The one simple trick to fix NYC bus service

By · Published on October 20, 2019 · Comments (5) ·

A 14th Street for buses offers a vision for NYC’s future streetscape. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

The past few weeks have been transformational for New York City’s streets. Whether New Yorkers realize it or not, the launch of the 14th St. Busway, after months of delays due to spurious lawsuits, and the lack of a traffic apocalypse on adjacent side streets should usher in a new era of re-envisioned city streets as buses are prioritized on key arteries at the expense of cars, ensuring that the city’s suffering bus network gets the boost it needs to run buses faster and more reliably than ever before. All it took was one simple trick advocates for years have been clamoring for: Get the cars out of the way.

The Busway brings faster buses and more riders

The history of the 14th Street project is one well known about these parts. In its current form, it grew out of the need to repair the L train tunnels following Superstorm Sandy, and we heard whisperings of a car-free busway as early as 2016. As 2017 unfolded, both the RPA and Transportation Alternatives issued calls for redesigning 14th Street to prioritize buses during the L train shutdown, and a year later, Arthur Schwartz, the pro-car villain in this story, filed the first of many lawsuits he would lob toward the city, state, DOT and MTA. Earlier this year, the Governor torpedoed a full-time L train shutdown, but the city rightly forged forward with the busway plans.

In late September, Schwartz finally lost an appeal that allowed DOT and the MTA to implement the vehicle restrictions, and for the past few weeks, the M14 and New York City bus riders have been enjoying the glories of the 14th St. Busway, the first of its kind in the borough of Manhattan. The early going has been a tremendous success for the MTA and DOT, as numbers released by the MTA have made clear. Since the lane restrictions went into effect, the average weekday ridership on the M14 has gone up by around 17% from approximately 26,000 riders per day to over 31,000. Note that this early period includes both Yom Kippur and Columbus Day, and the non-holiday average appears to be closer to 32,000. The M14 has lost nearly 25% of its weekday ridership since 2013, and this reversal, if it holds, would represent the line’s best performance since 2015. Weekend ridership went up by around 33% with only the introduction of the Select Bus Service treatment, and we’re still awaiting enough data on weekend trips since the lane restrictions were implemented.

Travel times are down too. Trips between 3rd and 8th Avenues now take an average of 10.6 minutes, down 30 percent from 15.1 minutes last year, and on-time performance has jumped to 68 percent from 45.6 percent in the weeks since the busway was implemented. I’ve heard many tales from riders noting too that buses have had to wait at stations because drivers have been too far ahead of schedule due to the lack of traffic. For the corridor’s 31,000 bus riders each day, this is an unqualified success and offers a clear path forward for the city and MTA to combat a decade of declining bus ridership.

As predicted, traffic apocalypse fails to materialize

And what of the doom and gloom Arthur Schwartz and his West Village neighbors swore up and down would arrive? It hasn’t materialized yet, according to INRIX, an urban analytics firm brought in to assess the impact of the busway. According to the early numbers, as INRIX notes, the 14th Street Busway “had no discernible performance changes to neighboring roads. As you can see from the table below, travel speeds have generally declined by a few tenths of a mile per hour with the largest decrease coming on 16th St. during the 4 p.m. hour.

INRIX data shows the minimal impacts the busway has had on side street traffic.

INRIX offered some commentary:

It’s remarkable that initial analysis showed little change immediately following this massive road network change. In most instances, a radical change road configuration causes havoc until a new ‘normal’ is established, but in this case it did not. In effect, the driving experience has not changed as a result of the busway’s opening.

The 14th St busway illustrates the common fear associated with removing car lanes for other modes (e.g. bus, bike). According to the data, the displacement of personal vehicles to neighboring roads was negligible, but the time savings for the tens of thousands of daily bus riders was massive. The impact, or lack-there-of, may seem surprising but similar projects around the world have had similar results. The reallocation of space from vehicles to buses represents a far more efficient use of a limited public resource…As a result of this project, more people are getting where they need to be faster and more reliably.

So the traffic apocalypse hasn’t arrived, and the business owners, such as Salvatore Vitale of Joe’s Pizza, who were complaining to Winnie Hu about the traffic restrictions seem to be doing A-OK. In short, everything the project’s proponents knew would happen – faster bus speeds, a reduction in driving, no traffic on side streets – has come to pass, as we seen in countless other cities around the world, and the worst predicted by opponents hasn’t materialized.

A victory lap for advocates and a glimpse at a better future for NYC’s buses

While the immediate history of the 14th St. project dates back only a few years, the first Manhattan busway nearly came to fruition along 34th St. in 2011. That time, then-Mayor Bloomberg gave up in the face of sustained public outcry from NIMBYs along 34th St., and I mourned the missed opportunity. It took nearly a decade for the city to make another attempt, and that is a fate hopefully we can avoid this time around. The advocates are pushing hard for an immediate commitment to more bus lanes and soon.

Thomas DeVito, Transportation Alternatives’ Director of Advocacy, penned a piece in the Daily News urging the rollout of a citywide busway plan. “If we’re smart, we’ll learn from the experience, and see this as just the beginning of a much bigger revolution on streets throughout the five boroughs. Most of New York City’s 2.4 million daily bus riders live in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island. It’s in those boroughs and those neighborhoods where commutes are the longest and bus-priority streets are needed the most,” DeVito wrote. “We should not have to wait three years and gear up for a sustained battle to win every project.”

Over at Curbed New York, representatives from all of the city’s transit advocacy organizations offered their thoughts on ways to expand a bus lane prioritization program throughout the city. Aaron Gordon and I joined in with our takes as well. Though you should read everyone’s views, here’s what I had to say:

It’s trite to say everywhere, but how about everywhere and all that once? With the success of 14th Street in their back pockets, DOT and the MTA could roll out multiple busway corridors at once in a variety of neighborhoods at the same time. There is no real reason for a restructuring of streets one at a time other than fear of backlash, and the only real barrier to more busways along more streets in more boroughs right now is political trepidation. As the successes and popularity of the 14th Street pilot grow, so too should the political will.

With that in mind, the next projects should focus on streets outside of Manhattan where subway access is limited, bus ridership is high, and bus speeds are slow. Fordham Road has been an unqualified SBS success story, but traffic plagued speedy bus service. Utica Avenue’s B46 has encountered so many cars blocking its route that the MTA recently had to restructure service and reduce frequencies. Both routes would benefit from a busway.

In Queens, routes serving Flushing and Jamaica would help improve last-mile bus connections while providing transit relief to subway deserts. And in Manhattan, any major crosstown street could support a busway. The city could brush off the old plans for 34th Street or explore the Vision42 proposal, and dedicating most of 125th Street to buses would do wonders for Harlem. I’d also think big—or at least north/south—and explore turning a Manhattan avenue into a busway. Thinking big, after all, is how we can truly transform NYC streets for the better.

The call I issued on Curbed New York over the summer to reform environmental laws to grant de facto approval to transit priority projects still stands as well.

Gordon had previously offered a fuller overview of the Miracle on 14th Street the week after the busway made its debut. “The totality of this shift from a miserable, traffic-clogged thoroughfare to a pleasant urban street with speedy, efficient bus service feels like a miracle,” he wrote. “It is a miracle, when you consider how hard it is for anyone to accomplish anything positive in this city’s transportation scene.”

