By Jake Novak
Whenever I meet a Jewish person from the Five Towns, I usually launch into my “go-to joke”:
Oh, you’re from the Five Towns? Well, I’m sure when the time comes you’ll go straight to Olam Habah … but first you’ll have to change at Jamaica.
Okay, that quip won’t get me a slot on The Tonight Show anytime soon, but it’s usually a hit with longtime 5T residents who have dedicated years of their lives to riding on the Long Island Railroad on the Far Rockaway branch.
In one sense, the LIRR is a true gift. At least those of us who use it have an option other than the even more soul-crushing and expensive daily drive in and out of Manhattan. The overwhelming majority of Americans who commute to work do not have any other option other than driving.
But no sane person can argue that the railroad or the MTA overall is managed efficiently or even close to what could be an acceptable way. Cost overruns are accepted. Paying more for less service is a given. Cleanliness is … hopeless.
The reasons why are a confluence of union greed, political corruption, and a lack of accountability. Simple jobs like replacing a single staircase take forever and cost much more than market prices because of the “perks” unions demand from government agencies. That union greed also manifests itself in lifetime health benefits and pensions that we simply cannot afford and are far more lavish than almost every other working American could ever expect.
Politicians let this continue because unions are an easy source of campaign funding and election workers. They are dangerous if threatened, especially for a New York or New Jersey Democrat.
But perhaps even worse is the slimy way the elected politicians have crafted a way to avoid direct responsibility for any problems at the LIRR or the MTA in general. Here’s exactly how the MTA is governed (you may want to prepare to re-read the following sentences two or three times):
The MTA is controlled by a 17-person board. Four members, as well as the chairman and the CEO are directly nominated by the Governor of New York, while four are recommended by New York City’s mayor. The county executives of Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties nominate one member each. Each of these members has one vote. The county executives of Dutchess, Orange, Rockland, and Putnam counties also nominate one member each, but these members cast one collective vote. The Board also has six rotating non-voting seats held by representatives of MTA employee organized labor and the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, which represent customers of MTA transit and commuter facilities.] Board members are confirmed by the New York State Senate.
Got it? You have a good excuse if you don’t, because it was set up to confuse voters and protect elected leaders from commuter wrath. The process for this obfuscation was laid out well in Robert Caro’s award-winning epic of a book, The Power Broker, about the how Robert Moses set up our draconian public transit system. Caro’s book is long but it’s also essential reading for New Yorkers, especially LIRR riders.
But the shorthand version of all of this is that our governor, mayor, and every other elected leader has a convenient way to point fingers at someone else whenever train service fails, or fares go up, or any other transit problem arises. When no one person is truly accountable, you get chaos.
Now before you shrug your shoulders and say something about how you can’t fight City Hall, or there’s no way to fix this, please take a gander at what happens to be the largest public transit train system in the world. That system serves the Tokyo megalopolis, and a major chunk of both the inner-city subway systems and commuter rail lines are run by private companies. Some of them have been privately-run for many decades. And they run much more efficiently, cleanly, and safely than the MTA.
Now to be clear, the companies aren’t 100 percent private. They still get lower cost government-backed loans and they can never really go bankrupt. Also, the private companies that run the rail lines in lower-populated areas do have problems. But the densely populated city lines and commuter lines that serve areas a bit closer to Tokyo are the envy of the world. They are also devoid of political appointees and cronyism. And when they make profits, the executives make better salaries, and vice versa. How’s that for accountability?
There’s absolutely no reason why New York or any other large U.S. city can’t copy Tokyo’s example. That is, no reason other than politics, greed, and ignorance. I’m not so sure what we can do about the first two roadblocks, but spread this piece around to at least make a dent in the ignorance problem!
The stakes are enormously high. Mass transit is Long Island’s lifeline. Just imagine what would happen to our property values and quality of life if the LIRR ever shut down for long periods of time or disappeared entirely.
Whenever anyone asks me how I became a conservative despite being an American Jew who went to Columbia University, I always answer: “I spent my teenage years living in Far Rockaway and seeing what government did to hurt poor people and destroy a beautiful beach community.” And when they ask me how I’m still a conservative in 2018, I answer: “I ride the LIRR every day.”
Jake Novak has been a TV news producer and editorial columnist for more than 25 years, with expertise in political, economic, religious, and cultural issues. He has produced shows at CNBC, CNN, FOX, and several local stations across the country. Novak is a graduate of the Yeshivah of Flatbush, has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University, and a master’s degree from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny and watch out for future columns on 5TJT.com.