Archive for Asides
While we’re busy here discussing rail access to LaGuardia and the future of the MetroCard, on Tuesday, January 27, join me in person for the return of my “Problem Solvers” Q-and-A series at the Transit Museum for a discussion on the MTA’s Fix & Fortify program. 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.
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 next week, 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 is no longer free and 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, and hopefully, I’ll see you next week.
Here’s some news Gov. Cuomo isn’t rushing to announce: After a disastrous evening commute on Thursday, the MTA is warning some customers to expect more of the same on Friday morning. Following a manhole fire south of West 4th St. that damaged signal power cables on Thursday evening, Transit expected that a.m. service on the 8th Ave. A, C and E lines will “be impacted” in the morning. They’ve offered no other details, but if tonight was any indication, the chaos could spread to the 6th Ave. line too.
I sometimes hate to draw widespread conclusions from isolated incidents, but Thursday was tough. In the early evening, the MTA reported delays on all numbered lines, and at one point, the track-facing doors on the Shuttled opened at Times Square, as Eric Bienenfeld noted to me. In a way, Thursday was a prime example of what could happen if the next five-year capital plan is cut back or left unfunded.
And so while we can’t always draw an argument from bad days, we can view it as a warning and one that legislators should heed: Fund the five-year plan or this will become the norm. For anyone trying to get home tonight, it’s a scary thought indeed.
As part of their annual ritual highlighting just how slow and unreliable our city’s local bus system can be, the Straphangers have announced that the M79, with averages speeds of 3.2 miles per hour, is the city’s slowest bus route. The local M15 — subject of many complaints in the post-Select Bus Service era — was named the least reliable with 33% of buses arriving in pairs or worse. Outside of Manhattan’s congested streets, Flatbush Avenue’s B41, the Bronx’s Bx19, Queen’s Q58, and Staten Island’s S48/98 were named the slowest in their respective boroughs, though the latter two attained speeds of at or over 8 mph. The Straphangers have released a full table of their 34 surveyed routes, and the top ten are all in Manhattan.
“New Yorkers know from bitter daily experience that bus service is slow and unreliable,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives. “But there is real hope for dramatic improvement in Mayor de Blasio’s plan to build a rapid network of 20 ‘Select Bus Service/Bus Rapid Transit’ routes.”
So what happens next? As the Straphangers note, Select Bus Service has improved travel times along those routes that have undergone these upgrades, but as I’ve pointed out again and again, incremental changes such as pre-board fare payment shouldn’t be lauded as much as they are. New York still doesn’t have any true bus rapid transit corridors, and bus lane enforcement is continually under attack by City Council members who prioritize drivers over transit riders. Meanwhile, there is the issue of de Blasio’s 20 bus routes: We’re one year into his administration, and while initial planning is underway, implementation is not exactly around the corner. I’m not holding my breath for 10, let alone 20, and to achieve that goal, de Blasio would have to get seven SBS/BRT routes per year on the streets. For now, local buses remain a blight on the city’s mobility.
For some reason or another, I’ve noticed lately a lot of adults riding the subways at rush hour with backpacks. Glance around a full car, and you’ll see it too: Grown men and women taking up space in the subway by cramming their backpacks into the people around them. They don’t take off their bags and hold them at their feet or between their legs. They just use them as a weapon.
As things go in the subway, backpacks aren’t the most pressing issue, but they affect the way everyone feels. We begrudge our fellow straphangers who aren’t considerate enough to minimize the space they use on crowded trains. We grow annoyed as every bump, curve, start and stop leads to yet another jab into our shoulders and elbows and backs. We sigh; we shove; we hope a fight doesn’t break out. We grow disgruntled with fellow New Yorkers who don’t recognize that we’re all in this together.
