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Inside the NFTA's No Comment Zone

The NFTA: Hearing no public, seeing no public, speaking to no Artvoice reporters.

One quality for which transportation agencies like the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority have been stridently criticized by community groups throughout the state has been their ability to restrict and organizationally ignore comments, concerns, and input from the their ridership.

There are five heavily acronymed New York State transportation authorities (think major cities: Buffalo’s NFTA, Rochester’s RGRTA, Syracuse’s CNYRTA or Centro, Albany’s CDTA, New York City’s MTA), and each is managed by a board of commissioners appointed by the sitting governor. If you imagine that a governor would ever consider appointing to such a board a low-income mother who rides the bus to her job, well then bless your heart, that’s very sweet. Rest assured, it’s a political process.

Several lawmakers have attempted to impose change upon the NFTA through legislation. Most recently, State Senator George Maziarz and Assemblyman Robin Schimminger co-sponsored a bill that would put a single member of the “transit dependent/disabled” community into a non-voting seat on the NFTA’s board. The bill passed in the Assembly. However, Jake Carlson of the New York State Transportation Equity Alliance, or NYSTEA, an organization that seeks to reform the statewide omission of meaningful customer service in public transit, recently expressed concern that backdoor lobbying by transportation authorities threatens to derail the bill.

Of New York’s five transportation authorities, only New York City’s MTA provides its ridership with a voice on its board. The Permanent Citizens Advisory Council (that’s PCAC, for those scoring acronyms at home) in theory has three voices on the MTA’s board, but functionally it’s mute, as these voices aren’t amplified with the voting power with which every other board member is endowed. While the bill in question proposes non-voting representation on the board, there’s no doubt where community and rider advocacy groups stand. “We’re interested in having representation on the [NFTA] board, not just as a non-voting member,” said Duane Diggs of VOICE Buffalo. “We think it’s important that if the people have a voice, that voice should carry some weight.”

What’s it mean not to have voting power? Jake Carlson offered the following anecdote that played out last December:

“Back in December the MTA was adopting a budget to deal with the capital plan, and one of the full members wanted to make an amendment to it to restore service that was cut in 2010—[the MTA] had one of the largest service cuts in a generation in 2010—and so one of the full board members said he wanted to take $30 million or so and use it to restore service. Two full board members were fully in support of this and the three rider representatives made their case, too. The chair and few others said, ‘No, we’d love to be doing that, but we can’t.’ Everyone else was silent. I’m sitting there thinking, this sounds good, maybe we’ll restore service, but when it came down to the vote it was only those two members voted for it. The rest of board remained silent and didn’t weigh in on the debate. It almost felt like there was an actual debate for once. But at the end of the day, those rider representative votes weren’t counted, and so the service wasn’t restored.”

In other words, the non-voting members can scream until they’re blue around the gills, but it won’t matter. The NFTA has a non-voting seat that belongs to the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) president, Vincent Crehan. Our sources say that Crehan is sympathetic to and has been an advocate for the concerns of transit riders. Our sources also say that Crehan can’t recall a single instance in his tenure as commissioner, dating back to 2008, when one vote would have influenced an outcome either way.

(Our sources will have to be gospel, as Crehan declined to comment for this story, citing concerns that another NFTA commissioner, Mark Croce, had with an earlier article in this newspaper. In that article, Croce’s faithfully represented comments included criticism of ATU’s unwillingness to grant concessions in recent contract negotiations. One can only speculate.)

While voting representation for riders is a social and economic imperative, the least the NFTA could do is create a meaningful forum for riders to provide input, voice concerns, and ask questions. “No upstate TA board meetings have public comment periods,” Carlson pointed out. “The only time riders have a chance to voice their concerns is when a fare hike or a service cut is proposed. Or they can call into the comment line, or you do what some of the Occupy folks are doing and just disrupt the meeting.”

This week the Erie County Industrial Development Agency saw fit to call sheriffs in to police its board meeting as a precaution against a perceived threat from Occupy Buffalo protesters. County Executive Mark Poloncarz called the police presence “overkill.” What do the ECIDA and NFTA have in common? Neither allow for public comment at their monthly board meetings.

The NFTA did not respond to multiple attempts to solicit comment on these issues.

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