After years and years of massive growth, something a little bit funny and a little bit predictable happened to New York City’s weekend subway ridership last year: It declined. This is the first year since the Great Recession in late 2008 led to a subsequent dip in ridership in 2009 that weekend trips have gone down, and although many have pointed to Uber as a likely culprit and convenient scapegoat, it is a symptom, rather than a cause, of the downtown.
The MTA released its preliminary ridership figures at its board meetings at the end of February. Overall ridership was 1.7568 billion for the year, off the budgeted amount by around 2.5 percent and slightly off the 2015 pace. Nearly all of the losses came on the weekends.
During the week, the subways are still very crowded. Average weekday ridership is now 5.656 million, up by around one-tenth of a percent over 2015’s figure, and on 39 weekdays (down from 45 in 2015), ridership was over 6 million. But with a few extra weekend days in 2016, ridership sagged. Weekend subway ridership averages dropped from 5.943 million in 2015 to 5.758 million in 2016, a decline of around 3.1 percent.
As frequently happens in transit and rail circles, Uber took the blame. A Times piece called out Uber in a headline, and the interim MTA Chair Fernando Ferrar suggested that the increasing popularity in cab hailing apps in New York City is putting pressure on the MTA’s ridership numbers. When you consider that Uber’s VC money is going toward artificially deflating fares and a trip from disjointed neighborhoods miles away can cost under $15 as they did this past weekend, it’s easy to see why Uber is to blame.
But are nearly 200,000 New Yorkers each weekend giving up their subway rides because of Uber or is Uber (and other city improvements such as Citi Bike) replacing these subway rides for other reasons? I’m inclined to believe the latter. Now, it’s certainly possible that Uber has led to a decline in subway ridership; you can chart the ups and downs of taxi usage in NYC right here. But to believe Uber is the driving force behind subway ridership drops requires you to believe that nearly every single new daily taxi ride in NYC in 2016 replaced a subway ride. That seems like a stretch to me.
So what’s the problem? To me, this chicken-and-egg problem starts with the MTA and the simple truth that weekend subway service is abysmal, unpredictable and unreliable on a week-to-week basis. These three factors alone would be enough in any other city to torpedo transit ridership entirely. That the MTA’s hasn’t cratered on weekends yet shows how resilient the subway is to relatively poor service and how necessary it is for New Yorkers to get around.
Getting around the city on a weekend is a total crap shoot. Between necessary work and the MTA’s lack of transparency regarding changes, weekend service can be slow and frustrating to decipher. Press releases on weekend GOs are often not released until Friday afternoon, just a few hours before changes go into effect, and signs at stations are an indecipherable mess of F trains running on the Q line but only southbound in Manhattan while shutting buses run in Brooklyn and G trains replace F trains to Coney Island, whatever that all means to the uninitiated. This weekend’s changes aren’t likely to be in effect next weekend when an entirely new set of service patterns are briefly established with the same few hours of warning for most people. The Weekender is a graphical mess, and it’s often easier just to walk, bike or, you know, open up Uber, hail a Lyft or flag a cab. T
hat there are viable replacements shows that people aren’t wedded to the subway if it’s not convenient; they’re not, on the other hand, eating into subway service simply by existing. It’s still cheaper and usually faster to take a subway. That said, if your peer group is a bunch of upper middle class yuppies, Uber will be the easy and relatively inexpensive replacement for subway service, especially on the weekends. It’s up to the MTA to combat this decline by offering either better weekend service or a clearer picture of how weekend changes will effect our rides.
Of course, in the end, even as the MTA budget relies on ridership projections, we’re a long way from the bad old days. Total ridership in 2016 was up 77.6 percent since ridership was at its nadir in 1982. That’s impressive growth, but with a system aging and struggling to expand, it’s not impossible to believe that the only way to go from here is down.
Half a political lifetime ago, Bill de Blasio seemed interested in extending transit to under-served neighborhoods on his own. He didn’t require a giant push from real estate interests looking to boost property values in already-gentrified neighborhoods, and he seemed on the verge of following through on Mayor Bloomberg’s realization that the city could bypass Albany by funding its own subway expansion plans. That moment involved the OneNYC proposal and the Mayor’s call for a study to assess a Utica Ave. subway.
Perhaps we — the general transit-lovin’ community of New Yorkers who pay close attention to this kind of stuff — got too excited by it. After all, when I went back tonight to re-read my post from April of 2015, it seems clear that de Blasio wasn’t asking for much. He wanted a study of Utica Ave. and committed the bare minimum of dollars to the project. But as we sit here in 2017, the year in which the MTA was expected to spend the dollars for the study, nothing has happened.
