Friday, February 26, 2010

More bad transit funding framing, this time from Russianoff

At the end of a New York Times article Thursday, Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign was asked whether he thinks MTA chair Jay Walder will raise fares:
"It’s clear that he and his administration don’t feel there's much of a likelihood of an Albany bailout, so there's only so many things you can do," Mr. Russianoff said.

As I wrote in December, "bailout" evokes the worst possible frame in the minds of the public, when you're talking about government funding. A "bailout" is something that you do because you really have no choice, but you always resent the clowns who got themselves into that mess in the first place.

As anyone who's been paying attention knows, it's not "the MTA" (who've had several changes of leadership under three different governors in the past ten years) who got themselves into the current mess. First it was Pataki, and then Giuliani, and now the State Legislature, who've starved the agency of funding. If anyone needs a bailout, it's the state government, which is now bankrupt because it's tried to promise everything to everyone, including low taxes. It can't afford to pay for the services it offered before the recession, and the politicians have all promised their constituents "no new taxes," so there's no way to fund anything. Grover Norquist would be proud.

I am utterly baffled by Russianoff's actions. He has consistently opposed any increase in fares, even though the unlimited-ride Metrocard and free subway-bus transfers have brought the MTA's total farebox revenue down much lower than it was in 1998. He has avoided naming anyone other than "the MTA", "the Governor" and "the Mayor" as appropriate protest targets even though he's seen (sometimes in person) Shelly Silver, Pedro Espada and Dean Skelos stiff the MTA multiple times. He has allowed MTA saboteurs like Marty Markowitz and Martin Malavé Dilan to greenwash their records with "protests" against the MTA for service cuts.

Worst of all, Russianoff's latest proposal to make up some of the MTA deficit with stimulus funds was way too little, way too late, but it allowed wafflers like Chris Quinn to "support transit" without actually supporting transit in any meaningful way. In the process, it has seriously undermined the case for bridge tolls, because now people can say, "there's a perfectly good way to fund the MTA that's been endorsed by the Straphangers' Campaign; we don't need to toll the bridges!"

Russianoff, right after observing how carefully Walder chose his words, has dealt another blow to the case for bridge tolls by feeding the "bailout" frame to the Times. Thanks, Gene!

So if it's bad to talk about "bailouts," then what are good concepts to invoke when talking about transit funding?

Fairness: the poorest New Yorkers ride the subway. Keeping fares affordable and providing convenient service helps to lift them out of poverty.

Environmental protection: the best way to deal with global warming is to get people out of their cars and onto trains and buses.

Efficiency: highways cost a ton of money to build and maintain, and they move a tiny fraction of the people that a comparable subway does. When they're as full as they are in New York, trains and buses also use less fuel per passenger than private cars.

Responsibility: even though it's always come from City residents through our income, sales and property taxes, transit funding has been administered through Albany since the MTA was created in 1968. After forty years, the State is reneging on its historical obligations.

You can combine the notions of fairness, efficiency and responsibility by comparing the State Legislature to a deadbeat parent: over the years the Legislature has wasted a lot of money on tax cuts and big highway and bridge projects, repeatedly promising transit riders treats like a new subway line, but sometimes even shirking its responsibility to provide basic maintenance for the tracks and cars. It's run up huge debts, and the payments have been getting smaller and smaller every year. Now it's saying it can't even pay enough to provide for basic needs, but it still manages to find money to build lavish bridges and highways for its "real children," the motorists.

Russianoff could have subtly evoked this frame by saying something like, "It’s clear that he and his administration don’t feel there’s much of a likelihood of Albany coming through for the people of New York, so there’s only so many things you can do." With this framing the obligation is clearly on the Legislature, the transit riders are deserving, and the Legislature is shirking its responsibilities. This seems like basic message crafting that any good transit advocate would have learned twenty years ago. Why do I have to be the one to point it out?

In another recent post, I took all the transit advocacy organizations in the city to task for their lackluster efforts, but I am convinced that most of the people and organizations involved are good, honest people who really care about the transit riders of New York, and about the environment. I would really like to believe that about Russianoff too, but things like this make me wonder what's really going on.

1 comment:

Helen Bushnell said...

These are good suggestions. Thanks.