A few weeks ago, when a flight deal landed on my lap, I booked a New Year’s Eve trip to Paris. I didn’t really consider the opening of the 2nd Ave. Subway in my decision. After all, flight deals are flight deals, and vacations are vacations. Now, though, after ten years of running this site, I might miss the opening of the 2nd Ave. Subway.
According to materials released Monday by the MTA and statements made at Board committee meetings by Tom Prendergast, the MTA is “cautiously optimistic” that Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway will open before the end of the year. This announcement follows some behind-the-scenes pressure by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a few well-publicized photo ops at the construction site over the past few days. Still, with 18 days left and a few key tests remaining, time is not on the MTA’s side.
That said, time may be immaterial. The MTA expects to complete some key HVAC tests by December 23 and communications systems tests by Christmas Eve. If these go as expected, the agency could open this long-awaited subway line at any point between Christmas and New Year’s. For the first time, the agency’s independent engineering consultant admits that the MTA “is on track to finish all required tests before the end of December.”
So the Second Ave. Subway will open and soon. We won’t sit through some 20-month delay due to fire safety systems and steep escalators as we did with the 7 line. We won’t have a gap issue as we did at the new South Ferry station. We will have a new subway, whether its on December 30, as many sources have indicated or a few days earlier or later. But while everyone has focused on the opening date for the Second Ave. Subway, it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter because the subway will open amidst some deep-seated questions and concerns regarding the project’s past and the project’s future.
So what should we talk about instead? Submitted for your approval:
1. Why does the MTA consider this project to be “on time”?
When the MTA broke ground on Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway, it was supposed to open in late 2013, but every six months, the agency pushed back the completion date by another year. Finally, in 2009, the MTA had a “reset” in which they baselined work and a project timeline to announce a 2016 date. It’s going to take the MTA 365 of 2016’s 366 days to open this thing, but it seems that it will open. But why did it take nearly 10 years to build under three miles of subway and just three new stations? What has the MTA learned to speed up construction and improve capital construction performance in the future?
2. Why did Phase 1 cost so much?
Similar to the timeline, this project was beset by cost concerns. It is the most expensive subway, on a per-kilometer basis, anywhere in the world. (The runner up was the 7 line extension.) It was originally supposed to cost $3.8 billion and will end up costing around $4.45 billion. Meanwhile, last year, MTA Capital Construction Michael Horodniceanu said Phase 2 might cost between $5-$6 billion. Admittedly, it’s a tougher project from an engineering perspective that has to loop underneath both the Lexington Ave. Subway and the elevated Metro-North tracks at 125th St., but that price tag would set world records in a very bad way.
Any post mortem the MTA conducts on this project should try to assess why it was so expensive, why costs increased by 20 percent over the span of a few years and how future phases can be delivered at a lower cost more in line with global standards (rather than at higher costs that far exceed anything reasonable). Not conducting this analysis is tantamount to malpractice.
3. Why hasn’t the MTA started work on Phase 2 yet?
According to the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the project, Phase 2 (and maybe Phase 3 as well) were supposed to begin before Phase 1 wrapped. That way, the MTA could constantly be constructing parts of the Second Ave. Subway in an effort to finish the project in a time fashion (rather than in 40 years at the current rate). Instead, in part due to a funding crisis, the MTA hasn’t even secured full funding for Phase 2. Rather, the latest capital plan included around $1.5 billion for the project with design work and a refreshed environmental assessment set to be delivered next year. Construction won’t begin in earnest until late 2019.
So why didn’t the MTA adhere to the original plan of parallel construction tracks? And how much of the Second Ave. Subway should expect to see within the next decade or two? It shouldn’t take decades to expand the subway, but that’s the MTA’s current timeframe.
* * *
Ultimately, this project will debut to the usual ribbon-cutting fanfare, whether I’m in New York City to see it or in Paris to miss it. The Upper East Side will have its subway line (albeit with lengthy headways that may come as a surprise). But what comes next is just as important, and right now, it will be a few years of lost opportunities until whatever is next arrives.
For many people, the end of 2016 can’t come soon enough, but for the MTA, the end of 2016 brings with it a promise to open the Second Ave. Subway that may soon prove impossible to meet. With just 25 days left in the year, the MTA hasn’t yet said when — or if — the long-awaited Phase 1 of this new subway line will open this month, and New York politicians are impatiently tapping their proverbial feet.
