Op-Ed as originally published in Gotham Gazette
by Rachael Fauss, Senior Research Analyst
In advance of the MTA Board meeting taking place today (Wednesday, May 22), Reinvent Albany and ten other groups including Riders Alliance, TransitCenter, Regional Plan Association, and others sent a letter asking the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to make sure that the process for developing its reorganization plan — as required by this year’s state budget — is public, transparent and consultative.
At a time when the MTA has been seeking to restore the public’s trust, it is as important as ever that a reorganization is not disruptive to riders, who are counting on a reorganization to provide better, not worse, service. Ensuring the discussions over the pending reorganization are open and consultative will help put the MTA’s best foot forward to show it is acting in the public interest — something highlighted as a major need in Reinvent Albany’s recently-released Open MTA report.
So far, the process has not been public or transparent, and MTA Board members have raised important questions about their role. In March, before the state budget legislation was passed creating the mandate for reorganization, the Board was asked by MTA management to approve a contract with consultants AlixPartners. Once the budget was finalized and passed, at the April Board meeting, a $4 million contract was approved for AlixPartners to develop the reorganization plan.
While the law sets up milestones for the process to unfold, there is no detail on how the public is to be engaged in the process, and little detail on how the plan is to be presented to the public. The state budget requires the MTA’s consultant, now AlixPartners, to give its plan to the MTA Board by June 30 of this year. Our view is that the plan should be made public at that date, including any accompanying analyses.
AlixPartners is also conducting a “review” of waste, fraud, abuse, conflicts of interest, duplications of functions, etc., which is due to the MTA by July 31. Under law, the “review” is to be made public within 30 days of receipt by the MTA.
Best would be to make the AlixPartners “review” public as soon as it is received by the MTA Board, since there is a narrow window of time for adopting the reorganization plan. Within 90 days of receipt of this “review,” the reorganization plan is to be “updated” by the authority to incorporate its findings.
It is our understanding that the MTA Board, acting as the authority, will vote on a final reorganization plan sometime before the end of October of this year. Well before a final plan is voted on, the MTA Board and staff should reach out to public stakeholders, including riders groups, unions, advocates, and elected representatives, and publicly consult with them about potential recommendations. This would be best done outside of the MTA Board meeting process, which limits public engagement to 2-minute presentations and does not allow a dialogue to occur.
Beyond ensuring that the reorganization plan process is open and consultative, as supported by our partners, Reinvent Albany has a number of questions about the ramifications of the plan itself that we would like the MTA to answer:
- The MTA’s efforts to consolidate invoice payments, human resources, and IT functions under the Business Services Center (BSC) have not been independently evaluated, though general consensus is that the effort was rocky at first, though appears to be moving in the right direction. What has the MTA learned from this past consolidation that should apply to the current reorganization process? Reports on the BSC from MTA show that its current mandate is considerable.
- How will the plan ensure that the MTA’s professional staff are allowed to have independence, and be free from the past politicization that has plagued the MTA?
- What will be the role of agency presidents going forward? Andy Byford has hired considerable talent, including, for example, Sarah Meyer (Chief Customer Officer), and Pete Tomlin (signals technology expert). How will this staff talent be retained and used in the future?
- How will the plan ensure that there is not further brain drain, and work to boost MTA staff morale? The hiring freeze has put considerable strain on current MTA staff to already do more with fewer resources (in some cases necessitating overtime), and morale appears to be at an all time low.
- How will the state budget provision that enables sharing of employees facilitate reorganization? How will any sharing of employees be reported to the MTA Board and public? How will collective bargaining agreements affect the proposed reorganization/employee sharing?
- How will the plan address transparency and accountability? MTA CEO/Chair Pat Foye has promised to overhaul the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) process and Open Data at MTA, yet the Information Technology (IT) department has already been consolidated, resulting in the elimination of 187 positions, in addition to the current hiring freeze.
Reinvent Albany also has concerns that this IT consolidation is creating an outsourcing trap for the MTA that results in dependency on outside, costly consultants. Transparent efficiency efforts rely on IT staff having the people, resources, and political will to make changes. Will they?
The MTA should seek to answer these questions — and those of other stakeholders — in a public, consultative process. MTA riders and taxpayers deserve nothing less.