Apr
02

Occupy Wall Street’s #farestrike stunt draws ire

By

Last week, straphangers at a random smattering of subway stations scattered throughout the city found themselves with a free ride. On Wednesday morning, protestors from Occupy Wall Street allegedly in conjunction with some TWU rank-and-file members posted faux-service advisory signs in certain stations and propped open emergency exits so that subway riders could enter the system for free. Five days later, authorities are investigating, and TWU higher-ups are disavowing any ties to this stunt.

The tale begins on Wednesday morning when Occupy Wall Street protestors, posing as MTA workers, propped open the doors at around 20 stations. At around 5 a.m., masked men and women chained open gates at a variety of stations, and while many gates were restored by 8:30, some were left open during the bulk of the a.m. rush. According to The Daily News, stations included 135th St. on the No. 3 and 116th St. on the No. 6 in Manhattan; Halsey St. on the L, Ninth Ave. on the D, Beverly Road on the Q and Carroll St. on the F in Brooklyn, and Steinway St. and 65th St. on the R in Queens.

A few hours later, Occupy Wall Street claimed responsibility for the action. On the group’s blog, they wrote about their reasoning:

This morning before rush hour, teams of activists, many from Occupy Wall Street, in conjunction with rank and file workers from the Transport Workers Union Local 100 and the Amalgamated Transit Union, opened up more than 20 stations across the city for free entry. As of 10:30 AM, the majority remain open. No property was damaged. Teams have chained open service gates and taped up turnstiles in a coordinated response to escalating service cuts, fare hikes, racist policing, assaults on transit workers’ working conditions and livelihoods — and the profiteering of the super-rich by way of a system they’ve rigged in their favor.

For the last several years, riders of public transit have been under attack. The cost of our Metrocards has been increasing, while train and bus service has been steadily reduced. Budget cuts have precipitated station closings and staff/safety reductions. Police routinely single out young black and Latino men for searches at the turnstile. Layoffs and attrition means cutting staff levels to the bare minimum, reducing services for seniors and disabled riders. At the same time, MTA workers have been laid off and have had their benefits drastically reduced. Contract negotiations are completely stalled.

Working people of all occupations, colors and backgrounds are expected to sacrifice to cover the budget cut by paying more for less service. But here’s the real cause of the problem: the rich are massively profiting from our transit system. Despite the fact that buses and subways are supposed to be a public service, the government and the MTA have turned the system backwards—into a virtual ATM for the super-rich. Instead of using our tax money to properly fund transit, Albany and City Hall have intentionally starved transit of public funds for over twenty years; the MTA must resort to bonds (loans from Wall Street) to pay for projects and costs. The MTA is legally required to funnel tax dollars and fares away from transportation costs and towards interest on these bonds, called “debt service.” This means Wall Street bondholders receive a huge share of what we put into the system through the Metrocards we buy and the taxes we pay: more than $2 billion a year goes to debt service, and this number is expected to rise every year. If trends continue, by 2018 more than one out of every five dollars of MTA revenue will head to a banker’s pockets.

If anything, the underlying message is on point. Albany has indeed left the MTA high and dry, and the debt bomb continues to tick. At some point, as bond underwriters continue to profit, straphangers will be left paying an ever-higher share of debt. Some projects should be funded via debt, but most should not.

Anyway, even with this message, fallout has been swift. Occupy Wall Street alleged that TWU workers participated in the fare strike, but union leaders denied this claim. “We knew nothing about it,” TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen said to The Daily News. An ATU official told amNew York that his union had reason to believe members were involved, and the MTA said nothing.

Nearly immediately, the NYPD, Occupy Wall Street’s main foil, began to investigate, and according to Gothamist, the FBI paid a visit to some of the rank-and-file who work at the targeted stations. This weekend, surveillance videos of the action emerged, and The Daily News noted that investigations have continued into the identities of those responsible.

