Archive for Asides
The zombie lawsuit to overturn the MTA payroll mobility tax has finally hit a dead end. New York’s Court of Appeals, the state’s top judicial body, has upheld the tax. The measure, a 34-cent tax on every $100 of payroll, has not been popular amongst Republican suburban legislators, but the MTA has long maintained, as they did last June, that “removal of the tax’s revenues would have had a catastrophic impact” on the region’s economy and transit system. Today’s dismissal, without comment from any judges, is a victory and should put an end to the legal wrangling over the tax.
The PMT grew out of the MTA’s last financial crisis when state legislators approved a mix of fees and taxes to bolster the agency’s bottom line. It was deeply unpopular outside of the city, and after a variety of unsuccessful challenges, plaintiffs found a sympathetic ear on Long Island. While one judge found the tax unconstitutional on shaky legal grounds, the Appellate Division revsered course. For the tax to fall now, politicians will have to step in with better solutions and replacement funds.
In responses to today’s ruling, those politicians are well aware of what awaits. Lee Zeldin, who has made a career out of opposition to the payroll tax, spoke against the court’s decision, and Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano declared a Pyrrhic victory as the structure of the tax has changed over the years. Meanwhile, other state reps from north of the city have recognized that the tax is, absent a significant amount of horse-trading, here to stay.
Joseph J. Giulietti, a 42-year transit veteran, will replace outgoing Metro-North President Howard Permut on February 1, MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast announced today. In the first public statements following reports of Permut’s sudden retirement, Prendergast praised the outgoing president and welcomed back Giulietti, the current executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, the agency that operates Tri-Rail.
“Joe began his railroad career as a brakeman and assistant conductor on the Penn Central Railroad, and has honed his operational and leadership skills through positions of increasing responsibility,” Prendergast explained. “I am confident Joe will quickly focus on enhancing Metro-North’s strong operational standards and safety practices, while continuing to develop the railroad’s future as a critical link in the region’s transportation system and economy.”
Giulietti first started working for the railroad that would become Metro-North in 1971 when it was then Penn Central. He became a foreman with Conrail in 1978 and served as superintendent of transportation when Metro-North began operations in 1983. Before departing for sunny South Florida in 1998, he had served as engineer of track for the Harlem and Hudson lines and assistant director of transportation and schedule coordination, among other roles, at Metro-North.
Coming in after a year of troubles, Giulietti will have to restore both the perception and reality of safety to the beleaguered railroad. “Metro-North’s customers have learned to have high expectations of their railroad,” he said, “and I want to ensure it always performs safely, efficiently and effectively for the future.”
For the past few months, the Wall Street Journal has been uncovering the story of a traffic jam intentionally manipulated as political revenge. For not supporting New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s re-election campaign, Fort Lee’s mayor apparently paid the price in the form of a massive traffic tie-up engineered by Christie aids and allies at Port Authority. While Christie has denied the charges and New Jersey’s Assembly is still investigating, trove of emails has surfaced, showing Christie aides at the highest levels organizing the payback.
As the accompanying article notes, the first email is the most startling. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Christie’s Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly says to David Wildstein. The former Port Authority official had a two-word reply: “Got it.” The Journal article delves into the responses and politics of the situation with one email bemoaning the impact on children while another dismisses them as “children of Buono voters.” Christie has yet to comment, and New Jersey politicians vow to press on with their inquiry.
It is ultimately unclear how this scandal will impact Christie on a national and local level. He’s shown a willingness to use and exploit transit for personal gain, but he hasn’t done much to expand or otherwise take responsibility for New Jersey’s rail needs. I think Clyde Haberman had the most astute question on the matter: “What does it say about New Jersey that a Christie aide’s chosen method of political revenge is creating traffic jam?”
In the aftermath of last month’s fatal Metro-North derailment, MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast knew he had to act quickly and decisively to confront safety concerns. The commuter railroads were unlikely to be compliant a federal mandate to install positive train control by the end of 2015, and public perception was starting to weigh against Metro-North. To speed up the project, estimated to cost at least $670 million, the MTA has applied for a $1 billion loan from the feds, Ted Mann of the Wall Street Journal reports today.
