It’s starting to seem like a regular occurrence around here, but the MTA has again announced record monthly and daily ridership, this time for September. The numbers are staggering, and as they filtered throughout the transit community yesterday, various groups issued calls for funding and better representation of an important constituency.
According to New York City Transit, on Tuesday, September 23, the MTA recorded 6,106,694 paying customers. This was the fifth day in September alone that over 6 million riders swiped into the subway system, and it marked the first time since the late 1940s — when the elevateds still loomed over the streets of Manhattan — that ridership hit such a high level. Overall, 149 million passengers rode the rails in September, another figure higher than any time since the late 1940s.
MTA leaders were quick to point out the significance of the figure. Back in 1985, when the MTA started tracking daily numbers, the high peaked at 3.7 million. Now, it’s nearly two-thirds higher. “New Yorkers and visitors alike continue to vote with their feet, recognizing that riding the subway is the most efficient way to get around town,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said. “This is a phenomenal achievement for a system that carried 3.6 million daily customers just 20 years ago. As ridership increases, the MTA Capital Program is vital to fund new subway cars, higher-capacity signal systems and improved stations to meet our customers’ growing needs and rising expectations.”
Prendergast wasn’t the only one noted the ties between increased ridership and the need for investment in the system. Yonah Freemark noted a connection on Twitter as a few of us were discussing the numbers:
The obvious conclusion from massive NYC Subway ridership: Expansion is necessary
— Yonah Freemark (@yfreemark) October 22, 2014
The city’s advocacy groups too picked up the thread. “With more New Yorkers using public transit, we need to guarantee that our system can continue to thrive with the city it serves. These record numbers should be setting off alarm bells for our elected officials in Albany, who will need to find $15 billion in the next few months to fund the MTA’s basic infrastructure and construction needs,” John Raskin of the Riders Alliance (of which I’m a board member) said. “If we don’t continue to invest in our system and build for the future, these strong numbers could represent a peak instead of a trend. It’s vital that our elected officials find the funding needed to support the entire $32 billion capital plan, which represents the least we can do to maintain our system so it can last for years into the future.”
Gene Russianoff and the Straphangers echoed those sentiments. “The rain of riders,” Gene said, “is both an opportunity and a challenge for New York — an opportunity for economic growth that no other American city can even aspire to [and] a challenge to win the necessary capital funds – $32 billion over the next five years – that will allow the subways and buses to handle the millions flocking to the system every day.”
The needs are obvious. The popularity is obvious. The support isn’t there. Somehow, someway, this disconnect between politicians and their constituents who rely heavily on transit needs to be resolved. New York’s future, now more than ever, depends on it.
When I read New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s release about his latest report on the MTA, I rolled my eyes a bit. DiNapoli, picking up on the MTA’s $15 billion capital funding gap, noted that while the MTA’s finances are better, the riders could wind up shouldering a huge portion of the next five-year plan, and the Comptroller said, riders shouldn’t be expected to pay for everything.
We could debate for hours whether or not that last statement is true, but DiNapoli’s point isn’t a new one. “The MTA is in better financial condition thanks to its own efforts and a stronger economy,” DiNapoli said yet again. “Over the coming months, the MTA will have to work closely with its funding partners to close the $15 billion gap in its capital program. Additional borrowing could increase pressure on fares and tolls, and while the MTA should look for opportunities for savings, deep cuts could affect the future reliability of the transit system and jeopardize expansion projects.”
Overall, DiNapoli’s report regurgitates MTA talking points. He notes that subway ridership has hit highs not seen since the late 1940s and that the MTA’s debt burden will continue to increase for the foreseeable future. He highlighted the new labor deals, unfunded pension obligations and steep fare hikes. It’s basically a summary of the last six months’ worth of news. (You can read it here as a PDF if you need a primer.)
Despite the mundane nature of DiNapoli’s report, one part is worth a deeper dive. His report “cautions that every $1 billion borrowed would increase debt service by an amount comparable to a 1 percent increase in fares and tolls.” Thus, if the MTA needs to borrow that $15 billion to cover its capital funding costs, it could do so simply by raising fares by an additional 15 percent. That’s a big fare hike. The MTA’s current plan for 2015 — once it gets released some time after Gov. Cuomo’s upcoming Election Day — calls for only a 4 percent hike, down from an originally planned 8 percent.
