Over the last few years, a rift has emerged between the well-funded QueensWay proponents and the well-intentioned advocates calling for a reactivation of the Rockaway Beach Branch. It’s either one or the other with the political muscle in the form of money from the Governor and the voice of formers Parks Commission Adrian Benepe backing the rails-to-trails side while Assemblyman Philip Goldfeder has been the lone politician trying to keep the hopes for rail alive.
As anyone who’s read my thoughts on this topic knows, I’ve been a supporter of the Rockaway Beach Branch reactivation effort but with a twist. I’m not entirely sold on the idea, but I’m much more against turning over a dormant rail right-of-way to parks advocates without a full study assessing the rail option. We need to know the costs, the potential ridership and impact on Queens and the work that would go into restoring rail before we decide that some über-expensive park in a relatively isolated area of Queens is the way to go.
But what if we can have both? And shouldn’t we be as willing to study all uses of the right-of-way as certain factions are to embrace a park? That’s the argument transit historian and former LIRR manager Andrew Sparberg makes in the Daily News this week. He writes:
A rail line could serve thousands of people per hour. A walking and cycling trail won’t serve those kinds of numbers, but it would still give the community the benefits of a new greenway. What might be the best approach is to research the feasibility of both land uses in the same corridor, before it’s too late — why not incorporate rail transit and a recreational trail together?
…The debated piece of land for this right of way, which has been owned by the city since 1952, now resembles a small forest. Some of it lies atop an embankment. Much environmental study and engineering work, including bridge repairs, would be needed if any re-use occurs. Only an extensive engineering survey can reveal what can or cannot be built, but any proposal should study the feasibility of both a new two track subway route and a greenway. In many areas, the right of way appears wide enough for both uses. Innovative construction techniques and designs could permit trains and people safely side by side.
If this line is completed, Queens would gain its first true north-south subway route, giving Rockaway and southwest Queens easy subway access to Forest Hills, Rego Park, Jamaica, Citi Field, and the Arthur Ashe tennis stadium without long roundabout trips through Brooklyn and Manhattan, or long bus rides. Transfers to the J line could be provided at jamaica Ave., where the LIRR once had a station called Brooklyn Manor. Rockaway, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Woodhaven would have a second, more direct option for travel to and from Midtown Manhattan. Whatever the final outcome, the time to do a real study of reactivating rail transit and providing a recreational trail on the abandoned line, is now.
The QueensWay fight has pitted folks who are usually on the same side of the transit/livable streets/park advocacy debate against each other, but Sparberg wants to bridge that gap. Perhaps we should give him a listen.
Once upon a New York minute, just the threat of a subway fare hike was enough to sink candidates and raise voter ire. In fact, one of the reasons the MTA has had to dig out from decades of deferred maintenance — and one of the reasons why the MTA was created in the first place — was due to the five-cent fare. Until the system nearly broke down, politicians simply could not raise transit fares in New York City without seriously jeopardizing their reelection changes.
With the MTA firmly entrenched in Albany, now, one could be forgiven for hoping that the days of playing politics with MTA fare hikes are a relic of the past. One might also hope to hear from the distant rich relative or receive a lifetime supply of 30-day unlimited ride MetroCards. Politics and the MTA are alive and well.
Recently, I’ve spent some time examining Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s relationship with the MTA. When convenient for him, he uses the agency for positive press; when inconvenient, he runs away or actively works to hold off the bad news. The looming 2015 fare hikes are no exception.
As part of the MTA rescue plan a few years back, the agency committed to biennial fare hikes. Although these raises seem to outpace inflation, the MTA is still playing catch-up from the introduction of the unlimited ride MetroCard nearly twenty years ago, and the inflation-adjusted average fare is still less today than it was in 1996. The fare hikes are a sure way for the MTA to guarantee revenue and a way to level the fare with long-term inflation. We had a fare hike in 2013, and we know we’re having one in 2015. The increase in revenue may have dropped from a projected eight percent to around four percent, but the fare hike is coming one way or another.