Meanwhile, Mann also spoke with Prendergast about his previous experiences with safety concerns. As a young engineer in Chicago in the 1970s, the current MTA head had to face down similar problems after a pair of fatal CTA derailments. Prendergast is hoping to strike the right balance between a reliance on technology and the need for human decision-making. It’s not an easy balancing act, and time is not on the MTA’s side.
It isn’t yet snowing in New York City but with a big storm heading our way, the MTA is already working to move its trains underground. As of 5:45 p.m., trains on the A, B, D, E, F, N, Q, Z, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 will make all local stops as spare rolling stock is moved to the express tracks. Some routes that do not operate all night — including the B, per signs I saw on my way home — will see service halted earlier than normal.
For those heading to points north, Metro-North is reducing service at 8 p.m. Following the end of the evening rush, the railroad will operate hourly service on all three lines. After midnight, trains will run local to New Haven, Southeast and Corton where diesel service will pick up to take passengers to Poughkeepsie. Metro-North will be storing up to 120 rail cars inside Grand Central and hopes to minimize the number of trains that could become stranded during the storm. The LIRR has yet to issue an update.
I’ll have more as the snow arrives and service patterns change. This extreme planning is, of course, in response to the storm a few years ago that left subway riders stuck out in the depths of Brooklyn and Queens overnight as snow drifts piled up. Travel safe, and stay warm.
A bit of late-breaking news before 2014 arrives: Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has named Polly Trottenberg as his Department of Transportation commissioner. Trottenberg, a veteran of the Obama administration and a former staffer for Senators Moynihan and Schumer, will succeed Janette Sadik-Khan, and in the eyes of pedestrian safety and transit advocates, will have big shoes to fill. According to a release from de Blasio, Trottenberg will oversee his transportation agenda which will seek to “expand Bus Rapid Transit in the outer boroughs, reduce traffic fatalities, increase bicycling, and boost the efficiency of city streets.”
Streetsblog runs down Trottenberg’s credentials, and both Transportation Alternatives and the Straphangers have voiced their approvals this afternoon. Trottenberg sounded the right tones too in her statement but spoke earlier of making the pedestrian plaza planning process “more collaborative with local communities.” (For what it’s worth, the pedestrian plaza planning process has been far more collaborative than just about anything else DOT has done in decades. Slowing it down with more meetings would be counter-productive.)
Despite that hiccup, I think this is a solid appointment by de Blasio, and I’ll give Trottenberg the last word. “One life lost on our streets is too many. We are committed to the maxim that safety— for everyone who uses the roads, including pedestrians and cyclists —is our top priority,” she said in a statement. “From improving our roads, bridges and waterways to better serve our citizens and businesses, to connecting New Yorkers to jobs and opportunities through improved high-speed bus service, to expanding biking across the five boroughs, we can have a transportation system that is safe, efficient and accessible to all.”
Polly Trottenberg, current Under Secretary for Policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, will serve as the Transportation Commissioner, executing Mayor-Elect de Blasio’s ambitious agenda to expand Bus Rapid Transit in the outer boroughs, reduce traffic fatalities, increase bicycling, and boost the efficiency of city streets.
As a further sign of some skewed priorities, as we enter 2014, pre-tax mass transit benefits will drop from $245 per month to $130 while parking subsidies will increase to $250 a month. The change comes on the heels of Congressional inaction in Washington, D.C. Andrew Grossman of The Journal runs down why the subsidy is dropping precipitously, and needless to say, no one who relies on mass transit is too happy about this change.
Even if Congress reauthorizes the $245 tax break, it is unlikely that the benefits will apply retroactively as administering such a change would be quite complicated. So while subway riders who need only a monthly MetroCard escape with their full subsidy in tact, anyone who is, say, a monthly commuter from Zones 4 or on beyond on Metro-North won’t have even half the cost of their passes covered by pre-tax deductions.
But fear not; Chuck Schumer is on it. “Mass transit is the lifeblood of the New York area, and this provision helps keep it flowing and affordable. Passing it will be a top priority in the New Year,” the state’s senior senator said. Happy New Year, indeed.