So while it’s easy to dismiss DiNapoli’s report for being nothing more than a news aggregator, the point he makes about the fares is a political chit for the MTA. If no one steps up with a different funding scheme and the MTA is serious about this $30 billion plan, the riders will be footing the bill for a substantial portion of it. Maybe that’s OK; maybe the people who use the system should pay for more of it. But now we know it’s a choice that Albany will make willingly. Is it the right one? I don’t think so.
A few months ago, Vice President Joe Biden drew some heat when he unfavorably compared Laguardia to third world airports. Considering that Laguardia has terminal buildings that are, to some degree or other, air conditioned, it was an unfair comparison with a bit of hyperbole, but Biden’s criticism rang familiar. Traveling to and from Laguardia is not exactly a pleasant experience, and for millions who see it as their entry point to New York City, it is not a point of pride for New Yorkers.
Yesterday, Biden joined NY Governor Andrew Cuomo in announcing a plan to modernize and revitalize Laguardia, JFK, Stewart and Republic airports. It’s not clear where the money will come from, and the early stages will involve simply a design contest. But after years of lobbying for developers and NYC boosters, someone in DC and someone in Albany appear to be listening. (For more on the announcement overall, check out Dan Rivoli’s coverage and The Times’ rundown of the event.)
From a transit perspective, improvements are on the table. Both Biden and Cuomo mentioned concerns with travel times to JFK, and of course, there is no train to Laguardia. It’s possible that issue could be addressed in these plans, but I’m wary of the statements issued yesterday. Cuomo first talked about a ferry to Laguardia, but it’s not clear how a boat helps people getting to the airport. It will be convenient only for those who are near the waterfront and only if the ferry terminal is within walking distance to Laguardia’s terminals. With the Rikers Island Bridge a physical obstacle and the approach to Laguardia non-negotiable, ferries seem to be a non-starter before we even consider their high operating costs and low ridership potential.
For those of us hoping for rail, Cuomo mentioned the subway as a potential option. But that, as we know, will require some strong-arming as Astoria NIMBYs still leave every politician in fear. The other idea seemed to involve Long Island Rail Road access to Laguardia. It sounds great until you stop to think for five to ten seconds. While the Port Authority has issued a call for vague provisioning for heavy rail access to Laguardia, the LIRR doesn’t work. There’s no nearby routing that would provide direct access to the airport, and running a spur from, say, Flushing would be a engineering impossibility. The operations costs would be tremendous and the time savings minimal.
If New York politicians and DC leaders are serious about rail access to Laguardia, an extension of the BMT line from Astoria would be the easiest and best option. But for now, we’re just hearing lip service, and maybe that’s OK. After all, there are plenty of projects that could use the investment before we send a subway, commuter rail line or even the Airtrain to Laguardia.
William J. Ronan, the MTA’s first chairman and one of the masterminds of the drive to push Robert Moses out of power, passed away last week at the age of 101. The one-time transit leader also headed up the Port Authority, and he oversaw a tumultuous time in New York City transit history. He died at his home in West Palm Beach, Florida.
“Bill Ronan was a legend in the field of public transportation and an inspiration for everyone who understands that mass transit is the engine that powers New York,” current MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said. “His vision of how an integrated transportation system can improve the region, and his skill in turning that vision into reality, have made life better for millions of our customers every day. We at the MTA send our deepest condolences to his family, and remember his service fondly.”
Ronan became the MTA Chair on the same day the MTA came into existence — March 1, 1968 — having served as head of the successor agency, the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Authority, for three years. Ronan led the effort to integrate the LIRR into the new entity and was instrumental in pushing for an expanded system after years of contraction following the destruction of the elevated lines. Ronan though did not meet with much success as he become persona non grata following two quick fare hikes, and the public eventually stopped voting in favor of transit bonds. His MTA had restarted construction on the Second Ave. Subway in the late 1960s and had to stop work in the early 1970s.