In the past, the MTA has unveiled fare hike information in early October in order to prepare the public for hearings and brief the Board on the fiscal plan. This year, the MTA has engaged in near-radio silence regarding the fare hikes. In fact, during last week’s MTA Board meetings, agency head Tom Prendergast danced around the issue. He again confirmed the hikes were happening and promised information within a few weeks. Otherwise, though, he was tight-lipped on the numbers or proposals for revenue increases.
“For me to go any further than that is inappropriate because there haven’t been discussions. We have to follow the process and ultimately this has to follow a process where there’s an interchange with the public,” Prendergast said when pressed on the issue.
So why the delayed timeline and the lack of details or even a leak? I’ve been told by a few people in the know that Governor Cuomo has put the kibosh on fare hike talk until after Tuesday’s vote. He’s not in danger of losing to Rob Astorino, and the existence of the 2015 fare hike is public knowledge. But Cuomo doesn’t want the press to focus on numbers and increased costs at or around Election Day. He wants to run up the score on his opponents and then have this news come out. (This may as well be why the MTA Reinvention Commission hasn’t turned in a report yet, but I haven’t been able to confirm or refute that suspicion one way or another.)
And so we get another round of MTA politics. No one is discussing fare policy before Election Day. No one is discussing the capital plan, and no one is talking about ways to reform the MTA. It’s just the way Gov. Cuomo wants it.
It’s Marathon Weekend — which usually means fewer subway changes. But not this weekend. The 1 isn’t running between 96th and 242nd Sts., and there are a slew of other changes that will make travel a little rough. Anyway, as a note, these no longer have the explanation for the change because the MTA stopped providing it. These come from them. Enjoy the costumes tonight if you’re still out.
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, October 31 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 3, 1 trains are suspended in both directions between 96 St and Van Cortlandt Park-242 St. AC, M3 and free shuttle buses provide alternate service.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 31 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 3, Flatbush Av-Brooklyn College bound 2 trains run express from Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr to Franklin Av.
From 6:00 a.m. to 11:45 p.m. Saturday, November 1 and Sunday, November 2, New Lots Av-bound 3 trains run express from Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr to Franklin Av.
From 11:45 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., Friday, October 31 to Sunday, November 2, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, November 2 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 3, Woodlawn-bound 4 trains run express from 14 St-Union Sq to Grand Cantral-42.
From 11:00 p.m. Saturday, November 1 to 6:00 a.m. Sunday, November 2, and from 11:00 p.m. Sunday, November 2 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 3, New Lots Av-bound 4 trains run local between 125 St and Grand Central-42.
From 11:45 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., Friday, October 31 to Sunday, November 2, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, November 2 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 3, New Lots Av-bound 4 trains run express from Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr to Franklin Av.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 31 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 3, 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. 5 service operates every 20 minutes between E 180 St and Bowling Green days and evenings.
From 7:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, November 1, and from 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Sunday, November 2, 6 trains run every 16 minutes between Parkchester and Pelham Bay Park. The last stop for some 6 trains headed toward Pelham Bay Park is Parkchester. To continue your trip, transfer at Parkchester to a Pelham Bay Park-bound 6 train.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 31 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 3, Pelham Bay Park-bound 6 trains run express from 14 St-Union Sq to Grand Cantral-42 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 31 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 3, Brooklyn Bridge-bound 6 trains run express from Hunters Point Av to 3Av-138 St.
From 3:45 a.m. Saturday, November 1 to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, November 2, Mets-Willets Point bound 7 trains run express from Queensboro Plaza to 74 St-Broadway.
From 12:01 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. Saturday, November 1, and 12:01 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. Sunday, November 2, 7 trains operate in two sections.
- Between Times Sq-42 St and Mets-Willets Point.
- Between Mets-Willets Point and Flushing-Main St.
From 11:45 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., Friday, October 31 to Sunday, November 2, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, November 2 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 3, 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, November 1 and Sunday, November 2, 168 St-bound C trains run express from Canal St to 59 St-Columbus Circle.
