Spend your weekend pondering the short-term fate of the L train or perusing some immediate solutions to the city’s transit capacity crisis. Else, you could check out a plan to provide discount transit fares to low-income New Yorkers. Or prepare for your weekend travel. The service advisories follow. As always, they come from the MTA and are subject to change without warning.
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, May 6, to 5:00 a.m. Sunday, May 8, 1 service is suspended in both directions between 137 St and Wakefield-242 St. Take ac trains, M3, M100, and free shuttle buses. For service between 137 St and 168 St, use free shuttle buses or the a at nearby c stations. Transfer between buses and a trains at 207 St. For service between 168 St and 191 St, use M3 or free shuttle buses, or use the a at nearby stations. For service between 207 St and Wakefield-242 St, take free shuttle buses. For Dyckman St, use M100 bus (free shuttle buses overnight) to/from the Dyckman St a station.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, May 6, to 7:30 a.m. Sunday, May 8, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, May 8 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, May 9, Woodlawn-bound 4 trains run express from Grand Central-42 St to 125 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, May 6, to 7:30 a.m. Sunday, May 8, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, May 8 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, May 9, Woodlawn-bound 4 trains skip Astor Pl.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, May 6 to 7:30 a.m. Sunday, May 8, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, May 8 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, May 9, 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. Transfer between trains and free shuttle buses at E 180 St.
From 7:45 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. Sunday, May 8, 5 trains are suspended in both directions between E 180 St and 149 St-Grand Concourse. 5 service operates every 20 minutes between Bowling Green and 149 St-Grand Concourse. For service between E 180 St and 149 St-Grand Concourse, take the 2. Transfer between 2 and 5 trains at 149 St-Grand Concourse. As a reminder, 5 trains from Manhattan skip 138 St-Grand Concourse. Transfer to the 4 at 125 St.
From 3:30 a.m. Saturday, May 7 to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, May 8, 6 trains are suspended in both directions between Pelham Bay Park and Parkchester. Free shuttle buses operate between Parkchester and Pelham Bay Park, stopping at Castle Hill Av, Zerega Av, Westchester Sq, Middletown Rd, and Buhre Av. Transfer between 6 trains and free shuttle buses at Parkchester.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, May 6, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, May 9, Bronx-bound 6 trains run express from Grand Central-42 St to 125 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, May 6, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, May 9, Bronx-bound 6 trains skip Astor Pl.
From 3:45 a.m. Saturday, May 7 to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, May 8, 34 St-Hudson Yards bound 7 trains run express between 74 St-Broadway and Queensboro Plaza.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, May 7, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, May 9, A trains run local between 125 St and 168 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, May 6, to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, May 8, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, May 8 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, May 9, Inwood-207 St bound A trains run express from Canal St to 59 St-Columbus Circle.
From 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, May 7, and Sunday, May 8, C trains are suspended in both directions between 145 St and 168 St. Take the a instead.
From 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, May 7, and Sunday, May 8, 168 St-bound C trains run express from Canal St to 59 St-Columbus Circle.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, May 6, to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, May 8, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, May 8 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, May 9, Norwood-205 St bound D trains run express from 36 St to Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, May 7 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, May 9, D trains stop at 135 St in both directions.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, May 6 to 7:00 a.m. Sunday, May 8, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, May 8 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, May 9, World Trade Center-bound E trains run express from 71 Av to Queens Plaza.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, May 6, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, May 9, World Trade Center-bound E trains skip Briarwood and 75 Av.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, May 6, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, May 9, Jamaica Center-Parsons/Archer bound E trains skip Spring St and 23 St.
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, May 6 to 4:30 a.m. Monday, May 9, F trains are suspended in both directions between Coney Island-Stillwell Av and Church Av. Free shuttle buses make all station stops between Coney Island-Stillwell Av and Church Av. Consider using the D, N or Q between Coney Island-Stillwell Av and Downtown Brooklyn or Manhattan.
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, May 6 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, May 9, Jamaica Center-Parsons/Archer bound F trains run express from 4 Av-9 Sts to Jay St-MetroTech.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, May 6 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, May 9, Jamaica Center-Parsons/Archer bound F trains skip 14 St and 23 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, May 6 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, May 9, Church Av-bound F trains skip Sutphin Blvd, Briarwood and 75 Av.