As a refresher, the Utica Ave. request was open-ended. The mayor’s proposal called for “a study to explore the expansion of the subway system south along Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, one of the densest areas of the city without direct access to the subway. ” The MTA’s 2015-2019 capital plan took up the call and morphed this request into a study of an “extension of the Eastern Parkway line to provide service on the 3 and 4 lines along Utica Avenue in Brooklyn. The study will be coordinated with the City of New York and may examine extension options, supporting land use changes, and financing strategies.” The MTA allocated the $5 million as a 2017 line item, but nothing has happened.
Recently, two pieces explored just what is going on with the Utica Ave. study. In November, writing for The Village Voice, Stephen Miller found a bunch of nothing happening, and a few weeks ago, writing for Gotham Gazette, Elena Burger found a bunch of nothing happening. I’m sensing a theme. The relevant pieces seem to tell the same story. From Miller:
The MTA told the Voice that before work gets going, it is talking with the city to get a better idea of what the de Blasio administration is looking to get out of the study, before hiring a consultant to prepare the report next year. “DOT is actively working with the MTA and the Department of City Planning on a study of the extension of the Utica Avenue subway line,” a transportation department spokesperson said.
The city might claim it’s “actively working,” but elected officials along the route have yet to hear anything. “It’s really been quiet,” said Assembly Member N. Nick Perry. “Our office hasn’t been included in any of the planning meetings for the Utica Avenue subway, if there have been any,” said a spokesperson for State Senator Kevin S. Parker. “As of yet, there has not been outreach by the MTA or DOT to my office regarding the Utica Avenue subway extension study,” State Senator Jesse Hamilton said in a statement.
Councilmember Jumaane Williams said his office checked in with the MTA after the Voice started asking questions. “We haven’t had much conversation,” he said. “There’s money there for a study. We do want to find out when it’s going to start and get more information about it.”
Three months later, the same people had much the same to say to Burger:
But elected officials and residents have heard little about the planned study — which was scheduled to be conducted in the current fiscal year ending June 30 — and are beginning to voice their complaints about a lack of communication from the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the New York City Department of Transportation.
“I definitely wasn’t consulted, I do know about the study, but I wasn’t told about it.” said Council Member Jumaane Williams, who represents the East Flatbush district where the line would be built. Williams said he had to contact the DOT directly after he learned about the study in 2015, and ask for an update himself. “My hope is that maybe with this new study, they’re trying to get us more involved…but the reality is I don’t think many of us are aware,” he said.
…State Assemblymember N. Nick Perry, whose district includes Williams’ constituency, said he has been given scant information on the proposed study. “I know there’s been a little noise about this, but I haven’t heard anything more,” Perry said. “So far it’s still something in the pipeline and it may be quite a long pipeline.”
An MTA spokesperson told Berger that the agency, along with NYC DOT “launched the study process last year.” It’s not entirely clear what that means as no one really wants to talk about it and politicians have not been involved in the process. We’ll see if anything comes of it.
But just because nothing is happening doesn’t mean there isn’t a lesson here. Setting aside the question as to whether a Utica Ave. subway extension is a better use of dollars than, say, the BQX (spoiler alert: it is), this type of transit planning limbo is what happens when dollars and a champion don’t materialize. Bill de Blasio never really cared about the Utica Ave. subway. Likely, some staffer inserted a paragraph into the OneNYC report and billed as a way to draw attention to increased mobility in a middle income area without particularly robust transit options. The mayor didn’t object, but he allocated the bare minimum of dollars for the project. It seems you can’t even buy a study for $5 million, let alone plans for a subway line.
For a project of this nature — or really any transit project in 2017 — to become a reality, it needs a champion. It needs someone who will make the case for the project start to finish, and more important, it needs someone who deliver all of the dollars for the project and not just a token amount of pocket change to burnish those bona fides. Even more than the BQX, the Utica Ave. subway was a nice bit of vaporware. At some point, there may be a study, but don’t hold your breath for a subway. No one in power seems to care enough.
As bad transit ideas go, New York City has had its fair share in recent years. While it shouldn’t have been canceled, the ARC Tunnel featured a dead-end terminal half a mile beneath Macy’s, and it was topped by only the ongoing money pit that is East Side Access, a dead-end terminal half a mile beneath Grand Central. The BQX, likely the city’s greatest bit of vaporware ever, still hasn’t been canceled, and then we have the Laguardia AirTrain in a class all of its own.
