Major Transit Cuts Threaten NYC

On Thursday November 20, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York (MTA) met to discuss budget cuts. The 2009 transit budget has a $1.2 billion gap, mostly due to plummeting transit-dedicated taxes.

These are some elements of the MTA’s solution:

  • Elimination or cancellation of off-peak service of 50 bus routes
  • Longer gaps between late night and weekend trains
  • Elimination of two subway lines (the Z and the W)
  • Shortening other lines and/or making them run local at all times
  • A 23% fare hike overall, including doubling the one way fare of Access-A-Ride for elderly and disabled transit users to $4 and likely raising general one way fare from $2 to $3
  • More than 1,500 job cuts, including drivers, conductors and agents

A more comprehensive list of cuts is available here.

MTA officials have called these cuts draconian, but insisted their hands are tied. Various political leaders, including TWU president Toussaint, are calling on government to step in with a solution.

Make the Rich Pay

Governor Paterson, formerly a state senator from Harlem who championed some of the services he is now cutting, has taken the position that we have to tighten our belts and deal with it.

He said, “There’ll be protests, and because of the drastic nature of the cuts, those who protest will have very valid points, for which I don’t have any answer, other than ‘What’s your idea?’ ”

Here’s one: Tax the rich. New York State has more than halved its top personal income tax rates over the past 30 years. These cuts have resulted in about $8 billion of lost revenues annually. Even in 1976, the top rate was only 15%. Raising the top rates could close the state’s $12.5 billion deficit, and the rich would still be able to keep their yachts.

Though raising taxes to save public transportation and other vital services is basic good sense, there is currently very little political opening to push this as a realistic possibility. Social movements would have to be much stronger than they are.

Building the Struggle with Local Fights

Nevertheless, any real wins – no matter how small -- have to begin with grassroots organizing. With that in mind, some neighbors and I decided to try to organize against poor transit service in our neighborhood, Washington Heights. This was a few months before news of these cuts hit the public, but we were already frustrated by service problems.

Our neighborhood population ranges from upper class white residents who live in million dollar co-ops overlooking the Hudson River to very low-income Dominican immigrants in the eastern part of the neighborhood. Most of us rely on public transportation, although some of the more expensive developments have private garages.

Frequent service suspensions on weekends – which are occasionally necessary for track maintenance – were often not announced until the last minute. Shuttle bus service, intended to compensate for these train shut-downs, was very poorly organized. Widespread leaks in stations made platforms dangerously slippery. Elevators and escalators – crucial for Washington Heights’ deep-underground stations - were often not functioning. Most recently I heard of a woman who had a heart attack after climbing the 10 or so flights of stairs when the escalator wasn’t working. These stories are common.

In August we met with Marcus Book, an MTA community relations liaison, along with about 40 other people from our neighborhood. This was an energetic meeting that drew attendance from most of the local politicians. The State Assembly Member from our area continued to attend our planning meetings. We tried to take advantage of his office’s assistance without losing control of our agenda, which has been tricky.

Eventually, at our demand, the MTA blasted off calcium deposits that were growing off the station walls like stalagmites. That was our most concrete accomplishment. We also got media coverage in a local paper, the Manhattan Times.

More recently, on November 20, we held a meeting with Howard Roberts, the president of the NYC Transit Authority, which is under the MTA. About 45 people attended, including about a dozen transit workers who spoke clearly against the job cuts. Predictably, Roberts expressed sympathy with our concerns but insisted that nothing could be done because of the budget. It is clear that there will have to be a more aggressive and broad organizing campaign if New Yorkers are to fight back successfully against these cuts.

Funding public transportation

Some ideas

A tax on monthly parking fees in Manhattan. Why should someone keep a car in Manhattan?

Match expenses of road maintenance with funds for public transportation

Create nonprofit foundation to directly fund public transportation shortfall

I have no problem raising the tax rates on upper income levels, but I would like to see the taxes tie in to public transportation. One idea that has merit (not my own) is for the Federal government to buy all the inventory of trucks and vans that are in the auto industry parking lots, refit them for recycled fuel (restaurant grease) and use them in public transportation. (I have frequently been the only or one of few passengers on a city bus.)

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