Source: Antonio Martínez López / Flickr

THE COMMUTE: Last week, I wrote that fewer than 50 people showed up at the Brooklyn fare hike hearing, held the same day as the nor’easter, which possibly explains the low turnout. However, how do you also account for the low turnouts in Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens?

Approximately 120 people, including myself, attended the Manhattan hearing, held in an auditorium that could have accommodated at least 10 times the number of participants. Only approximately 30 attended the Bronx hearing. The Queens hearing was so sparsely attended, that there was a break before the 8:00 p.m. concluding time to allow for more speakers to arrive.

Even the elected officials seemed to boycott these hearings. In the Bronx, only Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz of Riverdale spoke. In the Manhattan, former mayoral aspirant Scott Stringer — who has now decided to enter the race for NYC Comptroller instead — testified. This is a marked contrast to the 2010 service cut hearings, which were so widely attended by the public and elected officials that many intending speakers, such as Community Board 15 Chairperson Theresa Scavo, left after two or three hours waiting their turn. That Brooklyn hearing concluded at 11:30 p.m. So what happened this time?

Is it that everyone just feels defeated by the MTA and powerless to stop them? Are so many preoccupied by the effects of Hurricane Sandy that the fare is no longer a priority for them? Were so many deprived of their autos, especially in Queens, that they didn’t want to venture out on a long trek by mass transit to attend the hearings? What do you think?

At the Manhattan hearing, virtually every speaker opposed the fare hike. However, one person testified that the fare hike “isn’t the worst thing in the world.” The most heart wrenching testimony was given by the wife of a deceased transit worker who stated that she had to collect cans just to afford the transit fare to attend the hearing. A few from the Transit Workers Union testified and others representing other organizations protested the proposed fare increase as well as the toll hikes. Surprisingly, at least 10 prefaced their remarks by thanking the MTA for their dedication and hard work to quickly restore service following Hurricane Sandy. Some insisted that the fare hike be cancelled but offered no solutions as to how the MTA should fill its budget gap.

One who did offer solutions was Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. Here are some highlights of his testimony. His complete remarks can be found here:

…Since the 1970s, the MTA, with help from the State and City, has invested over $70 billion to bring the system to a state of good repair…But today, the MTA faces soaring operating costs and mounting debt. In 2005, we spent $1 billion on debt service. Today, we spend $2 billion. By 2018, we’ll spend $3 billion.

Simply put: we are not investing enough in our system to ensure that it will be able to rise to the challenges of a five-borough, 21st century economy.

So the question is: where does the money come from? My answer is clear: the MTA’s budget cannot continue to rely on a combination of unprecedented borrowing, and fare hikes every two years — not when working families in this City continue to struggle to make ends meet…Now, we’re raising fares 7.5% every two years — that’s nearly twice the rate of inflation…What we need is an overhaul of how the MTA is funded and a true commitment, from the State and the City to providing reliable funding streams for transit, rather than a patchwork of fees and taxes.

Earlier this year, I proposed a detailed plan for reforming the MTA’s finances. It starts with a creative approach—an infrastructure bank I call the New York City Transit Trust — that will not only reduce our dependence on fare hikes, but will also enable us to build out our system for the next century of growth.

The Transit Trust will use a dedicated stream of revenue — the Mortgage Recording Tax — to leverage billions of dollars in private capital to build out our system in a smart, efficient, and responsible way.

In addition, my plan calls for a renewed Commuter Tax. But unlike the old commuter tax, which went to the City’s general fund, my commuter tax would be directed to the MTA so that all New Yorkers — City residents and suburban commuters alike — will benefit.