Last month’s MTA Board update brought more of the same old, same old to the public. Although the pace of testing had increased significantly, the MTA would have to maintain a breakneck pace to complete testing by mid-December to get the approvals to open the line this year, and it seemed likely that the 72nd St. station simply wouldn’t be ready in time. Since the November 14 update that showed escalator and elevator installation lagging and fire safety and communications systems behind schedule, the MTA has gone radio silent on progress. The next MTA Board committee meetings are scheduled for Monday, and by then, the MTA will have to make a public announcement on the immediate fate of Manhattan’s newest subway lines.
If the news is bad, however, expect some unhappiness out of City Hall and Albany. As The Wall Street Journal reported Monday, New York politicos are putting pressure on the MTA to get this thing done. Mike Vilensky reports:
A spokeswoman for the MTA said Friday that the agency is “working around the clock” to reach its goal of opening by 2017, a timeline set seven years ago. “We are making progress everyday,” she said.
While some transit analysts said spilling a month or two past the planned start date would have little impact in the long run, others said the agency’s reputation is at stake.
“This multibillion-dollar project has taken decades to finish and the MTA owes it to residents and small businesses to wrap up construction as soon as possible,” said Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, a Democrat who is chairman of the council’s transportation committee. “The MTA must always guarantee the safety of its riders, but this has taken long enough and they need to keep to schedule.”
Rodriguez may be willing to go public with his platitudes, but he’s far from the only one watching. Those with knowledge of the situation tell me that the Governor is breathing down the MTA’s collective neck as well. Though he’s not in a position to do much if the MTA misses its self-imposed December deadline, I understand that he won’t be happy with the MTA for blowing yet another major deadline on yet another big-ticket item, and with Cuomo’s ultimately goal perhaps a run for an office a little bit higher up on the food chain than New York governor, getting things done on time — whatever that may mean when it comes to the MTA — is important.
All of this public pressure of course leads to another question: What happens if the MTA doesn’t open the Second Ave. Subway until early 2017, as many in the construction and engineering community expect? Most likely, the answer is a big fat nothing. The ribbon-cutting will be grand, the residents weary but happy, and the bureaucratic jobs all will be safe. Opening on time is good for the MTA’s beleaguered reputation, good for a governor suddenly committed to public transit, and good for Upper East Siders who have lived with a decade’s worth of construction. But what’s a few more months between friends anyway?
Take a gander at the two options the MTA is considering for its upcoming biennial fare hike:
I’ll have a full rundown of the options later. The short of it is that new fares go into effect on March 19, 2017, and the MTA Board will vote on one of the two proposals following eight public meetings that will be held throughout December. If the past is prologue, the MTA will go with Plan B — a jump in the base fare but a substantial pay-per-ride discount. Either way, those 30-day unlimited ride cards will soon cost $121, nearly double what they cost in 1998 when they were first introduced.
No more promises of “three to five years.” After over half a decade of promises, the MTA Board is set to vote Wednesday on a plan that would finally bring countdown clocks to the B Division trains — the subway’s lettered lines — by the end of March of 2018. Based off the current pilot running at eight stations along the BMT Broadway line, the new system will be run by Transit Wireless infrastructure and will be a part of an initiative to bring wifi to the system’s outdoor stations. It’s not based on the same signal system upgrades as the A Division countdown clocks but should cost under $32 million to install.
Following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s push to speed up the installation of the underground wireless and cell network so that all underground stations are wired by the end of this year, Transit Wireless has the capacity to implement additional technological upgrades, and the MTA and Transit Wireless are set to expand wifi capabilities at the 109 aboveground stations. The cellular carriers are on board — especially for popular stations where their networks can be overloaded — because of the ability to colocate cellular equipment within Transit Wireless base stations, and Transit Wireless is on board because this gives them an opportunity to expand their footprint in the subway system.
But the wifi is just a benefit. The main attraction are countdown clocks using commercially available off-the-shelf components that won’t run the MTA a bill in the nine-figure range. The technology will utilize Bluetooth, sensors, beacons and wifi to determine train arrivals times. Each of the B division stations with two LCD screens per platform and one outside of fare control. The data will run from the beacons to a cloud-based system that will determine arrival times, and all of the data will be available in the MTA’s Subwaytime app.