At the MTA Board Committee meetings earlier this week, Charles Moerdler noted that he had had enough with backpacks and suggested the MTA ban them outright. Of course, this is a foolish line of thinking that would discourage people from riding the subway and could otherwise result in a bunch of unnecessary summonses. But the MTA knows that people are fed with backpacks. So iin early 2015, as part of a rebranding campaign, the MTA is going to target this behavior.
For the past few years, we’ve been told in countless announcements that “courtesy is contagious,” but that idea came to a screeching halt when a doctor with Ebola rode three subway lines a few weeks ago. Now, in a campaign designed to fight quality-of-life complaints, the MTA will urge riders to take off their backpacks and, more importantly, stop taking up seats by spreading your legs, a campaign with which Jezebel is thrilled. Signs and in-car announcements will carry the word. Whether this will be a success remains to be seen, but this is a message I can get behind. It’s far more tolerable than yet another apology for train traffic ahead of us.
New Yorkers are long accustomed to sharing their subway rides with all sorts of wild life. Cockroach sightings underground are, sadly, not rare, and rats scurry along train tracks searching for food. At outdoor stations, pigeons are known to amble into a train car or two in search of an errant french fry. The latest hangers-on though we could all do without.
Over the past few weeks, even though the larger epidemic was supposedly on the wane, numerous reports of bed bugs on subway trains — in particular the N line — have emerged, and in a column earlier this week, Pete Donohue of the Daily News reported at least 21 sightings in August. According to the columnist, the N train leads the way with nine sightings while the Q had three and the 6 two. Bugs were also spotted on the 3, 4, 5 and L trains and in crew rooms in Astoria, East New York and Coney Island.
As far as the extent of the problem, the MTA has worked to downplay the sightings. The agency says it has found “no bedbug infestations on any trains,” and crews inspect and fumigate train cars nearly immediately. “This is an interesting story but not a big problem,” spokesman Adam Lisberg said to the News. Still, it’s clear from rapid response times that the MTA is treating these reports very seriously, as they should.
For the last few years, there’s been an ongoing “will they or won’t they” watch concerning future phases of the Second Ave. Subway. With Phase 1 funded and set to open at the end of 2016, the MTA could have been preparing to get started on Phase 2 — the northern extension to 125th St. — but with finances shaky and labor contracts outstanding, the agency had kept its plans close to the vest. Well, the future for the Second Ave. Subway is no longer a secret as MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast stated today that substantial funding for Phase 2 will be included in the 2015-2019 five-year capital plan.
While fielding questions during an Assembly hearing, Prendergast announced that the MTA will ask for $1.5 billion for Phase 2 construction. This total is approximately one-third the estimated cost, and the expectation is that the feds will kick in additional money with the rest to be determined. Phase 2 is a key part of this project as it connects the northern extension of the Q train to the Lexington Ave. line and Metro-North station at 125th St. and can help alleviate a lot of the pressure on the 4, 5 and 6 trains. I’ll have more on this later, but this is a welcome development and very, very good news.
Here is an interesting bit from Newsday: While the UTU has not officially requested a 60-day delay for its looming summer strike, union officials have floated the idea of pushing the strike back from the summer to mid-September. The strike would begin on September 17 instead of July 19, seemingly sparing Long Island’s summer tourism season.
“Our members care about Long Island and its economy,” Anthony Simon, general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union/United Transportation Union, said to the Long Island newspaper. “All we would need is the MTA to mutually agree on the extension.”
The MTA seems willing to entertain the request, thus giving both sides more time to work out a deal. Overall, though, this is an interesting political move by the UTU. It shows their willingness to recognize the public need, and it pushes the strike date closer and closer to Election Day. I have a hard time believing Gov. Andrew Cuomo, looking for a resounding victory, would allow a strike seven weeks before New York voters head to the polls, and the UTU knows this as well. As always, stay tuned.
