The following is a post to from Patrick Mackaronis. Patrick is the Director of Business Development for New York City-based social network Brabble. In this post , Patrick speaks about MTA. Patrick can be best reached on Twitter at @patty__mack.
Turning over its subways and buses to a public authority was the greatest mistake in New York City transit history.
In a New York Civic forum held on July 15, 2009, Assemblyman Richard Brodsky lamented that unlike education, healthcare, etc., there was no public interest and very little public engagement with transportation issues.
The purpose of this article is to demonstrate how the MTA destroyed civic engagement in transportation and its effect on New York City’s mass transit.
In the 1940’s, New York City ran its subways and buses directly through a Board of Transportation (BOT). Although the system was much larger than it is today and its ridership at levels never matched, the BOT ran the system successfully with very strong public support.
There was one major problem. The fare was 5 cents from the turn of the century and New Yorkers expected the nickel fare to continue forever. Operating costs soared after World War II requiring a major fare increase. In 1948, the BOT raised it to a dime for subways and 7 cents for buses but this was not enough.
Fearful of the electoral consequences of raising the fare again, the politicians decided to turn over New York City’s subways and buses to an independent public authority on June 15, 1953. In this setup, the public authority called the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA) would assume the responsibility for raising the fare in exchange for total power to run the system without any interference from elected officials (Hood).
The power of the public authority was dramatically demonstrated with the Transportation Bond Act of 1951. Still in command in 1951, the BOT placed this referendum before the public to raise $500 million dollars to build a full-length 2nd Avenue subway with extensions to the Bronx and Queens, and connections to Brooklyn; to extend the Nostrand Avenue subway to Sheepshead Bay and to construct a new line on Utica Avenue to Avenue U (Cunningham & DeHart).
The Bond Act passed but the NYCTA took over before any construction began and to the shock of the public, announced that it would use the money to buy new subway cars for the IRT, lengthen station platforms, etc. instead of building any of the new lines. Even though the NYCTA went against the will of the people clearly expressed in the ballot box, no one (not the elected officials, not the courts) could do anything about it.
In 1968, the NYCTA was absorbed into a larger, statewide public authority named the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Continuing NYCTA’s ill advised program of deferred maintenance, a situation made worse by a massive crime wave and graffiti vandalism, the entire system came to a point of near total collapse in the early 1980’s. It took the MTA a decade to bring the system back to a state of good repair.
The MTA Consolidates Its Power
While bringing the system to a good state of repair, decisions were easy: new subway cars had to be purchased, older ones refurbished and trackways rebuilt. It’s not surprising that both public and legislative support was solid. Once that goal was attained, the MTA embarked on its own agenda, which in the parlance of the “Occupy… Movements” can be described as the agenda of the 1%. Aside from system maintenance, this consists of three general objectives: expansion projects for the wealthy, an obsession to modernize the system for the sake of modernization, including getting rid of as many unionized workers as possible, and beautification projects for wealthy neighborhoods–some with no transportation value such as the $1.4 billion Fulton Transit Center.
- Making the 99% Irrelevant: A public authority is required to hold public hearings on fare increases and on any major changes to the system. The hope is that it will modify or even reverse a policy after hearing testimony from the people. When the system was at the brink in the 1980’s, the MTA did listen, for example, reversing its desire to tear down the #4 train elevated, north of 161st St. (NY Daily News 5/1/86), to dismantle the Franklin Shuttle (early 1990’s) or to end express service on the Bronx D line (1991).
The MTA knew that its agenda of the 1% not only would have no popular support but also, would elicit strong public opposition. This in turn would hamper efforts to secure more funding from the New York State Legislature. The best way handle the public was to make opposition to their agenda so hopeless that no one would bother to protest. At that point, the MTA could claim that the people were simply not interested in transit issues.
Many MTA board members routinely skipped the public hearings to show their contempt for the process and blatantly ignored the public testimony. Thus, in 2001, the MTA dismissed the massive protests by Queens and North Brooklyn riders in the re-route of the Queens Blvd. line and even took measures to punish G train riders for their intransigence.
Beginning in 2003, the MTA ignored the will of the overwhelming majority New Yorkers to have a human presence in the system by closing token booths, removing station agents and attempting to remove subway conductors. If not for legal actions by the Transport Workers Union, Local 100 (TWU), there would be no station agents or conductors in the system today.