One way or another, Transit Wireless will bring these countdown clocks online, and if the MTA chooses to expand Transit Wireless’ wifi capabilities to the above-ground stations, the agency will save money on installation. The total installation costs for wifi and the countdown clock technology will be a little over $211,000 per station for the aboveground stations and around $54,000 per underground station (which are already wired for certain Transit Wireless capabilities). The total capital costs would run around $31.7 million with $5 million in annual operating fees, subject to a CPI multiplier each year.
The low cost is an extension of the wifi expansion plan I mentioned. If the MTA and Transit Wireless don’t agree on a wifi franchise license for the aboveground stations, the train arrival boards will move ahead but at a cost of about 50% more. Eventually, the wifi capabilities are going to be necessary for the MTA’s new fare payment system, but more on that soon. Meanwhile, the agency also let slip that it is in discussions with Transit Wireless for a plan to wire the tunnels as well, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
This is a pretty fast turnaround for a project we haven’t really been expecting. In spite of a funding request in the current capital plan, the MTA has given no indication that a systemwide plan was in the works. The BMT pilot came through via pressure from the governor’s office, and an ambitious 16-month rollout seems set to follow. It may not be the perfect system — but it’s far better than the current non-existent system. And after years of hearing that B Division countdown clocks are still three to five years away, we can say with some certainty that, if all goes according to plan, B Division countdown clocks are now just 16 months down the tracks.
It’s been a quiet few weeks for me around these parts. As I’ve mentioned a few times, I’ve been busy at work with less time for regular posts. Additionally, I spent a lot of energy over the past month, as many of have, focused on the presidential campaign. In that regard, it was an exhausting month.
I don’t need to tell you that my side lost on Tuesday night. Anyone who has read this site for bits and spurts or all of its ten-year life knows where my political sympathies lie, and for the past few days, I’ve been trying to come to terms with what the results of Tuesday’s election will mean for me and my family, for my friends and for my country. Some of you may be happy with the outcome; others are concerned for American freedoms and for friends who are minorities who feel abandoned by the government. We are facing a time of uncertainty in America that this country has not witnessed in over 150 years.
With this backdrop, bickering over transit policies can seem almost besides the point. What happens with the subway or a few Select Bus Service lines or a Laguardia AirTrain can seem inconsequential when basic rights are at stake. But transit has its place in our society. As John Raskin of the Riders Alliance wrote to the organization’s membership on Thursday, transit “makes our city more just, more inclusive, more compassionate, and more sustainable.” A better transit network with money well invested to solve mobility problems ensures better opportunity for New Yorkers of all stripes, and I’m not going to stop covering transit just because I’m also concerned about the direction of our national politics right now.
So I’m going to try to get back into the swing of regular updates here. I can’t promise you daily posts; my schedule doesn’t always allow it these days. But as the Second Ave. Subway nears opening and as other initiatives move forward, I’ll give them the attention they deserve so our city and state leaders can be assessed on their transit records. As New Yorkers, we’re in this together even if we may have differing takes on national politics. I hope you’ll continue to join me on the journey here.
Tap, tap, tap. Is this thing on? The last few weeks have been exceedingly busy, and regular updates should resume shortly. In the meantime, it’s W Train Monday.
As the Second Ave. Subway slowly crawls to an opening — not on time unless the MTA picks up the pace of testing by a considerable amount, the agency’s Independent Engineering Consultant said two weeks ago — Monday’s commute brings with it a milestone of sorts as a new old train line resumes operations between Queens and Manhattan. The endearingly kitschy signs have been hanging up in N, Q and R trains, and the signage throughout the system has been updated for the impending return of the W train.
As train rebirths go, this one could be more exciting, and the early November return for the W is a nature of the way MTA crews put in for shifts months ahead of time. Although the Second Ave. Subway may open in early 2017 instead of late 2016, the new Transit shifts start tomorrow, and any delay in restoring W service would have resulted in trains that needed to run but no crews to operate them. The W, meanwhile, comes back before the Q is rerouted to the Upper East Side to ensure Astoria has nearly the same level of service as it currently enjoys with the Q and N trains. We’ll come back to the “nearly” element shortly.
For the rail-watchers among us, MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz tweeted out the details of the W train’s first runs on Monday:
W returns! 1st s/b trip of the day leaves Ditmars at 6:53am. 1st n/b trip leaves Whitehall St at 7:06am.
