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.