Ben Kabak at Second Avenue Sagas pointed out the general apathy today about the MTA’s latest round of fare hikes, set to go into effect over the weekend. In conclusion, he placed the blame squarely in the corner of transit advocates:
On the eve of yet another fare hike, transit advocates have themselves to blame. We haven’t united behind the proper message; we haven’t overcome a powerful auto lobby; and we haven’t made our voices heard by those who hold the purse strings. One day, that will change. For now, we’re left with higher fares and a transit authority on life support.
Who are those transit advocates? Generally, the first name that comes to mind is the Straphangers Campaign. They’ve been the leading voice among transit advocates in New York for three decades. They came into being at a time when New York’s subways were literally falling apart and ridership was at all-time lows. The Straphangers Campaign has fought hard for improved service, new construction, renovation of stations and entire lines, and innovation that benefits the average rider. But when confronting one of the biggest challenges that New York’s subway riders have seen in nearly two decades, the Straphangers Campaign fell flat on its face.
Flashback: months ago, the MTA was faced with a massive deficit that the agency proposed covering through fare hikes of up to 30% and draconian service cuts that could’ve sent the subway system into a state of being that it hasn’t seen since the Straphangers Campaign’s inception. Richard Ravitch, the MTA commissioner who helped spearhead the improvements that the Straphangers Campaign fought hard for in the 1980s, proposed a solution that would keep the MTA on the right track: adding tolls to the East and Harlem River Bridges, and adding a 0.33% payroll tax to fund the MTA’s operating budget and capital plan. The New York State legislature would have to approve this, and the artificial deadline issued by the MTA to the state came and went with no action.
Back in December, the MTA warned the state they would be forced to pass their “Doomsday Budget” if the state didn’t take action. What was the Straphangers Campaign’s response? A press release reiterating the details of that budget scenario and containing one quote from their spokesman, Gene Russianoff, passively calling on the state to take action to prevent the fare hike.
The media reaction was swift and harsh when the proposed fare hike was announced. 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. Never mind that the MTA had cut controllable costs over the past five years. Never mind that the deficit was rooted in the collapse of the real estate market and outstanding debt from bonds issued when the state underfunded the agency. Never mind that none of the MTA’s top management was involved in the alleged “keeping two books” fiasco in 2003. Never mind that the MTA maintains a web site that publishes all of their quarterly financial statements and budget projections. 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 one public rally against the fare hikes was sparked not by the Straphangers Campaign, but rather by a Facebook group created by angry riders. Even with the support of the Straphangers Campaign and several other organizations, the rally was barely promoted, garnered a few measly seconds of coverage in the media and was attended by a hundred or so people – pathetic, considering that millions of people use New York City Transit each day.
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.
If there was any time for community organizing, it was during the crisis of the past few months. 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?