Archive for LIRR
We spend a lot of time talking about where New York City’s transit system goes and how it could be better, but we don’t spend too much time talking about where the transit doesn’t go. We know how current service could be improved, and we all have fantasy maps regarding planned service extensions. But we don’t always address the so-called transit deserts where transit riders have few options and commuters face long rides to job centers.
At a time when affordability is a buzzword surrounding the political discourse in the city, these transit deserts stick out like a sore thumb, and last week, Ydanis Rodriguez, head of the City Council’s transportation committee, held a hearing on improving access. From light rail to ferries, the speakers ran the gamut of topics we’ve discussed over the past few years, and those facing questions responded adeptly. For instance, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg spoke about how light rail involves more than just tracks and a line on a map; it involves, she explained, the need to invest in the infrastructure behind light rail and create a sustainable network.
One idea though that has come up time and again over the years involves commuter rail access through New York City. When I was in Berlin and Paris this past summer, I had the opportunity to ride both the S-Bahn and RER trains, and for someone used to New York City’s concept of commuter rail, the European model is eye-opening. These trains enjoy the benefits of through-running through center city areas, and the fare structure is rationalized to encourage both intra-city and city-to-suburb travel. It didn’t cost me more to take the RER a few stops than it would have to make a similar trip on the Metro.
Here, the LIRR and Metro-North do not share a fare structure with each other, let alone with New York City Transit, and those who board commuter rail lines within New York City pay a much higher — and often cost-prohibitive — fare. If our politicians have their ways, this practice would end, and riders would be able to use commuter rail trains within the boroughs for a much lower cost. The city is pushing aggressively to make this happen, and one MTA Board member is embracing the cause.
As officials explained, last week, they want the MTA to reduce fares on intra-city travel and provide a free transfer from the LIRR or Metro-North to New York City Transit’s network. The MTA though is crying poverty. Agency Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast claimed that such a move would cost the agency $70 million per year and that no one has yet identified how to cover the missing revenue. “We just can’t agree to accept that kind of loss especially since we already lose so much money on other services,” spokesman Adam Lisberg said to Gothamist. “This year we will lose $575 million on unreimbursed paratransit service as well as discounted fares for seniors and free rides for schoolchildren. When we start each year more than half a billion dollars in the hole, we don’t want to dig it any deeper.”
Allen Cappelli, the Board member who plans to bring up the issue during today’s committee meetings, doesn’t accept the cries of poverty. “Honestly, it sounds to me like seat-of-the-pants analysis and I think this issue warrants more than somebody’s best guess,” Cappelli said to the Daily News. “Now that money is, while tight, not as dire as it was, we ought to be looking for ways to improve service for people in our region.”
This debate of course gets to the heart of the conflict between the suburban-focused commuter rail and the city-centric subway system. Do suburban riders want city passengers hoping on board their commuter trains for a few stops? Do suburban riders want to see their trains slowed in order to make more stops to better serve inaccessible areas? Can MTA agencies work together on rational fare policies? These are questions that hit at the very essence of the MTA’s regional approach and haven’t been satisfactorily addressed in years.
I expect this conversation to continue, especially as the MTA looks to reactivate certain LIRR stops in Queens and bring Metro-North into Penn Station via the Penn Station Access plan. Eventually, we have to move toward a European model. But can we get there without unnecessary kicking and screaming? We’ll find out soon.
Sometimes, buried amidst the billions of dollars of expenditures in the MTA’s capital plan, a surprise or two will leap out of the page. Signals and station improvements are run-of-the-mill state-of-good-repair work while the MTA’s planned expenditures for their next-generation fare payment system, at a few hundred million dollars, is underwhelming. But buried in Long Island Rail Road’s planned project is a $40 million spend for a new LIRR station in Elmhurst.
Technically, an Elmhurst LIRR station isn’t new. For decades, trains stopped right here in Elmhurst, but the LIRR closed the station in 1985 due to general decline. The neighborhood was in decline, and, more importantly, ridership had bottomed out at the station. While proposing closing a subway stop causes riotous uproars, commuter rail stations in the boroughs are passing concerns, done in by incongruent fare policies.
