Home MTA Economics A student protest with the right message but wrong audience

A student protest with the right message but wrong audience

by Benjamin Kabak

Later this morning, at 9:30 a.m., the MTA Board will convene for its monthly meeting. Unlike previous months’ gatherings, February’s will be a fairly routine one. The service cut proposals are being digested, and while MTA CEO and Chairman Jay Walder will field some questions on yesterday’s announcement on job cuts, the big-ticket budgetary items won’t arise again until after next month’s public hearings.

Yet, the meetings will not be without some raucous controversy. Each month, the MTA begins its meeting with a public comment period, and today’s should witness some strident comments. TWU officials will speak out against the plan to lay off 500 union workers, and rider advocacy representatives will again bemoan the cuts. The biggest group there to present demands of the MTA will be the Students for Transportation Justice, an alliance of students seemingly organized with the help of the Working Families Party.

According to a release emailed out to writers last night, this coalition of student groups will attend the board meeting in an effort to gain an audience with Walder and to protest the planned elimination of the free Student MetroCard program. The students, said the WFP, “will attempt to deliver a letter to Chairman Walder signed by thousands of students, parents, and activists asking that the MTA hold an open meeting with student leaders and act to save student MetroCards.”

This isn’t the first time these students have tried to get Walder’s attention. Students for Transportation Justice sent Walder a letter in early February that went ignored, and the Working Families Party volunteered its services in a petition drive. As of this writing, the petition has received 13,391 signatures, and the WFP is trying to drum up support from a total of 50,000 New Yorkers.

There is but one problem with the WFP and its platform: It’s completely directed at the wrong people. Sure, these students can show up at MTAHQ later this morning and speak their minds during the opening minutes of the board meeting. They can also make a show of calling on the MTA to save Student MetroCards, but they will be preaching to the choir. It’s a matter of economics, and right now, the MTA does not have the money to fund free transit for students and shouldn’t be picking up the political slack on student transportation either.

The MTA said as much to me last week. “We agree that school children should not have to pay to get to school, but funding this service is the responsibility of the State and City,” Jeremy Soffin, agency spokesperson, said. “The MTA has been called the yellow school bus for New York City, and that’s a good analogy. All over the state school kids get picked up by yellow school buses, and they don’t pay to ride. But the bus doesn’t show up unless state or local government pays the bus company.”

Still, the Working Families Party, a pro-teachers union organization, is turning to the MTA and not to politicians who control the purse strings. Were the WFP to spend their efforts speaking out about Albany’s and City Hall’s dereliction of duty when it comes to funding for student transportation, attention would inevitably fall on the Department of Education. Why doesn’t the DOE fund student travel as DOEs do throughout the state and country? Eventually, pressure would build on the education officials, and the DOE would have to find more money for transportation. Pressure on the DOE would bring nothing but scrutiny to a beleaguered teachers union, and the Working Families Party can’t have that.

So we’re left with a movement with a message that winds up falling on the wrong ears. The WFP can rile up the crowd. They, as so many politicians do these days, can dump on the MTA. But it will be all for naught. Until activist groups and political parties put real pressure on Albany and City Hall, the MTA will be left flapping in the wind with empty pockets and no plans for free student MetroCards.

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12 comments

pete February 24, 2010 - 3:25 am

Your an idiot if you don’t realize that saying anything at a government board or commission or committee or whatever group of non-elected bureaucrats “public hearings”, is the same as screaming at a wall. They have no allegiance to the people. They were appointed, not elected. You will never change their plans. Their media image is irrelevant to their career. Your much better off attacking your local electeds with picket signs or at speaches/hearings/media events featuring your electeds.

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JPN February 24, 2010 - 6:59 am

If you speak before the board meeting, will you be taken seriously? I used to watch the MTA board meetings when they were first webcasted. More times than not, I found that public comment period uncomfortable to watch. Don’t know if he’s still there, but there was a “Mister X” who always had something non-positive to say to the MTA. There was another man who handed out some fliers to the members and was enraged about something that I could care less of. I bet there will be similar shenanigans today.

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Aaron February 24, 2010 - 1:26 pm

I think occasionally people are taken seriously, in the right circumstances. In Los Angeles, the “Pink Line” subway extension (from Hollywood to Santa Monica via West Hollywood, as opposed to the Purple Line from Koreatown to Santa Monica via Wilshire Bl), was largely a half-joke among transit advocates, but enough people brought it to the Metro board meetings and the initial EIR scoping process that Metro actually studied it and realized that both the ridership numbers panned out and that all stakeholder communities between Hollywood and Santa Monica would support the Pink Line, unlike the Hancock Park neighborhood west of Koreatown, which will likely try to gum up the process for the Purple Line. If it enters construction, it’ll be the exception that proves the rule, where a bunch of transit geeks on a couple blogs/message boards actually managed to get a subway line into the final EIR and see it receive funding.

