During the past four years, Benjamin Kabak has become an expert on all things transit, writing in-depth posts about capital budgets, debt service and shuttered stations on his blog, SecondAvenueSagas.com—all while attending law school at NYU.
The Brooklyn resident, who grew up on the Upper West Side, said he became interested in covering Second Avenue subway construction after the 2006 elections, when Sen. Charles Schumer promised federal support for the project. Thinking work would speed along, Kabak began writing regular dispatches. Once he saw there was (sadly) not enough activity to devote an entire blog to, he began covering transit on a more general, citywide level. But the “Second Avenue” name stuck, and in January, the Village Voice named Kabak one of the city’s top bloggers.
We caught up with Kabak, who is about to celebrate his 27th birthday, at a Park Slope coffee shop to talk transit.
Q: How did you get to become so knowledgeable about transit?
A: Most of it’s just self-taught. When I was a little kid, I used to love riding the subway. My parents used to take me to the Transit Museum, and I really got into the importance of trains as a way of life in the city. I started the blog in 2006, and since then I’ve mostly delved into the material.
Q: Obviously, the MTA takes you seriously and responds to your questions. What’s your relationship like with them?
A: It’s pretty good. They’ve been very helpful. As I’ve gotten more readership and more on their radar, they’ve been more responsive to me. I think it’s more of an opportunity—it’s not their forum, but it gives me a chance to write more in depth about a lot of the issues facing the MTA, more so than some of the papers would. They’ve invited me on their press tours, they’ve included me in a couple of briefings, so it’s been a good relationship.
Q: What’s your take on MTA chairman and CEO Jay Walder’s tenure?
A: So far, I think he’s done a pretty good job. When he showed up, I don’t think he anticipated having to deal with a $700 million budget shortfall. He came into a situation where he thought that the state had provided enough money for the agency to sustain itself. And then, when the budget happened, a lot of what he’d hoped to accomplish had to be put on hold, just until he can make sure that the finances are shored up. But he’s saying the right things, and I think it’s just a matter, at this point, of whether he can enact what he’s saying.
Q: One thing that you’re really passionate about is the proposal to cut student MetroCards. A lot of people are angry at the MTA about that, but you’re saying their anger is misplaced. Tell our readers whom they should be ticked off at.
A: I think they should be ticked off at the state and city. This has its origins in 1995, when the MTA was introducing student MetroCards and they worked out an agreement where the city and state and MTA would each pay for one-third of the cost of the program. Since then, the city and state contributions haven’t increased at all. So the MTA has been left holding the bag for increased costs, paying for more students. And the state actually, last year, dropped its contributions.
I think the real issue is that the city and state are willing to pay for student transit in every other district, but they’re not willing to pay here for the costs of sending students to school. I like the MTA’s saying, “We’re not a yellow school bus provider, we’re a transit provider.” So should they really be expected to incur $200 million in losses because the city and state won’t pony up or donate the money?
Q: What do you think is the biggest hindrance to improved service?
A: I harp on the workers a lot, and I don’t mean to be anti-union because I think they do a lot of good, but the MTA pays out a lot in pensions. Some of it is the management structure. There are definitely proposals out there to overhaul the way the agencies are run. But I think one of the biggest expenses is debt service on a lot of [the MTA’s] capital budgets.
Q: Don’t we have George Pataki to blame for that?
A: Yup, we do. Pataki and Giuliani, too. They stopped guaranteeing a lot of money for the MTA and relied heavily on municipal bonds. If you pay for a project with bonds, and you do it the right way and don’t let the bonds come due until [the project’s] open, you’ll have revenue service to pay off those bonds.
Q: So why did George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani agree to these terms? Did they think that by then the Second Avenue subway would be completed?
A: I think it’s an issue of not saddling the state with these expenses, issuing the bonds to cover the project and thinking, “We’ll be well out of office when the bonds mature.”
Q: In the current plan for select bus service on the M15, there are no cameras to enforce staying in lanes, or a separated bus lane. Do you think that select bus service is even worth it at this point?
A: I think it will definitely help, and there are enough elements there to speed up the trips. From an implementation standpoint, I’d much rather see a dedicated lane, and whatever they can do to give [buses] priority signals. I think what the DOT has run into is that a lot of businesses, vocal businesses at least, are going to complain about taking away a parking lane and taking away curbside access. Anything that can speed up bus service in New York should at least be given a shot to work.
Q: You contribute to another blog because you’re a big Yankees fan.
A: Yes, two of my friends and I run a blog called River Avenue Blues. It’s a nice way for me to keep writing. I did a lot of journalism in college. Didn’t go into it afterward, but wanted to keep writing. I miss having an editor, sometimes.
Q: I’ve often wondered that about bloggers, being an editor myself. How do you get by?
A: It’s tough to self-edit your work. My mom will often send me typos when I make them, but it’s not the same in terms of structuring your stories.
Transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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