The fight over the future of the Rockaway Beach Branch right-of-way is raising interesting questions about local decision-making in the context of the overall shape of New York City as a third Queens Community Board has rejected the QueensWay park plan in favor of the restoration of rail service. As the Queens Chronicle reported last week, CB5 — whose area encompasses an oft-congested stretch of Woodhaven Boulevard — voted 36-2 for the rail option. So far, CB 10 and CB 14 have voiced a preference for transit while only CB 9, whose leaders and members make up the Friends of the QueensWay organization, has supported the park plan.
Community Board 5 leaders spoke of the need to focus on mass transit as a way to solve the area’s traffic and accessibility issues. “Woodhaven Boulevard is just overwhelmed. We need relief and the only way to relieve traffic is with public transportation,” CB 5 Chair Vincent Arcuri said. “The people in the Rockaways have been clamoring for public transportation better than what they currently have for years. That A train is like going on a safari.”
Andrea Crawford, who heads both Friends of the QueensWay and CB 9, told the Chronicle that CB 5′s vote was “ridiculous.” She said, “This is a right of way that has absolutely no infrastructure and is deteriorating. The bridges would have to be rebuilt to carry modern train equipment. A rail line would help traffic in what, 20 or 30 years when it’s reactivated?”
The issue though isn’t focusing on “helping traffic.” It’s about a forward-looking approach to transit development and urban growth while encouraging sustainability throughout Queens. As I mentioned, too, this war of words showcases how hyperlocal planning is flawed. Just because most of the right of way runs through CB 9 doesn’t mean they should have the final say or even more of one over land use. The space should not be turned into a park until every other avenue of development is exhausted first, and that’s what’s best for the city.
With the Fulton St. Transit Hub set to open within the next six months, the MTA has chosen the Westfield Group, an Australian mall developer will annual revenue over $4 billion, to serve as Master Lessee for the space. Westfield will now be responsible for subletting the ample commercial space in the new facility and overseeing ad sales. It will also have to maintain and clean the leased portions of the Fulton St. Hub, and the MTA will share in a split of revenues. The company will sign a twenty-year lease with two ten-year renewal options.
“This master lease structure will unite risk and reward in a single, highly qualified and experienced private sector operator, while relieving the MTA of ongoing capital and operating costs and expenses and generating revenue for our operating budgets,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said earlier this week. “We are confident that Westfield will be motivated to maximize the revenues from the facility while maintaining in accordance with standards befitting the substantial investment the public has made in creating this wonderful new landmark.”
The lease will commence in June when the building opens to the public, and Westfield’s responsibilities include nearly all of the non-station areas in the transit center, Corbin Building and Dey Street Headhouse. The space encompasses approximately 180,000 square feet including 63,000 square feet for commercial uses. The MTA anticipates retail in approximately 42,000 square feet, and I’m sure everyone would love a Lower Manhattan Apple store. The so-called “public circulation areas” account for 60,000 square feet, and the remainder is back-of-house. Now, the pressure is on Westfield to turn this new station complex into a shopping destination as well.
Two quick hits on some outstanding items right now with more to come: The MTA confirmed today that the new South Ferry station, totaled by Sandy’s floodwaters in October of 2012, will reopen at some point in 2016. The project is still expected to cost around $600 million — or the same as it cost to build the station from scratch — and it will include significant remediation work. MTA Board materials contain more details on the remediation that I’ll cover tonight, and Matt Flegenheimer confirmed the 2016 date during the Board’s Capital Program Oversight Committee meeting today.
In more current news, the 7 line extension is sort of set to open this week. While the station at 34th St. and 11th Ave. isn’t set to enter revenue service until June of 2014, with the primary funding partner on the way out of office at the end of the month, the MTA and Mayor Bloomberg will host a ceremonial ribbon cutting this Friday afternoon. We haven’t seen many images from inside the station cavern lately, but clearly, crews have made enough progress to conduct a limited run of a subway train set for dignitaries. I’m hoping to snag a seat on the ride and will, of course, have plenty of photos if I do. Stayed tuned for more on that front too.