In short, it can happen if your audience is receptive and your message happens to be correct; as transit agencies go, LA Metro has pretty good community relations and transit advocacy in LA feels more like a collaborative process than an adversarial one. I don’t mean to make it out to be 100% sunshine and light, there have been problems, some of them serious, but, it would certainly be nice if MTA could be where LA Metro is in terms of credibility and community involvement. Part of the reason that MTA has problems is that it has to fight Albany all day and is also seen as susceptible to Albany’s corruptions and inertia, whereas LA Metro is, at least from where I sit, distant enough from Sacramento that the “taint” of Sacramento’s problems doesn’t extent to LA Metro and people actually believe that they can influence the process as community members. Los Angeles isn’t so much as city as it is a collection of neighborhoods, and effectively-run community-based outreach actually works there.

Here, however, Ben is right – the message is correct but the audience is the wrong one, and this will largely be a let’s-play-for-the-cameras moment.

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pete February 25, 2010 - 4:11 am

With an EIS, the law REQUIRES them to respond to public comments, and describe how they will alleviate the concerns in the public comments, however what “mitigation” action is, can simply be empty words (for noise, “contractor’s trucks will have lawful mufflers”, duh!).

These hearings are just NY state’s creation, not the fed’s creation. They never respond to the people, they aren’t required to. The only times I see them respond to the speaker is if they know them outside of the hearing as drinking buddies or visitors to their office. Then they will talk back and forth like best friends.

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Peter February 24, 2010 - 8:17 am

Plus, today is a school day, correct?

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Edward February 24, 2010 - 9:47 am

How about charging students 50 cents to ride? A nominal fee that any family can afford, and it will at least bring in some revenue. Also wouldn’t hurt to let kids know what it’s like to be responsible and pay their way around town.

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Steven Higashide February 24, 2010 - 1:39 pm

One of the student representatives posted the actual testimony they gave in a comment on Tri-State’s blog. The message turned out to be broader than it was originally billed as. In part:

…The students need our own hearing because this issue affects us the most, and our voices will not be heard at the scheduled public hearings. We understand that the MetroCards are not just the responsibility of the MTA, but also the Mayor and the Governor. Since we haven’t heard back from you, I’m here personally to invite Chairman Walder to meet with students to figure out how we can save the MetroCards and put pressure on the Mayor and the Governor to do their part.

The whole thing (not much longer than that) is at http://blog.tstc.org/2010/02/2...../#comments

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Cap'n Transit February 25, 2010 - 1:52 am

Only minimally broader, Steven. They’re still targeting “the Mayor” and “the Governor,” and not people like John Sampson and Shelly Silver.

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Marty Barfowitz February 24, 2010 - 5:32 pm

There is but one problem with the WFP and its platform: It’s completely directed at the wrong people.

Yes. Yes. Yes. Repeat this over and over again, Ben because the vast majority of New Yorkers do not understand it.

If you are angry about transit cuts, go yell at your elected representatives in the state legislature. Go yell at Shelly Silver. Go yell at the governor and the Mayor. Go yell at these Working Family Party union shills. Go yell at the horrible leadership at the TWU. Maybe have a conversation with Gene Russianoff and ask why he’s not doing more to help people understand that the legislature is the problem (but don’t yell at Gene).

Then maybe after all that yelling is done and has soaked in and has been done a few more times — only then should you yell at MTA management. MTA management is, at this moment, the least of our problems. Yell at your elected officials. Then vote them out of office.

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Rhywun February 24, 2010 - 7:32 pm

Why doesn’t the DOE fund student travel as DOEs do throughout the state and country?

Because those school districts have the power to tax residents. NYC’s school district does not – instead it is a part of the city government. The same goes for Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and I think Yonkers.

Stephen, good point & I’m heartened to see that these students have a firmer grasp of the situation than the politicians….

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Streetsblog New York City » On Transit Advocacy, Working Families Party Misses the Mark Again February 25, 2010 - 1:24 pm

[…] 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 […]

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Revisiting the economics and politics of student transit :: Second Ave. Sagas March 1, 2010 - 12:03 pm

[…] arms. Just last week, a group of students delivered a letter to the MTA Board, a protest I said had the right message but the wrong audience. (Streetsblog too questioned that protest and the head of the Transit Riders Council urged the […]

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