From 10:45 p.m. Friday, October 31 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 3, Norwood-205 St bound D trains run express from 145 St to Tremont Av.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 31 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 3, Norwood-205 St bound D trains are rerouted on the N line from 36 St to Coney Island-Stillwell Av.
From 12:15 a.m. to 6:30 a.m., Saturday, November 1 and Sunday, November 2, and from 12:15 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 3, Jamaica Center Parsons-Archer bound E trains run express from Queens Plaza to Roosevelt Av.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 31 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 3, Jamaica-179 St bound F trains are rerouted via the A line from Jay St-MetroTech to W 4 St.
From 5:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, November 1 and Sunday, November 2, G trains run every 20 minutes between Long Island City-Court Sq and Bedford-Nostrand Avs. The last stop for some G trains headed toward Court Sq is Bedford-Nostrand Avs. To continue your trip, transfer at Bedford-Nostrand Avs to Court Sq-bound G train.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 31 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 3, Coney Island-Stillwell Av bound N trains are rerouted via the D line from 36 St to Coney Island-Stillwell Av.
From 10:45 p.m. Friday, October 31 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 3, 57 St-7 Av bound Q trains run express from Kings Hwy to Prospect Park.
From 6:30 a.m. to 12:15 a.m., Saturday, November 1 to Monday, November 3, Forest Hills-71 Av bound R trains run express from Queens Plaza to Roosevelt Av.
Franklin Av Shuttle
From 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Saturday, November 1, S Franklin Av Shuttle trains run every 24 minutes.
When you or I think about a drill bit, we probably conjure up images of something small used to secure some houseware to the wall, maybe 3/4 of an inch. We don’t really think of drill bits on the scale of the East Side Access project, but today, numerous subway riders and the MTA had a close call with a giant drill bit as it pierced a subway tunnel and narrowly avoided an F train with 800 on board.
The Daily News had the story about the runaway 10-inch drill bit:
A contractor operating a drill as part of the MTA’s East Side Access project mistakenly penetrated a Queens subway tunnel on Thursday, and the massive bit scraped the top and side of an occupied F train, transit officials said. Some 800 passengers were aboard the Jamaica-bound train at the time, about 11:45 a.m. Nobody was hurt in the terrifying blunder, but it was far too close for comfort. “That’s a near miss,” an MTA supervisor said, wondering what would have happened if the bit had made a direct hit and punctured a subway car’s passenger compartment. “Oh my God! If it had hit the train, you could forget about it! Of course we are concerned.”
…A contractor working on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s East Side Access project, which will connect the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal, was operating the drill above ground, roughly at the intersection of 23rd St. and 41st Ave. in Long Island City.
The contractor, Griffin Dewatering New England, Inc., was using the drill to expand a well, said MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz. An MTA source familiar with the work said the contractor was at fault. “Some people don’t follow instructions; they drilled deeper than they were supposed to.”
This comes at the end of the week during which the MTA David L. Mayer, formerly of the National Transportation Safety Board, to be the agency’s first Chief Safety Officer. It also comes at the end of the week during which the NTSB ripped into Metro-North, calling last year’s derailments, injuries and deaths “preventable.” For more on that — and criticism lobbed toward the FRA as well — check out Railway Age’s take and The Times’ piece on the press conference.
Much like the drill bit exiting the tunnel today, the only way to go from here is up.
While I was musing on the MTA’s capital construction credibility problem yesterday, the MTA decided to open a big-ticket project. At the Board committee meeting yesterday, the agency revealed that the Fulton St. Transit Center finally has an opening date. On Sunday, November 9, the politicians will gather for a largely undeserved photo op, and the building will open to commuters on Monday, November 10 at 5 a.m.
For MTA Capital Construction, this is a good moment. It’s only the second project, after the short-lived South Ferry station, that MTACC has opened, but like South Ferry, this one is a few months late due to some issues with the finishes and occupancy permit. The MTA will also open the Dey St. Concourse early. The passageway, outside of fare control, provides an underground walkway between the Fulton St. subway complex and the R train’s Cortlandt St. station. It may one day connect to the E train and wasn’t supposed to open until the PATH Hub is finished next year. But after months of delays, the MTA is just opening the whole thing at once.
