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On MTA protests, some get it and some do not

by Benjamin Kabak

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio calls upon the MTA to rehire its station agents during a rally last week. As a City Councilman, de Blasio did not support revenue-generating plans such as congestion pricing. (Photo via flickr user Public Advocate Bill de Blasio)

Not a day went by at the end of last week when the MTA did not find itself subjected to some sort of protest. First, the TWU and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio spoke out against station agent cuts. Then, Senator Chuck Schumer and labor leaders urged Congress to pass a $2 billion emergency transit operating aid relief bill. Finally, students at public schools throughout the city walked out on classes Friday to call upon city leaders to fund Student MetroCards. As the week ended, it became instantly clear who understand what was happening and who did not. The outcome is perhaps a bit surprising.

On the surface, the de Blasio-lead protest, pictured above, seemed genuine, but I believe his was the least effective and most indicative of political grandstanding. While ignoring the seeming reality of the MTA’s precarious fiscal position, de Blasio twisted the MTA’s economic reports to meet his political ends and issued statements that seemed to have little basis in fact.

“We cannot cut corners when it comes to straphangers’ safety,” de Blasio said. “New Yorkers who depend on station agents for security and essential services deserve a chance to have their voices heard. The MTA’s new public hearings will only work if they listen to New Yorkers and commit to incorporating their feedback before final decisions get made.”

His office’s press release touting the rally made sure to note that the MTA claims lost revenue due to fare-beating grew from $7 million to $20 million last year. Why? Because the MTA, he says, eliminated over 200 station agents. The Public Advocate fails to note that the MTA’s accounting methods changed as well. Perhaps the increase in fare-jumping — still a de minimis loss — was related to the axing of the agents, and perhaps, it was not. To draw that conclusion is unwarranted.

What de Blasio did not mention at his rally last week was his record on measures that would have provided the MTA with enough money to halt potential service cuts. As a City Council representative, de Blasio voted against congestion pricing because he feared it did not allow for enough additional transit options for his Brooklyn-based constituents. Now, we get service cuts and fewer station agents. Seems like a terrible trade-off to me.

Luckily, though, de Blasio wasn’t the only one raising a stink last week. A group of teenagers called upon the city to fund the Student MetroCard program. The kids left school, hopped on the subway and marched from City Hall to the MTA’s 370 Jay St. building to protest cuts to the free travel program, and as they did so, they targeted the politicians and not the MTA.

The politicians responded with words of support, but as City Council members and even Pedro Espada professed their desires to see student travel remain free, little progress has been made to shore up the program’s finances. Students, though, recognize that talking to politicians and not the MTA is the proper route. After all, the politicians are the ones who have stopped paying for this program, and the MTA isn’t a school bus operator. New York State and its municipalities foot the bill for student travel elsewhere; they should be doing the same in the city.

Finally, Senator Schumer and a group of transit labor leaders rallied in support of a federal measure that would deliver $2 billion nationwide to troubled transit agencies. The money probably won’t come from Washington until well after the MTA implements its service cuts, but as states dither on implementing tough funding schemes for their urban areas’ economic drivers, Washington may have to pick up the slack, albeit temporarily. As with the students, Schumer understands what needs to be done. He isn’t always the most vocal leader on transit matters, but if the money needs to come — if the pork has to flow — the state’s senior Senator has a way of delivering.

Yet, we shouldn’t have to rely on Schumer’s logrolling measures. We shouldn’t have to sit through Bill de Blasio’s public hypocrisy. We shouldn’t see this city’s students speaking out as lone voices of reason lost amidst bitter political debates. In two weeks, subway service will slow down. In two months, student rides may not be free. Neither of these outcomes are predestined, but as long as the city and state politicians we entrust to govern fail to do so, the millions of us who rely on transit will have to pay.

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John Paul N. (JPN) June 14, 2010 - 12:50 am

How do you see the threat of an Albany shutdown in all of this?

Benjamin Kabak June 14, 2010 - 12:52 am

The MTA may have to enter into some short-term financial dancing to make sure its budget is maintained, but by and large, the Albany shutdown won’t impact the MTA. I’ll have to dig up some more info about this, but because of the MTA’s funding mechanisms, it won’t suffer as service shut down.

As far as the potential funding packages for Student MetroCards, Albany could still address this while the state budget remains outstanding. I’m not sure if they can implement measures and begin drawing in revenue were the shutdown to remain in place for long periods of time.

Scott E June 14, 2010 - 8:01 am

the MTA claims lost revenue due to fare-beating grew from $7 million to $20 million last year
Regarding the increased fines for fare-beating: does the whole $100 fine get counted towards “fare revenue”, or does $97.75 of it (all but the base fare) get allocated elsewhere?

BrooklynBus June 14, 2010 - 2:01 pm

Good Question. My guess is elsewhere. To put it where it belongs makes too much sense for the politicians.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines June 14, 2010 - 8:59 am

[…] Ben Kabak Ranks MTA Protests: High School Students Top De Blasio […]

Bolwerk June 14, 2010 - 11:47 am

How does that help? The city would just be paying for school aid elsewhere instead.

Larry Littlefield June 14, 2010 - 10:55 am

Albany could solve the Student Metrocard issue easily — by eliminating ALL funding for student transportation, and using the savings to offset cuts in aid to the classroom.

Then the city could choose to entirely fund the student Metrocard program without getting ripped off — by having city residents pay city taxes for school transportation in the city, and city residents pay state taxes for school transportation elsewhere.

John June 14, 2010 - 6:11 pm

I think that student transportation should be a higher priority than cuts in the classroom. I don’t think it should entirely be left up to the cities to fund their own transportation.

Paulp June 14, 2010 - 11:54 am

the reality of student metro cards is that the MTA should not issue a card: the student should merely show their school ID to the Station Agent or Bus driver and be allowed access. Of course only during certain hours of the day or with aslip from school. This would save everyone money and time.

Alon Levy June 14, 2010 - 1:05 pm

It works for buses, but on the subway, it’s too slow for the AM rush hour.

Andrew June 14, 2010 - 11:55 pm

Agreed, and it’s also subject to fraud on an immense scale. There’s a reason flash passes were replaced with student MetroCards in the 90’s.

Paulp June 16, 2010 - 11:50 am

Kids being kids, tend to lose/damage their passes rather quickly so the situation is pretty much a “courtesy” anyway. As for fraud, it’s probaly easy to discern a fraudster or “super” senior. The Station Agent would just not let them in, if they jump it’s a police matter.

BrooklynBus June 14, 2010 - 2:02 pm

I believe the lack of station agents definitely does have an effect on farebeating. The question is how much?


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