From 11:15 p.m. Friday, May 6 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, May 9, G trains are suspended in both directions between Church Av and Hoyt-Schermerhorn Sts. A and F trains provide alternate service.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, May 6, to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, May 8, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, May 8 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, May 9, Manhattan-bound N trains run express from 59 St to Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, May 6, to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, May 8, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, May 8 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, May 9, Brooklyn-bound N trains skip 49 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, May 6, to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, May 8, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, May 8 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, May 9, Brooklyn-bound Q trains skip 49 St.
From 6:30 a.m. to 12 Midnight, Saturday and Sunday, May 7 and May 8, Manhattan-bound R trains run express from 71 Av to Queens Plaza.
From 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, May 7 and May 8, Manhattan-bound R trains run express from 59 St to Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, May 6, to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, May 8, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, May 8 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, May 9, R trains are suspended in both directions between 59 St and 36 St. Take the N instead.
From 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, May 7 and May 8, Downtown R trains skip 49 St.
One new to New York could be forgiven for believing as though L train riders are the only people to ride the subway or be inconvenienced by long-term construction work. For six months, the entirety of the focus of news coverage of the MTA’s Sandy recovery efforts has revolved around the L train, and while L train shutdown fatigue may be settling in three years ahead of the planned work, with so many daily riders, ahead of tonight’s public meeting, the drumbeat will only grow louder as the MTA has unveiled their potential options for the work.
Before I delve into the details, it’s worth noting that, no matter the MTA’s ultimate outcome, many L train riders have easy access to alternative routes. Every one traveling near or to the east of Broadway Junction can access the J, A and C trains (or even the 3 train), and those who live in Bushwick and the southern parts of Williamsburg can get to the M. The G, with all of its flaws, provides a connection to Queens, and the MTA has expressed a willingness to improve G train service and lengthen G trains during any L train work. Other routes will be more crowded and trips will be slower, but along with a bus lane across the Williamsburg Bridge, the infrastructure is in place to handle the L train shutdown. In other words, it’s not nearly as bad as the dire predictions of doom and gloom make it out to be.
That said, it’s not pretty. By itself, the L would be the 10th busiest subway system in the United States, and a prolonged shutdown will lead to disgruntled commuters. To that end, the MTA is officially consider two options. Gone is the idea, pushed foolishly by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, of work only on nights and weekends. Besides a potential seven-year timeframe under that approach, MTA officials determined that, per The Times, the “complex work could not be done in such a narrow window.” WNYC notes that air quality concerns foreclose the nights-and-weekends approach. The MTA also has said that building a new tunnel is too costly and time-consuming to be a viable option.
So what remains is either an 18-month total shutdown of the Canarise Tunnel or a three-year partial shutdown which would see service reduced to around 20 percent of its current volume. In each case, the MTA would run L trains between Rockaway Parkway and Lorimer Ave., but the three-year plan would create a gap in service between Lorimer and Bedford Avenues. Meanwhile, J and Z trains would operate as local and M train service would be increased. The agency would lengthening G trains to bolster capacity, and the MTA plans to work with the city to increase East River ferry service. The MTA has also expressed a willingness to establish bus-only lanes across the Williamsburg Bridge which I have long believed to be key to an alternative service arrangements. In the event of a partial tunnel shutdown, L trains would continue to run under the East River but only approximately 4-5 times per hour in each direction.
Publicly, the agency hasn’t expressed a strong preference for one approach or another, and officials say they want to hear out the concerns of the community of L train riders before making a final decision. But in comments to the press, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast seemed to indicate which way the winds are blowing. Emma Fitzsimmons reports:
After receiving input from residents and businesses, the agency plans to decide which option to pursue within three months. Asked whether he would rather close the whole tunnel at once, Mr. Prendergast said the agency was committed to hearing from the community before making a decision. But he noted that when people learned more about the plans, they often favored a full closing.
“I think there is an ‘Aha’ moment they have in their minds, like, ‘Geez if it’s only one in five people you can carry, maybe it would be better to have two tracks,’” Mr. Prendergast said in reference to closing the tracks in both tubes, the more efficient of the two options.