As the quiet and calm — and it is noticeably quieter without the constant headache-inducing din of traffic — descends upon 14th Street, transit officials and politicians too are taking up the call. Andy Byford told reporters last week that he would “love to replicate [busways] elsewhere” throughout the city, and even though he hasn’t experienced the busway in person yet, Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke at length about the future of the project during his weekly appearance on The Brian Lehrer Show on Friday. Despite hedging about the “test/pilot” nature of the program, the mayor indicated a willingness to expand this type of street treatment elsewhere. I’ll quote at length:

We did this to test this approach and to decide at the end of the test what it meant not just for 14th Street, but what it might mean beyond. But I said at the beginning, you know, this is not something you do for a few weeks. We’re taking that test into next year, and when it’s concluded we’re going to start to think about what it means for every place else. A lot of folks in the community were really concerned about some of the consequences of it, intended and unintended, and whether there’d be more traffic on the side streets and all that. We need to study that over a period of time and be responsive to those concerns as well. But the central reason we did it – and I’m the one who authorized it – is because we’ve got to get people back on the buses, we’ve got to get people to feel more comfortable with mass transit, we’ve got to get cars off the street, and the only way you’re going to get cars off the street is if mass transit works a lot better and is more reliable and faster. So, it’s very encouraging, but to everyone who’s either an advocate or already believes in the approach, we owe it to the whole city and to the community to really give this a thorough test, and then we will have a much stronger case if we make any other changes, going forward, because it’ll be based on a serious body of fact.

The mayor’s statement is a bit of a mealy-mouthed mess of mumbo jumbo, but he seems willing to explore the issue. And when he’s out of office in 27 months, the next mayor can take this busway ball and run with it aggressively. In the vein of DeVito’s call, it shouldn’t take three years — or 18 months — for the city and MTA to begin planning new busways.

I’m going to close this for now with a thought on the mayor’s words. As part of the back-and-forth with Lehrer, de Blasio also said, “It’s never been done before in New York City, and we’ve got to get it right, and we’ve got to play the long game.” The long game, of course, is catching up with us as the climate continues to change at a breakneck pace, and the city must do what it can quickly to curtail the use of private automobiles. With congestion pricing on the horizon, busways can be a major part of ensuring adequate transit service for those who leave their cars at home.

And yet, part of me thinks this reaction from the city has been a bit too much. The busway is great, and we knew it would be great because busways like this one work all over the world. We don’t need to pretend New York City invented the busway, and we don’t need to spend months studying the effects of the busway on bus service or traffic on adjacent streets. We have years of data from a variety of cities, and instead of falling back on New York Exceptionalism, we should push forward for more bus treatments all over the place as soon as possible. It’s not very complicated: Getting cars out of the way does wonders for bus service. That’s one secret trick and the true vision New York City and its bus riders deserve.

Categories : 14th Street Busway
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Former FRA Administrator and current MTA Board Sarah Feinberg spoke with me at length about all things transit.

Sarah Feinberg, a recent Cuomo appointee to the MTA Board, isn’t quite like the Board members we’re used to around here. While most MTA Board members are long-time or even life-time New Yorkers who operate within the enclosed world of the MTA and its environs, Feinberg came to New York City only recently. She grew up in West Virginia, worked in San Francisco Washington D.C. before arriving in NYC after her stint as the Administrator of the Federal Railway Administration under President Barack Obama. To that end, she brings opinionated views and a more national perspective than the insular MTA often sees.

Eight months into her stint on the MTA Board, Feinberg sat down with me for the latest episode of the Second Ave. Sagas podcast. We talked about her time in Washington and how dealing with a large bureaucracy in D.C. helps her understand the even-larger bureaucracy in New York City. We talked, of course, about Gov. Cuomo and his heavy hand on transit lately and the success of the 14th St. Busway. We dove into whether or not fare evasion is the same problem the MTA claims it to be. And we discussed how the agency needs to understand that the Americans with Disabilities Act — and accessible transit facilities — is the law and not a suggestion. I hope you’ll find this conversation a refreshing and honest glimpse into the way the MTA Board interacts with both the MTA and the governor, and I’ll highlight some bits and pieces from the podcast in the coming weeks.

You can find my conversation with Feinberg at all the popular podcast spots — iTunes, Google Play, Spotify or Pocket Casts, to name a few. Or you can listen by clicking the “play” button below. If you like what you hear and have been enjoying the podcasts, please consider leaving a review on your iTunes.

As always, thank you for listening and thanks as well to Joe Jakubowski for sound engineering. I’ve been enjoying producing these podcasts but they take a lot of time and effort. I can keep doing them only through the generous contributions of my listeners so please consider joining the Second Ave. Sagas Patreon. Since this site runs entirely on Patreon contributions, I can keep it going only with your help.

Categories : Podcast
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It’s time to stop subsidizing the NYC Ferry fares

By · Published on October 6, 2019 · Comments (42) ·

The EDC finally released demographics of ferry riders, and the fare subsidy should now come under political scrutiny.

Let me ask some questions about the NYC ferry system. Your answers, I believe, will depend entirely on your experiences and your convictions: Is Bill de Blasio’s signature transportation initiative — the New York City Ferry system — a success? Should the city keep subsidizing fares to keep the cost of a ferry ride on par with a $2.75 MetroCard swipe?

Perhaps your answer depends on your commuting habits. If you’re a ferry ride who views them as more “civilized” than the subways or buses, as some riders told The Village Voice last year, you may feel the ferries are great. But if you learn the ferries began with a subsidy of $6.60 per rider that has since increased to nearly $10 per rider (and could reach $16-$24 per ride on future routes), you may feel the ferries are a giveaway, a success through legalized governmental bribery.

Much as I’ve made a career out of questioning the boats, for his part, the mayor has made a career out of defending them. He’s held, by most accounts, 10 press conferences about his ferry system, and each time ridership numbers are announced, he makes a scene about praising them as better than projected. In a way, that’s true; after all, the ferries saw 2.5 million riders over the summer and daily volumes have been a bit better than expected. But that’s because each rider is essentially being paid to take the boats. Sure, they’re not getting actual cash in hand, but they are getting generously subsidized.

Over the years, many transit advocates and supporters have criticized the boats. I’ve been particularly vocal on that front, penning a piece in May of 2018 questioning Bill de Blasio’s love of low-capacity transit, and following The Village Voice piece, I voiced more skepticism in a piece for Curbed New York. Underlying the criticism of the expensive subsidy has been a lack of transparency regarding the details of those who ride the ferries. Anecdotally, The Village Voice found a bunch of wealthier-than-average New Yorkers who would have taken the subway for the same price but enjoyed the boat rides, and when I looked at Census districts near ferry docks, I found that the median household income in Census districts one mile from the docks was around $20,000 higher city average. Thus the ferries also raise a question of policy and prioritization: Are these the transit riders and mode of travel we should be subsidizing so heavily?

Despite long-standing FOIL requests from both Aaron Gordon and The New York Post and a pledge of transparency, the NYC EDC had never publicly released demographics studies of ferry riders until last week. Now that we’ve finally received an official glimpse of the demographics of ferry riders, we can now say definitively New York City should stop spending hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money heavily subsidizing a luxury, niche, low-capacity transit option that largely attracts New Yorkers wealthier than city average and wealthier than those who rely on any other mode of transit.