The Laguardia AirTrain is the stubborn bad idea that just won’t die. It came out of nowhere in early 2015, and while it could have been a good idea pushed by a strong state leader, Cuomo’s plan sent the AirTrain in the wrong direction. The system would connect LaGuardia with the 7 train and LIRR at Willets Point. So while most LaGuardia travelers just want to get to Manhattan, this thing will take them further away from where they want to go. When the plan first came out, I discovered how, in a true alternatives analysis, the no-build option would be best.
The idea fell by the wayside for a while, but now it’s back. Cuomo, who could have tried to push through an N train extension to the airport, seems intent on realizing this cockamamie transit plan. “The millions of passengers who travel through LaGuardia each year deserve a convenient and reliable mass transit option that connects this key transportation hub to the heart of Manhattan,” he said in a statement a few weeks ago. “We are transforming LaGuardia into a world-class transportation gateway, and an essential piece of the puzzle is ensuring rail mass transit access to the airport. With this action, we’re taking the next major step toward making this a reality.”
The latest announcement concerned the RFP for the entire project. It will eventually involve significant work on the current Willets Point station and construction of the AirTrain over the Grand Central Parkway. Cuomo’s release claims this new AirTrain will provide a ride of less than 30 minutes to Midtown, but that relies on a significant increase in LIRR service along the Port Washington line or an impossible two-way express service on the 7.
The costs meanwhile have, not shockingly, creeped ever upward. What was once billed as a $400 million project is now budgeted for over $1 billion in the latest Port Authority capital plan, but it’s not clear exactly how much the LaGuardia project itself will cost. The budget includes money for AirTrain improvements at both LaGuardia and Kennedy, but the LaGuardia proposal will cost at least $1 billion.
So why is this plan proceeding? Over at The Village Voice, Max Rivlin-Nader offered up his view. He writes, “Cuomo is insisting on the Willets Point connection because it’s the most expedient. By building above a train depot and having the train zip alongside the Grand Central parkway, he’ll avoid any community complaints. And, he’ll finally have a train.”
The problem, of course, is that once this train is built, we’re stuck with it. The N train will never go to Laguardia; a potential routing from Jackson Heights will fall by the wayside. Cuomo won’t be the governor forever, but New Yorkers will have to live with a Laguardia AirTrain routing that makes sense for umpires tasked with games at Citi Field, U.S. Open fans, and the Braves trying to get back to Atlanta. It will, in every sense of the word, become a transit boondoggle, used by few and scorned by many, another arrow in the quiver of the argument that we can’t build useful transit projects at reasonable costs.
It doesn’t have to be like that. Cuomo could use his political capital to push back on whoever remains from the late 1990s Astoria NIMBYs who fought against an N train extension. He could promote something useful and direct, that would benefit workers and travelers. He could leave a positive legacy on Laguardia and its accessibility. Instead, the AirTrain to nowhere inches closer to reality. It just won’t die.
In the hullabaloo over the opening of the Second Ave. subway, the revolving door that is the MTA Chair/CEO position started to turn again as Tom Prendergast announced that he planned to retire at the end of January, and as January came to an end last week, Prendergast did just that. After 25 years heading up the LIRR, New York City Transit and the entirety of the MTA, Prendergast worked his last day on January 31. He will be replaced by current New York City Transit President Ronnie Hakim on an interim basis with Fernando Ferrer overseeing the MTA Board.
“Ronnie Hakim is ready to embrace the challenge of running the nation’s largest transportation network during this transition. She is a true transportation professional who has dedicated her life to improving the commute for millions of New Yorkers and I am confident that in this new role she will continue doing that as we reimagine and modernize the MTA for the 21st century,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement announcing the interim succession plan.
When Prendergast first announced his retirement in early January, it did not come as a surprise to Cuomo as the two had been taking about it for a few months. Transit advocates and politicians had hoped that the governor would be ready to name a permanent replacement at the time, but instead, Cuomo has opted to engage in a search committee — which includes Prendergast and Ferrer — to find a suitable candidate for the top spot at the nation’s largest transit agency. Joining this committee will be one-time MTA head Joe Lhota, Kathryn Wylde of the Partnership for NYC, RPA Chair Scott Rechler, TWU President John Samuelsen, and former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater.
