Archive for MTA Politics
There is a bit of a long-running joke among the New York reporters on the MTA’s press distribution list. Despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s odd assertion last year that the MTA is not a state agency, whenever the authority has good news to announce, the press release comes with Cuomo’s stamp of approval. “Governor Cuomo announces new countdown clocks” or “Governor Cuomo announces bus upgrades” or “Governor Cuomo announces LIRR third track.” He never sends out the releases with fare hike information, service changes or other bad news. When it’s convenient, the MTA is his.
On Tuesday, one of my all-time favorite “Governor Cuomo announces…” press releases hit my inbox. Gov. Cuomo, who just two days ago announced a Jan. 1 opening for the Second Ave. Subway, has now announced that the MTA is excitedly replacing every subway map in the system with over 13,600 new maps “featuring the new Second Avenue Subway line.”
Cuomo’s release even included a perfectly Cuomo quote about the new maps. “On every subway car, in every station, and throughout New York, installing these maps means that the Second Avenue Subway is finally here and will be open on time,” Governor Cuomo said. The W train’s return a few weeks ago certainly didn’t merit a press release from the Governor touting new maps.
While I am amused by Cuomo’s press release tactics and it can come off as self-serving at times, there’s a larger lesson than the politics of gaining positive press. When Gov. Cuomo is involved in matters of transit and the MTA, in particular, good things happen and bad things are avoided. In other words, having a strong chief executive willing to take some ownership of transit investments is something New Yorkers fighting for better transit should encourage.
A recent piece in The Times is particularly telling. Last week, Emma Fitzsimmons wrote about Cuomo’s hands-on approach to wrapping up the Second Ave. Subway. Although Cuomo’s fingerprints have become more apparent in recent weeks as the Phase 1 work has neared its finish line, Cuomo’s intense involvement in this project stretches back to 2015 when the MTA and its contractors wanted to delay the opening by a significant amount of time. Fitzsimmons writes:
The notorious Second Avenue subway, nearly a century in the making, is inches from the finish line, and Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, has made it his mission to complete the project by New Year’s Eve. On regular visits to the line’s three new stations, he obsesses over design details and equipment glitches at a surprising level of involvement for a governor, which some critics say seems primarily aimed at promoting his image…
For months, Mr. Cuomo has held weekly meetings at his office with the project’s leadership team to address — and sometimes vent about — the latest issues and concerns. He became more involved about a year and a half ago, he said, when officials at the authority told him they wanted to push back the long-established December 2016 deadline by a year or two. “The meetings are not a love fest,” said Charlie Hall, a construction manager from the engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff who is overseeing the project. “The meetings started because there were issues, and things weren’t getting done. People are challenged in those meetings.”
On an unannounced stop at the 86th Street station a few months ago, Mr. Cuomo was angered to see no one was working on a problematic escalator, Melissa DeRosa, his chief of staff, said. He walked around shouting, “Who is working on the escalator?” until the person appeared, she added.
As Fitzsimmons notes, Cuomo’s critics wonder if this interest is a headline-grab as he positions himself for a 2020 run on the national stage, and on other projects, such as the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, Cuomo has pushed through a key project without identifying funding sources or fully justifying the need for the project. As many have told me, he has a tendency to latch onto projects without consulting with experts as to these project’s utility. (The LaGuardia AirTrain in the wrong direction is the prime example of the pitfalls of Cuomo’s approach.)
Yet, it is undeniable that having a governor who cares can get projects through tough spots. As Fitzsimmons notes, and as I highlighted in the excerpt above, Cuomo’s involvement has been instrumental in getting this project wrapped by the end of 2016. He can push competing forces — a contractor with no incentive to finish, an MTA Capital Construction staff afraid of turning operations over to Transit — to work together for a tight deadline.
So if Cuomo can turn results, the question then becomes how to focus him. How can activists get the Governor’s attention at the start when project scope and priorities are formed? How can transit experts get Cuomo’s ear so he latches onto the right projects at the right time? These aren’t just idle questions; they are important concerns that will affect the future of New York City for years and decades to come. With him projects can survive and perhaps thrive; without him, things seem to linger. Yet, his original ideas often seem frustratingly short-sighted and small in scope and impact. It is the great Cuomo conundrum and one that must be reconciled for future success.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has a funny relationship with the MTA. When the agency has good news that’s bound to grab headlines — such as fancy renderings of the next generation of rolling stock — he’s front and center with a press conference at the Transit Museum, his new favorite spot. When the news is bad, it’s everyone else’s responsibility to get the word out. That is, of course, his prerogative as the state’s chief executive, but that dynamic was on display again on Monday during Cuomo’s unveiling of the new designs.
The event was a sudden one, announced early on Monday morning during a period of the summer usually devoid of transit news. And once we drill down on the news, the developments came via the renderings rather than the initiatives. The announcement, a welcome one to be sure, served as a follow-up to both previous Cuomo news and long-standing MTA initiatives. Yet, for all of my skepticism, Cuomo deserves some credit as he’s pushing the MTA to move faster than the agency is used to moving, and riders should benefit.
Monday’s press conference focused around Cuomo’s plan to close 31 stations for speedier renovation work and the MTA’s plan to bring open gangway rolling stock to the New York City subway. The news isn’t new, but the renderings are. And they admittedly look good.