The Times had more in its obituary of Ronan:
Dr. Ronan presided over two tumultuous increases in the subway fare: to 30 cents from 20 cents in 1970, and to 35 cents in 1972 (about $2 in today’s money). After the first increase, he received death threats, and the police detailed detectives to protect him. “I was at one point probably the most hated man in New York,” he recalled in a 2005 interview for this obituary…
The next six years were hard ones for Dr. Ronan, who inherited the chronic problems — vandalism, declining ridership and disinvestment — that would plague the transit system until the 1990s. “We’re making up for 30 years of do-nothingism in mass transportation,” he said in a 1968 interview. He laid out an ambitious expansion agenda that called for a subway line under Second Avenue, a connection from the Long Island Rail Road to the East Side of Manhattan and the construction of a new subway tunnel under 63rd Street. The first two projects, long dormant, were revived in 2000 and are under construction; the third project was completed in 2001…
He laid the groundwork for the creation of the Metro-North Railroad by acquiring, from the Penn Central Railroad, the New Haven line in 1971 and the Harlem and Hudson lines in 1972. Metro-North went into operation in 1983. But far from expanding under Dr. Ronan, the subway system actually contracted: The Myrtle Avenue El in Brooklyn shut down in 1969, the Third Avenue El in the Bronx in 1973. When he stepped down in 1974 to become chairman of the Port Authority, The New York Times described him as “the quintessential civil servant” but also as “a transportation mendicant.”
Ronan, who eventually earned some bad press while at the Port Authority for a first-class travel scandal, was a public servant through and through and a friend of transit. I wonder though if he inadvertently created a monster. In an effort to unseat someone who was beyond the touch of many politicians, he created an agency that many politicians do not want to touch. The MTA kinda sorta unified Conrail/Metro-North, the LIRR and New York City Transit under one roof but without streamlining operations and agency-level management. Today, the MTA is manipulated by the elected officials who have to pass off tough decisions and otherwise ignored. If that’s Ronan’s real legacy, it’s one to which time and, more importantly, practice have been unkind.
Thanks for bearing with me over the last few days. I’ve started a new job, and time was at a premium earlier this week. I’ve missed some big news though as someone smoke-bombed Bar Pitti by popping out of an emergency access grate just south of the West 4th St. subway station and Transit Wireless is set to unveil subway cell service at nearly 30 stations in Queens. I’ll cover that in due time, but tonight, we talk about the QueensWay.
Earlier this week, the folks behind the QueensWay — some CB heads in Queens, the Trust for Public Land, formers Parks Department head Adrian Benepe — unveiled a snazzy new website and the results of their state-funded study regarding the proposal to turn the defunct Rockaway Beach Branch right-of-way into a 3.5-mile park. They’ve designed something that they keep referring to as the High Line of Queens. It will supposedly have space for ample pedestrian pathways and a two-way bike lane; it will cost at least $125 million; and around 1 million people per year — 250,000 from outside of the area — will visit.
In a vacuum, it’s not a terrible idea. The costs are high; for only $25 million less than what it cost to build two phases of the High Line, the QueensWay would draw in around 3 million fewer visitors per year. But the renderings sure are nice, and Queens needs the to improve alternate transportation modes on a route that parallels Woodhaven Boulevard. But planning doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I’d rather see the city reimagine Woodhaven itself, and the RBBL ROW offers the city a unique opportunity to take advantage of a rail ROW through a neighborhood that badly needs high-speed transit connections. (Just look at the completely unironic Subway Links section of the website.) Unfortunately, no one as powerful as the Trust for Public Land or Benepe, let alone Gov. Cuomo who funded the latest round of renderings, is backing rail reactivation.
Over the past few days, a lot of voices have come out against the QueensWay plan. Assembly member Phil Goldfeder, one of the few politicians skeptical of the park, released his own statement:
The Queensway and Trust for Public Land have wasted taxpayer dollars on expensive, out of state consultants and one-sided studies that don’t actually represent the interests or needs of Queens families. Elected officials and community leaders from every part of the borough and as far as Manhattan have expressed full support for the complete restoration of the Rockaway Beach Rail Line and increased transit options.
In a few weeks, the Queens College Department of Urban Studies will release its own comprehensive and objective study, done by local scholars, faculty and students. I am confident that this new independent study will reflect the true needs of Queens residents and small businesses. Our growing coalition, including the MTA, will continue the fight to expand transit in Queens while easing commutes, creating jobs, cleaning the environment and expanding our economic development.
