Stop this runaway train of overtime costs at MTA, LIRR

Last weekend, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s transit riders and bridge and tunnel toll payers saw a fare hike — and drivers soon will have to pay a “congestion fee” to enter core Manhattan.

Yet this new money barely makes a dent: The MTA still faces a half-billion budget deficit next year, doubling by 2022. Though New Yorkers pay more attention to the subways than to commuter railroads, a huge part of the problem is the Long Island Rail Road, whose insane union work rules and benefits drive up costs for everyone, as well as making your commute less safe.

In 2018, the MTA hit a grim milestone: Overtime costs exceeded $1 billion for the first time. Most OT spending was on the subways, where overtime rose by 16 percent, or $119 million, last year, to $863 farmillion.

That’s not a surprise, as the MTA was going all out on track and signal repairs. It wasn’t exactly great management for the MTA to cut back on basic maintenance work after 2008, only to scramble — and pay even more — to undo the damage a decade later. But at least there’s a rational explanation and result: Performance is (a little) better.

It’s a different story at the Long Island Rail Road, where overtime is up by nearly 30 percent, to $225 million, according to the Empire Center’s SeeThroughNY public-sector salary database.

The LIRR has only one worker for every seven subway and bus workers — but takes one dollar for every four dollars that subway and bus workers earn in overtime. And unlike in New York City, there’s no emergency.

Indeed, 58 of the MTA’s 100 highest-paid employees are LIRR workers, above $270,000 a year. Chief Measurement Operator Thomas Caputo, who operated a track-geometry train before retiring this year, earned nearly $462,000, $344,000 of it in overtime. Sixteen hourly LIRR workers made more than $200,000 in overtime alone.

Arcane work rules enshrined in more than 800 pages of 11 separate union contracts drive up pay. Under the LIRR’s contract with “maintenance of way” workers, for example, including Caputo’s job title, workers get first pick of overtime by seniority, for any work for which they qualify — with time and a half after eight hours a day, and double time after 16 hours.

On an hourly rate of $54 — as chief measurement operator commands — double-time means $108 an hour.

Workers hired before 2008 can add all this money into the three-year average salary on which their pension is based. For just one top LIRR retiree, taxpayers will pay $1.2 million over the next 30 years in “overtime” costs alone. (Workers hired after 2008 can only use OT to add up to 20 percent to their pensions.)

For decades, the MTA has hidden behind contractual language as an excuse for rising costs — even though bad contracts are the result of poor management and political leadership. The reason the state runs the LIRR in the first place is because, in the ’60s and ’70s, private-sector railroad operators went bankrupt under similar work rules.

The MTA could play rougher here — imposing a moratorium on overtime for all workers, thus keeping senior workers out of the mix.

Rough play aside, the MTA has a legitimately alarming safety issue here that could trump contractual language. Two years ago, LIRR track foreman Michael Ollek was killed on the job. The full year before he was killed, Ollek earned nearly $252,000 — $100,000 in regular wages, and $152,000 in overtime.

It’s hard not to wonder if exhaustion played a role: Can someone really work 16 hours a day on a regular basis? Do commuters want to rely on such practices?

Any aggressive management action will spur a war, with riders as the targeted civilians: mass sickouts, trains mysteriously out of service, work slowdowns and the like. Plus, at some point, the MTA needs better contract language: The LIRR could automate track-geometry work, for example, and go to gated entry, with riders flashing a chip card across a barrier before gaining access to a train, rather than ticket collection on board via conductor.

There’s no easy way around it: Someday, the LIRR will have a strike. As it happens, LIRR contracts are already expired. Five years ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo balked at a walkout, even though the LIRR had prepared for shuttle-bus service, ferries and mandatory carpooling.

Cuomo, with possible aspirations to higher office, may understandably think that presiding over a railroad strike isn’t exactly progressive. But it is: Six-figure pensions for a few at the expense of the many is hardly, one hopes, what the new Democratic Party has in mind for the country.

Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

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