Gov. Cuomo announced a Laguardia Airtrain via Willets Point and the Grand Central Parkway.

The Willets Point AirTrain is inching closer to reality.

As bad transit ideas go, New York City has had its fair share in recent years. While it shouldn’t have been canceled, the ARC Tunnel featured a dead-end terminal half a mile beneath Macy’s, and it was topped by only the ongoing money pit that is East Side Access, a dead-end terminal half a mile beneath Grand Central. The BQX, likely the city’s greatest bit of vaporware ever, still hasn’t been canceled, and then we have the Laguardia AirTrain in a class all of its own.

The Laguardia AirTrain is the stubborn bad idea that just won’t die. It came out of nowhere in early 2015, and while it could have been a good idea pushed by a strong state leader, Cuomo’s plan sent the AirTrain in the wrong direction. The system would connect LaGuardia with the 7 train and LIRR at Willets Point. So while most LaGuardia travelers just want to get to Manhattan, this thing will take them further away from where they want to go. When the plan first came out, I discovered how, in a true alternatives analysis, the no-build option would be best.

The idea fell by the wayside for a while, but now it’s back. Cuomo, who could have tried to push through an N train extension to the airport, seems intent on realizing this cockamamie transit plan. “The millions of passengers who travel through LaGuardia each year deserve a convenient and reliable mass transit option that connects this key transportation hub to the heart of Manhattan,” he said in a statement a few weeks ago. “We are transforming LaGuardia into a world-class transportation gateway, and an essential piece of the puzzle is ensuring rail mass transit access to the airport. With this action, we’re taking the next major step toward making this a reality.”

The latest announcement concerned the RFP for the entire project. It will eventually involve significant work on the current Willets Point station and construction of the AirTrain over the Grand Central Parkway. Cuomo’s release claims this new AirTrain will provide a ride of less than 30 minutes to Midtown, but that relies on a significant increase in LIRR service along the Port Washington line or an impossible two-way express service on the 7.

The costs meanwhile have, not shockingly, creeped ever upward. What was once billed as a $400 million project is now budgeted for over $1 billion in the latest Port Authority capital plan, but it’s not clear exactly how much the LaGuardia project itself will cost. The budget includes money for AirTrain improvements at both LaGuardia and Kennedy, but the LaGuardia proposal will cost at least $1 billion.

So why is this plan proceeding? Over at The Village Voice, Max Rivlin-Nader offered up his view. He writes, “Cuomo is insisting on the Willets Point connection because it’s the most expedient. By building above a train depot and having the train zip alongside the Grand Central parkway, he’ll avoid any community complaints. And, he’ll finally have a train.”

The problem, of course, is that once this train is built, we’re stuck with it. The N train will never go to Laguardia; a potential routing from Jackson Heights will fall by the wayside. Cuomo won’t be the governor forever, but New Yorkers will have to live with a Laguardia AirTrain routing that makes sense for umpires tasked with games at Citi Field, U.S. Open fans, and the Braves trying to get back to Atlanta. It will, in every sense of the word, become a transit boondoggle, used by few and scorned by many, another arrow in the quiver of the argument that we can’t build useful transit projects at reasonable costs.

It doesn’t have to be like that. Cuomo could use his political capital to push back on whoever remains from the late 1990s Astoria NIMBYs who fought against an N train extension. He could promote something useful and direct, that would benefit workers and travelers. He could leave a positive legacy on Laguardia and its accessibility. Instead, the AirTrain to nowhere inches closer to reality. It just won’t die.

Categories : Queens
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MTA Chairman & CEO Tom Prendergast and Gov. Andrew Cuomo post after the inaugural New Year's Eve ride of the Second Ave. Subway. (Photo via Gov. Andrew Cuomo on flickr)

MTA Chairman & CEO Tom Prendergast stepped down last Tuesday following a 25-year career with the MTA. (Photo via Gov. Andrew Cuomo on flickr)

In the hullabaloo over the opening of the Second Ave. subway, the revolving door that is the MTA Chair/CEO position started to turn again as Tom Prendergast announced that he planned to retire at the end of January, and as January came to an end last week, Prendergast did just that. After 25 years heading up the LIRR, New York City Transit and the entirety of the MTA, Prendergast worked his last day on January 31. He will be replaced by current New York City Transit President Ronnie Hakim on an interim basis with Fernando Ferrer overseeing the MTA Board.

“Ronnie Hakim is ready to embrace the challenge of running the nation’s largest transportation network during this transition. She is a true transportation professional who has dedicated her life to improving the commute for millions of New Yorkers and I am confident that in this new role she will continue doing that as we reimagine and modernize the MTA for the 21st century,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement announcing the interim succession plan.

When Prendergast first announced his retirement in early January, it did not come as a surprise to Cuomo as the two had been taking about it for a few months. Transit advocates and politicians had hoped that the governor would be ready to name a permanent replacement at the time, but instead, Cuomo has opted to engage in a search committee — which includes Prendergast and Ferrer — to find a suitable candidate for the top spot at the nation’s largest transit agency. Joining this committee will be one-time MTA head Joe Lhota, Kathryn Wylde of the Partnership for NYC, RPA Chair Scott Rechler, TWU President John Samuelsen, and former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater.

