Archive for Asides

I’m heading out of town to take a few extra days off around the Presidents’ Day Weekend so content will be light over the next few days. I’ll post the service advisories on Friday night, but unless big news breaks, I don’t plan on publishing anything else. That doesn’t mean I’ll leave you with nothing though. We’ll always have streetcar takes.

For your consideration, Yonah Freemark offers up a wary view of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector proposal while Sam Schwartz defends his work. Schwartz, who led the team studying the transit options, explains how his group determined a subway was too costly and bus too slow and insufficient for the area’s transit needs. Freemark, on the other hand, wants to see truly dedicated rights-of-way, free transfers and better connections between a streetcar and other transit modes, and, most importantly, zoning that eliminates parking requirements and allows for greater density along the streetcar route. The problem with hugging the waterfront is, of course, that we can’t build for height in the ocean.

I’m in the process of learning more about the nuts and bolts of Schwartz’s proposal, and while many think this plan is dead on arrival, from what I’ve heard, it seems to have a better chance than most at becoming a New York reality. (Unfortunately, the same may be said for the fatally flawed Laguardia AirTrain, but more on that next week.) For now, enjoy the weekend reading. If anything, the streetcar proposal has thrust the option of light rail in New York City back in the public mind, and hopefully, something good can come of it, whether it’s the Brooklyn-Queens Connector or a better route through a more transit-starved area.

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In what has seemingly become a regular rite of passage for the region’s commuter rail lines, the MTA yesterday announced record ridership on both Metro-North and the LIRR for 2015. Metro-North saw 86.1 million customers last year, and the LIRR carried 87.6 million customers, the highest total since 1949. Metro-North’s ridership has doubled since the agency came into being in 1983.

The MTA believes that a mix of a younger ridership base that doesn’t want to drive (coupled with how miserable it is to drive into New York City) along with a strong regional economy has led to this higher ridership levels. “When ridership set records back in 2008, many said it was because of high gasoline prices, and that certainly is one factor,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said. “But gas prices have sunk to low levels and the trend is continuing. We are seeing the confluence a strengthening regional economy, healthier downtowns around the region, a new generation of millennials who values public transportation, and greater productivity on board our trains through the proliferation of smartphones, tablets and laptops. Customers are also responding to improvements we have made, including more frequent trains, improving on-time performance, a fleet of modern new electric cars, expanding availability of real-time information, and more channels for customer communication.”

Interestingly, the MTA notes that Metro-North’s gains in non-commuter trips is increasing faster than its regular commuter base, and the railroad reports that its stations west of the Hudson are seeing higher spikes in ridership than those to the east. The Port Jervis Line and Pascack Valley Line saw gains of nearly 5 percent. Meanwhile, the MTA notes that ridership should continue to increase over the next six years when the East Side Access project comes online, and Metro-North begins service into Penn Station shortly thereafter. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s main line expansion project as well as local pols’ push to introduce a Freedom Ticket could lead to higher ridership numbers as well. It’s all part of an improved mobility picture for the New York region. Now how about that capital funding?

Categories : Asides, LIRR, Metro-North
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When last we checked in on the Second Ave. Subway, the MTA Board had just heard a presentation regarding delays that may cause the project to miss its projected December opening date. Last month, the agency’s Independent Engineering Consultant warned of a “moderate risk of delay” should key activities remain outstanding and behind schedule. Yesterday, after a gap of only six weeks, the IEC returned with more warnings for potential delays, but the MTA reiterated its plan to have the Second Ave. Subway open before the year is out.

For its part, the MTA says it is ready to move testing and commissioning staff into on-site locations as soon as possible and is working with contractors to address and resolve any items that could delay the revenue service start date. The MTA also plans to implement “lessons learned” from the delayed openings of both the Fulton Street. Transit Center and the 7 line extension, but the IEC is skeptical these efforts will be sufficient. Noting new and backlogged change orders, the IEC said that it “has observed that several key activities slipped their scheduled completion dates in the six weeks since the December 2015 CPOC report. In particular, delays to provision of permanent power at 86th St and 96th Streets are of most concern as they could potentially impact the start of testing and commissioning.”

The IEC has recommended the MTA institute weekly meetings with its contractors “to properly status key activities and identify critical delays for mitigation and recovery” and has urged the agency to “complete the new integrated project schedule by integrating the communications testing with the accelerated testing of station equipment installations.” In other words, speed up the project schedule or else testing requirements won’t permit the MTA to open the northern extension of the Q train to 2nd Ave. and 96th St. by the end of December. The next IEC update is due in March.

