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A Voice With No Vote, and the Vagaries of Vice

The bill sponsored by State Senator George Maziarz and Assemblyman Robin Schimminger to create a new seat on the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority’s much-beleaguered board has now passed both the Assembly and the Senate. The bill itself, however, is a compromised version of what transportation advocates have been calling for, which is voting representation for the people who actually use the transit system.

The bill sitting on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s desk will provide only a non-voting seat on the NFTA’s board of commissioners for a member of the “transit dependent and/or disabled community.”

The press statement released by one such advocacy group, the New York State Transportation Equity Alliance, strikes a conciliatory tone:

This bill marks an important first step towards filling gaps in the NFTA board. However, if riders are to have their system be truly accountable to their needs, then they must be treated as full members at the table. We look forward to carrying this momentum to ensure that riders are meaningfully represented at the table with a vote.

It appears that riders have been thrown a bone; time will tell if the bone satiates the growing appetite for a more responsive “public benefit” agency.

Statewide groups like NYSTEA and local groups like VOICE Buffalo hope that this will not lessen the political will for a more substantial change in the way New York’s transportation authorities operate. In other words, they intend to wield the power of the poet Charles Olson’s lines: “What does not change/is the will to change.”

In other Albany news, Howard Zemsky was officially confirmed by the Senate as the NFTA’s new chairman. As Zemsky currently enjoys widespread respect from the community, and appears energized to remove the NFTA from the real estate business, this would appear to be a second positive step in as many weeks for the authority.

Two steps may lead to a leap forward should the state legislature find a way to resolve the chronic expired terms and vacancies on the NFTA board. There is currently one vacancy on the board, as well as four commissioners with expired terms serving actively on the board. The agency has been forced to navigate the broken roads of a financial crisis due to diminished state funding and rising operational costs, all while being effectively compromised in its leadership.

One of those expired terms belongs to Henry Sloma, the now former acting chairman who presided over two fare hikes in three years while being hesitant and then unable to pry from his home county of Niagara a fair share of tax revenue to match the percentage formula Erie County has provided to the NFTA for years.

The NFTA’s website today lists Zemsky as chairman and Sloma, whose term expired two years ago, as the vice chairman. The title of vice chairman, it should be noted, did not exist until Zemsky’s appointment, and is nowhere to be found in the state law that defines the NFTA.

You know what that say about taking two steps forward.

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