These projects are part of the $27 billion five-year capital plan on which Cuomo finally focused earlier this year, and he’s taking his valedictory lap while the going is good. “New York deserves a world-class transportation network, worthy of its role as the heartbeat of the 21st century economy,” he said. “The MTA design team developed a bold and visionary reimagining of the quintessential commuter experience, incorporating best practices from global transit systems, and focusing on our core mission to renew, enhance and expand. We are going to do more than renovate; we are bringing subway stations to a higher standard than ever before, and the new vision for subway cars will increase capacity and reduce overcrowding and delays.”
That last element is key. At a time when upgrading the signal system to accommodate more trains will take years or decades, changing the design of the New York City subway cars to bring it in line with international standards can improve capacity by around 8-10 percent without much additional expense. After all, rolling stock replacement is part of the MTA’s regular investment cycle, and adding open gangways represents a negligible cost in excess of the money spent on a new cars.
Monday’s announcement came couched in some interesting language. The MTA has the option to add “up to 750” cars with open gangways, but the plans are still as they were a few months ago. As part of the upcoming R-211 contract, the agency is going to order a 10-car pilot to test open gangways. If this test is successful, the agency can order an additional 740 cars with open gangways. This was the plan in January, and it remains the plan now. But the bidding will start soon as Cuomo puts pressure on the agency to speed up the procurement process. Still, it’s my understanding the first open gangways won’t arrive for 40 months or so, and if the contract is awarded before the end of the year, it’ll still be 2020 before the prototypes arrive.
Cuomo deserves praise for moving this process along, but the MTA has been working on this for years. It’s an important distinction to make. Meanwhile, in addition to open gangways, the cars will come with improved grab bars and doorways that are 58 inches wide instead of 50 inches. The colors incorporate the state’s blue and gold motif and align with the buses Cuomo has been pushing. Flip seats (that likely will always remain down), dynamic video screens and USB charging ports (always) are features of the new cars as well. The properly-hued subway bullets are making their triumphant return as well, a welcome part of the new design. If anything, now, the New York City subways will be aligned with international design standards, and the renderings produced by Antenna, the company behind the WMATA’ss 7000 series rolling stock and the LinkNYC kiosks, did a great job.
Meanwhile, we have a better idea of the new station design as well. As part of the MTA’s effort to speed up work, the agency is implementing a design-build process at 31 stations that were, not coincidentally, up for renovation. The new look includes better lighting and wayfinding, countdown clocks (somehow on the B division), new floor materials and, of course, USB charging ports. Everything in 2016 must have USB charging ports. The first three stations to get this treatment are Prospect Ave., Bay Ridge Ave. and 53rd St. along the BMT’s 4th Ave. line and work should begin either by the end of the year or early in 2017. As the renderings show, it’s a modern look for the MTA’s subway stations which are brighter and seemingly friendlier.
This is all good news and should be accepted as good news. It’s easy to focus on the MTA’s big picture problems, but at the same time, constant investment in the state of good repair of the infrastructure involves well designed rolling stock and technologically advanced stations. The open gangways help with capacity and delays caused by crowded trains; the stations create a more welcoming environment. The MTA needs to continue to grow and invest in the long-term less sexy projects that will truly expand transit, but if Cuomo wants to focus on the MTA, let’s let him.
As a closing note, it was interesting to hear the Governor speak about his renewed emphasis on transit. He told one story about his family. ““My daughters were home for the weekend,” he said. “They came up to Westchester, and I got the lecture about the MTA.” Trains were too crowded, and they wanted dad, who’s in charge of the MTA, to do something about it. But there’s another side to this as well, as Dana Rubinstein related. When pressed on the renewed focus on transit investment, he responded with a tautology. There is a new emphasis on the MTA “because there is a new emphasis on the MTA.” And that’s where we are right now.
As the MTA has put the capital funding debacle temporarily in the rear view mirror and gears up for a planned December unveiling of the Second Ave. Subway, nearly 90 years in the making, something akin to benign neglect has settled over the MTA Board. Thanks to inaction on the part of the Governor who is supposed to pass along nominees, 14 out of the 23 MTA Board spots are currently holdover appointees (with some held over from as long ago as 2006) while two vacancies have sat empty for years and three other appointments are set to expire at the end of the month.
Now, for the second time in two years, the governor has passed along a slate of names for certain open positions — including three mayoral nominees — late in the legislative calendar. There is hope that the State Senate will have time to consider and confirm these appointments, but similar to last year, the legislative calendar has only five days remaining before breaking until January. With so little time left and based on conversations I’ve had, it isn’t in fact clear if Cuomo wants many of these nominations confirmed.
Kate Hinds of WNYC broke the news of the new appointments via Twitter tonight:
— Kate Hinds (@katehinds) June 7, 2016
Of those listed, Vanterpool, Jones and Rodriguez, all de Blasio nominees, along with Peter Ward, a Cuomo appointee, had been sent to the Senate last year, but the Senate claimed it simply did not have time to assess these candidates. They’re joined this year by TWU President John Samuelsen, who would fill the union’s non-voting representative seat on the Board, and Charles Phillips, a major Cuomo campaign contributor. It’s not quite clear whose seat Phillips would fill, though all indications are that Allen Cappelli, a smart, loud and vocal advocate for sensible transit policy, will be off the Board.
