The Day After

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Well, here we are again.

One year after State Assembly Democrats killed New York City’s attempt to fund mass transit and reduce traffic gridlock, sustainable transport advocates find themselves suffering yet another huge defeat in Albany.

Fixing Albany requires volunteers dragging themselves out to the Kings Highway Q train platform in the middle of Carl Kruger’s district and handing palm cards to commuters explaining that the impending fare hike is the direct result of their state senator’s fine work.

On Wednesday the MTA Board approved the “doomsday” scenario – massive fare hikes and sweeping service cuts for New York City’s eight million transit riders. The State Legislature easily could have avoided doomsday by approving Richard Ravitch’s financing plan or coming up with a viable alternative of its own. But a handful of New York City State Senators, Carl Kruger, Ruben Diaz Sr., Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate – call them the Fare Hike Four – couldn’t bear the thought of imposing new fees on New York City’s motorists. In working to protect the free driving privilege of New York City’s armada of horn-honking, exhaust-spewing, road-clogging single-passenger car commuters, the State Senate has brought the city’s transit system to the brink of financial ruin. If you ride a train or bus in New York City you’re going to pay the price.

The irresponsibility, the destructiveness and sheer lack of seriousness displayed by the Fare Hike Four is without question and we could spend all day heaping scorn on them. But the Senate Democrats are hardly any worse than the minority Republicans who were perfectly happy to sit by and watch the train wreck. And we could just as well place the blame for our current mess on the State Assembly members who killed congestion pricing last year.

Rather than pointing fingers at our feckless state government, advocates for livable streets and mass transit need to take a good long look in the mirror. Despite assembling a broad and seemingly powerful coalition in support of our issues, our advocacy consistently goes nowhere in Albany. That needs to change. So, how?

fhf_medium.jpgFirst off, it’s obvious that we need a better policy-making process. Granted, New York’s state legislators tend to show a profound lack of seriousness when it comes to policy (see their performance on last year’s congestion mitigation commission) and they are renowned for their deeply ingrained windshield perspective. But they still need to be engaged in the process from the beginning. It didn’t help that the Ravitch Plan was, in many ways, too small, too lacking in creativity and too flawed for anyone to get too excited about it. The fact that the Ravitch Plan originated outside the state legislature made it all the more easy for them to reject it.

But let’s also be clear that our losses in Albany have a lot more to do with politics than policy. Sustainable transport advocates need to build political clout. Period. At this point, almost nothing else matters. We need to join forces with mainstream environmentalists, labor groups and issue advocates working on education, housing and economic development, who are equally disgusted with the performance of New York’s state legislature. The Fare Hike Four and the Assembly Democrats who killed congestion pricing come up for reelection every two years. For the most part, they run unopposed. Until we can get some of these people unelected – or, at the very least, challenged – we are pretty much irrelevant.

Here at Streetsblog we are mostly issue advocates and wonks. We enjoy debating policy minutia in the comments section, geeking out at Rudin Center breakfasts and fleshing out the most rational possible pricing schemes for New York City’s transportation system. But fixing Albany demands less policy intellect and more political muscle. It requires volunteers dragging themselves out to the Kings Highway Q train platform in the middle of Carl Kruger’s district and handing out palm cards to morning rush hour commuters explaining that the impending fare hike is the direct result of their state senator’s fine work — or total lack thereof. It’s about knocking on doors, spending evenings at community meetings and drumming up votes. Defeating Albany incumbents isn’t easy. Most of these guys leave office in handcuffs or a coffin. But state legislators aren’t invincible either. A lot of them have had their jobs for more than 20 years. Many of them are stale and feeble and don’t work particularly hard anymore. Daniel Squadron knocked off Sen. Martin Connor in last September’s Democratic primary by a margin of 8,034 to 6,179. It doesn’t take a lot of votes.

Still, it’s a daunting task for any individual community activist to run a campaign against a sitting state legislator. So, here’s my humble proposal: What New York needs right now is a well-organized, heavily-funded, Newt-Gingrich-Contract-With-America-style campaign to take back Albany. We need to create a broad-based reform platform and recruit a slate of viable candidates to run challenges against vulnerable Senators and Assembly members all across the city. We need to focus citywide attention on state legislature campaigns and stop letting these guys slip quietly back into office unchallenged year after year in neighborhood-level campaigns that no one even pays attention to. We’ve got to take Albany back from these people who are ruining our city.