At one point, Lhota had been mentioned as a potential replacement, but he put this speculation to rest via his Twitter feed:

So who is, then, on the short list? Hakim is under consideration for the job, but according to The Times, Cuomo, who has taken a heavier hand of late with the MTA, could opt for one of his loyalists. Lawrence Schwartz, an MTA Board member, and Rick Cotton are on the list along with NYSDOT Commissioner Matthew Driscoll, Port Authority head Patrick Foye (who desperately wants to leave the PA), Anthony Foxx and John Porcari (though Porcari has told confidants he’s not interested in the job). If chosen, Hakim would be the first woman tabbed for the job.

Prendergast’s ultimate successor though has his or her work cut out for him or her. The L train shutdown is looming large with little public-facing urgency from MTA and NYC DOT to resolve what will be a disruptive situation, and the next board head will have to confront steep declines in subway performance and spiking capital costs while navigating the transit politics of Cuomo which may be well-intentioned but wrongly focused.

So it is again another time of transition atop the MTA. Prendergast leaves with his legacy more or less on the positive side. System-wide subway ridership is up, but he never solved the problems with buses. On-time performance has slipped precipitously, but the MTA opened four new stations under his watch. And he oversaw a period of labor peace (though without enacting any badly-needed work rule reforms). It’s a pivotal time for the MTA (though when isn’t it?), and we’ll have to see how long this executive search can drag on as time ticks toward the L train shutdown.

Categories : MTA
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The new fares  shown in the table here go into effect on March 19, 2017.

The new fares shown in the table here go into effect on March 19, 2017.

At the last board meeting of his almost four-year tenure atop the MTA, outgoing Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast had the unfortunate opportunity to oversee yet another vote to approve a fare hike. For Prendergast, this was the agency’s second fare increase during his tenure, and he missed a third by a matter of days as Joe Lhota resigned from the MTA nearly moments after voting for the 2013 fare hike. These increases have become a way of life for New York, part of the MTA’s fiscally responsible plan to catch up with inflation by raising rates every two years, but this economic reality doesn’t make them any easier to swallow.

For the MTA, last week’s fare hike vote came wrapped in intrigue. The MTA had proposed a $3 base fare with a substantial 16 percent bonus for pay-per-ride card purchases above $6 which effectively made the fare $2.59. But the public could not stomach a $3 per-swipe deduction, and the agency ultimately approved a deal worse for all but ocassional riders and those who cannot afford to buy fares in bulk. The per-swipe cost will still be $2.75, but the bulk discount bonus will drop to 5 percent for purchases of $5.50 and above. The actual cost of a ride, then, will be $2.62 or three cents more than it would have under the $3 proposal. It is perhaps a psychological victory for riders but not exactly an economic win.

For those who pay time-based passes, the increases were a fait accompli as both fare hike proposals included the same increases for unlimited ride cards. A 30-day card will now cost $121, up $4.50 for its current rate, and 7-day cards will see a $1 bump to $32. For those who ride at least 47 times a month and can afford an initial $121 outlay, the 30-day card is the best deal while the 7-day card requires 13 rides. Express bus fares jumped 50 cents, and Metro-North and LIRR riders will see increases of around four percent, all of which are tracked in this pdf.

The new fares will go into effect on March 19, and I’ll have any details on grace periods for 30-day cards and other sunsetting windows as the MTA announces them. The agency, meanwhile, tried to spin this with good news as this year’s biennial increase is a lower-than-expected hike. “The MTA is focused on keeping our fares affordable for low-income riders and frequent riders, and on how we can keep necessary scheduled increases as small and as predictable as possible,” Prendergast said in a statement. “Keeping fares and tolls down was possible because of the continued operational efficiencies and ways we have reduced costs while adding service and capacity along our busiest corridors, most recently with the opening of the new Second Avenue subway.”

Yet, what was notable about the debate of the fare hike wasn’t really around the details of the MTA’s fifth fare hike since 2009 but rather what it didn’t include: any relief for low-income riders. For months, a coalition of activist groups has been pushing the city, state and MTA on implementing a subsidized fare program for low-income riders who are challenged to find the money for transit fares. Depending upon the income cut-off, such a program would likely cost around $174 million per year, in line with the total amount the MTA spends on subsidized student fares. Groups have targeted both the mayor and the governor, but in the grand tradition of the de Blasio-Cuomo feud, the mayor has pointed to the governor as responsible for transit funding decisions and the governor has done nothing. It’s possible to make a case that either the city or state should fund this initiative, and I’m not sure there’s a wrong answer. But right now, no one is funding this fair fare proposal.

And so our rides will get a little bit more expensive in March. It’s becoming the cost of doing business in an era without congestion pricing or cost controls.

Categories : Fare Hikes
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It’s been a few days, and the news hasn’t stopped on the transit front. As the MTA Board prepares to vote for a fare hike on Wednesday — Plan B appears to be in the lead — let’s look at one of the more recent developments: a new labor deal. The fare hike I’ll cover this week once the Board officially votes on that looming $3 base fare.

