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Crucial MTA Public Transit Talk Gets Cut Short During a Pandemic-Wracked Year of Zoom

The MTA board held its first meeting of 2021 on Jan. 21.
The MTA board held its first meeting of 2021 on Jan. 21.
Screengrab/mta.info/YouTube

When the MTA board meets Thursday morning, it will mark the 12th straight month that the transit agency’s decision-makers hold a one-day virtual meeting.

Gatherings that once spread over two days and six separate committees with hours of sometimes-winding public discussion about MTA policies and problems were squeezed into a single meeting in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis.

But as a pandemic that has clobbered the MTA’s finances nears its first anniversary, several board members say the condensed monthly meeting restricts oversight and transparency at a critical time for an agency staggered by money woes, subway crime and uncertainty over its $51 billion capital plan.

“The virtual board meeting does not give the opportunity for full and complete conversations about the important issues,” Robert Linn, an MTA board member, told THE CITY. “The issues of service levels, of policing and safety and COVID-19, of the capital plan — these are all issues that are not being adequately discussed by the board.”

MTA Chairman Patrick Foye in Long Island City, Queens, Dec. 23, 2020,
MTA Chair Patrick Foye
Marc A. Hermann/MTA New York City Transit

Some board members and transit advocacy organizations have, for months, pressed the MTA to begin holding virtual meetings over two days.

“Eleven hours of meetings are being condensed into two or three and you lose a lot in those eight or nine hours that are on the cutting room floor,” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “You lose not only the conversation among board members but the input from the public.”

The public-comment period that airs during meetings has been capped at 30 minutes since last March. Any remaining comments are posted online, leading into abbreviated sessions on the MTA’s finances, ridership numbers, crime statistics and capital projects.

Most board members follow the proceedings remotely as MTA Chair Patrick Foye and some top officials gather for socially distanced sessions.

“The Zoomification of human interaction does not provide transparency or inclusivity,” said board member Norman Brown. “It is a form perfect for obfuscation.”

Taking a Toll

This month’s board meeting is expected to include a vote on proposed toll increases at the agency’s seven bridges and two tunnels.

An MTA spokesperson told THE CITY that, starting in March, additional private briefings will be offered to board members to allow for “robust dialogue on the important challenges” facing the transit agency.

“The MTA made a quick transition to virtual meetings during the pandemic and has been more transparent with the board and the public than ever before throughout this crisis,” the spokesperson, Abbey Collins, said in a statement. “We will continue to work closely with the board as we have been all along on how we can bring customers safely back to our system and lead New York’s recovery.”

The push for restoring two days’ worth of meetings has been led by Linn and David Jones, two of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s picks for the 21-member board.

Multiple board members said they want to hear more from police officials at a time when a string of violent crimes in the subway has led to the NYPD putting more officers in stations.

“We’re going through an extraordinary disruption of life in New York, in the U.S and the world,” Linn said. “So how are we going to go forward with our transportation, how are we going to re-envision what we do?”

‘Not Out of the Woods’

Larry Schwartz, a longtime lieutenant to Gov. Andrew Cuomo who chairs the MTA’s finance committee, said he does not “know what’s missing or what’s been lost” from meetings during the pandemic.

“The agency has been able to do what it needs to get done,” Schwartz said. “Up until recently, we didn’t know if we would get federal funding. But now that we have it, the MTA is in a much stronger position.”

A hospital worker rides a subway in Brooklyn, Oct. 9, 2020.
A hospital worker rides a subway in Brooklyn, Oct. 9, 2020.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Schwartz also said fellow board members have multiple opportunities to voice concerns to him about the MTA’s finances.

“I actually raised to Linn, ‘If you have concerns or problems, why don’t you take it up with the chair of the finance committee?” he said.

Rachael Fauss of Reinvent Albany, a watchdog group, said the MTA’s meetings offer key insights about the finances and future of an agency that has been locked in a state of emergency since 2017.

“Unlike a lot of city or state agencies, the MTA does have a board and it offers a unique window for the public to watch it operate,” she said.

But Fauss cautioned that the MTA “is not out of the woods yet.”

“There will be tough financial discussions for the board to make,” she said. “There can only be benefit for the public to have these in-depth discussions in public.”

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