At one point, Lhota had been mentioned as a potential replacement, but he put this speculation to rest via his Twitter feed:
— Joe Lhota (@JoeLhota) January 25, 2017
So who is, then, on the short list? Hakim is under consideration for the job, but according to The Times, Cuomo, who has taken a heavier hand of late with the MTA, could opt for one of his loyalists. Lawrence Schwartz, an MTA Board member, and Rick Cotton are on the list along with NYSDOT Commissioner Matthew Driscoll, Port Authority head Patrick Foye (who desperately wants to leave the PA), Anthony Foxx and John Porcari (though Porcari has told confidants he’s not interested in the job). If chosen, Hakim would be the first woman tabbed for the job.
Prendergast’s ultimate successor though has his or her work cut out for him or her. The L train shutdown is looming large with little public-facing urgency from MTA and NYC DOT to resolve what will be a disruptive situation, and the next board head will have to confront steep declines in subway performance and spiking capital costs while navigating the transit politics of Cuomo which may be well-intentioned but wrongly focused.
So it is again another time of transition atop the MTA. Prendergast leaves with his legacy more or less on the positive side. System-wide subway ridership is up, but he never solved the problems with buses. On-time performance has slipped precipitously, but the MTA opened four new stations under his watch. And he oversaw a period of labor peace (though without enacting any badly-needed work rule reforms). It’s a pivotal time for the MTA (though when isn’t it?), and we’ll have to see how long this executive search can drag on as time ticks toward the L train shutdown.
At the last board meeting of his almost four-year tenure atop the MTA, outgoing Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast had the unfortunate opportunity to oversee yet another vote to approve a fare hike. For Prendergast, this was the agency’s second fare increase during his tenure, and he missed a third by a matter of days as Joe Lhota resigned from the MTA nearly moments after voting for the 2013 fare hike. These increases have become a way of life for New York, part of the MTA’s fiscally responsible plan to catch up with inflation by raising rates every two years, but this economic reality doesn’t make them any easier to swallow.
For the MTA, last week’s fare hike vote came wrapped in intrigue. The MTA had proposed a $3 base fare with a substantial 16 percent bonus for pay-per-ride card purchases above $6 which effectively made the fare $2.59. But the public could not stomach a $3 per-swipe deduction, and the agency ultimately approved a deal worse for all but ocassional riders and those who cannot afford to buy fares in bulk. The per-swipe cost will still be $2.75, but the bulk discount bonus will drop to 5 percent for purchases of $5.50 and above. The actual cost of a ride, then, will be $2.62 or three cents more than it would have under the $3 proposal. It is perhaps a psychological victory for riders but not exactly an economic win.
For those who pay time-based passes, the increases were a fait accompli as both fare hike proposals included the same increases for unlimited ride cards. A 30-day card will now cost $121, up $4.50 for its current rate, and 7-day cards will see a $1 bump to $32. For those who ride at least 47 times a month and can afford an initial $121 outlay, the 30-day card is the best deal while the 7-day card requires 13 rides. Express bus fares jumped 50 cents, and Metro-North and LIRR riders will see increases of around four percent, all of which are tracked in this pdf.
The new fares will go into effect on March 19, and I’ll have any details on grace periods for 30-day cards and other sunsetting windows as the MTA announces them. The agency, meanwhile, tried to spin this with good news as this year’s biennial increase is a lower-than-expected hike. “The MTA is focused on keeping our fares affordable for low-income riders and frequent riders, and on how we can keep necessary scheduled increases as small and as predictable as possible,” Prendergast said in a statement. “Keeping fares and tolls down was possible because of the continued operational efficiencies and ways we have reduced costs while adding service and capacity along our busiest corridors, most recently with the opening of the new Second Avenue subway.”
Yet, what was notable about the debate of the fare hike wasn’t really around the details of the MTA’s fifth fare hike since 2009 but rather what it didn’t include: any relief for low-income riders. For months, a coalition of activist groups has been pushing the city, state and MTA on implementing a subsidized fare program for low-income riders who are challenged to find the money for transit fares. Depending upon the income cut-off, such a program would likely cost around $174 million per year, in line with the total amount the MTA spends on subsidized student fares. Groups have targeted both the mayor and the governor, but in the grand tradition of the de Blasio-Cuomo feud, the mayor has pointed to the governor as responsible for transit funding decisions and the governor has done nothing. It’s possible to make a case that either the city or state should fund this initiative, and I’m not sure there’s a wrong answer. But right now, no one is funding this fair fare proposal.
And so our rides will get a little bit more expensive in March. It’s becoming the cost of doing business in an era without congestion pricing or cost controls.