In her story on the appointments Hinds gets into the motivation behind Cuomo’s inaction. When asked why he waited so long again to send these names to the Senate, the state’s chief executive said simply, “I don’t know.” It’s also still not clear if the rumblings of a conflict of interest with regards to the mayor’s appointment of Ydanis Rodriguez have been resolved.
Whether this is forward progress remains to be seen. Cuomo has an MTA Board now that, with a few exceptions, isn’t pushing back on his policies and poor funding practices. He hasn’t been too willing to approve the Mayor’s nominations who would be a bit more vocal regarding some of the state’s poor practices, and so he has seemingly been content to let the holdover Board members continue in their roles. We’ll find out over the next few weeks if the Senate is under pressure from Cuomo to hear these nominees, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the 2016 legislative session ends with, again, no action on MTA Board appointments. After all, the MTA has long been another pawn in the battle between Cuomo and de Blasio.
Earlier this week, I took a look at how Gov. Andrew Cuomo is exerting his influence over the MTA, a state agency. Over at Mobilizing the Region, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s blog, Nadine Lemmon picked up this thread. She writes of the fact that three of the city’s four appointees to the MTA Board haven’t been confirmed even though the Senate has been sitting on their nominations for nearly a year:
[The Senate] finished the session without taking a vote on any of Mayor de Blasio’s picks — David Jones of the Community Service Society of New York, City Council Transportation Chair Ydanis Rodriguez, and Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Veronica Vanterpool. Now, almost a year later, the city’s representatives are still waiting in limbo.
New York City is supposed to have four of the 17 seats on the MTA board. Today, the city has one active voting member: Polly Trottenberg, the city’s Transportation Commissioner. John Banks and Jeffrey Kay — still technically on the board — are holdovers from the Bloomberg administration. The other seat has been vacant since early 2015 when former Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall quietly resigned from the board after just a few months.
The missing representation is especially problematic when you consider that over 93 percent of the MTA’s ridership is on New York City Transit subways and buses, the MTA Bus Company and Staten Island Railway. The counties served by Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road have as many votes as New York City, but those systems account for less than 7 percent of total ridership. New York City Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer thinks the city ought to have not only a full four-person slate, but the majority of the MTA’s board seats. Nobody can fault the Senate for wanting to do their “due diligence,” but how can 10 months not be enough time to vet a handful of appointees?
While TSTC has a good point here, there is a bit of a rub: One of the mayor’s MTA appointees may not be eligible to serve. In February, the Daily News reported that Rodriguez, as an elected official to City Council, may have a conflict in serving on the MTA Board. He can’t owe a fiduciary duty to both the MTA and his elected constituents, and it’s not clear if his nomination can go forward. While the fate of Rodriguez’s role on the MTA is up in the air, Cuomo’s people claim they have asked the mayor to re-submit his nominations for the board, but de Blasio hasn’t done so yet. So the MTA is again a pawn in a pointless game between the mayor and the governor in which New Yorkers lose. Take that for what you will.
Meanwhile, we have service advisories to cover this week. Click through for the details. Read More→
One of the real political oddities that arose out of the 1968 creation of the MTA concerns control. Since the MTA is a state agency, Albany controls the mechanism that run a subway system operated entirely within New York City. Gov. Andrew Cuomo gets to appoint the people in charge of both day-to-day operations and the agency’s oversight board. The city nominally controls four out of 17 board seats, but even those require state sign-off (and as you can imagine, the frosty relationship between Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio hasn’t inspired Cuomo to move on three mayoral suggestions). So when Cuomo spends years ignoring the MTA and then starts meddling with the wrong kinds of transit projects, city officials are right to grow weary of this setup.
Today, in Crain’s New York, City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer calls for more city control of the subways and buses. Van Bramer represents 7 train riders who recently held a town hall with MTA bigwigs over unreliable Flushing line service, and he walked away unimpressed. “New York City Transit President Ronnie Hakim had some good answers,” he writes, “but on many issues, she left us scratching our heads. Hakim didn’t seem to know much about cross-honoring MetroCards on the Long Island Rail Road when service is disrupted. One of her colleagues dismissed our claim that service is worse on Mondays after weekend track work, only to have riders cite specific delays and disruptions that the agency forgot.”
Meanwhile, Van Bramer runs through the litany of complaints: The MTA’s service metrics show decreasing reliability while capital construction projects take years and cost too much with little public accountability for delays and disruptions. The biggest projects, dollar-wise, are benefiting suburban LIRR commuters rather than NYC subway riders, and Cuomo’s budget shenanigans which force the MTA to take on more debt mean, as Van Bramer notes, “Albany is setting New Yorkers up for massive fare and toll increases down the line.”
Van Bramer offers up this solution:
The city has increased its commitment to funding MTA capital improvements to $2.5 billion. Contrast that with Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk counties, which each have a full vote on the MTA board yet don’t contribute a cent to MTA upgrades from their budgets.
The city deserves a bigger say. I’m calling on the state to increase the city’s representation on the authority’s board, and have sponsored a City Council resolution to this effect. The city, after all, stands to gain the most from improved service—or suffer the harshest consequences if the system is neglected. Now is the time. With the city’s future hanging in the balance, it makes no sense for Albany and the suburbs to call the shots for our subways and buses.
