Have the Days of Scapegoating the MTA Come to an End?

MTA workers pump water out of the L train tunnel last Monday. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/mtaphotos/8159586659/in/set-72157631938986786/##Metropolitan Transportation Authority/Patrick Cashin##

MTA Love. Two words that have never before been paired have been practically joined at the hip during the recovery from Superstorm Sandy. To wit:

  • The “enthusiastic round of applause” accorded Metropolitan Transportation Authority chief Joe Lhota at last week’s Association for a Better New York breakfast by real estate magnates and other civic power brokers who have watched the MTA’s dedicated workers and managers safeguard the transit system and return it to service.
  • The New York Times front-page headline on Friday, “Subway Repairs Border on the Edge of Magic” (quote courtesy of transit watchdog Gene Russianoff), captured the awe inspired by the “quicker than almost anyone could have imagined” restoration of subway service.
  • Times transit reporter Matt Flegenheimer later elaborated: “The workers have gotten a ton of credit, the management’s gotten a ton of credit, people really think that this was sort of a minor miracle, that subway service came back as quickly as it did.”

Compare this MTA love with the scathing criticism of underperforming Con Ed, the Long Island Power Authority, the Port Authority, and the region’s gasoline suppliers, and you can sense a long-overdue reversal underway in the public’s view of the region’s primary public transportation provider: from “rathole” to miracle worker — or at least, after the hubbub dies down, to workmanlike, dependable, and indispensable.

If permanent, that would be a big shift, indeed. And it brings up three questions:

  1. Will this improved view of the MTA lead Albany and City Hall to start reversing two decades’ worth of funding cuts, as the Times urged in an editorial today?
  2. Will it induce local electeds and federal officials to find additional funds for the system’s post-Sandy repairs and for future storm protection?
  3. Will it improve prospects for the city-regional toll realignment proposed by “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz that would generate an estimated $1.5 billion a year in net revenue, the lion’s share of which would be allocated to the MTA to maintain, improve, and expand service?

We think the answer to all three questions could and should be a resounding “yes,” particularly for #3.

Recall that distrust of the MTA may have been the biggest impediment to enacting Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s toll plan in 2007-2008, second only perhaps to the perception that Manhattan was getting off scot-free. “MTA rathole” was the meme brandished by opponents then, in tandem with the infamous (and false) “two sets of books.” Subsequent fare hikes and service cuts haven’t exactly eased resistance to handing the authority a big new revenue source. Why raise more money for the MTA, the argument has gone, when it can’t be trusted with what it already has?

That line may no longer fly in a post-Sandy world. Not only has the MTA’s oft-maligned workforce more than proven its mettle under fire, but transit’s intrinsic and essential value to the region’s economy has become screamingly apparent. Two days after the storm struck, while drivers were mired in (and causing) monumental traffic jams, millions of New Yorkers were again riding buses and trains to jobs and other destinations around the region. And well before the second week was out, “[N]early everything under the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s auspices, from its commuter railroads to its bridges and tunnels, [was] running close to normal,” Flegenheimer wrote, even as “desperate drivers [have had to] wait in line for hours to fill their tanks,” according to another Times story on Friday, on account of persistent gasoline shortages that have had the authorities posting police at filling stations.

Okay, perhaps we’re seeing eternal sunshine in a patch of clear sky. The two of us are allied with Gridlock Sam, as chief number-cruncher and political strategist, respectively. But in the year since Cuomo put Lhota in charge of the MTA, we’ve observed the tenor of public opinion begin shifting from virulently anti-MTA to, well, something less negative and more-nuanced — a skepticism waiting, and perhaps wanting, to be dispelled.

Has public opinion changed course in Sandy’s wake? If so, the MTA and, indeed, the entire regional transportation network could be embarking on a new era, in which smart, daring plans like Gridlock Sam’s toll-rebalancing scheme actually stand a fair chance of adoption.

Streetsblog contributor Charles Komanoff is a long-time traffic pricing modeler and advocate. Alex Matthiessen is the director of the Move NY campaign (to enact “Sam’s Plan”) and president of Matthiessen Strategies, Inc.

  • Reminds me of the wording of the Daily Show’s post-Sandy episode: A Tribute to Institutional Competence.

    http://www.thedailyshow.com/full-episodes/wed-october-31-2012-jon-ronson

  • Josef

    The first step is to trumpet the pats on the back the MTA has received in the media already. I believe the louder the praise is now, the longer it will echo into the future. I agree with the above and hope the general public can recognize that this organization deserves a rational, stable, & long-term funding stream. 