— Kevin Ortiz (@MTA_NYCT_Vocero) November 7, 2016
For those interested in the day-to-day operations of a subway train that hasn’t graced the rails since 2010, the details are less glamorous. The W trains will operate on weekdays only between approximately 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., making all local stops between Astoria-Ditmars Boulevard and Whitehall St. (with one or two unannounced trains operating into Brooklyn to reach the Coney Island Yards). The N will now be express in Manhattan during weekdays but with a stop at 49th St. as all Q trains make express stops along Broadway, terminating at 57th-Broadway until the Second Ave. subway opens. The R train, meanwhile, will get a nice service boost as late-night service will be extended from 36th St. in Brooklyn to Whiltehall St.
This is a whole lot of shuffling around the edges for the big moment within the next few months when the Q begins to run to 96th St. and 2nd Ave., but it will cost Astoria a few trains per day. The MTA assures me that Queens’ peak-hour service will not be reduced, but the off-peak frequency will be slightly lower. This move comes at a time when the MTA has been encouraging more off-peak ridership and is driven by the fact that W trains lay up in Manhattan or Brooklyn, a lengthy ride away from the northern terminus in Astoria.
DNAInfo’s Jeanmarie Evelly reported on the service reduction last week. The scheduling shift means approximately 20 fewer trains per day to and from Astoria:
Frequency of service during rush hours will remain the same, with N/W trains from Astoria into Manhattan running every 4.3 minutes — about 14 trains an hour, the maximum the line can handle — between 8 and 10 a.m., the same as current N/Q service.
In the evenings, N/W trains from Manhattan into Astoria will run about every 4.3 minutes between 5 and 6 p.m. and every 4.5 minutes between 6 and 7 p.m., the same as N/Q trains run now, according to the MTA. Trains will run less frequently from Astoria into Manhattan from 5 to 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. to midnight, and from Manhattan into Astoria from 6 to 8 a.m. and between 11 p.m. to midnight, the timetables show.
The MTA says it will track ridership numbers on the N/Q/W lines in the coming months and make schedule changes if needed.
This is an unfortunate reality of infrastructure decisions made over 100 years ago, but it also highlights how the MTA has often been less than honest about the nature of the service changes. The agency had repeated assuaged Astoria residents service would not be cut, but it’s clear that the area will see fewer trains (and longer waits) during off-hour periods of low ridership. How the area responds — and the limitations of the MTA’s available rolling stock — will dictate what happens next.
Meanwhile, as the W begins its resurrection ride in a few hours, the Second Ave. Subway moves ever so slowly to becoming a reality.
My updates here have been sparse lately as work has taken centerstage over the past few weeks. Thanks for bearing with me. I know it’s a busy time for the Second Ave. Subway with an opening tentatively scheduled within the next 68 days so let’s see where things stand.
Despite repeated concerns from the MTA’s independent engineering consultant that the Second Ave. Subway may not open on time in December, the agency is doubling down on its commitment to launch this long-awaited line before 2016 is over. Still, a recent crosstown trip on the M86 showed me that a lot of work remains to be completed as fall heads toward winter, but with the W train’s return on the horizon, New York City is slowly and inexorably moving toward the debut of the city’s greatest urban legend.
First up, as you can see from atop this post, the MTA is priming the pump for the W train. I spotted that poster on a Q train, and many of my Twitter followers have sent in images of the W’s return. The signage describing service patterns, as you can see, remains as incomprehensible to the untrained eye as ever.
— Keith Williams (@wmskeith) October 23, 2016
The train, which serves as a part-time Broadway local with service to Astoria was lost to the 2010 service cuts, and with the Q destined for 2nd Ave. and 96th St., the W will pick up the load. In addition to the return of the W, the R train will service Whitehall Station during the late-night hours. The new service patterns begin in two weeks as all Q trains will terminate at 57th St.-7th Ave. until the Second Ave. Subway opens.
And what of construction? No end of an MTA project would be complete without construction mishaps, the Second Ave. Subway is obliging us in that regard as well. As Dan Rivoli of the Daily News reported over the weekend, some segments of the new tunnels were too small and workers had to shave down parts of the curves in order to fit 75-foot-long subway cars. MTA officials assured the public that the work has been complete and tests continue (though it’s unclear how this engineering mishap occurred in the first place).
