The MTA enters 2011 in a bind. Public trust in the authority has all but vanished amidst another round of fare hikes and service cuts, and politicians find it to be an easy whipping boy for their own failures. Yet, the subways are, except when felled by the weather, moving forward, and to do that, the authority must go, hat in hand, to Albany to ask for a way to fill a $10 billion hole in its capital budget.
That hole is not an insignificant one. As the MTA’s infrastructure inexorably continues to age, the authority has had to ramp up spending on non-revenue-generating maintenance projects. The Second Ave. Subway, for instance, is a traditional project that can be supported by construction bonds because the bonds can be issued off of guarantees of increased ridership and more fare revenue. Repainting a station ceiling and repairing a broken handrail do not lead to the same ridership and revenue increases.
So the MTA needs that money, and the authority needs to prove that the money is going toward making the system more pleasant and more useful for everyone. Enter SubTalk. For nearly 20 years, SubTalk posters had been the voice of the subway, but they have been the voice of no. Don’t hold the doors. Don’t run on the staircase and platforms. Don’t lean over the platform edge. Don’t litter. The informative posters — such as an overly optimistic one about the Second Ave. Subway’s once-projected opening date — seem few and far between.
And so in early December, as I reported then, the MTA rebranded its house ads. “Improving, non-stop” became the new tagline, and the posters featured innovations. One discussed the new countdown clocks; another presented the MTA’s embrace of real-time information on its website; a third talked about the Select Bus Service upgrades. “Traditionally we have used the space to tell our customers what not to do on the system,” Paul Fleuranges, the Senior Director of Corporate and Internal Communications, said to me, “but with this messaging we’re using the space to communicate with our customers by telling them what we’re doing or plan to do.”
What irked many though was the death of Train of Thought, the successor to the now-defunct Poetry in Motion. As part of the rebranding, the MTA temporarily shelved Train of Thought, the posters with quotes from leading intellects, and many were unhappy. “I don’t begrudge them wanting to put their best foot forward,” Gene Russianoff said to The Times. “But if it comes at the price of permanently kiboshing the poetry, I think that’s a mistake.”
The MTA insisting to me that the “Improving, Non-stop” rebranding “is not an image campaign, rather a better use of our internal space.” But even it were an image campaign, I can’t fault the authority for that. Amongst the blizzard and fare hikes, projects delayed and budgets exceeded, labor unrest and dwindling funds, the MTA doesn’t just seem as though it’s constantly under attack; it is constantly under attack. Oftentimes, those attacks are well deserved; other times they’re not.
Yet, we cannot deny the economic reality of the situation: The $10 billion that the MTA needs for its capital budget is far more important than a few posterboards of poetry or inspirational quotes that, by and large, are ignored by most riders. If moving, as Fleuranges said to me, “away from the ‘House of No’ to ‘The Church of What’s Happening Now'” leads to some recognition of capital improvements and an eventual outlay of badly needed capital funds, I think we can sacrifice a few quotations by Abraham Lincoln or Henri Poincare for a few months. I’m sure there’s an app for that anyway.