Aug
07

As the Subways Turn: Cuomo, de Blasio spar over Subway Action Plan funding

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Can Joe Lhota's action plan save the NYC subway from collapse? And how will the city and state work out their arguments over funding?

Can Joe Lhota’s action plan save the NYC subway from collapse? And how will the city and state work out their arguments over funding?

Over the past few weeks, months and even years, as the mayor and governor have engaged in a recent public war over responsibility for subway financing, with Gov. Cuomo using transit lapdogs to attempt to explain, incredibly, that funding the subway is a city rather than a state responsibility, a counter-narrative has emerged in some wonkier corners, and it’s a counter-narrative I have long embraced. The MTA does not actually need more money or more funding. It has an annual operations budget of over $15 billion and a five-year capital plan of nearly $30 billion. But as has been shown time and again, most notably by Alon Levy, the MTA’s spending is exponentially greater than every other subway system’s in the world. Before politicians send even more millions and billions into the black hole of spending that is the MTA, aggressively cost reform should be front and center on the table.

But we are instead left with a political game of hot potato, and instead of cost reform, we have an escalating war over money with the city and state each trying to outmaneuver each other in a ploy to get more money for subways. The latest battle in this war started while I was on vacation in Mexico two weeks ago when MTA Chairman Joe Lhota introduced the MTA action plan, a two-pronged approach with a $836 million Phase 1 that will serve as a short-term band aid and a Phase 2 that could cost at least $8 billion and that is designed to address the heart of the subway’s problems: a system-wide replacement of the subway’s signal system.

The Subway Action Plan was put together by the usual gang of NYC transit “experts” – your Wyldes, Doctoroffs, Samuelsens, Kalikos, Russianoffs and Mosses of the city without worldly input – and is available here as a lengthy pdf. In the short-term, they key elements are as follows:

  • Emergency track cleaning and repair initiatives as well as emergency signal repair efforts;
  • Increased subway car maintenance efficiency;
  • Potentially adding cars to certain C line trains;
  • A seatless-car pilot on the Times Square Shuttle and L trains that could add space for up to 25 more people per car (though this is decidedly unfriendly and went nowhere when first proposed in 2010);
  • More frequent station cleaning;
  • Streamlined EMS dispatch procedures and staging areas;
  • and

  • A variety of other management-oriented changes designed to improve subway operations.

These sound modest because they are, and the heavy lifting comes in Phase 2 when the MTA has to get down to the business of modernizing the backbone of the subway system. But the MTA feels these efforts can begin to attack the root of the frequent problems plaguing the system lately. The praise for the plan came in from a variety of corners with the MTA sending out press releases from David Dinkins and a former FRA administrator. But while the state offered to fund half of it, many of the statements — and some aggressive attacks by Cuomo’s friends at the TWU — were not-so-veiled attempts to draw more money out of Bill de Blasio and NYC.

Now on the one hand, this fight is ridiculous. New York City taxpayers are footing this bill whether the dollars are appropriated at the state level or the city level, and we’re the ones suffering through bad service and paying the fares each day. We’re paying no matter what. On the other hand, de Blasio and Cuomo are set to battle this out until one of them wins, whatever victory emerges.

For a week and a half, de Blasio refused to budge and Cuomo dug in…until Sunday when this story hit The Times. The mayor will propose a tax on those earning $500,000 or more that will help fund the subway action plan and the Fair Fares initiative to offer subsidized subway fares to low-income New Yorkers. This is part of a plan that Michael Gianaris, a state senator from Queens, has pushed recently and would affect approximately 32,000 New Yorker taxpayers.

Coincidentally (haha), both Joe Lhota and Andrew Cuomo put out similar statements praising the mayor’s move, but channeling Veruca Salt, they both demanded more now. “After saying the MTA doesn’t need money, we’re glad the Mayor reversed himself,” Joe Lhota said on behalf of the MTA. “However we need short-term emergency financing now. The Mayor should partner with us and match the state funding now so we can turn the trains around. There’s no question we need a long-term funding stream, but emergency train repairs can’t wait on what the state legislature may or may not do next year.”

Cuomo:

“The subway system is in crisis today. We need two things: immediate action, and a long-term modernization plan. One without the other fails the people of the city. “The State is currently evaluating a range of dedicated revenue proposals for the future to be discussed and advanced in January when the legislature returns. There is no doubt that we need a long-term dedicated funding stream. But there is also no doubt that we cannot wait to address the current crisis. Riders suffer every day and delaying repairs for at least a year is neither responsible nor responsive to the immediate problem, or riders’ pain.

