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.