The Day After

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Well, here we are again.

One year after State Assembly Democrats killed New York City’s attempt to fund mass transit and reduce traffic gridlock, sustainable transport advocates find themselves suffering yet another huge defeat in Albany.

Fixing Albany requires volunteers dragging themselves out to the Kings Highway Q train platform in the middle of Carl Kruger’s district and handing palm cards to commuters explaining that the impending fare hike is the direct result of their state senator’s fine work.

On Wednesday the MTA Board approved the “doomsday” scenario – massive fare hikes and sweeping service cuts for New York City’s eight million transit riders. The State Legislature easily could have avoided doomsday by approving Richard Ravitch’s financing plan or coming up with a viable alternative of its own. But a handful of New York City State Senators, Carl Kruger, Ruben Diaz Sr., Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate – call them the Fare Hike Four – couldn’t bear the thought of imposing new fees on New York City’s motorists. In working to protect the free driving privilege of New York City’s armada of horn-honking, exhaust-spewing, road-clogging single-passenger car commuters, the State Senate has brought the city’s transit system to the brink of financial ruin. If you ride a train or bus in New York City you're going to pay the price.

The irresponsibility, the destructiveness and sheer lack of seriousness displayed by the Fare Hike Four is without question and we could spend all day heaping scorn on them. But the Senate Democrats are hardly any worse than the minority Republicans who were perfectly happy to sit by and watch the train wreck. And we could just as well place the blame for our current mess on the State Assembly members who killed congestion pricing last year.

Rather than pointing fingers at our feckless state government, advocates for livable streets and mass transit need to take a good long look in the mirror. Despite assembling a broad and seemingly powerful coalition in support of our issues, our advocacy consistently goes nowhere in Albany. That needs to change. So, how?

fhf_medium.jpgFirst off, it’s obvious that we need a better policy-making process. Granted, New York’s state legislators tend to show a profound lack of seriousness when it comes to policy (see their performance on last year’s congestion mitigation commission) and they are renowned for their deeply ingrained windshield perspective. But they still need to be engaged in the process from the beginning. It didn't help that the Ravitch Plan was, in many ways, too small, too lacking in creativity and too flawed for anyone to get too excited about it. The fact that the Ravitch Plan originated outside the state legislature made it all the more easy for them to reject it.

But let’s also be clear that our losses in Albany have a lot more to do with politics than policy. Sustainable transport advocates need to build political clout. Period. At this point, almost nothing else matters. We need to join forces with mainstream environmentalists, labor groups and issue advocates working on education, housing and economic development, who are equally disgusted with the performance of New York’s state legislature. The Fare Hike Four and the Assembly Democrats who killed congestion pricing come up for reelection every two years. For the most part, they run unopposed. Until we can get some of these people unelected – or, at the very least, challenged – we are pretty much irrelevant.

Here at Streetsblog we are mostly issue advocates and wonks. We enjoy debating policy minutia in the comments section, geeking out at Rudin Center breakfasts and fleshing out the most rational possible pricing schemes for New York City’s transportation system. But fixing Albany demands less policy intellect and more political muscle. It requires volunteers dragging themselves out to the Kings Highway Q train platform in the middle of Carl Kruger’s district and handing out palm cards to morning rush hour commuters explaining that the impending fare hike is the direct result of their state senator’s fine work -- or total lack thereof. It’s about knocking on doors, spending evenings at community meetings and drumming up votes. Defeating Albany incumbents isn’t easy. Most of these guys leave office in handcuffs or a coffin. But state legislators aren’t invincible either. A lot of them have had their jobs for more than 20 years. Many of them are stale and feeble and don’t work particularly hard anymore. Daniel Squadron knocked off Sen. Martin Connor in last September’s Democratic primary by a margin of 8,034 to 6,179. It doesn’t take a lot of votes.

Still, it’s a daunting task for any individual community activist to run a campaign against a sitting state legislator. So, here’s my humble proposal: What New York needs right now is a well-organized, heavily-funded, Newt-Gingrich-Contract-With-America-style campaign to take back Albany. We need to create a broad-based reform platform and recruit a slate of viable candidates to run challenges against vulnerable Senators and Assembly members all across the city. We need to focus citywide attention on state legislature campaigns and stop letting these guys slip quietly back into office unchallenged year after year in neighborhood-level campaigns that no one even pays attention to. We’ve got to take Albany back from these people who are ruining our city.

Photo by Buck Ennis