Archive for Asides
While passing through Grand Central this morning shortly before 7 a.m., I noticed crowds larger than usual idling throughout the main hall, and when I glanced up at the video boards, I — or at least anyone who needed the New Haven Line — was in for a rude awakening. All New Haven Line Metro-North service had been suspended to do the failure of a 138kV power feeder that began at approximately 5:22 a.m., and full power could take a few weeks to return.
Twelve hours in, and the news is not looking good. Con Ed issued only a terse statement seemingly taking a passive aggressive swipe at the MTA: “Con Edison is working with Metro-North to try to establish alternative power sources to serve the New Haven line. Company crews are working around the clock to make repairs to a feeder cable that failed earlier today, but repairs of this nature typically take 2-3 weeks. Another feeder normally providing service to the New Haven line was out on scheduled repairs to accommodate Metro-North upgrades on their equipment.”
The MTA, meanwhile, is scrambling. The agency can run only one train per hour in each direction, which amounts to only 10 percent of the regular service on the nation’s busiest commuter rail line. Amtrak is reporting significant delays as well. Thursday’s commute will involve some sort of train/bus shuttle combination, and the MTA will have the plans for this service ready later today. I’ll update as more information comes in.
As the last sprint of the mayoral race kicks into gear in the coming weeks, New Yorkers will continue to hear about Joe Lhota’s brief tenure atop the MTA. Notable for the agency’s competent and speedy response to restore service in the aftermath of Sandy, Lhota’s reign also coincided with a fare hike and toll increase. While the economic plan predated him and was an absolute must for a cash-shy agency, he was the face of the authority as prices increased, and that’s a tough problem to overcome for a candidate running, in part, on his successes after the storm.
Meanwhile, labor relations played a small role during his time as CEO and Chairman, and John Samuelsen, president of the TWU, commands a decent sized vocal bloc. Recently, though, various public statements have led me to wonder what, exactly, Samuelsen thinks of Lhota. In a Daily News piece designed more as an insult to Jay Walder than as praise of Joe Lhota, Samuelsen issued some faint praise and an incomplete assessment. Despite some gripes with Lhota over the MTA’s smart decision to shutter the subways in advance of Sandy, Samuelsen called Lhota “a quick study” who “simply did not stick around long enough to leave any permanent imprints on our transit system.”
Is that the TWU head’s final word on the matter? Of course not. In a piece issued earlier this summer in the pro-labor Chief-Leader and reprinted on the TWU’s website, Samuelsen had harsh words for Lhota over the ongoing union contract dispute. “Lhota doesn’t know a damn thing about how to run a subway or bus system,” Samuelsen said. “Prendergast knows what Track Workers go through when they’re swinging a hammer all day in the tunnel in 110-degree heat. Lhota has no idea; he’s just a two-bit bean-counter from the financial industry.”
So was Lhota just a two-bit bean counter or was he also a quick study? Is this more of a sign of TWU leadership speaking to the diverse audiences of the Daily News and Chief-Leader? Either way, Lhota’s MTA legacy remains up for grabs before Election Day.
If the headline seems familiar, well, that’s because it is. Five months after inherting the role on an acting basis, Carmen Bianco was officially named President of the New York City Transit Authority today. MTA CEO and Chair Tom Prendergast opted to keep his right-hand man in the role after a nationwide search, the MTA said.
“When I returned to New York City Transit, Carmen was my pick to head the Department of Subways because of his extensive background in safety, his management skills and his vision of guiding the system into the future,” Prendergast said in a statement. “Carmen is a leader with lengthy mass transit and railroad career experience. He understands the issues, is an advocate for the customer and will remain someone the employees can depend upon for support.”
Bianco, a 30-year industry vet with extensive experience at Transit, Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, is largely credited with spearheading the subway’s recovery after Sandy. He has also played a key role in developing the FASTRACK maintenance program and various other technological innovations. His pick isn’t much of a surprise and should maintain the status quo and forward progress we’ve seen from Transit in recent years.
