Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Tale of Two Hearings

A Tale of Two Hearings


The desperate attempts to salvage New York City’s public transportation have led to a convoluted political chess game, theater and reality hopelessly blurred together. The fourth wall is down. A few weeks ago I had the immense privilege of attending the Brooklyn Borough MTA Public Hearing at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriot. Still stinging from being shut out of the Manhattan hearing, I showed up especially early, and even got myself on the speakers list, representing the Williamsburg/Greenpoint community group, Neighbors Allied for Good Growth. A friendly woman handed me a placard that said, ‘Speaker.’

“You’re one of the first people not on the pre-registered list!”

I frowned. “How many people are on the pre-registered list?”

“About 100. Maybe more. But you’re probably tenth on the second list.”


I churned the math real quick. Three minutes per speaker, give or take 100 speakers- that had me speaking at 12:30am, assuming the meeting started on time and ran smoothly.

I took a seat in the fifth row. My section was about as diverse as a New York City subway car. Behind me were a few angry black women holding signs. To my right was an old Russian man missing most of his teeth. Next to him were several blind women and a Marxist MTA union organizer. In front of me was a Hasidim crew, surrounding the bubbly Councilman Simcha Felder. I was with my friend Rachel and a journalist from the Williamsburg Courier.


It was 7pm, a half hour late, when the meeting was finally called to order. The Marriot ballroom was filled with hundreds of rambunctious subway and bus riders ready to make hell. They got their chance right away as the MTA Board Members took their seats. These politically appointed hacks, mostly from the Pataki administration, were seated across a long table facing the crowd, about thirty feet from a velvet rope line, reminding the audience that they were very different people. On our side of the rope line was the podium, equipped with a little scoreboard to let speakers know how much time they had left. I thought that was neat.


The MTA Executive Director, Lee Sander, introduced each of the 12 Board Members present one by one. Each name was greeted by a tremendous round of booing.

“Andrew Saul.”

“BOOOOOOO!”

“David Mack.”

“BOOOOOOOOOO!”

“John Banks.” Mixture of booing and scattered applause.

“Carl Wortendyke.”

“BOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

The Courier journalist turned to me. “This is like going to a Knicks game- booing the home team before we’ve even started.”


Having just been booed for several minutes, Sander announced that despite the 200 person waiting list of speakers, the evening would begin with testimony from elected officials. Felder and I later shared our discontent about this policy in the men’s room, agreeing that elected officials had ample platforms to make statements, and should not cut into the only time allotted to regular citizens to address the MTA Board. Felder has a good sense of humor, and had declined to sit with his City Council colleagues so he could heckle them from the peanut gallery.


Things started off with a thunderous tongue-lashing from Brooklyn Borough Prez Marty Markowitz to the Board, who are legally not allowed to respond during these hearings. Things were uneven thereafter- the parade of City Council members, Assembly members, and State Senators included the shrill, the redundant, and the hopelessly inarticulate. We were awakened from the soporific drone when fierce Bloomberg critic, Councilwoman Letitia James, got to the mic and began, “I’m just gonna throw this out. This is a racist board!”

At that point I looked up and realized that, in fact, on the stage in front of me were ten old white men, a white woman, and a black man. Of course 11/12 doesn’t mean the Board members themselves are racist- there probably just weren’t a lot of minorities who donated heavily to the Pataki re-election campaigns.


The accusation did stir the room up though. The Marxists went back to distributing their literature (their main argument was that the subway should cost a dollar per ride, which seemed ridiculous until I realized that their plan also called for a revolution, at which point subway costs would probably not be the most pressing issue). Staffers for elected officials distributed little placards reading “B75”, “B48” and such, so that when their boss railed against “the service cuts to the B25”, audience members with B25 placards would wave them and shriek. Many of the speakers ended their rants with “Praised be to our President Barack Obama!” at which point the whole gallery would burst into cheers. Supporting “change, like our great President Barack Obama” seemed to be the only thing the whole crowd could agree on besides how much they hated MTA Board Members. I kicked myself for not having a flask so I could take a swig every time a speaker used the word “Draconian” to describe the budget cuts. It was the most fun I’d had on a weeknight in a while.