Gothamist too issued a takedown of the Queensway, echoing arguments I’ve made in the past. To me, though, there are two distinct problems with QueensWay. The first is that the people in the area and those arguing for it don’t really want it. Everyone keeps calling it the High Line of Queens as though that’s a net positive, but a non-insignificant portion of Manhattanites feel that the High Line isn’t what they wanted New York to become. It’s become a tourist trap and a high-end condo trap. Long-time residents and business have become priced out of what has become a very exclusive neighborhood. Even as I stray into NIMBY territory, divorce yourself from that Manhattan experience, and imagine it in Queens. It just wouldn’t fly.
But worse is the way this area needs rail. The MTA vaguely committed to RBBL reactivation in its 20-year needs assessment, but the project has no fiscal champion. As we’ve learned, if someone delivers money, the MTA will deliver a project. If the RBBL becomes a park, no matter how much we spend on that park, it will never be rail. When or if an impartial study says rail reactivation is a definite impossibility that no one would use, we can turn it over to the QueensWay. For now, though, this artery preserved for rail from the Rockaways to Queens Boulevard is too important to give up. It’s a shame that advocates who are usually on the same side have wound up fighting each other over this plan, but the choices we make now with regards to this 3.5-mile ROW will reverberate for decades.
No trip to Philly is complete without a walk down memory lane. #tokens #septa
I’m in Philadelphia this week for a few days for work, and I’m always reminded when I take a trip down here how, despite the problems New York has, I’d rather have the MTA running things than SEPTA. They did manage to get commuter rail through-running through Center City right — which is something the MTA and New Jersey Transit have yet to achieve. Meanwhile, my absolute favorite part of any SEPTA trip are the tokens. Somehow, Philadelphia doesn’t even have last-generation fare payment; they have mid-20th century fare payment in place. They’re working toward a new payment technology and may have something in place nearly half a decade before the Metrocard is phased out. For now, though, I’ll enjoy using the token. It’s a public transportation time machine.
First, a survey: Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, a North Brooklyn-based advocacy group, is conducting a transportation survey for those who live in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. If you fit the bill, head on over to their website to answer some questions about how much you love or hate the G train, what the city could do to improve street safety, and the reach of Citi Bike. (For background, check out this DNA Info story.) Now, onto the service advisories.
From 11:30 p.m. Saturday, October 11 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 13, 1 trains are suspended in both directions between 137 St and Van Cortlandt Park-242 St. AC, M3 and free shuttle buses provide alternate service.
From 3:45 a.m. Saturday, October 11 to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, October 12, Wakefield-241 St bound 2 trains run express from 3 Av-149 St to E 180 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 10 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 13, Flatbush Av-Brooklyn College bound 2 trains run express from Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr to Franklin Av.
From 6:00 a.m. to 11:45 p.m. Saturday, October 11 and Sunday, October 12, New Lots Av-bound 3 trains run express from Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr to Franklin Av.
From 11:00 p.m. Saturday, October 11 to 6:00 a.m. Sunday, October 12, and from 11:00 p.m. Sunday, October 12 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 13, New Lots Av-bound 4 trains run local between 125 St and Grand Cantral-42 St.
From 11:45 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. Friday, October 10 to Sunday, October 12, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, October 12 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 13, New Lots Av-bound 4 trains run express from Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr to Franklin Av.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 10 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 13, 5 trains are suspended in both directions between Eastchester-Dyre Av and E 180 St. Free shuttle buses operate all weekend between Eastchester-Dyre Av and E 180 St, stopping at Baychester Av, Gun Hill Rd, Pelham Pkwy, and Morris Park.
From 5:45 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday, October 11, and from 7:45 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, October 12, E 180 St-bound 5 trains run express from 3 Av-149 St to E 180 St.
From 7:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, October 11, and from 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Sunday, October 12, 6 trains run every 16 minutes between 3 Av-138 St and Pelham Bay Park. The last stop for some 6 trains headed toward Pelham Bay Park is 3 Av-138 St. To continue your trip, transfer at 3 Av-138 St to a Pelham Bay Park-bound 6 train.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 10 to 4:00 a.m. Monday, October 13, Pelham Bay Park-bound 6 trains run express from Parkchester to Pelham Bay Park.
From 3:45 a.m. Saturday, October 11 to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, October 12, Flushing-Main St bound 7 trains run express from Queensboro Plaza to 74 St-Broadway.
Beginning 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 13 until January 2015, Inwood-207 St bound A trains skip 104 St and 88 St.