Over the past few years, though, Queens politicians have latched onto the idea of reopening the Elmhurst station. We first heard about it in mid-2012 when The Journal reported on some LIRR officials who were considering an in-fill station. In 2013, Queens politicians all expressed support for the station as a way to improve access to Midtown, and now the MTA has set aside $40 million for just that purpose.
The new Elmhurst station will be a part of the LIRR’s Port Washington Branch. It will be two blocks away from the Elmhurst Ave. Queens Boulevard local subway stop and will cut travel times to Penn Station by around 12-15 minutes. The politicians are thrilled; I’m still a bit skeptical, but for the dollars and per-rider benefits in unpublished studies I’ve seen, the project seems fine.
The MTA’s capital plan lumps the Elmhurst station in with design work for a Republic station on the Main Line in Suffolk County. Actual construction for Republic won’t be funded until the 2020-2024 capital plan while Elmhurst will see environmental review, design and construction over the next few years. The Elmhurst work includes new 12-car platforms, staircases, railings, shelters, vending machines, lighting, communication and security system, general site improvements, and elevators.
The areas representatives, as I mentioned, are happy. They blame changing train schedules in the 1980s on the station’s closure and see it as part of Elmhurst’s potential. “Restoring LIRR service to Elmhurst will help a burgeoning neighborhood reach its full economic potential and become a destination for all New Yorkers,” Joe Crowley, Grace Meng and Daniel Dromm said. “We are thrilled to learn the MTA agrees that investing in this community is a win-win and that they have included critical funding to rebuild the station in their recently proposed capital budget. For years, Elmhurst residents have called for greater transportation options and we are now one step closer to turning this idea into a reality. We will continue to work with MTA officials to ensure this project remains a top priority and look forward to the day when Elmhurst will be the next stop for millions of New Yorkers.”
I think Crowley, Meng and Dromm are overstating their case. After all, LIRR stations near subway stops don’t see frequent service or heavy crowds. Still, I’m stuck where I’ve been over the past few years: The City Ticket price makes LIRR service from Elmhurst to Penn Station very expensive. Few people in a middle class area will spring for the added cost to save 10 minutes of travel time, and I can’t foresee particularly high ridership. Still, for $40 million — a rounding error for the MTA — why not?
Shortly after Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a show of riding in on a white horse to rescue the Long Island Rail Road riders when no one else would, the MTA and its Long Island unions have brokered a deal ensuring labor peace. Word of the deal first leaked late Thursday morning through a statement issued by IBEW Local 589, the LIRR’s electricians union, and Cuomo brought together MTA Chair and CEO Tom Prendergast and United Transportation Union President Anthony Simon to announce the deal this afternoon.
During the press conference, details were sparse, and not until reporters asked did Cuomo unveil that the LIRR workers will get a deal markedly similar to that in the two Presidential Emergency Board decisions but with some key differences. “This is a compromise by both parties,” Cuomo stated. “Neither side gets everything they wanted to get.”
The degree to which Cuomo’s statement is an accurate reflection of the outcome can be debated for a while. The LIRR union workers will earn raises totaling 17 percent over 6.5 years after the MTA initially proposed no wage increases. As Cuomo and Prendergast repeatedly noted that these wage increases will have no affect on the MTA’s fare structure or capital plans, the money will come from the benefits pool (as well as from future hires who, by definition, are never represented in labor discussions). For the first time in LIRR history, employees will contribute to their health insurance costs while new employees will have, according to a subsequent release, “different wage progressions and pension plan contributions.” The unions will vote on this plan over the next month while the MTA Board members will receive a full assessment of its economic impact prior to their September meetings.
“The agreement we reached today with the assistance of Governor Cuomo is just what he advocated – a fair and reasonable contract that will enable the nation’s busiest commuter railroad to continue to serve the people of Long Island,” Prendergast said. “Both sides have compromised to reach an agreement that gives our employees the raises they deserve while also providing for the MTA’s long-term financial stability.”
