Archive for Asides
The revolving door atop the MTA’s power structure continues to spin as New York City Transit President Carmen Bianco announced his plans to retire this summer. Bianco, 63, took over the role in April of 2013 when Tom Prendergast was elevated to MTA Chair, and he had previously spent over three years as the Senior Vice President of Subways. He was the seventh New York City Transit President and, outside of Howard Robers, the shortest-tenured one.
As with any agency head, Bianco’s time as president has seen its ups and downs — though the downs were brought about by forces of nature largely outside of anyone’s control. As VP and later President, he led an agency working to overcome the damage wrought by Superstorm Sandy and developed the early years of Transit’s $4 billion Fix & Fortify spending plan. Meanwhile, on the positive side, the subways now serve up to 6 million riders per day, and overall daily NYC Transit ridership has topped 8.2 million. The team Bianco put into place is working to increase subway capacity too, though changes (cough cough open gangways cough cough) can’t come soon enough.
MTA officials, meanwhile, praised Bianco and pledged to conduct a wide search for his replacement. “Carmen Bianco is a one-of-a-kind leader as well as a trusted friend, and while I understand why he is ready to retire now, we will all miss his detailed experience, his thoughtful perspective and his constant drive to make transit better for both our customers and our employees,” Prendergast said in a statement. “Through initiatives like establishing the FASTRACK program for subway maintenance and aggressively bringing new technology into the system, Carmen made the organizational culture of New York City Transit reflect the priorities that our customers expect. He will be missed.”
I’m a bit swamped this week as I’m heading out for vacation on Thursday afternoon. I’ll do my best to expand on some of these topics as the week goes on, but for now, I’d like to offer up a short post on a topic I’ve covered in the past: MTA advertising.
As part of a back and forth with Pamela Geller’s group, the MTA has struggled to craft a constitutionally-acceptable ad policy that doesn’t infringe on First Amendment protections. The agency tried to amend its policy in late 2012 but has been engaged in protracted legal wrangling over the revised versions. Recently, a federal judge found that the MTA had to run anti-Muslim ads under its policy, and in response, the MTA has barred all political advertising from appearing in ads. (Check out the revised policy in this pdf).
On its surface, this strikes me as an impermissible content-based restriction on free speech, but recent Sixth Circuit jurisprudence may say otherwise. A case out of Southern Michigan found that SMART could bar all political speech as it did not consider buses to be public forums. The Second Circuit hasn’t been as forgiving, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this matter head to the Supreme Court. (WNYC delves into the legal theorizing over the constitutionality of the MTA’s moves.)
Geller has already said she plans to sue the agency over its latest revisions, and so far, the MTA has yet to win a case against her group. As a lawyer, I’ve always been intrigued by this give-and-take, and I’ll keep an eye out on this story as it unfolds in the coming months.
Due to the fact that the MTA has burned through leaders at a rate of nearly one per year over the last six years, Tom Prendergast, on the job only for two years, was nearing the end of the current six-year term when news broke this morning that Gov. Andrew Cuomo plans to reappoint him. The Governor let the word drop this morning during a breakfast speech in front of the Association for a Better New York, and in comments Prendergast made to the press later in the day, the MTA chief received the word the same way the rest of us did — through breaking news straight from Cuomo’s mouth at the breakfast. Now, the MTA may get some much-needed stability at a time when it’s searching for an even more badly-needed $15 billion in capital funding.
Thanks to politicking and such, Prendergast’s current term is actually the end of Jay Walder’s six-year appointment. That term began in 2009 when Lee Sander and Dale Hemmerdinger were forced out, and the bifurcated MTA Executive Director and MTA Board Chair positions were merged. Walder gave way to Joe Lhota, and City Hall ambitions led Lhota to step down. Now, Prendergast, 62, will get his own six-year term and the opportunity to leave a lasting mark on the MTA. Advocated had endorsed this move in March, and I think it’s a good one. I’ll have more once Cuomo puts out the official word; the Governor’s full speech is available on YouTube.
Except for this guy profiled by The Times today, no one in New York City has particularly kind words for the Port Authority Bus Terminal. It’s ugly inside and out and attracts all types of shady characters. It’s a grim place to wait for and board a bus, and practically, it’s at capacity. The Port Authority has plans to rebuild and replace, but how committed it is to those plans remains a mystery.
Last year, when the PA announced a $90 million bandaid to spruce up the bus terminal, the agency made clear that it had a long-term goal to build a new bus station. The project would take around a decade and could cost upwards of $1 billion. With potential air rights or development opportunities, the dollars didn’t seem too extreme. But a new estimate blasts that figure out of the water. As both The Wall Street Journal and Capital New York reported, a replacement PABT could run anywhere from $8-$11 billion — or essentially the bulk of a new trans-Hudson rail tunnel or 2-3 phases of the Second Ave. Subway would cost.
