Earlier this week, I took a look at how Gov. Andrew Cuomo is exerting his influence over the MTA, a state agency. Over at Mobilizing the Region, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s blog, Nadine Lemmon picked up this thread. She writes of the fact that three of the city’s four appointees to the MTA Board haven’t been confirmed even though the Senate has been sitting on their nominations for nearly a year:
[The Senate] finished the session without taking a vote on any of Mayor de Blasio’s picks — David Jones of the Community Service Society of New York, City Council Transportation Chair Ydanis Rodriguez, and Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Veronica Vanterpool. Now, almost a year later, the city’s representatives are still waiting in limbo.
New York City is supposed to have four of the 17 seats on the MTA board. Today, the city has one active voting member: Polly Trottenberg, the city’s Transportation Commissioner. John Banks and Jeffrey Kay — still technically on the board — are holdovers from the Bloomberg administration. The other seat has been vacant since early 2015 when former Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall quietly resigned from the board after just a few months.
The missing representation is especially problematic when you consider that over 93 percent of the MTA’s ridership is on New York City Transit subways and buses, the MTA Bus Company and Staten Island Railway. The counties served by Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road have as many votes as New York City, but those systems account for less than 7 percent of total ridership. New York City Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer thinks the city ought to have not only a full four-person slate, but the majority of the MTA’s board seats. Nobody can fault the Senate for wanting to do their “due diligence,” but how can 10 months not be enough time to vet a handful of appointees?
While TSTC has a good point here, there is a bit of a rub: One of the mayor’s MTA appointees may not be eligible to serve. In February, the Daily News reported that Rodriguez, as an elected official to City Council, may have a conflict in serving on the MTA Board. He can’t owe a fiduciary duty to both the MTA and his elected constituents, and it’s not clear if his nomination can go forward. While the fate of Rodriguez’s role on the MTA is up in the air, Cuomo’s people claim they have asked the mayor to re-submit his nominations for the board, but de Blasio hasn’t done so yet. So the MTA is again a pawn in a pointless game between the mayor and the governor in which New Yorkers lose. Take that for what you will.
Meanwhile, we have service advisories to cover this week. Click through for the details. Read More→
A few days ago, an interesting article from The Economist caught my eye. It has a dateline of Wisbech, a small East Anglian town with a population of around 31,000 that’s around 40 miles north of Cambridge and around 100 miles north of London. There’s no real particular reason for anyone not from Wisbech to know Wisbech exists, let alone visit it, but there it is, a quintessential-ish British small town.
What draws our attention to Wisbech is something that isn’t there and hasn’t been since the 1960s. That missing something is passenger rail service. Wisbech has a right-of-way that would connect to Cambridge, but it hasn’t seen service since 1968 when a report by Richard Beeching, head of British Rail, called for a massive reduction in service by approximately one-third. Since then, Wisbech has hit troubled times economically.
But now, there is movement afoot in England to reverse these historical wrongs, and that’s where The Economist comes in. Take a read through this short article. I’ll excerpt the key parts:
Yet Wisbech, like many towns cut off from the rail network, is now expecting great things. In recent years several hundred miles of railways around the country have been restored. As roads clog up and urban house prices climb, commuters, environmentalists and local politicians are pushing for more old lines to be re-opened. Some 200 proposals have been put forward, says Andrew Allen of the Campaign for Better Transport, a lobby group.
It is a remarkable new trend. After the war, many thought that roads would rule and rail would go the way of canals. When Milton Keynes, a new town, was built 55 miles north of London in the 1960s, it was deemed not to need a station. One was at last opened in 1982. In 2015 6.6m journeys started or ended there. Traffic on other restored lines has boomed, too. The track that re-opened in 2015 from Edinburgh to the Borders expected 650,000 journeys in its first year. Half a million were made in the first five months.
The process of re-opening is laborious. Feasibility studies take years. But with rail journeys doubling in the past two decades, Whitehall now realises it may be easier and cheaper to add rail capacity this way than through pharaonic projects such as HS2, a high-speed link north from London, set to cost over £45 billion ($64 billion).