It’s been a few days, and the news hasn’t stopped on the transit front. As the MTA Board prepares to vote for a fare hike on Wednesday — Plan B appears to be in the lead — let’s look at one of the more recent developments: a new labor deal. The fare hike I’ll cover this week once the Board officially votes on that looming $3 base fare.
In the afterglow of the opening of the Second Ave. Subway, the MTA’s peaceful resolution of labor negotiations with the TWU slipped under the radar for many, but after nearly a decade of rancorous back-and-forth, stemming in part from fallout over 2005 and in part with poor relationships between TWU presidents and the revolving door of MTA heads, the two sides have reached something of a detente. By many accounts, this is due to the heavy-handed style of Gov. Andrew Cuomo; he wants to run a smooth ship in New York to position himself for a national run. Whatever the reason, the TWU and MTA came to terms on a deal the day the old one expired.
For the union, the deal guarantees wage increases slightly above the recent pace of inflation, and the TWU has trumpeted the new agreement featuring “No Concessions!” That means no work-rule reform, no reduction in staff and, on the MTA’s side of the ledger, no labor cost reform. TWU workers get 2.5 percent wage increases this year, and another 2.5% on February 16, 2018. A pension cash bonus of $500 comes due in early 2019, and night and weekend workers get a bump in salary. A slate of other benefits, ranging from better shoes to uniform cleaning allowances to commutation passes, were included in the deal.
It’s a fine one for the workers, but some are concerned with how it will impact the MTA’s books. The Citizens Budget Commission released a statement:
“New Yorkers should welcome the news of 28 months of labor peace on the subways and buses, but it comes at a price. The settlement is more generous than the MTA’s financial plan provides and may require higher fare increases than planned or more borrowing to support the capital program. It also means another 28 months are lost before productivity gains from work rule and benefit changes can be achieved.”
Similarly, Nicole Gelinas, writing in The Post, flagged a few areas of concern, the “me-too” clause. She writes:
If the separate unions at the Long Island Rail Road get raises that are higher than what the subway and bus workers just got, the MTA has to “reopen” its agreement with the subway and bus workers, presumably to offer the higher raises. TWU workers want this provision because they make less than LIRR workers. The Empire Center notes that in 2014, the average New York City transit worker made $76,230, while the LIRR worker made $106,103.
But LIRR workers make good money for a bad reason: Federal railroad law governs them, and allows them to go on strike, just like airline workers. That means they can, as they did three years ago, threaten to hold the region hostage so they can wring higher pay. Subway and bus workers, by contrast, are forbidden by state law from striking.
Railway insiders have long wanted the feds to reform the laws that help push LIRR pay so high, so the MTA would have more control over its own labor negotiations. It makes no sense to attack the problem from the other direction: the MTA voluntarily replicating its weaker commuter-rail negotiating position when it comes to subway workers. Plus, as a practical matter, the LIRR only employs about 7,000 people. The subways and buses employ nearly 50,000. It makes even less sense for union leaders who represent a relatively small workforce to set the wages for the much larger workforce. Finally, now that the TWU workers have this provision, it will stay there and govern future contracts, too — unless the MTA “pays” something in the future to take it out.
On top of this new seemingly innocuous clause, the MTA hasn’t released any information on the actual costs of the new TWU deal, and the Board is voting on Wednesday to raise fares. We don’t know how much the new deal will cost the MTA; we don’t know what impact that will have on the MTA’s outright deficit projections; and we don’t know how much this will increase the next fare hike in 2019. (No matter the numbers, it won’t be Tom Prendergast’s responsibility as he’s leaving next Tuesday.)
For the TWU, the wage increases are deserved and well-earned. No one should begrudge a modest wage increase for the men and women who run our subways. But the MTA continues to give away the farm without any concessions on work rule reform; for instance, it’s been years since OPTO was even on the negotiating table. And the people who continue to pay for this are the riders, through higher fares for the same service. It’s an unsustainable model no one is willing to change.
Since returning from Paris, I’ve been through the Second Ave. Subway twice. On Saturday, I took a ride up there in the snow and snapped a bunch of photos, many of which you see in this post. On Monday, I rode up there with Matt Chaban, and he turned that trip into a story on me and this site for the Village Voice. Each time, I was struck by how this new thing that looks a bit out of place in the New York City just seemed to be another part of our transit network that was just there. Sure, there were some gawkers and subway tourists who rode up to the Upper East Side to check out this new thing, but for so many people, the Second Ave. Subway had, in a week, become routine.
