Home Fare Hikes Advocating for an effective advocacy group

Advocating for an effective advocacy group

by Benjamin Kabak

Thirty years ago, the New York Public Interest Research Group, a non-profit research and advocacy organization, formed the Straphangers Campaign. Tasked with speaking up for the city’s millions of subway riders, the group has, as its Web site explains, enjoyed numerous success stories over the last three decades. They have helped — with an emphasis on the help — more transparency and citizen participation at MTA meetings, increased attention to transit investments, better MetroCard options and the restoration of the Court St. station into a permanent Transit Museum.

Yet, when push came to shove this year, when the MTA found itself with its back against the wall, when riders and politicians uneducated in the minutiae of the transit agency’s woes started slamming it for demanding more money or threatening a fare hike, the Straphangers were hardly a force in the debate. Gene Russianoff, the group’s lead attorney, made his perfunctory appearances at fare hike meetings and saw his name in nearly every article about the MTA. His quotes though are mostly bland and forgettable. Transit opponents have their “two sets of books” while Russianoff says on the eve of the fare hikes, “It would have been much worse – with double the fare hike, coupled with severe service cuts – if the state Legislature had not passed an MTA bailout, which spread transit costs among riders, motorists and business.” You tell me which one makes for a better talking point.

Over the last few years, I’ve gone from admiring the Straphangers’ ability to get their name out there for most subway-related things to believing that the group may need a new mission and a new focus. A glance at their Web site reveals nothing compelling. There’s yet another survey about pay phones underground and an annual look at how dirty the trains are. We have the slowest buses and the state of the subway awards. The only lists that are less interesting and less variable on a year-to-year basis are those ranking colleges and universities published by U.S. News and World Reports.

The site is notably silent on the fare hike. The lone link goes back to the hard-to-find page on the MTA’s website, and the organization doesn’t have anything resembling a one-pager about the state of the MTA, contacting officials or urging better investment in transit. They’re just not doing the job.

I’m not the only transit advocate who has noticed this lack of leadership. Over at On Transport, a new site run by Chris O’Leary, he slams the Straphangers for their ineffective leadership:

The outrage over the hike was not directed at the state’s inaction, but rather at the MTA for its alleged mismanagement of funds and bloated, overpaid board of directors…In the face of all these facts, the media, politicians, and the MTA’s customers have chosen to blame the MTA for their deficit.

A logical reaction by an organization that is working for the best interests of subway riders would be a campaign of facts: simply lay out some simple facts about how the MTA got into this mess, point out what the MTA has done to improve their efficiency and transparency, and make a call to action to rally riders to demand that the state provide new funding sources for the agency.

Instead, the Straphangers Campaign sat on their hands. They joined a coalition of over a hundred organizations that created a letter-writing campaign to the state legislators, but there was nothing they did to stop the flow of misinformation from politicians into the mass media…The organization has been far less proactive and far more reactive. In a time when transit was in peril in New York, the Straphangers Campaign did what they always do. Russianoff showed up on NY1, repeated the same valid but tired talking points, but never made it part of a wide-ranging campaign to get the truth out: fares were going up because of the State Government, NOT the MTA. The Straphangers Campaign seemed content to continue simply being quoted in the news and not making news of their own.

O’Leary ends with a pair of questions: “If the Straphangers Campaign refuses to do anything other than send out press releases and ‘report cards,’ how will they affect any change in getting the MTA fully funded at the state level? And if the Straphangers Campaign won’t take up the task of rallying people around the cause of a fully-funded transit system, who will?”

Over the last few days, I’ve posed the same questions and have arrived at no answer. The news reporters are mailing it in; the advocacy groups — and I count myself here — are preaching to the choir. Somehow, someway, we have to get the message out, and if the long-standing groups who have championed themselves as the voice of the riders won’t do it, then maybe it’s time for some new voices to step up and take the reins.

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Allison @ Entry Level Living June 30, 2009 - 9:29 am

Maybe it’s time to go where the people are. In other words if it is clear that the issues are being spoken over and over again to the people who already know why not try a new focus. Why not start straphanger programs in high schools, mobilizing teens to get involved in understanding and advocating for better public transportation? Why not get college students to plan panel discussions, trips, and events focusing on public transportation and its important role in building sustainable cities (I would also say public transportation is crucial for democracy, but that’s another issue 🙂 I strongly believe in youth activism and work closely on this so it may be a good place to start.