The MTA’s efforts to destroy public hearings were enormously successful: from jammed sessions lasting until the early hours of the morning in 2003, attendance at public hearings collapsed. Even though the last MTA Bronx hearing on September 15, 2010 was devoted to a fare increase, the hall at Hostos College was almost empty. It’s not that the people don’t care. They realized that they are irrelevant.
- The Experts Know Best: The second way that the MTA schemes to achieve its agenda is to create such an aura of expertise in transit issues that the outsiders wouldn’t bother to offer alternatives. Here are a few excellent suggestions from various sources which the MTA dumped into the trash can:
When the MTA decided to pursue draconian service cuts in 2010, every elected official and transit advocacy group urged the agency to use 10% of President Obama’s Transportation Stimulus package for operations. The MTA refused since building a dome at the Fulton Transit Center for the 1% was more important than alleviating the hardship caused by service cuts for the 99%.
On January 26, 2010, TWU President John Samuelson wrote a letter to then MTA CEO Jay Walder proposing that the two dramatically travel together to Washington DC to lobby for more federal aid for transit operations. Walder didn’t even bother to respond to the letter. Efforts by NY Senators Schumer and Gillibrand to secure passage of the Transit Assistance Operations bill in May 2010, received no support from the agency except for a brief verbal endorsement.
NYC Councilman Oliver Koppell pleaded with the MTA at the City Council hearing of 2/25/10 and at the public hearing of 3/3/10 to continue to run threatened bus and subway lines less frequently rather than to eliminate them. He argued that people would adjust their schedules to catch a desired bus or train. The MTA didn’t bother to comment.
In 2008, then MTA CEO Lee Sander established a Line Manager program in which every subway line got a line manager responsible for everything on that line. The line managers didn’t come from the upper management of the MTA. They were innovators who reached out to the public and who guided their actions by “what works.”
One of the line managers’ finest achievements was the #4 Bronx Thru Express. The express trains ran at 20 minute intervals with their schedules widely published. People adjusted their schedules and waited for the express, letting locals go by. The train was so popular that its arrival would elicit cheers and applause from riders. The line managers’ success, however, posed a threat to the aura of expertise promulgated by the upper management. When Lee Sander was replaced by Jay Walder, the express project and the line manager program were quickly ended.
It must be added that the Federal Transit Administration requires the MTA to hold public scoping meetings on major projects and studies to qualify for federal funding. Those participating have overwhelmingly complained that their comments are brushed aside and that MTA officials try to get them to endorse decisions already made.
Already isolated by statute from the political process, it’s clear that the MTA does not want public participation in planning its agenda nor does it want alternative ideas. In the form of a true dictatorship, the agency wants compliance and automatic funding.
This is exactly what MTA advocates and apologists are doing when blindly agitating for more funding whether via congestion pricing, tolling the East River bridges or other tax schemes. Sadly, this includes many rider advocacy groups who hope that some of the transit items which they want may be included. They won’t be.
The agenda of the 1% is extremely costly with provisions for Automatic trains, for example, costing hundreds of millions of dollars. The MTA finances these through credit which has caused its debt to soar to $31 billion with annual interest payments of $2 billion and rising. This causes a severe drain on the operating budget and was the primary cause of the draconian service cuts of 2010. The MTA wants more money to fund the agenda of the 1%, not to improve services.
But the agency is unlikely to get it! While public opposition may have been muted and as Brodsky pointed out, the public has disengaged, the truth has not been obliterated. New York State Legislators are keenly aware that the MTA is hated by the public, has a credibility of zero and no public support. In these days of tight budgets, more funding is unlikely. The MTA is a dictatorship but it operates in a democracy and without strong public support, it will not thrive.
The consequences for the subways are tragic, with the system suffering from neglect and stagnation. The NYC subway system is so vast and complex that it can’t be run efficiently without the active participation of the people who know it best: the motormen, the conductors, the bus drivers and the riders.
It’s a shame that the IRT “arrival clocks,”—one of the few hi-tech installations that benefit riders–for example, aren’t used to their fullest potential. They could facilitate the addition of express services such as the #4 Thru-express and create service diversification, which would offer more riders a one-seat ride. Bus ridership is declining dramatically and, as Allan Rosen convincingly demonstrates, abetted by ongoing MTA service cuts.
The answer is not to throw more money at the MTA but to empower the people. This can best be done by ending the leases with the MTA and returning to the days of the BOT with NYC running its own mass transit by a Board of Mass Transit with appointees by the mayor, public advocate and the 5 borough presidents with the budget reviewed by the NYC Council. At that point funding will be easier to secure for the money will be spent according to the will and the needs of the 99%.