In other news tangentially related to the Second Ave. Subway, Disney announced last week that Star Wars VIII will arrive in theaters in December of 2017 rather than in May. Last month, the overwhelming majority of those who voted in my poll felt that Star Wars would open before the Second Ave. Subway, but that was when the movie was scheduled for a summer 2017 release. I wonder if those results would hold in light of the new release date and the IEC warnings. My guess is that the Second Ave. Subway will miss the December 2016 date but open by the spring of 2017. Either way, the MTA has a lot riding on the next 11 months, and Upper East Side residents are watching closely.

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A few readers have written in, asking about this weekend’s service changes. Due to the New Years holiday, the MTA press office didn’t distribute the weekend changes this week. You can instead access them all online here for Saturday and here for Sunday. You can also find them in the map form via The Weekender. I’m sure all will be back to normal next week. Happy 2016!

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In a few weeks, Veronique Hakim will assume the position as President of New York City Transit, and her first task will be a big one as Joseph Leader, the senior vice president in charge of the Department of Subways, is retiring this Friday. Leader was appointed in 2013, and the Daily News broke word of his departure yesterday afternoon.

As the News notes, Leader’s departure comes at a time of increased ridership but also increased frustration as crowding is at historic highs and subway rides seem slower and less pleasant than ever. Leader was a major proponent of the current FASTRACK maintenance program, and The News notes that Leader’s “last major initiative was an attempt to get trains moving more smoothly through the overcrowded and problem-plagued system” that involved using “subway station platform workers to move riders in and out of trains faster and boost[ing] maintenance and inspections.” Whether the latter has been a success is hard to say. Without boosting frequency and overall system capacity, these efforts strike me as the proverbial lipstick on a pig.

So as Hakim arrives, she’ll be able to appoint her own right-hand aide to head up the largest subway system in America at a time of ever-increasing crowds and capacity concerns. Due to work shift rules, the MTA’s lead time for increasing service can run anywhere from six to nine months — which means, based on recent trends, that gains from increased capacity will be wiped out by the interim increase in ridership. Shortening this lag should be one of Hakim and her next SVP of subways’ top priorities. For now, Wynton Habersham, Transit’s Vice President and Chief Officer of Service Delivery, will serve as the interim SVP of subways.

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Later on today, the Riders Alliance, along with the Global Gateway Alliance and other NYC advocacy groups, will issue a report and hold a press conference calling upon the MTA to eliminate the fare on the Q70 bus. Their proposal would streamline and clarify access to LaGuardia Airport while increasing the number of airport travelers using a transit connection. The group contends the idea could be implemented immediately and would likely improve the MTA’s bottom line. It’s an intriguing idea and one completely foreign to New York City.

Due to an embargo on the report, I can’t say much more now about the initiative, but I have a full post ready to go when the embargo is lifted at noon today. Be sure to check back then for the details and fine print regarding this plan. Needless to say, it’s one that deserves full consideration (if not a fast implementation). Can the MTA embrace an idea that so outside the box for the agency? We’ll find out soon.

Categories : Asides, Buses
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The revolving door of the transit world may keep spinning through the MTA’s top positions, according to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal. A few months after Carmen Biacno retired as president of New York City Transit, the MTA may be narrowing its search to a former executive now working in New Jersey. As Andrew Tangel reported last week, the agency may tab current NJ Transit Executive Director Ronnie Hakim for the vacancy atop Transit. Hakim, an MTA vet who has spent the last five years leading various Garden State agencies, would be the first female to lead Transit.

According to Tangel, Hakim’s appointment is not yet a sure thing. She’s still negotiating her departure from New Jersey Transit, a spot she’s held only since early 2014, and even though she would lend stability at the top to NYC Transit, NJ Transit would continue to suffer from frequent turnover. Hakim was previously a lawyer with Transit and with MTA Capital Construction and served briefly as an interim president of MTACC before Michael Horodniceanu took over.

If Hakim assumes the position, her challenges are formidable. The subway system is literally bursting at the seams, and the MTA’s 20-year plan isn’t fast enough to address crowds that have made peak-hour commuting a truly miserable and frustrating experience every morning. The agency has also struggled to maintain the system and has a backlog of Sandy recovery work to get through. Hakim is competent, but with 23 years of MTA experience in her pocket, she’s very much an “Inside Baseball” pick at a time when the agency needs to be more nimble and flexible than it is.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

Categories : Asides, MTA Politics
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