In a way, seeing the Second Ave. Subway — or at least the three stops that make up this new northern end of the Q train — was a very New York moment. We have a reputation to uphold of being utterly nonchalant about everything, and the Second Ave. Subway, this thing that few people expected to become reality and many didn’t even know about or understand in the first place, is one of those things. It’s been open for 11 days, and it’s already just a part of the routine. Hospital workers now take the Q to 72nd St. while Upper East Siders rave about the 11 or 13 minute one-seat rides to Times Square from 86th or 96th Sts. People talk about their 20 minutes of extra sleep per day but treat the space just like a subway stop, albeit one that’s brighter and, for now, cleaner than the rest of the system.
The subway opened with a celebration on New Year’s Eve and the perfunctory back-slapping that comes along with it. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, our state leader who wasn’t around for the bulk of the planning or construction, but who pushed the project to a quasi-on-time opening, took the microphone. “After nearly a century, the Second Avenue Subway is no longer a dream that only a few still believe is possible. Thanks to the dedication and tireless efforts of thousands of great New Yorkers, the stations are open, the trains are running and it is spectacular,” he said during the opening. “With this achievement, we have recaptured the bold ambition that made the Empire State so great, proving that government can still accomplish big things for the people it serves. New Year’s Eve is all about starting anew and I am proud to ring in the New Year on the Second Avenue Subway and welcome a new era in New York where there is no challenge too great, no project too grand, and all is possible once again.”
It’s a bit of hyperbole, but it’s generally well-deserved hyperbole. The city made a monumental blunder in tearing down the Second Ave. elevated before securing funding to build the Second Ave. Subway over 70 years ago, and this month’s opening rights a historic wrong while bringing transit to one of the few areas of Manhattan still starved of it. By the end of the first week, with service running only from 6 a.m. – 10 p.m., the three new stops were already seeing 93,000 rides per day, and that number will grow as more New Yorkers adjust their routines to account for the new line.
Inside, as I’ve mentioned, the stations don’t look like anything New Yorkers are accustomed to seeing in the subway. The caverns are huge with three-block-long mezzanines spanning each station and no columns along the platforms. The stations are deep too, with long escalators and a variety of elevators. In fact, at 72nd St., one entrance is just a series of five elevators that open at street level, and the renovated 63rd St., a key transfer point between the Q and F, is unrecognizable to anyone who recalls the red false wall that dominated that station for decades. Even the dogs seemed to be enjoying the new station.
It’s certainly appropriate to marvel at the station, and the art — Vik Muniz’s Perfect Strangers at 72nd St., Chuck Close’s incredibly detailed mosaics at 86th St. and Sarah Sze’s blueprints at 96th St. — is worth the price of admission alone. But price — or more specifically cost — remains the elephant in the room. On the eve of the opening, Josh Barro explored the insanely high costs of New York City infrastructure, and Ben Fried at Streetsblog wrote a similar assessment of the dollars. Nicole Gelinas too tried to find a reason for the high costs, but the jury is still out what exactly led to a $4.5 billion bill for three new stations and a renovated fourth. Was it the modern environmental and safety regulations? ADA requirements? Overbuilt mezzanines due to deep-bore tunnels because no one wanted to take the political risk of proposing a cut-and-cover construction? Was it labor costs? Was it good old fashioned corruption?
Ultimately, it’s likely a combination of all of those factors, but the costs seem to be getting worse. Phase 2, which really should have begun long before Phase 1 ended, won’t see heavy construction begin for a few years, and already, due potentially to some engineering SNAFUs in the initial assessment of the project, costs may be as high as $6 billion for a section of a subway that runs through tunnels built decades ago. New York City will never meet the demands of a growing town if these costs and the construction timelines aren’t seriously compressed. And while Cuomo and the MTA can take a victory lap, they shouldn’t lose sight of the lessons that need to be learned from this project. They shouldn’t, as Cuomo did, get snippy when reporters ask about the future of the project, and cost controls are a long-term issue that must be resolved.
I asked Cuomo about the timeline for phase 2. "You are unbelievable," he said. Spox says he's just here to meet and greet, not answer q's pic.twitter.com/50wOqW8ar9
— Kate Hinds (@katehinds) December 23, 2016
In the coming days, I’ll have more on the new subway section. In the meantime, though, if you’re not near the Upper East Side, try to find some time to check it out. It won’t look as pristine as it does now, and it’s something new and exciting for the New York City subway that seems far more of a place than the 7 train’s Hudson Yards stop. It is, after all these years, the Second Ave. Subway in the flesh.
So anything big happen when I was gone?
