The Transportation Reinvention Commission Ignores the People of New York City

No. 6 Train Approaching Parkchester by Robert McConnell 9-10-06.
No. 6 Train Approaching Parkchester by Robert McConnell 9-10-06.

The following is a guest article by John Rozankowski, PhD


On May 7, 2014, Governor Cuomo sent a letter to MTA Chairman, Thomas Prendergast, telling the MTA to bring together a panel called the “Transportation Reinvention Commission” (a.k.a. MTA Reinvention Commission’) to make our subways and entire transit system ready for the challenges of the next century.”  The Governor ordered the Commission to issue its report before the MTA presents its capital plan on October 1st.

Cuomo recommended that the MTA name a panel of international transit experts for this task, which includes “meeting and exceeding New Yorkers’ expectations and spurring growth of the economy.  Cuomo also mandated that this commission hold public hearings.

The Fix Is In

Instead of appointing the panel himself, Cuomo allowed the MTA to do it, which already hints at the direction where this is going.  Even with an October deadline, the MTA waited until June 24th to name the panel.

With hardly any advance publicity, the Commission waited until July 10th to announce the dates of the public hearings:  July 15th -July 17th, a scant five day notice.  (Many expected the hearings to be held throughout the summer.)  All of the hearings would be held at the MTA headquarters in Manhattan.  A three hour session each day was reserved for “experts” without defining who those experts might be–perhaps those who will say what the MTA wants to hear.  The general public would get two evenings (7/15 & 7/16) and a one-hour session on 7/17 at noon.

It must be noted that the room where the MTA holds its hearings is spacious for the panel but very confining for those attending.  Frequently those wishing to speak must wait out in the hallway and even in lines on the street.  Thus, it’s not surprising that many simply give up.  The small area, however, is perfect for a publicity shot of a hearing room packed with citizens.

What about the outer boroughs?  Shouldn’t the “Commission” hold public hearings there?  Are they really interested in what those who use and pay for the system have to say? Evidently, that is not the case.

Highlights of the MTA Agenda

If the Commission really wanted to listen to the people, they would discover that the MTA barely meets the needs of the present, never mind those of the future.  It would discover that major aspects of the MTA agenda have no public support and even elicit severe public opposition:

The MTA agenda includes but is not limited to:

1) A fanatical obsession with modernization for the sake of modernization: Cuomo started off on the wrong note in his letter when he said that the subway system looks like 1914.  It doesn’t but the statement encourages the MTA to continue “keeping pace with rapidly changing technology and implementing technology in an aging system,” a transit version of the cliché “keeping up with the Joneses.”

Who is the MTA trying to impress?  Other transit agencies in other cities? The agency is not impressing New Yorkers, who are a practical people trying to get “from here to there.”  If something is useful as the Countdown Clocks, public reaction is positive.  However, items such as Help Points, “On the Go” touch screens, intercoms, cameras everywhere-many of which don’t work–are not considered necessary by most subway riders.  Station agents and off-hour waiting areas top them all.

2) A determined effort to remove all human personnel from the system: The real driving force behind many of the MTA’s high tech projects such as automatic trains and an “open payment” fare system is the removal of station agents from subway entrances, conductors and eventually train operators from the trains.  Subway riders don’t care about automatic trains, which don’t improve service in any way and they are bitterly opposed to removing the human presence, which maintains order, enhances safety and creates a real feeling of security.

3) An obsession about the appearance of stations-especially in wealthy neighborhoods: $59 million to renovate 72nd Street and $98 million to renovate 96th Street on the Upper West Side while neglecting stations in the outer boroughs; millions of dollars on slippery floor tiles even though riders always preferred concrete; building new stations without columns although no riders have ever complained about this and even use the columns as leaning posts.

4) Spending money on non-transportation projects: The $1.4 billion Fulton Transit Center building, the “Grand Central of Manhattan,” and the landmark restoration of the Corbin Building are outstanding examples of this.  The money could have been used for building the downtown 2nd Avenue subway with a connection to the IND at Worth St.

