MTA Displays Grasshopper Mentality
Among the legacies that ancient Greek civilization bequeathed to the modern world is the fable attributed to Aesop about the ant and the grasshopper. The grasshopper, a real party insect, spent an entire summer indulging in a variety of hedonistic activities and mocking a colony of ants that meanwhile worked to store up food for the coming winter. When winter came, the grasshopper was reduced to begging the ants for food to stave off starvation.
The Aesopian version has the ants scolding the grasshopper and turning him away to die. A more humanitarian take on the matter produced as an animated short subject by Walt Disney in 1934 has the grasshopper living in the ant colony, but working for his room and board by playing his fiddle. In either version, the moral is clear: work hard and conserve what you have today or find yourself impecunious and possibly on the verge of starvation tomorrow.
Comparisons of the management of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to the grasshopper are inescapable. Not many years ago, we were told that the MTA had more surplus cash than it knew what to do with. Visions of sugarplums in the form of better, cleaner, faster trains and buses, spotless subway platforms and a shelter for every bus stop, along with capital improvements that would make the New York City transportation system the envy of the world danced in the heads of MTA management and more than a few of the riding public. It seemed that the days of fare increases and service cutbacks were gone forever.
Now, suddenly, we are faced with the harsh reality of the grasshopper in winter. Not only is there no surplus, in order to balance its budget, which the MTA is required to do by law, the agency is instituting across-the-board cuts that will bring about the complete elimination of the V and W subway lines and the Q74 bus. Service on other bus routes throughout the city is being cut back or eliminated. A fare hike looms, as does the threat of eliminating student MetroCards—a stunning example of the city’s willingness to gamble with its future by forcing students from kindergarten through high school to seek other ways of getting to their respective learning institutions or, in the case of older high school students, to forego their education altogether.
In the heady days when money seemed to flow unceasingly into the coffers of the MTA, a grasshopper-in-summer mentality seems to have prevailed. The MTA vastly increased the size of its administrative staff and otherwise spent money that it ought to have saved. Meanwhile, in the opinion of the riding public, at least those members of it that we talk to in the course of an average day, not many real improvements came into being.
It is the riding public that will pay the price of the MTA’s profligacy. Fewer buses, shorter, more crowded, less frequent trains, dirtier platforms and track beds—all these will affect the MTA’s greatest resource, the riders. People who took trains and buses to get to shopping and leisure time activities as well as for going to work will find ways other than mass transit to get to their discretionary destinations. In turn, the revenue stream will continue to dry up. Judging from experience, the MTA’s response will be to continue to raise fares and cut service, including laying off station agents and members of the operating department.
Life tends to run in cycles, and we know that some day, whenever it may be, the MTA will once again find itself with surplus funds. When that happens, we hope that the lesson of the grasshopper and the ant will have made itself known to at least a few members of the MTA board and upper-echelon management. The riding public, which ultimately pays the salary of every MTA employee, whoever he or she may be, deserves at the very least clean, well-lighted, safe subway trains and platforms and buses and bus stops and service that does not leave riders wondering whether the next train or bus will ever materialize. The New York City transportation system should not be the subject of the hortatory moral of a fable.