The commuter tax is less than one half of one percent — that’s one-tenth of the City sales tax and about one-seventh of what the average New York City family pays in income tax. Before we hit New York City residents with fare hikes every two years, we need to ensure that all people who benefit from the MTA’s network pay their fair share…

We need to acknowledge public transportation as an essential civic responsibility — right alongside public safety and education…

More About Hurricane Sandy

In other news, the MTA is not offering refunds or time extensions on unlimited passes. LIRR riders are faced with a $10 penalty to redeem unused tickets, which in some cases exceeds the cost of the ticket. When someone does not pay his fare, if caught he is brought up on charges for theft of services. When someone does pay his fare for a service that is not provided and no refund is made, should that not also be considered “theft of services” but by the MTA? The MTA clearly is not being fair. It appears that all the MTA is interested in is maximizing revenue, not fairness.

This is in marked contrast to the crisis mentality MTA that I praised after Hurricane Sandy, the MTA that offered free rides for two days due to the increased number of transfers required to complete trips since so much of the system was shut down. As I stated, for the MTA, it’s now back to business as usual. Here is part of what Newsday had to say about the MTA’s refusal to offer refunds or time extensions to unlimited passes.

MTA is refusing to waive its unpopular $10 penalty for Long Island Rail Road ticket refunds for travelers affected by superstorm Sandy — even those who couldn’t use their tickets because there were no trains to take…

The MTA is also not issuing any refunds for time-limit-based fare passes, including LIRR monthly tickets and seven-day or 30-day MetroCards…

There are precedents for both waivers of the LIRR refund fee and extensions of MetroCard validity periods.

When a lightning strike disabled the LIRR’s signal system at Jamaica Station on Sept. 29, the agency waived the $10 refund penalty, and even sent $10 checks to customers who were wrongly charged the fee.

And following a three-day strike by New York City Transit employees in 2005, the MTA extended the validity of MetroCards by three days.

Conclusion

So back to my original questions: Why were the turnouts at the hearings so low and do you think the MTA should have offered refunds or time extensions for fares paid for services that were not provided?

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.

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  • randyice

    1. the weather and post sandy, possibly stopped alot of people…
    2.. we the people know that no matter what, no matter who and or how many speak out the mta is going to raise the fair anyway.
    so why bother spending the money to get to said meetings…

    • rpell1

      I couldn’t agree more. This is just another version of “taxation without representation”. I have attended these hearings and heard the objections directed to the process. The decisions are finalized well before these “hearings”. Why bother……indeed !

  • Guest

    I’m in favor of higher fares and taxes so the transit union members can enjoy higher pay and benefits. Support your unions.

  • winson

    The $10 fee for ticket refunds is completely stupid. People are better off keeping the tickets. Extension of unlimited MetroCards’ usable dates is impossible because that would require all turnstiles, fare boxes, etc. to be reprogrammed to allow the extension, which is not practical, right now. With the hard work TWU workers put to restore service, expect the greedy union to demand higher wages, which in turn will cause higher fare hikes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/aemoreira81 Adam Moreira

    I wonder if it’s because people think that this is essentially a foregone conclusion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/BroadwayLion Elias Thienpont

    The fare is a great bargain even at twice the price, and people know that the service must be paid for somehow, someway.

    • sonicboy678

      Once again, it’s not that much of a bargain. It’s already expensive to live in NYC with high rents/mortgages, high food bills, high demand for utilities, and just the CURRENT fare all working against the paychecks of millions of people. Don’t even start with that welfare BS; most people would be deemed making too MUCH for that. The service isn’t really improving, even with some of these “investments”; instead, it’s going to be (at most) almost identical to the pre-6/27/10 cuts.

  • New Yorker

    The MTA doesn’t care what people think. The hearings are just part of due process.

  • Lucky Lady

    The turnouts were low because no one heard about them. In the past, the MTA was good at advertising these meetings. This is no longer the case. But I think the post-hurricane situation in many areas kept citizens occupied with the recovery.

  • Andrew

    To clarify, I didn’t say that the Queens hearing ran out of speakers before 8. I said that it ran out of speakers by 5:45 – a mere 45 minutes into the hearing! According to this article, nearly 20 people attended.

    But to answer your question, here are some possible answers:

    1. “Everyone just feels defeated by the MTA and powerless to stop them” (your proposal)

    2. Perhaps people realize by now that the MTA is obligated to have a balanced budget, and while making constructive suggestions can be helpful, simply objecting to a fare hike is not.