What a mess, huh? Someone will get in trouble for this move; someone will get too up in arms over this; and someone will blame the Occupiers for the MTA’s budget woes when the March fare numbers come in under projection. That’s the way of things. What should not get lost in this is, as I mentioned, the valid points. The MTA is picking up more and more debt, and riders will pay more and more for services that many think aren’t up to par. Should we take it or fight back? The only people listening are Occupiers, and their message is lost in Albany amongst those who control the purse strings and policies.



Categories : MTA Politics

56 Responses to “Occupy Wall Street’s #farestrike stunt draws ire”

  1. Alex C says:

    I usually support OWS, but how the heck is robbing the MTA achieving anything? Somebody at OWS is really, *really* confused and seems to think the MTA is some sort of all-powerful corporation that raises fares just for fun. Idiocy. They should be embarrassed at this #FAIL. They need to take 5 seconds to see that Albany is the problem.

    • Al D says:

      Actually they are an all powerful corporation. They do what they want when they want how they and to who they want. Answerable to no one.

      • Alex C says:

        They answer to the clowns in Albany, who do nothing but steal from them and then yell at them to lower fares. You don’t happen to be a member of the State Senate, do you?

        • Bolwerk says:

          The clowns in Albany are completely complicit with the clowns in the MTA/TWU. If they sometimes blame the MTA/TWU for the MTA/TWU’s clownish behavior, it’s entirely a cynical political tactic.

        • Al D says:

          No, I’m not a member of that fine governing body, a model of American democracy.

          They don’t really answer to Albany. They sort of kind of report to the Governor, but in an indirect, oversight, political kind of way.

          They have their own Board of Directors which is who Lhota reports directly to (again sort of).

          And herein lies 1 of the problems, and it’s a big 1. There is really no direct accountability. Who in particular is ultimately responsible here? As an example, for the NYCDOT it’s the commissioner of the agency and then the mayor. Same for NYSDOT, easy, but MTA? Prendergast? Lhota? Williams? Permut? MTA Board? Cuomo? Skelos? Silver? LaHood? Obama?

          • Bolwerk says:

            In any hierarchical structure, who watchers the watchers is problem no matter how many layers of watchers you have. That there isn’t a potential (yet) for a (small-D) democratic backlash to overthrow the existing power structure, either through free elections or revolution, ultimately sends a signal that authoritarian and selfish behavior is not going to be punished – and it’s not, until you start stepping on other powerful, authoritarian, and/or corrupt people, which was Madoff’s main mistake. That is a problem as much for the Legislature or City Council as it is for the MTA.

            Now, I’m not naive enough to think the “small government” crowd actually wants to reduce the power of government. If anything, they want to streamline it and make it more vicious. But more bureaucratic oversight is not an answer either, especially considering most of the current system was in the name of oversight.

  2. Brian says:

    These people are trying to show that are not just a nuisance then go and do nonsense like this

  3. Ramiro says:

    While I understand the frustration by OWS and agree with some of their points, I don’t see how denying the MTA of fares helps with the MTA’s budget.

  4. Frank B says:

    Oh sure. Blame the MTA.

    The logic is baffling. The MTA makes money to move 8 million people a day through three ways.

    1. Tolls on bridges and tunnels.
    2. Fares.
    3. Advertising.

    The government (in theory) covers the rest. When they’ve even covered the subway cars and steps in stations with advertisements, and when the tolls on the Verrazano are in the double digits, then, and only then does the MTA increase public transit fares.

    I honestly like these Wall-Streeters less and less with each passing day; I supported them at first. I even went down to protest low taxes on the 1%. I held up a sign that said Deuteronomy 15:11 until midnight even after everyone else had gone.

    But these people have done many things to sour me. They’ve got no clear message. They seem not to be average people who are being burnt at both ends by a greedy Wall Street, but trust-fund hipsters, which irked me.

    But this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, however. Nobody insults the MTA, or openly robs from a cash-strapped organization. These Wall Streeters are robbing Peter to pay Paul. These people should be kicked out of our city.