After a New Year’s trip to Paris, I arrived back to a New York City with a brand new part of a subway as the Second Ave. Subway opened to the public on January 1. I was skeptical the agency would be able to hit its target date, but under extreme pressure from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the four-stop extension of the Q train arrived with champagne and a party on New Year’s Eve. Already, Upper East Side residents who now live a ten-minute one-seat subway ride away from Times Square have been raving about the new service, and I’ll have more details, thoughts and photos from the Phase 1 subway stops later this week. But first the news.
As the first part of the Second Ave. Subway has opened, current MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast has said he will step down from his position and retire from public service within the next few weeks or months. Prendergast has been in charge of the MTA since June of 2013 when he was elevated from his job as President of New York City Transit when Joe Lhota stepped down to run for mayor, and Prendergast was recently confirmed to a term set to run through 2021.
“Opening the Second Avenue Subway [last] weekend was a crowning achievement for the MTA and I’m proud to have been a part of such a historic moment. It has not only changed the daily commute for hundreds of thousands of customers, it has helped change the face of the MTA – showing the public we can meet the deadlines we set for ourselves,” Prendergast said in a statement. “It’s never easy to leave an organization after 25 years of service, but I do so knowing that the MTA will continue to serve the public so well and that our Governor will ensure New York continues to have the most robust transportation system in the country.”
While Prendergast will serve just shy of four years as MTA head, his departure continues a recent trend in turnover atop the MTA. Not counting interim agency leaders, Prednergast’s eventually replacement will be the MTA’s fifth chairman since the end of Peter Kalikow’s term in late 2007. As a comparison, the agency had only five chairmen from its founding in 1968 until the end of Robert Riley’s term in 1991. The turnover has led to shifting priorities and, at times, a lack of direction, but with Prendergast at the helm, the agency had steadied its direction a bit (though the multi-billion-dollar elephant in the room that is the MTA’s capital costs has been largely ignored for years now).
In recent months, Gov. Cuomo had taken a keen interest in MTA goings-on, for better or worse, and with Prendergast’s departure, Cuomo will have an opportunity to further extend his hands-on approach to the MTA. Kenneth Lovett of the Daily News, who broke word of Prendergast’s departure, had an early list of potential replacements. This rogues gallery includes current Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye, NYC Transit President Ronnie Hakim (who could be the first woman in the job), NYS DOT Commissioner Matt Driscoll, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, one-time U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation John Porcari, Joe Lhota in a repeat performance, and Cuomo confidantes Rick Cotton or Larry Schwartz, the latter of whom currently sits on the MTA Board.
It’s too early to know for now who will take over for Prendergast or who is even a front-runner, but the list of challenges on hand for the MTA in the coming months and years is substantial. In the short-term, the current TWU contract expires on January 15, and the union is asking for raises and other benefits. Fare hikes are set to go into effect in March, and the agency is knee-deep in planning both Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway and logistics for the upcoming L train shutdown. Meanwhile, the MTA’s cost problem should be front and center for any incoming CEO/Chair.
As Prendergast’s departure nears, I’ll assess his legacy. For now, the MTA heads into another period of change and uncertainty at the top just as work wraps on the agency’s signature project of the past decade. What comes next from Cuomo and from Prendergast’s successor is, for now, a bit of a mystery.
As part of a lengthy rollout of the Second Ave. Subway ahead of its passenger debut on January 1, 2017, the MTA and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are hosting a series of open houses over the next few days. These sessions will allow members of the public to visit the new stations without trains or commuters and check out the work that has plagued the East Side for the better part of the past decade. The 96th Street station opened on Thursday, with cookies, commemorative Metorcards and Vignelli-inspired maps, and on Friday, New Yorkers can journey underground to wander through the new station between 8-10 a.m. and 5-7 p.m.
I had a chance to stop by on Thursday, shortly after Gov. Cuomo’s introductory remarks. He again pledged to open the new subway on Jan. 1, even if it meant “pushing it” from 57th St. This is reminiscent of Michael Bloomberg’s promise in late 2013 to do the same with the 7 train, but this time, the stations and new tracks are ready for a train. The photos I took show a station very reminiscent of the Hudson Yards stop, and this clinical approach seems to be the MTA’s design ethos. There are long platforms and vast mezzanines. The art adds color, but the track walls look blindingly, boringly white.