It is the growth of Cambridge, 40 miles to the south and a centre for high-tech, that has provided the impetus for re-connecting Wisbech. A new station is opening at the Cambridge Science Park and it is hoped that the old line to Oxford will be restored by 2024. The Wisbech rail link would halve travel time to 40 minutes. Cambridge has lots of jobs and Wisbech has cheap houses (the average price is around £150,000 compared with £398,000 in Cambridge), with a recent local plan proposing 10,000 more. If the link goes ahead, the government would meet most of the £100m cost.
As The Economist notes, Britain’s rail restoration efforts would roll back under 20 percent of the so-called Beeching Cuts, but it’s a movement that’s gaining grassroots support in small towns such as Wisbech throughout the country. For minimal investments, Britain can increase rail capacity and solve congestion issues that are plaguing the nation.
I can’t help but turn my gaze toward the LIRR’s Rockaway Beach Branch — the so-called QueensRail — or the ever-gestating Triboro RX plan. At a time when subway extensions cost over $1 billion per station and take the better of a decade to go just a few miles, reactivating rights-of-way that are no longer in service can be a cheaper, faster way to better transit, and England is proving a particularly fertile proving ground for this approach.
Over the past few decades — even over the past one decade, it often seems — attitudes to rail and transit have shifted dramatically within New York City. The subways are in fact too crowded, and even a modicum of relief is years, if not decades, away. So our rights of way that aren’t used should be preserved for rail use in the future and considered for rail reactivation now. Giving up them would be a mistake with which future generations of New Yorkers would have to live forever. Isolated areas in Queens shouldn’t turn into our own versions of Wisbech.
There’s a table in the city’s assessment of the proposed Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar that drives home the inherent tensions in the city’s plan. Over 70 percent of the expected ridership is going to use the streetcar as they would a bus. That is, instead of connecting neighborhoods in ways that the Mayor has repeatedly said it would, the streetcar will simply be another means for people to get from their homes to the subway and back.
The numbers themselves are stark. Using models that have projected exceedingly optimistic East River ferry ridership totals, the streetcar may carry 48,900 people per day by 2035, but around 71 percent of those are expected to be bound for Manhattan while another 16 percent are likely to be heading toward destinations in Brooklyn and Queens that aren’t along the streetcar route. Thus, 13 percent of riders will use the streetcar to go from one place to another along the waterfront. No wonder then the city is projecting that a whopping 21 people will use the BQX to go from Astoria to DUMBO.
On the surface, these figures aren’t a total indictment of the BQX, but they do little to assuage concerns from the opponents and skeptics that the streetcar doesn’t do anything better bus service can’t accomplish at a fraction of the cost and that the streetcar doesn’t actually serve a corridor where people need or want to go. If 0 people per day need to ride riding from Red Hook to Greenpoint, what’s the point of investing $2.5 billion in a underutilized corridor with little demand for service? And if there’s no free transfer between the streetcar and the subway, fuhgeddaboudit.
There are quite a lot of details in the report that Capital New York provided to the world earlier this week (pdf). We learn that many of the proposed stations are located in the city’s 100-year flood plan, that Two Trees was indeed the driving factor behind the proposal, and that ridership figures seem awfully rosy. We hear about how it’s not at all clear that the streetcar would operate along a 100 percent dedicated right-of-way, a strong negative for any big surface transit investment, and we learn that it could poach significant bus ridership from nearby routes (if that transfer I mentioned exists). These are tensions inherent in a project that, for reasons of politics, doesn’t play nicely with our existing transit infrastructure. And we learn that estimated travel times seem plucked out of thin air and again do not align with the current reality.
As you peruse the report, read through Dana Rubinstein’s continued coverage of the project. She offers up a few key points:
The report also amends several of the assumptions of the project’s progenitors. For one thing, as the city has already noted, the project will likely cost $2.5 billion to build, rather than the $1.7 billion originally projected. It also seems to dismiss any notion of building a streetcar spur from DUMBO to Atlantic Terminal, an idea considered by the project’s advocates, but that the report says would be duplicative and “unnecessarily” complicate the plan…
It would induce an initial 10 percent bump in demand, according to the city, and the study assumes riders won’t have to pay an additional fare to board an MTA subway or bus. (The project’s advocates argue that the induced demand could actually be up to 20 percent.)
