It was 18 years ago in 2005, when the city of New York initiated (completed by 2006) the purchase of seven remaining New York City (NYC) private bus operator franchises. This included Green Bus Lines, Jamaica Buses and Triboro Coach Corporation, along with Queens Surface providing service in Queens, Command Bus (Brooklyn), Liberty Lines Bronx Express and New York Bus Service (Bronx). They entered into an agreement with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) that created a new operating agency, MTA Bus Company, to continue service previously provided by these private bus operators. Subsequently, they entered into a 50-year lease agreements to utilize and operate all of their garages and assets. The deal was supposed to benefit riders and taxpayers.
Prior to 2005, the NYC Department of Transportation (DOT) using a combination of city, state and federal funding provided both capital and operating assistance to all seven private bus operators. Virtually all of the capital funding was provided by grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration. For 35 years, these grant funds paid for replacement buses, radios, fare boxes, bus stop shelters, bus stop signs, bus washers, facility improvements and new bus garages for Queens Surface in College Point, Queens and Command Bus in Spring Creek, Brooklyn.
All seven private bus companies could not survive on farebox revenues alone. With insufficient income, they all counted on NYC DOT starting in the 1970s to begin purchasing replacement buses, fareboxes, radios and other support equipment for their respective aging bus fleets. In many cases, bus operators had to operate and maintain buses well beyond the industry standard useful life of 12 years and/or 500,000 miles. Too many buses in revenue service were between 12 and 27 years old, with far more mileage.
It took NYC DOT too many years to complete any bus procurements before operators received and could provide the riding public with new modern buses. Give MTA Bus credit for purchasing hundreds of new buses, reducing the average fleet age and investing in upgrades to antiquated bus garages far more quickly than NYC DOT ever could.
The MTA Bus Company operates service pursuant to an agreement with NYC under which all expenses of MTA Bus Company, minus operating revenues, are reimbursed via NYC DOT. Over the years, the consolidation has lead to joint operational changes, including the creation of a unified command center and consolidation of management for all bus operations. The MTA Bus stand alone call center was merged into the larger, newer NYC Transit call center.
The promised operational savings by city hall and MTA for taxpayers never appeared. The original $100 million annual NYC subsidy formerly provided to the private bus operators has grown over time to $570 million today for MTA Bus. The private bus company owners earn several million per year from MTA Bus for leasing their facilities. Potential operational savings by consolidation of duplicate routes between NYC Transit Bus, Manhattan Bronx Surface Transportation Operating Authority Bus divisions and MTA Bus never fully took place.
The same was true for reducing deadheading costs by reassigning bus routes between all three divisions to closer garages for reduction of operating costs. Work rules and contracts between different labor unions representing employees at NYC Transit Bus, Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transportation Operating Authority Bus and MTA Bus divisions have prevented significant changes to the status quo.
We have gone full circle from private to public operators over the past six decades. Was it was worth it for riders of the original routes operated by the old Green Bus Lines, Jamaica Buses, Triboro Coach Corporation, Queens Surface, Command Bus, Liberty Lines Bronx Express and New York Bus Service? Ditto for taxpayers? Time will tell.
Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously served as a former Director for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office of Operations and Program Management. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for NJ Transit, New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, NYC Transit bus, subway and Staten Island Railway, Long Island and Metro North Rail Roads, MTA Bus, NYCDOT Staten Island Ferry and 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ.