The MTA will no longer require in-person testimony at its board meetings beginning Monday, with public speakers once again allowed to rail remotely against the transit agency — although not in real time.
The option for members of the public and MTA officials to participate remotely reverses the agency’s return to pre-pandemic traditions in July, which required a trek to the MTA’s Lower Manhattan headquarters.
The move comes after new Gov. Kathy Hochul last week signed legislation that extends virtual access to all “government entity” public meetings through Jan. 15, 2022 — and after THE CITY highlighted the low turnout among those with disabilities at in-person-only MTA board meetings in July.
Only two paratransit customers testified at those meetings during which MTA board members discussed $665 million in contracts for companies that provide service for Access-A-Ride customers.
“Based on our ability to do this from the extension of the emergency open meetings law that was signed by the governor, we’re now able to offer expanded options,” said Tim Minton, an MTA spokesperson.
Log-in Lag Time
But commuters can’t just log-on and start airing grievances during the hearing. Public speakers who opt for the virtual option will have to submit comments on Friday for Monday’s committee meetings and on Tuesday for the next day’s board meeting.
Up to 30 minutes of pre-recorded comments will be played at the start of each meeting, Minton said, with any beyond that being posted online.
“It is baffling to me that the MTA hasn’t figured out a way to have real-time testimony,” said Joseph Rappaport, executive director of Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, an advocacy organization. “Two days can really alter what’s going on in the subway system, on the buses or Access-A-Ride.”
Members of the public who attend the meetings — where boardroom attendance will be capped at 52 persons to allow for three feet of social distancing, officials said — are required to wear facial coverings.
Virtual access to meetings became the norm during much of the pandemic after then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo used emergency powers to allow for remote get-togethers. For 18 months, the MTA also squeezed the traditional two days of meetings into a single session.
Valerie Joseph, a motorized wheelchair user who lives in Queens, said she will likely opt for submitting her public comments prior to the meetings, instead of having to book a trip to Lower Manhattan to testify in person.
“Service is bad and people are still concerned about COVID,” Joseph told THE CITY. “And if they want more testimony, then having remote comments is easier at this moment.”
The Power of Facetime
She and Eman Rimawi, a double amputee and organizer for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, were the sole members of the disability rights community to speak at the July committee meetings.
Prior to the pandemic, MTA meetings often attracted comments from dozens of paratransit customers.
“We’ve been a strong presence over the last few years and that’s made a difference at the board,” Rappaport said. “It’s just a bit harder to say, ‘Oh, we’re not going to adhere to the [Americans with Disabilities Act]’ or ‘We’re going to offer lousy Access-A-Ride service when people are staring you right in the face and speaking out.”
Joseph said the low attendance could be blamed, in part, on concerns over travel time and a slip in service reliability.
“Right now, a lot of people aren’t getting rides outside of Manhattan,” said Joseph, an Access-A-Ride advocate at BCID. “And if they are, you have to wait an extensive amount of time.”
Accessibility Getting Left Behind?
The MTA’s Access-A-Ride dashboard has not been updated since May, when companies contracted to provide transportation for riders with disabilities had failed for a fourth straight month to meet an 85% on-time goal of picking up customers within 15 minutes of their scheduled time.
An MTA spokesperson said the dashboard should be updated ahead of next week’s meetings.
Minton, the MTA spokesperson, explained that paratransit data takes longer to compile.
Government watchdog groups and advocates for people with disabilities had pushed the state to resume remote access to officials because of the COVID-19 Delta variant, while also allowing for in-person meetings.
Rachael Fauss, a research analyst with Reinvent Albany, called the MTA’s approach “interesting in many ways.”
“We’ll have to see how it works out, but they do deserve credit for trying to do a hybrid approach,” she said. “That’s really what agencies should be trying to do right now, because of what we have learned from COVID.”