It’s almost there, but maybe not quite. More seats on the authority’s board doesn’t really get the city the control it needs, and there’s an 800-pound gorilla — or a $13 billion one, if you prefer — in the room. Someone has to fund this giant subway system, and it ain’t cheap. If the city wants control, it’s going to need to figure out how to sustain funding sources, and while the taxes and fees that fund transit are largely levied within New York City, they are assessed at the state level. Will Albany be willing to shift this revenue to city coffers without a fight? And how do we improve on the mistakes inherent in city control for the first seven decades of the subway system’s existence? What happens when fare policies are inherently local and politicians have to run on the backs of fare hikes?
The current set-up is messy, and it doesn’t help when the priorities of New York’s chief executive aren’t aligned with the transit needs of its largest city. But city control, while perhaps containing an element of common sense, may not be the simple fix we would want it to be. Ultimately, the city should have more of a say over its transit system and future, but how that control is implemented is up for debate.
As last summer’s inaction over the MTA’s capital plan cast a pall over transit expansion in New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had an odd exchange with reporters. When asked why the state seemed so averse to assisting a state agency, Cuomo indicated that the MTA was not a state agency because its headquarters were downstate. It was an answer that defied logic or reality, but it seemed to suggest that Cuomo wanted nothing to do with an important state agency he ostensibly controlled because admitting to control would involve taking on a whole raft of potential responsibilities and headaches.
What a difference a year makes. In the aftermath of the rush to approve a New York State budget on time, it seems that Cuomo, for better or worse, is asserting himself as chief executive in charge of the MTA. This time around, he’s doing it through the state’s new Design and Construction Corporation, another layer of advisory bureaucracy set up to make non-binding recommendations to state agencies on all projects worth more than $50 million. Like many transit-related projects Cuomo has touched lately, it’s a good idea — reform of capital spending — with poor execution, and the MTA isn’t quite sure what it means for the future of the agency.
Andrew Tangel of The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend on Cuomo’s new-found interest in transit. He writes:
A new state agency is fueling anxiety about New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s increasing involvement with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, raising questions over how to run the nation’s largest transit network. Supporters of the agency, including some on the MTA’s board, welcome the Democratic governor’s influence and hope his creation will speed up transit projects and keep a lid on costs…
Mr. Cuomo’s push to tighten oversight on state construction projects comes as some inside the MTA face greater involvement by the governor’s aides into the affairs of what was designed by law as an agency insulated from politics. “You can’t criticize the governor for wanting control—that’s in the genetic makeup of governors,” said Richard Brodsky, who led an effort to beef up legal protections for New York’s public authorities when he was as a Democratic state assemblyman. “But there’s a danger that if the MTA board does not exercise independent, fiduciary judgment, you’ll end up with…decisions that are based more on the governor’s needs—or the governor’s or mayor’s needs—than they are on the needs of the system.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Cuomo said the governor is committed to improving the MTA and pointed to the budget deal a few weeks ago, which is expected to provide final approval for a $27 billion capital-spending plan to pay for repair, upgrade and expansion projects.
Tangel goes on to note that Cuomo’s involvement has received “mixed reviews.” Recent Cuomo allies appointed to public-facing roles at the MTA have been received with a mixture of shrugs and befuddlement while MTA staffers have what MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast (a Cuomo ally) has called a “healthy tension” between the governor and the bureaucrats in charge of the MTA, and overall, this isn’t a particularly easy news item to reconcile.
On the one hand, the MTA manages to run trains somewhat on time (though with diminishing on-time performance lately), but the agency has an awful track record on capital projects. The biggest-ticket items are delayed and over budget with costs so far out of line with international peers as to be laughable in many corners. Meanwhile, smaller projects — I’m looking at you, Culver Viaduct rehab — take years more than promised, and transparency on both the cause of delays and the reason for the extreme expenses is nearly non-existent. The agency is ripe, in other words, for an executive takeover that can get results.
But Cuomo, on the other hand, seems to be more interested in legacy-building than on sound transit investment and better oversight. He hasn’t upheld funding promises and seems more concerned with technology projects that do little to solve the underlying mobility issues affecting New York City. Even his grand ideas — a misguided Laguardia AirTrain via Willets Point, pushing through Penn Station and a costly Laguardia overhaul — are focused on moving people into and out of New York City rather than through and around the city. The priorities are skewed and, frankly, wrong in terms of investment, oversight and impact.
So where does that leave a more meddlesome Cuomo and the MTA of which he is very in charge? It’s not quite clear. I’ve heard from MTA sources that Cuomo’s inaction on the capital plan had a profoundly negative affect on agency morale and his sticking his nose in for legacy reasons isn’t helping. I think the problems run deeper than Prendergast indicated to Tangel, and yet, it’s Cuomo prerogative, as Richard Brodsky noted to The Journal, to be in charge of a state agency. So we’ll have to ride it out. It’s guardedly better that Cuomo is paying attention, but now, he has to focus on the right things. So far, he hasn’t, and that’s a problem for all of us.
As the clock on March expired and the calendar flipped to April, New York State legislators passed a $155 billion budget. The state has a lot of money to play with, and as interest rates remain low, it’s very easy to borrow. It would be, in other words, a great time to fund mass transit through direct contributions, and even $3 billion in annual direct contributions would lead to a guaranteed $15 billion for the MTA’s five-year capital plan. This money would lessen the MTA’s need to borrow and then fund borrowing through fare revenue. Less than 2% of the state budget should go toward MTA capital improvements. But that’s not what happened.
