Friday, January 16, 2009

It's Hard to Stop a Moving Train- 2009 Edition

6pm, January 13, 2009. Overcrowded, dysfunctional, with poor, inaudible communications? If you guessed the MTA, you are absolutely right- but this was no subway ride. I was standing on line for the first of eight public hearings on the proposed fair hikes and services cutes. After scheming my way into over a dozen Obama events over the past year, there was simply no way I was going to penetrate these lines to see the MTA Board of Directors- it was the hottest ticket in town. Hundreds stood outside of the Hilton Hotel ballroom with me, while hundreds more were giving the MTA a piece of their mind inside, after braving metal detectors, armed guards and bomb dogs. I wondered if this level of security was required in years when the MTA wasn’t advertising fare hikes and service cuts. The Gothamist reported that the hearings went on until 1:26am. Their excellent coverage of the event can be found here:

I was part of the 6:45pm crowd, which, exiled outside, had started chanting, “Let us in! Let us in!” A group of cops, MTA and regular, spread out along the line, silently shepherded by an extremely overweight man with a mustache and a cowboy hat. He was the head of the Hilton security, and his police spokesman announced that protesting was not allowed inside the Hilton. “You are going to have to take your chants outside,” he said. “The Hilton is a protest-free zone.” Leave it to the MTA to hold their hearing at a luxury hotel, pick a room too small to accommodate the crowd, in a building designated as protest-free zone. For future occasions, I don’t think the MTA or any public agency should be allowed to hold public hearings in such environments. Of course, the upcoming Brooklyn meeting will be at the Marriot, which I imagine walks the Big Hotel line on protesting policy. That hearing, which you should show up early for, is on:

Wednesday, January 28th, is at 333 Adams Street, at the NY Marriot under the Brooklyn Bridge. The hearing begins at 6pm, and registration ends at 9pm.

Elliot Sander, the Executive Director of the MTA, is taking heaps of abuse, and for a while I began to pity the man who has little role in the fate of his agency. It’s worth backing up and thinking about how the MTA was created in the first place. Created in 1965, the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Authority was responsible for overseeing state-run commuter rails. It was one of the few state institutions untouched by Robert Moses, whose power was then in decline. Public transportation did not interest Moses anyway, and he is in many ways the biggest culprit of today’s woes for his relentless advocacy for expressways in lieu of public transportation investment. As Robert Caro lays out in The Power Broker, Nelson Rockefeller was the politician finally capable of toppling Moses, who survived five New York City Mayors and six New York State Governors, due to his independent financial and political power base. Rockefeller knew that Moses’ chief source of his power was the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.

In the 1930s, Moses had concocted a brilliant scheme: while public authorities had traditionally existed so that municipalities could raise money for individual projects, with the intent of turning the projects over to the city once bonds were paid off, Moses designed the TBTA to use its enormous revenue flow to cover ‘any corporate purpose’, which meant he literally had to keep building with the vast sums of money New York City bridges and tunnels were bringing in. That money could not be touched by the Mayor, Governor, or anyone except people accountable to Moses. Governor Rockefeller moved to merge the MTCA with the TBTA, promising Moses a significant role in the new entity. Normally, the TBTA bondholders, who were still owed $367,000,000, would have sued to block such a merger, especially the chief stockholder, Chase Manhattan Bank. The Bank, however, was controlled by Nelson’s brother, David Rockefeller, and the arrangement was made. So, in essence, the newly formed MTA, which to this day controls bridges, tunnels, subways and commuter rails, was created to defeat the tyrannical reign of Robert Moses. As politicians learned, however, there was a tremendous side benefit.

The MTA, as a public authority, effectively shields the Governor, Mayor and legislature from blame with respect to the finances and functionality of this enormous transportation infrastructure. One of my first political memories, from the 1990-91 recession, is Mayor Dinkins explaining that the city had no responsibility for the subways, which confused the hell out of me as a nine-year old. The MTA Board is comprised of 17 members, all appointed by the Governor. ‘Recommendations’ come in from the Mayor, suburban counties and unions, but ultimately donations to a governor’s campaign are prospective Board members’ best bet.

New York had the unfortunate distinction of being governed for 12 years by George Pataki. It hurts a little to criticize him, both because of his Hungarian ancestry and because his son Ted is a great guy I used to attend summer camp with. But those things don’t make up for, among other things, stacking the MTA with Board members who couldn’t take advantage of boom years in the late 90s and earlier in this decade to shore up the MTA’s finances. While leaving Republican appointees in charge of any public work is inherently dangerous, I am not sure what interests the Spitzer and Paterson appointees serve, including Spitzer’s man, Mr. Sander.

Individual legislators can denounce the MTA, but they collectively can supplement its funding. A subsidy from the government is absolutely not unwarranted- New York transit users pay a higher percentage of their transportation budget in fare costs than riders in any other major American city (approximately 80%). If Pataki were still around, I’m sure this would all be a lost cause. But David Paterson is from Harlem, he is supposed to be as good a public transit governor as anyone. Sure, he could try to pass the buck to Obama, but one would think that public transportation would be an issue he might try to tackle head on, rather than punting.

Wishful thinking, I’m sure. The MTA for too long has been an offensive line, shielding political figures from their duty to make public transportation work, while allowing them to criticize it as perpetual outsiders. This system works particularly well in New York City, where everyone is hungry for power, but no one wants to take any responsibility.

The entire premise of the MTA needs to change. These crazy economic times represent the strongest arguments for and against overhauling a massive system. I’d argue that if we are going to have major transportation disruptions anyway, we might as well rethink how the city and state operate the business of transit.

First, the New York City subway and bus lines, which only service New York City, should perhaps be returned to City jurisdiction. Second, other facets of the MTA, should they remain under state jurisdiction, should be established as an agency directly under the governor's control, to create accountability.

All of this brings me back to the genius of Sander. He knows who he is. He knows he pulls no strings. Perhaps the most useful thing he can do is stir the furies. Why else would you announce that a public hearing is “about fare hikes and service cuts?” Perhaps so that every public figure in attendance can go on record recording his outrage, demanding and promising an increase in MTA funding? If Sander gets enough legislators outraged, we’ll pretty much have to see the legislature propose more funding. Or at least whine that Obama is not giving enough federal aid. So it goes. So it went. And so it will keep going and going... Join us again, as we continue our investigations into the MTA, and cover the Battle to Save Public Transit. Semper Fi Subway.


Digging through the inter-webs for an article to verify some of my facts, I stumbled on a fantastic 2003 article by the then little-known Matt Taibbi, writing at the time for the New York Press. If any publication could bring together Taibbi, Wayne Barrett and Frank Rich, they would be able to do to the media world what the Allen-Garnett-Pierce-led Celtics did to basketball in 2008. You can read Taibbi’s article here:

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