New York transit advocacy groups, long vocal about overcrowding, crime and other commuter maladies, are more strident and studied these days about funding and debt.
They are bringing their voices to the table during the so-called summer of hell.
“There’s been enough disinvestment in mass transit. How to fund mass transit is the lens through which we view everything,” said Nick Sifuentes, who on Sept. 11 will become executive director of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
Tri-State lobbies for improved alternatives to the car in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Sifuentes, a Los Angeles native and UCLA graduate, is winding down as deputy director of the Riders Alliance, where he oversaw the organization's advocacy campaigns, organizing and communications, working in conjunction with executive director John Raskin.
This summer has featured a spike in track fires, breakdowns and other accidents, and reduced track availability at Penn Station while Amtrak made emergency track and signal-system repairs.
Widespread discussions on how to finance mass transit and manage capital funds have also cast a harsher spotlight on agencies such as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey – both large municipal issuers with debt of $38 billion and $20 billion, respectively.
The MTA board’s July meeting included more than 50 public speakers.
Advocacy groups such as Tri-State, Riders Alliance and Transportation Alternatives have pushed not only for better funding for regional transit, but also for alternative concepts such as congestion pricing and “fair fares,” or half-price subway riders for lower-income people.
Riders Alliance launched in 2012 to push for improvements to the G train, a north-south line that runs from Queens to Brooklyn.
“There wasn’t all that much discussion about funding at the time,” said Sifuentes. “It was more about station improvements.” The group lobbied for more frequent service and the MTA a year later boosted runs on that line by 25%.
Other hot-button issues include the Hudson River Gateway tunnel project, bike-lane expansion and contingencies for the MTA’s planned closure of the L subway line between Manhattan and Brooklyn for tunnel repair.
Sifuentes calls the so-called MoveNY congestion pricing proposal a “significant improvement.” It would toll vehicles entering certain parts of Manhattan and on now-free East River bridges. Backers say it would benefit local infrastructure that ranges from street and bridge repair to mass transit, and provide the MTA up to $15 billion through bonding.
He also supports the low-income discount. “We already have subsidies in place, for seniors, students and for workers at companies with 20 or more employees.”
For years, the primary champion for subway riders was Gene Russianoff, an attorney and chief spokesman for the Straphangers Campaign. Russianoff today, afflicted with Parkinson’s, has become an advocate for paratransit needs.
“Gene Russianoff is the dean of the transit advocates,” said Sifuentes.
At Tri-State, Sifuentes will succeed Veronica Vanterpool, who was executive director for five years and has worked for the organization for 10. Vanterpool will remain on the MTA board, where Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed her last year.
“She is a powerful force for mass transit,” Sifuentes said of Vanterpool. “Her energy is infectious.”
Tri-State’s agenda in recent years has included enhanced bus service across the forthcoming Mario Cuomo (nee Tappan Zee) Bridge, which connects Westchester and Rockland counties upstate; the launch of the CTfastrak bus rapid transit corridor in Connecticut; the implementation of the Citi Bike bicycle rental program; the planned conversion of Sheridan Expressway in the Bronx to a boulevard; a gas tax increase in New Jersey; and select bus service expansion in New York City.
“What’s nice about moving to Tri-State is being able to look at the region holistically," said Sifuentes.
Uncertainties about federal funding remain a concern.
“Programs like New Starts and Tiger grants are potentially on the chopping block, withering on the vine,” he said. “Local communities are already stressed, with a much smaller tax base.”
Other cities, including those traditionally standoffish about transit, are surpassing New York, according to Sifuentes.
“Now you can go from downtown Los Angeles to the beaches in 45 minutes by hopping on transit. Long Beach has light rail and all kinds of transit-oriented development,” he said.
Connecticut concerns include the need to modernize tracks along the corridor of MTA unit Metro-North Railroad,build out transit hubs and improve surface traffic.
“I-95 is a nightmare,” he said.
In New Jersey, he said, NJTransit is “a big question mark,” while the state’s southern half begs for bus improvements. “In some parts of southern New Jersey, a bus runs once every two hours. That’s not sustainable.”
Sifuentes has worked on the national issue advocacy practice at BerlinRosen public affairs firm, and with the Sierra Club, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, for the Center for American Progress.