    3. Perhaps people realize by now that they should be directing their wrath toward their elected officials, who have been starving the MTA. (This might also explain the low turnout of elected officials themselves, who don’t want to attract ire. Assemblyman Ed Braunstein, who spoke in Queens, did not bash the MTA or even object to the fare hike in general – he addressed one particular element of the plan that would disproportionately hurt his constituents.)

    4. The MTA’s phenomenal response to Sandy undermined much of the common anti-MTA sentiment. Perhaps people think it’s worth paying $109 or $112 or $119 or $125 for a month’s worth of unlimited rides, especially given how quickly service bounced back after Sandy.

    5. It’s become clear that the MTA’s leadership is plainly competent and considers it their obligation to plan in advance and to do what it takes to restore service as quickly as possible after disaster strikes. (The same cannot be said for NJT or LIPA, it seems.) Perhaps this has weakened the usual claims that the MTA wouldn’t need to raise fares if only the senior managers would take a pay cut. If anything, the people who orchestrated the recovery should get raises.

    6. The 2010 hearings were for service cuts, which are a tougher pill for many to swallow than fare hikes.

    It’s probably a mix of these (which are themselves all related), plus others that hadn’t occurred to me.

    Moving on to your other questions:

    LIRR tickets are valid for six months – they aren’t tied to a specific day. I’m not sure why somebody would buy a ticket in advance, with a hurricane bearing down, but anybody who did can still use the ticket through late April. There is no “theft of services” here.

    As for unlimited cards, the bus system was down from Sunday evening to Tuesday afternoon, and limited subway service came back Thursday morning. While a two-day extension for unlimiteds would have been nice, I don’t see how one could have been implemented after the fact, once cards started expiring and people started throwing them away, and I frankly think the MTA had a lot of more pressing issues on its hands at the time.

    • Allan Rosen

      I don’t disagree with much of what you said except for the following. While I agree that upper management deserves credit for putting the hurricane policies in place, as one of the TWU speakers stated at the Manhattan hearing, we shouldn’t forget who actually did the work. The unlimited cards still could have been lowered for a short period of time to compensate those who no longer broke even due to the stoppage of service. The $10 LIRR refund fare is still unfair. If someone was nearing the end of the six month period, they would have lost their ticket.

      • Andrew

        While I agree that upper management deserves credit for putting the hurricane policies in place, as one of the TWU speakers stated at the Manhattan hearing, we shouldn’t forget who actually did the work.

        A lot of people “did the work,” at all levels. Or do you think Tom Prendergast, Carmen Bianco, and Joe Leader were taking a nice relaxing vacation before, during, and following the hurricane? Orchestrating a successful recovery takes a lot of work and a lot of competence.

        The unlimited cards still could have been lowered for a short period of time to compensate those who no longer broke even due to the stoppage of service.

        That would be great for me – I’d stock on on four of them at the discounted price, to cover me until the fare hike. It wouldn’t be so great for somebody who just bought a new card at the regular price and doesn’t have enough cash on hand to buy another one in advance. Seems pretty unfair to me.

        The $10 LIRR refund fare is still unfair. If someone was nearing the end of the six month period, they would have lost their ticket.

        So you’re suggesting that somebody bought a ticket six months in advance to ride the LIRR on October 29 or 30, and would have gone ahead and ridden the LIRR (despite the storm) if only the LIRR had been operating, and by October 31 the ticket had expired so she couldn’t use it anymore? Somehow I doubt there is any such person, but if there is, the good news is that the LIRR wasn’t collecting fares again until November 2 – so she had three extra days to ride the train without having to worry about the expired ticket. (And I’ll bet that, in practice, conductors were being lenient about expiration dates for the next few days as well.)

        The reason the fee was implemented is that, without a fee, anybody who rides the train without having his ticket collected can then turn around, claim he never rode, and get a full refund.

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