The NYC Ferry largely serves those within walking distance to a dock. (Source: NYC EDC)

The results of the survey as the EDC wants you to see them are available here as a PDF. It’s notable that the city released only a 13-page summary and not the raw data because it allows the EDC to set the tone. Even still, the numbers do not make a strong case for continued substantial investment in the ferry fare. As the EDC unavoidably must note, most riders “live near the water and in walking distance of a [ferry] landing.” In fact, nearly three quarters of all riders walk to the landings while the EDC notes that 6 percent bike and 11 percent take the subway or bus. The remaining 11 percent use a car, and the EDC notes that most of the drivers are heading the boat that serves the Rockaways.

There’s not much to learn from those figures, and I’ll return to them in a second. But this slide is the most damning:

EDC data offers a glimpse at the economics of ferry riders.

As you can see from the EDC’s data, ferry riders have a median income between $75-$99,999, and while that’s a big income window, it’s already higher than the median income for the service area. While it’s not clear if this is individual income or household income, it’s far higher than median household income across the city or for users of other parts of the transit network. The median household income for NYC is around $63,000 per year while individual median income is around $38,000. The average median individual income for an employed subway rider is around $40,000 and for bus commuters is around $28,455 (per data published in 2017 by Scott Stringer). So no matter how you slice it, we’re spending over $9 per ride to subsidize a low-capacity transit service for New Yorkers who are, on average, on the high side of the income scale.

It’s long been assumed the ferries were a bad investment that do little to improve mobility for the New Yorkers who need it most, and now we have the numbers to back up that reality. While some, such as the Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas, have argued that these taxpayers would exit New York or perhaps otherwise drive without this generous ferry subsidy, it’s hard to see how those arguments play out. The ferries are, after all, not even three years old yet, and New Yorkers have been flocking to the waterfront for the better part of two decades. Plus, most of the ferry riders who spoke with The Village Voice said they would shift to transit if faced with a choice, and many would stick with the boats even at a steeper fare. As the ferries themselves are net polluters, the environmental argument doesn’t hold up too well either.

Meanwhile, as new analysis from the Citizens Budget Commission points out, the NYC Ferry subsidy is the second highest in the nation, and every city other than New Orleans that offers ferry service does so at a higher price point. As the ferries are bleeding taxpayer dollars, the CBC calls for a “reconsideration of the operating strategy and pricing model.”

At this point, we can comfortably say Bill de Blasio is subsidizing a luxury travel option for relatively few people who tend to be wealthier. These aren’t the folks facing a mobility crisis whose buses are stuck in traffic or who can’t afford transit fares. These aren’t folks who have endless commuters from far-flung areas of the city, and it’s time to stop the giveaway. We make these types of policy decisions routinely, and it’s time to admit that a ferry fare subsidy was a bad idea. If the city wants to invest capital dollars into the ferry system and if the city can support a ferry system with a much smaller fare subsidy — say $2-$4 to align it with subways or the more popular express bus routes — so be it. But a handout to a private ferry operator so a few people pay the equivalent of a MetroCard swipe for a “civilized” commute isn’t one we should embrace. It’s time for this subsidy to end.

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When I was in Japan at the end of August, Donald Trump tweeted about the Second Ave. Subway. It wasn’t clear what inspired the president’s mid-morning statement on a seemingly stalled project; after all, it didn’t appear to make its way onto one of the numerous TV news shows Trump often live-tweets.

It was, needless to say, a very strange happening, and no one — not least of all Gov. Andrew Cuomo or the MTA — knew what to make of it. There is no full funding grant agreement in place between the MTA and the Federal Transit Administration yet, and Trump has since offered no further indication that he knows much of anything about the federal involvement with this subway construction project. Cuomo eventually spoke with U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, but even then, no one had much to say about the presidential statement.

With the release of the MTA Capital Plan last week, the Second Ave. Subway and the dollars associated with this long-awaited subway expansion project are back in the news. As part of the 2020-2024 Capital Plan, the MTA is proposing to fund and build Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway. This three-stop, 1.5-mile northern extension of the current Q train would see the train stopping at 106th St. and Second Ave., 116th St. and Second Ave., and 125th St. and Lexington Ave., connecting to Metro-North and the East Side IRT while bringing subway service to East Harlem. This project is expected to use parts of tunnels dug out in the 1970s and may cost over $6 billion.

That’s not a typo, and it’s not quite clear what the final cost will be. The full capital plan, released toward the end of the week as a PDF, indicates that the cost for the project could be as high as $6.9 billion, but in comments earlier in the week, Janno Lieber, the MTA’s Chief Development Officer and president of MTA Capital Construction, spoke about the varying figures. The project could come in for $5.7 billion or it could cost more. Here are Lieber’s initial comments on the price tag:

The financial plan for Second Ave. Subway Phase 2 is a 50-50 split with the federal government and the MTA. Because we had $1.24 billion in the existing plan and because we under the federal government rule are providing for the financing through our own financing mechanisms, so in the federal government’s view this is a $6.2 billion project. We view it as $5.7 billion. They’ve said, as we’ve gone through the process with them, we would like you to add some additional contingency. So in order to make the numbers work, we’re adding roughly $1.6 billion in this plan for our side of the 50-50 split with the federal government.

It’s worth noting again that the MTA does not have a full funding agreement in place with the feds. Lieber, who declined to comment when asked about Trump’s tweet, told reporters that the MTA’s working relationship with the feds has been positive. “They have,” he said, “basically validated our assumptions about the constructability of the project, our budget, our schedule. They asked us to add a little bit of contingency, but it’s been a positive interaction and now we’re ready to get a final approval.”

Once the feds sign off on the funding split, the MTA expects to begin work shortly thereafter. That was, after all, the point of funding engineering work in the 2015-2019 Capital Plan, but it’s still not clear when shovels will be in the ground. A few years ago, the agency had hoped to begin utility relocation work before the end of 2019, but that timeline seems aggressive. The MTA did not say if Phase 2 is still expected to be in revenue service by 2027.

But this issue of the cost looms large. Why is the Second Ave. Subway going to cost $2.5 billion per kilometer? Can the public believe the MTA is serious about cost containment when the price tag has increased to astronomical levels? And what do these dollars say about the agency’s ability to plan future transit expansion projects down the road?

When Dana Rubinstein of Politico New York asked Lieber a similar question, he started talking about fire codes. While there is some truth here, Lieber’s answer was an unsatisfactory one, but it’s a response you should read for yourself to understand the MTA’s siloed perspective on these cost issues. These are Lieber’s words:

“I think we have to have a longer conversation about the comparisons to other places. I’ll tell you this: One of the reasons we have expensive subways is that we comply with the fire code which requires you to get people out. Every body who rides trains, and we have 1000 people plus on a train, to get them out of the station at a certain pace. Other systems which run trains that have fewer people on them do not have some of the same costs associated with vertical circulation to get people out.

There are a lot of things that make New York different, but what we’re doing is already demonstrating that we can control costs by shortening project times, by delivering fewer change orders, quicker turnaround, paying contractors faster. We’re already demonstrating that we can and will build projects faster, better and cheaper, and I’m confident the Second Ave. Subway will prove that out.”

