Cause of transit projects’ runaway costs is no mystery: unions

Crains New York

The Government Accountability Office recently announced plans to study America’s sky-high transit construction costs. New York City—where they are seven times more than the global average—will receive special attention from the federal investigators.

The first phase of the Second Avenue subway cost $2.5 billion for each mile of track. The East Side Access project is projected to cost even more: $3.5 billion per track mile. According to The New York Times, a mile of subway track elsewhere in the world costs $500 million or less.

Why the drastic discrepancy? Two words: labor unions.

Union demands lead to overstaffing, disproportionately high wages and wasteful work rules unique to the Big Apple. The Times exposed the “excessive staffing, little competition and generous contracts” plaguing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority—and taking resources away from much-needed repairs and upgrades.

The devil is in the details. The MTA budget for a 3.5-mile tunnel connecting Grand Central Terminal to the Long Island Rail Road included 900 workers being paid to dig caverns, even though an accounting review found only 700 jobs that needed to be filled. What about the other 200? Former MTA capital projects chief Michael Horodniceanu put it this way: “Nobody knew what those people were doing, if they were doing anything.”

Yet those same workers were paid $1,000 a day. Union officials also recommend tunnel diggers who, for overtime and Sunday work, earn more than $400 an hour.

At least they bring discernible value—albeit at a steep premium. Other well-paid union jobs have no value, including break-room supervisors and workers tasked with lubricating self-lubricating cranes. So-called “nippers” are hired to watch material being moved. Elevators and generators are staffed by operators even though they’re automatic.

It can all be traced back to trade unions, who have “secured deals requiring underground construction work to be staffed by as many as four times more laborers than elsewhere in the world.”

The chief culprit is Gary LaBarbera, who oversees New York City’s trade unions as president of the Building and Construction Trades Council. LaBarbera’s member unions negotiate expensive and wasteful project labor agreements with construction companies, scoring lucrative contracts at the expense of long-overdue subway improvements. When pressed on sky-high construction costs, LaBarbera doubled down: “Construction workers deserve every penny they make, and more.”

Union demands do not make construction workers any safer. During the Second Avenue subway project, there were 5.5 safety incidents for every 200,000 work hours. The national average is 3.2. Washington, D.C.’s Silver Line, which cost only $300 million per mile, boasted an even lower rate of incidents. The Times described it best: “Labor deals multiply costs while doing little to boost safety.”

Nonetheless, LaBarbera’s unions carry on, hungry for more windfalls even as the MTA struggles for resources. According to the MTA’s chief financial officer, Robert Foran, the agency will face a $1 billion deficit in 2021. Next year it plans a 4% fare hike, forcing subway riders to spend even more on their commutes.

It’s a tough pill to swallow for New York’s taxpayers and straphangers. While union officials secure $400-an-hour jobs for needless work, New Yorkers are left with a train system that remains dirty, delayed and dangerous—and more expensive than ever.

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