The BQX would, the report says, reduce travel times dramatically, though some of the travel calculations used to arrive at that conclusion have raised eyebrows. The report calculates that the streetcar would cut 34 minutes from what it describes as 61-minute public transit trip from Williamsburg to Astoria. But Google maps puts the existing public transit time at somewhere in the 25- to 45-minute range. Similarly, it argues that traveling from Queensbridge to the Navy Yard now takes 59 minutes, while the streetcar would take 27. But Google maps puts the trip by F train from Queensbridge South to Brooklyn Navy Yard in the 45-minute range.
I’m not quite sure what to make of this all (though I could care less that the city may be funding competing niche transit services that appeal to a small subset of people who, by and large, have reasonably decent nearby transit alternatives). I’ve tried to find ways to like this light rail proposal because it may be a necessary step toward finding solutions for the city’s true transit deserts that don’t involve waiting infinitely long periods of time for increasingly expensive subway extensions that won’t ever see the light of day.
Yet, I’m not sure the BQX is the right example to set the table for more. We’re still eight years away from it becoming a reality, if it ever does, and the city can’t really wait that long for piecemeal solutions to an accessibility crisis. Plus, if the city spends $2.5 billion, whether its taxpayer money, Two Trees’ money or some mix of both, and no one shows up, what lessons do we learn? After all, the same company that prepared this somewhat pessimistic ridership report has over-projected streetcar ridership figures throughout the nation.
So we have this idea that’s just an idea. It faces an uphill battle, and perhaps, like Gov. Cuomo’s bad idea to route an airtrain to Laguardia via Willets Point, it won’t overcome the forces of common sense and practicality. Still, the city plans to begin outreach soon with an eye toward beginning construction in 2019. It’s so close but yet so far.
One of the real political oddities that arose out of the 1968 creation of the MTA concerns control. Since the MTA is a state agency, Albany controls the mechanism that run a subway system operated entirely within New York City. Gov. Andrew Cuomo gets to appoint the people in charge of both day-to-day operations and the agency’s oversight board. The city nominally controls four out of 17 board seats, but even those require state sign-off (and as you can imagine, the frosty relationship between Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio hasn’t inspired Cuomo to move on three mayoral suggestions). So when Cuomo spends years ignoring the MTA and then starts meddling with the wrong kinds of transit projects, city officials are right to grow weary of this setup.
Today, in Crain’s New York, City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer calls for more city control of the subways and buses. Van Bramer represents 7 train riders who recently held a town hall with MTA bigwigs over unreliable Flushing line service, and he walked away unimpressed. “New York City Transit President Ronnie Hakim had some good answers,” he writes, “but on many issues, she left us scratching our heads. Hakim didn’t seem to know much about cross-honoring MetroCards on the Long Island Rail Road when service is disrupted. One of her colleagues dismissed our claim that service is worse on Mondays after weekend track work, only to have riders cite specific delays and disruptions that the agency forgot.”
Meanwhile, Van Bramer runs through the litany of complaints: The MTA’s service metrics show decreasing reliability while capital construction projects take years and cost too much with little public accountability for delays and disruptions. The biggest projects, dollar-wise, are benefiting suburban LIRR commuters rather than NYC subway riders, and Cuomo’s budget shenanigans which force the MTA to take on more debt mean, as Van Bramer notes, “Albany is setting New Yorkers up for massive fare and toll increases down the line.”
Van Bramer offers up this solution:
The city has increased its commitment to funding MTA capital improvements to $2.5 billion. Contrast that with Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk counties, which each have a full vote on the MTA board yet don’t contribute a cent to MTA upgrades from their budgets.
The city deserves a bigger say. I’m calling on the state to increase the city’s representation on the authority’s board, and have sponsored a City Council resolution to this effect. The city, after all, stands to gain the most from improved service—or suffer the harshest consequences if the system is neglected. Now is the time. With the city’s future hanging in the balance, it makes no sense for Albany and the suburbs to call the shots for our subways and buses.