In the afterglow of the opening of the Second Ave. Subway, the MTA’s peaceful resolution of labor negotiations with the TWU slipped under the radar for many, but after nearly a decade of rancorous back-and-forth, stemming in part from fallout over 2005 and in part with poor relationships between TWU presidents and the revolving door of MTA heads, the two sides have reached something of a detente. By many accounts, this is due to the heavy-handed style of Gov. Andrew Cuomo; he wants to run a smooth ship in New York to position himself for a national run. Whatever the reason, the TWU and MTA came to terms on a deal the day the old one expired.

For the union, the deal guarantees wage increases slightly above the recent pace of inflation, and the TWU has trumpeted the new agreement featuring “No Concessions!” That means no work-rule reform, no reduction in staff and, on the MTA’s side of the ledger, no labor cost reform. TWU workers get 2.5 percent wage increases this year, and another 2.5% on February 16, 2018. A pension cash bonus of $500 comes due in early 2019, and night and weekend workers get a bump in salary. A slate of other benefits, ranging from better shoes to uniform cleaning allowances to commutation passes, were included in the deal.

It’s a fine one for the workers, but some are concerned with how it will impact the MTA’s books. The Citizens Budget Commission released a statement:

“New Yorkers should welcome the news of 28 months of labor peace on the subways and buses, but it comes at a price. The settlement is more generous than the MTA’s financial plan provides and may require higher fare increases than planned or more borrowing to support the capital program. It also means another 28 months are lost before productivity gains from work rule and benefit changes can be achieved.”

Similarly, Nicole Gelinas, writing in The Post, flagged a few areas of concern, the “me-too” clause. She writes:

If the separate unions at the Long Island Rail Road get raises that are higher than what the subway and bus workers just got, the MTA has to “reopen” its agreement with the subway and bus workers, presumably to offer the higher raises. TWU workers want this provision because they make less than LIRR workers. The Empire Center notes that in 2014, the average New York City transit worker made $76,230, while the LIRR worker made $106,103.

But LIRR workers make good money for a bad reason: Federal railroad law governs them, and allows them to go on strike, just like airline workers. That means they can, as they did three years ago, threaten to hold the region hostage so they can wring higher pay. Subway and bus workers, by contrast, are forbidden by state law from striking.

Railway insiders have long wanted the feds to reform the laws that help push LIRR pay so high, so the MTA would have more control over its own labor negotiations. It makes no sense to attack the problem from the other direction: the MTA voluntarily replicating its weaker commuter-rail negotiating position when it comes to subway workers. Plus, as a practical matter, the LIRR only employs about 7,000 people. The subways and buses employ nearly 50,000. It makes even less sense for union leaders who represent a relatively small workforce to set the wages for the much larger workforce. Finally, now that the TWU workers have this provision, it will stay there and govern future contracts, too — unless the MTA “pays” something in the future to take it out.

On top of this new seemingly innocuous clause, the MTA hasn’t released any information on the actual costs of the new TWU deal, and the Board is voting on Wednesday to raise fares. We don’t know how much the new deal will cost the MTA; we don’t know what impact that will have on the MTA’s outright deficit projections; and we don’t know how much this will increase the next fare hike in 2019. (No matter the numbers, it won’t be Tom Prendergast’s responsibility as he’s leaving next Tuesday.)

For the TWU, the wage increases are deserved and well-earned. No one should begrudge a modest wage increase for the men and women who run our subways. But the MTA continues to give away the farm without any concessions on work rule reform; for instance, it’s been years since OPTO was even on the negotiating table. And the people who continue to pay for this are the riders, through higher fares for the same service. It’s an unsustainable model no one is willing to change.

Categories : TWU
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Crowds exit the Second Ave. Subway's 86th St. stop on Saturday afternoon. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Crowds exit the Second Ave. Subway’s 86th St. stop on Saturday afternoon. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Since returning from Paris, I’ve been through the Second Ave. Subway twice. On Saturday, I took a ride up there in the snow and snapped a bunch of photos, many of which you see in this post. On Monday, I rode up there with Matt Chaban, and he turned that trip into a story on me and this site for the Village Voice. Each time, I was struck by how this new thing that looks a bit out of place in the New York City just seemed to be another part of our transit network that was just there. Sure, there were some gawkers and subway tourists who rode up to the Upper East Side to check out this new thing, but for so many people, the Second Ave. Subway had, in a week, become routine.

In a way, seeing the Second Ave. Subway — or at least the three stops that make up this new northern end of the Q train — was a very New York moment. We have a reputation to uphold of being utterly nonchalant about everything, and the Second Ave. Subway, this thing that few people expected to become reality and many didn’t even know about or understand in the first place, is one of those things. It’s been open for 11 days, and it’s already just a part of the routine. Hospital workers now take the Q to 72nd St. while Upper East Siders rave about the 11 or 13 minute one-seat rides to Times Square from 86th or 96th Sts. People talk about their 20 minutes of extra sleep per day but treat the space just like a subway stop, albeit one that’s brighter and, for now, cleaner than the rest of the system.