So what are we getting for $1.4 billion? Well, most of the work we already see. The passageways and fancy LED screens are lit up; the hallways are as straight as they can be considering the layout; and everything just looks refreshed. But we’re also getting our headhouse, and for now, it’s simply the system’s fanciest Arts for Transit installation. Westfield is working to bring retail to the Transit Center, but no stores will be open on November 10 when politicians cut their ribbons. For now, the Transit Center is an empty building with lots of natural light and lots of empty space.
But cynicism aside, opening the Fulton St. Transit Center is a big day for Lower Manhattan. Some construction will wrap, and a new building, promised as part of the post-9/11 rebuilding effort a decade ago, will reopen. Onward and upward.
As Monday dawns, the MTA Board Committees will gear up for a full day’s worth of meetings. Despite the fact that the fare is set to rise in March, we won’t hear hand-wringing over the fare hike amounts or even new proposals as, by a few accounts, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is putting pressure on MTA leadership to delay public announcement of any fare hikes and toll increases until after Election Day. There’s nary a mention to be found of the looming rate increases in this month’s Board materials, and usually, the MTA announces the plan in mid-October.
What’s done is done — or better yet, what’s not done isn’t done — on that front, and for now, we’ll move on to other things such as what’s up with these never-opening capital projects? October will end this week, and the Fulton St. Transit Center, once expected to open in late June, will remain shrouded in construction. This week’s Board materials offer few clues to the project’s opening. A note in a presentation to the Transit Committee states only that “the Fulton Center Opening date is currently under review” while the opening date is projected to be some time in Q4. Work started, by the way, in December of 2004.
The presentation to the Capital Program Oversight Committee offers a little bit more information. The Transit Center building contract is expected to be completed before the end of December, and it seems that only a few items remain outstanding. But a few items are enough to delay the whole thing. As the materials say, “Substantial completion of this contract has been delayed due to extended testing and commissioning and subsequent punchlist items.”
Information regarding the 7 line is even harder to find this month. The MTA isn’t offering its Board any further information on the problematic elevators and escalators that have delayed the project, and although we’ve heard February 2015 as an opening date, the latest MTA docs give the agency some leeway. Currently, revenue service is projected to begin during the first quarter of 2015 — which runs through the end of March. The one-stop subway extension was once supposed to be open by the end of 2013, the first quarter of 2014, fall 2014 and then Q4 2014, but now it seems, one way or another, we’ll wait until late winter or even early spring.
All of which brings me to the Second Ave. Subway. Construction on the three-stop East Side extension of the Q train is continuing apace, and the MTA still believes they have approximately 26 months left on this project before revenue service begins. The Board materials confidently state a December 2016 ribbon-cutting, and although a few years ago, the feds disputed this projection, the MTA has vowed to open the subway on time. That said, the MTA has also vowed to open the Fulton St. Transit Center on time and the 7 line on time. Given the betting line, wouldn’t you take the “over” on December 2016? I know I would.
On a more immediate level, though, as the MTA wants political support for its $30 billion, five-year capital plan, the agency needs to show that they can deliver something somewhere on time or at least learning why they can’t. The aspect of the Fulton St. project that’s being delayed is a fancy headhouse while, seemingly, the complicated underground work has largely wrapped; the 7 line hasn’t opened because of vent fans, inclined elevators and long escalators — hardly technology unique to New York. We won’t know what happens with Second Ave. for another 18-24 months, but whatever remains of the MTA’s capital project credibility is riding on it.
October 27, 1904 was an important day in the history of New York City for that was the day the subway opened. Thus, Monday marks the 110th anniversary of the first ride from City Hall north. To celebrate, the MTA will be running special Nostalgia Trains on Sunday and Monday.
