Jun
07

On the MTA’s capital plan and a status quo not good enough

By · Published in 2015

The uncertainty surrounding the MTA’s capital plan could jeopardize future parts of the Second Ave. Subway. (Photo: MTA Capital Construction / Rehema Trimiew)

Over the weekend, Dan Rivoli of the Daily News wrote a feature on the MTA’s capital funding woes. For the transit literati, Rivoli’s piece travels no new ground, but it’s an important one for the debate and discussion over the MTA’s funding. While Gov. Cuomo shows no willingness to act before the legislative session ends in two weeks, Rivoli’s piece allows the MTA and its supporters to drive the conversation and keep the pressure on the governor to respond.

In the piece, Rivoli runs through the laundry list of projects the MTA can’t see through in the short- and long-term if the funding doesn’t materialize. Future phases of the Second Ave. Subway would be in jeopardy; rolling stock upgrades would be delayed; countdown clocks, a MetroCard replacement and other technological upgrades wouldn’t be funded. The money would go toward maintaining the current system and generally keeping the trains running without allowing the MTA to meet demands of high ridership and a growing city. “The status quo,” Allen Cappelli, an MTA board member, said to Rivoli, “is not good enough.”

Of course, Cappelli is right, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought about how right he is, capital funding or not. Right now, today — and especially during the weekend — the status quo isn’t good enough. The Daily News published Rivoli’s article on Saturday night, a few hours after I had gotten a text from my sister complaining about a 20-minute wait, with no announcement of a problem, for an N train on Saturday afternoon. It was also a few hours after I had to wait eight minutes for a 4 train at 7 p.m. and when headways were nearing 10 minutes on Brooklyn-bound 2 and 3 trains. It came after a week during which I saw similarly lengthy headways during peak-hour, mid-week service and at a time when it’s getting tougher to find seats on just about any train on a weekend.

The MTA has long maintained that service is good enough. But recall that they changed their own internal load guidelines back in 2010 so that a line isn’t eligible for more service until a quarter of a subway car’s off-peak passengers are standing. If we’re not there yet, we’re getting awfully close. These load guidelines, meanwhile, lead to longer waits and generally disgruntled riders.

As many of you know, I spent much of May traveling. I rode the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn in Berlin, the Tunnelbana in Stockholm, the CTA’s subways in Chicago and Boston’s T. The longest waits I’ve had for a train during mid-day, off-peak and peak hours have all been in New York City. If that’s the status quo the MTA is seeking enough money to maintain, the status quo is not good enough.

It’s hard to say what the best solution is. Any increase in service involves massive costs in that the MTA would need to hire more employees (already a source of lost cost cavings opportunities thanks to Cuomo’s utter capitulation to the TWU last year), buy more rolling stock, and upgrade the signal systems. Running more frequent four- or five-car sets during off-peak hours could solve some of the problems associated with headways but not necessarily address the issue of crowding. And of course, without action from Albany one way or another, the money to improve the not-good-enough status quo isn’t there.

The MTA certainly isn’t wine and roses. They bleed money on capital side at rates well above any comparably system or city throughout the world and haven’t shown much willingness in recent years to push for OPTO or ATO measures that would save oodles of money. The governor isn’t listening to its leaders or the people of New York who need investment in transit, and we’re stuck with this insufficient status quo. If you think too hard about the future, it’s not necessarily a pretty picture, and it’s one New York, Albany and the MTA may be rushing headlong toward.

As Denise Richardson, the head of the General Contractors Association said to the Daily News, “We’re violating one of those cardinal principles of long-term capital planning, which is to take a long-term view and not just be responding to the emergency priorities.” Waiting for the emergency will mean it’s already too late.



35 Responses to “On the MTA’s capital plan and a status quo not good enough”

  1. eo says:

    Get ready for the system to hold steady or start decaying over the next 2 years. MTA’s best bet is the next governor. Keep your fingers crossed.

    • Bolwerk says:

      Well, if some of the rumors in Albany are true, her name will be Kathy Hochul and she might be bubbling out of the sewer really soon.

      • Nathanael says:

        The rumors are that Preet Bharata’s actually got enough to indict Cuomo?

        • Bolwerk says:

          I don’t know how much to believe the Albany Project, but:

          This is all reminiscent of how prosecutors run mafia cases, working their way up the food chain by arresting and pressuring the hell out of the underlings to make a case against the boss. Bharara is doing exactly that. He’s getting closer and closer to the top of the pyramid. He’s putting enormous pressure on both Silver and Skelos to cut a deal, and in New York, there’s only one chair above them on the org chart.

          The point about strategy is certainly interesting, and rings true so far. Much of this year’s dysfunction, including with the capital program, is that everyone is scared shitless to horsetrade because the feds have tapped all the phones.

          • D in Bushwick says:

            Yep, the NSA knows all their dirty secrets.

          • Nathanael says:

            I am not at all sure that there’s only one chair above Skelos and Silver on the org chart.

            Even assuming that the Comptroller and AG are clean — there’s an entire nest of “Authority” appointees and departmental heads.

