldn’t ride for free, sources said.

“Why should I ride and inconvenience myself when I can ride in a car?” asked David Mack, vice chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board, according to sources who overheard his comments at MTA headquarters.

The wealthy Long Island developer also suggested the MTA tosses complaints from the general public into the trash can – but takes corrective action when he calls with a gripe, observers said.

Mack’s wacky rant took place between committee meetings Wednesday morning in the MTA’s public meeting room.

Mack is chairman of two MTA committees: the LIRR committee, and the bridge and tunnel oversight panel.

As is his custom, Mack didn’t return a reporter’s telephone call seeking comment.

After an exclusive Daily News report on the number of free E-Z Pass tags granted to past and present MTA board members, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s office warned the authority the freebies are illegal – and told the MTA to halt the free-travel privileges.

The MTA plans to bring to the board next week a resolution changing its policy to give free travel only to current board members on official duty.

Some board members are opposed to giving up the perk and want MTA staff to ask a judge to interpret the law.

Mack – who was granted six no-charge E-ZPasses – claimed through a spokesman he put the passes on his credit card, vowing to pay his own way all the time.

But behind the scenes, he’s been trying to get other board members to fight for the free travel passes, sources said.

“I don’t get it,” one board member said of Mack’s campaign. “Nobody on the board needs it.”

Several MTA board members are multi-millionaires who have made sizeable contributions to politicians like former Govs. George Pataki and Eliot Spitzer.

Benjamin Lawsky, special assistant to Cuomo, warned board members to rescind the perks.

“It is ironic that at a time when the MTA claims to be strapped for money, they can still afford free E-ZPasses and other privileges for board members who are not supposed to be paid,” Lawsky said.

“Chairman [Dale] Hemmerdinger and Executive Director [Elliot] Sander have both indicated they now agree with the attorney general’s position. If the board rejects its own leadership, we are prepared to enforce our position, because no one is above the law.”

The attorney general could take legal action seeking that board members pay the authority for past travel.

Is anyone surprised by the comments from this smug bastard? I am good at reading people & his picture alone gives off a smug bastard vibe. This would be obvious to pick up on even for someone who does not read people. However his picture is not the main story. I will even go as far to say that his comments about the Long Island Rail Road are not either. What is really telling if not expected is what the MTA thinks of the riding public.

While many will not be surprised that a request from a V.I.P. as compared to the “everyday person” would lead to faster results, it does not change the fact that this is completely unacceptable. The MTA is supposed to serve us, the riding public. The days of us getting treated like second class citizens has to come to end especially when the V.I.P.’s could use the help of “everyday people” to help secure funding from our government.

In the grand scheme of things, we the people need to get our voices heard & find a way to get people who best represent who we are in upper management positions as compared to the out of touch individuals like David S. Mack who are “me first” all the time.

xoxo Transit Blogger

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How Surprising, Promised Service Upgrades Get Shelved

In a move that will hardly surprise anyone, the MTA has officially shelved the service upgrades we were promised back in December as a reward for the fare hike that we were to endure. Daily News Transit Reporter Pete Donohue along with Kenneth Lovett has more on this:

The cash-strapped will not launch a $60 million service improvement package because it doesn’t have the money, the Daily News has learned.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority last year unveiled plans that included more frequent bus, subway and commuter trains to soften the blow of fare hikes. The program was to be launched in phases starting this summer – if the authority could afford it.

It can’t, sources said.

“A final decision won’t be made on the enhancements until we report June revenue numbers next week, but revenues would have to turn around significantly as we are already $80 million behind in real estate taxes alone,” MTA spokesman Jeremy Soffin said.

The program would cost $30 million this year and twice that amount for all of next year.

The MTA receives revenue from taxes on certain real estate transactions, but those funds are well below projections.

State lawmakers are about to go home after failing again to enact legislation directing more taxpayer funds to support mass transit, raising the specter of more fare and toll hikes next year.

Meanwhile, some MTA board members yesterday expressed shock that MTA CEO Elliot Sander recently was granted a raise.

“I’m floored,” said one board member after reading the Daily News’ exclusive article on the pay raise. “We’re trying to find ways to cut costs.”

The member said the raise was a “symbolic” gaffe that sent the wrong message about the MTA’s commitment to finding savings.