As I explored shortly after the budget passed, the MTA didn’t get much out of it except for some funding earmarked toward future phases of the Second Ave. Subway and, apparently, a vague promise to approve the capital plan following a second round of amendments. Meanwhile, Cuomo has promised to fund a sliver of the MTA’s current five-year, $28 billion capital plan only when the agency has exhausted all other revenue streams. To that end, no one expects the MTA to realize any of this money until the mid-2020s, and Cuomo has insidiously allowed the MTA to raise its debt ceiling. Thus the agency can borrow even more before the state’s obligations to pony up a few billion dollars come due.
Over at NY1, Zack Fink broke the story:
After staying up all night, the New York State Senate finally voted on the last budget bills before 9 a.m. Friday. One of those bills raised the debt ceiling for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), allowing the agency to borrow up to $55 billion. “What kind of message does that send, that we’re allowing one state authority to issue more debt than the entire state of New York is allowed to?” said State Assembly Member Nicole Malliotakis of Staten Island and Brooklyn. “It’s going to lead in the future to higher tolls, fares, and service cuts.”
…Observers said the new MTA debt ceiling explains how Cuomo will fund the agency’s ambitious capital program construction, which includes East Side Manhattan access to the Long Island Rail Road and the Second Avenue Subway. “Cuomo said he’s going to give $8.3 billion to MTA; he only showed up with $1 billion,” said Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute. “And so where is he going to get the rest of this money? Obviously there’s your answer.”
Critics say commuters will ultimately get hit with the bill. “Somebody has to pay for this. The MTA already has budget gaps over the next several years, so people’s fares and tolls will go up to pay for all this debt,” Gelinas said. “It’s just that the governor probably expects that this will happen after he leaves office.”
It is my understanding that the MTA’s debt will come in the form of so-called moral obligation bonds and not general obligations bonds. Thus, if the MTA defaults on its bond obligations in order to force bondholders to the table, the state will not step in to cover any outstanding debt service payments. In other words, by hook or by crook, we the subway and bus riders of New York City (along with the Metro-North and LIRR riders and those paying bridge and tunnel tolls) are stuck with mounting debt and mounting debt service obligations that would put more pressure on fares and the MTA’s ability to provide and expand service. That’s Gov. Cuomo’s New York.
Meanwhile, the Governor has promised upstate drivers parity and breaks on New York State Thruway tolls. It seems unlikely that they will be saddled with debt this high that could be easily avoided for a small percentage of the overall budget. Cuomo too has proposed a series of transit projects that aren’t in line with what the city needs. He’s singularly focused on improving the way people enter and exit New York City rather than on improving how they get around New York City once they’re here, and even some ideas — such as the Willets Point Laguardia AirTrain — are worse than doing nothing.
It’s easy to saddle future generations of New Yorkers who will never have the opportunity to vote for Cuomo or the current batch of legislators will the debt that arises out of transit ideas built today, whether they’re good or bad ideas, and that is exactly what our politicians have done. It’s a devious way to make decisions that affect us all for decades to come.
Installing wifi at all underground subway stations by the end of the year; bringing mobile ticketing to the LIRR and Metro-North within six months and a form of contactless payment to the subways by 2018; completing B Division countdown clocks by 2018; speeding up station rehabilitation work and overhauling the look and feel of our subway stations — all are noble goals and all were part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s agenda for improving the MTA and attracting more New Yorkers to mass transit. But following a press event high on lofty rhetoric about increasing transit use, the proposal seemed to indicate that the governor doesn’t understand exactly what the city’s pressing transit needs are.
After spending a week criss-crossing the state, announcing a spate of infrastructure projects that will affect New York for the next decade, if not longer, Cuomo found himself Friday morning out of his element. The last stop on his whirlwind tour was the Transit Museum, a perfect monument to best laid plans that often go awry. During Friday’s announcement, Gov. Cuomo played headliner to MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast’s undercard. In a later press gaggle, Cuomo admitted he doesn’t take the subway as often as he used to and explained that he’s “not an expert an international expert on the best transit systems.” He has consultants who are, he noted.
He unequivocally said that mass transit growth is the way forward for downstate New York growth, but he made these statements amidst a monument both to New York City past and to a future that never was. After all, the Transit Museum lives in a 1930s-era subway station that was supposed to be the Brooklyn portal for a Second Ave. Subway still not completed. What better place to try to hold back a flood by sticking a proverbial finger into a dike?
The MTA investments Cuomo and Prendergast announced are badly needed for purposes of modernity and will improve MTA operations. If Cuomo can prod the MTA to complete a series of seemingly stalled technological improvements the MTA has been trying to launch for a decade or more, his program will be judged a success. But as with the Penn Station plans, without an ongoing and far-reaching commitment to expand transit capacity, these subway projects too will look like political lipstick for our proverbial pig.
So what, you may be wondering, of the plans themselves? In addition to state support for the MTA’s five-year, $28 billion capital plan, Cuomo ushered in a series of other improvements. Here they are:
Wi-Fi At All Underground Stations By The End of the Year
The MTA and Transit Wireless have installed service at around half of all underground stations, and the rollout for the other half was supposed to wrap in 2017. Now, that timeline will be accelerated so full underground connectivity will be achieved by the end of this year. Tunnels will not be wired, but riders waiting for their trains will be able to takes calls and connect to the Internet at every underground station.
