MTA’s Fare Hike, Service Reductions Draw Fire
Throngs packed Queens Borough Hall on Wednesday night to express opposition to Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) proposed subway fare hike and service reductions.
The public hearing was the ninth in a series of hearings the MTA has been conducting throughout the five boroughs and in Westchester, Nassau, and Suffolk Counties. The Long Island Railroad and Metro North Rail Road are also affected by the fare increases and service cuts.
The MTA projects a combined gross deficit for 2003 and 2004 of $2.8 billion and has identified several measures to close the gap, including raising the subway and bus fare to $2.00 and closing 177 token booths, 27 of which are in Queens.
MTA board members, led by Douglas Sussman, deputy director of governance and community relations, and other management sat impassively as numerous politicians and activists voiced their opposition to the proposed changes.
The MTA even received flak for having only four of its 23 members present. Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign chastised the board. "What message does that send?" Rushsianoff asked. He brought to the hearing a stack of 18,000 e-mails he has received from people opposed to the fare hike and service cuts and said he would wait to give them to MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow personally. According to Russianoff, Kalikow has not been to one of the public hearings.
State Senator Toby Anne Stavisky also expressed her dismay at the board’s anemic showing and promised that when the absentee members come up for renomination, the question will be: "Where were you?"
However, the prospect of token booth closures dominated the proceedings and brought out the ire and fear in those that addressed the board. "The idea of no token booths is nightmarish," said community activist Adele Bender. In addition, board members were repeatedly told that there is a transparency problem with the MTA’s finances and that any vote for a fare hike should wait until the 2002 audit is complete.
"We need to demonstrate to the public that the money is needed," said City Council-member John Liu. The statement brought out a cry of "Open the books" from crowd members. Liu, who is chairman of the City Council’s transportation committee, added that if the MTA wants to raise its credibility, it should not vote on the fare increase until its 2002 audit is complete.
The fare increase vote could take place as early as March 5, while the audit is not due until the end of March. "How can you possibly propose to raise fares and close booths based on 2002 financial information not being available?" City Councilmember David Weprin, chairman of the finance committee, asked the board.
Congressmember Anthony Weiner asked the board to consider a reduction of the fare from its current level, citing the disproportionately high share that New York City subway and bus riders pay to run the system compared to what is paid by riders of other systems statewide and nationwide, and the disproportionately low amount of state aid that MTA transit riders receive. Weiner said raising the price of a token is the same as raising taxes, alluding to Governor George Pataki’s vow not to impose "job-killing" taxes. "You cannot be an elected official and say you are going to cut taxes, and then raise the price of a token," Weiner declared. "Those two things are simply diametrically opposite."
State Assemblymember Richard Brodsky is chairman of the Committee on Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions, which oversees the MTA. "The problem we are having in judging what is proposed is, of course, we don’t really know what the numbers are," Brodsky said. "The lack of transparency at the MTA is going to end." He also suspects that the amount of money raised by the fare increase will be in excess of the operating deficit the MTA will face this year.
"I am concerned about the safety of riders," declared Queens Borough President Helen Marshall. "That is why I am here tonight." Marshall told the board that the closing of token booths would put riders at the mercy of predators and that on separate occasions recently she told her daughter not to take the subway because of increased terror threats. "I should be talking to you about how you can improve surveillance, " Marshall said. An audience member shouted, "We don’t want another 9/11."
Marshall highlighted the economic and safety problems brought about by the closing of particular booths, such as at 33rd Street on the No. 7 line—the Queens MOMA stop; at Queens Plaza, where the Department of Corrections drops off individuals that were incarcerated and whose sentences have been served; and at Aviation H.S. and LaGuardia Community College.
Marshall also called for the board to hold off on the fare increase until the 2002 audit is complete and asked the board to consider money-saving alternatives, such as selling the advertising space the MTA uses for its own purposes and letting in-house staff undertake station renovation work. She also asked the board to add its voice to the growing chorus of voices calling for the reinstatement of the commuter tax.
Stavisky, who is a member of the senate transportation committee, entreated the board not to close token booths, reminding the board about the aid clerks provide to the elderly and disabled. She also asked the board to hold off on the fare increase until a case was fully made for the increase. "Like crime, fare increases happen in the shadows," Stavisky said.
The inequity of the 30-day MetroCard also came under attack by many, including Assemblymember Barry Grodenchik, who asked the board to do away with the 30-day Metrocard. Although it is designed to save money, the working poor can’t afford it, he said.
"Discount pricing on monthly MetroCards is unfair to lower-income riders," Assemblymember Catherine Nolan persisted. She urged the board to seriously consider alternatives that have been advocated, such as 5-day and 14-day passes and a replacement mechanism for the 30-day passes, in order to make Metrocard discounts available to a wider spectrum of people.
Nolan said she supported the New York City Transit Riders Council proposal of a "City Ticket," which would allow anyone to ride the subways, buses, and commuter railroads within the five boroughs for one fare during off-peak hours.
Grodenchik also urged the board to hold off on the fare increase until the MTA fully convinces the public that the fare increase is necessary. He also brought up the issue of the MTA’s liability as it relates to the closing of token booths. "You wouldn’t have a bus without a bus driver," Grodenchik said. "How can you have a subway station without a clerk?"
Assemblymember Michael Cohen told the board that a little more thought has to go into slating token booths for closure, citing the MTA’s proposed closing of a booth at Union Turnpike that is used by vision-impaired people going and coming from the Lighthouse facility.
Echoing the voices against token booth closure, Cohen addressed a rhetorical question to the board: "Would you advise a family member to utilize an unmanned station?" In addition, Cohen beseeched the board to review its operating expenses again before raising fares.
There were 60,000 emergency button activations by token clerks in 2000, and Councilmember Melinda Katz urged the board to keep token booths open. "You’re creating a mugger’s delight," she said. Katz implored the board to reconsider its proposed fare increase, stating that the city’s transit system is already unfairly funded by the state. She also reminded the board that residents of New York City just took a financial hit in the form of a large property tax increase.
A representative of Councilmember Leroy Comrie said that the fare option is vague in detail and broad in scope and advocated against token booth closure, citing the great confusion that such action would cause.
A representative of state Senator David Paterson questioned how the MTA’s fiscal situation deteriorated so quickly and asked the board if it was wise to reduce security in the subways while the terror alert is at level orange, one step below the highest alert.
A Transit Workers Union representative told the board that the union opposes booth closings. She said a token booth clerk’s work is not limited to giving out tokens. "Our riders need us," she declared. "If the unthinkable happens, transit workers will be on the front line in evacuating passengers."