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Monday, March 23, 2009

Internet Powerhouse Andy Martin says New York City (MTA) transit fares are a bargain: why do transit officials lie to riders?

Andy Martin on CTA (Chicago) and MTA (New York) fare increases: why do transit managers conceal the true cost of providing service and advertise that real fares in New York have fallen by 50% in the past two decades? There is no “horror” in collecting enough money to run a safe and efficient transit system, Martin says. New York’s MTA should tell riders the truth: fares are too low, not too high.

Internet Powerhouse Andy Martin says public transit fare increases are not a “horror,” there are a necessity

Public officials have falsely portrayed public transit as “free”

Executive Editor

“Factually Correct, Not
Politically Correct”


Andy Martin asks if New York City’s reasonable transit fare increases are really “horrific?”

Do public officials forfeit the public trust when they pretend riders can receive “service” at far less than the actual cost of providing it?

“Quality costs money,” says Andy. “Period.”

We actually need higher, not lower, fares to improve our public transportation.

(NEW YORK)(March 24, 2009) The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and metropolitan RTA raised fares earlier this year. There were protests but the public was generally stoic. That’s Chicago for you.

Wednesday the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in New York is set to vote on fare increases for the New York City region. The Chairman of the MTA calls the fare increases “horrific.”

The chairman is full of baloney.

It would be helpful if public officials stopped lying to the people, and started telling the truth. Public transit is not “free.” It takes money, a lot of it, to provide quality service.

New York, of course, is a laboratory for what “public theft” has done to transit. When you operate a capital asset such as a transit system, the network generates tremendous wear and tear. Maintenance and depreciation are relentless. If you under-invest in maintenance, eventually the system collapses. In effect, by keeping fares below the actual cost of investing and maintaining the system, one era of transit riders engages in “public theft” from subsequent generations.

New York kept the transit fare at a nickel for decades. The result: transit was destroyed. The system could not support itself on a nickel fare, and collapsed.

Rescued by the creation of the MTA in the 1960's, public transit went on to collapse again in the 70's. The “transit noir” of the 1970’s may excite film aficionados, but riding the subway then was a dangerous exercise.

Eventually a second “rescue” was orchestrated in the 80’s and 90’s. Billions were spent to undo the damage of decades of deferred maintenance. But little new investment was made. NYC subways operate with an ancient signal system. The Second Avenue Subway has been under consideration for eighty (yes 80) years.

As subway service in New York improved recently, politicians were at their usual perch, proclaiming the need to “save the fare.” What hypocrisy. Subways are still substandard and still primitive by modern standards. And still former Governor Eliot Spitzer bragged that he had “saved the fare.” The more things change.

If you actually ride the subway, as I occasionally do, you see advertisements, from the MTA no less, bragging about how low the subway fare is! The MTA says the real (i.e. economic) cost of the subway fare has declined by 50% over the last two decades. Is it any wonder people expect something for nothing?

Since the MTA is right, real fares have decreased, the transit system has been under-investing for the past two decades even while pretending to be doing the opposite. As the refurbishments of the 80’s wear out, the subways again face potential collapse.

So why is the MTA chairman saying reasonable fare increases—which are still too low to cover the real cost of providing quality transit service—are “horrific?” H. Dale Hemmerdinger should be telling the people the truth: public transit is a colossal bargain in New York, Chicago, Washington and most American cities. Fat chance Hemmerdinger will spill the beans.

Why am I right and Hemmerdinger is wrong?

First, the MTA has been an abject failure at keeping wages in line. Subway workers want to retire after a short working career. They want higher wages and benefits. No one is willing to hold the line on salaries. Payroll skyrockets.

Second, providing urban railway service is a colossally complex and expensive enterprise. Even today, after the so-called refurbishment that is now decades old, subways are primitive. In London, signs announce the time between trains (the same service is provided in Washington, DC). New York? Nope. Too advanced for New Yorkers. (Londoners also pay substantially higher transit fares.)

Third, the subway system has not grown with the city. The Upper East Side (UES) used to be a genteel, but small, part of Manhattan. Then the old ethic neighborhoods adjacent to the UES were demolished, and the “Upper East Side” expanded by more than a hundred blocks. Those blocks saw the construction of dozens of new high-rises (and millions in new real estate tax dollars to support city services). The result: the one subway line serving the UES is a nightmare. There is no way to describe an UES rush hour today. People are packed in Tokyo-style.

As a little boy, I remember the day the “Third Avenue L” stopped running, to be replaced by a Second Avenue Subway. That was in the 1950’s. Even then, SAS was already decades behind schedule. Now a stripped down SAS is under construction.

I remember when the CTA’s 63rd Street L’s terminated in vast wastelands on the South Side of Chicago (pre-Obama). Today the South Side is resurgent, and dependent on the CTA for rapid transit. More than twenty-five years ago, Chicago welcomed a transit line to O’Hare Airport. The CTA then neglected to maintain the tracks for decades. The result: last year CTA trains were crawling to O’Hare. A major municipal embarrassment. The CTA Blue Line received “emergency repairs.”

Today the CTA is underinvesting again. Every urban transit system is. They won’t tell their riders the truth: transit costs money.

The desire for “free” transit is not limited to the subways and buses across America. Politicians constantly promise that which they cannot deliver. During the presidential election, every Democrat promised “quality” and “affordable” health care. No one would say who would pay. When pressed, the candidates would claim that computerizing patient records would yield sufficient savings to cover the increased cost of more “free” health care.

The MTA wants to offer an “unlimited ride” fare card for $103. It could be used on an unrestricted basis across the entire subway and bus system for an entire month. If you assume that someone only went back and forth to work 20 days a month, the “unlimited” cost of a round-trip to work would be barely $5. If you use an unlimited card the way most people do, you will get close to a hundred rides out of it every month, actual cost a little over $1 per ride. This is too much? In 2009? For unlimited access to a massive urban railway and bus network? A “horrific” fare increase?

Hemmerdinger would really scare people if he told them what the real expense of providing transit service is, on a fully-costed basis, with adequate investment in maintenance and expansion. Now that would be frightening to most people. They would have to face the “horrific” reality they are getting a bargain.

There is no way to expand “quality” and “affordability” at the same time. Politicians lie to the public when they make such extravagant and unattainable promises. Sadly, voters love it. Who wouldn’t love the promise of a free lunch?

Free lunch? Maybe that’s next.

In the meantime, the increased fares in Chicago and New York are not “horrors” as Mr. Hemmerdinger suggests. They are still insufficient to fund a solid transportation system for two great cities of the world. Tell the truth Mr. Hemmerdinger. At least some people will believe you.

Repeat after me: there is no free lunch. And no “free” way to provide quality transit.

Mr. Hemmerdinger, on Wednesday when you vote to raise fares, please, pretty please tell people the truth. “Fares are still much too low to provide quality transit for today and tomorrow.” And please stop placing ads in the subways bragging that the real cost of transit fares has decreased by 50% in the past two decades.

Andy Martin is a legendary Chicago muckraker, author, Internet columnist, radio talk show host, broadcaster and media critic. He has over forty years of broadcasting experience in radio and television and is the dean of Illinois media and communications. He is currently promoting his best-selling book, Obama: The Man Behind The Mask. Andy is the Executive Editor and publisher of

Martin comments on regional, national and world events with over four decades of experience. He holds Economics and Juris Doctor degrees from the University of Illinois and is a former adjunct professor of law at the City University of New York. He is an announced candidate for Barack Obama’s former U. S. Senate seat.


His columns are also posted at;
[NOTE: We frequently correct typographical errors and additions/subtractions on our blogs, where you can find the latest edition of this release.]

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