March 1st, the Metropolitan Transit Authority launched a whirlwind tour of public hearings citywide. These hearings, though they may be for show, will be the first of their kind since December, when 585,000 student straphangers and their families got the following bit of good news from the MTA (it’s always good news from the MTA):
Student fare discounts are proposed to be phased out. Beginning September 2010, the full-fare student discount would be discontinued…Beginning September 2011, students would be charged full fare for all trips.
The subtext reads something like this: We’re the MTA. We’re $733 million in the red. Yes, again. Therefore, we have no choice but to make the kids pay the difference.
I used to carry that precious plastic passport in my own back pocket, and never did I think that mine could be one of the last classes of public schoolers to be able to afford a ride on the old subway. The city’s students have relied on subsidized fares since the 1940s, back when a ride cost you a nickel.
Now that it’s $2.25 and rising, there’s a pretty penny to be made (saved) from 585,000 new fares, not to mention planned cuts to Access-A-Rides for the disabled, at least 1,100 layoffs of MTA workers, and maybe another fare hike for good measure.
It’s all about "gap closing," as the MTA’s 2010 Budget coins its program of deficit reduction via service reduction.
Yet there are other gaps, other deficits that recent events have brought to the attention of the public (and they implicate the City and the State as much as the MTA).
Mind the Accountability Gap
Who is to be held accountable? Not us, says the MTA, though the Authority’s Board is the body that brought you the student fare rollback in December. Not us, says the City, though funding has "flatlined" under Mayor-for-Life Mike Bloomberg. Not us, says the State legislature, although it reduced MTA funding by $143 million and student fare funding from $45 million to $6 million this year for its own "gap closing."
Mind the Affordability Gap
Full-fare MetroCards would cost families $89 a month, or $1,068 a year. Of the students affected, an estimated 67% qualify for subsidized school lunches, which for a family of four means an annual income of $28,000 a year or less. For a single-parent family, fughetaboutit. For a parent who has lost a job to this crisis, fuhgetaboutit. And if students can’t get to class, they may have to walk themselves to the unemployment office, joining the ranks of the more than 200,000 New Yorkers age 16 to 24 who are neither working nor in school.
Mind the Class Gap
If you read up on the official bios of the MTA Board, 11 of 16 come to the Board from executive positions in the finance and corporate worlds–and most of them never left, racking up the bonuses with the best of them. 14 out of the 16 Board members also happen to be white. Compare and contrast to the city’s population at large.
Mind the Stimulus Spending Gap
The MTA received $1.075 billion in federal stimulus funds. By January, the MTA had spent just $14 million of that, but already doled out $886 million in contracts for its "capital campaign" (think pet projects like the Fulton Street Terminal). Yet the MTA has ruled out spending any stimulus money to save the student fare, although 6 of the 10 biggest agencies in other cities have already done so.
Mind the Security Spending Gap
For a glimpse at how the Authority handles its spending, take a look at January’s report from State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli:
The MTA announced in August 2005 that it had awarded a $212 million contract to Lockheed Martin to build a state-of-the-art integrated electronic security program… As of December 2009 the cost had grown to $743 million, or $152 million more than planned.
Compare that to the $170 million the MTA actually spends on the Student MetroCard each year. (The MTA is now locked in a multimillion-dollar legal battle with Lockheed Martin.)
Yet New York City’s students are mounting a forceful response that may yet pull the emergency switch on the MTA’s gravy train:
Do not implement any actions without a meeting with NYC students to hear our concerns specifically about Student MetroCards. The proposed budget cuts are a burden on the poor…We ask the media to join us in covering the many voices responding to MTA budget cuts. WE ARE STANDING UP AND SAYING WE WON’T TAKE IT ANY MORE!
So reads a recent call to action from youth in Sunset Park. We’ve already seen rumblings of a public school student uprising. Walkouts of thousands. ‘Book groups 104,000 strong. Near-weekly demonstrations at the MTA HQ.
Next up: The public hearings are expected to attract raucous protests from students, parents, teachers, and allies alike–including a college walkout and march on the MTA hearings this Thursday, part of a National Day of Action to Defend Education.
The kids hope to see you there. And if you’re taking public transit, remember to mind the gap.