The view of the tracks from the mezzanine at 72nd Street. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

The view of the tracks from the mezzanine at 72nd Street. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

The subway opened with a celebration on New Year’s Eve and the perfunctory back-slapping that comes along with it. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, our state leader who wasn’t around for the bulk of the planning or construction, but who pushed the project to a quasi-on-time opening, took the microphone. “After nearly a century, the Second Avenue Subway is no longer a dream that only a few still believe is possible. Thanks to the dedication and tireless efforts of thousands of great New Yorkers, the stations are open, the trains are running and it is spectacular,” he said during the opening. “With this achievement, we have recaptured the bold ambition that made the Empire State so great, proving that government can still accomplish big things for the people it serves. New Year’s Eve is all about starting anew and I am proud to ring in the New Year on the Second Avenue Subway and welcome a new era in New York where there is no challenge too great, no project too grand, and all is possible once again.”

It’s a bit of hyperbole, but it’s generally well-deserved hyperbole. The city made a monumental blunder in tearing down the Second Ave. elevated before securing funding to build the Second Ave. Subway over 70 years ago, and this month’s opening rights a historic wrong while bringing transit to one of the few areas of Manhattan still starved of it. By the end of the first week, with service running only from 6 a.m. – 10 p.m., the three new stops were already seeing 93,000 rides per day, and that number will grow as more New Yorkers adjust their routines to account for the new line.

Straphangers at 72nd St. have been enjoying the art at the new stations. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Straphangers at 72nd St. have been enjoying the art at the new stations. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Inside, as I’ve mentioned, the stations don’t look like anything New Yorkers are accustomed to seeing in the subway. The caverns are huge with three-block-long mezzanines spanning each station and no columns along the platforms. The stations are deep too, with long escalators and a variety of elevators. In fact, at 72nd St., one entrance is just a series of five elevators that open at street level, and the renovated 63rd St., a key transfer point between the Q and F, is unrecognizable to anyone who recalls the red false wall that dominated that station for decades. Even the dogs seemed to be enjoying the new station.

It’s certainly appropriate to marvel at the station, and the art — Vik Muniz’s Perfect Strangers at 72nd St., Chuck Close’s incredibly detailed mosaics at 86th St. and Sarah Sze’s blueprints at 96th St. — is worth the price of admission alone. But price — or more specifically cost — remains the elephant in the room. On the eve of the opening, Josh Barro explored the insanely high costs of New York City infrastructure, and Ben Fried at Streetsblog wrote a similar assessment of the dollars. Nicole Gelinas too tried to find a reason for the high costs, but the jury is still out what exactly led to a $4.5 billion bill for three new stations and a renovated fourth. Was it the modern environmental and safety regulations? ADA requirements? Overbuilt mezzanines due to deep-bore tunnels because no one wanted to take the political risk of proposing a cut-and-cover construction? Was it labor costs? Was it good old fashioned corruption?

Ultimately, it’s likely a combination of all of those factors, but the costs seem to be getting worse. Phase 2, which really should have begun long before Phase 1 ended, won’t see heavy construction begin for a few years, and already, due potentially to some engineering SNAFUs in the initial assessment of the project, costs may be as high as $6 billion for a section of a subway that runs through tunnels built decades ago. New York City will never meet the demands of a growing town if these costs and the construction timelines aren’t seriously compressed. And while Cuomo and the MTA can take a victory lap, they shouldn’t lose sight of the lessons that need to be learned from this project. They shouldn’t, as Cuomo did, get snippy when reporters ask about the future of the project, and cost controls are a long-term issue that must be resolved.

In the coming days, I’ll have more on the new subway section. In the meantime, though, if you’re not near the Upper East Side, try to find some time to check it out. It won’t look as pristine as it does now, and it’s something new and exciting for the New York City subway that seems far more of a place than the 7 train’s Hudson Yards stop. It is, after all these years, the Second Ave. Subway in the flesh.

A Second Ave. Subway-themed newsstand on the platform level at 96th St. sat empty and shuttered on Saturday. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

A Second Ave. Subway-themed newsstand on the platform level at 96th St. sat empty and shuttered on Saturday. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

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MTA Chairman & CEO Tom Prendergast and Gov. Andrew Cuomo post after the inaugural New Year's Eve ride of the Second Ave. Subway. (Photo via Gov. Andrew Cuomo on flickr)

MTA Chairman & CEO Tom Prendergast and Gov. Andrew Cuomo post after the inaugural New Year’s Eve ride of the Second Ave. Subway. (Photo via Gov. Andrew Cuomo on flickr)

So anything big happen when I was gone?

After a New Year’s trip to Paris, I arrived back to a New York City with a brand new part of a subway as the Second Ave. Subway opened to the public on January 1. I was skeptical the agency would be able to hit its target date, but under extreme pressure from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the four-stop extension of the Q train arrived with champagne and a party on New Year’s Eve. Already, Upper East Side residents who now live a ten-minute one-seat subway ride away from Times Square have been raving about the new service, and I’ll have more details, thoughts and photos from the Phase 1 subway stops later this week. But first the news.