- For Service To/From 104 St: To 104 St, take a Brooklyn-bound A train to Rockaway Blvd and transfer to an Ozone Park-Lefferts Blvd-bound A. From 104 St, take an Ozone Park-Lefferts Blvd-bound A train to 111 St or Ozone Park-Lefferts Blvd and transfer to a Brooklyn-bound A.
- For Service To/From 88 St: To 88 St, take the Brooklyn-bound A to 80 St and transfer to a Far Rockaway-Mott Av or Ozone Park-Lefferts Blvd bound A. From 88 St, take a Far Rockaway-Mott Av or Ozone Park-Lefferts Blvd-bound A to Rockaway Blvd and transfer to a Brooklyn-bound A.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 10 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 13, A trains are suspended in both directions between Ozone Park-Lefferts Blvd and Rockaway Blvd. Free shuttle buses provide alternate service between 80 St and Lefferts Blvd, stopping at 88 St, Rockaway Blvd, 104 St, and 111 St. Transfer between free shuttle buses and A trains at 80 St.
From 11:45 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. Friday, October 10 to Sunday, October 12, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, October 12 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 13, Queens-bound A trains run express from 145 St to 59 St-Columbus Circle.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, October 11 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 13, Inwood-207 St bound A trains run express from Canal St to 168 St.
From 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, October 11 and Sunday, October 12, Euclid Av-bound C trains run express from 145 St to 59 St-Columbus Circle.
From 10:45 p.m. Friday, October 10 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 13, Norwood-205 St bound D trains run express from 145 St to Tremont Av.
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, October 10 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 13, E trains are rerouted via the F line in both directions between Roosevelt Av and W 4 St-Wash Sq. Free shuttle buses provide alternate service between Court Sq-23 St and 21 St-Queensbridge, stopping at Queens Plaza.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, October 11 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 13, E trains run local in Queens.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, October 11 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 13, F trains run local in Queens.
From 5:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, October 11 and Sunday, October 12, G trains run every 20 minutes between Long Island City-Court Sq and Bedford-Nostrand Avs. The last stop for some G trains headed toward Court Sq is Bedford-Nostrand Avs. To continue your trip, transfer at Bedford-Nostrand Avs to a Court Sq-bound G train.
From 5:45 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Saturday, October 11, and Sunday, October 12, J trains are suspended in both directions between Hewes St and Essex St. Free shuttle buses provide alternate service between Hewes St and Essex St, stopping at Marcy Av. Transfer between trains and free shuttle buses at Hewes St and/or Essex St. For direct service between Brooklyn and Manhattan, consider using the AC or L via a free transfer at Broadway Junction. J service operates in two sections:
- Between Jamaica Center Parsons/Archer and Hewes St.
- Between Essex St and Chambers St, every 15 minutes.
From 5:45 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Saturday, October 11, and Sunday, October 12, M trains are suspended in both directions between Myrtle Av and Essex St. Take the JL and/or free shuttle buses instead. For direct service to/from Brooklyn, consider using the L via free transfer at Myrtle-Wyckoff Avs. Free shuttle buses provide alternate service between Hewes St and Essex St, stopping at Marcy Av.
Franklin Av Shuttle
From 12:01 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. Saturday, October 11, S Franklin Av Shuttle trains run every 24 minutes.
The Commercial Transformation of Columbus Circle
The MTA’s rehabilitation of the Columbus Circle subway stop was an odd project. Like many before and after it, it took far longer than the MTA budgeted and ended not with a ribbon-cutting or even an announcement but with a whimper. One day, it was under construction, and the next day it wasn’t. It’s still not quite finished either as the corridor underneath 8th Ave. remains simply that.
As part of the original plans, this corridor was to become a commercial space with high-end tenants. It was, then-MTA head Jay Walder told me, to be the first of a new breed of MTA real estate. Instead of dingy newsstands and off-beat shops, Columbus Circle was to pave the way for a re-envisioning of subway real estate. It could be popular and a destination in and of itself.
Now, years after the renovation wrapped, that dream is inching closer to reality, Matt Chaban wrote in The Times this week. Chaban profiled Susan Fine, the current head of Oases Real Estate and the former MTA exec who was in charge of the rebirth of Grand Central, as she works to draw in tenants at Columbus Circle. Beginning 2015, 30 storefronts will line in the corridor as a set of shops called TurnStyle. These stores will include grab-and-go options such as Magnolia bakery, some electronics and high-end shopping spots, and larger upscale fast food types.
