Monday, November 8, 2010

Should the MTA Board be elected?

One of the stupidest ideas to come out of the Left recently is that the MTA should be run by an elected board rather than an appointed one. If you think the system we have now is crazy, you don't want to see it with an elected board.

Now don't get me wrong: the current setup is definitely dysfunctional. The board is packed with real estate speculators and "transit advocates" who spend a lot of time protecting underpriced parking. Most of them don't even ride the trains.

One result has been a series of sweetheart deals, where the MTA has sold off the air rights above its rail yards to well-connected developers for below-market prices, with plans to build large, money-losing parking facilities that will draw customers away from the MTA.

The sweetheart deals are disgusting, but they're minor, one-shot deals, and the amount of money involved is tiny compared to the MTA's total debt. The MTA can only get back on a sound financial footing if the Legislature restores some of the money it has siphoned off in the past fifteen years.

We want to fix this, but a directly elected board is not the way. Even worse would be Howie Hawkins's proposal to have two-thirds of the board elected by the public and one-third by the MTA employees. Why would this be such a bad thing? It's democracy, right?

Let me give you a little illustration. Many years ago, I was in an officer of a small student political group in a distant city, and I got a call from a bicycle activist I knew. He wasn't a member of our organization, or even our political party, but he was running for election to an obscure municipal board that just happened to have influence over bicycle policy. I helped this guy reach out to the student body in a way that clearly violated campus rules, and he won by a small margin, quite possibly entirely due to that outreach. Now that city has over four hundred miles of bicycle facilities.

Sounds great, right? The results are impressive, but the whole thing was completely undemocratic. A tiny, dedicated group was able to sway an election to represent a fifth of the city. Only a small number of people were informed enough to know who they were voting for when they went into the booth. If you want democracy, you want the issues and agendas to be disclosed and debated well in advance. The only reason I feel comfortable with this is the knowledge that the pro-car people were pulling the same kinds of tricks. It was a dirty fight, so we fought dirty.

I'm pretty sure that this kind of dirty politics is not what Hawkins has in mind when he talks about a directly elected MTA board, but that's what we'll get if his plan gets put into place. It's also the kind of thing that regularly happens on school boards around the country. If you've been paying attention for the past year and a half, you'll be well aware of the number of people who haven't. Very few people know who their State Legislators are, and of those people, a tiny proportion know that these legislators have been redirecting money "dedicated" to the transit system for other purposes. Would you trust these people to vote for a representative to the MTA board?

In general, there were way too many candidates on the ballot this fall. The Federal government has a nice clean system of checks and balances where we vote for a President, two Senators and a Representative, and that's it. Everyone in the Federal government is accountable to the President or the Congress, or else they're members of the judiciary.

In New York we voted for Governor, Comptroller, Attorney General, Senator, Assemblymember and a whole bunch of judges. I was having trouble keeping all those races straight, and after I came out of the voting place I wasn't entirely sure whether I had actually cast a vote for an Attorney General candidate. I would be happier if we just voted for a Governor and a single legislator. People would be much more likely to know who they're voting for if they only have to keep track of two races.

The most democratic way to run New York's transit system is to have it be an executive agency just like the Department of Transportation. Sure, a Governor or an Assemblymember with a lousy transit platform might get elected on the basis of some other issue, but it's not like that doesn't happen for everything else. I really don't think we need to vote every year for our representatives to the transit board, the school board, the park board, the utility board, the insurance board, and so on. In fact, it might not have been as easy for Cuomo to duck the question of transit funding for as long as he did, if it had been clearly spelled out that the Governor controls the subway system.

That's my spiel, but I know that there are places that actually do have elected transit boards. There was some news in this election about people running for the BART board in the Bay Area. If anyone reading this is familiar with elections like that, please tell us what you think.

1 comment:

arcady said...

I think the lesson from BART is to be careful about where you draw the lines. The MTA service area includes quite a lot of suburbs. Do you really want all those suburban voters picking who should run NYC's transit system?