MTA Chairman Dale Hemmerdinger gave a $10,000 raise to Sander, lifting his salary and other benefits to $350,000. Hemmerdinger said the 3% increase was warranted in part because Sander could make far more in a private sector job.

Gov. Paterson declined to immediately comment on the appropriateness of the raise but did say, “At first blush, anything that involves money, even if it’s slight, is a difficult issue for us right now.”

Assemblyman Richard Brodsky (D-Westchester) said the issue detracts attention from the more serious problem of the MTA’s massive budget gaps. “Timing is everything in life,” Brodsky said. They ought to chisel that on somebody’s forehead.

For starters, I am not surprised that riders will not get the promised service upgrades. Yes, the upgrades were promised on the notion that their financial situation would not turn south in the first 3 months of 2008. Yes, I acknowledge the fact that the MTA’s finances have been in the dumps this year. However don’t we the riding public deserve these upgrades?

We have put up with the fare hike & have been expecting these upgrades for months now. Now we are supposed to continue to deal with the fare hike, get no service upgrades, & prepare for the next fare hike which is just about a certainty to take place next year? This is getting out of hand!

Speaking of getting out of hand, the math used by the MTA must be called into question. Lets first start with a portion of an article by William Neuman of the New York Times:

The service additions are expected to cost $16 million next year and $46 million in 2009. The proposed fare increase would bring in $90 million in 2008 and $110 million the next year, the authority said.

So let me get this straight, the same exact service upgrades, which would have costed $16 million this year & $30 million the next, would now cost $30 million & $60 million respectively? Lets say the numbers would need to be adjusted due to rising costs by $1- $2 million, this still does not explain the huge differences in the respective price tags. Is our economy in the toilet at the moment? Yes, it is! However is it in such bad shape to cause price tags to just about & actually double within 6 months? No, not a chance!

This is yet another example of the fuzzy math & accounting practices that take place inside the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. How can we trust these numbers which come from an agency which has been busted for keeping different sets of books on their financial state? The answer for now is we can’t & the shelving of these upgrades can only be seen in one way. The upgrades were nothing but a bunch of lies to push along their fare hike agenda.

xoxo Transit Blogger

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Elliot Might Get Even More

While browsing the Daily News website, I came across an article which shares even more details about the raise approved, by MTA Chairman Dale Hemmerdinger, for MTA CEO & Executive Director Elliot Sander. It turns out the $10,000 raise is only the tip of the iceberg as work deemed “exemplary” would earn Mr. Sander even more cash. Daily News Transit Reporter Pete Donohue has more:

The MTA’s $350,000-a-year CEO not only snagged a raise in May but a series of hikes and potential bonuses totaling about $32,000 over two years, the Daily News has learned.

An amendment to Elliot Sander’s contract reveals that as the MTA slipped deeper into a fiscal crisis – to the point of possible fare increases and service reductions – Sander renegotiated the terms of his employment to get raises of at least 3% in January 2009 and January 2010.

If Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Dale Hemmerdinger deems Sander’s management “exemplary,” then he also gets a $10,000 payment in December 2009 – and $15,000 the following December, the document says.

The News reported Tuesday that Sander’s total economic package, including a base salary of $265,000 and a monthly housing allowance, was boosted to $350,000 last month.

With the contract changes, Sander could ultimately make more than $382,000 in 2010.

The additional details came Wednesday when the MTA, responding to a Freedom of Information Law request, provided the actual contract amendment.

“For the vast majority of riders, these salary increases are puzzling at a time of threatened fare hikes,” said Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign.

The MTA in December projected a 2009 operating budget deficit of nearly $220 million. Last week, Sander said the deteriorating economy, resulting in few tax revenues and higher costs, could translate into a deficit in the range of $500 million to $700 million. Fare and toll hikes are a real possibility, he warned.

Hemmerdinger on Monday defended increasing Sander’s pay in part by saying he is paid less than the heads of smaller transit agencies.

I made my feelings known about this raise on Tuesday. It is absolutely disgusting to know he could potentially earn even more money. Yes, he is underpaid compared to other similar ranking transit executives, but now is not the time to dish out raises when you are allegedly too poor to run to the best of your abilities.

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