The MTA missed its overtime spending projects during the first half of 2013 by nearly $70 million, according to agency budget documents released yesterday. Thanks to a combination of employee vacancies, maintenance and weather emergencies largely driven by Transit’s response to the damage inflicted by Sandy, overtime spending hit $368.5 million from January-June, a variance of $68.9 million over what the MTA had originally budgeted for this year. It is unclear how this unanticipated expense will impact the year-end budget.
According to the special report released yesterday [PDF], weather was a driving factor in this jump. Of the $68.9 million, $29 million stemmed from responses to weather issues, and $20 million of that is directly attributable to Sandy. “Work included, but was not limited to, supplemental bus and shuttle service for subway and train lines that were damaged, repair of signals in flooded areas that were immersed in salt water, station repairs, and extensive damaged track work.” Vacancies and employee availability contributed $10 million to the overtime expenditures as well, but these costs were partially offset by payroll savings.
The report did not contain any clear cut steps to reduce these overtime expenses and urged agency leaders to reassess future budget projects. The report called for an aggressive attempt at filling vacancies and expanding the “pool of employees-in-training for critical operating positions,” but overall and despite a dip in 2010, overtime expenses, mired in the upper $500 million level annually, remain a big concern.
It’s no real secret that New Yorkers are more than willing to pay a premium for access. Housing in the middle of Manhattan costs more than housing in the far reaches of Brooklyn and Queens, and Craigslist rentals tout access to nearby subway stations as a selling point. It’s a bit surprising then to read this Wall Street Journal article and see nary a mention of transit.
The gist of the article is this: Some renters are moving to Outer Borough developments instead of what The Journal calls “less-sought-after” neighborhoods in Manhattan. Josh Barbanel credits this willingness to cross the river “first because of lower rents, and later because of their grittier feel.” Now, though, rents are rising in these areas — such as Long Island City — while Midtown East, Murray Hill/Kips Bay and Midtown West have seen rents remain stagnant or even decline slightly.
As landlords look to space and amenities as one explanation, access is definitely another. It’s easier and quicker to take the 7 train from Long Island City to Grand Central than it is to get from 44th St. and 11th Ave. to the East Side. Waterfront neighborhoods in the Outer Boroughs have far superior transit access to Manhattan’s key job centers than do the neighborhoods cut off from the subway system. This is, of course, why Manhattan landlords should push for a Second Ave. Subway, a station along the 7 line at 41st and 10th and various other Manhattan-centric capital projects. Transit access remains a major, underappreciated driver of the New York City housing market, and somehow, The Journal omitted it.
While browsing LTV Squad’s latest offering on a former subway station entrance, I came across another piece from the mysterious author known as Control. It is, at once, both the most obnoxious and the most compelling takedown of the Triboro RX line I’ve seen so far. While many transit advocates — myself included — are salivating over the idea of such a circumferential routing, Control throws a bunch of hot water over it.
So what are the challenges? The main issue surrounds the way some of the right of way is currently used. A considerable amount of products bound for New York rely on the heavy rail lines used for freight that the Triboro RX would commandeer for passenger rail. Control believes the prices of food and goods would skyrocket, and trash collection could become problematic as well. These are arguments that have been put forward by supporters of a trans-harbor freight rail tunnel who also wish to keep the ROW for freight rail.
The physical challenges too are tremendous. If the MTA can’t get an FRA waiver, the ROW isn’t wide enough to accommodate separate tracks for passenger rail and freight. I’m far less sympathetic to the fact that there has been some encroachment onto the right of way or that eminent domain would be necessary to complete the route, but we can’t ignore those challenges.
Ultimately, I think Control’s take is worth a read. His conclusion — “MOVE CLOSER TO WHERE YOU WORK” — is myopic and undermines his point, but ultimately, Triboro RX isn’t as easy as drawing some lines on a map and calling it a done deal. He writes that “the Triboro RX subway will never, ever happen,” and it’s probably better to pick easier battles.
Here is an interesting tidbit from The Wall Street Journal: Frank McCourt has acquired a development site in Manhattan for $167 million two years after Sherwood Equities paid $43.5 million for the space. The area, which will host a 730,000 square foot tower, sits at 30th St. and 10th Ave., mere blocks away from the 7 line extension, and various stakeholders are crediting the new subway stop with spurring on the tremendous increase in property value in the Far West Side.
