The New York City Transit Authority was born out of the need to divorce subway fare rates from politics. For too long, Big Apple politicians had run on campaign promises of maintaining the five- and later the ten-cent fare, and because of the political armageddon that would fall on anyone who raised the fares, the subways had fallen into an economic crisis.
In terms of fare policy, then, the TA has served its goal, but instead of isolating the subways from the political process, the MTA has become a pawn in the political game. Since New Yorkers will never be happy with the combination of low fares, a system still struggling to escape the specter of the nickel fare and current levels of subway service, politicians can exploit that distrust and dislike of the MTA for political gain. Even as Albany takes dedicated funds away from the subway system, politicians blame the TA for its own economic woes.
Apparently, the public is listening, too, but to the wrong people. A Marist poll released today says that 61 percent of New Yorkers say the MTA is most to blame for the fare hikes and service cuts. The remaining 39 percent are split among Mayor Michael Bloomberg (17 percent), the state legislature which charters and funds the MTA (12 percent) and Gov. David Paterson (10).
Transit advocates have long tried to educate voters on issues relating to subway funding, but most, says Andrew Grossman of The Wall Street Journal, just aren’t listening. He writes:
The uncertain budget picture has some advocacy groups trying to increase pressure on candidates to support new funding streams for the MTA, such as congestion pricing—a scheme, championed by Mr. Bloomberg, to charge drivers to enter crowded parts of Manhattan during the day. It has failed to gain support in the Legislature.
The MTA doesn’t “print their own money. They don’t control the state budget and they certainly don’t control the dedicated taxes that the legislature can pass to fund them,” said Noah Budnick, the deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, a group that tries to persuade people to find other ways to travel than driving. Mr. Budnick’s group is running a “Rider Rebellion” campaign that seeks to put pressure on candidates to support more funding for mass transit.
Such efforts aimed solely at Albany risk alienating supporters of the MTA in the Legislature, warns Assemb. Richard Brodsky, a Westchester Democrat who chairs the committee that oversees the agency. Mr. Brodsky is running for Attorney General in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. “The obvious answer is that everybody is at fault,” Mr. Brodsky said. “It’s a confluence of failures, and no one is exempt from them.” He said the MTA still has inefficiencies that need to be solved.
On the one hand, Brodsky’s answer is the obvious one, but on the other hand, his august legislative body isn’t doing their part. The MTA has cut hundreds of millions of dollars for its budget this year while Albany has engaged in theft. The state hasn’t been willing to consider a congestion pricing plan or a tolling plan that would more evenly share the funding burden, and they have replenished the state’s general fund with $143 million from the MTA’s coffers. The MTA might be easy to blame and should carry some of that load, but Albany deserves far more spite than it receives.
Later today — at 5:15 in front of the Cooper Union — the Straphangers Campaign, Transportation Alternatives, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and the Pratt Center for Community Development — will announce its opposition to the fare hikes and suggest other ways in which the MTA, with some help from Albany, could raise the money it needs to raise. Late last week, Gene Russianoff sent Jay Walder a letter about the MTA’s fare hike proposal. The missive, available here, asks how the MTA arrived at its current proposal and how the fare hike would impact ridership, questions the MTA has yet to answer fully. This is the work politicians should be doing with an assist from the Straphangers, and yet Russianoff is left largely to fend for himself.
In the end, this Marist poll shows how people don’t have a firm view of New York City subway policies. According to respondents, a whopping 29 percent of them use MTA services less frequently than they did before the cuts, but the MTA says that ridership is actually staying steady after the cuts, if not increasing as the city’s economy rebounds. From pointing fingers to assessing riding patterns, New Yorkers seem to have a long way to go before they fully grasp how the subways work politically, and although the MTA shouldn’t get a free ride, as long as voters aren’t willing to hold politicians responsible, the economic situation and our subway system simply will not improve.