  2. Herb Lehman says:

    With all due respect, I’d really like the MTA to focus on adding RUSH HOUR trains before adding anything more to off-peak and weekend service. I ride during off-hours a lot, and while the 8-minute waits for the 4 train on the weekend are annoying, I have yet to be on a truly crush-loaded train on any line. The rush hour trains are far more crowded, but the MTA only seems interested in periodically adding a smattering of off-hour trains.

    I’m sure the four people who want to ride the J train south of Chambers Street on weekends will be pleased to get service starting this Sunday, but the 400 people that can’t fit onto a 6 train at 59th Street at 8:30 a.m. on a Monday because it runs every 5-6 minutes are kind of pissed.

    • Eric says:

      At 59th St, at 8:30am on a Monday, the 6 is scheduled to run every 2-3 minutes not every 5-6. You might have to wait 6 minutes for a train, but that’s because they are bunching and being delayed. Scheduling more trains won’t help with that.

      • Herb Lehman says:

        We’re both wrong. On the MTA Web site, it’s actually listed as every 3-5 minutes.

        http://web.mta.info/nyct/service/pdf/t6cur.pdf

        I think we can both agree that a 5-minute headway at any point during rush hour is too long given the crowds on that line.

        • Brooklynite says:

          Between 8 and 9 am there are 23 southbound 6 trains passing 68th Street, per the GTFS data. There are a grand total of three instances where there is a 2-minute interval between trains; all other gaps are at least 2.5-3 minutes.

          Absolutely pathetic. The south end of the line doesn’t even have to reverse trains!!

          • al says:

            Apparently, it has to do with meeting the numbers. The line managers on the Pelham Line want to meet OTP and are using a backwards approach. So instead of running 30tph, they are running 26 tph max.

    • John says:

      The J train is being extended on weekends? Is this just a hypothetical? Where did you hear/read this?

      • Herb Lehman says:

        I saw a sign in the Canal Street J/Z/N/Q/6 station this morning. Hopefully it was an actual MTA sign and not someone pulling a prank, because I can’t find anything online to back it up beside a year-old Daily News article that gave no start date.

        • LLQBTT says:

          They have a brand new transit center that they’ve been marketing the heck out of for years. Perhaps there’s also a deal with the property manager, but either way, it’s kind of silly to then not serve the transit center by a subway line, 4 passengers or not.

  3. Bgriff says:

    I agree that in many other cities some of our shoulder period waits are unthinkable–you never wait up to 10 minutes for a weekend Underground/Metro/U-Bhan train in London, Paris, or Berlin. However, those cities’ systems are also structured a lot differently, with service focused on shorter, nonbranching lines in a downtown core — and where they are not, as in London, service on the branches can be a lot less frequent.

    In New York, some of the “branches” intrude much more closely on the downtown core so they affect a lot more people, and we’ve labeled them prominently with different route designations, so that may be part of the problem. But I think the biggest difference may be that Division B trains in New York hold at least twice, if not three or four times, as many people as deep tube line trains in London or most of the trains in Paris, so those cities need more frequent off-peak service just to keep up, and really struggle during peak hours. I think I’m still better off with the New York system.

    Perhaps we could consider more train length variability to provide more frequent service at off-peak times? However, I am guessing the MTA has good reasons for having moved away from that model, presumably not least due to passenger confusion, as well as logistical challenges with the way the some train types are designed.

    • Bgriff says:

      U-*UBahn*, sorry.

    • Alex says:

      I’m not a fan of looking at frequency as mainly a function of crowding, but that seems to be the MTA’s sole approach. Frequency is a major part of what makes a rapid transit system usable. To have 10 minute headways on many B division lines during the rush hour fringes is unconscionable, and yet that’s what we have. But when you address that to the MTA, they fall back on their load guidelines. That’s missing the point, IMHO. Bearing in mind your notes about the logistical issues with running shorter trains, I’d much prefer to have 4 car sets every 6 minutes than 8 car sets every 10.

      • Tower18 says:

        Agreed, the C train reverts to 10 minute frequencies at, I believe, around 9:05am in my area. Hell the C occasionally has 11-12 minute frequencies DURING rush hour.

        It’s embarrassing. And yes, the MTA is not properly balancing loads and frequency. The minimum ought to be 6-8 minutes during weekdays, 10-9. After that, loads can dictate service, and most lines can drop to 10-12 minutes.

    • ryan22 says:

      If I remember correctly the Berlin U-Bahn headways reduce to every 10 minutes after 9pm and on Sundays. But they also have electronic train arrival clocks at every single station. And a printed schedule posted at every station showing exactly when every train will come for every hour of every day.

    • Nathanael says:

      Every ten minutes can be quite tolerable. But “every ten minutes” *scheduled*, meaning wait 20 minutes if anything goes even slightly wrong, is dreadful.

  4. Larry Greenfield says:

    I think Governor Cuomo is missing an obvious solution to the MTA capital plan funding problem, legalized marijuana sales taxed for the exclusive use of the MTA. This promises to be far more reliable than any additional casinos he may have in mind and has already been proven to be an effective source of revenue in Colorado.
    It could be used in concert with the Move NY bridge tolling plan already proposed.