Throughout the short press conference, Simon continued to note that “this was about the riders,” and he pressed that angle to a degree that seemed nearly insincere. Had this been about the riders, the MTA would have pushed for work rule reform, and the unions would have accepted it. Instead, under pressure from Cuomo, the MTA squandered again a chance to enact real labor reforms that would improve efficiency and cut down on unnecessary spending. Although 300,000 riders won’t have to experience the pain of a strike, this wasn’t really about the riders at all.
Meanwhile, a few blocks away from the press conference touting this deal, the MTA Reinvention Commission soldiered onward. It was hard not to think that the MTA had let a prime opportunity for reinvention slip through its fingers. Such are the costs of labor peace.
The funny thing about labor discussions, disputes and negotiations is that they are nearly impossible to predict. It’s hard to separate theater and posturing from actually productive conversations and negotiations, and whatever’s happening with the LIRR unions is proving this point perfectly. A day ago, I would have said a strike was a near-certainty. Today, after some politicking from Albany and revived discussions, I’m hedging my bets. With just under three days until the MTA has to start paring back service, time is definitely of the essence.
After a few days of posturing in which the MTA went hard after the union and the union seemed to dig in for a strike, Andrew Cuomo, as expected, slowly started to step in. He issued a terse statement (and apparently had a chat with his people at the MTA as well). “The Long Island Rail Road is a critical transportation system for Long Island and New York City. We must do everything we can to prevent Long Islanders from being held hostage by a strike that would damage the regional economy and be highly disruptive for commuters,” he said. “Both the MTA and the LIRR unions need to put the interests of New Yorkers first by returning to the table today and working continuously to avoid a strike.”
Later that day, the MTA and LIRR unions pledged to talk, and the LIRR labor leaders have since dialed back the rhetoric. They’re no longer vowing a strike, but significant differences remain. Matt Flegenheimer summed up Wednesday’s goings-on:
Four days before a possible strike, the Long Island Rail Road and its unions resumed talks on Wednesday and pledged to continue informal discussions throughout the night — a conspicuous shift in tone after negotiations broke down earlier in the week. The sides were expected to remain in touch by phone and video conference on Wednesday evening and return for face-to-face meetings on Thursday morning.
The gathering came hours after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called on both sides to return to the negotiating table. Transportation experts have long expected Mr. Cuomo to intervene to head off a possible strike on the railroad, which handles about 300,000 rider trips on weekdays. He oversees the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the railroad. Less than an hour after Mr. Cuomo’s statement, the transportation authority said that it had asked its unions to resume negotiations.
Anthony Simon, the leader of the railroad’s largest labor group, said the unions “never wanted to leave the table.” Earlier in the week, Mr. Simon predicted that a strike was all but certain. On Wednesday, he was much more reserved. “Let’s leave the percentages off for now,” he said when asked about his past claim that the chances of a shutdown were 100 percent. “We don’t want to alarm the public anymore.”
It’s worth noting that the MTA’s offers to date have been generous, and I don’t believe the MTA should move from their position. According to materials the agency released after talks fell apart on Monday, the MTA has promised 17 percent raises in exchange for some health care contribution concessions. It’s unclear if badly needed pension and work-rule reforms are on the table, but so far, the MTA hasn’t shown a willingness to fight for much reform in a way that would overhaul the labor problems the agency currently faces.
I’m worried about Cuomo’s interference because the MTA almost needs the strike. In the short term, it would mean headaches for subway riders and major hassles for Long Island commutes (including reverse commuters), but in the long time, the MTA has to fix systematic problems with LIRR workrules, pensions and other benefit obligations. They won’t be able to do so if Gov. Cuomo is putting pressure on to settle before voters get upset. Such are the travails of labor relations during an election year. Can we look beyond the next three months?
