On Transit Advocacy, Working Families Party Misses the Mark Again

Yesterday I received an email from the Working Families Party with the subject line "Students to confront MTA Board on MetroCard cuts." It seemed as though the WFP had surveyed the sorry state of transit finances in New York and decided that the MTA Board is a worthy target. As for the state legislature’s theft of MTA funds and lawmakers’ repeated failure to properly fund the transit system — well, there was no sign that Albany is facing pressure from the WFP.

dan_cantor.jpgWFP chair Dan Cantor. Photo: City Hall

I spoke to WFP press contact Bryan Collinsworth and asked why the party is drawing attention to the MTA Board when there’s a very straight line connecting Albany legislators to the current funding shortfall.

"Our plan at this point is to push on all three," he said, meaning the MTA, Mayor Bloomberg, and Albany. Next on their list, he indicated, is Bloomberg, "the one in a position to make things move at the moment." He later mentioned Governor Paterson by name as well.

Flushing out the mayor is all well and good. And New York is better off if the governor withdraws his proposal to fund transit by shifting the tax burden to the city. But while Collinsworth said the WFP wants to "get legislators to admit" that we need a more comprehensive solution, he never named the most powerful person in New York state — Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. He never raised the prospect of
targeting State Senate obstructionists like Carl Kruger and Pedro
Espada.

By now, it should be abundantly clear that we’re looking at a funding shortfall which the MTA Board can’t fix without making life miserable for transit riders. An advocacy strategy that deflects attention from Albany insulates those with real power from the public pressure they should be forced to reckon with.

Last fall, the party’s candidates emerged victorious from crowded fields in two citywide elections, and several more gained seats in the City Council. The WFP website claims that "Democratic weakness and bowing to corporate interests is why the Working Families Party exists." When it comes to transportation policy and our Democratic legislators’ penchant for dodging progressive reforms, however, the WFP hasn’t been much of a spine-stiffener.

The WFP was a non-entity in the public debate when congestion pricing came up in Albany in 2008, and again last year when bridge tolls needed just a few more votes to clear the State Senate. Even though we know that funding transit with road pricing can now help
save working families in New York $2,300 per year
, the same pattern holds true today.

"We’re still taking the temperature of the viability of
the different funding options out there," said Collinsworth. "I can’t say that there’s one
that we favor."

  • Excellent and important post. I’d be a bit cautious, however, about saying that “funding transit w/ road pricing can … save working families … $2,300 per year.” That figure, from the Drum Major Institute, pertained to a family of four with two adult earners and two children who take transit to school for free w/ student passes. The $2,300 figure mostly comprised the $100 monthly passes that each of the two students would need to purchase 10 times a year ($2,000). While that scenario is hardly uncommon (it covers my family), it’s far from the norm.

    More importantly, the dollars that would have to be found to either (i) pay the MTA to make up for the lost revenue from keeping the trips free (probably $200-$250 million a year), or (ii) cover the MTA’s incremental cost of providing the service for the students (almost certainly much less than that range) could be generated through a variety of means, of which traffic pricing is only one.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    You have to wander though what pushing on the MTA means at this point. Liu owes the most to the WFP and he will be the most likely to slam the MTA and let the permanent government in the boroughs off the hook for their behavior in Albany. The WFP will probably give them a pass too while pushing on the MTA.

  • JK

    A future article might want to note that the Working Families Party includes TWU Local 100 (the biggest transit worker union)and the ATU local which represents MTA bus drivers in Queens and Staten Island. The hospital workers (1199)have been busy supporting any kind of taxes they can to avoid Medicaid cuts — look at the barrage of web and radio ads for the sugary drinks tax and the bankers bonus tax. But there has been no movement by the transit unions themselves or via the WFP to fight against Albany’s theft of dedicated MTA payroll tax revenue, or other new transit funding. A reasonable conclusion is that the hospital workers and teachers unions so dominate the WFP that the transit unions effectively have no voice within the party. The huge increases in state Medicaid and K12 education funds and equally huge reductions in state support for transit tell the tale. The transit unions need to stop the useless blaming of MTA mgmt and get going on real solutions to the transit funding crises.

  • Thank you! I have been emailing them about this stuff since these emails started– it’s almost like they don’t get it– like it’s just an empty political gesture– they are protesting the wrong people.

  • The MTA is a political orphan designed to be a whipping boy for every politician under the sun. The MTA or NYCTA needs to have one clear elected official responsible for it – either the Mayor, Governor or some new office. Otherwise, there’s no sense of responsibility.

    Totally agree with JK – If the TWU wants to keep their pay & benefits and avoid layoffs, they need to help fight for the money politically.

  • J. Mork

    Speaking of the Governor, and the current push to force him out of office. Does anybody know anything about his successor? I think his name’s Ravitch.

  • Son of Son of

    Ravitch being the accidental governor’s accidental successor. This shit is amazing and we’re not into the budget yet!! Why bother with elections when we’ve got scandal and prosecutions?

  • Jeff Gold

    Since its founding as an economic justice party, the WFP has contributed to beating back the long rightward drift in NYS. It has fought off four reactionary ballot lines, a one dollar/one vote unregulated state electoral finance arrangement, and a state Democratic Party that is, shall we say, variable in its ability to manage effective electoral field operations during elections, and unlike the WFP, rarely mobilizes for worthy issue initiatives between elections. From raising the state minimum wage, reform of the Rockefeller drug laws, supporting tenant rights, equalizing eduction funding to, YES(!), supporting full Medicaid funding as it pushes for universal health coverage, the WFP has been key to changing the composition of the state senate and its corporate funders. The Espada-Diaz-Carl Kruger fiasco was a landlord-funded reaction, in part, to the WFP’s electoral/issue success, as is the current attempt to buy/use the Independence Party as a corporate front. As for the WFP-affiliated TWU, the union was punished for a solidaristic strike in the public interest (health care was a key issue), and the union should be supported not attacked.

    It would have been nice if the WFP came out militantly for the mayor’s congestion pricing program, which was inferior to the “Kheel Plan” for free transit with value road pricing, but I expect WFP affiliates to realize the great economic, social and modal-shifting benefits of congestion pricing in due course.

  • Thanks for that info, Jeff. Yes, that’s exactly the problem with the Working Families Party: the idea that Democrats are always on the right side of things. The Democratic majority in the Senate has been a disaster for transportation: we went from a corrupt Republican leadership that could be bought off by Bloomberg to a corrupt Democratic leadership beholden to drivers.

    I think we would have been a lot better off taking one more election cycle to build a caucus of solidly progressive Senators, than taking anyone who looked like they would vote for a Democratic Senate President but had no real commitment to progressive values.

    Since you’re close to the WFP, instead of apologizing for them, do you have any idea what we can do to encourage them to get behind congestion pricing or bridge tolls, and stop blaming the MTA?

  • Jeff, Bloomberg’s CP plan had many flaws, but it had one important benefit over the Kheel plan: its revenue numbers panned out. The Kheel plan was Reason-grade research. Recall that it planned to quadruple the revenue of Bloomberg’s CP plan with double the toll. If you believe that, I have some valuable real state to sell you at low prices.

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