I’ve advocated for 18-month total shutdown. Get in and get out quickly seems to be better for the neighborhood that three years of frustratingly insufficient service.
Meanwhile, along with word of the potential approaches to the closure, the MTA released photos and a B-roll video of current conditions in the Canarsie Tube. You can see the footage below, and the MTA stressed that the tunnel remains safe. That said, despite protestations that trains will have run for six years before work begins, the MTA says it has no choice. “A collapsed duct bank could derail a train, and the worst place to be with a derailed train is in an under-river tunnel,” Prendergast said to reporters. “The longest distance between emergency exits is in the under-river tunnels.” That is, of course, the worst case scenario but one that inches ever closer to reality.
Finally, MTA officials confirmed that the shutdown would allow for new entrances to be constructed at both the Bedford and 1st Ave. stations to improve station access and passenger flow. The agency has not discussed the possibility of using a full 18-month shutdown to build tail tracks west of the 8th Ave. station, a move many transit advocates see as vital to improving L train service and line capacity.
The fun starts tonight with the first of two public meetings. Details are here, and I would expect a raucous and irate crowd. But the L train is just one part in a complex transportation network. Everyone will get through it. Read More→
I have a few more thoughts rattling around my head on the heels of yesterday’s exploration of crowded subway conditions. In particular, it’s worth discussing briefly a few other ideas around the margins of New York City’s transit capacity issues and whether or not these ideas solve, exacerbate or simply skirt the problem. So let’s discuss three proposals that won’t address the capacity crunch and one that will.
Gondolas East River Skyway. Remember that ridiculous gondola plan from late 2014 in which a real estate executive proposed an East River gondola system connecting Williamsburg with the Lower East Side? Thanks to the looming L train shutdown and DNA Info’s willingness to respond to a pitch email, it’s back in the news. Dan Levy wants to spend $135 million of private money to construct two stops in Williamsburg and one near Delancey St. He claims by running 40-person cars every 30 seconds, he could shuttle 200,000 people over the East River during the L train shutdown, but the math doesn’t work. The vast majority of subway ridership arises during peak hours, and even if Levy’s plan can be achieved, the most the gondolas could in an hour is 4800 passengers, a far cry from peak hour L train ridership. Plus, gondolas simply dump passengers into the subway at another point down the line, and thus, capacity problems are not resolved.
2. Ferries. I have lots of thoughts on ferries and none particularly positive. The mayor is sinking a lot of money and time into his five-borough ferry system (air pollution concerns be damned), but its returns will be marginal. It’s great for people who live and work near the water and don’t mind paying an additional fare for another mode of transit. It may won’t be totally useless, but it’s not a panacea. For $180 million, the city could do more to help improve freedom of movement for many more.
3. Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar. Does this take people from where they are to where they want to be? Not really, if you drill down on the plan. Plus, a large percentage of riders will be looking to transfer to the subway anyway, thus adding riders or simply shifting them around. Again, for $2.5 billion, I would expect more.
So what’s the solution that could be implemented quickly and at a reasonable cost? It’s all about that bus.
By investing in better bus routing and better bus infrastructure (including a massive rollout of pre-board fare payment, dedicated lanes and signal prioritization), the city could bolster a means of transportation that can add capacity to the core network and get people from where they are to where they want to be. Despite campaign assurances, de Blasio has dragged his feet on expanding Select Bus Service, and while buses have a reputation as an underclass means of mobility, a robust network can help move everyone. Buses will, by necessity, be a big key to moving people during the L train shutdown, but turning a pair of Manhattan avenues into dedicated bus-only lanes should happen sooner rather than later. Restructuring routes to include more cross-borough options would be a big help as well. Yet, buses seem to get the short shrift in conversations concerning capacity. That attitude should change.
As a postscript, I would note that bikes too can help, but I see this as a scale issue. You would need far more robust bike infrastructure from lanes to parking to alleviate capacity concerns. A few hundred people biking won’t make the subways emptier.
To say the subways are crowded these days is to state the obvious. Average weekday ridership hit 5,650,610 last year, up by 9.5 percent since 2010, and despite constant service changes and complicated re-routes, combined weekend ridership is up by nearly 11 percent over the same time period. As daily rides where we all stand shoved against people and doors and poles trying to find some amount of space attest, the trains are bursting at the seams.