The number is appallingly large even as the Port Authority claims it wants to fast-track this project. But transit advocates are eying it skeptically and instead feel the new price tag is both completely divorced from reality and an attempt to torpedo the project before it becomes. Stephen Miller at Streetsblog followed this line of thinking. He spoke to Veronica Vanterpool at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, who, citing ARC and the transit options across the New New York Bridge, said, “There’s a tendency to over-inflate transit costs just to kill them.”
The Port Authority flaks had almost nothing to add. “We look forward to updating the board on this critical project and continuing to engage the public and other stakeholders on ways to improve the bus passenger experience in the region and meet the demands of the future,” a spokesman said. But as the PA tries to find creative ways to wiggle out of another core-mission project, everyone agrees the PABT can’t withstand the crowds and isn’t designed to keep pace with transit growth and future demands. It shouldn’t though cost $10 billion to replace it, and a tenfold increase in costs even for an agency that plays as loose with dollars as the Port Authority deserves a deep, deep examination.
By some counts, Tom Prendergast is the sixth person to head up the MTA in the time since I started this site back in November of 2006. Peter Kalikow was the MTA chairman then, and when his term expired, he was replaced by the two-headed leadership of Dale Hemmerdinger and Lee Sander. That pairing proved short-lived for political purposes, and Jay Walder took over in 2009 after Helen Williams served as the interim head. Amidst tense relationships with both the TWU and then-new Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Walder departed for Hong Kong, and Joe Lhota took over until he ran for mayor. Prendergast has served in the role since the start of 2013 — seemingly eternity for an MTA head.
In an ideal world, the MTA head would serve a full six-year term as Peter Stengl, Virgil Conway and Kalikow did. But the best laid plans often run afoul of politics, and the turmoil at the top has reverberated throughout the organization. Efforts at trimming the MTA fat have succeeded, but plans to, say, bring countdown clocks to the B Division haven’t progressed much. Now, the six-year term that began with Walder’s appointment in 2009 is set to expire at the end of June, and the governor hasn’t indicated if he plans to stick with Prendergast.
In a piece in today’s Daily News, Pete Donohue highlights statements from transit advocates and MTA Board members who wish to see Prendergast reappointed. Gene Russianoff called Prendergast “the perfect transit advocate for a system badly in need of adequate funding,” and others closely associated with the MTA offered similar support. “He’s a serious transportation professional who has brought tremendous stability and a forward-looking perspective to the MTA. I expect as long a tenure as possible, because God knows, as an institution, we’ve been hobbled by a succession of short-term chairmen,” Fernando Ferrar, the Board’s vice chair, said.
To me, it’s a no-brainer to reappoint Prendergast if he’s interested in sticking around. The MTA needs state support and leadership continuity to address a yawning $15.2 billion gap in the capital plan, and the Sandy recover efforts will continue, likely for the next 3-4 years. Prendergast has a good working relationship with the MTA’s unions and, to a greater degree than other recent MTA Chairs, the respect of enough representatives in Albany to be an effective champion for the agency. Cuomo shouldn’t wait until June or later to make a move here, but timely decisions relating to transit sadly do not appear to be on our governor’s agenda.
Just a reminder that my next “Problem Solvers” event at the Transit Museum — the first since last spring’s session on the MetroCard — is set for tomorrow night. The topic is the MTA’s post-Sandy Fix & Fortify program, an ongoing effort to recover from Superstorm Sandy and work to alleviate the affect another hurricane or similar storm could have on the region and its transit network. I’ll be interviewing John O’Grady, an engineer with over 25 years’ experience at the MTA and in capital construction who currently serves as a vice president for infrastructure and facilities. The talk will start at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 3.
It’s hard to believe the storm swept through well over two years ago, and as we know, the MTA’s challenges are immense. The new South Ferry station, totaled by the storm surge, isn’t expected to reopen until mid-2017 or even early 2018, according to the latest MTA materials, and although the Montague St. Tunnel has reopened following 14 months’ of repairs, the MTA has to address saltwater damage in many of the other East River Tunnels. During the talk tomorrow, we’ll discuss the work that went into the Montague Tube repairs and the way the MTA is managing the project. We’ll touch on some flood-remediation efforts and the MTA’s attempts at ensuring the next big storm isn’t nearly as disruptive or destructive to the subway system.
