Last week's "fare strike" on the New York City subway won't be the last time Occupy turns its attention to mass transit. On Wednesday, activists in at least 18 cities are teaming up with the nation's largest transit union for a national day of action. The day is part of a concerted effort to place the blame for rising fares and diminishing service on the same banks that got the country into the recession -- and it comes just as Congress is haltingly trying to pass a major transportation bill.
In Massachusetts, where the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) has proposed a range of draconian service cuts, Occupy Boston will hold a rally in front of the State House and then a candlelight vigil in memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., who died on April 4, 1968. Rallies, vigils, leafleting and voter registration are also planned for other cities where public transportation has been hit hard by the recession: New York, Detroit, Milwaukee and Indianapolis, to name a few.
"Public transit is a right, and it needs to be funded," said Ariel Oshinsky, an organizer with Occupy Boston. She noted that public transportation is disproportionately used by people of color and with low incomes. The MBTA there has proposed a number of deep service cuts which Oshinsky said would "pit communities against each other." But "as riders and workers together, there's real strength."
Oshinsky said she had not heard of any actions planned like the "fare strike" in New York, when masked activists chained subway gates opened and offered free rides. Or, at the very least, "I am not involved in the planning of an action like that," she stated carefully.
Transportation authorities alone are not responsible for fare hikes and bus cuts -- legislators in places like Albany and Boston also share part of the blame, she said. But the Occupy protesters also hope that by teaming up with unions they can shed light on one often-overlooked facet of the complicated world of transportation funding: the role of banks.
To keep capital construction programs humming, cities must often issue massive bonds, in turn creating the need to pay off huge amounts of debt service to banks every year before they can address funding shortfalls. In the 2000s, some transit agencies also entered into complicated interest rate swaps with banks that were supposed to provide cover in case of wild interest rate swings. But interest rates are now so low that New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is essentially losing $118 million a year, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey $28 million a year, according to the union-backed United NY coalition.
"It's another form of taking the MTA budget to the casino," said Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.
The MTA, the NYPD and the FBI are all on the hunt for the masked bandits who chained open a few subway entrances last week and declared a fare strike -- but Hanley said they should be looking to Wall Street instead.
Adam Lisberg, a spokesman for the MTA, said the fare strike was "an offense against the system, and frankly it's an offense against everybody else who pays their fare."
But Hanley suggested looking for the people behind it is a waste of time. "Notice how the detectives are combing the city," Hanley said. "To allow poor people to get a free ride on the subway -- that's a crime in America. But creating all these financial derivatives? … That's okay."
Hanley's union supports passing the U.S. Senate's transportation bill. But he said he hopes the country will go further in supporting public transportation.
"Everybody's blaming someone else for the high gas prices," he lamented, "but no one's looking at transit as an alternative."