Sometimes, the best story isn’t what happens at the MTA hearing. In fact, as one may surmise after reading my liveblog of last night’s Manhattan hearing, nothing too groundbreaking goes on during the comment period. It’s remarkable how MTA officials and board members can sit there maintaining self-control and composure as a half-informed public hurls insults their way, but beyond that, last night, the real story was right outside.
I arrived at the Hilton Hotel on Sixth Ave. between 53rd and 54th Sts. a little late last night. By the time I left the NYU area and trekked uptown, it was around 6:05 p.m. My first sign that something was about to go wrong arrived beforehand. In a bit of foreshadowing, the first train to show up on the Sixth Ave. tracks at W. 4th St. was a Queens-bound E running on the Sixth Ave. local line. This service change was an inauspicious beginning.
As I arrived upstairs at the Hilton, the line was a few hundred people long, and it moves slowly through the MTA’s airport-like security. At 6:25, the line stopped, and we didn’t know why. A few minutes later, word spread that the ballroom was full, and the Authority’s reps were scrambling to set up the back room with chairs and amplifiers. The amplifiers wouldn’t arrive for nearly two hours.
As the line stalled, I talked to a few of the people around me and overheard others. A retired teacher and self-proclaimed troublemaker was adamant about opposing the Doomsday measures. “We have to mobilize against these hikes,” she said. The Straphanging public is clearly not willing to take another round of fare hikes.
At 6:40, a conflict between those waiting on line and the Hilton security force nearly flared up. A group of people — led by the very vocal Save the M8 coalition — started chanting “Le us in,” and as the frustration grew, a security guard stepped in. “It’s a safety issue,” the guard said. “The bottom line is that you can’t protest in the building,” another guard said.
So far, people have been waiting online for a public meeting for over 40 minutes, and they’ve just been informed that they cannot protest. That’s a situation ripe for a conflict, but a few good people calmed the crowd. A few minutes later, Manhattan Borough President Steve Stringer emerged from the room. “It’s a disgrace. They’re idiots,” he said about those who would keep the public waiting outside a public meeting for nearly an hour. “I apologize on behalf of the city.”
As the clock ticked forward, more than a few people grow anxious. “It’s a public hearing,” said one. “A public hearing should be accessible to the public.”
At 7:04 p.m., the line starting moving again, and a few minutes later, we were in. Once in view of the hearing, I heard a lot of people talk about the problems of Access-A-Ride and a lot of people speak out against a fare hike and service cuts. But no one mentioned tolling the East River crossings, and even the politicians had few ideas about how they would specifically solve the MTA’s economic issues.
In that sense, I was disappointed. New York needs forward-thinking leaders, and while I heard a lot of criticism, much of it deserved, tossed at the MTA Board, no one offered real leadership. Programs — mass transit, bus lines, expansion — costs money, and paying for these services requires a cost.
As for the crowd inside, they were rowdy, raucous and, as The Times said, angry, but that was nothing compared to the feelings flowing through the line outside. With seven hearings left, things could grow very tense for the MTA and its not-so-adoring public.