Does Lieber have a point? In a way, yes. Nearly ten years ago, while assessing plans for the Cairo Metro’s Line 4, a conglomerate of Japanese railway engineers assessed global fire code standards (PDF) and found that if NPFA 130, the U.S. standard, “is applied strictly, the structure of the tunnel and station tends to be bigger and the cost of the construction also tends to be higher.” NPFA 130 requires more frequent in-tunnel emergency exits than other international systems, but that doesn’t mean costs should orders of magnitude higher in New York.

There are, needless to say, plenty of other cities in the world with fire codes, as the JICA report details, and plenty that are building subways at costs far lower than ours. Paris, for instance, is building a four-mile, six-station extension of Line 11 of the Metro at a cost of approximately $1.4 billion. At Paris costs, the entire Second Ave. Subway could be built for not much more than the Phase 2 price tag, and at U.S. costs, this Line 11 extension would cost between $13-$16 billion. These cost discrepancies are a crisis that will soon preclude New York City from any meaningful future subway expansion efforts, and it’s not clear, based on Lieber’s comments, that the MTA can even begin to approach solving this crisis.

What happens next seems clear. At some point, the FTA is likely to approve a full-funding grant agreement for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway at an estimated cost of $6.2 billion, and the MTA will move forward with this project. No one in Washington or New York City will stop to ask if we’re getting enough subway for $6.2 billion, even as Paris could build 12 miles of subway and 18 stations for the same amount. We’re fall back on New York exceptionalism — the fire code this time; the density next time — as excuses and watch at much-needed or much-ballyhooed plans such as the Utica Ave. Subway, a cross-Bronx line or the Triboro RX die at the alter of obscene costs.

Lieber meanwhile told reporters that Phase 2, even with the price tag, isn’t the end of the Second Ave. Subway. When asked if Phases 3 and 4 are in the cards, he said, “They are very much part of the vision of a completed Second Ave. Subway, but boy are we focused like all get-on on Phase 2 which really will make a difference to East Harlem and Central Harlem and makes good on a commitment that’s been out there for 75 years.”

Seventy-five years and billions of dollars that just don’t go all that far in New York City. Hopefully, it won’t take 75 years to figure our way out of this cost crisis.

The overview for the MTA’s next five-year capital highlights over $50 billion in spending priorities.

After months of anticipation and behind-the-scenes wrangling over spending priorities, the MTA on Monday unveiled a massive $51 billion five-year capital program that largely codifies Andy Byford’s Fast Forward program by bolstering investment in signal modernization and aggressive spending on ADA accessibility initiatives. The overview of the plan released Monday — a PowerPoint presentation rather than the detailed plan itself — also commits the MTA to complete Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway but at a cost of over $6 billion, making this 1.5-mile, three-stop expansion project the most expensive subway in the world.

Although the full plan with itemized spending details has yet to see the light of day, the MTA Board is expected to vote on the actual Capital Plan next week before it heads to the state’s Capital Program Review Board for consideration. With a proposed spend far in excess of the MTA’s previous five-year capital plans, its approval is no sure thing, but the scope is just what the MTA needs to embark on a path toward modernization.

The element of the capital plan most likely to jump out at the public is, of course, the price tag, and the MTA isn’t messing around this time. The agency has been challenged by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to produce a transformational proposal, and the agency’s first draft of its 2020-2024 Capital Plan is the largest in history, featuring a 70% increase over the 2015-2019 Capital Plan. Whether the MTA can actually spend this much — or at least commit to spending this much, as Janno Lieber, the agency’s Chief Development Officer, insisted they could in remarks to reporters on Monday — over five years is an open question, and the issue of cost containment hovers over the MTA’s spending plans, as it has for the past decade.

Still, calling the plan “historic and transformational…for our customers,” MTA Chairman and CEO Pat Foye extolled its praise in comments on Monday. “The next five-year plan,” he said, “will include unprecedented levels of investment equitably distributed against the MTA’s subways, buses, commuter railroads and bridges and tunnels. The result is a plan that will build on the approach and institutionalize the successes of the Subway Action Plan across the MTA and finally modernize and transforms our subways, buses and commuter rails into a 21st century efficient, accessible and reliable system for our customers.”

Signals, ADA upgrades, SAS Phase 2 headline the plan

So who gets what in this long-withheld capital plan? Let’s break down what we know so far:

As you can see, the overwhelming bulk of the spending is focused around New York City Transit and, in particular, investments in the subway. Considering that a large share of the capital funding is going to be generated via the congestion pricing revenue, this sounds right to me.

As we drill down on the spending priorities, we see that these investments aren’t what are traditionally considered to be “sexy” from a political perspective. The opportunities for ribbon-cuttings and New Year’s Eve galas are few and far between, but the projects are designed to maximize the capacity of existing infrastructure to provide more frequent and reliable service to more people. To that end, the MTA wants to spend $7.1 billion on signal modernization for six new line segments as follows, largely building on existing installations:

  • Queens Boulevard (E/F): Union Turnpike to 179th St.
  • Astoria (N/W): Ditmars Boulevard to 57th St.
  • 63rd St. Tunnel (F): 21st to 57th St. – 6th Ave.
  • Fulton (A/C): Jay St. to Euclid Ave.
  • Crosstown (G): Court Square to Hoyt/Schermerhorn Sts.
  • Lexington Ave. (4/5/6): 149th St.-Grand Concourse to Nevins St.

Notably, MTA officials would not promise that all six sections would be completed within five years. Rather, the MTA committed to starting the work during the next five-year capital plan. When this first phase of the CBTC installation is complete, MTA officials noted that 50% of passengers would enjoy the benefits when the work is done. Technical details, including maintenance costs of maintaining two signal systems until the entire subway network is CBTC-ready, remain hazy.

Along with signal modernization comes rolling stock investment, and to that end, the agency will spend $6.1 billion on 1900 new subway cars — which equals approximately $3.2 million per car. I’ve asked the agency to clarify how many of these cars will include open gangway designs and am awaiting a reply. Considering how much of the capital plan is focused around increasing capacity without expanding the system, the 8-10 percent capacity gains due to open gangways should be standard in all NYC subway cars going forward, but the agency seems hesitant to commit to open gangways until the R211 open-gangway pilot is completed.

The MTA also plans to invest $5.2 billion in accessibility improvements, and the dollars cover full ADA access for 70 additional stations. Station improvements account for $4.1 billion, and $300 million of that will go toward fare evasion initiatives, Lieber and Foye noted. It’s not clear if that line-item includes re-designed fare control areas that eliminate emergency exits, a major pain point for unpaid entrances to the subway system. Track rebuilds account for $2.6 billion, and the remaining NYC Transit subway dollars will be funneled into the Second Ave. Subway. (I’ll have a separate post on that soon.)

Buses account for $3.5 billion more, and that includes the purchase of 2200 new buses (including 500 electric buses) and a fleet expansion of over 175 buses. These bus upgrades are a key part of the congestion pricing equation as the MTA needs to be able to offer more transit service from the get-go to account for the mode shift from personal automobiles to transit that congestion pricing should encourage.