“The City should partner with us and match the State funding now so we can begin Chairman Lhota’s overhaul plan immediately and move forward. We cannot ask New Yorkers to wait one year to start repairs.”

But there’s a rub: On Sunday evening, Zach Fink and Emma Fitzsimmons both reported that Cuomo may begin floating various forms of congestion pricing next year in his State of the State speech. As recently as his Friday appearance on “The Brian Lehrer Show,” Bill de Blasio proclaimed congestion pricing a non-starter due to the environment in Albany. The mayor, a motorist, has been loathe to carry the torch for a plan, but it could be, in the parlance of our times, something of a game of multi-dimensional chess. If de Blasio supports it, Cuomo won’t, and if Cuomo comes up with it first so that it’s one of his pet ideas, the governor will find a way to push it through.

So perhaps the endgame of this summer’s (and spring’s and fall’s and winter’s) bad subway service is a fight for and over congestion pricing. There are worse outcomes for the city; that’s for sure. But right now, the subways need Lhota’s action plan and better service before the bottom falls out. Let the politicians duke it out, and someone, for the love of all that’s holy, please pick up the mantle of cost reform.



Categories : MTA Politics

32 Responses to “As the Subways Turn: Cuomo, de Blasio spar over Subway Action Plan funding”

  1. Stephen Bauman says:

    The latest battle in this war started while I was on vacation in Mexico two weeks ago when MTA Chairman Joe Lhota introduced the MTA action plan, a two-pronged approach with a $836 million

    The MTA could save $400 million annually, if they got rid of redundant conductors. According to the NTD, NYCT employee salaries for heavy rail, vehicle operations salaries totaled: $858,629,786 in 2015. All but about 10% of NYCT trains are one person operation capable. The public paid extra for such trains. It’s about time, the public enjoyed the operational savings.

    This is but one facet of the MTA black hole. It does not make any sense to give the MTA more funding, until it makes realistic attempts to reduce their bloated operating costs.

    • Matt says:

      You and who’s army is going to cut $400 million worth of MTA Union jobs?

      • Matthew says:

        I wouldn’t recommend cutting the positions, or laying off staff, but I think it would make sense to reallocate the lines to maintenance, signal replacement, etc. The transition could happen gradually using natural attrition, and by providing a one time bonus to union employees who switch. We could start rolling out OPTO first on the few lines with PTC. Most of the conductors are already very knowledgeable about the system, and it is important to retain them during the transition.

        • Stephen Bauman says:

          We could start rolling out OPTO first on the few lines with PTC.

          PTC, postitive train control, has been feature of the subway system since 1904. That’s 113 years ago. How long a rollout period should be required?

          conductors are already very knowledgeable about the system

          Conductors cannot be trusted to determine which side of the train to open. Following a rash of doors opening on the wrong side, trains were modified to require both the operator and the conductor to agree on which side to open.

          • Someone says:

            Its likely he meant to say CBTC instead of PTC.

            The union and management (if they had a backbone) could work out a deal that only lines capable of ATO can run OTPO on trains longer than 300 feet. Fully staffing a train that drives itself is criminal in my opinion. This roll out agreement gives the union predictability of when the positions will end and incentivizes management to then accelerate the roll out of CBTC.

            Alas the last 2 TWU labor agreements where negotiated by Cuomo, not the management, so I am not sure OPTO will ever arrive.

            • Stephen Bauman says:

              The union and management (if they had a backbone) could work out a deal that only lines capable of ATO can run OTPO on trains longer than 300 feet.

              ATO capable trains should operate ZPTO, like AirTrain in NYC, Line 14 in Paris and many others around the world.

              Artificial intelligence advances mean that trains can be modified for ATO/ZPTO, without first replacing the signal system. Look at autonomous vehicles – Tesla, Uber, et al are not waiting for intelligent highways. The autonomous self driving car problem is much more difficult than a self driving subway train. Tesla’s self driving car feature is embedded in an entire automobile that retails for $80K.

              If a self driving unit for a train costs $100K, then the entire subway system could become ZPTO at a cost of around $60 million. That comes to 26 day payback on investment.

      • Bolwerk says:

        $400 million in jobs aren’t disappearing, but I don’t see why it would be that hard for the executive and legislative branches to pass a law re-appropriating that labor for other uses. It’s leaving it to the negotiating table, where an arbitrator can make a bad ruling, that is creates the problem. Like many things, the solution is not hard.

    • Tim says:

      Not for nothing dude, but you go and try and explain to 4mm daily riders why the TWU is on strike. Their eyes will glaze over three sentences in and they’ll say “Just pay them and make the trains run again!”

