Keep The Private Buses Private

By Christopher R. Lynn

22 July 02

Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently proposed that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) assume operation of private bus routes serving the four boroughs of New York City outside Manhattan. The mayor's solution -- perhaps borne out of frustration with the ongoing strike by private bus line employees and the illusory prospect of budgetary savings -- is ill-conceived and is likely to result in less and poorer service for thousands of New Yorkers in the city's outlying neighborhoods. They depend on the commuter bus lines to get to and from jobs in Manhattan.

The seven private companies that have traditionally provided this service -- Green Bus Lines, Triboro Coach Corporation, Command Bus Company, Jamaica Buses Inc., Queens Surface, Liberty Lines, and New York Bus Service -- are not perfect. But they are more accountable to city government than any branch of the MTA, including the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA). The private bus lines report to and are monitored by the city's Department of Transpo rtation, a mayoral agency, and because they depend on the city for annual subsidies totaling about $175 million.

In stark contrast, the MTA and its subsidiary, the New York City Transit Authority, are both state agencies that have historically been more responsive to suburban dwellers than to city residents. The MTA subsidizes the cost of rail lines serving suburban dwellers on Long Island and in Westchester County far more than it does trips on the city's subways and buses. And, as far as accountability to the city's elected officials, both the MTA and the NYCTA are answerable only to the MTA's Board. The MTA's eighteen-person board is a notoriously unwieldy bureaucratic construct to which only four members are appointed by the mayor. The remainder are appointed by the governor and the county executives of Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Rockland, Dutchess, Orange, and Putnam Counties. It cannot fairly be expected to take the concerns of New York City residents in mind as diligently as do Mayor Bloomberg and his highly capable Transportation Commissioner, Iris Weinshall.

Indeed, if the MTA had genuinely been eager to assume responsibility for serving the neighborhoods now relying on the private bus lines, it would long ago either have proposed to do so, or offered a competing service. Perhaps the MTA has been reluctant to undertake such an expansion of its service to New Yorkers because its own record in providing bus service is so poor. The MTA already offers too few buses to move too many passengers, and the MTA's buses are far more likely to suffer from mechanical breakdowns than are those of the private lines.

Ironically, and contrary to many stereotypes about the private sector, the seven bus companies providing the current service have proved far more "green" than the MTA has. The privately operated bus lines pioneered the use of clean-burning fuels like compressed natural gas (CNG) and electricity in New York City's mass transit, while a recalcitrant MTA reneged on its commitment to convert its entire bus fleet to alternative fuels. During the 1990's, the MTA was scheduled to replace hundreds of diesel-fueled buses by purchasing new vehicles using alternative fuel, but canceled the order after citing safety concerns. Somehow, the agency has never been able to find safe buses using clean-burning fuel anywhere in the world, despite the successful track record of many of these vehicles in cities around the world. One of those cities is New York, where the private bus companies have been using them for years with no apparent safety problems whatsoever!

Finally, there is the mayor's most compelling rationale: the city is facing dire economic circumstances in balancing its own budget in the years ahead, and could save $175 million annually if it were no longer obligated to subsidize the private bus lines. The fact is, however, that all forms of transportation in New York State are subsidized to some degree or other. Tolls and automobile taxes do not cover the cost of maintaining the Empire State's infrastructure of roads and bridges any more than city residents' transit fares cover the cost of operating our buses and subways. Were we to saddle the MTA with the financial obligation of providing reasonably priced commuter bus service in areas now served by the seven private companies, city residents would ultimately be confronted by pressures on the budget of the suburban-dominated MTA. This would result in an unhealthy combination of fare hikes and service cuts on the city's network of subways and buses.

The private bus lines transport 350,000 people daily. The $167 million sum for this service paid by the city is indeed money well spent. Let's keep doing it!

Christopher R. Lynn, an attorney, was the commissioner of the Department of Transportation under Mayor Rudy Giuliani from July 1996 until December 1997.

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