When the MTA introduced its new “Improving, Non-Stop” house ad campaign earlier this year, they did so, as I wrote at the time, with an eye toward Albany. The authority knew it had a an unfunded capital program with a $10-$13 billion gap, and officials knew they had to convince those who control the purse strings that the MTA is both moving forward and badly in need of that money. The PR campaign is going haltingly.
On the one hand, straphangers have taken to vandalizing the posters. They aren’t going unnoticed, but the message has been met with skepticism. After all, no matter how many improvements the MTA makes, people always want more. They want more frequent trains, better technology, cleaner stations, the works. On the other hand, the MTA still needs its money.
And so, the authority is upping the message. New placards have gone up in trains throughout the system with the tagline “What’s New?” They promote the real-time bus-tracking pilot along the B63 in Brooklyn, the cashless tolling system on the Henry Hudson Bridge, the Select Bus Service routes and consolidated agency phone numbers, to name but a few. Of course, riders are taking just as kindly to the new campaign as they did the old.
As Michael Grynbaum wrote last week, a few intrepid editors have determined that the answer to “What’s new?” is higher fares. He writes of the disconnect between the message, the medium and those reading it:
The graffiti points to the vast public relations difficulties of an agency whose very nature — operating a system that virtually every New Yorker depends on — makes it a lightning rod for all manner of criticism, deserved and not.
The agency, increasingly wary of politicians’ criticism and less than flattering news coverage, has been trying a direct-marketing approach in making riders aware of the work it is doing to improve the transportation experience.
The new slate of promotional posters, to be displayed in subways, buses and commuter rails and on some station walls, is a complement to the agency’s “Improving, Nonstop” campaign, started earlier this year. The idea was to remove outdated slogans — “Going Your Way” is now gone — and create a more streamlined, simpler aesthetic for the agency to inform its clientele.
“There was a feeling that the M.T.A. hadn’t been as effective as we could be in communicating things that are going on to our customers,” said Jeremy Soffin, a spokesman for the transportation authority. “This is a way of trying to improve that.”
Some of this conflict stems from years of underinvestment. Because the MTA had a huge infrastructure deficit in the 1980s, it couldn’t keep up with the technological advances of the day. Thus, when the money started to flow, the capital investments were made primarily to save a decrepit system. Now that the system is halfway between decrepit and Good Repair, riders want more.
Meanwhile, Albany isn’t too willing to give more. The city and state have reduced their fiscal commitments to the MTA over the past 15 years, and with money tight across the state, that trend isn’t stopping any time soon. But without a capital plan and funding, the transit system will slide. Hopefully, the answer to “What’s New?” will soon be “a fully funded five-year capital plan.” We can’t afford to go forward without one.