As the first part of the Second Ave. Subway has opened, current MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast has said he will step down from his position and retire from public service within the next few weeks or months. Prendergast has been in charge of the MTA since June of 2013 when he was elevated from his job as President of New York City Transit when Joe Lhota stepped down to run for mayor, and Prendergast was recently confirmed to a term set to run through 2021.

“Opening the Second Avenue Subway [last] weekend was a crowning achievement for the MTA and I’m proud to have been a part of such a historic moment. It has not only changed the daily commute for hundreds of thousands of customers, it has helped change the face of the MTA – showing the public we can meet the deadlines we set for ourselves,” Prendergast said in a statement. “It’s never easy to leave an organization after 25 years of service, but I do so knowing that the MTA will continue to serve the public so well and that our Governor will ensure New York continues to have the most robust transportation system in the country.”

While Prendergast will serve just shy of four years as MTA head, his departure continues a recent trend in turnover atop the MTA. Not counting interim agency leaders, Prednergast’s eventually replacement will be the MTA’s fifth chairman since the end of Peter Kalikow’s term in late 2007. As a comparison, the agency had only five chairmen from its founding in 1968 until the end of Robert Riley’s term in 1991. The turnover has led to shifting priorities and, at times, a lack of direction, but with Prendergast at the helm, the agency had steadied its direction a bit (though the multi-billion-dollar elephant in the room that is the MTA’s capital costs has been largely ignored for years now).

In recent months, Gov. Cuomo had taken a keen interest in MTA goings-on, for better or worse, and with Prendergast’s departure, Cuomo will have an opportunity to further extend his hands-on approach to the MTA. Kenneth Lovett of the Daily News, who broke word of Prendergast’s departure, had an early list of potential replacements. This rogues gallery includes current Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye, NYC Transit President Ronnie Hakim (who could be the first woman in the job), NYS DOT Commissioner Matt Driscoll, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, one-time U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation John Porcari, Joe Lhota in a repeat performance, and Cuomo confidantes Rick Cotton or Larry Schwartz, the latter of whom currently sits on the MTA Board.

It’s too early to know for now who will take over for Prendergast or who is even a front-runner, but the list of challenges on hand for the MTA in the coming months and years is substantial. In the short-term, the current TWU contract expires on January 15, and the union is asking for raises and other benefits. Fare hikes are set to go into effect in March, and the agency is knee-deep in planning both Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway and logistics for the upcoming L train shutdown. Meanwhile, the MTA’s cost problem should be front and center for any incoming CEO/Chair.

As Prendergast’s departure nears, I’ll assess his legacy. For now, the MTA heads into another period of change and uncertainty at the top just as work wraps on the agency’s signature project of the past decade. What comes next from Cuomo and from Prendergast’s successor is, for now, a bit of a mystery.

Categories : MTA
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Hello from the inside. #2ndAveSubway #nyc #mta #qtrain #subway #MetropolitanTransportationAuthority #hellfreezesover

A photo posted by Second Ave. Sagas (@secondavesagas) on

As part of a lengthy rollout of the Second Ave. Subway ahead of its passenger debut on January 1, 2017, the MTA and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are hosting a series of open houses over the next few days. These sessions will allow members of the public to visit the new stations without trains or commuters and check out the work that has plagued the East Side for the better part of the past decade. The 96th Street station opened on Thursday, with cookies, commemorative Metorcards and Vignelli-inspired maps, and on Friday, New Yorkers can journey underground to wander through the new station between 8-10 a.m. and 5-7 p.m.

I had a chance to stop by on Thursday, shortly after Gov. Cuomo’s introductory remarks. He again pledged to open the new subway on Jan. 1, even if it meant “pushing it” from 57th St. This is reminiscent of Michael Bloomberg’s promise in late 2013 to do the same with the 7 train, but this time, the stations and new tracks are ready for a train. The photos I took show a station very reminiscent of the Hudson Yards stop, and this clinical approach seems to be the MTA’s design ethos. There are long platforms and vast mezzanines. The art adds color, but the track walls look blindingly, boringly white.

If you would like to see more, you can check out my Periscope video from the station. I added some commentary while strolling through the new stop. I’ll post more photos here over the next few days as other stations open. If you would like to see more now, check out Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. I’ll have more on the reaction to Phase 1, the costs of Phase 2, and the future of the Second Ave. Subway soon. It’s OK to be cynical about the cost, the time it took to build this part of the line and its modest scope, but don’t forget to celebrate it too. It’s been a long, long, long time coming.

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On a recent visit to the Second Ave. Subway, Gov. Andrew Cuomo stopped for a selfie with a member of the project's construction crew. (Via Gov. Cuomo on flickr)

On a recent visit to the Second Ave. Subway, Gov. Andrew Cuomo stopped for a selfie with a member of the project’s construction crew. (Via Gov. Cuomo on flickr)

There is a bit of a long-running joke among the New York reporters on the MTA’s press distribution list. Despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s odd assertion last year that the MTA is not a state agency, whenever the authority has good news to announce, the press release comes with Cuomo’s stamp of approval. “Governor Cuomo announces new countdown clocks” or “Governor Cuomo announces bus upgrades” or “Governor Cuomo announces LIRR third track.” He never sends out the releases with fare hike information, service changes or other bad news. When it’s convenient, the MTA is his.