Jeffrey Katz, president and CEO of the site’s former owner, is one of those stakeholders. “I think if you asked people a year ago about this district, still they would say ‘Are you crazy?’ Quite a number of people now understand there’s something extraordinary going on,” he said to The Journal. “The surge in value on this site was so dramatic—it was unprecedented—that our rate of return could never have been higher.”
The one-stop 7 line extension to 34th St. and 11th Ave. is set to open by next June, and the city has paid over $2 billion to the MTA to build this transit spur in the hopes of realizing the value in Manhattan’s last undeveloped frontier. So far, what I once derided as a Subway to Nowhere is shaping up to be the prime mover in something that is most definitely transit-oriented development within the boundaries of Manhattan.
It was back in the waning days of June when the State Senate and Assembly both passed a lockbox bill with strong protections for transit funding. This was the second time that the bill had passed the legislature, and while Gov. Cuomo had gutted the protections that prevented a raid on transit financing last time around, advocates were optimistic that the bill would gain Cuomo’s signature. Since then, though, we’ve waited. And waited. And waited.
Lately, though, there is a reason for some optimism as upstate newspapers, not usually in favor of anything that bolsters the MTA — they amazingly view it as a drain on the rest of New York State — have lined up behind the lockbox. Since the bill protects all transit money and not just that earmarked for the MTA, upstaters have reason to argue for a signature. The Buffalo News voiced its support this week, and The Press-Republican from Plattsburgh sounded off last week.
Over at Capital New York, Dana Rubinstein sees this groundswell of support as an indicator that Cuomo will soon have to sign the bill. If everyone in New York state wants these modest protections in place, the governor will have to step in and govern soon enough.
As the Midtown East rezoning vote nears, there have been a few articles published worth a bit of our attention. In today’s The Times, the City Club of New York takes centerstage as they bemoan the economic machinations behind Mayor Bloomberg’s plan.
The long-dormant good government group has issued a 24-page position paper on the rezoning plan, and essentially, they claim that the city’s plan amounts to an effort to sell development rights in the rezoned area for $250 a square foot. The money would go to transit improvements, but none of it, they say, is a constitutionally permissible taking. I’m not well versed enough in New York City property law to pass a judgment one way or another, but the point remains that this group is going after the fund designed to boost transit capacity.
If Mayor Bloomberg has his way, one more time, the rezoning and this fee could generate around $500 million for transit investment in the Midtown East area. The Commercial Observer recently ran down the list of improvements, and although it’s one I’ve covered before, it’s worth revisiting. For $465 million — not much less than the cost of the dearly departed 7 line station at 41st St. and 11th Ave. — the list features “widened stairways, additional escalators (leading to and from subway stations at Grand Central, Lexington Avenue at 51st and 53rd Streets and Madison Avenue and 53rd Street), and a pedestrian passage between the Grand Central subway and Long Island Railroad platforms.” Will these upgrades truly solve the capacity crunch and why does this cost so much?
In this seemingly never-ending run-up to the September primaries, candidates for various city offices have been gathering on a near-daily basis for forums, debates and all sorts of public appearances. Yesterday, the Queens borough president hopefuls convened for a Town Hall in Flushing, and the topic of the QueensWay/Rockaway Beach Branch line came up. As Lisa Colangelo of the Daily News reports, only a long-shot candidate voice support for the park.
According to Colangelo, Everly Brown told the audience that he supports the greenspace because “it’s important to create parks.” The two leading candidates — Peter Vallone, Jr., whose dad helped kill a subway to La Guardia, and Melinda Katz — hedged. Vallone said that rail is his “first priority” due to the lack of transit options in the Rockaways and southern parts of Queens while Katz declined to take a position one way or another until the feasibility study is released. (The GOP candidate, running unopposed, echoed Katz’s views.)
Ultimately, in the debate over the future of the Rockaway Beach Branch right of the way and the QueensWay, the borough president has some say. Because of the role the BP’s offices play in the city’s land use review policy, the next Queens borough president can influence the push to either reactivate rail or turn the ROW into a park. That Vallone supports rail is comforting for reactivation proponents as he is the slight frontrunner, but these are just chess pieces moving into place.