Late last week, a bunch of politicians gathered on the Upper East Side to celebrate the ongoing progress toward completion for Phase I of the Second Ave. Subway. At the time, the project was approximately 960 days away from revenue service, and after nine decades, everyone’s feeling pretty good. “For years, people have been asking me if they will live long enough to ride the 2nd Ave subway. Usually I’ve had to respond that it depends on your age,” State Senator Liz Krueger said, “but now I finally feel we can say with confidence, ‘Get ready: We will soon have a new subway to ride.’”
It would, obviously enough, be a good time to think about starting the funding push, let alone the work, for Phase II. The second part of this multi-step project is a northern extension from 96th St., through preexisting tunnel and some new stations to a connection to the 4/5/6 and Metro-North underneath 125th St. It was initially estimated to cost around the same as Phase I, as the station caverns and auxiliary structures drive the expense, and it’s a key element to the East Harlem transportation picture.
It is then a bit concerning to hear the MTA be a bit non-committal as the deadline for funding for the next capital program looms. In the past, the agency has noted that, while the EIS will be updated, the project is still an important one, and powerful politicians have urged the MTA to keep building. Still, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendgast said this week, as amNY reports, “it’s too early to tell what will and won’t be included” in the next five-year plan.
The MTA has to shift its focus to climate change-related work to shore up the system in the event of another Sandy-type flood event, but the Second Ave. Subway is an important element of any plan to improve mobility and reduce NYC’s dependency on car travel. The MTA shouldn’t wait until 2016, when everyone is celebrating the ribbon cutting for the Second Ave. Subway, to start planning for Phases II (or III or IV). The time to act is now, and politicians and agency officials should do what they can to move this behemoth forward.
With a potential strike looming and plans for substitute bus service starting to roll forward, the Long Island Rail Road has a new president. In a surprising announcement that came after the MTA Board voted today to issue an RFP for substitute bus service in the event of a strike this summer, MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast announced that Patrick A. Nowakowski would take over as head of the LIRR from Helena Williams. It’s not clear why Williams is leaving, but her departure now leaves the MTA with no female agency presidents.
Nowakowski, who was educated at the University of Delaware and Drexel’s business school, comes to the LIRR after spending five years as Executive Director of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project, more commonly known as the WMATA’s Silver Line. He spent 27 years prior to that working in various roles with SEPTA, and departs DC as questions and ambiguities surrounding the revenue service date for the Silver Line have started to mount.
“Pat Nowakowski is a railroad expert with a rare mix of skills and a long career of accomplishments, and I am pleased to welcome him to the Long Island Rail Road,” Prendergast said in a statement. “Our customers have high expectations for safe and reliable service, and events last year throughout the MTA family have shown why we must always stay focused on the basics of how best to provide that service.”
Meanwhile, the MTA offered no indication as to the circumstances surrounding Williams’ departure, but it’s likely that looming labor unrest played no small role in the move. Williams had served as LIRR head for seven years and spent a few months as the MTA’s interim Executive Director and CEO in 2009 following Lee Sander’s resignation. She was the first female to head an MTA agency and the first female LIRR president.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast and TWU Local 100 President John Samuelson just wrapped up a press conference during which the MTA and TWU announced a tentative agreement on a new labor deal. It’s a five-year deal with raises in all five years — 1 percent retroactively for the first two and 2 percent for each of the last three years. There are no work rule reforms, but TWU healthcare contributions will increase from 1.5 percent to 2 percent. And the MTA does not expect this deal to impact its planned fare hikes or razor-thin operations margins in the out-years in its financial plan. You may be wondering how; I know I am.
We don’t yet have any of the details behind the math, but estimates are that this deal could add around $150-$200 million per year to the MTA’s operations budget. The MTA has continually noted that need to secure net-zero wage increases in order to avoid jeopardizing its capital plan, but this deal contains none of that. So where does that leave us? It leaves me concerned that the riders will bear the brunt of the costs either through more deferred maintenance, no real capital expansion plans, higher fare hikes down the road, service cuts or a combination of everything. I hope I’m wrong, but this is an election year we’re in. These are the transit politics coming from up high in Albany.