Photo by Buck Ennis

  • Larry Littlefield

    “So, here’s my humble proposal: What New York needs right now is a well-organized, heavily-funded, Newt-Gingrich-Contract-With-America-style campaign to take back Albany.”

    I had that idea many years ago, despite being a policy wonk rather than someone with any interest in politics. After several years of knowledgable people telling me it was hopeless, I finally decided it was put up or shut up time and ran myself (with the help of a minor party), not because I thought I had any chance of winning, but in the hope of attracting enough attention and votes to show it was possible.

    The result is described here:

    http://ipny.org/Littlefield/

    After several more years, I realized that the self serving deals would continue until all our public services were wrecked. It isn’t just transit, it’s eduation, health care, social security. And the self dealing and future sucking in business has been as great as in government, with the consequences there for all to see. (Things, to be fair, went on a lot longer than I believed possible for prior to collapse).

    The rational response is adaptation, I finally had to concede. On the transit issue, Thank God for the bicycle.

    If a movement became great enough, they could triple the number of signatures required to get on the ballot. And remember who appoints the judges. Factor in lots of money for lawyers into your plans, and good luck and my thanks to anyone who tries.

  • drosejr

    I’ve been waiting to make this comment throughout this whole fare hike debacle, so I figure this is as good a time to throw it out there.

    What has most surprised me throughout this whole Ravitch process is how silent the TWU has been, despite the 1100 jobs that were under threat once the service cutbacks became known. I have not seen one word uttered by Roger Toussaint, Ed Watt or any of the other leaders of the TWU during the past few months, even after everyone knew that union jobs were on the cutting board.

    Now it is likely that they did not want to heap pressure on themselves at the same time that an arbitration board is deciding on the terms of a new contract, but one would have thought that they would be wholly on board with the Ravitch plan given the opportunity for expanded service in the future as well as job safety today. Perhaps they are saving their invective for when the actual cuts will come down (May/June), or when the terms of the contract to be imposed on them will be known. However, they had a lot to gain if some form of the Ravitch plan passed, and will have a lot to lose if it doesn’t.

    To tie this back in with the article, I think the TWU has be to co-opted in some fashion to advocate for a steady, growing transportation system. It’s obvious that the General Contractors Association and the Central Labor Council don’t pull enough weight, or those Senators who get donations from their members (which I’m guessing is almost every Democrat and probably some Republicans) would have pushed harder for a deal.

    This dovetails into my next point. In the end, I think money talks to politicians a lot more than phone calls or demonstrations in front of district offices or up in Albany. These guys and gals want to get reelected. They need dollars to do it. I know our campaign financing system is among the worst in the country, but if that is how the game is played today then transportation advocates have to play it as well. Whether through campaign contributions or successful projects that members can champion, these politicians want to keep their jobs by keeping their constituents happy, or at least the majority of them. Somehow, they have to believe that transportation advocates can mobilize enough people and dollars for or against them before they start to listen even more closely.

    Certainly plenty of politicians listen to the transportation community without debasing themselves to the levels I suggest. But those at the margin, whether it’s the Fair Hike Four, Parker, Hassell-Thompson, Perkins, Smith or any of the other Senators who signed on to their still-born plan, could possibly be swayed if their political future were somehow put in jeapordy. And given the power of incumbency, it’s likely that dollars will have to be in the mix somewhere.

    I hope this latest crisis can be averted within the next month. Certainly, Moody’s shot across the bow of the MTA last night probably woke a few people up. If it isn’t averted, however, hopefully a more enlightened, and frightened, group of politicians will eventually be elected who will take the transportation community more seriously.

  • Glenn

    Why is Streetsblog all ganging up on Ravitch plan today?

    We came a few votes short of establishing bridge tolls on all Harlem and East River crossings…

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Why is Streetsblog all ganging up on Ravitch plan today?”

    In my case, because a permanent wage tax would have been borrowed against and only funded five years of the capital plan, leaving the situation even worse in 2014.

    “We came a few votes short of establishing bridge tolls on all Harlem and East River crossings…”

    That was the good news for those expecting to continue living here more than a few years — and the reason it was voted down.