It’s almost there, but maybe not quite. More seats on the authority’s board doesn’t really get the city the control it needs, and there’s an 800-pound gorilla — or a $13 billion one, if you prefer — in the room. Someone has to fund this giant subway system, and it ain’t cheap. If the city wants control, it’s going to need to figure out how to sustain funding sources, and while the taxes and fees that fund transit are largely levied within New York City, they are assessed at the state level. Will Albany be willing to shift this revenue to city coffers without a fight? And how do we improve on the mistakes inherent in city control for the first seven decades of the subway system’s existence? What happens when fare policies are inherently local and politicians have to run on the backs of fare hikes?
The current set-up is messy, and it doesn’t help when the priorities of New York’s chief executive aren’t aligned with the transit needs of its largest city. But city control, while perhaps containing an element of common sense, may not be the simple fix we would want it to be. Ultimately, the city should have more of a say over its transit system and future, but how that control is implemented is up for debate.
As last summer’s inaction over the MTA’s capital plan cast a pall over transit expansion in New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had an odd exchange with reporters. When asked why the state seemed so averse to assisting a state agency, Cuomo indicated that the MTA was not a state agency because its headquarters were downstate. It was an answer that defied logic or reality, but it seemed to suggest that Cuomo wanted nothing to do with an important state agency he ostensibly controlled because admitting to control would involve taking on a whole raft of potential responsibilities and headaches.
What a difference a year makes. In the aftermath of the rush to approve a New York State budget on time, it seems that Cuomo, for better or worse, is asserting himself as chief executive in charge of the MTA. This time around, he’s doing it through the state’s new Design and Construction Corporation, another layer of advisory bureaucracy set up to make non-binding recommendations to state agencies on all projects worth more than $50 million. Like many transit-related projects Cuomo has touched lately, it’s a good idea — reform of capital spending — with poor execution, and the MTA isn’t quite sure what it means for the future of the agency.
Andrew Tangel of The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend on Cuomo’s new-found interest in transit. He writes:
A new state agency is fueling anxiety about New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s increasing involvement with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, raising questions over how to run the nation’s largest transit network. Supporters of the agency, including some on the MTA’s board, welcome the Democratic governor’s influence and hope his creation will speed up transit projects and keep a lid on costs…
Mr. Cuomo’s push to tighten oversight on state construction projects comes as some inside the MTA face greater involvement by the governor’s aides into the affairs of what was designed by law as an agency insulated from politics. “You can’t criticize the governor for wanting control—that’s in the genetic makeup of governors,” said Richard Brodsky, who led an effort to beef up legal protections for New York’s public authorities when he was as a Democratic state assemblyman. “But there’s a danger that if the MTA board does not exercise independent, fiduciary judgment, you’ll end up with…decisions that are based more on the governor’s needs—or the governor’s or mayor’s needs—than they are on the needs of the system.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Cuomo said the governor is committed to improving the MTA and pointed to the budget deal a few weeks ago, which is expected to provide final approval for a $27 billion capital-spending plan to pay for repair, upgrade and expansion projects.
Tangel goes on to note that Cuomo’s involvement has received “mixed reviews.” Recent Cuomo allies appointed to public-facing roles at the MTA have been received with a mixture of shrugs and befuddlement while MTA staffers have what MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast (a Cuomo ally) has called a “healthy tension” between the governor and the bureaucrats in charge of the MTA, and overall, this isn’t a particularly easy news item to reconcile.
On the one hand, the MTA manages to run trains somewhat on time (though with diminishing on-time performance lately), but the agency has an awful track record on capital projects. The biggest-ticket items are delayed and over budget with costs so far out of line with international peers as to be laughable in many corners. Meanwhile, smaller projects — I’m looking at you, Culver Viaduct rehab — take years more than promised, and transparency on both the cause of delays and the reason for the extreme expenses is nearly non-existent. The agency is ripe, in other words, for an executive takeover that can get results.