Mobile Payment and Ticketing Initiatives
We’ve heard about the MTA’s Metrocard replacement efforts for years, and while the wheels are spinning, the ball isn’t moving forward. Now, Cuomo and Prendergast say the subways will begin accepting contactless payment system in 2018. Renderings show a QR code-based reader that isn’t exactly a cutting edge technology, and Prendergast later noted to reporters that this reader system may be an interim solution on the way to a full overhaul of the fare payment technology. Until we know more about this plan, I’m not convinced it’s the right approach, let alone a cure-all, to an ongoing problem. Metro-North and the LIRR will offer mobile ticketing by the end of the year — so I assume Cuomo is confident he can solve the labor problems that have been a barrier to implementation on the LIRR.
Countdown Clocks on the B Division
Countdown clocks — and the lack thereof in many stations — took center stage, and Prendergast said the MTA would wrap installation of B Division (that is, the lettered subway lines) countdown clocks by the end of 2018. Cuomo’s subsequent press release hedged on the date and simply said the MTA will “accelerate” installation but didn’t include a timeline. This is a promise from the MTA to continue to do what it has long said it would do but perhaps on a faster timeline maybe.
Other Technological Improvements
Cuomo and Prendergast also announced a laundry list of other proposals focused around “improving the customer experience.” These include USB charging ports on subway cars and new buses, wifi-enabled buses, and additional digital information screens including more On The Go kiosks and Help Point intercoms.
A New Focus on Station Rehabilitation Efforts
Finally, in a move that generated a lot of questions, the MTA announced a new approach to station rehabilitation efforts. Instead of stop-and-start weekend work and only partial closures, the MTA, at the request of its contractors, will close stations for concentrated periods of time to speed up the timing and efficiency of station work. Inspired by the Montague Tube work and in conjunction with its contractors, the MTA feels it can be more efficient in this system repair work by closing stations for weeks (or months) at a time rather than suffering through years of weekend diversions. In fact, the agency does this now, but usually only at stations around the edges.
Tom Prendergast discussed this focused effort. “In many cases the customers say its better that for 6-8 weeks, I need to do something different rather than for 42 weeks on weekends and nights our lives are totally disrupted,” he said.
As part of this effort, the MTA will tackle 30 stations over the next three-to-five years. Most will be finished by 2018 with a few trickling into 2020. It’s not clear whether these are in addition to the 20 stations identified in the five-year capital plan or encompass those 20 stations that were due for rehab work. In conjunction with this work, the MTA will “revamp the design guidelines for subway stations to improve their look and feel” and implement this new plan at these 30 stations. The plans will include “cleaner, brighter stations [that will] be easier to navigate, with better and more intuitive wayfinding, as well as a modernized look and feel.” Considering these stations are all single- or side-track platforms that aren’t hard to modernize, this philosophy sounds better tailored to overhauling transfer points or big hubs, but a fresh look is a welcome development.
Already, New Yorkers in Astoria and Clinton Hill, to name a few neighborhoods, are worried that station closures will negatively affect their rides, and in part, there is no way around this work. But this should limit disruptions to concentrated time periods, and Prendergast said the MTA is “not just shutting elements of system without worrying about impacts.” Thus, adjacent stations won’t be closed at the same time, and riders may have to use a station a few blocks away than they’d like.
Why I’m Disappointed
Despite these announcements and continued investment in the capital plan, though, I found Friday’s announcements lacking, and if we dive into Cuomo’s words, we find a disconnect between what he’s saying and what he’s doing and investing in. Here are some of Cuomo’s words from his prepared remarks:
“Number one: reliability. Number one: when the trains says it’s coming at 12:07. You know what that means? It means the train has to come at 12:07. Not 12:08, not 12:10, not 12 – 12:07! Its reliability, first. Accessibility, second. Third: the comforts that we expect. I don’t wasn’t to get in a train and feel like a sardine for an hour and a half on the way to work. I don’t want to do that. I want to be able to sit in the seat, I want to be able to listen to my music, I want to be able to make the telephone call, connected to Wi-Fi….
And that is what we are going to do with the MTA, 30 stations put them out all at once, design build whole new station, let people walk in there and say, “Wow, this is the MTA.” This is the train station – amazing. Yes, we can. We do what we need to do at the MTA, it will drive a different New York, it will allow a growth and an expansion that far exceeds anyone’s expectations, because it is the future. The transportation system determines the economic growth of the future. When they designed this system originally, they had 1 million riders, they designed it for 10 million riders. Look at the foresight, we now have to expand on that vision, and it all comes back to the MTA. We are going to do it.”
In the press gaggle after the event, Cuomo expanded on this vision. “The MTA system has to be better than it is today. It has to be more reliable, more comfortable. We want people getting out of cars and into mass transit, and we have to make that as easy as possible,” he said. “We’re not going to grow downstate with people getting into cars and commuting. We’re not going to build more roads and we shouldn’t build more roads” in the New York City area.