If Fine is successful — and that’s not a given as she has to convince New Yorkers to dine in a subway station — the MTA could bring this public-private commercial partnership to other subway stations with high foot traffic and open spaces. Taking up residence in the 7th busiest subway certainly won’t hurt the cause. “The trick was really figuring out strategies to slow people down,” Jessica Walsh, one of Fine’s partners, said. “If we can make it an interesting space with its own identity, we’re pretty confident we’ll not only catch commuters, but tourists and even people on their lunch break. Deep down, we all love the subway.”
CM Rose lead Staten Island calls for transit investments
As the MTA’s next five-year capital plan has come into view, complaints from Staten Island have increased. I wrote about the isolated borough’s complaints last week and pinpointed politicians as the leading cause of their problems. To be fair to Staten Island, though, not all of their politicians are as opposed to transit improvements as others, and this week Council Member Debi Rose flashed her credentials.
In a piece for the Staten Island Advance, Rose made the case for more transit investments for Staten Island. Not satisfied with the new ferries or the promise of new rail cars for the Staten Island Railway, Rose argued for some use for the North Shore and West Shore rights of way. She isn’t wrong, but her piece highlights the political problems here as well. Rose admits that the city doesn’t invest enough in transit, and although she rails against fare hikes and toll increases, she doesn’t propose a solution or a funding scheme.
As I’ve said before, the answer here is simple: Put your money where your mouth is, and the MTA will listen. If Rose wants BRT for the North Shore ROW, all she has to do is find a way to pay for it. But would she risk alienating Staten Island drivers, a strong constituency who will not be the first to support a congestion pricing plan? I doubt it. Without leadership that leads to dollars, nothing will happen.
The Man-Spread Blight
Finally, a more whimsical piece from amNew York that delves into one of the most egregious breaches of subway etiquette: the man-spread. We’ve all been there when some guy next to us is sitting with his legs spread far wider than any normal human would ever need. Perhaps it’s overcompensation; perhaps its ego or obliviousness; perhaps it’s a combination of all three. Whatever the cause, it drives me nuts.
In an amNY piece, Sheila Anne Feeney tried to get to the bottom of this phenomenon, and her article will in turns amuse and infuriate you. The perps and defenders act so righteous — “Men need space,” one person said — while those trying to find seats get glares or worse.
A few years ago, at around the time Sandy swept through New York, Andrew Cuomo determined it looked gubernatorial and in charge for him to announce good news regarding the MTA. In the grand tradition of New York executives stretching back to 1968, Cuomo decided that the MTA could be used to boost his image with downstate voters, and now, every time good news comes out, his press office sends out an email “announcing” the happenings. Tunnels reopening? Sandy work on the R train wrapping early? New wireless service underground? Federal storm preparedness funds? It all comes from Cuomo’s office.
“What happens though when there is bad news?” you may wonder. Funny you should ask because that’s when Cuomo disappears faster than Keyser Soze. He’s more than willing to take credit for everything on which he had little to no affect; that is, after all, his prerogative as the MTA is a creation of the State of New York. But when something doesn’t go right, when there are bad headlines to be made, Cuomo does what many others have done before him — he tries to distance himself from the MTA. (He may even be exerting pressure to actively avoid bad news. From some accounts, the MTA may wait to announce the details of the 2015 fare hikes until after Election Day so Cuomo can avoid the bad press. Usually, the new fare schemes are announced in mid-October prior to a March fare hike. But I digress.)
This dynamic came to a head this week following the CPRB rejection of the MTA’s capital plan. In his comments about the capital plan, Cuomo, who you may recall is in charge of the MTA, seemed surprised that the thing had a $15 billion gap. He didn’t offer up any solutions and seems to think all is copacetic when it comes to MTA funding.
Here’s what he said to Capital New York: “The first budget from every agency also always calls for $15 billion. That’s part of the dance that we go through. That’s why I say it’s the initial, proposed budget. We’ll then look at that budget and go through, and we’ll come up with a realistic number. But we have a very real $4 billion surplus, and we have a 2 percent spending cap that I still follow. So that’s the discipline that’s in the process.”
