Friday, July 17, 2009

Mad Hatters and the MTA

“There aren’t enough opportunities for civil discourse like this,” Assemblyman Richard Brodsky beamed as he began his opening remarks Wednesday. The Museum of the City of New York was partnering with former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern’s good-government group, New York Civic, to host a discussion called “The Future of the M.T.A.” “Civil discourse” is one of Brodsky’s favorite phrases, along with “Soviet-style bureaucracy” and “fiduciary duty,” but this panel and audience was the wrong place to find it.

Stern prides himself tremendously on his non-partisanship, though like former Mayor Ed Koch, his neutrality often manifests in defining anything remotely left of center as extreme liberalism. To his credit, the panel he put together ran the political spectrum. Unfortunately, the ideologically disparate panelists were all well-versed on different topics, leading to a wildly disjointed conversation, and a painful Q ‘n A follow-up.

The first speaker, Councilmember Gail Brewer is an oddball by reputation. She is on the right side of tech issues, like expanding wireless access in New York City, but her impact on the panel was minimal. Her main idea seemed to be putting cameras on buses to take pictures of cars blocking bus lanes, an idea rejected by the State Assembly last year.

The second speaker was Assemblyman Brodsky, who I was looking forward to liking, given his work bringing attention to the outrageous tax subsidies Michael Bloomberg gave away for Yankee Stadium and Citi Field. Brodsky decried the lack of political and public will supporting improvements in the transportation, routine stuff. He obviously does not know Henry Stern (aka “Starquest”) all that well, because when Brodsky paid homage to two former state senators in attendance, Stern totally interrupted his flow to ask if he knew their connection to history. Rebuffed by Brodsky, who wanted to finish his prepared remarks, Stern later took the time to explain that the former legislators were responsible for New York City’s “pooper-scooper” laws in the late 70s, eliciting a round of applause from the audience. “We all owe these men gratitude for our streets being as clean as they are today.” Starquest at his best.

The third speaker, Nicole Gelinas of the right-wing Manhattan Institute, vomited five minutes of misleading statistics into the microphone, slamming educational spending, healthcare for government workers, and most importantly, labor unions. Stern loathes the Transit Workers Union, and blames them for most of the MTA’s ills. I can see why he wanted Gelinas on the panel. The two engaged in a decent amount of old-fashioned union-bashing till Brodsky thankfully stepped in, to another round of applause from an increasingly beleaguered crowd. Gelinas fumed that due to rush hour, many subway track inspectors don’t work hard for their entire 8-hour shift, unlike, say, think-tank writers. The vitriol with which she went after “blue-collar workers” was very un-Reaganlike.

The final speaker, Paul White, from Transportation Alternatives, seemed aware by the time things got to him that he was visiting the wrong zoo. He helpfully listed some MTA history, attributing much of the authority’s woes to city and state budget cuts in the early 90s, which led to an increased debt load, which everyone now agrees is the MTA’s biggest problem- the MTA is $28 billion in debt, spending $2 billion a year just on debt service. White also blamed the Feds, noting that federal highway programs requires as little as 10% in local matching funds, while local transit systems had to pay as much as 40%. Michelle Young, of Untapped New York, pointed out to me that there is no hard rule dictating these percentages, and that they are the result of competitive bidding, but that still means the federal government is clearly making local transit systems claw harder for smaller scraps of federal funding than rural highway programs.

Much of the crowd seemed unfamiliar with Stern, which is too bad, because golden moments, like his citing of Rule 18X6 (“The Devil Made Me Do It” – 18 letters, an excuse, 6 words) make absolutely no sense to someone unfamiliar with his Parks Department practice of proliferating dozens of insights to live by and codifying them as rules. After bizarrely attributing the MTA’s woes to the TWU, a union still weak and reeling from getting its ass kicked during the 2005 transit strike, he tried to be more even-handed, going after the corruption of the Pataki administration appointing Al D’Amato hacks to the MTA board. Man, what a sad state we live in.

Starquest's most charming anecdote involved his visit as a young councilman to Deputy Mayor Stanley Friedman’s office. Friedman apparently had a poster reading “Crime Doesn’t Pay… As Well As Politics” on his wall, and had his initials carved into the lenses of his glasses. Friedman, the notorious future Bronx Borough President, was eventually sent to jail for corruption. Starquest has more interesting anecdotes about New York City politics than anyone I know, but the crowd was not in the mood, hissing for him to let the ever growing line of audience members ask their questions.

The disappointing panel was followed by a more depressing question and answer period. I had assumed a certain level of intellectual self-selection for people attending this event, most of whom either are on the New York Civic mailing list or members of the Museum. Indeed, many of the audience questioners were well-dressed folks with lofty titles, or bizarre ones (“I own the air rights under the 148th street 2-train station.”). One questioner proposed that the MTA be placed under the control of the Port Authority. Another asked why there weren’t more bikers in Westchester County. Honestly, this is why we have such few “forums for civil discourse.” The fact is, most of our elected officials are either corrupt or incompetent, and the citizenry they represent is largely apathetic or crazy.

My friend Rachel once expressed disappointment that her computer repairman was having trouble fixing a hard drive issue. The repairman solemnly looked up at her and remarked, “It’s pretty amazing that this computer can work at all.” That’s how I feel about New York City and the United States of America, but so it goes, so it went, and so it keep going and going, all of us just keep trucking along.

When a short, wide-eyed gentleman took the mic, he finally added some common sense into the discussion, asking why New York City couldn’t take control of the subway and bus systems and regulate them as city entities, noting that Councilman Tony Avella has introduced such a bill in the City Council. Unfortunately, even the most rational question had to be asked by a man shouting into the microphone at the top of his lungs. It was jarring.

Brodsky, who chairs the Transportation Committee in the Assembly, readily promised to hold hearings on the matter, should it pass the City Council, calling it a “reasonable question.” This startling concession could be chalked up as typical political blow-hardism, but Brodsky is one of the few people in the state with the clout to make this idea move. Since only one reporter and very few of his constituents were at the event, I doubt he’ll ever follow up on it. Plus, having Avella sponsor the bill won’t exactly endear it to the Bloomberg/Quinn cabal. Oh well, I’ll bring the issue up if I ever see him around. Thank you New York Civic, for a bizarre evening. Democracy is entertaining, just don’t expect too much from it.

Oh, and the future of the MTA? I suppose it too will keep trucking along, carrying its mad hatter passengers, operated by its unwieldy union, managed by its incompetent political hacks, criticized by rabid ideologues, discussed by New York’s mad hatter citizens, and still standing, always barely, forty years after it was created by the Rockefellers to stop Robert Moses. Like the War of the Titans that consumed Mount Olympus, the MTA was born out of a power struggle beyond the grasp of regular citizens, and if anyone wants real MTA reform, they need to wait for the participants of that next great struggle to declare themselves. I’m guessing State Senator Pedro Espada will not be one of them.

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