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Brash talk on MTA openness from candidate Lhota

The former MTA chair calls the authority the most transparent government agency in the nation. Rider advocates acknowledge progress but beg to differ.

In a debate broadcast on NY1 between the Republican mayoral hopefuls Wednesday night, Joe Lhota called the Metropolitan Transportation Authority “the most transparent governmental organization of the United States of America.”

While public advocates have praised the transportation agency for its significant and often successful efforts to increase transparency, it’s nearly impossible to claim it as the most transparent in the nation. Or even — as Lhota said in a 2012 statement, as reported by Capital New York — the most transparent one “in the world.”

“They’re at the forefront,” said Gene Russianoff, spokesman for the Straphangers campaign and a long time advocate for transparency at the authority. He noted that the MTA has served as an example for other agencies. But, Russianoff said, more can be done to make the MTA fully transparent.

lhota

As MTA chair, Joe Lhota promoted the development of mobile apps based on authority data, and claims that the authority was the most transparent government agency in the nation. Photo: MTA/Flickr

“There’s lots of stuff that they don’t make available,” Russianoff said. One example: the volume of complaints that are called into the MTA.

Two Staten Island lawmakers criticized the former MTA chairman for his statement on Friday, claiming that the MTA is far from being the most transparent. In a joint statement, State Senator Andrew Lanza and Brooklyn and Staten Island Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis blasted the former MTA chairman.

Lanza told the Staten Island Advance that the MTA does not have to undergo an independent audit, something that flies in the face of the idea that the agency is the most transparent one around.

A little before 6 a.m. on Friday, Lhota tweeted: “MTA Transparency – read about it.”

 

Under a “transparency” tab on the MTA’s website, New Yorkers can find board materials, fiscal documents and the agency’s budgets as well as schedules, service changes and more.

In June 2012, ten local public advocacy groups wrote a joint letter to then-chairman and CEO Lhota, in which they laid out seven specific points where the authority can still improve its transparency.

The groups asked for — among other things — searchable documents (rather than scans) and a completely accessible, searchable archive of those files.

“By ‘transparency,’ we mean making it as easy as possible for the public to understand what the MTA is doing,” the advocates wrote, “what it is planning to do, how it spends money, and how it intends to spend money.”

The letter also asked for a more extended database of the MTA’s capital projects as well as a directory of the computerized information.

About a month later, Lhota answered the letter with a response to each of the group’s seven requests.

“It’s a work in progress,” said MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg in a phone interview on Thursday. Lisberg added that the MTA is in the process of making more of the PDF files searchable.

The MTA has employees, Lisberg continued, who are responsible for adding data to the site, which already has “reams and reams of performance, budget and financial oversight data.”

Sarah Kaufman, a former MTA employee who spearheaded much of the push for openness and managed the transit agency’s social media, said she’d like to see a collaborative process in which the MTA consults the public on what it wants to see on the site.

Data that are not on the site include lost and found statistics — how many calls are made and how many items are actually retrieved? — as well as hourly turnstile statistics. Currently the turnstiles are monitored in four-hour blocks, Kaufman said.

“A huge step forward was the release of real-time data of the numbered lines,” Kaufman said. “That was the largest step that I have seen since I was at the MTA.”

Personally, Kaufman said, she’d be interested to see the crowding numbers at any given time on the trains and the station platforms.

“When the announcer says ‘there’s a train right behind us’ nobody really knows to trust that announcement,” she said. With the help of crowding numbers, commuters could make more informed decisions about which trains to take.

As far as the “most transparent” agency in the United States, Kaufman said the MTA ranks up there with agencies in Portland, San Francisco and Washington State. In absolute terms, by virtue of being the largest metropolitan transit system in the country, the MTA might be the most transparent by just looking at the volume of documents that are made public, she said.

But is it the most transparent government agency in the country?

“Who knows what the most transparent agency in America is,” Russianoff said. “Although, it’s certainly not the NSA.”