Affordable, accessible, efficient and safe mass transit is critical to the success of New York City’s economy and to the daily lives of New Yorkers. As a Senator, and as an activist lawyer, I have been at the forefront of the fight to give New Yorkers the transit system they deserve.
In 1995, I was the lead attorney for the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign and the New York Urban League in a lawsuit against the MTA to prevent a fare increase for subways and buses. The lawsuit charged that the fare hike would have a disproportionate and discriminatory affect on racial minorities because the MTA was proposing a larger fare hike for New York City Transit buses and subways, which serve more minority riders, than for suburban commuter trains that serve mostly white riders. We won an injunction from the trial court, but were overturned on appeal. However, our case did compel the MTA to introduce discount MetroCards to offset some of the cost of the fare hike for city riders. Also, our reasoning in the case, which the courts found to be fundamentally sound, was the inspiration for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit over discrimination in state education funding.
In 2001, when the MTA proposed eliminating 56 token booths from subway stations around the city, I teamed up again with the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign, as well as the Transport Workers Union Local 100, disability rights activists and other to sue the MTA once again. Again, I won a court injunction against the MTA because the MTA failed to hold required public hearings before closing the booths. The decision was overturned on appeal, but the MTA nevertheless reduced the number of booths slated for closure after massive public outcry at the new public hearings that were held as a result of the lawsuit.
In 2003 the MTA once again announced plans for a fare hike on subways and buses, as well as token booth closure and cutbacks in cleaning and maintenance schedules. Controversy erupted because the MTA claimed to have a combined budget gap of $2.8 billion for 2003 and 2004. A report by the Independent Budget Office pegged the gap at $951 million. Subsequent further review by both the City and State comptrollers found that the MTA had engaged in deceptive accounting practices, and essentially, had two sets of books. So, I again represented the Straphangers, the Transit Workers and others in a lawsuit against the MTA. We argued that public hearings that were held by the MTA after the agency told the public that their deficit was more than double what it was in reality were invalid because the public did not have adequate information to decide whether to testify at hearings or what position to take. The trial judge agreed with us and issued an injunction to prevent the fare hike. The decision was overturned on appeal, but the MTA did scale back its plans for service cuts and token booth closings.
In addition to challenging the MTA in court, I has been a vocal advocate in the legislature for more openness and accountability in the MTA as well as for more state funding for mass transit. In a recent op-ed in the Daily News, I made the case for a much larger state investment in capital improvements to the MTA. The MTA has simply been de-funded in the last decade – mainly by the state, and to a lesser extent by the city.
The main reason fares are going up and service is going down is that the state contributed nothing – as in zero dollars – to the MTA’s current five year capital plan. For its part, the city is making its smallest contribution ever to capital repairs and improvements. In place of real revenue from the state and city, the MTA has been forced to borrow and refinance a whopping $22 billion in bonds to pay for necessary repairs. Interest payments on these bonds are doubling from $800 million in 2003 to $1.6 billion in 2007, eating up a growing proportion of the MTA’s operating budget.
Think of MTA as a two income family. One worker’s income – capital aid – pays for the mortgage and maintenance on the house. The other worker’s paycheck – operating aid – covers food, clothes, and other monthly expenses. Now imagine that the worker paying the mortgage lost their job five years ago, and the family kept paying the mortgage and maintaining the house using credit cards instead of income. Eventually that catches up with you. Unfortunately the MTA can’t force the state to give it more aid, so it’s caught in a spiral of fare hikes and service cuts.
For now, thanks to the Senate's MTA rescue plan, the "doomsday" scenario so many New Yorkers feared has been averted. As a result of the agreement, millions of subway and bus riders have been spared painful fare hikes and devastating service cuts. The MTA budget agreement also expands oversight of the agency, ending its dubious bookkeeping practices and illegal perks for board members.
This plan is far from perfect. Subway and bus fares will go up, but nowhere near the crippling hikes proposed by the MTA. And we still have a long way to go to fully fund the MTA's capital plan. That said, this deal will make a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of New Yorkers — and that’s something to celebrate.
Click here to read my op-ed about how the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been looted by Albany and burdened with debt to the point of collapse.
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