  5. Panthers says:

    The solution is simple. We need an expanded and more up-to-date system. Ah, but the money…where to begin….

    1. I like the marijuana proposal. Brilliant.
    2. Congestion pricing. I’m tired of these huge vehicles with one driver clogging the streets with pollution and traffic. You want to drive by yourself? Pay for it then.
    3. Does the MTA really need five ad agencies on retainer? How many PR agencies are on retainer. Pick one agency that has a good relationship with a PR firm and give them the portfolio.
    4. The fees the City and the unions pay to the companies that their manage portfolios are obscene. Was I correct in reading that some fees just about eat up all the profits on one union’s portfolio?

    Having said that, I’m willing to pay more for expanded and new service. I’m not willing to pay for stupidity like this:
    http://nypost.com/2015/05/29/a.....ue-subway/ and this: http://nypost.com/2015/04/06/w.....ue-subway/

  6. JJJJ says:

    Well at least theres no 22 minute waits like WMATA on weekends…

    Or even the 20 minute waits on PATH.

    And yes, PATH is crush loaded at those frequencies. You need a running start to get on some trains.

  7. Jimmy says:

    You definitely did not spend a significant amount of time on the CTA if you think anything related to that system is better than MTA.

    • Larry Littlefield says:

      I was just there, and it does have lots of advantages.

      1) Tap and go farecards, with debt card capabilities. I assume the banks provided this to the CTA but will only do so for the MTA if they get to absolutely rape the agency/riders. Freakin contractors.

      2) Less crowded.

      3) Trains move faster.

      4) Buses move much, much faster.

      Four lane streets, rare in NYC, are the norm for Chicago bus routes, with no double parking.

      And Chicago blocks are 800 feet long in both directions, rather than NYC’s standard 200 by 800. So buses can’t stop every 400 to 600 feet like they do here.

      Not only that, they don’t stop every block in Chicago either, so it’s often 1,600 feet between stops. You can ride 9 miles from city edge to center on a bus in as little time as a NYC subway takes to cover the same distance.

      • Joe says:

        Agreed, I miss a lot of things about the CTA living back in NYC. CTA is more efficient and MUCH more technologically forward-thinking than MTA.

        I’d also add:

        – Countdown clocks at every rail station
        – Bus Tracker shows minutes to arrival for every bus line at every stop
        – Popular bus stops also have LED screens showing arrival times
        – Open data API which developers have built fantastic apps for
        – Clear announcements on every rail line (a bit too talkative perhaps)
        – Stations are much, MUCH cleaner and better-maintained
        – Buses themselves are much nicer/more comfortable and move much more quickly (plus the Jump service coming online works better than SBS so far)
        – Cell service in all the tunnels and underground stations
        – Heat lamps!
        – Most of the rail system is above-ground, which makes it really pleasant to ride—great views, even through downtown
        – Much more efficient rebuilding projects; stations get renovated much more frequently
        – Overnight service is actually more frequent and predictable in my experience
        – Much more friendly/helpful employees

        NYC advantages:
        – Larger rail cars
        – Better bench seating layout
        – More frequent rush-hour service (off-peak is similar)
        – Obviously much more extensive/dense subway service

  8. Larry Littlefield says:

    The city has as $3 billion surplus. All to be spent in just one year in FY 2016 — probably on recurring expenses whereas the $3 billion will not recur.

    Lots of money for all kinds of things for the insiders. Nothing for the MTA capital plan.

    I said the city should put up the equivalent of $800 million per year by taking over bus and paratransit in exchange for cutting its contribution to the MTA and receiving the payroll tax revenues within its borders. The $3 billion is 3/4 of that amount.

    • LLQBTT says:

      Sounds like a social progressive leader to me, spend spend spend, don’t worry about tax revenues etc.

      • Bolwerk says:

        It sounds like George Pataki.

        • Larry Littlefield says:

          Exemplar of Generation Greed.

          He should be under indictment with Silver, Bruno and Skelos. The worst things aren’t those that are illegal, it is those that are legal but should be illegal.

      • Nathanael says:

        Spend spend spend, don’t worry about tax revenues
        === Ronald Reagan, George W Bush, George Pataki, Sam Brownback, and every other Republican leader I can think of in my lifetime.

        Since 1980 the Republicans have been the “borrow and spend” party. It’s disgusting.

        • adirondacker12800 says:

          Yep they yammer on and on about how tax and spend libbbruls are awful but once they get into power they spend even more and borrow instead of taxing.
          …… and let the rational adults clean up the mess. Rinse repeat, since Saint Ronnie and Saint Maggie said the way to make everyone rich was to cut taxes on rich people.
          ……the rest of us are still waiting for the part about getting rich.

    • Bolwerk says:

      It probably can be expected to recur in the medium-term (next few years). Unless you’re expecting a large drop in real estate sales, or a precipitous drop in property valuations.

      Or something macroeconomic.

      • al says:

        Like the delinquent student and junk auto loan issues. Quite a few of these are chopped up and repackaged just like subprime loans of the 2000’s.

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