The combined $10.4 billion for the area’s two commuter rails includes funding for rolling stock, signals upgrades, station improvements, and Penn Station Access, the four-stop Metro-North expansion in the Bronx that brings New Haven Line Metro-North service into Penn Station.

Congestion pricing a key source of funding while political battles loom

And what of the funding? Here’s a snapshot of the MTA’s expectations:

Click to enlarge.

As you can see, nearly half of the funding comes from bonding out new revenues, including from congestion pricing and the mansion tax. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the other half is political. Will the feds pony up $7.8 billion, especially if Trump wins a second term? Will the city contribute another $3 billion to what is a state agency? Will New Starts money be available for the Second Ave. Subway?

It seems likely that most, if not all, of this money will materialize. Most notable is the 50-50 funding split between the city and state and the overall reduction in state contributions from $7 billion to $3 billion. “It is imperative that the subways run on time,” Seth Stein, a de Blasio spokesperson, said in a statement on Monday afternoon. “We are reviewing the plan to ensure that it helps get New Yorkers moving and that taxpayer dollars are used responsibly. We will have more to say soon.”

MTA officials said they were going to brief the city on Monday, and it’s not clear how that briefing unfolded. But during conversations with reporters on Monday morning, agency officials clearly telegraphed the expectation that city funds will help bolster the ADA spending. It’s a politically astute approach at a time when the mayor has been absent on the campaign trail pushing his doomed attempt at running for the White House as it essentially pushes the city into a corner: Fork over the $3 billion or risk the bad publicity of denying much-needed ADA accessibility investments.

In terms of the feds, the President’s extremely random tweet about the Second Ave. Subway indicates either that some cable TV news morning show was talking about the Second Ave. Subway or that federal dollars will continue to flow to the MTA, albeit perhaps slower than the used to. Still, the state legislature has a say, the price tag is a steep one. It’s not guaranteed that the $51.472 billion will all be there for the taking.

Reactions: Fast Forward vindicated; advocates call for more transparency

As the transit community digested this overview Monday, reactions poured in from all quarters. At the outset, many of the good governance groups fighting for better transit noted that the document the MTA shared on Monday (which is available here as a PDF) is an overview and not the capital plan. As I mentioned, we do not have a full breakdown of planned projects or project costs. We don’t know which stations are targeted for rehabilitation or which projects are holdovers from previous capital plans. The MTA also did not release a refreshed 20-year needs assessment which often informs the capital plan. (The last 20-year needs assessment was released in 2013, a year earlier in the cycle.)

Reinvent Albany highlighted the lack of details, a comment echoed by other advoates:

Today, the MTA released an 11-page slideshow partially summarizing the details in its 2020-2024 capital plan. To comply with state law, the MTA will have to hold a vote on the complete draft plan at its September 25th Board meeting, which is in seven business days. Reinvent Albany focuses on MTA governance and transparency. From that perspective, the MTA’s release of a slideshow that does not differentiate between core versus expansion projects, lumps together expansion costs and omits large capital projects is troublesome and again raises questions about MTA’s commitment to public transparency.

I agree with the need to see the full plan, but we can see a brighter future for the city and its subway systems. I have a few thoughts as well on what this plan means for the future of the subway and Andy Byford’s continued stay in New York City. Already on Monday morning, Dana Rubinstein wrote of a detente between Cuomo and Byford, and this capital plan is a vindication of Fast Forward. It includes all of the signal modernization projects Byford requested and more ADA upgrades that he had initially planned. While MTA officials haven’t used Fast Forward by name, that its priorities are to be funded is a sign that Cuomo has realized he and Byford are on the same team and that, as I wrote last week, Byford’s successes are Cuomo’s successes.

During comments this morning, Byford said that the capital plan “delivered beyond my wildest expectations” and that he was “ecstatically happy” that the priorities the city needs are funded. New Yorkers should be ecstatically happy too. I’ll have more on the dollars and cost containment (or lack thereof) later, but for now, this is a clear sign that the MTA is on a path toward modernization. It’s the investment the city and system need to become successful, and it shows that Cuomo has perhaps learned the right lessons from a year of picking fights, in the press or otherwise, with the people who can deliver him his greatest infrastructure success.

I’ll end then with the man who has the final say in all of this — Governor Andrew M. Cuomo. The verbose chief executive let rip a lengthy statement on Monday, challenging everyone to toe the line and quickly:

“Last week I laid out my priorities for the MTA Capital Plan, including improving signal technology, increasing accessibility, addressing quality of life concerns, ensuring equity for LIRR and Metro-North Railroad, and upgrading bus service – and I will review the details of the plan to make sure it fulfills those priorities. The Senate Leader, Assembly Speaker and Mayor of New York City must approve the plan in order to move forward as they each have unilateral discretionary veto power.

For decades the MTA was mismanaged and underfunded – that is why in 2017 we invested $836 million for the Subway Action Plan and $8 billion in State capital funds and $2.6 billion in New York City Capital funds. The success of that plan is inarguable – it led to the recent 84% on-time performance rate, a six-year high – but its implementation was delayed, and that cannot be repeated with this new plan. We have secured $25 billion during this year’s legislative session that will go directly towards the MTA’s capital needs outlined in this plan, and I support an additional State investment of $3 billion, to be matched by the City, that will go toward making our subways more accessible. We have an historic opportunity to institutionalize the lessons learned, build on the progress made under the Subway Action Plan and make crucial upgrades so riders get the 21st century transit system they deserve.”

The full plan will be presented to the MTA Board next week. The Board will vote to approve. And then it’s out of the governor’s control and onto the state mechanisms. Will this $51 billion dream become a reality? We’ll find out in short order.

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Andrew Cuomo pens letter to self, asking self to release MTA Capital Plan

By · Published on September 12, 2019 · Comments (6) ·

The MTA Capital Plan remains hidden from public view, but priorities are coming into focus. (Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

During a press conference earlier this week, Andrew Cuomo let loose a few of his thoughts on the MTA. “The MTA is responsible for the MTA. That’s why they call it the MTA,” he said, before adding, incredibly, “I can’t order the MTA” to act. Obviously, as we’ve seen with the ongoing emergency order, the opening of the Second Ave. Subway, the decision to halt subway service in light of a forecast of snow, the color of the tiles in the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, the Subway Action Plan and numerous other examples, this simply isn’t true, and Governor Cuomo, who makes key decisions regarding the hiring (and firing) of top executives is firmly in control of the MTA politically and practically. As I’ve written extensively lately, the MTA Board is a largely powerless but convenient political foil for Cuomo to hide behind when he doesn’t wish to take full responsibility for his own MTA.

To that end, it’s amusing to me when Cuomo goes through the political theater of sending a letter to the MTA Board suggesting or urging they do something, as he did this week with regards to the missing-in-action 2020-2024 Capital Plan. To recap: The capital plan is an exercise in construction through the MTA goes every five years. It usually involves a very public process with the release of a 20-year needs document followed by a draft of the five-year plan, some public comments and a re-submission of the plan for a vote, followed by a political fight over funding. This year, the funding arrived early in the form of congestion pricing, but the plan hasn’t been released to the public. I’ve been told that’s due to internal wrangling over dollars and meddling by the Governor himself. The MTA Board is expected to vote on a plan no one in New York has seen in twelve days, and that’s no way to run a railroad.