But Cuomo, on the other hand, seems to be more interested in legacy-building than on sound transit investment and better oversight. He hasn’t upheld funding promises and seems more concerned with technology projects that do little to solve the underlying mobility issues affecting New York City. Even his grand ideas — a misguided Laguardia AirTrain via Willets Point, pushing through Penn Station and a costly Laguardia overhaul — are focused on moving people into and out of New York City rather than through and around the city. The priorities are skewed and, frankly, wrong in terms of investment, oversight and impact.
So where does that leave a more meddlesome Cuomo and the MTA of which he is very in charge? It’s not quite clear. I’ve heard from MTA sources that Cuomo’s inaction on the capital plan had a profoundly negative affect on agency morale and his sticking his nose in for legacy reasons isn’t helping. I think the problems run deeper than Prendergast indicated to Tangel, and yet, it’s Cuomo prerogative, as Richard Brodsky noted to The Journal, to be in charge of a state agency. So we’ll have to ride it out. It’s guardedly better that Cuomo is paying attention, but now, he has to focus on the right things. So far, he hasn’t, and that’s a problem for all of us.
The next time I drive to my office in Manhattan from my apartment in Brooklyn will be the first time. For years, I’ve made the same trip, twice a day, on the subway, and it’s not a particularly notable trip. I take the B or the Q, switch to a 6 and get off in Midtown. On a good day, it takes around a half an hour, just enough time for me to read through the paper. Some days are more crowded than others, and despite the weary faces, it’s the way millions of New Yorkers get around. A car-free day isn’t a notable occurrence primed for self-congratulatory press conferences; it’s just a fact of New York City life.
With Earth Day upon us, City Council Transportation Committee Chairman Ydanis Rodriguez declared today Car Free Day. His heart is in the right place, but with so many similar initiatives stemming from our elected officials, it seems to miss the point. As part of the celebration, a whopping total of 11 city blocks — Broadway between 17th and 23rd Streets., Wadsworth Avenue between 173rd and 177th Streets and a block near Washington Square Park — will be closed for a few hours. Broadway, for instance, won’t see cars but only between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. It’s a token gesture if ever there was one.
In response, politicians have been awfully proud of themselves. Rodriguez, who to his credit has been a very receptive Transportation Committee head and whose heart is in the right place, has held numerous press conferences, and the mayor said he would take public transit “whenever feasible.” I doubt that includes taking the 6 to the F train instead of his usual 12-mile drive from Gracie Mansion to his gym in Park Slope (because there are no Upper East Side gyms near his mayoral home apparently). Much like the Mayor’s toothless Vision Zero initiative, Car Free Day in practice is just a marketing campaign, and until city officials are willing to change policies and practice, the streets will remain clogged with cars who face no consequences for blocking pedestrians or otherwise running rampant over them.
But there’s another problem with this approach to Car-Free sloganeering: The idea that a car-free day is something exceptional creates a divide with an implicit message that people who feel they have to drive everywhere are somehow more important than the rest of us who take the subway everyday. They’re not; they simply think they are and the city, through lax enforcement and an unwillingness to make a few tough decisions, has created an incentive structure that doesn’t resolve this apparent inequity. Why we all take the subway is inherently personal. For most people, it’s economic; even with recent fare hikes, it’s far cheaper to buy a MetroCard than it is to maintain a car in New York City and drive it into Manhattan every day. For others, it’s one of convenience as the subway is simply faster and easier. Whatever the reason, they’re all perfectly valid.
Ultimately, Car-Free Day is directed at a minority of New Yorkers with an outsized voice. Based on the latest hub-bound travel report, only around 24 percent of people entering Manhattan’s central business district due so in a car (and that includes taxis, vans and trucks in addition to personal automobiles). For everyone else, Car-Free Day is a fact of life and not just a photo opp.
In some reality, the MTA’s recent five-year capital began nearly 16 months ago at the start of 2015, and we are well into year two of the work. In our reality, Gov. Andrew Cuomo still hasn’t really funded the plan, and the five-year spending proposal hasn’t gone through the state approval process. Yet, on Wednesday, for the third time in two years, the MTA released a draft of the capital program. The agency thinks this one will finally garner Capital Program Review Board sign-off, and in it are plans to begin in earnest Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway.
