MTA Blame Game: Lowlights From Queens

The MTA roadshow is in full swing, with raucous public hearings on service cuts drawing hundreds in Queens and Staten Island last night. Some press outlets are questioning whether the hearings actually get anything accomplished. It’s a good question to chew on, since the MTA Board’s options are limited by the agency’s massive budget gap.

peralta_headshot.jpgAssembly Member José Peralta is running for Hiram Monserrate’s State Senate seat on a transit platform the Fare Hike Four would approve of.

What’s not in doubt, however, is that the hearings give our elected officials prime time to grandstand and deflect blame for their own role in bringing about the current mess. At each hearing, all the electeds take turns at the mic first. Hours can pass before a single straphanger speaks.

New York’s state legislators have played an especially critical role in the transit funding crisis. In the last two years alone, the legislature has foiled two potential revenue streams for transit, congestion pricing and bridge tolls. The solution Albany could muster — a regional payroll tax — has come up far short of expectations. Then the state stole $143 million from the MTA in December to balance its own budget problems. Neither the state nor the city has kept up its share of funding for student MetroCard costs.

Our elected officials are the ones with the most power to help fund the MTA and avert drastic cuts, or at least put a fix on the agenda. Here’s a sampling of what they said at the hearing in Queens last night.

Assembly Member José Peralta is currently running to replace Hiram Monserrate in the State Senate. Transit riders would be hard-pressed to do worse than bridge toll foe Monserrate, but they might have no choice.  Peralta’s campaign website touts his opposition to congestion pricing, and he was a particularly vocal opponent of tolls on the East River bridges.

Last night, Peralta missed no opportunity to land a blow against the MTA — telling the board "some of you aren’t even paying attention" was the applause line of the night. "You have my word as a state legislator that we will continue to fight this," Peralta promised the crowd. His solution? Give the state more control over the MTA — an idea that should draw grimaces from anyone familiar with Albany’s recent history of governance.

Plenty of other electeds used their three minutes at the microphone exclusively to attack the MTA. None of these pols mentioned the role their legislative houses played in the MTA’s fiscal crisis. Some choice excerpts:

  • Assembly Member Grace Meng berated the MTA for cutting student MetroCards, telling the board that students "should expect that we’ve made a serious investment in their education." Of course, the state legislature where Meng serves has led the way in slashing the investment in student transport.
  • A rep from State Senator Shirley Huntley’s office argued that previous fare hikes should provide enough funding to withstand the financial battering brought on by the recession and years of legislative neglect.
  • City Council Member Elizabeth Crowley told the board that unless the MTA "eliminates its most wasteful spending," kids will be hitchhiking to school.
  • Council Member Karen Koslowitz’s representative attacked the "years of mismanagement" at the MTA.
  • Council Member Leroy Comrie, who voted against congestion pricing, focused on the MTA’s proposed layoffs: "You’re creating more unemployment."
  • Another congestion pricing foe, Council Member Peter Vallone Jr., mustered the most indignant attack of the evening — and was rewarded with a nice chunk of screen time on the Fox 5 11 o’clock news. "How dare you take our trains, take our buses, take our student MetroCards, while at the same time giving raises and giving friends and family free rides?” he asked. "How dare you?" Later on, in a moment that didn’t make it into the Fox 5 segment, Vallone at least had the good sense to blame Albany as well, unlike many of his colleagues. 

Many officials didn’t scapegoat the MTA directly, but neither did they offer anything resembling a constructive solution. Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, who opened the evening, typified this approach. "At a time when we are encouraging mass transit," said Marshall, "we shouldn’t be cutting eight bus routes." Instead, she said, Queens need more from the MTA: new local and express buses, reopened LIRR stations, longer subway platforms, more ferry service. How to fund it all? "There has got to be a way," was all Marshall could offer.

Inside_MTA_Protests.jpgPhoto: Noah Kazis

Assembly Members Audrey Pfeffer and Karen Nolas and Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer all expressed their desire to keep New York City transit strong, without offering a way to either cut spending or raise revenue. 

Others, notably City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and transportation committee chair Jimmy Vacca, endorsed the Straphangers Campaign plan to redirect $140 million in flexible funding from the MTA’s capital budget to its operating budget. While Quinn claims that the plan is enough to eliminate the cuts to Access-a-Ride, student MetroCards, and the worst cuts to subway and bus service, it’s hard to see how a one-shot stimulus fix can stretch that far, let alone address the structural budget problems that are plaguing transit.