So back to Cuomo’s letter. You can read this missive right here. In it, he reminds the MTA that passing the capital plan is a legislative mandate and then outlines his priorities “before it is prepared and presented.” It seems a little late in the game to outline priorities for a document that’s supposed to be approved on September 25, but I digress. The priorities though are all over the place:

  1. The progress on making stations accessible for people with disabilities has not been acceptable. It is a legal and moral mandate that the MTA accelerate the number of stations made accessible and the timeframe in which accessibility is achieved.
  2. “Quality of Life” issues in the subway have deteriorated. The number of homeless, dangerously mentally ill, fare evaders, aggressive “pan handlers” and worker attacks has skyrocketed. Station redesign securing access to the tracks and worker safety is essential. Riders must be provided a safe environment and additional MTA police with proper equipment, training and facilities is essential.
  3. State of the art signal systems must be installed to speed up the trains and long-delayed construction projects such as East Side Access, Grand Central improvements, the Moynihan Farley Station, Long Island Rail Road improvements and Second Avenue Subway must be prioritized.
  4. The New York City outer boroughs and Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad must receive an equitable distribution of resources.
  5. New buses should be hybrid or electric and distributed throughout the City, and you must work with New York City to find ways to improve speed and service. New train cars must be procured without the multi-year delays in past contracts.

The quality-of-life issues are a red herring; they’re not part of the capital plan and solving them is a task largely outside the scope of the MTA’s authority. If Cuomo wants to combat homelessness, for instance, he should support aggressive affordable housing policies. The same can be said about providing safe and effective treatment for those suffering from mental illness. Plus, the MTA is already trying to combat these quality-of-life issues as they can (either by hiring more cops or expanding outreach services).

The “equitable” distribution of resources, similarly, is a bit of false priority as well. Some analysis has long suggested that Long Island the the Metro-North territories have gotten more than their fair share of capital dollars over the years, and either way, these areas never suffer for lack of representation in the five-year capital plan. As I’ve noted in the past as well, Cuomo’s renewed interest in East Side Access as it finally hits the home stretch is transparently political in nature. He wants a ribbon-cutting and some credit for a project that’s been an ongoing mess every single day of his tenure as governor.

The interesting parts are the rest: the accessibility imperative and the signal system. These are the underpinnings of Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan, and a few senior MTA sources have told me that the Fast Forward priorities will be in the capital plan whether named as Fast Forward or not. The remaining fights seem to be over the dollar figures attached to each priority. Does this represent a thaw in the icy relationship between Byford and the governor? It’s hard to say, but it does seem to suggest the Governor has realized that he’ll gain more accolades by adopting the good work Byford and his team are already pushing than he would by forcing out or minimizing the passionate and competent team Byford has assembled. That’s good for New York. That’s good for Andrew Cuomo. And that’s good for the subway system.

Now, all that’s left is for the public to see this plan before the MTA Board holds its symbolic vote. We have twelve days and counting.

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I’m currently amidst a two-week trip through Japan, salivating over its rail systems, the expansive and vast Tokyo subway in all its permutations and Shinkansen rides through Honshu. It’s a fascinating and beautiful country with a rail system that far outpaces America’s, and the subway in Tokyo was fast and reliable (and complex). I’ll be back to my usual posting schedule in a week or so, but in the meantime, I have a new podcast for you.

Before I left, I sat down with Doug Gordon for a long chat on transportation advocacy. You may know Doug as the voice behind the @BrooklynSpoke Twitter account, the occasional blogger at the site of the same name or as one of the co-hosts of the War on Cars podcast. We spoke about the overlap between transit advocacy and safe streets advocacy, once two largely disparate movements that have grown closer in the age of the internet. We talked a bit about the right over the 14th Street busway (a topic I recently covered for Curbed New York), and the lost opportunities of the de Blasio administration on reforming NYC streets.

You can catch my conversation with Gordon via the player below and at all the popular podcast spots — iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, Pocket Casts or your favorite podcast app. If you like what you hear and have been enjoying the podcasts, please consider leaving a review on your iTunes.

As always, thank you for listening and thanks as well to Joe Jakubowski for sound engineering. I’ve been enjoying producing these podcasts but they take a lot of time and effort. I can keep doing them only through the generous contributions of my listeners so please consider joining the Second Ave. Sagas Patreon. Since this site runs entirely on Patreon contributions, I can keep it going only with your help.

Categories : Podcast
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Thoughts on the Port Authority’s airport-related fare increases

By · Published on August 21, 2019 · Comments (49) ·

The new price point for the LaGuardia AirTrain, shown here in a 2018 rendering, should cause state leaders to consider shelving the project.

Over the years, I’ve come to believe we spend far too much time talking about airports and far too much money building them. Yes, airports are an important piece of the New York economy, and those 67 million tourists we may attract this year have to get to the city somehow. But spending billions on airports — and more importantly, on building redundant means of accessing airports — doesn’t deliver much bang for the buck. The overwhelming number of New Yorkers simply aren’t interacting with airports on a day-to-day basis.

Still, the airports dominate the conversation. Thanks to ongoing construction and a refusal by the city and state to adequately manage traffic, getting to and from Laguardia can take hours these days, and the $2 billion Backwards AirTrain is years away. The Port Authority is also rebuilding Newark and renovating JFK. Unlike other transit projects, though, these dollars aren’t really fungible; revenue generated by airports must be spent on airports. The Port Authority cannot, in other words, shift airport money to other, more worthwhile projects.

Thus, airport projects move forward when other transit needs await funding, and the conversation inevitably turns to airports. At the end of June, the Port Authority, in various budget documents, dropped some airport-related bombshells in the form of a new fare structure for the AirTrains and new taxi and for-hire vehicle drop-off fees. I’ve been mulling over these new dollars and have some thoughts. But first the proposal.

The AirTrain has cost a flat $5 at JFK since 2003 and a similar rate at Newark since 2005. Meanwhile, in 2018, the JFK system saw over 20 million rides, a record, even as service on the driverless trains has been cut, and ridership has increased by six percent per year at Newark as well. Now the Port Authority plans to raise fares to $7.75 a ride starting on November 1. Bulk discounts should still be available, but this 55 percent increase is a steep one. Fares will be tabbed to inflation going forward.

Meanwhile, at some point in 2020, the Port Authority is going to implement taxi and for-hire vehicle pick-up and drop-off charges. Common at “peer” airports in LA, Chicago, San Francisco and DC, these fees allow the PA to generate more revenue for airport improvements. For-hire vehicles — the Ubers and Lyfts of the world — will be subject to a $4 pick-up and $4 drop-off surcharge at each airport, and yellow cabs will be subject to the pick-up surcharge only. Combined with PATH and toll increases, the new fees will generate $235 million in incremental revenue, and the Port Authority says these hikes are necessary due to “record infrastructure investment.” More on that shortly.

