MTA Hearings, Like Subway, Overcrowded with Long Delays

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Nearly 100 people remained outside the Metropolitan Transportation Authority fare hike hearing in Manhattan almost an hour after it began on Wednesday evening, their wait caused by stepped-up security measures and what appeared to be the authority's failure to anticipate the crowd.

"We've recently had a shoe-throwing incident," said Aaron Donovan, deputy press secretary for the MTA, in reference to last month's copycat crime of the Iraqi shoe heard round the world. "We take security very seriously. The measures have not changed, but the thoroughness with which they are applied has changed."

NYPD metal detector wands, bag searches and bomb-sniffing dogs greeted some 400 New Yorkers who braved the bitter cold to reach the Hilton Midtown, where the hearing was held in the Trianon Ballroom. An overflow room had to be set up with chairs, which Donovan said contributed to the virtual standstill around 6:45 p.m., when the crowd began to chant, "Let us in!"

"There are more people outside than inside," said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who worked the line with State Senator Daniel Squadron after testifying in the ballroom. "They purposefully didn't want the press to see how many people across the city are inside. It's outrageous."

More than 200 attendees registered to comment for three minutes each before the MTA Board of Directors in the first of eight public hearings on the proposed fare and toll increases, service reductions and station changes. The drastic measures, which could raise the cost of a single fare to $3 and bring a monthly MetroCard to $103, are intended to balance the authority's projected budget shortfall of $1.2 billion in 2009.

But before some riders could offer a piece of their mind, they had to wait for nearly one hour just to get a seat.

"I was angry, but I wasn't the least bit surprised that they hadn't figured out how many people would come," said Dusty, who further identified herself as a regular rider of the threatened M8 crosstown bus, which serves the East and West Village. "It was appalling."

Once inside the hearing, some of the best theater north of City Hall could be witnessed for free, as elected officials, transit riders and advocates took turns giving testimony that lasted beyond 11 p.m.

A vocal and outsized contingent focused on M8 service, which would be eliminated under the MTA's plan.

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"My constituents are going to be hit the worst," said City Councilmember Rose Mendez, who represents the area served by the bus. "Bus riders are going to be so severely affected that it is really unfair to all of us who live in the area."

The proposal to double the base fare for paratransit was also roundly condemned. Under the draconian plan, the Access-A-Ride fare could jump from $2 to $5. Census figures indicate that more than 60 percent of people who use public assistance have disabilities.

"Some day, that Access-A-Ride user could be you," said disability advocate Lawrence Carter-Long to the MTA leadership seated on the dais. "Any of you could step off that stage the wrong way, and you could be in the club."

Vernon Thorpe, a liaison for Transit Workers Union, Local 100, inadvertently addressed MTA Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer Elliott G. Sander as "Eliot Spitzer." The slip generated less interest than the conspicuous absence of estranged transit union president Roger Toussaint, which prompted audience members to shout, "Where's Roger?"

For his part, Sander played cool, calming reiterating the urgency of the authority's budget woes in a break-time availability with reporters.

"It's about as serious as the MTA's ever faced," he said, invoking the specter of the 1970s. "The biggest driving force to the financial crisis that the MTA is facing is the huge amount of borrowing that the MTA was forced to do as a result of the capital program in 2000. Our debt service costs have gone from a couple of hundred million dollars a year, they will be soon be two billion dollars as year," he said.

So, in the spirit of the times, Sander and the MTA are asking state leaders in Albany for a bailout. They want lawmakers to implement the revenue-generating recommendations of the Ravitch Commission, including a one-third of one percent tax on payrolls in the commuter district, and tolls on currently free bridge crossings into Manhattan. The proposals would raise over $2 billion annually, thereby eliminating the need for service cuts and keeping fare hikes to a minimum.

While Governor Paterson supports the recommendations, other state and city leaders remain unconvinced, calling for alternatives like the reinstatement of the commuter tax. Action is required by March 25, when the MTA board is scheduled to vote on the increases, which would take effect in June.

"The man behind the curtain here is Governor Paterson," said transit advocate Gene Russianoff. "Our fate is in his hands. He's got to use his clout to get new revenues for transportation."

Maybe the governor could consider the testimony of Brooklyn schoolteachers Bracha Zucker and Malka Alter, who proposed revenue generators like advertising on MetroCards, selling old buses as scrap metal, and using less heat on buses.

The suggestions are courtesy of their seventh-grade class.

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