Public speakers at next week’s MTA board meeting will, for the first time during the pandemic, be able to testify remotely while in real time.
The new format, which also doubles the public comment period to 60 minutes, gives advocates and critics of the transit agency the chance to weigh in without having to do so days in advance or without having to catch a ride to Lower Manhattan.
“I can get more done in my day and so can everyone else,” said Jean Ryan, a motorized wheelchair user and president of Disabled in Action, an advocacy group. “That’s the virtue of being virtual.”
Prior to the pandemic, disability rights advocates typically turned out in large numbers at MTA committee and board meetings to speak about a lack of subway elevators and problems with the Access-A-Ride service.
In July, THE CITY highlighted how only two wheelchair users testified when the MTA briefly returned to requiring in-person comments, after previously allowing members of the public weigh in online days ahead of meetings during the pandemic. They both cited having to take spotty paratransit service to travel to the agency’s Lower Manhattan headquarters.
At its September meetings, THE CITY reported, the MTA returned to allowing public comments to be submitted remotely days in advance — not live, as advocates had sought.
Eman Rimawi, an organizer with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, was the sole advocate for those with disabilities to testify virtually last month.
“I get it, the MTA has a huge amount of issues going on, not just issues with accessibility and Access-A-Ride,” said Rimawi, who is a double amputee. “But because it is a multi-dimensional company, they should be able to handle [real-time testimony].”
Starting with the Oct. 20 board meeting, comments can be made immediately, whether in a boardroom or a living room. The Oct. 18 committee meetings will require speakers to testify in person for this month only, an MTA spokesperson said.
“Allowing New Yorkers to comment from anywhere ensures that even if you can’t make it to 2 Broadway, your voice will always be heard at the MTA,” said Janno Lieber, acting MTA chairperson and CEO.
Paratransit Performance Dips
The change comes as companies that are contracted to provide transportation for commuters with disabilities saw their on-time performance goal fall to 72% in July, the latest MTA figures show. That’s well short of the 85% on-time performance goal requiring them to pick up customers within 15 minutes of their scheduled time.
“It’s really useful because we don’t have to take Access-A-Ride,” said Ryan, who prior to the pandemic, would book rides on the paratransit service to travel to Lower Manhattan for MTA meetings.
Quemuel Arroyo, the MTA’s chief accessibility officer, said making real-time remote testimony an option is “a plus for New Yorkers with disabilities.”
“For many, it can be challenging to get downtown during rush hour on board [meeting] day,” he said. “By providing New Yorkers with the option of commenting from anywhere, we are expanding the pool of people who are able to easily weigh in on the critically important matters that impact our millions of customers.”
The Right Direction
The tweaks to the public comments portion of the MTA board meeting are in line with state legislation that last month extended virtual access to all “government entity” public meetings through Jan. 15, 2022.
“It’s absolutely a positive step and this is what we asked them to do,” said Rachael Fauss, a research analyst with the watchdog group, Reinvent Albany. “They should continue to treat this like a pilot program until they get it exactly right.”
Joseph Rappaport, executive director of Brooklyn Center for the Independence of the Disabled, said the live remote option “makes a lot of sense.”
“For remote testimony, a lot can happen in just two days,” he said. “The idea that you’re going to be able to really comment on what’s going in the transit system and be able to predict the future didn’t make sense.”
He added: “I think it will make a lot of difference for every New Yorker who wants to speak before the board, whether or not they’re disabled.”
Ryan, who lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, said the move is a plus for anyone who wants their voice heard but may not be keen on returning to in-person gatherings.
“I’m not comfortable going,” she said. “Because I’m 76, for Pete’s sake.”