When later asked about a funding scheme involving, say, congestion pricing, Cuomo was quick to dismiss the idea. As Kate Hinds reported, Cuomo simply said, “There’s no need for it. We have a surplus. Look, we had a $10 billion deficit, and we didn’t do tolls.” That $15 billion is just going to materialize out of thing air. (Or will Cuomo, as he intimated, use the money from the bank settlements to fund the MTA?)
For its part, in a rare act of defiance, the MTA seems to be toeing the capital line. While Cuomo has suggested the capital budget could be pared down — and it’s likely to come in below the current $32 billion price tag — Tom Prendergast spoke yesterday about the need for investing in the system. Streetsblog’s Stephen Miller was on hand to report as Prendergast defended the five-year plan. Disputing Cuomo’s earlier assertion that the proposal was “bloated,” as the governor said, Prendergast warned that he’d be willing to drive the MTA further into debt. “I don’t like greater debt finance, but I’ll tell you what,” he said, “I’ll treat that finance as a bridge to another day.”
As Miller notes, Prendergast’s co-panelists discussing transit governance were quick to point to Cuomo as the ultimate arbiter of all things MTA, whether the governor admits it or not. Many MTA board members answer to Cuomo, and Prendergast is a Cuomo appointee who serves at the pleasure of the governor. While Cuomo may try to shirk the bad news and trumpet the good, this is his beast, as it was every governor’s before him since Nelson and David Rockefeller’s plan to depose Robert Moses. The $15 billion gap is at his feet. How he moves forward will speak volumes of his approach toward New York City and transit, and I’m not feeling particularly optimistic about it.
As long-time readers (or even recent converts to the site) know, I am not a particularly big fan of the Port Authority’s PATH Hub at the World Trade Center site. It’s a monument to an architect and a mall ahead of a transit center. Already, what’s opened has been both overwhelming and less than impressive with narrow staircases and insufficient access to the platforms. As form and function pull at a limited pool of dollars, the PATH Hub is the epicenter for the debate.
Yesterday, The Atlantic’s CityLab published a piece of mine on that very topic. It’s the culmination of years of railing against the price tag and design of the PATH Hub. I’m not against great design for transit, but as it does at Grand Central, the design should flow from the function. Santiago Calatrava’s monstrosity does just the opposite as form overwhelms function.
From a practical perspective, where Grand Central seamlessly integrates commuters with its purpose as a rail depot, the Port Authority’s new hub fails its customers, the PATH-riding public. One platform is already completed, and its design flaws are obvious. Staircases are too narrow to accommodate the morning crowds who come streaming out of the trains from Hoboken, Jersey City, and beyond, while the narrow platforms quickly fill with irate commuters. Anyone trying to catch a train back to the Garden State risks a stampede. The marble, bright and sterile, picks up any spill, and a drop of water creates dangerously slippery conditions until a Port Authority janitor scurries out of some unseen door, mop in hand. Passenger flow and comfort, two of the most important elements of terminal design, seem to be an afterthought. The PATH Hub is shaping up to be an example of design divorced from purpose.
The price tag too creates consternation among those fighting for sparse transit dollars. For $4 billion, the Port Authority could have extended PATH to Brooklyn, built a one-seat ride from Lower Manhattan to JFK Airport or helped cover the cost overruns from the dearly departed ARC Tunnel. For $4 billion, the MTA could build out most, if not all, of another phase of the Second Avenue subway or the lost 7 line station at 41st Street and 10th Avenue five times over. At a time with real needs for regional transportation improvements, a $4 billion missed opportunity stings….
In his writings and lectures on “Why Architecture Matters,” the architectural critic Paul Goldberger writes: “When architecture is art, it does not escape the obligation to be practical, and its practical shortcomings should not be forgiven.” Politicians choose architects who create buildings with visual designs that leave a mark in the public memory. For an occasional visitor to Lower Manhattan, Calatrava’s building is a sight to see, but for an occasional PATH rider, Caltrava’s platforms and staircases are a reminder that transit users in the eyes of celebrity crafters are afterthoughts. The riders don’t post photos to Instagram and swoon over a stegosaurus-like structure rising out of the ashes of the Twin Towers; they grumble about narrow staircases and shoddy construction.
Please do go read the full piece at CityLab. I try to end it on an upbeat note. We as a society used to design great buildings that were also functional. If we try hard enough and focus properly, I’m sure we can do it again.