After about 55 speakers, however, no theme seemed novel anymore. When even the sun-glass toting Mr. X couldn’t get me fired up, I knew it was time to go. The momentum in the room had discernibly shifted from tirades about bus and subway lines to the topic of Access-A-Ride. This little known service essentially runs semi-regular van routes for disabled persons. The disabled community had come out for full force, at least 100 deep, and they were PISSED. Apparently, the MTA fare hikes included a proposal increasing Access-A-Ride from $3 to $6 in some areas, and from $3.50 to $7 in others. This was bad enough to elicit gasps of horror, since most of Access-A-Ride riders are on fixed income due to their age or physical handicaps. But their point went beyond that- Access-A-Ride is also apparently a disastrously run operation at its current cost. One after another, individuals told horror stories of waiting in the cold, or waiting in the dark for hours, waiting for their van ride that never came. If the imagery of an old blind woman waiting on a dark street by herself in the middle of winter for three hours isn’t bad enough, imagine telling that woman that now she’ll have to pay 100% more for the same service.


The Brooklyn public hearing may have been fun, but its usefulness as anything but a ventilation of frustration was questionable. That’s why this afternoon I braved the rain to Borough Hall, Brooklyn, where my own State Senator Martin Milave Dilan, the Chairman of the State Senate Transportation Committee, was holding hearings on the Ravitch Report. Also in attendance were my former State Senator Bill Perkins, the new political hotshot, 29 year-old State Senator Dan Squadron, and the gay-bashing State Senator Ruben Diaz, who left about ten minutes into the second presentation. With all due respect to the State Senators, who I’m sure had fundraisers to attend to later, 1:30pm-4:30pm seemed like an inconvenient time to have a hearing of this importance. It turned out that the room could only hold about 60 people, however, so between staffers, press, speakers and one curious law student, everyone was accounted for, and there was no room for the public anyway.

The hearing was scheduled for 1:30pm, with twenty minutes allotted per speaker. Aware of how local New York political events operate, I arrived at 2:30, having missed only one speaker, Comptroller Bill Thompson. We actually bumped into each other rounding a corner. We made weird eye contact, and I was going to tell him that whoever is running his Mayor’s race volunteer operation is terrible at getting back to people, but I didn’t feel like getting an underpaid campaign worker in trouble. Besides, Richard Ravitch, the illustrious maven of New York transportation, was about to begin his testimony.


Ravitch is one of those people who just exudes gravitas. He’s been around the political block- after starting his career in affordable housing development and working on an Urban Problems commission under LBJ, Ravitch worked for Governor Carey during New York’s budget crisis in the late 70s, was credited for salvaging the MTA as its Chairman from 1979-1983, and ran for Mayor in 1989 Democratic primary, where he got swamped by Ed Koch and the victor, David Dinkins.


Last year, when it dawned on elected officials and MTA leadership that their budget was a train wreck, they created the Ravitch Commission, so that the aging former chairman could take the heat for making the unpopular proposals that the politicians were too cowardly to make themselves. To cushion the blow Ravitch was sure to deliver, the MTA released its own “solution”, which called for 23% fare increases and massive service cuts. Seeing Ravitch and MTA CEO Sander speak back to back clarified it all of for me. All the wild public hearings, which I had suspected were just a ruse to for the legislature to give Sander more money to play with, were more specifically a ruse to make the Ravitch Report seem like a more palatable alternative. Sander, after all, is on the Ravitch Commission.


For fifty minutes, Ravitch hammered home the major findings of his report, which, by the way, clocks in at a bathroom reading-worthy 19 pages. Apparently 19 pages are all it takes to solve the biggest budget deficit in MTA history. You can read it for yourselves here: http://www.ny.gov/governor/press/pdf/press_1204082.pdf

The proposal has a few key recommendations.

