What's the truth?

December 4, 2008 2:16:41 PM PST
My dad used to say that liars figure, but figures don't lie. With all due respect to my old man - and I respected him a lot - sometimes, figures do lie.

Hear me out.

The Metropolitan Transportation says it has a $1.4 billion deficit in next year's operating budget, and will have a $3 billion deficit by 2012. This is the same agency that has alternatively said it has a surplus, then a deficit, then a surplus, then a deficit, then ...... it just never ends. You can get whiplash watching the MTA's changing budget forecasts.

So how are we to believe what the real figure is? And even if that $1.4 billion deficit projection is accurate, how did that happen? What are the costs that are driving that figure so far into the red? And can they be cut?

And how best to bridge that gap on the revenue side? Is raising the basic bus and subway fare to $2.50 a fairer way to raise revenue than by taxing East River crossings? Is it better to raise fares only 8% and then also introduce new tolls?

I don't pretend to know the answer. (Although I do wonder about traffic on those wonderful but often slow bridges. As one friend of mine posits: tolls would create traffic jams all the way to Tokyo.)

What I do know is that the MTA's reputation is a little like the IRS's rep a couple decades ago: People just don't trust the agency. And that's a bigger problem than a budget deficit.

If an entity is in trouble, and the people who pay the freight have trust in it, then they're more willing to help out.

Today, a state commission has proposed a new fare structure, which includes higher subway and bus prices, and new river crossing tolls. The proposal also includes a payroll tax on companies in a 12-county area; they'd pay $330 in tax for every $100,000 in wages.

Does it matter? Either way, the costs of all this are being passed on to --- everyone.

We'll have the latest on the MTA proposals, tonight at 11.

Speaking of entities that have no credibility, the three major U.S. automakers are making their case again -- coming from Detroit in hybrid cars rather than corporate jets. Better public image, given that they're asking for more than $30 billion in taxpayer bailout money.

But would we be throwing good money -- or, in this case, borrowed money -- after bad? How did these companies get in this position, where Americans just aren't buying their cars anymore?

It's a little like the MTA, no?

And, yes, I'm aware of all the jobs that would be lost, and of course no one wants that to happen.

But the way these carmakers have done business in the past just won't cut it in the future.

And even the national debate over health care is coming into play here: it turns out that for every General Motors car built, more than $1,500 is added to the price tag to pay for health care benefits for GM employees.

Compare that to, say, Toyota, which pays $100 per car for its workers' health care, and makes $2,400 more in profit per car than U.S. manufacturers.

Warren Buffet calls GM "a health and benefits company with an auto company attached."

We'll have the latest on the bailout proposal, at 11.

We'll also have any breaking news of the night, plus Lee Goldberg's chilly AccuWeather forecast, and Scott Clark with the night's sports. I hope you can join Liz Cho and me, tonight at 11.