    • Justin Samuels says:

      OWS members are not trust funders, generally. A number of them are homeless/jobless. Some of them do work or are students. I’ve written quite a bit about Occupy, and I’ve not met trust funders amongst them.

  5. MaximusNYC says:

    Their message is correct. Their method, in this case, I’m not so sure about.

    How about occupying Albany?

    • Eric F says:

      Here’s their “message”: We elected exactly who we wanted for President. Shockingly, the U.S. has not become the utopia we expected it would. We can’t protest the president. Therefore, we cannot protest against the current wars we are undertaking nearly four years into his term. We can’t protest any of his regulatory agencies. We can’t even make fun of the leadership. And so we are stuck protesting industries and indicia of commerce.

      Lame.

  6. Alon Levy says:

    Very good. Not that I support a strike against the MTA right now, but free-ride strikes, which are how transit strikes are in the Netherlands, are far more effective at sparing riders from labor troubles than regular strikes.

  7. John-2 says:

    The blog post fleshes out their complaints a tad more than normal, but in the end it’s just a variation on the efforts by some activists dating back to the 1960s to push for an eventual “free subway rides for all,” plan. Which of course would make the MTA’s cash balances even worse, given that the subway in New York has a higher percentage of farebox recovery than most other U.S. systems (and doesn’t even get into the legal questions over ho much control the MTA would have over people within the system if there were no barriers to entry).

    • Alon Levy says:

      Those activists wanted the MTA funded out of bridge tolls, taxi charges, congestion pricing, etc. That was the Kheel plan. The numbers didn’t pan out, but it’s not as if they were intending to rob the MTA of funds.

      Also? The side that believes government agencies should have control over people lost the Cold War. In free countries, barriers to entry are used only when necessary, not whenever possible.

      • John-2 says:

        It would be nice if mass transit prices could be lowered as part of an effort to get people out of their cars. But were you to eliminate the fare on the subway entirely, odds are the law of unintended consequences would rear it’s ugly head, and the results would be the same as the results of the free tuition period at CUNY (for starters, how would the MTA handle the increase in passengers that a free subway would bring? New railcars and new personnel would be needed, but the MTA would have no way to pay any part of it via farebox recovery).

        • Bolwerk says:

          Free tuition at CUNY afforded people an excellent education, propelled social mobility, and produced a lot of excellent scholarship, some of which laid the ground for the Internet age. Are you thinking of open admissions? That was the blow from which CUNY never truly recovered. Of course, you don’t really see those benefits with a free subway. You probably are providing hipsters with a free toilet.

          And, transit prices are pretty low already. A fare is still cheaper than a gallon of gas alone, and in many cases the ride is faster and more convenient. A huge fraction of your fare is attributable to paying for overstaffing/patronage, entitlements, and debt, not transit service.

      • Eric F says:

        Well, they could try to hold an election instead of ripping off the MTA at the fare collection point. “Those activists wanted the MTA funded out of bridge tolls, taxi charges, congestion pricing, etc.” Ok, well in that case I want it funded out of taxes on stuff I don’t use. NYC can’t get much more liberal, the dial is already pushed pretty far. I don’t understand what part of the leftist program people think isn’t being implemented in NYC right now. I guess the city can socialize agriculture and set up a collective farm in Central Park or something, but beyond that I’m not sure what you think you’re missing.

        • John R says:

          Agreed. What we keep asking for is lower and lower prices, but noone is willing to pay for it. Look back in time at what happened when we didn’t invest in the infrastructure. IMO transportation should cost a lot more money across the board- not just subways, cars, planes- you name it. Massive subsidies encourage use of resources beyond a sustainable level and also encourage debt accumulation. So, it’s counterintuitive, but lowering the prices on transportation through subsidies actually yields a better deal for corporations and big government.