“There is no change to the anticipated date Second Avenue will be open. Tests are conducted as part of the overall process to get the tunnel ready and are done precisely so that we know what adjustments may be needed. Training runs are now being made regularly with 75-foot cars,” MTA spokesperson Beth DeFalco said to the News.
And finally, as the MTA comes face to face with the reality of a December opening date, the agency is willing to admit on the record what the whispers have said for a few months: The Second Ave. Subway may “open” “on time” by having trains skip the 72nd St. station. Emma Fitzsimmons, in a profile of the subway line for The Times, had more:
The authority’s credibility is on the line — not just to meet the deadline, but also to deliver a high-quality project. The city’s first new subway station in a quarter-century opened last year at Hudson Yards on the Far West Side of Manhattan. Several months later, major leaks appeared.
Mr. Prendergast has not ruled out opening the new line, but temporarily bypassing 72nd Street if that station is not yet ready. After a board meeting last month, he said trains had temporarily bypassed stations after the bombing in Chelsea on Sept. 17. Mr. Prendergast said last week that it was too early to discuss skipping stations and that he was focused on making sure they were all ready on time. “We haven’t given up on anything at this point,” he said.
For the MTA, such an arrangement would be a departure from the norm as MTA Capital Construction must certify an entire project complete for New York City Transit to begin operations. If the feds, however, are willing to permit service to some stations as crews complete 72nd St., it’s possible that the Q will make three of its four stops for the first few months. With Gov. Cuomo a driving force behind the push for a December opening date, even the culture an an institution as slow to change at the MTA could shift to permit some early subway rides to 96th St., 86th St. and 63rd St. without service to 72nd St.
The countdown continues apace.
If you’ve been jonesing for a podcast from me, you’re in luck this week. My friend Nicole Badstuber was in town from London a few weeks ago, and we recorded an edition of London Reconnections’ On Our Line podcast. The podcast is targeted to a London audience, and Nicole and I discussed the current state of transit in New York City. Nothing regular readers hear will come as much of a surprise, but if you’d like to hear my voice for a change and give London Reconnections some love, mosey on over to this page to listen to the podcast. You also can listen via the embedded player below:
I’m still working on bringing back a regular podcast for this site, but that idea is on hold until I can get a new laptop. I expect it to return early next year at this point.
Meanwhile, weekend subway changes abound:
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, October 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 17, 2 trains are suspended in both directions between 96 St and Wakefield-241 St. Take 4 or 5 trains and free shuttle buses instead. 5 service will operate all weekend. Free express and local shuttle buses provide alternate service between 96 St and 149 St-Grand Concourse. Transfer between 45/se trains and free shuttle buses at 149 St-Grand Concourse.
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, October 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 17, 3 service is suspended. Take 2 or 4 trains and free shuttle buses instead. 2 service operates between Flatbush Av-Brooklyn College and 96 St. 4 service operates all weekend between Woodlawn and New Lots Av, making local stops in Brooklyn. Free shuttle buses operate between 96 St and 148 St. Transfer between free shuttle buses and 2 trains at 96 St. Transfer between 2 and 4 trains at Nevins St or Franklin Av.
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, October 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 17, 4 service operates to/from New Lots Av. 4 service operates all weekend between Woodlawn and New Lots Av, making local stops in Brooklyn.
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, October 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 17, 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, making all 5 line station stops. Transfer between trains and free shuttle buses at E 180 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 17, A trains are suspended in both directions between 168 St and Inwood-207 St. Take 1 trains and free shuttle buses instead. 1 trains make nearby stops between 168 St and 207 St. Free shuttle buses operate along two routes: On Broadway, between 168 St and 207 St, making stops at 175 St, 181 St, 190 St, and Dyckman St, and also on Fort Washington Av, between 168 St and 190 St, making stops at 175 St and 181 St. Transfer between trains and shuttle buses at 168 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 17, A trains run via the F line in both directions between W 4 St-Wash Sq and Jay St-MetroTech.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, October 15 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 17, A trains run local in both directions between W 4 St-Wash Sq and 59 St-Columbus Circle.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, October 15 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 17, A trains run local in both directions between 168 St and 145 St.