A short post with some links for your Monday morning leisure. Clearly, this is important if you work on Long Island, employ people who live on Long Island or otherwise commute in from areas of Queens and Brooklyn that are accessible to Long Islanders. Things could get messy next few week.
First up, there’s no new news to report after Friday’s announcement of contingency planning. The MTA and its Long Island unions have not reached an agreement, and the MTA continues to urge people to stay home, telecommute, take vacation or do whatever it takes to avoid traversing Long Island Rail Road routes if trains aren’t running. Obviously, that’s not practical for everyone, but absent the overnight invention of teleportation technology, it’s the best of a bad situation. It may not, however, come to this.
In The Post this weekend, Nicole Gelinas writes on how she is concerned that Andrew Cuomo will give in to the LIRR unions. Although he tried to punt the issue to Congress last week, the Congress declined to do much about it, and the ball is firmly in the MTA’s — and Gov. Cuomo’s — court. If he gives the order to give in, the MTA will oblige.
With contingency plans in place, Gelinas feels the MTA is in a position of strength. “In fact,” she writes, “the MTA should take advantage of any strike to cram down work-rule changes as the price for workers to be allowed back on the job. Cuomo will be tempted to prod the MTA into giving away the store, though — so that he can look like a fearless leader in avoiding a strike.” If he does that, taxpayers will be on the hook for over $730 million, and that is money likely to come out of any future capital plan.
The MTA meanwhile has laid its cards on the table. While attempting to reach a middle ground, the MTA has moved its offers numerous times while the unions haven’t. Now, MTA officials warn that any further concessions could impact fares or the so-called “state of good repair” programs. “When we say we can afford it within the current financial plan, we’re affording it at great sacrifice,” Newsday quoted MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast as stating. Union officials beg to differ and claim the MTA could afford these raises.
Finally, for more coverage, keep an eye on The LIRR Today. Patrick has all the news and info you need to know building up to a strike as well as plans in the event there is no Long Island Rail Road service one week from today. I’ll continue, as always, to follow this story.
As the dog days of summer descend upon us, the threat of an LIRR strike any time beginning in 11 days looms larger and larger. While the MTA brass and LIRR unions met on Tuesday, the sessions lasted only around four hours, and the MTA is looking not to Albany but to Washington for help.
It’s interesting to see the buck pass from Andrew Cuomo, up for reelection, to Congress, a deeply unpopular, highly partisan federal agency. As the LIRR is overseen by the feds though, Cuomo can punt. Whether voters will recognize this in November will depend upon the outcome. Earlier this week, though, while speaking with reporters, Cuomo, who was willing to take the credit for bridging Transit’s and the TWU’s labor impasse, effectively punted on the LIRR. WNYC offered up this transcript:
“It’s actually Congress that can end a strike and impose a settlement one way or the other,” Cuomo said on Monday. “So right now it seems that Congress is pivotal to what happens here, and from what I read in the newspapers it’s going to depend on what Congress intends to do and what they say they’re going to do. Congress can order them to go back, Congress can order a settlement, Congress can order mediation, Congress can order arbitration, Congress can do almost whatever they want, because they are in control of the resolution of the strike.
“The possibility of a strike causes so much anxiety I don’t even like to think about it. There is no good alternative to the LIRR on Long Island. The commute would be horrendous, however we do it. And they talk about contingency plans — we’ll have buses, we’ll have carpools — and you can do all of the above; it is still a miserable situation. So I have said to both parties: I truly hope it doesn’t get to that point. If it does get to that point, I hope Congress acts immediately to resolve it, and resolves it in a prudent way. But that they resolve it.”
Small comfort to the people of Long Island, but MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast, clearly at the behest of his boss in Albany, has asked Congress to assist. He’s traveling to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to discuss the situation with lawmakers and sent a letter ahead of his arrival to Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi asking Congress to do something. He wrote:
I am writing to you to seek clarification on what role Congress intends to play in the event that 5,400 employees of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) walk off the job as early as Sunday, July 20th and paralyze the nation’s largest regional economy. Tomorrow I will be traveling to Washington D.C. to meet with members of Congress on the MTA’s position and request a clear answer on whether the United States Congress is prepared to take action if LIRR’s unions decide to stage a strike.