First, a payroll tax in all 12 MTA-serviced counties. This would raise $1.5 billion.

Second, toll the currently free East River bridges: the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge and 59th Street Bridge.

Third, raise tolls and fares by 8%, and raise fares by smaller amounts on a steady basis, so we don’t need a major one-time hike like this in the future.

That’s essentially it. They got the best minds on this issue into the room together, and they solved it- raise taxes, charge tolls on free bridges and raise fares. That’s how you avoid cutting services, Ravitch proudly proclaimed. The report has been endorsed by Governor Paterson, Mayor Bloomberg, environmental groups and construction groups.


Ravitch made a strong case for his report. The elephant in the room, of course, is that Dilan’s district is home to several of the bridges that would suddenly face these tolls. It is a sensitive issue. To some extent the free bridges symbolize New York as one city, as opposed to the gilded isle of Manhattan and its ugly step-brothers. I’ve certainly driven across the Williamsburg Bridge to take care of errands in Manhattan that required a car, and more often I’ve shared inexpensive cab rides home across the bridge from the Lower East Side, in no small part because of the L Train’s pitiful late night performance, especially on weekends. But I ultimately agree that it is not fair for one random community of New York to have access to all of these free bridges, when all City taxpayers are billed for its maintenance. As the Environmental Defense Fund later pointed out, the ratio of Brooklynites who use public transportation over driving to work in Manhattan is 17 to 1, and the tolls come with a promise of increased bus service over the bridges. Oddly, the toll proponents are quite insistent that the tolls be unmanned and cash free, a system that has been enacted many places, but certainly not in New York. They didn’t have time to explain how that detail would work or how long it would take to set up in the confines of the 19-page report.


Among Ravitch’s most interest revelations was that his group had considered Comptroller Bill Thompson’s idea to raise revenues by increasing car registration fees based on car size. The Commission had not pursued that lead after learning from Governor Paterson that he completely supported the fees, but wanted to use them to pay for the costs of state bridge and highway repairs. If Paterson follows through on that plan, it will strip Thompson of one of his most potent issues, one of the few ways he has articulated how a Thompson administration would handle a major issue differently than a Bloomberg administration.


Next up on the bill was MTA CEO Lee Sander. He was generally smooth and in sharp control of his presentation, beginning with a recitation of how sweet the MTA’s progress had been over the last 27 years. Ridership is up 50% in the last ten years. Crazy! We should give these guys a medal. How did they pull it off? Oh wait, that’s when Sander dropped the first of his dreary states.


Today, the MTA faces at least a $1.2 billion budget gap. The MTA has always spent some money on debt servicing, but it seems that in the 90s the Board got a little carried away, borrowing heavily to pay for capital improvements. While ten years ago the MTA was paying $500 million for debt servicing, that figure has tripled to $1.5 billion (hence the payroll tax) and will soon reach $2 billion, accounting for 17% of the MTA’s entire budget. This places the MTA as the fifth largest debt holder in the United States, behind California, New York, Massachusetts and New York City.


That’s just the beginning. Another way the MTA has traditionally stayed afloat has been taking a percentage of tax revenues, including the real estate transaction tax. The lost revenues for the upcoming year figure close to another BILLION dollars.


In the face of these calamities, Sander essentially went on the record today saying that if the Ravitch Report was not adopted, New Yorkers should get used to a $3 single ride, $7 tolls, and the elimination of the free subway to bus transfer, in addition to a “drastic reduction in non-peak subway services” and the laying off of 1100 MTA employees, or “as many as civil service laws will permit.”


Somehow this wasn’t the worst news. Sander then explained that the $30 billion capital budget, separate from the $11 billion operating budget, was completely unfunded. He broke down the capital budget as follows: $22 billion was needed to replace buses, train cars, fix station platforms, train signals, etc. Approximately $5 billion was needed to continue the Second Avenue line, which has run out of federal grant money. Another $3 billion was needed to plan for future growth to meet growing demands in burgeoning communities. Apparently, out of that $30 billion, Sander is sure that he has secured… zero dollars.