          Take, for example, the fact that our subway systems are designed to be downtown, Manhattan centric. This allows massively scaled corporations to pull bigger and bigger revenues rather than spreading economic activity more evenly throughout the city- putting money into the hands of more people. The prices of getting around are high, and sometimes we have to think, does our request for cheap transit hurt the Occupy cause?

        • Bolwerk says:

          Which is it? Liberal or leftist? Socialized or subsidized? Do you even know what any those words mean?

      • Spendmore Wastemore says:

        “Also? The side that believes government agencies should have control over people lost the Cold War. In free countries, barriers to entry are used only when necessary, not whenever possible.”

        Where you been for the last couple decades? The public want “security” not freedom. People cheer any sort of lock’m up thing; the Supreme court just ruled that you can be strip searched for having an outstanding traffic ticket… which you actually have paid, and where there was no probably cause to arrest you. The person in that incident was a _passenger_ while his wife was driving while she got a “speeding” ticket.

        I placed speeding in quotes as I’ve never seen an LE drive the speed limit except in a marked cruiser where there are either baiting you to pass them or there’s a department reg that they visibly follow the laws they enforce.

        Anyone who has a teenager in the house probably has an arrestable offense around. Do their friends smoke pot? Well, it’s on your kid’s clothes… and if some falls out of their pockets into your home _you_ are now open to being charged with exposing them to drugs. Usually not done if you have $$, but you’d be surprised what they do to everyone else.

        What I’m getting at here is that people on both ends of today’s political spectrum have demanded that government control people more. They want it to control _other_ people, but the bargain doesn’t end there.

        • Bolwerk says:

          The case before the Supreme Court was probably a case of Driving While Black.

          And whatever merit talk about a political spectrum might once have had is gone now. There is no liberal/conservative dichotomy. If you really need a dichotomy, it’s closer to conservative/crypto-fascist now, where the conservative side – these are the Demokrats – has a little respect for tradition and stare decisis, and is maybe a little less doctrinaire, and the other “side” is delusional to the point of dysfunction.

  8. Nyland8 says:

    The success, or failure, of this protest rests with the emphasis of the press. If all the public hears about is the cost to the MTA of a few hours of lost fares at a few stations, then OWS has gone to some trouble and risk for little reward. If, on the other hand, the emphasis of the press is on the fact that, as was pointed out in Benjamin’s blog, the assertions of the protesters are largely true – our fares DO service debt, so the average working class subway commuter IS subsidizing the bond markets on Wall Street – and the public becomes sufficiently outraged to do something about it – then this consciousness raising protest will be successful.

    Frankly, I applaud their efforts. The average commuter knows precious little about the machinations of MTA funding. They know only that their income doesn’t seem to keep pace with the rising cost of everything else – transportation included. But every time a decision is made in Albany to borrow, instead of fund outright, somebody profits.

    And they profit at our collective expense.

    • Bolwerk says:

      Welp.

      Dollar inflation between 1996-2010: 34%
      Unlimited MC inflation: 65% ? (104-63)/63

      Had unlimited MC inflation followed dollar inflation, we’d see unlimited MC prices around $85 now. And arguably, we shouldn’t even see that much inflation given that improved ridership should be bringing average costs per rider down, at least before capital costs.

      OWS has been pretty successful in showing how needlessly, lawlessly brutal the state and NYPD have gotten, though I don’t see it having a lasting impact.

      • The dollar-vs.-MetroCard inflation graph evens out if you knock it back a few more decades. Furthermore, the MTA has been playing catch-up since 1996 when they heavily discounted fares.

        • Bolwerk says:

          I wasn’t saying the MTA shouldn’t have raised the fares per se, but the rate of inflation comparative to “everything else,” as Nyland8 put it, is a bit high, probably due to internal factors.

          That said, I’m pretty skeptical of that claim. Going back to 1975, the 35¢ fare is equivalent $1.46 in 2011. That’s fairly on target for the average per-ride revenue, but the roughly $2.25 fare that the poorest riders pay per trip is significantly higher – and that’s exacerbated by falling wages and the fact that the general trend has been towards scaling back services and forcing more transfers. And if you believe wikipedia, the general trend for the inflation-adjusted fare is also up.

