Now arriving: an ‘Alinsky-style’ transit advocacy group for New York

The view from the Marcy Avenue station on the J/M/Z. ()
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Joe Lhota, the not-so-new keeper of New York City’s subways and buses, has said that the success of his tenure as chairman of the M.T.A. should be measured by his ability to change its reputation from bad to good. Only then, he argues, will legislators fund it properly.

John Raskin, a former state Senate aide, and before that, a tenant organizer, has a different approach.

Raskin has founded a new organization called the Riders Alliance, whose main purpose is to foster community action around neighborhood-centric transit concerns.

It’s “kind of a Saul Alinsky-style of organizing,” says Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for another transit advocacy group, the Straphangers Campaign, and a member of the Alliance’s advisory board.

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(Also on the advisory board: former M.T.A. spokesman Jeremy Soffin; Councilman Brad Lander’s policy director, Michael Freedman-Schnapp; Second Avenue Sagas writer Benjamin Kabak; and state Senator Daniel Squadron’s district office director, Mary Cooley.)

“It would be great to have some more vocal community leaders,” said Russianoff.

While Raskin declined to comment for this article, saying the organization was still in its formative stages, the Alliance’s website is up and running.

"Neighborhood by neighborhood, we bring transit riders together to advocate for their own interests: with the MTA, in the press, and with local elected officials who make important decisions about transit funding and policy," it reads.

Also: "the Riders Alliance will establish a corps of grass-roots transit leaders in targeted communities by summer 2014, in time to participate in the expected public debate about how to fund the MTA’s next five-year capital plan."

Certainly, while the ecosystem of groups devoted at least in part to transit advocacy is a crowded one, there would seem to be a niche for an organization that organizes locally.

Russianoff’s Straphangers Campaign focuses on system-wide issues like subway fares, service cuts, train cleanliness (or “schmutz,” as one report recently put it), and bus rapid transit.

As its name would suggest, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign focuses its efforts on infrastructure issues impacting the metropolitan region, like, for example, the much-debated replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Transportation Alternatives occupies the cycling advocacy, street safety, subway fares niche.

The Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA (PCAC) focuses on citywide M.T.A. policies, operational, budgetary, capital and otherwise.

And there’s the Regional Plan Association, a nearly century-old policy and advocacy shop that specializes in big ideas designed to move the region’s infrastructure forward.

"I think a new M.T.A. advocacy group is much needed, given the fact that neither its long-term capital needs or operating subsidy needs have been addressed, particularly by Andrew the Brave," said transit historian Peter Derrick, referring, of course, to Governor Andrew Cuomo, who, as part of last year's budget negotiations, cut a revenue stream dedicated to the M.T.A. "The current M.T.A. five-year capital program is once again backed largely by M.T.A. debt, which will put great pressure on the fare in coming years."

Veronica Vanterpool, Tri-State's executive director, agrees there is room for an organization designed to engage on local concerns.

“I think one of the biggest challenges to the transit advocacy is really engaging local voices on some of the policy issues, and that’s just been a challenge across the board,” she said.

"My advice?" said Russianoff. "Be persistent."

In October, the Alliance has planned a full slate of membership-generating, getting-to-know-you events designed to build up awareness of its existence. 

Jane McGroarty, a Brooklyn Heights architect who lives on Joralemon Street above the Borough Hall station for the 4 and 5 trains, is hosting one of them. The existing groups, says McGroarty, may have gone, “a little bit too far down the road of charts and graphs, as opposed to what really matters to people.”

Like, for example, that strange noise that’s been emanating from the train station beneath her.

“I happen to know the public outreach guy at the M.T.A.,” she says. “And there’s been this crunching noise for the past six months. I haven’t even been able to get him to pay attention to it.”