On Tuesday, one of my all-time favorite “Governor Cuomo announces…” press releases hit my inbox. Gov. Cuomo, who just two days ago announced a Jan. 1 opening for the Second Ave. Subway, has now announced that the MTA is excitedly replacing every subway map in the system with over 13,600 new maps “featuring the new Second Avenue Subway line.”

Cuomo’s release even included a perfectly Cuomo quote about the new maps. “On every subway car, in every station, and throughout New York, installing these maps means that the Second Avenue Subway is finally here and will be open on time,” Governor Cuomo said. The W train’s return a few weeks ago certainly didn’t merit a press release from the Governor touting new maps.

While I am amused by Cuomo’s press release tactics and it can come off as self-serving at times, there’s a larger lesson than the politics of gaining positive press. When Gov. Cuomo is involved in matters of transit and the MTA, in particular, good things happen and bad things are avoided. In other words, having a strong chief executive willing to take some ownership of transit investments is something New Yorkers fighting for better transit should encourage.

A recent piece in The Times is particularly telling. Last week, Emma Fitzsimmons wrote about Cuomo’s hands-on approach to wrapping up the Second Ave. Subway. Although Cuomo’s fingerprints have become more apparent in recent weeks as the Phase 1 work has neared its finish line, Cuomo’s intense involvement in this project stretches back to 2015 when the MTA and its contractors wanted to delay the opening by a significant amount of time. Fitzsimmons writes:

The notorious Second Avenue subway, nearly a century in the making, is inches from the finish line, and Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, has made it his mission to complete the project by New Year’s Eve. On regular visits to the line’s three new stations, he obsesses over design details and equipment glitches at a surprising level of involvement for a governor, which some critics say seems primarily aimed at promoting his image…

For months, Mr. Cuomo has held weekly meetings at his office with the project’s leadership team to address — and sometimes vent about — the latest issues and concerns. He became more involved about a year and a half ago, he said, when officials at the authority told him they wanted to push back the long-established December 2016 deadline by a year or two. “The meetings are not a love fest,” said Charlie Hall, a construction manager from the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff who is overseeing the project. “The meetings started because there were issues, and things weren’t getting done. People are challenged in those meetings.”

On an unannounced stop at the 86th Street station a few months ago, Mr. Cuomo was angered to see no one was working on a problematic escalator, Melissa DeRosa, his chief of staff, said. He walked around shouting, “Who is working on the escalator?” until the person appeared, she added.

As Fitzsimmons notes, Cuomo’s critics wonder if this interest is a headline-grab as he positions himself for a 2020 run on the national stage, and on other projects, such as the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, Cuomo has pushed through a key project without identifying funding sources or fully justifying the need for the project. As many have told me, he has a tendency to latch onto projects without consulting with experts as to these project’s utility. (The LaGuardia AirTrain in the wrong direction is the prime example of the pitfalls of Cuomo’s approach.)

Yet, it is undeniable that having a governor who cares can get projects through tough spots. As Fitzsimmons notes, and as I highlighted in the excerpt above, Cuomo’s involvement has been instrumental in getting this project wrapped by the end of 2016. He can push competing forces — a contractor with no incentive to finish, an MTA Capital Construction staff afraid of turning operations over to Transit — to work together for a tight deadline.

So if Cuomo can turn results, the question then becomes how to focus him. How can activists get the Governor’s attention at the start when project scope and priorities are formed? How can transit experts get Cuomo’s ear so he latches onto the right projects at the right time? These aren’t just idle questions; they are important concerns that will affect the future of New York City for years and decades to come. With him projects can survive and perhaps thrive; without him, things seem to linger. Yet, his original ideas often seem frustratingly short-sighted and small in scope and impact. It is the great Cuomo conundrum and one that must be reconciled for future success.

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The Second Ave. Subway has begun to appear on subway maps throughout the system. The line is set to open to the public on Jan. 1. (Photo via Benjamin Kabak/Instagram)

The Second Ave. Subway has begun to appear on subway maps throughout the system. The line is set to open to the public on Jan. 1. (Photo via Benjamin Kabak/Instagram)

After over 85 years of planning, proposing, building, halting and starting over again, the Second Ave. Subway will make its long-awaited public debut on January 1, 2017, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Monday. As New York’s chief executive has made opening the line by the December 2016 deadline the MTA imposed upon itself in 2009 a major goal, he will lead a ceremonial ride on New Year’s Eve with revenue service starting at noon on New Year’s Day. Yet, as this oft-cursed project can’t simply open without a hitch, the Second Ave. Subway — a northern four-stop extension of the Q — will run only from 6 a.m. – 10 p.m. until 24-7 service begins on Monday, January 9.