  • I find it interesting that Silver was basically in the right camp this time around. Is it any coincidence that for the first time in forever, he had a primary challenge that at least generated some coverage and a headlines?

    Aaron’s right about getting some decent candidates on the ballot, even just to create buzz. Daniel Squadron is my rep and I told everyone I could to go out and vote for him after Connor really failed to speak up on congestion pricing. Even though I don’t agree with everything he has done thus far, we need a shake up, put all those in Albany on notice.

  • Not living in New York, and not knowing the history and ins-and-outs of the political machines there, I can’t offer much. However, I will say this: New York City clearly plays a critical and disproportionately large role in the health of New York state’s overall economy. Without NYC’s powerhouse economy and all the revenue it generates, all those highways criss-crossing the state–enjoyed by many a state rep ignorant to the value of transit–would likely be in far worse shape or maybe not even exist.

    Moreover, New York City play an essential role in the health of America’s economy. It is one of two major cradles of innovation for this country. For Albany to ignore those two very factors is horrifically negligent– not only for their own constituents but for the American economy. Urbanists around the country know when New York suffers, America suffers. We need New York City to thrive now, more than ever.

    Thus, the new battle for New York City should perhaps frame the issue in a way that draws attention to these two key issues.

  • lee w

    really, they’re closing the Begen st F/G station?

  • Larry Littlefield

    “I find it interesting that Silver was basically in the right camp this time around.”

    I wouldn’t put it past him to have done everything for show to appear to be on the right side, and have someone else take the blame. Was any plan every put to a vote in the Assembly? No. So there is no proof he would allow such a vote, and force the members to take a stand yea or nay.

  • Interesting tale, Larry. I am alternately fascinated and repulsed by politics. My way of adapting was to simply stop voting. Until this year–I think I voted for President, hit “No” to whatever Propositions there were, and nothing else. Even when I do vote, I refuse to vote D or R–thus, I cannot vote for most offices (or in primaries) but that’s OK. I feel better that way.

    As for the Ravich plan, I never thought it was particularly good either, but it was “the last hope”.

    > New York City clearly plays a critical and disproportionately large
    > role in the health of New York state’s overall economy.

    One of the peculiarities of NYS politics is that Upstate (i.e. the rest of the state outside the NYC metropolitan area) likes to believe the exact opposite. They think we’re all on welfare and their generosity in supporting us should be rewarded. This is of course complete nonsense but it sells well up there; there’s a cultural divide too. Upstate is more Appalachian verging on Midwest in character than Eastern. I grew up in that area–they’d just as soon see NYC drop dead.

  • Felix

    Our movement is led by advocates rather than organizers. We need a group that organizes transit riders and raises money to get things done, rather than put out position papers. It’s not so hard to go after a state senator or two. If Kruger were pissing off 1199, you can bet there would be street-level action and lots of negative publicity. How much can it cost to run an ad in the Sheepshead Bay Courier and pay a few college kids to hand out leaflets?

  • GRR

    From far away in San Francisco (but missing home terribly), I just want to applaud the “need to join forces” spirit noted here. This isn’t about transit alone, and there is no such thing as a “transit-only” solution. In California, people are still siloed.

    And as far as the political realities involved, it might take a lot of inside baseball and money to win, but you can sure raise the profile of ideas in losing efforts. Eventually, a shot at an actual win emerges. On the national level, things were about as dark as anyone could possibly imagine four years ago, but look where we are now (leadership-wise, at least).

    And actually, and ad in the Sheepshead Bay Courier isn’t a bad place to start! It’s fun to throw mud before you actually have a candidate!

  • I’m sorry, but what are the “creative ideas” out there that everyone keeps talking about that weren’t in the Ravitch plan? I want to see them listed out here since I must have missed something that tolling bridges to reduce traffic and fund mass transit is now considered an “old idea”.

  • Creative ideas?

    – Variable time-of-day pricing.
    – Removing or reducing prices on some of the far-out, transit-poor crossings like the Cross Bay Bridge.
    – Getting rid of the toll plazas and swinging arm gantries at EZ-Pass crossings so cashless drivers don’t have to slow down.
    – Restoring two-way tolls on the VZ Bridge.
    – Killing the Second Avenue Subway project, replacing it with BRT and finding a way to redirect those funds elsewhere.
    – Lifetime free passes for state legislators.