Only a few officials put responsibility in the right place or offered real prescriptions for maintaining transit service. "The city and state should not cut student fares," said Council Member Peter Koo at a rally outside the hearing. Surprisingly, Assembly Member David Weprin — a leading congestion pricing foe as a member of City Council — not only called for additional funding from the city, state, and feds, but said that he supported the Ravitch Commission’s plan to generate more revenue, which included bridge tolls.

Of the electeds, no one emphasized the need for new revenue streams as directly as Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. "I didn’t come here just to criticize the MTA for proposed service cuts and fare hikes," he said. "We need to find a way to make it financially viable." Stringer did not mention congestion pricing or bridge tolls, however, calling instead for Albany to reinstate the commuter tax, which he claimed would raise $500 million for the MTA.

Unlike many of their representatives, the students who gathered outside the hearing avoided attacks on the easy MTA target. The high schoolers held signs with pictures of the governor and mayor. "We’re focusing our attention on Mayor Bloomberg," said Kevin Kang, one of the student activists, "because he’s in charge of the whole education system. He needs to step it up so that whether the MTA funds [student MetroCards] or not, it gets resolved."

Student_Protest.jpgPhoto: Noah Kazis

  • “At each hearing, all the electeds take turns at the mic first. Hours can pass before a single straphanger speaks.” That says it all.

  • Does the MTA ever do a presentation up front to the audience or do they just sit up there like a good little punching bag. Do they ever attempt to answer any questions? Refute misperceptions?

    Maybe it would be better if the MTA board members all came with their hands tied behind their back and their staff gave out scissors to all the elected officials in the house?

  • Mike Konkel

    If the state steals 143 million and the flexible funding is for 140 million… how do you close a $700 million gap with -3 million in funding?

    “Others, notably City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and transportation committee chair Jimmy Vacca, endorsed the Straphangers Campaign plan to redirect $140 million in flexible funding from the MTA’s capital budget to its operating budget.”

  • Bystander

    Here’s an idea. The MTA should just stop running for a couple of days: No LIRR, no MNR, no NYCT, okay, they can keep the bridges and tunnels open. That would save some money, and then let’s see what the state senators from NYC and its environs have to say…..

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Excellent piece Noah. The MTA extends the politicians the professional courtesy of going to the front of the line. At the front of the line the politicians set the tone for the evening by bashing the board even though they control the boards funding. Then the rest of the sheep, I mean citizens, pile on for the next several hours. Hopefully there will be a civil disturbance by some anarchists who never learned to take turns and there will be a couple of arrests. That is what happened tonight so when it hit the media it looked like the 1968 Democratic Convention. That part of the evening was refreshing.

    Only 7 speakers out of the throng asked for more money from Albany. Many of the mentally ill who made it to the microphones actually made some pretty good suggestions regarding service. Some of them actually blamed Albany for the shell game.

    All in all it was a great civics class.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I actually made the mistake of showing up for one of those sessions once. At the beginning, when the usual suspects were there, so were several MTA Board members. By the time I got to speak for two minutes five or six hours later, one was left along with someone taking notes.

    No, the public is never engaged and debated with, so their misconceptions could be corrected and perhaps some useful ideas could then emerge from them. Just say thank you very much and move on, or so I was instructed when I was put on the other side of the table on behalf of City Planning, for a public hearing on an EIS scope. Just say “thank you very much for your comment” and take notes.

    I was a long time participant on a transit chatroom in the 1990s, along with many others with an interest in the transit system. Year later, after I had joined New York City Transit for my second tour there, I made a comment on the chatroom that the public hearings were waste and that some other means had to be found to receive public comments. MTA public affairs was monitoring the chatroom to try to identify employee participants, and I was actually censured for denigrating the public hearing process and possibly causing the agency political problems.

    The MTA Boards’s obsequiousness to the decisions, non-decisions and deals of the past 18 years apparently knows no bounds, and here we are with the consequences.

  • Red

    Staten Island Boro President Jim Molinaro suggested increasing cash tolls to reduce service cuts (the idea being that increasing just the cash toll would primarily affect non-SI residents): http://www.silive.com/news/index.ssf/2010/03/mta_divided_-_but_not_conquere.html

  • John

    The problem is that the politicians say: No service cuts in general without making a specific case for each cut. They say: They will put more cars on the road, hurt the economy, etc. Very few of them actually offer solutions (though Debi Rose did say that they should expand advertising, so I give her credit).
    The sad part is that they are usually unaffected by the cuts and just getting the crowd all riled up and getting press coverage. I’m sure straphangers who were legitimately affected gave up and didn’t speak because the politicians took so long.

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