      Cutting the TWU down is going to cost a politician their job.

      • Stephen Bauman says:

        try and explain

        That $400 million extra cost is equivalent to an annual $50 per capita tax on every NYC resident. That comes to $200 per year for that hypothetical family of 4.

        Unlike most transportation taxes levied on NYC residents, that $400 million cost savings will go entirely into subway operations. It will have to be shared 50-50 with the commuter railroads.

        NYC residents endured a 2 weeks without subway service in 1980. That experience demonstrated that the subways really are not as essential as the TWU would like to believe.

        • Brooklynite says:

          Not going to wade into the first part of your quote, but that last paragraph is simply misleading. After Sandy many lived for weeks with no heat or power – does that mean that they’re also unnecessary? Transit is the only way that we can avoid massive gridlock or draconian HOV restrictions.

      • mister says:

        The interesting question will be what happens when services like Uber Pool, Lyft Line and Chariot are able to field driverless vehicles. Their operating costs will be low enough that they will be able to offer one-seat rides at prices at or even below what MTA currently offers. Once that happens; what happens to the subway system? Or the jobs that it currently supports?

  2. Stephen Bauman says:

    A seatless-car pilot on the Times Square Shuttle and L trains that could add space for up to 25 more people per car (though this is decidedly unfriendly and went nowhere when first proposed in 2010)

    This is counter productive. The aim should be to increase the number of people carried per hour. This is the product of 3 parameters:
    #people/hr = #people/car x #car/train x #trains/hr
    The last factor is the service level. One of its components is dwell time within each station. One determinant for this factor is the number of people in the car. The more people in a car the more people will be entering/exiting the car at each station. The more people entering/exiting each car, the greater the dwell time.

    The time it takes a passenger to enter/exit a car depends on the number of standees he must pass to get to the door from his position within the train (exiting) or the number of standees he must pass to get to an empty spot from the door (entering). Seated passengers don’t interfere with entering/exiting passengers.

    Therefore, the MTA’s solution is to increase the number of standees in the way of entering/leaving passengers.

    • Matthew says:

      Is the shuttle fully automated yet? If not, why isn’t it?

    • BenW says:

      Not a whole lot of people moving past the standees on the Times Square Shuttle…

      • Stephen Bauman says:

        Not a whole lot of people moving past the standees on the Times Square Shuttle

        There are on the L. That’s where it will be counter productive.

        The biggest dwell time waste on the shuttle is the time required to recharge the brakes. The brake system has to be discharged and recharged to change direction. This takes about 1 minute. Passenger exiting/entering time is only about 30 seconds.

  3. Larry Littlefield says:

    What is to prevent higher taxes in NYC being used for the LIRR? Of for higher TWU raises? Or for the 20/50 pensions?

    I was stunned to real a claim in this article

    http://www.gothamgazette.com/o.....em-funding

    “The commuter rail systems receive more generous subsidies from Bridge and Tunnel tolls than New York City Transit, about $400 million a year compared to $287 million a year.”

    Under the deal by which the City of New York turned over the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, and its toll surplus, to the new MTA, New York City Transit was supposed to receive 67 percent of the toll surplus up to a fixed amount, and 50 percent of all surplus revenues above that.

    It sounds as if any city taxpayer or tollpayer has a right to sue for restitution.

  4. LordDeucey says:

    It’s true we taxpayers are all going to pay for it, and that whether it’s the City or the State is a rhetoric battle. The issue, to me, is how to get a stable funding mechanism for NYCTA – not MTA at large – that is not going to be subject to cuts during recessions and behavioral changes. Because of that, I think a congestion charge will only exacerbate that, as it pushes drivers to an already overtaxed subway system. Same with tolls (notwithstanding the moral case of charging people to drive across a city on roads they paid and are paying for).

    I think the fairest way is to add-on a few pennies or nickels to the sales tax like transit authorities in California do. It provides stable funding by law (if done like California) that cannot be raided, extending it to prepared food and beverages and non-clothing goods means it’ll reach the broadest population – residents, tourists and people who work in the city but live outside the boroughs (Jersey, CT, LI, upstate), and it avoids these block grants from NYC and NYS that are great during good times but are cut during recessions.

    • Adirondacker12800 says:

      Estimates I’ve seen, for motor vehicles to actually pay for the roads they use, is between a dollar a gallon and five dollars a gallon. They are driving on roads other people paid for.
      Tourists and non residents workers use some water and sewer and occasionally emergency services. A bit of traffic control. Most of their garbage gets hauled away by private haulers, they don’t send their kids to the schools. Last figures I saw was that non residents contribute 5 billion dollars to the state budget. The city and the state are making money on them.

