Ever heard the old admonition that if you give an inch, they’ll take a mile?
Well, you better hope it’s not a New York City mile. I’m reminded of the phrase when I come across underground transit construction costs in the Big Apple, which run seven times higher than the global average. The first phase of the Second Avenue subway cost $2.5 billion for each new mile of track. The East Side Access project, a tunnel connecting the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central, is expected to cost even more: $3.5 billion per track mile. That translates to well over a half-million dollars per foot.
The situation is so untenable that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently announced plans to investigate New York’s sky-high transit construction costs. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) currently relies on federal funding for more than 20 percent of its capital needs — billions of dollars in taxpayer money.
Like the $21 trillion national debt, astronomical numbers like these are difficult to conceptualize. But they will come back to haunt taxpayers in New York City and beyond, who are forced to fund outrageously expensive MTA projects while grappling with subway fare increases on an annual basis. Next year, New Yorkers will see a 4 percent fare increase, even as millions are spent constructing mere inches of track.
The victimized commuters are stuck with a subway system decaying by the day. Last month, heavy rain flooded subway stations across Manhattan, with water barreling down stairs and falling out of ceilings. As the New York Post reported, subway platforms turned into “subterranean lakes.” It’s no wonder that more than 70 percent of New Yorkers polled describe their subway system as dirty, delayed and dangerous.
So who’s orchestrating the subway scam? The construction unions negotiating transit contracts, which inflate construction costs with no show-no work jobs, disproportionately high wages and wasteful work rules. Last December, The New York Times exposed the “excessive staffing, little competition, and generous contracts” plaguing the MTA — and taking resources away from much-needed repairs and upgrades (i.e. reinforced ceilings).
The MTA budget for the East Side Access project included 900 workers being paid to dig caverns, even though an accounting review found only 700 jobs that needed to be filled. What were the extra 200 workers doing? According to former MTA capital projects head Michael Horodniceanu, “Nobody knew what those people were doing, if they were doing anything.”
Yet those same non-working workers were paid $1,000 a day — the equivalent of $260,000 a year!
It gets worse in the union underground. Other well-paid union jobs include workers hired to lubricate self-lubricating cranes. Then there are union elevator operators who push buttons on automatic elevators. Now you know why underground construction work in New York is, according to The Times, “staffed by as many as four times more laborers than elsewhere in the world.”
As you might imagine, the union jobs with at least theoretical value come at a steep premium: Union-recommended tunnel diggers often earn, for overtime and Sunday work, more than $400 an hour. That rate is equivalent to more $830,000 a year!
The poster child for union waste is Gary LaBarbera, who oversees New York’s trade unions as president of the Building and Construction Trades Council.
His primary goal is to take as much taxpayer money as possible to fund sky-high union salaries and pension plans. And he’s not shy about it: When pressed on cost overruns, Mr. LaBarbera asserts that his members deserve even more.
Unfortunately, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York Democrat and longtime union enabler, recently nominated Mr. LaBarbera to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey board of commissioners, giving a man responsible for unprecedented union waste even more executive authority.
This is the same Gary LaBarbera who cannot ever hold office within Teamsters Local 282, his former union, after being found guilty of shorting a Teamsters pension plan. Yet New Yorkers must now put their trust in him to pursue cost-effective transit construction initiatives.
The subway scam rides on.
• Richard Berman is executive director of the Center for Union Facts.