In recent memory the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the entity that runs buses, subways and the Metro-North commuter rail line, has run advertising campaigns touting improved service, new cars, cleaner stations and MetroCards that did not require being swiped through a turnstile slot five or six times before finally registering that a passenger had paid the fare. In return for all these wonders, the MTA pleaded with riders to leave their cars at home and take mass transit wherever possible.
Spurred by the rising cost of gasoline, Queens commuters have been doing their best to heed the dictates of the MTA and make mass transportation their vehicle of choice. In return for more riders- and consequently, more money in fare boxes or whatever method employed for revenue collection- the MTA has responded with news of a budget gap and testimony before the state Assembly that the agency needs hundreds of millions of dollars in outside help to fill its budget deficit for 2009. The MTA is legally required to have a balanced budget and so may need to cut services and raise fares sooner than 2010, the year for which it had previously proposed that a series of regular, moderate fare increases be initiated.
The Straphangers Campaign, a commuter advocacy group, released a statement last Wednesday calling another proposed hike "a slap in the face" to millions of riders. While acknowledging the MTA's legal requirement to maintain a balanced budget, we agree. Earlier this year, the MTA raised fares on unlimited ride MetroCards and on commuter rails. In March, it also raised bridge and tunnel tolls. These measures substituted for a proposed 25-cent hike in the basic $2 MetroCard fare. As far as we can determine, the fare hikes have had no effect on service or the condition of the MTA's rolling stock.
Some riders have indicated that they will, reluctantly, accept the necessity for a fare hike- if, that is, they get something in return for it. Several people interviewed by print and broadcast media reporters on subway platforms and at bus stops commented that service improvements supposedly concomitant with previous fare hikes had yet to materialize. The widely held feeling seemed to be that fare hikes that go toward system improvements would be accepted by the riding public, albeit unwillingly, as long as there is some evidence of those improvements.
We can think of more than a few service improvements that riders would consider paying good money for. It is preposterous that the largest metropolitan transit system in the world can be brought to a standstill whenever a heavy rain hits the city. Subway cars and buses need not match the splendor of the Gilded Age private railway cars of the Belmonts and Vanderbilts, but if a train is taken out of service for routine maintenance once in 24 or 48 hours, surely that maintenance could include the use of a broom or mop. Those same cleaning implements could be applied once in a 24-hour period to subway stations and bus stops. Every subway car and bus in the system today is equipped with adequate heating and air conditioning systems. Why these systems cannot function when weather conditions obviously indicate their use is a mystery to us. And perhaps most important, despite what we grant are good-faith efforts on the part of the MTA, announcements, especially those broadcast on trains and subway platforms, are often completely unintelligible. An explanation of why a train is delayed will not make that train materialize any faster, we grant, but being included in the information loop reduces passenger irritability by more than a little.
New Yorkers for the most part are a fairminded lot, and eminently practical besides. Rising gas prices have led many to take the ecologically feasible and economically wise step of using mass transit wherever possible. Their willingness to do what benefits the greater good, even if it occasions inconvenience, deserves better than a kick in the wallet by way of reward.