          (OK, lots of problems with the wiki graph, even if it’s accurate. It doesn’t take into account discounts and how those affect riding habits. It doesn’t take into account how people may have shifted from the slew of services that were eliminated over the years either.)

          • John R says:

            What you have to get from this graph:
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F.....lation.png

            is the trough from 1916ish to 1952. That’s a long period of time with debt-driven conditions, lack of maintenance, and overall accumulating deterioration. This was because the politicians artificially held prices low despite inflation.

            In order to really make up for the trough, try taking the integral of the space necesary to fill that trough if you were to make it flat across rather than dipping for that 38 year period. Given that the fares initially did not cover the construction costs, as that was to be paid off over 50 years, you essentially have to add in massive infrastructure reconstruction (of the >100 year old system) to the equation, and really it makes a lot of sense why we are still playing catch up from the 1916-52 trough.

            • Bolwerk says:

              I’m not so sure about time period. I would think the worst period of deferred/poor maintenance is from ~1950 (probably more like 1960) to the 1980s. 1916 to at least World War II saw continued transit investment, and there was at least a brief spurt of expansion after the war too.

              That integral tells me nothing. That chart doesn’t say anything about how much of the system’s costs were covered by fares in the past. We can probably safely infer the fares are going up because operating/capital costs are rising. In fact, we know that the fare today only covers a fraction of those costs.

              • John R says:

                From my pretty deep probing, but not full analysis, it seems like the fares began to decouple with operating/capital costs right around when I said, 1916-17. Early on, the IRT and BRT corporations were turning a profit, but despite the hyper inflation seen in the late 19-teens the IRT and BRT were not given the chance to adjust the dual contracts that locked them into the 5 cent fare even though 5cents became almost worthless.

                Just because there was large expenditure by the city to build the IND system, doesn’t mean that they were pulling in a high enough fare to cover the operations and capital expenses. At this time, there was almost no investment by the city in the IRT and BRT lines- just the IND, the first subway line to be fully city operated and which never turned a profit.

                The gap between fares and necessary costs escalated over time when finally in the 1950s, they started to raise prices, but with being so behind on much of what we’re behind today, they struggled to catch up (well they didn’t catch up). They cut corners on infrastructure replacement schedules, deferred maintenance, cut positions, etc.

                What I’m getting at is that there’s a time-lag effect. That the decline didn’t immediately become apparent and the problems we see today goes back much further than the 1950s. Also, while you can’t tell a tremendous amount from this graph – e.g. number of riders/overall revenue vs. spending, you can get a sense that there was a long period during which the value of a ride was deflated, and that this along with many other variables (low ridership, the decline of urban centers, etc) spiraled on top of each other. Today, we must make up for the past. It’s painful and not fair, but either we wait for tunnels to collapse or begin replacement and proper maintenance by paying more now. And we shouldn’t be pointing fingers or blaming, but just getting together to say, let’s fix this knowing that we all got a bad deal from it.

                Yes, there’s abuses to watch out for, and Ben does an excellent job covering the bs that happens within the MTA, but we must recognize that we need to fix multiple simultaneous problems- get a big enough revenue/subsidy to decrease the debt burden, establish a real budget that includes replacement schedule for infrastructure/maintenance, and also tackle the inefficient labor systems. God Bless Lhota if he can get all this done!

    • Chris says:

      I like this concept of subsidy in which the party receiving billions of dollars in hard cash and being charged moderate interest is somehow doing the subsidizing!

      I have to say I find the whole OWS movement fairly absurd. To review:

      (1) the voting public, who with minimal effort can nominate basically any resident adult for office, and who can widely publicize any candidate on the practically costless internet, or go door to door with a minimal investment of time comes up with the current bunch
      (2) that bunch of politicians does something obviously regrettable like fund transit operating costs with debt or giving banks $700 billion in exchange for nothing
      (3) somehow it follows that Wall Street is to blame

      Sheldon Silver won his last election 16,881-0. If our society faces major problems it’s because the broad public has abdicated its responsibility, not because of anything Wall Street has done.