Using the fare hike as a starting point for discussion we could explore why transit is important, how it works, and how we can change it. Let’s comb the city for connectors–people who know their neighborhood and know their needs to start bringing people to the table.

What’s happening is that people take public transportation for granted. It isnt until we are threatened with change we dont like that people start asking questions. So for those of us with some info about transit can make it more available.

Red June 30, 2009 - 10:18 am

I disagree with your take on Gene. I think you cherry picked a bland quote when Gene has always been among the best at the sound bite, and at coming up with creative ways to be heard.

But you may be onto something when you suggest that the “city transit advocacy” movement needs better leadership, and I think one issue is capacity. Transportation Alternatives, for example, has been making tons of headway on bike and pedestrian issues. I’m pretty sure they have somewhere between two and four times the number of full-time staff that the Straphangers does. I don’t know what effect being part of NYPIRG has on the Straphangers, but I wonder if an independent organization would be better positioned to raise and spend money. Just speculating.

Also, I think (though I have no idea whether this is true) that transportation and transit has become an issue where, suddenly, more seems possible. And that has raised expectations. Advocacy groups already came together for congestion pricing and Ravitch Plan in two unprecedented efforts. And yet you and Streetsblog have both said that advocates need to do more.

And, since those efforts didn’t work, both of you are right.

Eric McClure June 30, 2009 - 11:27 am

In my mind, it would help the Straphangers’ Campaign’s credibility if they actually opposed the MTA’s huge giveaway to Bruce Ratner. And it would help those working to fight the Atlantic Yards project to have Straphangers firmly in our corner. It doesn’t take a genius to see that Atlantic Yards directly screws transit riders.

Scott E June 30, 2009 - 11:28 am

I’m still unclear on who the Straphangers Campaign consists of (a large organization? a single-handed effort by Russianoff?) and how its funded. In all honesty, it sounds like it consists of volunteers and/or is funded by donations. In this economic climate, I doubt fundraising is very effective, and qualified people willing to volunteer time and effort are scarce. I think it’s important to answer the “who” and “how” before setting expectations.

Marc Shepherd June 30, 2009 - 12:11 pm

Russianoff contributes to the confusion by describing himself as the “Staff Attorney,” giving the impression that he is just a mid-level functionary, when in fact nobody but him ever speaks for the group. Why can’t he just admit that he runs the thing?

As a transit advocate, he is practically useless, because he rehashes the same talking points every time. He hasn’t had an original thought in years.

Ariel June 30, 2009 - 1:02 pm

I became very interested in transportation issues ever since I randomly stumbled onto this blog two years ago. This, along with Streetsblog and other like-minded blogs, is waking up urban dwellers to issues that are directly affecting them.

Despite all the interest this blog has sparked, not once has the Straphangers Campaign tried to “recruit” me to advocate with them for better transit. I’m pretty sure with some convincing they would have gotten me to take action, after all I do believe there is power in numbers and with a collective and focused effort, much could be accomplished.

Yet, the Straphangers Campaign has done nothing of the sort, and I do come on here on a general daily basis. As an advocacy group, they should do what they can to tap into anyone they can convince to provide a helping hand. The public is not going to step up and fight for transportation issues on their own. They need guidance from leaders who can point them in a single, focused direction.

Hanger June 30, 2009 - 1:40 pm

You nailed it, Ben.

Straphangers Campaign has done incredible work. Gene Russianoff has done incredible work. But that’s in the past. In the present, Straphangers and transit advocates like RPA are proving themselves to massively ineffective. Straphangers needs to rethink and revamp itself or it will soon be irrelevant. Frankly, I’m not sure that Strap is up to the task. They’ve become more dedicated to their tried-and-true media-ready set-pieces like the Shmutz report and the Pokey Awards than to building up a real organization and doing the difficult advocacy work that’s required. The energy is no longer there.