On Sunday, between noon and 5 p.m., the Low-Vs will run between Times Square and 96th on the original West Side IRT. The uptown trains leave Times Square on the hour and 96th St. on the half hour. Additionally, the “Train of Many Colors” will leave 96th St. on the hour and head uptown from Times Square on the half hour. On Monday, the Low Voltage sets will run between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., leaving Times Square on the hour and 96th St. on the half hour. Bring your cameras.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 24 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 27, Flatbush Av-Brooklyn College bound 2 trains run express from Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr to Franklin Av.
From 6:00 a.m. to 11:45 p.m. Saturday, October 25 and Sunday, October 26, New Lots Av-bound 3 trains run express from Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr to Franklin Av.
From 11:00 p.m. Saturday, October 25 to 6:00 a.m. Sunday, October 26, and from 11:00 p.m. Sunday, October 26 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 27, New Lots Av-bound 4 trains run local between 125 St and Grand Cantral-42 St .
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 24 to 6:00 a.m. Sunday, October 26, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, October 26 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 27, Brooklyn-bound 4 trains run express from Grand Cantral-42 St to 14 St-Union Sq.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 24 to 6:00 a.m. Sunday, October 26, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, October 26 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 27, New Lots Av-bound 4 trains run express from Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr to Franklin Av.
From 4:45 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. Sunday, October 26, Woodlawn-bound 4 trains skip Fulton St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 24 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 27, 5 trains are suspended in both directions between Eastchester-Dyre Av and E180 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. 5 service operates every 20 minutes between E 180 St and Bowling Green days and evenings only.
From 7:45 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. Sunday, October 26, E 180 St-bound 5 trains skip Fulton St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 24 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 27, Brooklyn Bridge-bound 6 trains run express from Grand Cantral-42 St to 14 St-Union Sq.
From 2:00 a.m. Saturday, October 25 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 27, 7 trains are suspended between Times Sq-42 St and Queensboro Plaza. Use EFNQ trains between Manhattan and Queens. Free shuttle buses make all stops between Vernon Blvd-Jackson Av and Queensboro Plaza. The 42 Street S shuttle operates overnight. Q service is extended to Ditmars Blvd from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 pm on Saturday, October 25, and from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Sunday, October 26.
From 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Saturday, October 25, and Sunday, October 26, customers should expect longer wait times between Queensboro Plaza and 74 St-Broadway. Service runs less frequently. The last stop for some 7 trains headed toward Queensboro Plaza is 74 St-Broadway.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 24 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 27, Inwood-207 St bound A trains are rerouted via the F line from Jay St-MetroTech to W 4 St Wash Sq, then run local to 59 St-Columbus Circle.
From 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday, October 25 and Sunday, October 26, 168 St-bound C trains are rerouted via the F line from Jay St-MetroTech to W 4 St Wash Sq.
From 10:45 p.m. Friday, October 24 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 27, Norwood-205 St bound D trains run express from 145 St to Tremont Av.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 24 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 27, Coney Island-Stillwell Av bound D trains are rerouted on the N line from 36 St to Coney Island-Stillwell Av.
From 11:00 p.m. Friday, October 24 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 27, Coney Island-Stillwell Av bound D trains run local between DeKalb Av and 36 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 24 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 27, Jamaica Center- Parsons Archer bound E trains run express from Canal St to 34 St-Penn Station.
From 11:15 p.m. Friday, October 24 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 27, Coney Island-Stillwell Av bound F trains are rerouted via the M line from Roosevelt Av to 47-50 Sts/Rock Ctr.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 24 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 27, Astoria-Ditmars Blvd bound N trains are rerouted via the D line from Coney Island-Stillwell Av to 36 St.
From 11:00 p.m. Friday, October 24 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 27, N trains run local from DeKalb Av and 36 St.
From 10:30 p.m. Friday, October 24 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 27, Q trains are suspended in both directions between Coney Island-Stillwell Av and Prospect Park. DFN and free shuttle buses provide alternate service.
From 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Saturday, October 25, and from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Sunday, October 26, Q service is extended to Astoria-Ditmars Blvd.
42 St Shuttle
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, October 25, to 6:00 a.m. Monday, October 27, the 42 St S Shuttle operates overnight.