“New Yorkers have waited nearly a century to see the promise of the Second Avenue Subway realized, and after unrelenting dedication from thousands of hardworking men and women, the wait is over and the subway will open on December 31,” the governor said in a statement. “The on-time completion of this major, transformative project reaffirms confidence in government competence, increasing capacity on the nation’s busiest subway system, and delivering a new, vital transportation artery to millions of New Yorkers.”

Of course, “on-time completion” is relative. The subway was originally supposed to open in the mid-1930s, and the current project was originally projected to open in late 2012. Phase 1 is also only just a part of an aspirational subway line. Using older tunnels, the Q train will head north from its current terminus at 57th St./7th Ave. with a stop at 63rd St./Lexington (and a transfer to the F) before heading up Second Ave. with stops at 72nd St., 86th St. and 96th St. This isn’t quite yet the T train as that new line won’t arrive until Phase 3, a far-away plan to dig south of 63rd St. underneath 2nd Ave.

Yet, for everything this new extension isn’t, it deserves to be celebrated. It’s (hopefully) the start of an effort to right a mobility wrong that has plagued the East Side since the elevated closed in the 1940s and 1950s and brings much-needed relief to the Lexington Ave. line. MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said, “The Second Avenue Subway is the most significant addition to our system in 50 years and will serve more riders on opening day than Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Boston transit systems combined,” MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast said.

I’m curious to see how this new line works out. It’s bound to be a success, and I see no reason to doubt the MTA’s ridership projections. Yet, a level of mystery surrounds the project. Many New Yorkers who are only casual observers of subway news will be surprised to hear that the T isn’t debuting and that the new extension is only three stops along the Upper East Side. Others will be dismayed to find six- or eight-minute peak-hour headways, by far the longest of any Manhattan trunk line, and stations far deeper underground than New Yorkers are accustomed to. Plus, it is likely to be another decade before Phase 2 — another three stops further north through East Harlem — sees the light of day as construction work isn’t expected to begin on this part until late 2019.

The Second Ave. Subway's 96th St. station features Sarah Sze's "Blueprint for a Landscape.” Her 4300 porcelain wall tiles span 14,000 square feet.  (Photo via Gov. Andrew Cuomo on flickr)

The Second Ave. Subway’s 96th St. station features Sarah Sze’s “Blueprint for a Landscape.” Her 4300 porcelain wall tiles span 14,000 square feet. (Photo via Gov. Andrew Cuomo on flickr)

Already, the stations are earning praise for their art installation, and the Governor and his team have been pushing that element of the project as a way to draw attention to something new. After all, even though only only a fraction of the MTA’s construction budgets goes to Arts and Design, a fraction of $4.5 billion is still $4.5 million, a substantial sum for the blank canvas of three new stations and a fourth undergoing complete renovations. Photo recreations, massive mosaics and images of the old 2nd and 3rd Ave. elevated lines will dominate the lengthy mezzanine spaces at these new stations, and an early preview of the art is available here.

So after years and decades and stops and starts and New Yorkers who still won’t believe it until they ride the subway, the Second Ave. Subway will open in 11 days with the public invited for rides in 12. And after ten years of running this site, I won’t be in the city for the opening. I’m spending New Year’s Eve in Paris, and it seems only fitting somehow that the subway will open when I’m out of town. There’s always, if the stars align, Phase Two.

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The Second Ave. Subway will open on December 31 with a ceremonial ride, Gov. Andrew Cuomo told NBC 4’s Andrew Siff on Sunday. The three and a half new stations that bring the Q north to 96th St. and 2nd Ave. will open to the public the following day. As the MTA gears up for this monumental opening, focus is shifting to Phase 2 of the project, a northern swing to 125th St. and Lexington. Even though work won’t begin until 2019, city officials want to secure federal funding, and today’s post is a guest submission from Stephen Smith, the voice behind the @MarketUrbanism twitter account on just that topic. The words and sentiments are his, but the message is one I endorse.

Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, shown on the right of this map in blue, could cost $6 billion, far outpacing costs for subway construction anywhere else in the world.

Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, shown on the right of this map in blue, could cost $6 billion, far outpacing costs for subway construction anywhere else in the world.

Last week, New York politicians held a press conference making a last ditch effort to beseech the Obama administration to fund the second phase of the Second Avenue subway – taking the line from its soon-to-be terminus at 96th Street up to 125th, to meet up with the Lexington Avenue line – before transit-hostile Republicans assume power over all three levers of the federal government in January.

Unfortunately for New York, the biggest enemies of transit won’t be in Washington, but right here in New York. During the press conference, Vincent Barone at amNewYork reported that Rep. Carolyn Maloney put a price tag of $6 billion on the project – an astounding sum of money, so large that the chances of the second phase being built any time seem very remote. The latest estimate directly from the MTA was $5.5 to $6 billion – whether Rep. Maloney misspoke or accidentally broke some news, the numbers are unacceptable and unsustainable, and the MTA and its enablers are doing more to harm the cause of transit in New York than any Tea Partier could possibly dream of.