      • Spendmor Wastemor says:

        This may depend on the type of road. Federal highways funds are partly diverted to mass transit, which is not entirely unreasonable as the highways in metro areas would be even more packed without alternates. To some extent it’s just a money grab.

        City and town roads are another matter; they’ve long been considered an essential local service, so they’re funded by the locality and (idk how much) by state gas taxes. With no roads, the subway would be stalled before long; ConEd, MTA, and other backbone stuff we never think of couldn’t maintain the system without those huge maintenance trucks you see roaming the streets. Bustitution couldn’t happen without roads large and stout enough to support MTA buses – which are heavy pigs, now weighing over 30,000 lbs.

        The five dollar figure sounds like someone with an axe to grind. Road wear runs about by the square of axle weight, so even the largest passenger car-ish vehicle puts almost zero wear on the road. A bus at 8 tons per axle pounds the road over 25 times worse than even an Escalade at 1.5. At many a bus stop you can see ruts smashed into the pavement where the tires roll.

        All the NYCT people I’ve met drive cars. They despise the subway.

        • Adirondacker12800 says:

          It’s very nice that the cops, fire truck or ambulance can get around fast. It doesn’t need 6 lane arterial roads to do that, neither does the garbage truck or the deliveries.
          I’m not going to go try to find something that is current. The five dollar figure includes all the good stuff like how much of the police budget is traffic control and traffic court judges. And covering the medical expenses of the people who exhaust the coverage on their insurance and get thrown on Medicare.

        • Bolwerk says:

          A few dollars per gallon (I doubt it’s $5, but maybe) might be very apt if you factor in wrecked productivity caused by congestion. A relatively low-paid worker likely surrenders that much to the state an hour in payroll/income taxes, never you mind the output of the company that employs that person. S/he ain’t doing it if s/he’s sitting in traffic.

  5. Spendmor Wastemor says:

    “Before politicians send even more millions and billions into the black hole of spending that is the MTA, aggressively cost reform should be front and center on the table.”

    A certain Mr. Scrooge-Wastermor (the final ‘e’ was redacted to save ink) does not like to sound like a fan club, but he increasingly finds the perspicacious observations of Mr. Kabak to be most refreshing.

  6. Thomas Graves says:

    You certainly hit the nail on the head: MTA spending reform is a (the?) crucial part of this equation; the other is a stable funding source. Unfortunately, your voice apart, none of our hard-working politicians or MTA executives have even mentioned the former issue. Nowhere else on the planet would $836 M in additional spending buy nothing more than improved track and (maybe) station cleaning, and increased maintenance of signal systems and rolling stock. For all of the colossal amount that has been invested in the MTA system since the first capital plan back in the 1980’s, NY taxpayers have less to show for it than would be the case in any other developed country. A leisurely stroll around the Chambers Street station and others like it is ample proof.

  7. Larry Littlefield says:

    “Someone, for the love of all that’s holy, please pick up the mantle of cost reform.”

    Anyone who does will be greeted with the following: Donald Trump! Donald Trump! Donald Trump!

    The serfs costs are the oligarchy’s revenues, for the executive/financial class and the political/union class alike.

  8. Ethan Rauch says:

    A seatless car may be OK for a shuttle that travels all of four long blocks from end to end. Has London tried this on its similar Waterloo & City Line, or are Britons too civilized? I believe Boston MBTA tried seatless cars during peak periods on its busy Red Line (Alewife-Ashmont-Braintree). They were not well received.

    • RichardB says:

      I can confirm that the trains on the Waterloo and City line in London have full seating. It is intended to replace them with new trains in the next decade and these will also have seats and finally a form of air conditioning.

    • Brooklynite says:

      The tube-gauge trains on the W&C are so small that much of their underbody equipment is located under the seats. Also, most people would not be able to stand upright near the wall.

  9. John O says:

    “New York City taxpayers are footing this bill whether the dollars are appropriated at the state level or the city level, and we’re the ones suffering through bad service and paying the fares each day.”

    That right there is your most important point. Cuomo (and other governors) have been robbing NYC blind for years to fund absurd projects upstate. The only real solution is to eliminate states and have two levels of government: federal and local. I am absolutely fed up with upstate people taking NYC tax money while also imposing their conservative social views on the rest of the state. Get rid of states once and for all so places like Buffalo and Rochester can just go away.

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