Over the last few weeks, the MTA’s proposed $32 billion capital plan has faced criticism from just about everywhere. Staten Islanders are not happy with it; the state’s Capital Program Review Board flat-out rejected it; and State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli is concerned about the ever-ticking debt bomb. Now we can add the influential Citizens Budget Commission to the list.
In a Policy Brief released yesterday (pdf), the CBC does not pull it punches. Citing “misplaced priorities,” the CBC calls the plan “misguided” and says that riders should not be asked to pay for a plan that doesn’t spend money on the right things. Essentially, the charge amounts to one of recklessness — the MTA has asked for an incredibly high sum of money without making the right case for the expenditures.
“The MTA is a core asset of the New York region’s economy, and funding its capital needs wisely should be a high priority,” CBC President Carol Kellermann said in a statement. “The public debate over the proposed MTA capital plan should focus on what the funds would achieve as well as how much funding is needed.”
The CBC’s critique can be boiled down to three salient points. First, the report alleges that the MTA is not making sufficient progress in achieving a state of good repair for aging and aged infrastructure. “Most of the facilities,” the CBC noted in a refrain we’ve heard before, “are not in a state of good repair.” To make matters worse — or at least, not better — the next five year plan will not close the gap and will, says the CBC, “leave many features of the mass transit and commuter rail systems, such as stations and less visible power stations and pumps, in need of repairs and renovations; the consequence will be less reliable and less safe service than the public needs.”
Second, the CBC is not impressed with the MTA’s plans to modernize the subway’s signal and communications systems. This should be a clear priority at this point as it’s one of the few ways, absent massive capital construction projects, that the MTA can expand service on preexisting subway lines, but it’s a tough sell politically as you can’t have a ribbon-cutting for some new signal system or CBTC. The CBC summarizes: “In the next five years work will begin on only two additional segments, leaving the vast majority of the system with outdated components for at least the next 20 years.”
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the CBC alleges that the MTA hasn’t properly made its case to the public. “The proposed plan allocates substantial sums, and implicitly commits even larger sums in the future, to new projects that expand the transit network without analyzing their benefits relative to other possibilities and without identifying their total cost.” In turn, the CBC states that the MTA does not have clear priorities in selecting projects and a “weak capacity” for implementing projects efficiently (which is probably being nice about it). The CBC wants to see explicit criteria for priority projects and evidence of long-term investments before anyone forks over money.
That final point is a key one as the MTA’s five-year plan includes requests for $1.5 billion for the second phase of the Second Ave. Subway and significant spends for the Penn Station and East Side Access projects. The Second Ave. Subway, in particular, has been problematic as the MTA has refused to release a full cost estimate for Phase 2. When the MTA first proposed the four-phase approach over ten years ago, Phase 2 was expected to cost approximately as much as Phase 1, but the MTA must refresh the EIS and engineering reports. Thus, the agency does not wish to give a final cost yet but insists that it needs the $1.5 billion to begin planning now and construction toward the end of the five-year plan. It’s a weird Catch-22 of this half-decade funding process but one that bears a closer look.
So here we are. No one seems to like the MTA’s capital plan, but it needs to happen in some form or another. How we get there remains to be seen, but it seems clear that the MTA should answer to these complaints once (if? whenever?) everyone in Albany gets serious about the next round of funding and spending plans.
It’s starting to seem like a regular occurrence around here, but the MTA has again announced record monthly and daily ridership, this time for September. The numbers are staggering, and as they filtered throughout the transit community yesterday, various groups issued calls for funding and better representation of an important constituency.
According to New York City Transit, on Tuesday, September 23, the MTA recorded 6,106,694 paying customers. This was the fifth day in September alone that over 6 million riders swiped into the subway system, and it marked the first time since the late 1940s — when the elevateds still loomed over the streets of Manhattan — that ridership hit such a high level. Overall, 149 million passengers rode the rails in September, another figure higher than any time since the late 1940s.
