Despite the largely warm reception, MTA chief Elliot (Lee) Sander faced some tough questions when he addressed a combined meeting of the Saul Weprin and Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Clubs on Thursday in Hollis Hills.
The same day he delivered his plan to Gov. Eliot Spitzer for tackling the next monster storm, Sander, executive director and chief executive officer of the MTA, found himself back in his old stomping grounds addressing Democratic party members’ concerns about congestion pricing and the impact of the proposed development of Hillside and Jamaica avenues on parking and the already overcrowded E and F trains.
Sander, a proud commuter and Douglaston resident (he takes the LIRR to Woodside and then the No. 7 to Grand Central Station each day), is keenly aware of the central role transportion plays in the life of Queens commuters and is determined to deliver a modern, efficient system.
“I had my first exposure to the MTA via the E and F trains at 179th Street, the station my father commuted to the textile district from,” he said in an earlier interview.
Sander is an alumnus of P.S. 131 in Jamaica, then Ryan Junior High School, Flushing, followed by Jamaica High School.
On the subject of the recent flooding on the F train he quipped “My mother said, ‘Don’t you remember we had to drive to pick up dad because that damn thing always flooded?’ ”
Sander talked enthusiastically about how he plans to improve the MTA’s operation in the face of a projected $6 billion budget deficit.
“The city needed a transport 2030 plan. We don’t want to be the bad guys, but we’re dealing with nineteenth century infrastructure,” he said
Sander added that the transportation system is the backbone of the city’s economy and without designated funding, it will languish as it did in the 1970s and ’80s. “If that happens, the city will flounder and fail to provide the jobs our children will need.”
˜e identified several key areas he’s focusing his efforts to create a 21st century transporation system. They include human resources, operational efficiencies, security, financial planning and sustainability.
“We want to create an environment that brings out the best in our employees,” he said, reporting that he goes out into the field twice a week and talks to 1,000 employees. “We’re trying to ensure they don’t feel like a number,” he said, noting that his relationship with the TWU has improved.
Sander wants to consolidate the seven agencies, (the subway, the LIRR, Metro North, three separate bus lines, and Bridges and Tunnels) that currently operate as separate fiefdoms.
“Separate entities make no sense in terms of attracting good people, procuring equipment, and there shouldn’t be seven separate payrolls. Besides, with three autonomous bus lines, in an emergency they might pick up passengers … or they might not,” he saii, a clear reference to the failure of express buses to pick up stranded passengers in Queens on Aug. 8.
Although he was welcomed back by old school chum Councilman David Weprin, many rank and file club members, including the councilman, expressed grave misgivings about the mayor’s congestion pricing plans.
Robert Friedrich, president of the Glen Oaks Village Owners Inc, said that congestion pricing was on everyone’s mind. He indicated that he represents a working class community. “How do you justify pricing on grounds of congestion when you’re charging people who can’t afford it?” he asked.
Sander reiterated his support for the plan. “In an era of global warming we need resources for transit. We’re not going to find the money to respond to increase population on Queens Boulevard and the Hillside Avenue corridor without it.”
When Friedrich countered that the tax will be very regressive, hitting lower income residents far harder than those earning $100,000, Sanders said he wasn’t going to argue it won’t have negative effects, but he thought it was a case of the greatest good for the largest number.
One club member, who asked not to be named commented, “It’s all crap. Bloomberg is a billionaire, he doesn’t even notice the money.”
Other contentious issues included Access-A-Ride and the problem border residents have when they use it for doctor appointments in Nassau County.
“We just don’t have the money to spend. Fixing that problem would cost three to four million dollars and we can’t do that in every neighborhood,” the MTA chief said.
Sander’s plan to avoid the type of citywide failure experienced during the Aug.8 storm was better received. It included the establishment of an MTA-wide Emergency Response Center, better access to weather forecasting, raising air vents so that water can’t pour into the tunnels and giving station staff BlackBerrys. “The weather forecast we got on Aug. 7 was very bland. We weren’t told of the danger of severe flooding until 6 a.m. on Aug. 8,” he said.