5) With a disastrous record in subway expansion, the MTA has jumped on “Select Bus Service” (SBS) bandwagon, as the fashion of the day.  While useful in some places, SBS is, at best, a “Band-Aid” and the MTA insults everyone’s intelligence by calling it a “surface subway.”

Highlights of the People’s Agenda

In contrast, a mass transit agenda defined by the people would include the following:

1) A laser-like focus on operations: Riders regularly call for more frequent trains, buses; less overcrowding and alleviating the bus bunching problem.

Unfortunately, service delivery is almost an afterthought on the MTA’s agenda as the agency barely fulfills its statutory requirement.  When the MTA has its recurring “mass transit crises,” the agency never cuts back on its programs but always burdens riders with service cuts.  Those of 2010 were so severe that riders already spent some four years trying to get some services restored.

2) A need for service enhancements: When was the last time that New Yorkers were treated to any real service enhancements?  In the Bronx, running the #5 train at night, which so many on this blog support; restoring night-time express service on the IRT; introducing Limited Bus service on the super-slow BX40/BX42, among others. The #1 and #4 trains could use Upper Manhattan and Bronx express service, respectively; the Bronx D express could be extended in the evenings.

The MTA ignores all of the above usually pleading poverty.

3) A human presence in the system.  As noted above, New Yorkers want station agents, conductors and train operators to remain as do all elected officials while the MTA wants to remove all of them.

4) Riders want basic maintenance: Clean and well-lighted stations; regular painting, replacement of missing wall tiles, working escalators. There is no need for grandiose amenities.

5) The outer boroughs need major subway expansion:  In the Bronx, a subway to Co-op City and another to replace the Bronx portion of the 3rd Avenue El, which the MTA tore down instead of rehabilitating, are “musts” for Bronx economic growth.  Select Bus Service is simply not a satisfactory long-term remedy.

With the exception of maintaining the system infrastructure and re-enforcing subway tunnels against hurricane flooding, the MTA’s agenda and the People’s agenda go in opposite directions often clashing with each other.  And you can’t seriously think about the future needs if those of the present are not mastered.

Can the MTA Be Reinvented?

The glaring omission in Governor Cuomo’s letter and on the list of issues mentioned by the Commission is the need to secure public support.  Instead, the Commission has followed the well-established MTA practice of locking the people out of the decision making process.

In a democratic government, a public policy which does not have the strong support of the people is bound to fail.  Fares, tolls and taxes can be raised to a point.  The MTA and its advocates are desperately seeking new revenues streams such as congestion pricing for the agency.  None are likely to be approved unless the people have a decisive say on how their hard earned money will be spent.

The MTA lost the support of the people in the early 2000’s when it removed a large number of station agents against the will of an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers.  Since then it has lost even more support as the agency’s arrogance and contempt of the public has grown to unbearable heights.

Thus, the Commission cannot be reinvent the MTA.  The agency will continue to limp, a drag on the mass transit needs of New York City, until the city’s politicians do what so many promised at election time: bring the subways and buses directly under the control of the City.

About John Rozankowski, PhD

Although born in Brooklyn, John Rozankowski, PhD spent most of his life in the Bronx and received his Ph.D. in history from Fordham University at Rose Hill.

After selling his rental property, John became a community activist fighting against the new Yankee Stadium, the term limit extension, the Kingsbridge Armory Shops-in-the-Armory proposal and for Bronx Borough President Reuben Diaz’s living wage campaign.  Last year, he was a volunteer in the Letitia James for Public Advocate campaign and continues to campaign in Queens for the reactivation of the Rockaway line.

John has a very strong interest in mass transit issues especially relating to the subways and buses.  The outer boroughs have always been shafted and it’s high time that Bronxites did something about it.

In addition, he is a writer and blogger on New York City issues.”

Dr Rozankowski has lived in the Bronx for 58 years and currently resides in the Bedford Park neighborhood of the Bronx.


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No. 6 Train Approaching Parkchester by Robert McConnell 9-10-06.

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Ed García Conde

Ed García Conde is a life-long Bronxite who spends his time documenting the people, places, and things that make the borough a special place in the hopes of dispelling the negative stereotypes associated with The Bronx. His writings are often cited by mainstream media and is often consulted for his expertise on the borough's rich history.