New York City's subway system has long been cluttered with advertisements compared with the relatively tidy D.C. Metro. The ads, though unsightly, serve the useful purpose of bringing in revenue. But since late 2010, the state's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the New York subways, has treated straphangers to a new kind of subway advertisement. These ads are placed not by private companies but by the MTA itself. They don't bring in revenue. Their purpose is to tell you what a good job the MTA is doing.
Most of the ads celebrate particular achievements, usually by explaining their importance to you. One, hailing the "downtown crossroads to everywhere," proclaims that "at the new Fulton Street complex, you'll easily connect to 11 subway lines, the World Trade Center, and four levels of shopping. Easily being the key word." Another tells the commuter that "hundreds of miles of subway and train tracks have recently been replaced or renewed. And hundreds more to come. Which means smoother, more reliable trips for you." A third brags, "We said we'd consolidate 117 phone numbers to just 1. And we have. Call 511, say MTA and get the information you need about MTA services."
Every MTA-sponsored ad takes up space that could otherwise have been occupied by a paying advertiser. The MTA argues, implausibly, that the ads don't cost the public a penny, since they're part of the agency's contract with the media company CBS Outdoor, which manages the subways' advertising space. But if you sign a contract that reserves a big chunk of ad space for yourself -- it adds up to about 10 percent of the fleet's overhead advertising space, according to the MTA -- you're limiting your ad revenue. Why would the cash-strapped MTA throw all that money away?
The likely answer is that it desperately needs good publicity. The agency plans consecutive 7.5 percent fare hikes in 2013, 2015 and 2017, after passing steep hikes less than two years ago. The agency's current ads implicitly assure you, the exasperated commuter, that you're getting improvements for all this new money.
That assurance flies in the face of what the MTA's own director of government affairs, Hilary Ring, recently told the City Council: that the upcoming fare hikes wouldn't result in any service improvements. "So essentially the fare and toll increases, it is almost dollar for dollar being eaten up by our increases in pension and retiree health care costs," Ring said.
The transit workers union has managed to preserve a minimum retirement age of 55, even as other New York public-sector unions saw theirs rise to 63 -- no wonder costs for retirees are soaring. But if you're inclined to blame your rising fare on the transit workers, well, there's an ad for that. Its headline admonishes you that "improvements don't just happen," and its kicker administers the moral: "Our thanks to our fellow employees for their hard work. And solid results."
These days, New Yorkers are increasingly bombarded with government-sponsored ads telling them to stop smoking, stop drinking soda, start breast-feeding their babies and so forth. These ads are inappropriate uses of taxpayer dollars, the work of a government that's impudent enough to take people's earnings for the express purpose of telling them how to improve themselves.
But the MTA's ads are even worse, since their aim is to encourage you to approve of a government agency that's misspending your money -- chiefly on outsized benefits for retirees but also on self-promotion. It's a vicious circle: Citizens' taxes and fares fund ads that encourage citizens to agree to still-higher taxes and fares. Which means (as the MTA might put it) more expensive trips for you.
Benjamin A. Plotinsky is the managing editor of City Journal. This piece is adapted from City Journal's summer issue.