In today’s Times, Emma Fitzsimmons explores the overcrowded subway system. Her focus is generally on safety concerns, and although the overcrowding is a symptom of larger funding issues and lack of general support for transit investment, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss safety concerns. After all, even if people aren’t falling off subway platforms, if riders feel unsafe, it will affect how they view and use the transit system. Thus, at key choke points — on the Lexington Ave. line, narrow platforms at Bleecker St. and Union Square and an overall lack of space at Grand Central come to mind, people worry about safety whether or not reality reflects those fears. (The numbers do not show any uptick in crowd-related injuries.)
In terms of solutions, Fitzsimmons offers up a glimpse at an agency struggling for more space:
But the subway infrastructure has not kept pace [with increasing ridership], and that has left the system with a litany of needs, many of them essential to maintaining current service or accommodating the increased ridership. The authority’s board recently approved $14.2 billion for the subways as part of a $29.5 billion, five-year capital spending plan.
On the busiest lines, like the 7, L and Q, officials say the agency is already running as many trains as it can during the morning rush. Crowds are appearing on nights and weekends, too, and the authority is adding more trains at those times. The long-awaited opening of the Second Avenue subway on the Upper East Side this year will ease congestion on the Lexington Avenue line. Installing a modern signal system, which would allow more trains to run, is many years away for most lines.
When the MTA’s timelines are put forward in terms of “years” and “decades” and even something as simple as a 2-mile subway extension takes 10 years to build, relief is not exactly on the horizon. Yet, from where I sit, there are at least three steps the MTA should take immediately to address capacity concerns.
1. Open Gangways. One of the biggest missed opportunities of the last 15 years involves the MTA’s rolling stock designs. Since 2000, the MTA has seen nearly 4000 new subway cars enter service, and none of them were designed with open gangways, a feature standard in subway rolling stock throughout the world. As I wrote last year, open gangways can lead to a 10 percent increase in capacity without adding a single extra trainset, and while the MTA in 2013 acknowledged the need for articulated trains, the upcoming R211 order includes just one ten-car prototype. It’s not clear if the MTA has the option to add more open gangway trainsets to the R211 order, but not doing so would be a costly mistake for decades to come. This generation of rolling stock is likely to be in service until the late 2060s or early 2070s, and missing the opportunity to expand capacity now will burn us for generations to come.
2. Speed up CBTC installation. This is of course easier said that done, but recent reports have shown how it will take the MTA decades to fully modernize the signal system. CBTC would allow for modest increases in capacity, and prioritizing these efforts — whether through full line shutdowns over concentrated periods of time or other initiatives — should be an agency priority.
3. Just run more trains. As Fitzsimmons detailed, the MTA says it can’t run more trains on perennially crowded lines. For some, that’s due to routing choices — the Q is chock full of choke-points — and for others, such as the L, terminal capacity constraints come into play. Part of the MTA’s capital plan should involve expanding capacity through investments such as tail tracks at 8th Ave. and other minor upgrades that can net big results. For lines that aren’t maxed out, the MTA should just run more trains. But there’s a catch: An aggressive rolling stock retirement plan and a delayed Bombardier order has left the agency tight on available trainsets. Thus, just running more trains, in the short term, isn’t a practical solution even if it is the more obvious answer. Meanwhile, trains are operating at slower speeds, especially along crowded routes, and that too limits the agency’s ability to run more trains and clear out crowds.
Where we go from here isn’t particularly clear. You’re not in danger of falling into the tracks due to crowded platforms, and the MTA doesn’t need to resort to temporary platform closures as London does or subway pushers as Tokyo does. But relief isn’t exactly around the corner. Crowded commutes with packed cars running later into the evening and earlier in the morning are just a way of life until the MTA has the funds available to engage in an aggressive push to increase capacity. For now, though, we ride as we always do: crammed into a subway car, hoping for the best.