This element of the capital plan — the northern extension of the Second Ave. Subway to Lexington and East 125th St. — is not without controversy. In August of 2014, when the MTA first put forward this five-year plan, the funding request for Phase 2 was $1.5 billion, and the MTA expected to begin construction in 2019. As Cuomo dragged his feet, though, the MTA had to revise the plan, and an October 2015 version included only $500 million for preliminary design and engineering work. The MTA said it couldn’t start work before the end of 2019 and planned to request the balance in the 2020-2024 plan. East Harlem pols were not happy, and politicians began a push to examine construction timelines (albeit one that came far too late).
When the state finally approved a budget a few weeks ago, Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway was back on the table, and the MTA has released the third version of their 2015-2019 capital plan that reflects this expenditure (pdf). All told, the MTA will spend around $1.035 billion on Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, with approximately $500 million coming from the feds. The plan is a bit of a hedge as heavy construction won’t begin until 2019, and if the MTA misses that deadline, as the agency expected to six months ago, they can roll the money over into 2020 while lining up the rest of the funding to begin work on that phase.
If all goes according to plan, the MTA will spend around $535 million on environmental, design, and real estate and project support in order to begin utility relocation work for Phase 2. The new plan also, in the MTA’s words, “reserves $500 million to support progressing major construction activities.” This is a promise to maybe kinda sorta begin real work on Phase 2 by the end of 2019 with an eye toward ramping up construction activity through funds available in the next capital plan. (What happens if the next capital plan takes years to approve is an open question.) While the proposal allows for modest expenditures spread out over four calendar years, the reserve is all bucketed for 2019. Do you think major construction will start by then? I’m not convinced.
Meanwhile, at Wednesday’s board meeting, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast echoed MTA Capital Construction President Michael Horodniceanu’s off-the-cuff cost estimate from early November. The agency still expects Phase 2 to cost between $5-$6 billion, an exceedingly hight amount even in New York City. Most of the costs seem tied up in the 125th St. station which involves tunneling underneath Metro-North tracks and the Lexington Ave. Subway while building a deep-bore subway stop that’s up to modern safety codes. It’s still not yet clear if the MTA intends to utilize pre-existing tunnel segments north of 96th St. that may be too close to the surface to support the MTA’s current approach to subway construction. We’ll know definitively one way or another within the next year or so.
And thus, this never-ending saga inches closer to another phase. One day, we may even have a full length Second Ave. Subway, but as the tenth anniversary of construction on Phase 1 nears, it’s still going to be a while.
As a new experiment in underground retail space opened on Tuesday, a question I never really thought I would ask crossed my mind: Will New Yorkers stop in the subway to buy artisanal mini doughnuts? It’s very much a question of the moment, but with Goldman Sachs fronting over $11 million for Columbus Circle’s TurnStyle, the first privatized retail concourse in the subway system, there is a lot riding on the answer.
TurnStyle has been in the works for years. It’s the brainchild of Susan Fine, a principal at OasesRE who has overseen the rebirth of retail spaces in both Grand Central and Rockefeller Circle, and it was originally supposed to open last year. But time is a fleeting concept when it comes to MTA projects, and TurnStyle, a 30,000 square foot market outside of fare control and underneath 8th Ave. from 57th St. to around 59th St., opened yesterday.
Before the renovation to the Columbus Circle, this passageway was a bit forlorn with a few uninspiring shops and empty spaces. The MTA booted everyone out seven years ago, and now, after a $14.5 million private investment that included a $8.7 million construction loan and a $3.6 million equity investment from Goldman Sachs, the space reopened with a veritable New York 2016 feel. Whether you find that to be a positive or a negative is an inherently personal conclusion.