From 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, October 15, and Sunday, October 16, 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, October 15, and Sunday, October 16, C trains run via the F line in both directions between W 4 St-Wash Sq and Jay St-MetroTech.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, October 15 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 17, D trains run local in both directions between W 4 St-Wash Sq and 34 St-Herald Sq.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 17, E trains are rerouted via the F line in both directions between 21 St-Queensbridge and W4 St-Wash Sq. Free shuttle buses run between Court Sq-23 St and 21 St-Queensbridge, stopping at Queens Plaza.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 14 to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, October 16, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, October 16 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 17, Jamaica Center-bound E trains run express from the 21 St-Queensbridge F line station to 71 Av.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 17, Jamaica Center-bound E trains skip 75 Av and Briarwood.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, October 15 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 17, Manhattan-bound E trains run local from 71 Av to the 21 St-Queensbridge f line station.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 17, Jamaica Center-bound F trains skip 75 Av, Briarwood and Sutphin Blvd.
From 6:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Saturday, October 15 and Sunday, October 16, J trains are suspended in both directions between Crescent St and Jamaica Center.
From 3:45 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Saturday, October 15 and Sunday, October 16, Manhattan-bound j trains run express from Myrtle Av to Marcy Av.
From 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, October 15, and from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, October 16, Manhattan-bound M trains run express from Myrtle Av to Marcy Av.
From 6:30 a.m. to 12:00 midnight Saturday, October 15, and Sunday, October 16, 71 Av-bound R trains run express from Queens Plaza to 71 Av.
From 12:01 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. Saturday, October 15 to Monday, October 17, the 42 St Shuttle operates overnight.
For New Jersey Transit, Thursday was, in its own pathetic way, a big day. Meeting for the time in months, the agency’s board finally filled its executive director vacancy — a spot left open since Ronnie Hakim decamped for New York City Transit — by appointing Steve Santoro, an accomplished project manager who may be in over his head, to lead the beleaguered agency. Santoro refused to commit to being available for press inquiries and stated in the obvious in his introductory remarks. “There are certainly challenges that we need to face going forward,” he said.
To say that it is an understatement would itself be an understatement. New Jersey Transit reeling from the recent crash in Hoboken, has come under intense federal scrutiny for recent safety lapses, and must find a way out of its current doldrums. With riders facing the strain of bad service and ever-increasing fares, it’s a nearly impossible task, and that’s thanks to the man at top — Gov. Chris Christie.
It’s no secret that I don’t believe Christie to be a friend of transit. It’s a remarkable charge for a governor of New Jersey, a state that wouldn’t exist in its current form without transit. With so many residents bound for jobs in New York City and a river serving as an imposing geographic barrier, New Jersey Transit’s buses and trains (along with ferries and the Port Authority’s PATH system) provide key lifelines, but Christie has denied New Jersey Transit state funding for years. He also recently engaged in a political showdown over the gas tax that became a back-burner issue as he stumped for Trump until the Hoboken crash made a solution a necessity.
That’s only recent history. We know he canceled the ARC Tunnel six years ago and never spent time or effort identifying or funding a replacement. We know ARC would have been nearing an opening date by now, and we know that Christie canceled ARC over spurious funding claims and not, as he tried to argue in hindsight, over concerns over the deep-cavern tunnel under Macy’s. He put that argument forward only because he knew it would win over New Jersey’s transit advocates who hated Alt-G and were willing to overlook the potentially damaging decision by Christie.
But New Jersey’s transit problem isn’t limited to my re-litigating the ARC Tunnel cancelation for the umpteenth time. Rather, we turn to The Times for a lengthy piece on New Jersey Transit’s current crisis. Some highlights:
The result can be felt by commuters daily. So far this year, the railroad has racked up at least 125 major train delays, about one every two days. Its record for punctuality is declining, and its trains are breaking down more often — evidence that maintenance is suffering…
A decade ago, New Jersey Transit was laying the groundwork for robust growth. While ridership has indeed boomed — nearly 20 percent more passengers have flooded the system in the past seven years — the railroad has failed to make the investments in infrastructure needed to meet the rising demand or to simply provide reliable service.