If you would like to see more, you can check out my Periscope video from the station. I added some commentary while strolling through the new stop. I’ll post more photos here over the next few days as other stations open. If you would like to see more now, check out Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. I’ll have more on the reaction to Phase 1, the costs of Phase 2, and the future of the Second Ave. Subway soon. It’s OK to be cynical about the cost, the time it took to build this part of the line and its modest scope, but don’t forget to celebrate it too. It’s been a long, long, long time coming.
There is a bit of a long-running joke among the New York reporters on the MTA’s press distribution list. Despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s odd assertion last year that the MTA is not a state agency, whenever the authority has good news to announce, the press release comes with Cuomo’s stamp of approval. “Governor Cuomo announces new countdown clocks” or “Governor Cuomo announces bus upgrades” or “Governor Cuomo announces LIRR third track.” He never sends out the releases with fare hike information, service changes or other bad news. When it’s convenient, the MTA is his.
On Tuesday, one of my all-time favorite “Governor Cuomo announces…” press releases hit my inbox. Gov. Cuomo, who just two days ago announced a Jan. 1 opening for the Second Ave. Subway, has now announced that the MTA is excitedly replacing every subway map in the system with over 13,600 new maps “featuring the new Second Avenue Subway line.”
Cuomo’s release even included a perfectly Cuomo quote about the new maps. “On every subway car, in every station, and throughout New York, installing these maps means that the Second Avenue Subway is finally here and will be open on time,” Governor Cuomo said. The W train’s return a few weeks ago certainly didn’t merit a press release from the Governor touting new maps.
While I am amused by Cuomo’s press release tactics and it can come off as self-serving at times, there’s a larger lesson than the politics of gaining positive press. When Gov. Cuomo is involved in matters of transit and the MTA, in particular, good things happen and bad things are avoided. In other words, having a strong chief executive willing to take some ownership of transit investments is something New Yorkers fighting for better transit should encourage.
A recent piece in The Times is particularly telling. Last week, Emma Fitzsimmons wrote about Cuomo’s hands-on approach to wrapping up the Second Ave. Subway. Although Cuomo’s fingerprints have become more apparent in recent weeks as the Phase 1 work has neared its finish line, Cuomo’s intense involvement in this project stretches back to 2015 when the MTA and its contractors wanted to delay the opening by a significant amount of time. Fitzsimmons writes:
The notorious Second Avenue subway, nearly a century in the making, is inches from the finish line, and Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, has made it his mission to complete the project by New Year’s Eve. On regular visits to the line’s three new stations, he obsesses over design details and equipment glitches at a surprising level of involvement for a governor, which some critics say seems primarily aimed at promoting his image…
For months, Mr. Cuomo has held weekly meetings at his office with the project’s leadership team to address — and sometimes vent about — the latest issues and concerns. He became more involved about a year and a half ago, he said, when officials at the authority told him they wanted to push back the long-established December 2016 deadline by a year or two. “The meetings are not a love fest,” said Charlie Hall, a construction manager from the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff who is overseeing the project. “The meetings started because there were issues, and things weren’t getting done. People are challenged in those meetings.”
On an unannounced stop at the 86th Street station a few months ago, Mr. Cuomo was angered to see no one was working on a problematic escalator, Melissa DeRosa, his chief of staff, said. He walked around shouting, “Who is working on the escalator?” until the person appeared, she added.
As Fitzsimmons notes, Cuomo’s critics wonder if this interest is a headline-grab as he positions himself for a 2020 run on the national stage, and on other projects, such as the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, Cuomo has pushed through a key project without identifying funding sources or fully justifying the need for the project. As many have told me, he has a tendency to latch onto projects without consulting with experts as to these project’s utility. (The LaGuardia AirTrain in the wrong direction is the prime example of the pitfalls of Cuomo’s approach.)
Yet, it is undeniable that having a governor who cares can get projects through tough spots. As Fitzsimmons notes, and as I highlighted in the excerpt above, Cuomo’s involvement has been instrumental in getting this project wrapped by the end of 2016. He can push competing forces — a contractor with no incentive to finish, an MTA Capital Construction staff afraid of turning operations over to Transit — to work together for a tight deadline.
So if Cuomo can turn results, the question then becomes how to focus him. How can activists get the Governor’s attention at the start when project scope and priorities are formed? How can transit experts get Cuomo’s ear so he latches onto the right projects at the right time? These aren’t just idle questions; they are important concerns that will affect the future of New York City for years and decades to come. With him projects can survive and perhaps thrive; without him, things seem to linger. Yet, his original ideas often seem frustratingly short-sighted and small in scope and impact. It is the great Cuomo conundrum and one that must be reconciled for future success.