Archive for Asides
When I first launched the “Problem Solvers” series with the Transit Museum, I knew that I wanted to focus a session on the future of the MetroCard. For a few years, I’ve tried to schedule a sit-down with the right someone at the MTA to discuss the agency’s next-generation fare payment plans and the prognosis for the familiar piece of plastic New Yorkers carry with themselves 24-7.
At first, I couldn’t get anyone because the MTA didn’t really know what it was going to do replace the MetroCard; it knew only that by 2019 it would be too expensive to maintain the current system. But now I have some exciting news: The next “Problem Solvers” Q-and-A session, set for March 19, will focus on the MetroCard’s future. Joining me at 6:30 p.m. at the Transit Museum in Brooklyn will be Michael DeVitto, Vice President and Program Executive for fare payment programs at NYC Transit. We will discuss the future of the MetroCard, current initiatives on new fare technology, and all that goes into designing a fare system for the city’s transit network. We will, of course, talk about progress toward a new fare payment system.
“Problem Solvers” is a free event hosted by the Transit Museum, and this session is slated for Wednesday, March 19th at 6:30 p.m. (with doors at 6). Please RSVP here and join me for what should be an illuminating and informative conversation on a topic I’ve followed closely over the past seven and a half years.
For the better part of the last year, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has been toying with the idea of naming rights, and toward the end of 2013, they issued an RFP as part of the initiative. For the low, low price of $1 million a year, you could buy the rights to name a T stop. Well, the results are in, and the project is, you will be surprised to hear, a total flop.
As the Boston Business Journal reported yesterday, the MBTA will make no money from the program this year. The responses to the RFP were due yesterday, and only one company — JetBlue — submitted a bid. Furthermore, their bid came in well below the minimum requirements. The MBTA failed to disclose the total JetBlue bid for rights to the blue line, but the agency had set the minimum bid at $1.2 million.
The MBTA isn’t closing the door to future naming initiatives, but agency officials seem unaware of the practical realities of the situation. One spokesman told MassLive.com that it was “unclear” why more companies did not submit proposals. The Loch Ness Monster of transit agencies lives on for another day.
So here’s an odd, intriguing and important story, especially for those who live, work or play in Jersey City: For 45 weekends beginning seven days, the Port Authority will be shutting down the PATH tunnel between Exchange Place and the World Trade Center. Weekend service will continue to operate to 33rd St. via Hoboken, but signal upgrades and a Sandy response will knock out the Lower Manhattan connection for the rest of 2014 and into 2015. Next year, the same work will occur in the uptown tunnel.
Strangely, the PA did not announce this work until yesterday, just eight days before the project is scheduled to start. In a press release, the agency detailed the work to be done. A good portion of the work involves installation of Positive Train Control and a $580 million signal upgrade. Why PATH, basically the equivalent of NYC’s subway system, hasn’t applied for an exemption from the federal PTC requirements, is a good question. The remainder of the work involves Sandy remediation efforts that include desalination work and a full replacement of 90 percent of the utilities in the tunnel.
Unsurprisingly, as Ted Mann reports, the PTC project is already coming in overbudget. With a renewed push on safety in the aftermath of the Metro-North accidents, the PA is going to have to spend somewhere between $20-$60 million more than originally anticipated. On the bright side, PATH will also be able to run more trains once the full signal system is upgraded, but Jersey City residents are none too happy with this year-long inconvenience.
Astute straphangers with Verizon cell service may have noticed an underground signal in around 35 stations over the past few months. I first noticed the bars popping up in Times Square two or three months ago after Transit Wireless announced an August agreement with Verizon. This week, the service became officially official as Transit Wireless announced Verizon service in 35 underground subway stations throughout Manhattan.
Verizon’s voice and 3G and 4G LTE service are available at the 40 Phase 1 stations announced last April, and Transit Wireless has brought Verizon service to five stations that will be part of the upcoming Phase 2 rollout as well. These five stations — which are really three station complexes — include all of Herald Square, both the IND and IRT platforms at Bryant Park, and 28th St. on the 6.
A Transit Wireless spokesman should be issuing additional news within the next few weeks, and based upon their CEO’s statement this week, I can only assume it’ll focus on Phase 2 of the multi-tiered rollout of underground cell service. “The build-out of the Transit Wireless network continues to progress on schedule, as we add additional carriers like Verizon Wireless and begin work on Phase Two of the project to bring service to 40 additional stations, including Grand Central Station in Manhattan, as well as all underground stations throughout Queens,” William A. Bayne Jr., CEO of Transit Wireless said. “Our network not only provides an important security improvement to riders, but also serves as the backbone for future innovations throughout the subway system.”
Year-end ridership numbers for the various MTA train lines are starting to trickle in. It’ll be a few more months before we have a snapshot of subway ridership for 2013, but we know that both the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North reported increases in train travel last year. For Metro-North, in fact, 2013 featured record ridership. Now imagine if trains weren’t derailing far more regularly than we’d like.
For east-of-Hudson service, Metro-North’s 81.8 million passengers topped the record set previously set in 2008. Not coincidentally, as the region’s economy and job outlook has improved, so too has commuter rail ridership. On a line-by-line basis, the Harlem Line saw ridership grow by 1.2 percent and carried nearly 27 million passengers while the New Haven line carried a record 38.975 million customers. The Hudson Line carried just under 16 million riders. West-of-Hudson ridership declined by a few percentage points as, per the MTA, the ridership “has been slow to recover since Hurricanes Sandy and Irene.”
Meanwhile, out on the Island, the LIRR’s total ridership topped 83.4 million, making it the busiest commuter rail system in the nation. It was the seventh highest ridership total since the end of World War II, and it too was driven by an improving economic outlook and the opening of the Barclays Center. “We are seeing an increase in both commuters going to work and occasional riders,” LIRR President Helena E. Williams said in a statement. “We had the opportunity to add back some service in 2013 and we are pleased that riders are responding by using the LIRR more often to get to work as well as for leisure and other travel during the off peak periods. We believe the increase in ridership also reflects an improving Long Island and NYC economy.”
While we all gathered to celebrate Mayor Bloomberg’s 7 line extension a few weeks ago, the rest of New York City is going to have to wait even longer as this project too has been delayed a few months. According to MTA documents to be presented to board members on Monday, due to issues with the escalators and elevators at 34th St. and the transmission backbone system, the opening of the station at Hudson Yards will be delayed until at least late summer/early fall of 2014 and possibly into the fourth quarter of 2014.
The three main concerns seem to focus around equipment. The hand rail motor for the high rise escalators at 34th Street failed the Factory Acceptance Test; the transmission backbone system which operates all major systems including HVAC, fire alarms and the elevators and escalators were delayed; and the inclined elevators at 34th St. have twice failed Factory Acceptance Tests. The MTA notes as well that “installation logistics and access…may become an issue.”
According to the documents, the MTA is working with contractors to mitigate the delay, but it’s not likely that the agency will meet the previously promised June 2014 date. The delay should not impact the cost, but it is yet another sign of problems managing major construction projects. By the time it opens, the 7 line extension will be nearly two years late past original estimates and one year off of its revised timeline that had service commencing in December.
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.