These are all noble goals that should be at the forefront of New York City transit and transportation planning, but none of what Cuomo announced on Friday accomplishes these goals. Riders want wifi but riders also want space on the subway and more frequent trains that go to more places. When the MTA wraps work on the Second Ave. Subway this year, its only remaining big-ticket capital project will be East Side Access, a project that does nothing to expand the reach of the subway system. If Cuomo is intent on delivering a reliable system that “allow[s] a growth and an expansion that far exceeds anyone’s expectations,” USB charging stations and countdown clocks won’t bridge that gap. Knowing that my train is 12 minutes away doesn’t make it emptier or faster.
So, yes, the MTA deserves some praise for trying to get out of its own way on technology upgrades, and reenvisioning the station environment is long overdue. (London’s new Design Idiom could be a constructive starting point.) Streamlining station rehabilitations too is praise-worthy, but the lofty rhetoric of improving public transit and increasing modeshare doesn’t align with USB chargers and wifi as the headliners. What we would need is a firm commitment to lowering construction costs to better align with international standards, a firm commitment to future phases of the Second Ave. Subway and a firm commitment to improving outer borough connectivity (such as Triboro RX, a Utica Ave. Subway, a connection to Staten Island or countless other projects that have been suggested and studied over the years).
Additionally, paying for all of these initiatives remains up in the air. Cuomo indicated that the MTA’s capital plan will be funded, in part, via debt, and the agency is sinking further into a debt black hole that will drive up costs borne by riders. It too is an untenable situation that will eventually undermine Cuomo’s rhetoric of increasing ridership and reach.
A few times this week during his New York tour, Cuomo referenced Robert Moses as part of his inspiration. He wants to build and get something done. He wants to be known as a governor who could accomplish things. But his words should give us pause. His philosophy, he said, is based getting things done, with less regard for long-term goals and more for ribbon-cutting. “Did you build a new station? Did you build a new bridge? Did you build a new tunnel?, he said” “That’s how they’re going to judge you.” Turning on wifi a few months earlier than planned is a pleasant surprise, but it sure isn’t a new subway line, more frequent service or all that transformative no matter what the governor says.
With apologies to Michael Grynbaum…
A few months after moving into Gracie Mansion, Mayor Bill de Blasio approached his transportation commissioner with a question: How do we fix the Lexington Ave. I.R.T.?
An undulating, unloved subway route underneath the East Side, the Lexington Ave. I.R.T. has long been known for overcrowded subway cars, slowdowns and delays. “I certainly experienced it constantly,” Mr. de Blasio, who commutes to City Hall from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, said on Monday. “It just wasn’t in an acceptable state of repair for the greatest city in the world.”
Now the mayor, along with 1.3 million other travelers who take the subway line each day, is set to enjoy a smoother ride. An $8.5 million [Ed. note: Ha!] revamp of the subway line from 125th Street to the Brooklyn Bridge will be completed this week, with city officials billing the achievement as the subway line’s first end-to-end overhaul since its completion in 1918.
Mr. de Blasio, at a ceremony on Monday, stood on the platform at Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall as 4, 5 and 6 trains zipped along the tracks, rustling his orange windbreaker. “This was always a bad route in terms of crowds, delays, etc.,” the mayor said, although he noted that his personal “subway from hell” remained the R train, “which is still burned into my memory.”
A onetime railfan, now accompanied on the subway by a police detail, the mayor said he recalled his days looking out the front window fondly. He was also asked if his own travels had helped make the Lexington Ave. I.R.T. a priority in a new citywide transit improvement effort. “I’ve certainly experienced it,” the mayor said. “But, again, we’ve heard complaints about this one for a long, long time.”
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Meanwhile, back in de Blasio’s New York, here’s what this article about the mayor’s press conference earlier on Monday actually says, under the headline “Mayor de Blasio Promotes Smoother Ride on F.D.R. Drive”:
A few months after moving into Gracie Mansion, Mayor Bill de Blasio approached his transportation commissioner with a question: How do we fix the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive?
An undulating, unloved route along the East River, the F.D.R. Drive has long been known for potholes, slowdowns and backups. “I certainly experienced it constantly,” Mr. de Blasio, who commutes to City Hall from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, said on Monday. “It just wasn’t in an acceptable state of repair for the greatest city in the world.”
Now the mayor, along with 150,000 other travelers who take the road each day, is set to enjoy a smoother ride. An $8.5 million revamp of the drive from 125th Street to the Brooklyn Bridge will be completed this week, with city officials billing the achievement as the road’s first end-to-end resurfacing since its completion in 1966.
Mr. de Blasio, at a ceremony on Monday, stood on the safe side of a guardrail as traffic zipped along the drive, rustling his orange windbreaker. “This was always a bad road in terms of potholes, bumps, etc.,” the mayor said, although he noted that his personal “road from hell” remained the Cross Bronx Expressway, “which is still burned into my memory.”
A onetime Ford Escape enthusiast, now driven around by a police detail, the mayor said he recalled his motoring days fondly. He was also asked if his own travels had helped make the F.D.R. Drive a priority in a new citywide repaving effort. “I’ve certainly experienced it,” the mayor said. “But, again, we’ve heard complaints about this one for a long, long time.”
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This is not to say that de Blasio shouldn’t focus on the management side of his job, and after I took a few recent trips down the F.D.R. Drive in recent months, it was clear the road needed some work. But imagine — just imagine — if the mayor had the same pride in fixing subway issues and restoring the grandeur of the subway system to its proper place in the New York City transportation hierarchy.