I think Gene would be wise to bring in some new blood — a web-savvy young successor — who could learn from him and help take the org to the place it needs to go. I think that if Gene does no do this then he will find, in the next couple of years, new organizations emerging to take the place of Straphangers.

What about you, Ben Kabak, young Jedi? Why not offer yourself up to Gene as a potential successor?

Ed June 30, 2009 - 10:58 pm

What is the Straphanger’s campaign goal? More money for transit?

OK, if you are an advocacy group and want more money for the subways, how do you get there? Why is subway funding inadequate now? Do you try to convince opinion leaders, lobby the MTA, or lobby the state legislature? Do you try to get more transit friendly state legislators elected?

What is your stance on MTA management? Do you trust them with any additional resources for the MTA? Do you want more transparent accounting? What is your stance vis the union?

If you want more money for the subways, do you want a bond issue? Higher taxes and if so on whom? Do you cut some other program? Actually transit advocates had an answer for that, the Congestion Charge. But that didn’t work too well.

Are bicycle advocates useful allies or are the a big distraction?

Not trying to be snarky, any serious pro-transit campaign has to answer these questions.

Lindsey Lusher Shute July 1, 2009 - 1:15 pm

Gene Russianoff is the city’s most successful, respected and dedicated public transportation advocate. Gene’s tireless work was critical to keeping the fare hike reasonable, halting major service cuts, and bringing in 70% more funding from NYS.

From January-June, Gene made many long and tiring trips to Albany to meet with with lawmakers, took hundreds of press calls, and built capacity among city environmental, community and transportation groups on the issue. He’s a great guy, extremely knowledgeable, and is one of the only people that Albany lawmakers trust on this issue.

The Straphangers’ Campaign, also supported by the young, smart and motivated Cate Contino and Jason Chin-Fatt, were out on the streets in force this spring. They organized campuses around the city, led train line “funerals” with elected officials, and dropped thousands of fliers as subway lines throughout the five boroughs.

The springtime push to curb the fare hikes and stop the service cuts was led by a coalition of organizations and the online presence for this campaign is at keepnewyorkmoving.org.

NYC is incredibly lucky to have a group like the Straphangers’ Campaign. Sure, they could have a stronger virtual presence, but that takes more funding and support. I suggest that people on this blog ‘advocate’ with their pocketbooks and donate to this important and effective campaign.

Wiley Norvell July 1, 2009 - 1:58 pm

You’ve got to be kidding, Ben. Do you have any idea what’s happening to transit in cities that don’t have advocates like Straphangers? Having seen them in action in the subways, meeting in Albany, and haranguing reporters to keep them from letting transit fall off the front page, I can honestly say, thank God for Gene and his team. Without their efforts over last six months, there would not have been any MTA bailout, and we’d be staring down $3 fares in the very near future.

Benjamin Kabak July 1, 2009 - 2:07 pm

We’ll be staring down $3 fares in the very near future anyway. Albany’s half-baked rescue plan and their unwillingness to adopt congestion pricing pretty much guarantees this.

I don’t mean to slight Gene and the Straphangers for their behind-the-scenes work. As your co-TransAlt official Lindsey notes above, they’ve been organizing the trips and the funerals, but in terms of getting the word out on a grassroots level, it hasn’t taken. We routinely hear people — and politicians! — talking about “two sets of books” and “lack of transparency” and such, but where’s the response to this?

Look at the Straphangers’ website for example. That’s a bare-bones outfit, and it should be a full-fledged advocacy site. It starts with little things like that and extends beyond it.

Gene is an invaluable person to have there. He’s been fighting the good fight for a very long time, but it’s not working right now. Maybe he needs more staff, and maybe as Lindsey said, we should advocate with our check books too. But I believe, as Hanger said above, that they need some new blood. I know we’re all allies, but I think we have to admit that the group needs to be refreshed and expanded.

Veronica July 1, 2009 - 2:07 pm

Gene is the most recognizable transit advocate in NYC. In his decades of advocating for NYC’s subways and buses, he has earned the respect and praise of colleagues, transit users and colleagues alike–not an easy task.