MTA leaders were quick to point out the significance of the figure. Back in 1985, when the MTA started tracking daily numbers, the high peaked at 3.7 million. Now, it’s nearly two-thirds higher. “New Yorkers and visitors alike continue to vote with their feet, recognizing that riding the subway is the most efficient way to get around town,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said. “This is a phenomenal achievement for a system that carried 3.6 million daily customers just 20 years ago. As ridership increases, the MTA Capital Program is vital to fund new subway cars, higher-capacity signal systems and improved stations to meet our customers’ growing needs and rising expectations.”
Prendergast wasn’t the only one noted the ties between increased ridership and the need for investment in the system. Yonah Freemark noted a connection on Twitter as a few of us were discussing the numbers:
The obvious conclusion from massive NYC Subway ridership: Expansion is necessary
— Yonah Freemark (@yfreemark) October 22, 2014
The city’s advocacy groups too picked up the thread. “With more New Yorkers using public transit, we need to guarantee that our system can continue to thrive with the city it serves. These record numbers should be setting off alarm bells for our elected officials in Albany, who will need to find $15 billion in the next few months to fund the MTA’s basic infrastructure and construction needs,” John Raskin of the Riders Alliance (of which I’m a board member) said. “If we don’t continue to invest in our system and build for the future, these strong numbers could represent a peak instead of a trend. It’s vital that our elected officials find the funding needed to support the entire $32 billion capital plan, which represents the least we can do to maintain our system so it can last for years into the future.”
Gene Russianoff and the Straphangers echoed those sentiments. “The rain of riders,” Gene said, “is both an opportunity and a challenge for New York — an opportunity for economic growth that no other American city can even aspire to [and] a challenge to win the necessary capital funds – $32 billion over the next five years – that will allow the subways and buses to handle the millions flocking to the system every day.”
The needs are obvious. The popularity is obvious. The support isn’t there. Somehow, someway, this disconnect between politicians and their constituents who rely heavily on transit needs to be resolved. New York’s future, now more than ever, depends on it.
When I read New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s release about his latest report on the MTA, I rolled my eyes a bit. DiNapoli, picking up on the MTA’s $15 billion capital funding gap, noted that while the MTA’s finances are better, the riders could wind up shouldering a huge portion of the next five-year plan, and the Comptroller said, riders shouldn’t be expected to pay for everything.
We could debate for hours whether or not that last statement is true, but DiNapoli’s point isn’t a new one. “The MTA is in better financial condition thanks to its own efforts and a stronger economy,” DiNapoli said yet again. “Over the coming months, the MTA will have to work closely with its funding partners to close the $15 billion gap in its capital program. Additional borrowing could increase pressure on fares and tolls, and while the MTA should look for opportunities for savings, deep cuts could affect the future reliability of the transit system and jeopardize expansion projects.”
Overall, DiNapoli’s report regurgitates MTA talking points. He notes that subway ridership has hit highs not seen since the late 1940s and that the MTA’s debt burden will continue to increase for the foreseeable future. He highlighted the new labor deals, unfunded pension obligations and steep fare hikes. It’s basically a summary of the last six months’ worth of news. (You can read it here as a PDF if you need a primer.)
Despite the mundane nature of DiNapoli’s report, one part is worth a deeper dive. His report “cautions that every $1 billion borrowed would increase debt service by an amount comparable to a 1 percent increase in fares and tolls.” Thus, if the MTA needs to borrow that $15 billion to cover its capital funding costs, it could do so simply by raising fares by an additional 15 percent. That’s a big fare hike. The MTA’s current plan for 2015 — once it gets released some time after Gov. Cuomo’s upcoming Election Day — calls for only a 4 percent hike, down from an originally planned 8 percent.
So while it’s easy to dismiss DiNapoli’s report for being nothing more than a news aggregator, the point he makes about the fares is a political chit for the MTA. If no one steps up with a different funding scheme and the MTA is serious about this $30 billion plan, the riders will be footing the bill for a substantial portion of it. Maybe that’s OK; maybe the people who use the system should pay for more of it. But now we know it’s a choice that Albany will make willingly. Is it the right one? I don’t think so.