As part of my series of posts questioning the current state of subway advocacy and news coverage, earlier this week, I, with an assist from Chris O’Leary at the fledgling site On Transport, questioned the effectiveness of the Straphangers Campaign in organizing against the most recent fare hikes and advocating for sensible funding solutions for mass transit in New York City.
The gist piece focused around how the Straphangers were seemingly a non-entity, content to release their annual State of the Subway and Subway Shmutz reports while not making their voices heard enough on the fare hikes. The comments to the post have turned into a lively debate with many readers taking my side and advocates from the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and Transportation Alternatives speaking out in defense of the Straphangers.
Late yesterday afternoon, Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, responded, and I wanted to reproduce his comment in full. It was never my intention to criticize Mr. Russianoff himself. He has been a tireless subway champion for decades, but as the most vocal face of the Straphangers, he bore the brunt of my critique. Below is his response, and following that, my comments:
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.
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.
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.
Chris at On Transport received the same reply, and what he said in response rings true. “The issue here is not what was done (and I will gladly eat crow for being a bit dramatic in saying they “sat on their hands”), but what could have been done,” he writes.
O’Leary continued: “It’s fantastic that a State Senator received such an overwhelming number of letters. That’s proof that there is strength in numbers. But there are millions of transit riders each day in New York. When only a tiny fraction sign a petition or join a Facebook group, there is more that can be done. And that aside, there were a lot of people who were a little lost about what to do other than signing a petition or joining a Facebook group. ”
From personally experience, it took me five tries to get on the Straphangers’ press release distribution list. Their Web site doesn’t feature an updated selection of releases. In fact, it hasn’t been materially updated since the early 2000s. Outside of a Rider’s Diary forum, there is no interactivity, and in today’s world of powerful and positive online advocacy, the lack of a blog or similar social networking/social media component is a detriment.
As Lindsey Lusher Shute said in the comments to my earlier post, we could support the Straphangers by advocating with our check books. I appreciate the precarious financial position these small groups are in, but we need more than just money. We — Chris at On Transport and I here — are just two of the many people who, if asked, would contribute our time and energy to the cause.
Right now, we need groups that can reach more than just 18,000 of the 5.2 million subway riders a day. Maybe that beings with us; maybe it begins with the behind-the-scenes work the Straphangers are doing. Either way, the public face of transportation advocacy needs to be more vocal and wide-reaching than it is today for us to make headway against stubborn politicians and a willingly ignorant voter base.
Sorry, Gene. We appreciate your efforts, but the outcome is not acceptable.
The advocacy community failed to persuade the public or the legislature to put the MTA’s operating or capital programs on sustainable fiscal footing. The taxi revenues may never materialize, and the auto rental tax falls heavily on transit riders. The public has no better grasp than it did before of why we are in this fiscal crisis, and what should be done to resolve it. We have not yet had a frank public discussion about the structure of MTA’s labor agreements, and the public does not yet comprehend the importance of paying down the MTA’s massive debt. No elected officials who bashed the MTA in the media as cover for their own inaction have been held accountable.
Despite ESTA’s valiant efforts, the MTA is a battered organization, its best leadership in decades has been run out of town, and the public blames the MTA rather than elected officials for all of the above.
The question at hand is not how much effort you put into this failed campaign. The question is what you have learned from it, and how you plan to retool your message and methods to win the debate next time.
Then again, it’s the Straphangers Campaign versus the tabloids, all of which, at least by their headlines, are much more effective at blaming the MTA than the Straphangers Campaign ever could be. It’s going to take more than a public advocacy group to change that image.
How so? All three New York City newspapers placed the blame for this squarely on the State’s inaction.
Yes, in their editorial pieces. But the headlines make the average person blame the MTA. When you see a headline such as “MTA to Axe Away” you think “Damn MTA” not “Damn Albany for not funding them”.
The way I remember things, the vast majority of legislators who supported the fare hike and opposed the Ravitch plan were not in the MTA region. For a whole variety of reasons, the best thing that could be done for transit and NYC in general would be to replace Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate with decent human beings who have their constituents best interests in mind. Could the established public transit advocacy groups have done something more? Probably, but I hardly think they were being lazy.
None of you joined “1,000,000 people against the MTA fare hikes and service cuts” on Facebook?
They had 70,000 fans and organized a huge rally at Union Square with Cate from Straphangers and a few other groups.
No one’s on Facebook here?
I went to that rally. There were, at most, a couple hundred people there. Considering there were 70,000 in the Facebook group and 5 million people who ride the subway each day, I certainly don’t call that a success.
Not only that, but the Facebook group’s wall postings and forums turned the MTA into the punching bag, proving that the Straphangers’ message was clearly not getting across to the group’s members.
The problem is far more institutional than personal. The transit advocates in NYC fail because they are all (to my knowledge) organized as 501c3’s. They can’t take unambiguous stands against the actual politicians who cause these kinds of crises, nor can they really do anything to help anyone who does the right thing. They can organize letter writing campaigns, gather petitions, and put up posters. But at the end of the day, they can’t make any politician pay a price or reap a reward for their actions. So no one has to listen to them.
If there were a transit-oriented PAC or fusion party, or voter education fund or anything else along those lines, they could maybe exert some political muscle. But we don’t have one.