Unfortunately, as is pointed out in the post, the learning curve on MTA background, funding and history is extremely steep. The numbers and public documents are fairly complex; the funding sources are little understood outside of the Comptroller’s office and transit advocates; there is a dearth of political champions for transit; and the general riding public is often unwilling to put aside its disdain for the MTA to absorb hard facts. All of these factors make for a very challenging campaign with very costly stakes.

This is an important discussion, but the responsibility does not rest with Gene and Straphangers alone. The blogs, commenters, advocates, and everyday riders all need to step up the game to get the facts out and alter the existing discussion. There should be at least 8.5 million voices making sure transit issues are better prioritized in government, the media and public discourse.

Benjamin Kabak July 1, 2009 - 2:12 pm

This is an important discussion, but the responsibility does not rest with Gene and Straphangers alone. The blogs, commenters, advocates, and everyday riders all need to step up the game to get the facts out and alter the existing discussion. There should be at least 8.5 million voices making sure transit issues are better prioritized in government, the media and public discourse.

I’d like to stress this point you just made, Veronica. It’s certainly not my intention to slam Gene himself. He’s a tireless advocate for the subways and the right man for the job. But for the purposes of this post, he’s also the public face for the largest riders organization around and becomes the one I picked one. It’s definitely an institutional issue and not a Gene Russianoff issue.

Right now, he’s working within a system that isn’t supporting the message we all have to get out. That seems to me to be a broader failure of the PIRG structure.

Wiley Norvell July 1, 2009 - 3:14 pm

Your point is taken, Ben. Honestly though, I was uplifted by what I saw take place this March – not by what happened in Albany, but by what happened right here in NYC. It was the first time I really saw something close to a “riders’ uprising.” Remember those front pages of the DN and the Post, laying the blame at the foot of the Senate? Senate phone numbers spread on the editorial pages? That was pretty unprecedented stuff.

New Yorkers are hard to activate – breaking through the din ain’t easy, but Straps does it better than anybody else, both on the ground and in the press. As for developing nimble web advocacy, I’d second Lindsey’s call for supporting NYPIRG with a healthy check to make it happen.

Hanger July 1, 2009 - 3:15 pm

I don’t think Ben is slamming Gene Russianoff here, folks.

I think he’s pointing out a very important issue:

Straphangers Campaign needs to seriously beef itself up if it wants to continue to be effective in this new world we’re entering.

For one thing, Straphangers could be doing much much much more with web technology and communications. And who is Gene’s deputy? Who is his successor? Who is he training to lead transit advocacy into the future? Why isn’t anyone ever hitting me up for money for the Straphangers Campaign? I’d be very happy to send them $100/year if only they had the organizational capacity to ask!

Gene Russianoff July 1, 2009 - 4:58 pm

Ben –

In the Second Avenues Saga blog for June 30th, you say the Straphangers Campaign was not “a force” in the recent fare hike. You quote someone who says “we sat on our hands.” That’s just not true. Below I lay out what we did and how it shaped the final outcome.

In December 2008, a State commission headed by former MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch issued a report laying out a program to provide the MTA with long-term stable funding, as well as providing incentives to use transit. The specific program called for $5 tolls on the currently “free” East and Harlem River Bridges, a far more modest fare hike than proposed by the MTA and a broad-based payroll tax imposed in the 12-county region served by the MTA. The message of the plan was simple: In a tough economy, transit needed help from those who benefited from the system: riders, drivers and businesses.

Also in December, the MTA proposed massive fare hikes – with the base fare going from $2.00 to $2.50 and the 30-day unlimited-ride MetroCard going from $81 to $103 – along with severe service cuts, including eliminating several subway lines and 20 bus routes.

Given the need for action, the Straphangers Campaign directed its efforts to educating the public on the need for new transit funding for the MTA. We did this in coalition, working with many other groups, including the Regional Plan Association, Tri-State Transportation Campaign, Transportation Alternatives, Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resource Defense Council and General Contractors Association.