Whenever the MTA raises fares — a biennial occurrence for the foreseeable future these days — the price increases if often called a regressive tax. While the fare hikes are generally applied across the board, these increases have a larger negative impact on those from lower economic classes as it takes out a larger percentage of their incomes. If public transit is supposed to equalize the way we New Yorkers get around the city and access job centers, schools and everything else the city has to offer, constant fare hikes should, at a certain level, be a policy concern.
Lately, as the MTA has been forced to balance its budget on the backs of its riders (rather than, say, through some sort of congestion pricing or tolling plan), anti-poverty advocates have focused on transit fares as a point of concern. A few weeks ago, the Community Service Society of New York in conjunction with the Riders Alliance released a report [pdf] with some sobering numbers. Approximately 1 in 4 New Yorkers simply cannot afford to pay transit fares and thus are very limited in their potential job searches. Meanwhile, low-income New Yorkers who are more heavily reliant on transit than their richer neighbors spend a disproportionately higher percentage of their incomes on transit.
The study traces how certain transit benefits programs aren’t set up properly. While the MTA’s fare structure is set up to reward frequent travelers, only 18 percent of low-income riders are buying 30-day Metrocards, mostly because they cannot afford the initial outlay of $116.50. So they end up paying more over the course of the month — either through weekly purchases of the 7-day card (which adds up to a pro-rated $132.86 over 30 days) or through pay-per-ride cards. Additionally, tax breaks for transit usage often do not reach low-income riders. Here’s how the report puts it:
While the tax deduction for monthly MetroCard passes can save higher-income New York City families over $600 per year, the deduction is worth less to lower-income families who face lower tax rates. In fact, some families with lower earnings who are eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) would actually be worse off if they were to enroll in commuter benefits.
The pre-tax commuter parking benefit also yields higher tax savings to relatively more affluent suburban commuters who claim both the transit and parking allowance (e.g., those who drive to a commuter rail station). Most of the neediest commuters, however, do not own cars and benefit from the parking deduction; they are also more likely to live in New York City and rely on the MTA, allowing them to claim less than half of the $255 transit allowance for monthly MetroCard expenses. The pre-tax commuter benefits program offers considerable savings to many middle- and upper-income commuters. The cost to the state of New York of a tax subsidy such as this is the forgone state and city income tax revenues. Between the commuter benefit tax subsidy, half-price MetroCards for the disabled and elderly, and discounted monthly passes that are not affordable to low-income families, substantial public resources are being used to subsidize transit fares without reaching the majority of low-income families.
An estimated 800,000 riders would be eligible for a half-price fare for poor New Yorkers, saving those who opt to participate up to $700 per year.
The solution, the group argues, is a half-fare discount plan, such as those currently available for seniors or students, targeted at poor New Yorkers. The CSS argues that those eligible number around 800,000, and they would save approximately $700 a year in transit costs. The CSS estimates similar eligibility and participation rates as food stamps and believes the program would cost approximately $194 million in lost farebox revenue. It is worth noting as well that other cities, including Seattle, San Francisco and London, have already embraced some form of discount fares for low-income riders.
“Economic mobility and transit affordability go hand in hand. To get to work, pick up your kids from school, go to the doctor, to do almost everything you need to do in New York City to survive requires riding the subway or bus, “ David R. Jones, President and CEO of the Community Service Society, said in a statement. “Yet one-quarter of the city’s working poor often cannot afford bus and subway fare. The MTA should be available to everyone in our city, not just those with credit cards in their pocket who can afford a monthly pass, but to those with a few bucks in their pockets who are struggling to take care of their families and get ahead.”
The supporters of the plan haven’t pitched this is an idea the MTA should drive; it is, after all, something that will have to be made available to transit riders with a corresponding increase in MTA funding to offset the potential lost revenue. But so far, over two-thirds of New Yorkers surveyed have expressed some level of support for low-income fare subsidies. How the city and state could pay for this program is up for debate. The CSS argues for a share of some fare tolling/congestion pricing revenue, but everyone will have their hands in the pot. A surcharge on taxis, including Uber and Lyft rides, is mentioned in the report as are gas tax hikes, a so-called “millionaires” tax or direct budgetary contributions. It certainly warrants a robust public discussion. In our current climate, with lackluster support from transit from both Albany and City Hall, can this become an argument over economic fairness and livability in New York City in 2016? It should be.
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.