Transit Hurrah

The People Who Stood Up to the MTA Bullies

All over town last Wednesday afternoon, New Yorkers pumped their fists in the air, exclaiming "Yes!" as they rejoiced at a judge's surprise ruling against the MTA's fare hike.

It wasn't just the idea of getting their money back that was so thrilling. Most knew that was a long shot. Instead, it was a spontaneous celebration of a decision whose arrival was as refreshing as an air-conditioned subway car after a long wait on a stifling platform. It represented one small victory against what has, over the past six months, felt like a massive government pile-on against the citizenry—an unfair fight that began the moment George Pataki was safely re-elected and admitted the state's grim economic plight. Here, in the midst of a wretched season of unequal budget pain, governmental conniving, and judicial indifference, someone had actually scored a win—however fleeting it might be—for people who ride trains and buses every day.

"Hallelujah," as the lawsuit plaintiffs said moments after the ruling.

The decision broke the momentum of what had seemed like an unstoppable juggernaut: The MTA board, controlled by gubernatorial appointees, had rammed through its 33 percent fare hike, claiming it was broke. The real estate multimillionaire who serves as board chairman hadn't even bothered to attend the hearings, until chided to do so by the tabloids. The board's poverty pleas came amid daily reports of incompetence and excess by the public authority, including a new headquarters whose budget ballooned threefold as crooks inside and outside the agency took their profits.

Even the announcement by the state's two top independent fiscal officials last month that the MTA had rejiggered its books in order to inflate its deficit brought only yawns from the governor and the mayor. It's just politics, responded Pataki. People shouldn't "yell and scream," said the billionaire Bloomberg in City Hall.

All of which helped explain the jubilation at the judge's ruling. The team that combined to score that win has many members, but here are a few of them, along with some of the reasons why New York should honor them and their achievement.

Gene Russianoff, the suit's lead plaintiff, has been a conscience of the city for more than 20 years. Using reason over confrontation, Russianoff has helped win municipal reforms ranging from the city's campaign finance system to its independent budget office. A Harvard Law School graduate, Russianoff has been laboring at the New York Public Interest Research Group since 1978, on projects including the wonderfully named Straphangers Campaign, aimed at making the mammoth Metropolitan Transportation Authority more accountable and getting better transit service. Six years ago, the Straphangers helped win the unlimited-ride pass and free subway-to-bus transfers. Russianoff, whose fare-hike opposition led the rabidly pro-Pataki New York Post to dub him "Russianoff Roulette," said the decision to launch the lawsuit came after "people, strangers, came up to me on the street, and said things like 'They lie, and that's it?' " said Russianoff.

Neysa Pranger and Michael Hernandez, the hardworking organizers behind the Straphangers Campaign, have been fighting to make subway cars and stations cleaner, even to make sure platform telephones are functioning. When the fare-hike announcement came, they rallied New Yorkers to the hearings.

Alexander Wood, executive director of the Disabilities Network of New York City, had an up-close and personal confrontation with the token-booth-less future contemplated by the MTA. In January, he was trapped in a Harlem subway station in his wheelchair because there was no one in the token booth to buzz him through locked doors. "What if I lived there?" he asked Newsday's Ray Sanchez, who weekly chronicles the transit riders' world. Woods filed an affidavit in the lawsuit stating that the MTA's phony claim of a $2.8 billion deficit dissuaded him from actively mobilizing testimony—a claim that was cited in the judge's decision.

Eric Schneidermanhas been such a potent adversary to the Republican majority in the state senate that GOP bigs last year cut a deal with the Bronx Democratic machine to get rid of him, redrawing his mostly West Side senatorial district into a majority Latino area. It was supposed to be a box he couldn't get out of. But Schneiderman not only won, he went on to become the senate's deputy minority leader. Schneiderman, 48, urged the Straphangers to challenge the fare hike in court, citing the state's laws that hold that public hearings must be predicated on truthful data. Schneiderman, also a Harvard Law grad, knew the transit laws because it was his second time around, having challenged the MTA in 1995 as the attorney for the New York Urban League against an earlier hike.

David Paterson, the Harlem state senator and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, has made his mark since taking over as senate minority leader late last year. Paterson was an early critic of the MTA's financial presentation, insisting the public agency "should not be allowed to operate without public scrutiny or accountability." Paterson said that the MTA's public shift from a $300 million surplus to a massive deficit had created a major "credibility problem" for the agency and backed new legislation to create a new board to over-see the agency.

Justice Louis York, a former legal services lawyer, comes out of a West Side reform Democratic clubhouse, which helped him win election to the bench in 1986. As an acting Supreme Court judge, he has been a gimlet-eyed observer of government action. He ruled against the City Council's lead-paint-removal law when it sought to ease landlords' burden, saying the council had performed only a "perfunctory environmental review." He chastised a Giuliani administration official for trying to hide a report on rent stabilization that would have mitigated rent hikes. In his decision last week, York brushed aside the MTA lawyers' claims that the public had no right to detailed financial information and that the court had no say in its decision making. Instead, he ruled that the authority was required to "provide the public in attendance at public hearings with accurate information." Not to do so, he said, "would greatly diminish the value of [the law's] crucial safeguards."

Alan Hevesi and William Thompson, the state and city comptrollers, respectively, did the tough spade work that provided the basis for the lawsuit, and the crucial underpinnings of the judge's decision. Hevesi, realizing that time was of the essence, ended MTA stonewalling on documents he requested by subpoenaing the records, a last resort for fiscal auditors. Putting egos aside, the two men did New York a service by releasing their reports at a joint press conference, providing a tough one-two punch that stunned both the public and the MTA.

Richard Brodsky, a 20-year veteran assemblyman from Westchester County, has made himself and his legislative oversight committee into the sharpest critics of the MTA's excess and corruption. In a battery of hearings over the past two months, Brodsky has skewered top officials on how the agency allowed its new headquarters to balloon from a cost of $130 million to more than $400 million. He has fashioned an MTA reform bill that would increase outside scrutiny of its budgets, create an independent budget office, allow public access to contract records, and perhaps most important, take the appointment of the inspector general away from the governor and give it to the attorney general. The MTA is "a secret government," says Brodsky. "They are not accountable."

Roger Toussaint, transit union leader, has never lost sight of the fact that his membership and their families are transit users as well as operators. His opposition to the fare hike last year, coming even as he sought an improved contract, infuriated MTA chairman Peter Kalikow. But Toussaint stuck to his guns. When the lawsuit was filed, Toussaint put his top people to work on the litigation, including lawyers Arthur Schwartz and Dan Bright and special adviser and former Straphangers Campaign activist Joe Rappaport.

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