As noted, the festivities start at 6:30 p.m. at the Transit Museum in Downtown Brooklyn. As the Museum would like to better support its programming, the event carries with it a modest $10 charge (though museum members still get in for free). As a bonus, though, at 7:30 p.m., the Museum will put Sandy artifacts on display and discuss the process of retrieving and cataloging these items. Most of the public saw only the photos, but the destruction wrought by the storm was substantial. Pick up your tickets right here. Hopefully, I’ll see you tomorrow.
Subway service and the city’s sense of 24-hour invulnerability weren’t the only casualties of the late January snow storm that wasn’t. My “Problem Solvers” session at the Transit Museum had to be postponed as well. Now, the Museum, my guest and I have determined that we’ll put on the event on Tuesday, March 3rd at 6:30 p.m. in Downtown Brooklyn.
For this session, I’ll be interviewing John O’Grady, an engineer with over 25 years’ experience at the MTA and in capital construction who currently serves as a vice president for infrastructure and facilities. The talk will focus on Sandy recovery efforts. We’ll discuss the work that went into the Montague Tube repairs and the way the MTA is managing the project. We’ll touch on some flood-remediation efforts and the MTA’s attempts at ensuring the next big storm isn’t nearly as disruptive or destructive to the subway system.
The festivities start at 6:30 p.m. at the Transit Museum in Downtown Brooklyn. As the Museum would like to better support its programming, the event carries with it a modest $10 charge (though museum members still get in for free). As a bonus, though, at 7:30 p.m., the Museum will put Sandy artifacts on display and discuss the process of retrieving and cataloging these items. Most of the public saw only the photos, but the destruction wrought by the storm was substantial. Pick up your tickets right here. Those of you who already purchased a ticket don’t need to pay again. Hopefully, I’ll see you at the Museum in a few weeks.
So apparently the 7 train is all messed up because of an ice condition brought about by an umbrella on the tracks that somehow caused a power outage. Although many have used this is a prime example of why subways shouldn’t run in bad weather, if anything, this proves the opposite as the tracks would have been cleared of ice all day except for the umbrella-inspired power outage. The other elevated lines didn’t have problems today, eh?
Anyway, I’m swamped at work this week and don’t have much time to write anything long-form. Today, I’ll urge you to read Steve Cuozzo’s takedown of the Fulton St. Transit Center. In New York Post style, he eviscerates the complex, and while some of his criticism is off base — the MTA couldn’t re-route 100-year-old subway lines to create truly clear passageways, other remarks hit the nail on the head. Cuozzo thinks claims of untangling hallways was overblown while some wayfinding signs leave much to be desired. The expensive headhouse, he complains, with its fancy oculus is still devoid of retail, but in a year or two, when it’s full, no one will care.
The issue though was the price tag. It cost $1.4 billion, and we got no new stations or new track mileage out of it. I ultimately think the Fulton St. Transit Center is a huge improvement on what was there before it, but Cuozzo’s kicker contains a kernel of transit politics I’ve written about before. “The ugly truth is that the Fulton Center was never about unraveling a maze. It was about building a monument to politicians’ and planners’ egos, crowned by a useless glass dome.”
I’m too busy trying to figure out what the Seahawks’ coaches were doing on 2nd and goal with time running out and the Super Bowl trophy within their grasps to think of much else tonight. I also need to continue to clean up from the part the Future Mrs. Second Ave. Sagas and I hosted tonight so you’re stuck without much in the way of original content. If you’d like to read up on more about Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s overreaction to last week’s snow forecast, check out Kate Hinds’ piece on how at least some subway service should run no matter the winter weather. According to the WNYC reporter’s interviews with MTA sources and other transit experts in the know, even with an historic blizzard bearing down on New York City, the MTA could run service through most of its system. For its part, the MTA is looking at “amending [winter] plans moving forward.” Clearly, this won’t be the last we hear of this story.
Shortly after midnight, an hour and a half after the subways were supposed to stop running, I took a walk to Grand Army Plaza to check out the scene, and while I stood there, three trains arrived in the space of about four minutes. Their doors opened; the automated voices announced the station; and then the trains pulled out. Passengers were nowhere to be found, but by all accounts, as we learned early on in the evening, the subways ran without passengers. Some ran to de-ice elevated tracks while others ran simply because it was easier than powering down for less than 12 hours.
At around 7:30 a.m. this morning, the Governor decided it was acceptable to allow passengers back on these ghost trains, and he lifted the unnecessary and ill-conceived total travel ban. The first trains with passengers ran at around 8:45 a.m., and the MTA expects to be able to run a full Sunday schedule by noon. As snow continues, bus service may be slow to non-existent, but New Yorkers will be able to get around quickly and safely via the subway just as they always have been in the snow no matter the severity of the storm. At this point, Transit expects to run normal service on Wednesday, but if anything changes, I’ll be here to update the site.