So what is this thing called TurnStyle anyway? It has a cute name and 39 retail spaces, including 20 that the company is calling “gourmet eateries.” It features takeout windows, like the doughtnut shop, and sit-down joints, ranging from sushi to pizza to crepes to grilled cheese. Eater has a full rundown of the food spaces. There are retail and pop-up spots that included a clothing boutique and a hat store, and of course, there’s a Starbucks, a florist and a wine shop for when you need to grab that bouquet and a bottle on the way to the D train.
“We bring choice, convenience and modern, clean design to the 90,000 daily commuters who use this Midtown hub,” Fine said. “TurnStyle is leading the movement to make urban public space more dynamic and engaging. Our vision was to reimagine the subway experience by bringing Main Street underground, and make TurnStyle a destination in its own right and become a new part of the fabric of this neighborhood.”
The question is: Will it work? It helps that Columbus Circle is the seventh busiest subway stop in the city with 23.3 million entries last year. Located at a popular spot for workers, residents and tourists, the built-in audience is tremendous. Plus, the spot looks good. With better lighting and fixtures, it’s brighter and cleaner with colorful tiles and digital signs. Even those subway riders who didn’t know about it stopped to note the environment last night. It could be a model for other underused open spaces in the subway — so long as these spaces can attract the right passenger volume.
It’s possible then that TurnStyle works only because of where it is. It’s likely a model that could be implemented to great success in the concourse underneath 8th Ave. at 42nd St. and perhaps in a few other closed off areas of the subway (such as the passageway under 6th Ave. in the upper 30s or between 7th and 8th Avenues underneath 14th Street). It’s unlikely to work in, say, a G train station with wide and empty mezzanines because the foot traffic isn’t there.
But for now, it’s a novelty and a well executed one at that. The MTA profits off of the rent, and Fine and her partners draw in revenue as well. It may not be an all-encompassing solution to the dreariness of everyday subway riding, but it’s a brighter spot in one corner of the New York City subway system.
As the RPA tries to make the most out of the looming L train shutdown and Manhattan riders gird for a 14th St. without subways, the MTA is slowly taking the Canarsie Tube bull by the horns. At Monday’s board committee meetings, the MTA announced that whatever shutdown the agency settles on will begin during the first quarter of 2019, nearly three years from now. With ample time to plan alternate routes, the MTA also unveiled the scope of the damage Hurricane Sandy enacted on the L train’s tunnel and later in the day announced two upcoming public outreach meetings.
The big news here is the schedule for work. We don’t know if this Sandy work will involve 18 months of a full shutdown, three years of partial shutdowns or the terrible Gale Brewer-inspired seven years of no service on nights and weekends without the mitigation plan that would come with a concentrated work effort. But we do know that the L train’s riders have around 35 months to prepare for the worst. The MTA, which says it will work with NYCDOT (buses) and EDC (ferries) to prepare alternative service, will begin the tunnel shutdown before March of 2019 ends. Mark your calendars.
So what goes into the Canarsie Tube rebuild? The MTA listed out all the work that needs to be performed, and it’s quite a doozy of a list. As you’ll see, this is why a partial shutdown is impractical and a nights-and-weekends only plan is foolish:
- Reconstruction of 7 miles of duct bank
- Replacement of 56 miles of power, communication and signal cables
- Reconstruction of 2.7 mi. of track
- Replacement of 2 circuit breaker houses (CBH)
- Repair of 2 fan plants
- Rehabilitation of 1 pump room
- Construction of 1 new substation
The MTA also confirmed that the Sandy work will allow for other station improvements as well. The 1st Ave. stop will indeed get ADA-compliant entrances at Ave. A, thus opening up Alphabet City to the L train, and Bedford Ave. will receive ADA treatment as well as more expansive mezzanines and and street entrances to improve passenger flow. These are sorely needed improvements, but the MTA hasn’t yet discussed the RPA’s golden egg of tail tracks west of 8th Ave. which would be a huge boost to operations and line capacity.
So with all this work lined up, next up comes the tough part: The MTA is going to hold two public outreach meetings in Brooklyn along the L train in the coming weeks. The first is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 5th, and it will take place at the Marcy Avenue Armory at 355 Marcy Avenue in Brooklyn (a location not that close to the L train). The second meeting will be held in Manhattan. As yet, the MTA does not yet know who will attend this meeting, but the MTA noted that the long lead time before construction begins provides “ample time for both the selection of a construction plan and the development of service alternatives.”