Over the past several months the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has made a number of attempts to settle a labor dispute with unions representing LIRR’s employees. As Chairman of the MTA, I strongly believe that a resolution can be reached in a fiscally responsible manner; unfortunately, the union’s leadership has taken the position that the MTA must meet its demands or it will strike, a threat they feel comfortable making because they assume Congress will stop their strike after a few days.
As you may know, the MTA’s negotiations with the LIRR’s unions are governed by the federal Railway Labor Act (RLA), which gives commuter railroad employees the right to strike, which is a right that no other public employee in the State of New York has. Once LIRR employees walk off the job, absent a settlement, it will require an act of Congress to bring these employees back to work. The MTA will continue to push for a resolution that does not overly burden our passengers; however, we believe that the union’s leadership has made a tactical decision that Congress will intervene on their behalf in the event of a strike. As a result, the union’s leadership has been unwilling to work constructively with the MTA to come to an agreement.
Prendergast has presented Congress with three options — prevent a strike, allow a strike and require settlement sometime later, or allow a strike and take no action — and wants to know which one will be the likely outcome. It’s a move designed to put pressure on Washington and gain clarity into a situation that will likely not be resolved without outside influence.
It’s hard to read the tea leaves right now, but Congress doesn’t do much passing of resolutions these days. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a strike, and to that end, it’s not clear how the region will be affected. It won’t be pretty, and one way or another we’ll find out soon enough how this story ends.
Remember all the way back to February when, after a rather boring Super Bowl, thousands of fans got to hang out in East Rutherford or Secaucus Junction waiting for New Jersey Transit to run enough trains to get them home? You’d think the regional rail operators around the city would have learned the lesson that, for marquee sports events at inconvenient locations, regularly scheduled commuter rail service isn’t quite good enough and even the so-called “event” service isn’t enough either.
So when Saturday’s Belmont Stakes rolled around with California Chrome drawing attention for his shot at the Triple Crown, how do you think the Long Island Rail Road handled the post-race crowds? If you said “poorly,” come on down because you’re the next contestant on “The Train Service Is Wrong.” Matt Flegenheimer reports:
For both the horse and the agency, Saturday could have gone better. After watching the colt tie for fourth in the Belmont Stakes, tens of thousands of Long Island Rail Road riders struggled to leave, standing in serpentine lines for hours, berating police officers over a lack of communication from transit and racing officials and, at one point, packing themselves so tightly atop a rickety pedestrian bridge that it had to be cleared for safety.
And so, just over four months after New Jersey Transit’s misadventures at the Super Bowl, the New York City area has been faced with the same vexing question: How has a region that prides itself on handling large crowds for major events — baseball games, political conventions, New Year’s Eve — been tripped up yet again?
The answer, officials and transportation experts said, is a combination of misguided estimates, inexperienced riders and a bit of bad luck, at least at the track. The railroad expected about 20,000 people to ride to the races and had publicized its service throughout the week. Nearly 36,000 took the train to the Belmont station, prompting the railroad to summon extra service for the post-race crush at the track’s typically little-used station.
To make matters worse, MTA officials and rider advocates noted after the fact that the people who rely more heavily on mass transit were the ones at Belmont, something that perhaps should have been a consideration before the event and not after. Still, though, one statement in The Times was worrisome. The Belmont station is season, and the station can fit only an eight-car train set. Thus, with 36,000 people waiting, the MTA can clear out only around 1200 per train. “Could we have gotten three and a half hours down to three hours if everything ran like clockwork? Maybe,” LIRR President Patrick A. Nowakowski said to Flegenheimer. “But you weren’t going to do any better than that.”
Coverage in The Journal took on a different slant still. The delays, LIRR officials told Yoni Bashan, were expected. “There wasn’t a single extra train that we could have run that we didn’t run,” an agency spokesman said.