  9. Larry Littlefield says:

    Someone ought to tell OWS that the bondholders and pensioners take money off the top, with transportation provided with whatever money is left. So they did nothing but screw the riders that did pay, turn the riders looking for a free ride against the other riders.

    Starting a petition for the MTA to default on its debts and retiree health insurance would be more effective. If it attracted enough support, the MTA would be unable to sell the bonds.

  10. Al D says:

    Any MTA worker involved should be fired on the spot. For OWS, more power to ‘em. At least someone is out there calling attention to all the inequities of this system through various forms of civil disobedience.

  11. George says:

    I thought OWS stood for equality. But they only did it at some of the stations and not in each of the 400 stations. That is precisely the wrong message that they’re sending. They need to do this at all stations. And they just did it in the morning rush hour. What about those of us who work at other times during the day. Don’t we deserve to benefit from OWS successful protests? This is just not fair at all.

    OWS, do this at every station all the time. Only then can I respect you as an effective tool against the worldwide capitalist-Zionist conspiracy.

    • Nyland8 says:

      LOL

      Somehow I don’t think the expectation of the demonstration was to prevent the MTA from collecting fares indefinitely throughout the system. It was to make a point – one which some will get, others will not, and still others are likely to deliberately distort.

      Where are the consumer advocates on the issue of mass-transit costs?

      I wonder what Ralph Nader would say.

      • Phantom says:

        Mass transit costs in NYC are very low by national or even international standards.

        When you consider that the system gives single zone coverage over a vast area on a 24 hour basis, it is a steal.

        The commuter trains are expensive ( largely thanks to abuse by the unions ) but the NYC subway and bus service is very fairly priced.

        • Alon Levy says:

          You keep saying that, but there are about 3 or 4 cities in Europe with more expensive subway fares than New York, counting pay-per-ride and unlimited monthly discounts. London, Stockholm, and 1-2 more I forget (Munich, maybe?). Most of the other cities have single-zone fares, or almost-single-zone fares, which woudl be equivalent to having a Rockaways surcharge (as the subway used to have in the early years of service to the Rockaways). In Tokyo, there are fare zones, but average fares are even with New York – the base fare is usually higher, but there are more generous unlimited monthly discounts.

          • Bolwerk says:

            I find German cities to generally have slightly higher base fares than New York, and that’s even making the very crude assumption that, in PPP, $1 = €1.

            Obviously, the monthlies are more discounted.

            • Alon Levy says:

              The monthlies are much cheaper, and most people use monthlies (or yearlies); the base fare is for tourists. In Berlin, the in-city monthly fare is €74, ~$92.5 (link), and the annual ticket is €58 per month, ~$72.5.

  12. jj says:

    OWS is a joke

  13. dungone says:

    Bottom line is we’ve entered an era of protests that will become more aggressive until there are real reforms

  14. UESider says:

    There needs to be a way to reform corporate laws to reduce the corruption in the system.

    Corporations are not people, especially if their profits are measured in $Billions, tax rates are lower than actual people in the lowest tax brackets, and highest ranking employee makes over 200x of the lowest ranking employee (who just might be doing the work that earns those profits)

    and the top ranking employees cut deals with unions and wall streeters that everyone else ends up paying for

    there really needs to be better accountability in the system

    • Nyland8 says:

      Indeed. The ultimate Catch-22. We need reform legislation in order to take away the unfair advantage corporations have on legislation. And as long as corporations hold unfair sway over legislators, we’re not likely to get such legislation.

      If we had an educated electorate, they would demand public financing of all political campaigns, thus rendering corporations impotent in the electoral process.

      With no influence, legislators would be free to do the will of the people.

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