About the F.D.R. on Monday, de Blasio said, “I certainly experienced it constantly. It just wasn’t in an acceptable state of repair for the greatest city in the world.” There’s no small amount of irony in that statement.
Lately, I’ve grown very frustrated with the 6 train. It’s slow; it’s crowded; it suffers from uneven headways and bunching. I’ve certainly experienced these problems constantly, and the 6 — local service along our city’s most crowded trunk line — just isn’t in an acceptable state of repair for the greatest city in the world. Imagine if the Mayor cared that much but about the subways — and everyone else’s ride to work — instead of just his own.
It’s a bit of a simplification and injustice to a complicated time in New York history to say that the MTA’s founding in 1968 was driven by politics. It was, as students of the Empire State’s past know, part of a ploy to dump Robert Moses from his position of power atop the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. The real decision to remove the subways, its funding and fares from the purview of electoral politics really came in the mid-1950s with the founding of the New York City Transit Authority. But that’s neither here nor there as we come today not to praise the MTA but to bury it.
The New York City Transit Authority began in 1953 as a public benefit corporation of the State of New York, and the MTA died in late July of 2015. It’s exact time of death is hard to pinpoint, but it came at around noon on Wednesday when Gov. Andrew Cuomo determined that the MTA wasn’t a state agency and noted, as a symptom or a cause or even just a non-sequitur, that the apparently now former-agency headquarters aren’t in Albany.
— Kate Hinds (@katehinds) July 29, 2015
I may or may not be employing a fair bit of hyperbole to make a point, but either way, it’s worth delving into how exactly we got here. The latest round of capital funding politicking came this week. After Cuomo vowed state funding to cover the MTA’s $9 billion capital gap so long as the city ponies up more money too, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast penned a letter to the mayor’s office asking for money. He defended what he feels is a modest request:
As to the assertion that the State runs the MTA and the City’s representation is not adequate, I should note that of the 17 voting members of the MTA Board, four are designated by the Mayor and six by the Governor. When the City faced its financial crisis and lacked the resources to restore a crumbling system, the MTA brought it back from the brink of collapse, restoring ridership and rebuilding it into one of the best and most extensive public transit systems in the world. And while the City fiscal crisis that necessitated the State provide the majority of the MTA’s public funding has long passed, we have never recalculated the responsibility for financing an authority that principally serves the city. Today, the City has greater surplus funds than the State.
We are also concerned that the public might be misled by the suggestion that New York City government is already paying more significantly toward MTA operating costs or that the need for recurring capital investment on a large scale is, as First Deputy Mayor Shorris suggested, “a reflection of the failure of the MTA governance model.” MTA revenues from New York City residents who use the system are substantial for the obvious reason that use of MTA services is profoundly greater in NYC than in other parts of the MTA service area. To illustrate, trips on NYC Transit, Staten Island Railway and MTA Bus services average 300 trips per resident per year. For the commuter railroads, the intensity of use is less than one-tenth that…just 29 trips per resident on average…
The direct City aid to the MTA’s operating costs in 2015 is $1.88 billion, or 27%. State subsidies will total $4.73 billion or 69%. It is my view that the MTA, an independent authority created by the State and operating with a governance structure that has seen minimal change since its origins in the late 1960s, has well served both the City of New York and the MTA region. In other words, we believe that the MTA governance model and New York City’s representation in MTA decisions have over the decades worked very much to the City’s benefit.
Unfortunately, Prendergast’s letter [pdf] ended on a down note concerning potential revenue sources. “Finally,” he said, “I have read that the City may pursue funding strategies that were not politically feasible in the past and are not likely politically feasible now. Pursuing these strategies would likely cause further delay and leave the MTA exactly where we are today one year from now.” So basically Prendergast wants more money from the city but doesn’t want that money to come out of sustainable transportation policies involving a traffic pricing plan. Alas.
Meanwhile, de Blasio has responded with something of a shrug, noting that the city has already commited more money this year and that he wants to know where the state money will come from before committing city resources. He has also hinted, through spokespeople and subordinates, that he feels the MTA is a state agency and that the city doesn’t have the responsibility without control. If that’s not a direct challenge to the 60-year political and economic structure of the New York City Transit Authority, I don’t know what is.
So then, is the MTA dead? Andrew Cuomo has essentially disavowed it as a state agency at the same time Bill de Blasio notes that the New York City subways aren’t New York City’s responsibility while the MTA’s head has to go begging to politicians via publicly released letters to fund the whole damn thing. It would seem then that the MTA is an orphan with no adults taking responsibility. It’s dead.
Or is it? The MTA was created to insulate subway fare policies from the electorate. The Board of Estimates would never win reelection if it kept approving subway fare hikes, but the subways were collapsing due to a lack of revenue from decades of fares that weren’t targeted to inflation. By creating a public benefit corporation, the state ensured that elected politicians never had to approve a fare hike and that the public could direct its ire on rising prices and declining service at appointees and bureaucrats rather than elected representatives.
So maybe I’m wrong. The MTA hasn’t died. Rather in 2015, the MTA has become the perfect embodiment of its founders’ dreams. No one has to take any responsibility for transit funding schemes and the trains will, more or less, still run somewhat on time. Cuomo and de Blasio may both win while the millions of New Yorkers who rely on the MTA’s various railroads for their daily commutes will all collectively lose.