Therein lies the problem. The MTA isn’t going to upgrade Belmont for one day a year, and, as both papers noted, these complaints never pop up for regular service after events at Yankee Stadium, Citi Field or the Barclays Center, venues located near subway lines. So this may just become the new normal at places that were built for auto traffic without reliable, regular mass transit. Belmont and the Meadowlands will still see many many drivers, but as train travel in the region becomes the norm, longer waits due to infrastructure deficiencies will continue to be a problem. Who’s looking forward for a solution?
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.
For reasons of politics, Penn Station Access — the plan to send Metro-North trains through four new stations in the Bronx and into Penn Station — has become Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s transit cause célèbre. The plan has support from Westchester and the Bronx, and Cuomo is angling to deliver something for the constituents of his most notable November challenger. Don’t get in his way.
According to one story out on Monday, Penn Station Access and her opposition to it may be why Helena Williams is no longer the president of the Long Island Rail Road. In an extensive piece on Newsday that is unfortunately behind their payroll, Alfonso Castillo has the story:
Ousted LIRR president Helena Williams’ criticism of a Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo-backed MTA plan to link Metro-North Railroad to Penn Station — potentially inconveniencing Nassau and Suffolk commuters — cemented her reputation as a fierce advocate for Long Island, but it also contributed to Williams losing her job, sources said.
Williams, 58, whose seven-year stint as Long Island Rail Road president ended Friday, clashed with Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Thomas Prendergast over the Penn Station Access project, which would bring Metro-North into the LIRR’s West Side Manhattan terminal using existing Amtrak tracks around the same time the LIRR would connect to Grand Central Terminal as part of East Side Access, sources said.
“There was definitely a rift over that,” said one MTA source who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Tom seemed to be on the side of pushing this thing forward, and his agency president was not. She was sort of pulling in the opposite direction.”
“I don’t think there’s any question that it helped her demise,” MTA board member Mitchell Pally said.
The article explores this divide with some MTA Board members claiming Williams’ opposition was “parochial” and that it led to her ouster while others called her a fierce advocate for Long Island whose stance on Penn Station Access was not a “significant factor” on her departure. Read into that what you will. I believe that any opposition to Penn Station Access at this point is mostly parochial and has no place in New York City 2014. Solving regional mobility issues will require joint cooperation from both LIRR and Metro-North, and it may involve some sacrifices on each side.
That said, Patrick at The LIRR Today has up an extensive gut-check on Penn Station Access. It’s well worth a read, but here’s an excerpt:
The problem with Penn Station Access is the fact that most people are going about looking at this the wrong way. They look at this as dots on the map. If the LIRR can add a dot onto their map it’s only fair that Metro-North get to add a dot onto theirs. But it’s tremendously more complex than that. Grand Central and Penn Station are far from similar — one is a station with more than forty platforms and more than 60 station tracks that is used exclusively by one and only one railroad, the other has just 11 platforms, 21 tracks, is shared by three different railroads that collectively operate close to 1,000 revenue trains on the average weekday in what could best be described as cramped quarters…
And to add to this, the LIRR’s East Side Access project is constructing an entirely new station at Grand Central deep below the existing one (like it or not, that’s what they’re going with). Therefore, bringing LIRR trains into Penn Station would result in no net loss of station tracks at Grand Central for Metro-North. Other than Madison Avenue Yard and the Lower Level Loop which was closed several years ago for ESA work, Metro-North has not been adversely affected by East Side Access.
Over at Penn Station, there is no plan to construct a new 8-track terminal below the exiting one (well, at least for Metro-North trains). The plan to bring Metro-North trains into Penn Station would involve no addition of capacity into the current station. Since they have no intention of adding capacity at Penn Station to support Metro-North trains, those slots are going to have to come from someplace else. I don’t think Amtrak or NJTransit are going to volunteer some of their station slots for the sake of Metro-North commuters, so the last possible space to get slots is from the LIRR. And when East Side Access is completed, demand for the LIRR service to New York Penn will decrease slightly, and they will not need to run as many trains to Penn Station, so there will be some space opened up for Metro-North. But a massive unknown in this equation is just how much space the LIRR might free up in Penn Station.
