Mass transit is democracy on wheels. It is the great equalizer that lets lawyers and waitresses, messengers and professors enjoy equal-opportunity jostling aboard buses, subways, and trains.
It is the backbone of every great American city, the lifeline upon which jobs, commerce, and education all depend. It is the surest antidote to global warming, a long-term remedy for that sinister oil gusher now fouling the Gulf Coast. And right now—just when we need it the most—mass transit is taking a nationwide pounding the likes of which has not been seen in a generation.
Already this year, San Francisco has cut its service by 10 percent; Chicago by 18 percent; Atlanta sliced 30 percent of its buses and trains; Detroit slashed almost a third of its entire system. Here in New York, we are losing two entire subway lines and a couple dozen bus routes. Some 1,300 station agents and cleaners are due to be laid off. They are even giving pink slips to bus stops these days: Last week, bright pink signs appeared along many city streets. “This is no longer a bus stop,” they read.
Buried in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s service reductions is a change to what is called “Maximum Loading Guidelines.” This is transit-speak for the number of riders that can be squeezed aboard trains. The guidelines are being hiked from 100 percent of a “fully seated load” to 125 percent during off-peak hours. Translation? Fewer trains, with some 10 to 18 more people standing in each car, are coming your way.
The MTA’s $800 million deficit has met with helpless shrugs in both Albany and City Hall this year. Mayor Bloomberg, who once cast his congestion pricing plan as a moral crusade on behalf of children strangled by asthma, has said only that we are lucky the transit cuts aren’t worse than they are. More than a half-million city schoolchildren are looking at the loss of transit fare subsidies. This rates more shrugs of the “What do you want from me?” variety.
Jesse Jackson was in town last week to talk about what’s happening to the nation’s transit systems, the second trip he’s made here in recent weeks. He has been traveling around the country, trying to pump up the volume on this central urban issue on which so many, like our mayor, have been silent. On Tuesday, Jackson spoke to a rally of 1,500, most of them transit workers arrayed along Eighth Avenue just south of Penn Station. The rally drew scant attention from the media, which viewed it as just another volley between the unions suffering the brunt of the layoffs and the MTA.
But Jackson put the fight in a bigger context, voicing the kind of arguments that we should be hearing from every big-city leader. He talked about the lopsided split in federal transportation funding, where 82 percent goes to highways, the skimpy remainder to mass transit: “Building more highways means more cars, means more gas, means more oil, means more congestion,” he told the rally. “Fifty people on a bus, rather than 50 people in cars, is a green movement. You are the heart and soul of a green jobs movement.” The crowd roared.
Then he reminded them about another neat trick that Newt Gingrich and his then-Republican-controlled Congress pulled on urban America more than a decade ago. That was in 1998, when a law was passed putting a cap on the size of cities receiving federal mass transit operating funds. Any city with a population over 200,000 became ineligible for operating money from the feds. Capital funding for new trains and buses? Yes. Operating money to help run them? No.
Jackson spelled out the obvious politics of this maneuver. “Republicans put on the cap to choke the cities. Democrats must take off the cap to relieve the cities. Remove the cap,” he cried in the singsong poetry that has always marked his speeches. “Save the cities.”
Standing behind Jackson at the rally was a small mountain of a man with a reddish goatee named Larry Hanley. A former city bus driver from Staten Island, Hanley, 53, has been finding creative ways to push for mass transit since the early 1980s. As president of his union local, he once hired a horse and buggy to clop along city streets, out-pacing stalled traffic. One way to un-jam the roads, he said, would be to reduce fares on the island’s express buses to lure more riders, while giving the buses their own dedicated highway lanes. He rented a helicopter to take photos of how well such bus-only lanes were already working in the Lincoln Tunnel. Then he put the picture on a flyer with the names and numbers of elected officials and had his members hand them out to riders. After politicians were sufficiently prodded to give the idea a shot, ridership more than doubled in two years.
In 2002, Hanley was named an international representative of the 200,000-member Amalgamated Transit Union. Two years later, he was elected vice president. The job has given him a bird’s-eye view of the world of hurt that has been settling on the country’s mass-transit systems as the Wall Street collapse hit Main Street. He watched as 25 percent of his union’s members in Detroit were laid off in a single day. He saw local union leaders in Chicago summoned to hear demands by city officials to roll back their contracts. “It was a perp walk,” said Hanley. “The press was there snapping their pictures, with all the blame for the crisis on their shoulders.”
Meanwhile, top officials of his own union remained aloof. “Our union president went to Australia to make a speech, but he never went to Detroit when we were getting hammered,” said Hanley. When local union leaders asked him if he had any ideas, Hanley decided it was time to launch a movement. In late February, he invited leaders of transit unions around the country to meet in New York to try and hatch a plan going forward.
“There was a blizzard, 18 inches of snow, I thought it would be a bust. But 60 people showed up, most of them on just three days’ notice,” Hanley said. The strongest support came from John Samuelsen, the new president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, which has been under siege by MTA cutbacks. The result of the day-long session was a new national organization. Dubbed the Coalition to Keep America Moving, it hooked up with consumer groups like Transportation for America, which has been mapping the crisis. The plan was to kick-start federal support for mass-transit operating funds. Hanley reached out to his friend Bill Lynch, the lobbyist and former organizer who managed Jackson’s presidential campaigns in New York back in 1984 and 1988, to contact Jackson. “Jesse understood exactly what was going on. He got it,” said Hanley.
With Jackson as the keynote speaker, the coalition held its first major rally in Washington last month with 3,000 people. A major part of the pitch is aimed at the White House. “We are waiting to hear from Obama on this,” said Hanley. “He’s been painfully silent. There’s money to buy new buses and trains, but no funds to pay anyone to drive them.”
For his part, Hanley has decided to run for president of his own international union. “Enough is enough,” he said. “The bankers had a party, and the bus drivers are having to pay for it.”