The MTA has long fought public sentiment that it is wasteful and not to be trusted, a perception many elected officials have been quick to capitalize on. Recent news, such as a raise for executive director Elliot Sander and free EZ Passes and transit passes for board members, certainly doesn’t help. At a time when the agency is facing giant operating and capital deficits, it needs to beef up its credibility with the public. Below are a few ideas about how MTA officials and leadership can boost its approval ratings and start to regain the public’s trust.
1. Give back Elliot Sander’s raise. No one disputes that Sander works hard for the MTA, but a raise in times of fiscal crisis is confusing and further separates the MTA leadership from many New Yorkers who are struggling to pay the bills.
2. Publicly fight the big battles (like getting millions more for transit from the state) and concede on the smaller ones (like free transit passes for board members). Some battles are worth the fight, others are not.
3. Appoint board members who care about the transit network and will act as good spokespeople for the agency. This suggestion is for the various officials who recommend MTA board members for appointment, including the NYC Mayor, the Governor, County Executives, and labor and transit advocates. Those that hold the power should be proud of the system and ride it frequently, even if it means they have to pay the fare.
4. Follow through on public promises. In March 2008, the MTA promised a $46 million package of service improvements — then delayed the improvements at a board meeting three weeks later. Yesterday the NY Times reported that the agency will implement a scaled-down $9M package of improvements instead. No one trusts people or agencies who promise one thing and deliver another.
5. Pre-empt issues of accountability. The Straphangers Campaign’s Gene Russianoff has said the MTA could help its public perception by proposing its own reforms, like creating an MTA Independent Budget Office.
6. Show riders what the agency has accomplished over the past few decades, and what it wants to accomplish now. Sander often contrasts today’s MTA with the unreliable and unsafe transit network of the 1970s and 1980s. He should keep it up – but the agency should also do a better and more specific job of answering the perennial question: “What have you done for me lately?” Furthermore, advocates have too often led the charge when it comes to things like breaking out the benefits of the agency’s capital programs; the MTA should be taking the lead and publicizing worthwhile and exciting projects within the subway system. (As the Chicago Transit Authority does – see image above and note below.)
7. Continue to connect with riders. Last year, Sander made headlines for the simple gesture of talking with commuters on a July morning at Grand Central Terminal. The MTA’s subway Rider Report Cards were enthusiastically received (at least based on the numbers of people who filled them out), and an interactive workshop on the fare hike was well-attended, as was the inaugural “State of the MTA” address this year. These public events and initiatives help chip away at the notion that the agency is isolated from its customers. Other things, like better communication about service changes, friendlier station attendants, a 311 type complaint line, and a more user friendly website, could also help in this regard. (For example, Transport for London has real time service updates for each subway line on its homepage .)
Image: Chicago Transit Authority poster describing progress of “Brown Line Capacity Expansion Project.” These posters are displayed in businesses affected by the construction project, which also has its own website. The website includes station status updates and a three-month timeline of future construction.