Thought #1: It’s going to be expensive to ride the AirTrain

It’s hard to understate how steep this fare hike is, and the AirTrain is going to be expensive — sticker-shock levels of expensive even. For someone connecting to the AirTrain via the subway, the ride will cost over $10, and any lower-cost benefits of the AirTrain are going to start to dissipate. A group of travelers or a family of four eying a transit trip to the airport but facing a price tag of $42 for the trip may just spring for a cab instead. It’s also hard to find any comparable system connecting an airport to a nearby transit hub that charges this month. Paris’ Orlyval, deep into the Parisian suburbs at Orly Airport, features a steep fare to the RER B stop at Antony but a low-cost integrated ticket all the way to Paris’ Zone 1. Nearly all other airtrain systems are free or much lower cost.

More importantly, though, these costs are going up for workers. We talk a lot about tourists when we discuss airport transit, but the workers — the employees who have to go every day — will have to pay steeper fares too. While discount, bulk tickets will still be available, the Port Authority is going to sunset 10-trip bulk purchases in 30 days rather than a year, and it’s not yet clear what that price point will be. Still, employees have pay full freight on airtrain, and these hikes can put this ride out of reach economically for many airport employees. The airtrain is much faster than the bus to JFK, and fare structures should be designed to encourage more efficient trips, especially for workers.

Thought #2: The Port Authority is spending a lot on expensive airport projects.

Along with the fare/fee proposal, the Port Authority released updated budget numbers, and everything just costs so much. The new Newark Airtrain is going to cost over $2 billion; the JFK Redevelopment will cost the Port Authority nearly $3 billion (up from $1 billion); and the Newark Terminal One project has seen its price tag jump by $350 million. While these are projected to be covered by revenue generated by the projects or private sources, the dollars just keep soaring ever upward, and cost containment is barely a part of the conversation.

Thought #3: The taxi/FHV drop-off and pick-up charges incentivize the wrong kind of behavior

In an ideal world, where we fight to keep cars off the road, transit routes to the airport would be fast, cheap and easy to navigate. The second-best option involves high-capacity vehicles that reduce or eliminate the need to use private cars for many trips. This new surcharge, when combined with low long-term parking rates, can be seen to push people toward their own cars instead of taxis. At the least, all cars entering the airports should be charged a drop-off/pick-up fee, and high-speed tolling technology could make this a seamless transaction.

Thought #4: The Laguardia AirTrain should be stopped

You’ll note that I didn’t mention the Backwards AirTrain in Thought #2 because this project deserves its own place on the list (and in the scrap heap of history). Based on new budget projections which add a net $390 million to the project, the Laguardia AirTrain is now projected to cost $2.05 billion. “The revised project cost,” the PA noted, “is informed by the planning efforts and preliminary engineering analysis underway as a result of previously authorized spending by the Board. The increase to the Capital Plan is $390 million, net of $160 million of reduced spending on other Aviation projects. This increase is projected to be covered by multiple sources, including: farebox revenue; airline cost recoveries; and future period [Passenger Facility Charges].”

Why is this project still going forward? It’s a $2 billion boondoggle that’s not expected to generate significant ridership and may be a worse choice than a no-build. It takes riders away from Manhattan to a 7 train that’s already overburdened or an LIRR line that runs once per hour and doesn’t connect through Jamaica. Even with a connection to car rental facilities, it’s a waste of a project and at $2 billion, a huge waste of money. It should be redesigned to serve a higher and better use, either through a connection to Jackson Heights or via Astoria. It’s now just flat-out silly.

Categories : PANYNJ
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Renderings show the new look for the Times Square terminal of the 42nd St. Shuttle.

The 42nd Street Shuttle is a quirky relic of New York City subway history. When the Interborough Rapid Transit Company opened city’s first subway in 1904, the current east-west jag across 42nd Street wasn’t a shuttle at all. Rather, it was a key part of the route from the now-abandoned City Hall stop to 145th St. and Broadway. But 101 years ago, on August 1, 1918, the 42nd St. connection was severed when the Dual Systems’ H system went into service, and thus it has remained a three-track shuttle since then. The Times Square terminal is even on the National Register of Historic Places.

Now, three tracks will be reduced to two, and the 42nd St. Shuttle will see its most significant overhaul in a century, the MTA officially announced on Friday. The work will result in two-track island platforms at each end of the Shuttle, two fully ADA-compliant platforms, six-car trains and a new passageway from Times Square connecting the Shuttle to the Sixth Ave. trains. Work is scheduled to begin on August 16 and will wrap in 2022 to coincide with the planned opening of the East Side Access project.

“Making our system accessible and easier to use for all New Yorkers is essential to modernizing the MTA, and this 42 St Shuttle transformation project is another example of our progress. Instead of simply fixing the most urgent conditions, we’re taking this opportunity to truly transform the 42 St Shuttle,” MTA Managing Director Veronique Hakim said in a statement on Friday (while Andy Byford was on vacation). “The project will allow the MTA to move more people, run longer trains and simplify transfers for customers between the city’s busiest transit hubs. We’re making crossing Midtown Manhattan quicker and easier for millions of customers.”

A new staircase where the Walgreens currently sits in Times Square will improve passenger flow into the Shuttle area.

The MTA is calling this a “modernization” project, and here’s what that entails, per the MTA’s press release:

  • Expanding current 4-car train length to 6-car trains: The consolidated track operation will also allow longer 6-car trains to enter the terminals, increasing total peak-hour capacity on trains by 20 percent
  • Centralizing the three-track operation to two tracks on one platform: This will make it easier for customers to identify and get to the next arriving train
  • Reconfiguring the current operation from three tracks on a curve to two straight tracks: This will eliminate large platform gaps, making the shuttle fully accessible for mobility-impaired customers, including wheelchair users, and increasing overall platform safety
  • Replacing the current signal system, which dates back to the 1930s, with new modern signals
  • Upgrading the terminal’s electrical infrastructure and adding new crew facilities

It’s not clear though if this is a true modernization effort, leading to a fully automated shuttle, and the six-car configuration could lead to two-person train operations along 42nd Street. It’s also not clear what the reduction from three tracks to two will do to train frequency, but considering short run times, any change in the number of trains per hour should be minimal. The reconfigured track layout will reduce delays on the Times Square side, and the MTA promises a 20% increase in capacity.

The Grand Central terminal will feature one of the largest platforms in the entire subway system.

They key to both ends of this project though are the reconfigured platforms. Track 2 met its demise back in 1918, and now Track 3 will be covered over. At Grand Central, the new platform, according to the MTA, will be one of the largest in the entire system. At Times Square, the trains on Track 1 will no longer open toward the IRT and BMT complex, and the new platform will be 28 feet wide.

The MTA doesn’t plan to shelve Shuttle service while this project unfolds, but the agency warns of “a few extra minutes of travel time” during a.m. and p.m. peaks. At some point, after all, one the Shuttle tracks will be out of service long before the project wraps. Still, it’s about time — the MTA has been talking about this project, as I mentioned, for years.

A diagram of the new track configuration at Grand Central.

It is worth at least a short aside on the value of this project. It’s not immediately clear how much this project will cost. In the capital dashboard, costs are a shade under $240 million for ADA accessibility upgrades and around $30 million for the station reconfiguration work, but the press release did not include a price tag. The MTA states that over 100,000 riders per day take the Shuttle, and the train alleviates pressure on the 7 — which would be unable to pick up most of the slack. Short of turning 42nd St. in a true transitway — Vision42, anyone? — the Shuttle work is required for ADA compliance purposes and to streamline operations.