    The list goes on.

    Some of these ideas are probably political non-starters. Others could be pretty appealing legislators.

    And how about this: Instead of dropping a plan on the state legislature, give them a process — a kind of transportation policy symposium for legislators. Brief them on MTA financing issues, the irrational state of current road pricing and show them all of the new technologies that are available for road pricing today. Give them a bunch of different examples for how they might work out a balance between tolls and fares and MTA financing needs. Then make them be legislators and hash out the deal that works for the majority of them.

    The problem, of course, is that Albany doesn’t even have a functioning committee system. So, there’s really no forum for this kind of information exchange or legislative sausage-making. Plus, they just don’t seem to care.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Clearly the Greens do not have the ability or inclination to hold a gun to anyone’s head. It could be that it is simply too amorphous and squishy a philosophy to constitute an effective political fighting force. So much of their strength is sapped by counterproductive NIMBY battles that when something truly monumental and critical like the melt-down of mass transit in the most dense city in the country goes down they are unable to mount either offense or defense. It is all sort of like a Monty Python attack on a French fort or a killer rabbit.

  • Woo woo, Niccolo, first Aaron’s post nailed it, now your comment nails it squared. You the man. (No joke.)

  • Peter

    if the world is going to be saved at all, it’s going to be saved by women. so my only advice would be, in finding some candidates to support for office, make sure to include deserving women — they’re the only ones with enough balls take on the crooks who continue to hurt New York City.

  • Aaron, I agree with everything you said in your main post, but I can’t agree with this: – Killing the Second Avenue Subway project, replacing it with BRT and finding a way to redirect those funds elsewhere.

    You can’t replace a full subway line — or even half of a subway line — with BRT unless you’re running 10 buses at a time every 4-8 minutes throughout the day. The SAS has a purpose, and it’s needed. Kill the 7 line if you want to kill a superfluous project. If we start killing new subway lines just because they’re expensive, nothing will ever get built, and I don’t see why the city — and transit advocates — can’t fight for and develop BRT and new subway lines at the same time. As Cap’n Transit has noted a few times over the last few months, they shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

    Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it seems like a bad time to spend that money. But when is it ever a good time to do it? It has to be done, and that’s that.

  • chasa

    Raise some dough, find a great candidate and pick one of these guys off. I think its more important to be successful then to get them all — at the end of the day they are cowards and just care about keeping their job. If you defeat one, and they know you were apart of it it, they will change their behavior. Target whoever is most vulnerable in their district. Use Squadron’s campaign as a model…..it wasn’t about this issue, but everything was couched in “reform”.

  • I think Aaron has the right strategy here, but I fear it will take too long to make a difference.

    I mean, we are up against the clock here aren’t we? It is already 2009. We are supposed to reduce our carbon emissions by 80-90% in less than 41 years. Is that even possible will all of the time we have already lost?

    Rising sea levels are going to make the subways difficult to maintain at some point – hopefully not too soon. But even a modest rise in sea levels will result in frequent flooding of the subways. This is why I do not support any new subways projects (2nd Ave) and I agree with Aaron that above ground public transit has to be the way forward.

    As we all know, we need to take the surface back from the cars. But every time we come up with a plan, Albany blocks it.

    I think the best short term goal would be to get some kind of home rule back in New York City. It is completely absurd that upstate politicians have any power whatsoever on what we are trying to do here in the city. Just to install more red light cameras has to be OKd by people who do not live here? You can’t make this stuff up!

    Is it even possible to get home rule back? I don’t think we can accept this reality anymore. We can run against the current crop of jerks in Albany, and perhaps Paul Newell’s attempt to unseat Shelly was the reason he came around on tolling the East River bridges. But wouldn’t home rule make things a lot easier for us? Is this a pipe dream?

  • Howabout this idea – Put highish tolls on the bridges and allow a substantial discount for car pooling? People who complain that they cant pay can escape by reducing the amount of traffic on the streets and revenue some raised is raised for the MTA.

  • John

    If the politicians aren’t giving the people what they want, why not just organize a referendum, outside their system? They will have to comply with the results.

    That’s democracy.

  • Ashcan Sam

    David: Carpooling is it’s own tolling discount. You get to split the toll by however many people are in the car.

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