No body of legislators and politicians has perfected outraged hindsight better than the New York City Council. Tasked with providing a check against the mayor and granted oversight powers over city agencies, the City Council can’t press too hard on the MTA, a state authority that derives its power from Albany, but it can make New York City Transit Authority leaders squirm. That’s just what the Council did on Friday.
For five hours on Friday, stretching past lunch and into the afternoon, City Council members used their lofty committee perches to rake Transit officials over the fire. Even though The Times and The Daily News had complete post mortems a few days after the snow, the City Council had to hear it from the horses’ mouths themselves, and the Council members had to make sure they looked appropriately outraged and disappointed for the cameras. All around, it was a giant mess.
For their part, Transit officials didn’t put on a show, but we already know how badly they messed up. We know that they opted to put the agency on a low-level Plan 1 footing on Thursday morning before Christmas Eve. We know, even as the forecast worsened, that they didn’t ramp up their staffing and procedures to Plan 4 until well after the forecast changed late Saturday afternoon and snow began to fall on Sunday. We know about trains that were stuck near Howard Beach and the deeper reaches of Brooklyn, about buses that were dispatched without chains and were stranded in the snow-covered streets. We know the MTA didn’t have a situation room or a centralized command structure in place for such a storm that weekend.
Yet, despite this knowledge, the Transit officials under the gun didn’t have answers. Transit president Thomas Prendergast said that his men “forgot” about the A train stuck at Howard Beach and had no evacuation plan once streets became impassable. The agency didn’t ready a situation room, and Prendersgast simply said, “The fact that it fell out of practice is a serious deficiency.” He didn’t know how much the storm cost the authority and said that no one had been fired or demoted yet as Transit is still conducting its own review. “We were lulled into a false sense of security on our own,” he said of the unexpected accumulation from the storm. “Nobody led us into that.”
Often, Prendergast said he didn’t have detailed answers for the Council members because his staff had been preparing for subsequent winter storms. He also reiterated what MTA sources have told me: Concerns over overtime costs played no role in the MTA’s decision to call in extra employees to respond to the storm. When deemed appropriate due to snow fall, Transit moved to a Plan 4 footing and paid no heed to the staffing costs. After all, weather contingencies are a part of the MTA budget.
Ultimately Prendergast issued his own mea culpa. “We failed during the blizzard and this is an apology on our part due to that failure,” he said.
The City Council, of course, didn’t take to Predergast, his team or his apology. The outrage ran the gamut from a call to the Governor to remove Prendergast from Transit to a clear attempt to blame Transit for the city’s own failures. It was hindsight at its finest. “Today was an abject failure,” Council Speaker Christine Quinn said of the hearings. “I was shocked by the performance of the transit leaders, the folks from the MTA at today’s oversight hearing. It really left me not feeling any greater level of confidence that the MTA can handle the next storm.”
Quinn, who called Transit’s responses “beyond shocking,” had more to say: “All you had to do was open up the blinds and see that the snow was falling. Blizzards don’t happen every week, but it’s not like a swarm of locusts came into New York or something we’ve never seen.”
She wasn’t alone in condemning Transit. David Greenfield, a councilman from Brooklyn’s District 44 who has been dubbed “Kvetch” by former Streetsblog editor Aaron Naparstek due to his ability to complain about literally everything, was live-blogging the hearing via his Twitter account. He comes across as simply a complainer looking to score easy political points and didn’t accept Transit’s words.
When union leaders testified that the MTA did indeed have overtime costs in mind when they didn’t call a Plan 4, Greenfield lapped it up like a good political puppy. It doesn’t matter if the TWU and ATU officials who spoke had first-hand knowledge of the response; if the MTA said it, Greenfield won’t accepted it. “Sadly, I am not surprised,” he said after the hearings. “The MTA is broken. I believe that in order to keep this city moving forward we have to stop accepting excuses and overhaul the structure of the MTA.”
Letitia James, who never met an MTA hearing she couldn’t exploit for personal gain, used her time in the sun to rail against the late December fare hikes. “You failed us and should not have raised your fares on December 29,” she said. Because of a poor response to the blizzard, the MTA should not have raised its fares to address a potential $400 million budget gap. In the world of the City Council that makes perfect sense.
Ultimately, everyone lost. New Yorkers lost when Transit was ill prepared for the biggest storm of the winter. Transit officials lost the little faith they had from the City Council and straphangers. Transit officials may also, as Nicole Gelinas wrote, lost a chit in their upcoming labor battle as well.
But the City Council came out looking petty and kvetchy. They have perfected the time-honored tradition of complaining about subway service but offered no solutions. Should Transit have dumped passengers off the A train in Howard Beach and let them fend for themselves? What should the proper blizzard response team look like? How would the City Council prefer to see the subways run? These are questions that have to be answered if New York is to move forward with better transit.
It will snow again this winter. We’ll get another big storm, and the MTA will be tested. It won’t be Christmas Eve, and Transit won’t be blindsided by mounting drifts. Will the Council accepted an improved response or still find reasons to complain?