The Fight

We did a great deal of work, as described in this list below. We think it worked. One State Senator – Bill Perkins of Harlem – said he had never received so many letters and calls on one issue as he had on the fare hike. We:

1. Helped raise widespread public awareness of what we called “the mother of all fare hikes” and the proposed service cuts. For example, we asked the New York City Independent Budget Office to review the original MTA proposals. The IBO concluded (correctly) that a 30-day unlimited-ride MetroCard would go from $81 to a shocking $103. In addition, we convinced MTA to release numbers of what the fare box ratio (the percentage of expenses borne by riders) would be if “Doomsday” budget were adopted. It turned out that the fare box burden on subway riders would grow from 68% to 83% of expenses; in comparison the national average for large systems is 37%, according to the Federal Transit Administration. Our fact sheets on the MTA’s finances our web site, http://www.straphangers.org/fare.

2. Distributed 150,000 education leaflets to subway and bus riders and commuters between November and May, educating riders about the MTA financial crisis, including both its operating and capital needs. Published two fact sheets, one on proposed service cuts, one on the proposed fare hike; distributed at fare increase hearings.

3. Organized turnout for five MTA fare increase/service cut hearings in winter, 2009, with a strong emphasis on specific cuts in service. MTA officials reported a doubling in attendance and testimony from the 2007 fare hearings. Distributed talking points fact sheet at hearing.

4. Held three mock “funerals,” protesting MTA proposal to kill G, M, W and Z lines; public officials participated. The funerals included a bagpipe player, a wreath and eulogies.

5. Sent out 20 global e-mails to Straphangers e-mail list of 18,000. Posted breaking events and news clippings on Campaign website. Global emails were also send to our “fans” on Facebook.

6. Helped direct several events, including a rally in Union Square conducted with a group mounting a transit funding campaign on Facebook.

7. Talked with dozens of decision-makers and spent many days in Albany. Testified at hearing on Ravitch plan held by New York State Senate members Martin Malave Dilan and Bill Perkins.

8. Helped lead the effort for a $125,000 media outreach campaign with an ad on 3,000 subway cars for one month. (The ad can be found at: http://www.mrss.com/clients/kn.....300ppi.pdf )

9. Testified during 17 public comments periods at MTA Board and committee meetings; held a dozen protests at MTA Board meetings.

10. Collected over 1,000 handwritten letters addressed to State Senators, Assembly Members and other State leaders.

The Outcome

In early May, the State adopted an MTA “bailout” program worth $1.8 billion annually. In many ways, it tracked the Ravitch program. Both plans called for $1.5 billion in a new payroll “mobility” tax; both called for a moderate fare increase; and both called for new taxes and fees on automobile use.

It is in this last part of the adopted plan that it differs from the Ravitch Commission proposal. Ravitch had called for a $5 toll on the East and Harlem River Bridges, although he had stated his support for a subsequent proposal for $2 tolls, which would have produced about $300 million annually. The final State bailout called for a similar amount of revenue from four sources: increased drivers license and registration fees, an increased automobile rental tax and a 50-cent taxicab drop off fee.

The impact on motor vehicle use of the tolls as opposed to the adopted measures is not fully known. That said, it is likely that it is not significant. In addition, the original plan for improved bus service – which included 300 new buses – was eliminated in the final plan.

Lastly, the final plan fully funds the MTA’s five-year capital program for only its first two years out of five. The issue will be back before the State, although the hope is that the economy will improve and that already-dedicated existing transit taxes will yield added revenues.

So there is a lot more transit work to do. And, as in the past, we – and others – will continue to do it.


Kate Slevin July 1, 2009 - 5:11 pm

Many of the above posts act like the organizations in question have unlimited resources. In reality, we generally have very small budgets and are supported by foundations and a few individuals (if we are lucky). Raising this money takes intense amounts of time and energy.

If you want to help transit advocacy efforts, find a way to get millions of dollars to groups like NYPIRG, Transportation Alternatives, RPA, and Tri-State Transportation Campaign. It’s not a matter of not having new, fresh ideas or web skills or advocacy skills, it’s a matter of having dollars to pay qualified, smart, trained staff. And to have a staff that is larger than a few people.

Really it’s a matter of capacity and it’s unfair to blame Gene (who arguably has done more for our transit system than anyone in this city). The responsibility to build that capacity partially lies with everyone in this region who pays $200 for a pair of jeans but won’t give $50 a year to a non-profit organization they respect.

And Ben, you should take a trip to Albany with us sometime.

– Kate Slevin, Tri-State Transportation Campaign

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