Some may have hoped that the MTA would learn a lesson from the first phase’s record-breaking costs, but the only thing the agency appears to have learned is that state and federal officials will not stand up to their waste or ever-rising costs.

At just 1.6 miles, with just three new stations, the second phase of the Second Avenue subway would be Planet Earth’s most expensive subway line on a per-mile basis – by far. Clocking in at $3.75 billion a mile, it would blow the first phase’s $2.2 billion per mile cost out of the water. The MTA’s projected construction costs in East Harlem would be literally 10 times those of Paris’s Line 14, and more than twice as expensive as London’s Crossrail (the costliest on earth, outside of New York). These much cheaper lines in Paris, London and elsewhere are not easy suburban extensions in third-world countries with low labor costs – they are lines that strike through the cores of New York City’s first-world peer megacities, with ancient and complex underground tunneling environments and strong worker protections and good pay.

Compared to the first phase of the Second Avenue subway, the East Harlem phase’s utility per dollar has dropped dramatically. The first phase will host 202,000 weekday riders, the MTA predicts, while the second phase will host half that. While the first phase cost around $22,000 per weekday rider, the second phase is estimated to cost more than $59,000. The higher cost per rider combined with an anti-transit Republican government in Washington makes the chances that the project will be funded any time soon slim, to say nothing of future phases downtown, or outer borough projects like Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, Northern Boulevard in Queens or Third Avenue in the Bronx.

Faced with such long odds, it’s time for New Yorkers who care about transit to stand up and say enough is enough. Supporting transit in theory is one thing, but blind obedience to an agency whose primary goal is keeping labor, contractors and warring management fiefdoms happy is not helpful to the cause of better transit.

Bringing costs back down to earth for New York’s subway projects wouldn’t be about saving money, but about building more transit. For a bit more than the $6 billion the MTA wants to spend on a two-mile, three-stop extension of the Second Avenue line to 125th Street, London built a full 10 new stations on the Jubilee Line in the late 1990s. For €3.1 billion, Amsterdam is driving its six-mile North-South metro line through the city’s core, beneath its 17th century canals, to connect its three main train stations – and that was after a 40 percent cost overrun.

If New York City could build subways at the same cost as its European counterparts, the $10 billion in spent and planned money for the first two phases of the Second Avenue subway could have paid for the entire line, from the Financial District up to 125th Street and Lexington Avenue. At a cost of around $1 billion per mile – still very high by continental European standards – the MTA would even have enough cash left over to head west and dig a crosstown subway to meet the 2/3, A/B/C/D and 1 trains, giving every line in the Bronx a two-seat ride to Manhattan’s dense far east side, and begin work on another line entirely in the outer boroughs. Convincing the state and federal government – and even the city – to contribute money to subway building would be far easier if the return were full new lines serving the entire region, rather than short stubs serving just a neighborhood or two.

When Trump was elected, a former Republican congressional staffer tweeted some advice for influencing public policy: call your elected representatives at their district offices. Don’t tweet at them, don’t send them email, don’t send them letters – call them. Tell them that you’re fed up with the MTA’s excuses on its costs, tell them that you love transit too much to let prices spiral into impossibility. Tell them that it’s time for capital construction chief Michael Horodniceanu to move on and for the MTA to find fresh blood. Tell them that it’s time to start standing up to the iron triangle of contractors, unions and management, in cahoots to prevent New York from progressing into the late 20th century, nevermind the twenty-first. Tell them that it’s well past time to address the issue, and they can’t take your vote for granted if they don’t.

To that end, see below for the district offices of New York’s two U.S. Senators, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and the state politicians who are most affected by the MTA’s inability to control costs and build the transit the city needs. Most people don’t have time to get deeply involved in politics, but everybody has time to make a 60-second phone call. Call them and tell them how you feel – it may be the most effective thing you ever do in politics.

To find your U.S. Representative, enter your zip code here, and then search for their district office phone number and call it. Do the same for your state assembly member here, and your state senator here. (These two may be the most important, since they have the most direct influence over the MTA.) I won’t list them all since there are a lot, but the district office numbers are very easy to find – take five seconds to Google them, and look for the number (it’s usually at the bottom of their main web page). If you live in New Jersey, do the same – the Gateway project suffers from the same sky-high costs and questionable design as the MTA’s projects, and your state and federal officials deserve to hear for you about it too.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo: (518) 474-8390
Sen. Chuck Schumer: (212) 486-4430
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: (212) 688-6262
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (East Side, Brooklyn north of Grand St., Long Island City and Astoria): (212) 860-0606
N.Y.S. Sen. Liz Krueger (Upper East Side, Midtown East, Murray Hill and Flatiron): (212) 490-9535
N.Y.S. Sen.-Elect Adriano Espaillat (Washington Heights, Inwood and the Far West Side): (212) 544-0173
Asm. Robert Rodriguez (East Harlem): (212) 828-3953

While making a few phone calls is the best way to tell them you care about this issue, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Do what you can – call one or two, or email them instead. And after you do, call, tweet and email your friends and tell them to the same. Elected officials work for you – the voter, straphanger and taxpayer – and serve at your pleasure. Don’t let them forget it.

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