I've written before about how the MTA is unwilling to innovate to solve transit problems. In particular, they are unwilling to try bus services that cost something other than $2.25 or $5.50, and they are unwilling to run new local bus service through the tunnels that they own. The good news is that there are people who think they can provide service where the MTA has failed. The bad news is that the City of New York won't let them try.
Recent events have brought this into focus. In 2010 the MTA cut service all over the region, and cuts to the the QM22 bus here in Queens were particularly notable. This was a weird express route that made only a few runs during rush hours to Midtown from a part of Astoria and Jackson Heights that is not close to either the N/Q or the 7 train. The riders were dedicated and well-organized. Joel Azumah, a bus company owner and a regular reader of this blog, stepped in to provide replacement service.
By law, the New York City Department of Transportation has the authority to approve all bus service within the city, and I don't know the last time it approved a new permit. The old trolley companies like Queens Surface and North Shore, which had all converted to buses and ceased to function like anything but government patronage monopolies, were gradually absorbed into the MTA.
The politically-connected Satmar Hasidim have been able to accomplish superhuman transportation feats in this city. Former DOT commissioner Iris Weinshall, also the wife of a sitting U.S. Senator, couldn't get the DOT to remove a bike lane, but the Satmar could. Similarly, they have gotten a permit to run their own gender-segregated private bus service. Nobody else.
The DOT did not grant Joel a permit to run his QM22 replacement service. He tried to run the service on a technicality, claiming that it was a private transportation club, but he didn't fool anyone. The DOT took him to court and won.
The Bloomberg Administration then made an incredibly clumsy, half-assed attempt at allowing private transit operators to run on some of the routes that had been cut. They could have simply allowed bus operators to submit proposals that would have served a majority of the passengers on the abandoned routes, and dealt with those proposals on their own terms. Instead, they decided on the routes and fares and invited dollar van operators to apply for them without the possibility of modification. The van drivers did not commit fully to the pilot, ridership was terrible, and the pilot was abandoned after a very short time. The QM22 was not among the routes offered for bid, nor were any of the other express bus routes.
Now the MTA's fiscal picture has now improved, at least temporarily, and the authority has announced that it will restore service on a number of bus routes. The QM22 is not among those routes, and a number of politicians are holding rallies "demanding" that the MTA restore it. The leaders of this group, Senator Gianaris and Assemblymember Peralta, have both gone on record opposing the use of bridge tolls to increase transit funding, and then voted to cut the funding for the MTA. When a politician insists that money be spent on a particular route but doesn't provide money for it in the budget, they're implicitly saying that other routes deserve the money less, but of course Gianaris and Peralta won't say what routes should not be restored.
The solution is straightforward: if the state and city won't fund transit adequately and the MTA chooses not to serve a particular area, the city should grant private operators the right to run pilot service and see if they can do better. They have consistently refused to, and this is evidence of a massive failure on the part of Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Sadik-Khan.