Yet, the contract must be signed before the end of this year, and thus, the agency will work to formulate a plan for the shutdown sooner rather than later. How much a say the public has — and how cooperative the community of L train riders will be — remains to be seen. The MTA says the meetings will include “include an in-depth discussion of the potential construction approaches currently under consideration” and an open house for community members to discuss their concerns. The agency also promised to work with residents, businesses, community boards, merchant groups and civic associations along the L line, but not everyone — perhaps no one — will be happy when the inevitable happens.
As MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast’s statements made clear, the agency views an L train shutdown as nearly unavoidable. The key will be alternative service then rather than delayed pain. “The heavy damage sustained by the Canarsie Tunnel during Superstorm Sandy,” Prendergast said, “requires that we undertake a full reconstruction in order to ensure the integrity of the tunnel and the safety of our riders for generations to come.”
Unfortunately, for the MTA and its contractors working underneath the Upper East Side, time is marching inevitably forward toward December. As the agency is facing mounting pressure both internally and externally to deliver Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway by the end of the year, we are receiving monthly updates in the form of MTA Board meeting materials on the project, and each month the story is the same: The MTA’s work schedule is aggressive and not being met with the usual suspects looming as issues. Last month, I detailed how escalators and elevators may again delay the opening of a major MTA project, and this month, we hear more of the same.
The latest is found starting on page 48 of the MTA Capital Construction pdf that the MTA’s oversight committee will discuss later this morning. The short of it is that one station — 72nd Street — may gum up the works for the rest of Phase 1, and overall, escalator and elevator installation efforts are falling behind schedule. Right now, four of seven key milestones at 72nd Street are behind schedule. These involve elevator and HVAC installation and tunnel vent fans. At both 86thand 96th Streets, escalator and elevator installation is a few weeks behind schedule. All work at 63rd St. remains on schedule even as half the station continues to serve F trains.
In each case, the MTA claims the delayed timelines will not affect the projected December 2016 revenue service date, but the agency’s independent engineering consultant isn’t as confident. First, the IEC notes that only 70 percent of tracking milestones met in March were met and that the lack of improvements at 72nd St. mean that the problems with escalator and elevator installation “remain close to impacting the target [revenue service date].” As they have done so in past months, the IEC again warns that the MTA’s testing schedule is “highly compressed which maximizes the demand on NYCT staff.” But this is an all-hands-on-deck effort right as the MTA is engaged in what is essentially an eight-month sprint, but demand on staff is an ancillary concern at best.
Ultimately, the IEC is worried, and they sum up their concerns succinctly:
- The work effort at the 72nd Street Station site has not reached the level necessary to support the accelerated schedule.
- Late design changes have continued through March and the backlog of changes may present a risk to the scheduled completion of the testing program.
In response to this development that one of three stations could hold up the entire project, a few readers have asked me if the MTA could open Phase 1 but keep 72nd Street closed until elevator and escalator installation is completed. As of now, this isn’t a particularly likely scenario and may present a challenge to the way the MTA operates. For now, MTA Capital Construction, a distinct agency under the MTA umbrella, has control over the entirety of Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway, and when all systems are completed, tested and accepted, they’ll turn over the project to MTA New York City Transit, a different agency under the MTA umbrella. (For the 7 line extension, MTA CC didn’t turn over the reins until shortly before the ribbon-cutting on the station, and even now, remediation work is ongoing.)
MTA CC can’t turn over part of the project while retaining control over another part, and the MTA can’t get certified to open the station with, say, only escalators and no elevators due to ADA compliance issues. It is essentially an all or nothing proposition. So everyone is holding their collective breaths as December ticks closer. We’ll get another report in May, but the key updates will arrive in June when the testing schedule must come into focus to meet the December revenue service date. We won’t know until very late in the year if the project will be delayed, but the warning signs are there. Anyone betting on the actual opening date?