Today, its trains break down about every 85,000 miles, a sharp decline from 120,000 miles between breakdowns four years ago. The region’s two other large commuter rail systems, the Long Island Rail Road and the Metro-North Railroad, are twice as reliable: Their trains travel more than 200,000 miles between breakdowns. New Jersey Transit also reported more major mechanical failures: 213 in 2014, compared with 89 for the Long Island Rail Road and 169 for Metro-North…
Today’s grim picture is a far cry from the recent past, when major investments by the agency helped to fuel a real estate boom in New Jersey. Three initiatives — Midtown Direct in 1996, the Montclair Connection in 2002 and Secaucus Junction in 2003 — increased the value of homes near lines with improved service by $23,000 on average, according to a 2010 report by the Regional Plan Association, an urban policy group. All together, the projects raised home values by $11 billion…
Under the Christie administration, the agency’s finances have been dealt a blow. The direct state subsidy to its operating budget plummeted to $33 million last year from $348 million in 2009, according to the agency’s financial reports.
With delays frequent and state support short, NJ Transit has raised fares by around 30% since the start of the Christie administration, and as some New Jersey residents told The Times, the constant pressure is starting to erode resident comfort. “The railroad’s falling reputation,” The Times states, “some fear, could push people out of the state and turn others off from living there.”
So that seems to be the current end-game. New Jersey Transit service has degraded to the point where people are considering and following through on moves to other New York City suburbs with better transit access to their jobs. It’s a cautionary tale for New Jersey and one that should serve as a wake-up call to Christie’s eventually successor. The region’s economic health depends on a healthy New Jersey Transit, and right now, the Garden State has a ways to go.
As legend has it, when asked about a popular restaurant, perhaps in New York or perhaps in his native St. Louis (history is vague on the answer), Yankees catcher Yogi Berra uttered the famous line, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” Lately, I’ve been thinking about this Yogism in the context of subway ridership as after years of growth, ridership has stagnated and started to slip a little. Have we reached peak subway? Or the are the trains so crowded that no one goes there anymore?
This issue has been percolating throughout 2016, but it came to the forefront in the most recent MTA Board materials. Those materials, released at the end of September, include subway ridership figures through July, and the numbers are starting to sag. Total subway ridership for July was 138.9 million, down from a projected 141.3 million. The MTA believed rain over the July 4th weekend and some New Yorkers’ decisions to extend the long weekend into a mini-vacation led to the variance. It’s quite plausible as subway ridership figures are very sensitive to weather and long weekends.
Now, in a vacuum, missing projected ridership estimates by one percent isn’t that big of a deal, but the year-to-year numbers show a decline. Average daily weekday ridership fell by nearly 2 percent between July of 2015 and July of 2016. Weekend subway ridership, meanwhile, dropped by 3.5 percent between July of 2015 and July of 2016. Again, the MTA blamed rain and vacation, but July continued the year-long trend of ridership either leveling off or declining it.
I had a few thoughts stemming from this trend: First, does it matter? It might if the MTA continues to miss revenue projections due to lower-than-expected fares. It also might matter because we need to understand where these riders are going and why. If the low costs and popularity of cab-sharing apps are sending potential subway riders into cars, that could be a concern for congestion on our streets and a source of long-term competition around the margins for some subway rides. If the continued increase in Citi Bike riders is a factor, this may be indicative of something else at play. It could be that people are fed up with overcrowded rush hour trains that crawl through tunnels and lead to uncomfortable riding conditions because trains are too crowd. It could be something else.
That something else is the second question: What else is going on with the subways? Throughout the same board materials, a variety of other reports indicate service problems. The rolling stock is aging, and failures now occur on average every 120,000 miles (rather than every 143,000 as it was a year ago). On-time performance has dipped to 73.4 percent with a 12-month rolling average of around 68 percent, and wait assessment figures so inconsistent headway gaps, especially during the weekends when getting around time involves deciphering complex and wide-reaching service changes. What if New Yorkers are starting to give up on the subway because service simply isn’t reliable enough?
The subway systems’ renaissance over the past 25 years has been remarkable as annual ridership has grown from 900 million a few decades to 1.7 billion last year without significant increase in track mileage. With new stations and the Second Ave. line set to come online within the next few months, that number will jump again. But it seems that service is starting to come under pressure of all these riders who demand more. Twenty five years ago, the MTA didn’t plan to have 1.7 billion riders in 2015, and it’s not clear that the agency has a plan that will meet today’s ridership demands in 25 years, let alone the demands of whatever ridership could be in 2040. It’s starting to show, and the subways may just be so crowded that no one goes there anymore.