At this point, Senator Perkins asked the question on everyone’s mind: “Can we expect some help from Obama’s stimulus? How would that affect his numbers?”

Sander explained that he was expecting a little over $1 billion in aid from the federal government. Of that amount, $500 million would go to the Fulton Street Transit Center, which won’t even begin construction until 2010.

The next time you hear Republicans bemoaning all the “pork” in the stimulus, thank them and those heralded “moderate Senators”, because the compromise bill that was practically written by Arlen Spector and Susan Collins cut three BILLION dollars from the House bill that would have been directed to fixing New York City’s transportation infrastructure. Congressman Nadler has been legendary for years for his ability to secure New Yorkers transportation funding, and he probably lies in bed every night, staring at the ceiling, wondering where that three billion ended up.


When the Ravitch Report was released in December, Ravitch warned ominously that if the legislature did not act immediately, the dreaded fare hikes could begin as soon as January. Today, Sander warned the Senators that if they did not act quickly, they could see fare hikes and service cuts as soon as March. We’ll see.

I left Borough Hall a little overwhelmed, but also feeling a sense of deja vous. If our public officials have learned anything, it’s that the American people are extremely reluctant to embrace big change unless they are scared to death. Invade a country halfway across the world? That’s absurd. Throw in some terror-mongering, and we support invading Iraq. Spend money on healthcare or education? Never! Henry Paulson says he needs $700 billion TODAY or the financial system collapses? Oh, ok! For better or worse, it seems like the Ravitch Report is our only option. But that is, of course, what we have been trained to believe.


Thus, after all that, the MTA, already a tragically unaccountable institution, has placed its entire future in the hands of two men, one of whom hasn’t held a government position in decades, another who was appointed by Eliot Spitzer. No accountability, just a lot of money, and no clear way out. Mark my words, friends, New York City public transportation is about to get a lot worse. Take a good look around your next couple commutes. Breath in your surroundings, so you’ll always remember what moderately decent service was like.


But I won’t let this end on a “the economy is doomed forever” note. The economy actually might be doomed forever, who knows, but the MTA- it will eventually turn around.

It’s like George Harrison said, “It’s not always gonna be this grey, all things must pass, all things must pass away: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vm_N3bjqlr4&feature=related .


No, I’m not worried about New York City. This city will always be destination for the third world immigrant who can take the low paying job we don’t want and still find a way to send money home. New York will always have an apartment for purchase from a trust-fund baby who loves the city as much we do. New York will always welcome the gorgeous aspiring theater girl, the starry-eyed poet from the Midwest, the rock and rollers who hop on a Greyhound bus with a duffel bag, a guitar and a pair of forties. People will come from across the country and world to study at our incredible colleges and graduate programs. Scientists will work in our labs. Star athletes will play on our fields and in our arenas (Hi, Lebron). Tourists will always visit us to see the sites and buy cheap electronics. People will always pursue their dreams in this city, and hopefully enough of them will swipe their Metrocards to turn this MTA crisis around.


For now, we’ll just need to wait a little longer for the next train. My advice: for the next couple years, when you’re using public transit, always have something to read. If you’ve been reading this, I hope you’re enjoying your ride.

3 comments:

mitch said...

ironically (or appropriately), i read your post while driving in manhattan (getting the car for the kittens ablaze mini tour!). then i got into a car accident...

We studied the Ravitch report in class (concurrent with a talk from Jack Dean, director of planning at the MTA). One aspect of the report you didn't mention is congestion pricing (which was killed up in Albany and would have provided $380 million + $354 million federal grant for MTA operational costs and rehabilitation). As a suburban New York child, I initially balked at the idea until I read about its success in London (reduction of peak period traffic 30%, bus congestion by 50%, increase in avg speed by nearly 40%, which in turn improves economic productivity of the region, etc. ). I think the problem with its implementation here in New York was a problem of not only politicization, but bad PR and a lack of a simultaneous promise of public transportation improvement regardless of the additional cost, which is what made it palatable in London.

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