It’s food for thought as these projects come up for debate in the coming months. It certainly seems that Cuomo, not one to embrace transit, has started to put some political pressure on multiple fronts on the MTA. Between the TWU contract, the constant theft of supposedly dedicated funds and seemingly spurious statements from MTA officials about the agency’s financial situation, whether all of this politicking is for the good remains to be seen.
Let’s play catch-up with a few shorter stories:
Upper East Side votes for bus countdown clocks
It’s no secret that the MTA doesn’t plan to spend money bringing countdown clocks to bus stops. Although BusTime is now available on smartphones and via text message on all bus routes throughout the city, the MTA hasn’t shown a willingness to spend money for countdown clocks or identify which stations deserve such clocks. They have, instead, left these clocks up to everyone else. Businesses could supply them in their windows or politicians could pay for them through discretionary funding.
On the Upper East Side, residents want these clocks, and in a recent round of participatory budgeting sponsored by Council member Ben Kallos, his constituents voted for them. While westbound countdown clocks came in second in the voting, they’ve earned $300,000 for installation, and fifteen signs along the M96, M86, M79 and M66 routes will be installed on the East Side. Additionally, Kallos will spend another $340,000 in discretionary funding to install countdown clocks at downtown M31 stops.
This is how countdown clocks will arrive at bus stations and shelters throughout the city, but it’s a very piecemeal approach. These timers will be available at downtown- or west-bound stops only, and anyone headin east or north won’t enjoy easy access to the information. Maybe, eventually, as participatory budgeting and discretionary funds are doled out throughout the years, we’ll see this technology emerge everywhere, but for now, as other entities take over this project, it will be imperfect at best.
MTA Board votes to explore mobile ticketing
Kicking and screaming, the MTA will soon begin to adopt 21st Century ticketing technology. The MTA Board this week voted to approve the LIRR’s and Metro-North’s first foray into mobile ticketing. The contract is with Masabi, LLC, and it will allow the rail road customers to purchase train tickets on their phones, tablets or mobile devices. Conductors can visually verify digital tickets or use handheld devices to scan and validate tickets much as Amtrak conductors do today. (For background on Masabi, check out this Wall Street Journal article. They already provide mobile ticketing for transit services in London, Boston and San Diego.)
“More convenient ticketing options means a better experience using the train,” said Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti. “We want to make riding the train as easy and convenient as we can. We now offer real-time train status via app, and this next step – tickets via app – promises to be another big step toward increased convenience.”
There is, of course, a catch: It’s likely to be a year before mobile ticketing is available for widespread use. Even though this isn’t a new technology, the MTA seems to be suffering from a case of not-invented-here-itis and must test this thing thoroughly. That year, though, is sooner than the Metrocard’s replacement will be ready. At least it has that going for it.
Bustitution, LIRR strike looms
A few weeks ago, the LIRR’s largest union voted to authorize a strike if it cannot reach an agreement on a new contract with MTA management by the end of July. As rank-and-file TWU members are already speaking out against their 8 percent raises, it’s likely that the LIRR union will push hard for a more generous deal. Thus, the likelihood of a strike — with Nowakowski in charge — looms large, and the MTA must plan for it.
After a contentious discussion in which it seemed as though the MTA Board wouldn’t authorize the move, the Board finally approved issuing an RFP for bus service in the event there is no LIRR service come late July. For a few minutes this week, it appeared as though the MTA Board was content to bury its head in the sand and pretend a strike wasn’t a distinct possibility. Ultimately, though, saner minds prevailed, and the RFP is out there. A strike would be very disruptive to Long Island, but at least the MTA has recognized that substitute bus service can’t materialize overnight. I’ll follow this story as the spring unfolds.