Ultimately, though, the Franklin Ave. Shuttle is better, and I will stand by that opinion.

Categories : Manhattan
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One element of our political times that unfolds constantly involves chaos. By introducing chaos to a situation, it’s far, far easier to get away with sleights-of-hands and other backroom dealings while the public is consumed with talking away and working through the chaos. It’s easy, in other words, to offer up a myriad of distractions while shuffling pieces behind the scenes to accomplish other political ends.

This isn’t an approach that’s particularly novel nor is it unique to any single politician or political party. It’s both a feature and a bug of the way news is produced and consumed amidst a 24-hour constant cycle of everything always being on, and New Yorkers keenly into transit have lived through this phenomenon for years. It started long ago when Andrew Cuomo begin his lengthy diatribes alleging, falsely, that he wasn’t in charge of the MTA. These were so successful that the New York City subway system was allowed to collapse and he still coasted to reelection, garnering significant support in the five boroughs.

During that period, instead of focusing on the lack of investment and the lack of leadership caused by politically-inspired churn atop the MTA, activists and journalists had to parry with Cuomo’s ahistorical account of the MTA. It was an exhausting, time-consuming distraction, and as the recent MTA Transformation Plan, approved last week by the Board despite unanimous public opposition, shows, we’re not out of these woods yet.

It’s been hard to keep track of all the MTA news lately, and only some of that is by design. We’ve had Con Edison blackouts that stranded trains during a recent heat wave, ongoing computer problems that led to a recent Friday evening meltdown for the ages, MTA Inspector General investigations into everything and, of course, the Transformation/Reorganization/Whatever You Want To Call It Plan.

The story behind the Transformation Plan itself is a simple one with some interesting twists and turns. A bunch of months ago, Gov. Cuomo called upon the MTA to transform itself. This, in and of itself, is something of a distraction because since Cuomo controls the MTA, a state agency, he can just reorder the transformation without going through the charade of a costly consultant study and Board vote. But the Board vote offers him a layer of plausible deniability. Even though he controls the management and operations of the MTA, a Board vote gives him cover to point fingers at a largely powerless group of people, all of whom he appointed. He has fully exploited the structure of the MTA to his political benefit time and time again while exerting full and total control over an agency that he rightly fully and totally controls. It’s chaos; it’s distracting; and it’s almost impressively genius. If only we all stood to benefit.

Since I last had a chance to analyze AlixPartners’ $4 million Transformation Plan a few days after it was made public, this sweeping plan to reorganize the MTA and cut a few hundred million dollars per year out of the agency’s expenses faced universal condemnation by the public and then a quick approval by the Board with only Veronica Vanterpool voting against it. I’ve never seen a charade so blatantly executed in public as the vote last week, and it’s hard to wrap my head around what happened. For hours on Wednesday morning, speaker after speaker took the microphone to speak out against the plan. Advocates condemned it as a rush job, not subject to proper public vetting that disempowered key leaders (such as Andy Byford) and failed to reform the core of the MTA. Others, speaking in support of Byford and Alex Elegudin’s renewed focus on accessibility, railed against the plan for once again treating the city’s most vulnerable as second-class transit riders. Others voiced support for Fast Forward and recent improvements (recent isolated performance meltdowns notwithstanding).

Still, the vote went on because it had to. The vote went on because the MTA was left up a creek without a paddle. It was mandated, legally, that the MTA Board approve this Transformation Plan, and they had no real choice. The key was a change in the state’s public authorities laws orchestrated by Cuomo during budget negotiations in June. The law, which you can read here, required the MTA to produce a transformation plan and approve — not vote on, but approve — the plan by July 31. Had the MTA Board voted down the plan, the agency would have been in violation of law, and it’s clear from MTA Board member and State Budget Director Robert Mujica’s comments on Wednesday that had the Board voted down the plan, the state would have withheld money the MTA badly needs. It was a legislative mandate through fiscal pressure, and another way Cuomo used the MTA Board to enact his will.

As part of this charade, a week before the Board vote, Cuomo sent a letter that sources within the MTA said came as a big surprise. You can read the missive right here, and you’ll see why one MTA source referred to it as an “unhinged rant.” It’s a rant about homelessness, time-and-attendance matters, speeds and signals and a reorganization plan with a purpose. It is in fact the chaos we’ve come to expect, a blurring of issues that obscures the reality that Cuomo knew all about the reorganization plan. In fact, I’ve heard from many sources that most folks within the MTA believe the AlixPartners plan was written long before this process was made public and serves to give cover to moves Cuomo wanted to make.

But that’s neither here nor there. The Governor of New York can do what he so pleases with the MTA as it is his to control. Following approval last week, Cuomo issued simply a two-sentence statement. “The MTA’s reorganization plan is a good start, but now it comes down to execution and sound management. The timelines should provide hard dates to assess progress,” he said. So the question now is: Does any of this matter or is it just politics as usual?

It matters. It matters because of the political message the Transformation Plan sends to key cogs such as Andy Byford and Pete Tomlin. It matters because of the ongoing hiring freeze that is rapidly draining the MTA of any talent current serving in-house and ensuring that any young talent looking to enter the transit field is frozen out of the largest transit agency in the country. It matters because it disenfranchised the public, through advocates whose concerns were ignored. It matters too because we’ve heard deafening silence from anyone else in Albany tasked with MTA oversight, a lukewarm milquetoast throw-away statement from the mayor who hasn’t even read the full Transformation Plan and a vehement statement in opposition from Corey Johnson.

Meanwhile, the Plan itself effectively disempowers all agency presidents, transfers key projects to MTA Capital Construction (the biggest source of MTA construction problems over the past decade and a half), borrows from Fast Forward while shunting aside Fast Forward’s main proponent, and erases progress spearheaded by people who aren’t Andrew Cuomo. The report talks too of “failure to attract talent” at a time when Byford has brought in a key accessibility proponent and a world-renowned signals expert. The former was not lost on accessibility advocates who raised such a stink last week that Cuomo enforcer Larry Schwartz had to promise additional accessible stations to save face.

Behind the plan, other efforts are at play to lessen the impact of those making a difference but conflicting with Cuomo. The new COO/Managing Director-type role proposed by the Transformation Plan is open only to outside candidates (so Cuomo can handpick the role and ensure Byford, for instance, can’t apply), and Transdev, a private transit operator, has been poking around the MTA of late. Remember that the initial versions of the plan initially called for subways and buses to be separated. That line was killed shortly before publication when advocates vehemently objected, but speculation is rife that Transdev will ultimately take over the city’s bus system. I’ll have more on that story in the coming weeks.

For now, Byford — and this is really about Byford — will serve on the new signals panel, another Cuomo attempt to step on feet. I’ll have more on that later too. But where this all leads is anyone’s guess. The MTA needs reform and reorganization, but it needs careful reform and reorganization. The people who are competent should be promoted and supported, but instead, we seem to be stuck in a chaotic process of reorganization spurred on to minimize the influence of those most competent who have been praised publicly. It’s petty politics, and it’s a whole bunch of chaos as we’re trying to cut through the noise toward a better commute. There’s no real way out here either, and the MTA’s millions of customers are simply pawns in an unnecessary political game of distraction, obfuscation and chaos.

Categories : MTA Politics
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