  • Mark Walker

    MTA’s biggest consciousness-raising disadvantage is that it can’t compete with the car makers and their massive TV ad campaigns. Sandy gave transit more screen time and more positive screen time on newscasts. But only temporarily. The Greg Mockers can’t ignore the fact that GM, BMW, et al pay their salaries.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’m waiting for the press release from a state legislator (or more than one state legislator or several state legislators racing to get theirs out first).
    “The response to frankenstorm Sandy proves that the MTA has $billions hidden away from its two sets of books, that it chose to use to recover from the storm.  It refuses to use those hidden $billions to cut tolls, repeal the payroll tax, provide a 20/50 pension and raises at double the inflation rate, or provide a ride that is worth more than an average of $1.28.  We demand a forensic audit.  But in any event, everything is fine and therefore no more money is needed.”

  • Anonymous

    I think we don’t need to pander to either extreme view.

    Yes, MTA workers did and are doing a great job.

    No, it doesn’t mean arcane union rules preventing single-crew train operation or the whining about preserving manned ticket booths are justified. 

    Yes, reasonable compensation should be paid to MTA workers. They shouldn’t be starving while providing critical service to the city.

    No, the standards of what is reasonable for MTA are not, or should not, be independent of wages and benefits trends on private sector as if they were living in a parallel universe. Early 6-figure retirements, unlimited sick days, excessive paid vacations are not justified. 

  • Larry Littlefield

    BTW Ben Kaback had it right.  Had not the Con Ed outage prevented the MTA from running trains until it was prepared to do so, the usual suspects would have been bashing the organization each and every day until, perhaps, this weekend.

  • The gasoline shortage was important to the recovery as it kept hundreds of cars off the roads. Think of problem if gasoline was readily available in storm’s aftermath. instead of rationing gas, city would have had to ban travel by private cars to ease congestion.

    Mass transit proved its worth and resilience before and after storm. Public transit was available to evacuate residents from flood zones but many chose to ignore orders to leave for public shelters.

  • Andrew

    @andrelot:disqus Unlimited sick days? Who has unlimited sick days?

  • Adam Anon

    I will never forgive the MTA workers and TWU for their strike several years ago that screwed millions of New Yorkers for several days. Most of whom made less money and had worse benefits than the MTA. That was such ridiculous, selfish strike. The only way I can forget that would be if the TWU leaders ended up in jail for long years, TWU was dissolved and those striking were fired and replaced by people who respect their work. I will never trust MTA, ever.

  • Andrew

    You do realize, I hope, that the TWU, not the MTA, staged that strike, in protest of the MTA’s proposed contract terms?

    How this makes you not trust the MTA I fail to comprehend.

  • Mina

    Yes, the MTA’s response to the damage wrecked by Sandy was truly stellar.  I was amazed and inspired and thrilled with how fast service was restored.  An example: waiting late Saturday night at Atlantic Station for the trip into Manhattan, a mere five days after the hurrican struck, I only had to wait 12 minutes at 12:45 AM.  Astounding!!!! I went up to bunch of MTA employees standing on the platform and personally thanked them – which thank you they appreciated very much. 
    However, can this good will last? I don’t think so.  It won’t and isn’t lasting for me.
    Not with the current disrepair of huge segments of the subway.  Only one example: Nevins St. Station in Brooklyn — water and more water pouring down onto the platform every time it rains – and I’m talking average, moderate rains.  Not with current problems with the on-going quality of service.  Example: In two out of three subway rides, the announcement: a signaling problem, please change to another line (huh? where is that???) – this happening on two consecutive days the week BEFORE  the hurricane. And didn’t MTA have to agree to Bloomberg’s horrible subway ad wrap-arounds which visually, aesthetically and morally offend?  I have to read Citibank every time I swipe?  Or be subjected to Heineken’s Beer ads every time I turn a turnstile?    This corporatization of a public space will/does undermine loyalty and amity and the cooperative spirit.  And alas, I believe, will have a negative impact on the possibility of a lasting change of public opinion re the MTA. (And about those pensions – maybe they are not so egregious as 4-star generals – $236,000 per year????)….and the lack of transparency…etc….etc.)

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