Archive for MTA Politics
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.”
* * *
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.”
* * *
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.
Back in October of 2010, then-gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo let slip a few words on the MTA and transit funding. It was a rare moment of transportation candor for a candidate who hadn’t even acknowledged the MTA existed throughout much of the summer, and his comments then certainly ring true through his actions today. Without giving details on sources of transit funding, he said, “There’s going to be a number of revenue raisers. The instinct is going to be to say ‘more money more money more money.’ I understand that. Part of the discipline I want to bring is a fiscal discipline to the state and the MTA. The answer can’t always be more money.”
Flash-forward five years to today. The MTA is mired in another economic crisis, this one on the capital side, and after years of doing nothing, Cuomo is still simply doing nothing. Funding proposals, some more politically challenging than others, are awaiting action, but the Governor is content simply to parrot himself. In comments earlier today, Cuomo reiterated his tried-and-true line. The MTA’s problems, he said, will not be addressed with “more money more money more money.” Considering that the MTA’s problems are a distinct lack of money, it’s bold to shoot down the end result before even tackling how to get there, but that’s Cuomo for one.
On the one hand, Cuomo is accidentally right. The solution to the MTA’s problems shouldn’t just be only more money; it should also involve an aggressive attempt at getting capital construction costs under control through some combination of union-focused work-rule reform, a better bidding process and a concerted effort to understand why transit construction costs in New York City are exponentially greater than anywhere else in the developed world. But on the other hand, the solution will involve more money, and Cuomo’s new-found fiscal restraint is stunning considering his past actions.
As recently as April of 2014, the MTA had a chance to address some of the sources of its rampant costs as negotiations with the TWU over a new contract lingered unresolved, but Cuomo needed the support of labor in what was then his reelection campaign. So, by all accounts, as is his wont as the agency’s ultimate boss, he pushed the MTA to accepte a contract very favorable to its workers. The MTA exacted no work-rule reform or other staffing concessions that could have led to cost savings. Now, faced with a $15 billion gap, Cuomo’s answer is to withhold funding or any solution.
I’m not keen on giving the MTA a pure blank check for capital costs without reform, but Cuomo’s faux come-to-Jesus moment on the MTA’s cost woes is 18 months and a few billion dollars too late. Plus, he needs a new line. “More money more money more money” is going to be the answer in the end.
I’ve written extensively about Governor Cuomo’s attitude toward the subways. A self-proclaimed car guy, Cuomo doesn’t seem to understand the importance a healthy transit network plays in the growth and sustainability of New York City and its effect on the New York State economy. And so Cuomo has been unwilling to listen to advocate call for solutions to the MTA’s capital funding gap, and the fear of massive fare hikes or service cuts loom large while low-hanging fruit, such as the Move New York plan, are left in limbo.
To draw attention to the MTA’s funding plights and the pressure record ridership is placing on the system, the Riders Alliance has previously invited Cuomo for a rush-hour subway ride, and the governor has met the invitation with silence. So the advocates took matters into their own hands and dragged Cuomo — or at least a facsimile of him — onto the subway. Take a look at Streetsfilm’s accompanying video. It is an excellent piece of theatrical advocacy. If only the real Cuomo were paying any attention.
Meanwhile, there are weekend changes on every line except the Shuttles and the G train. They follow after the jump. Read More→
Thanks to a confluence of circumstances — including some holdover appointees and others schedule to expire — this week witnessed a flurry of MTA Board appointees. While none have been announced officially, it’s clear now who Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo have tabbed for the board, and their appointees betray a transit divide.
Early in the week, Gov. Cuomo nominated his buddies. He named former aide Lawrence Schwartz and Peter Ward, head of the New York Hotel & Motel Trades Council, to the Board. Neither have any transit experience to speak of, but both are what some with less diplomacy might call cronies of the governor. Much as he did with the Port Authority, the governor has appointed his friends and allies to a board with particular importance to the region’s transit system.
Meanwhile, although Bill de Blasio hasn’t seemed to grasp the importance of transit to New York’s success and, in particular, his affordable housing initiative, he at least has people whispering sweet somethings about MTA Board appointees. The Mayor named City Council Transportation Committee Chairman Ydanis Rodriguez, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s Director Veronica Vanterpool and community leader David Jones to the Board.
So who are all of these appointees replacing? de Blasio’s picks will fill one vacant seat and replace John Banks and Jeffrey Kay, two holdovers from the Bloomberg Administration, giving the mayor control over his four seats. The governor’s men have earned a more skeptical look from the transit-erati as Ward is replacing Allen Cappelli. The Staten Island native, and one-time Carl McCall campaign guru, has been an outspoken supporter and defender of transit. He understands the need to fund the capital campaign and, as a Paterson appointee, hasn’t fallen in line with the Cuomo party line of seemingly pretending not to know what the MTA is. Cappelli says he wanted to be appointed, and Staten Island pols say that, contrary to tradition, they weren’t consulted. But them’s the politics these days. When the MTA Board meets next, it will look quite different indeed.
So, did you miss me? There’s nothing like coming back with some bad news.
Since I’ve last had an opportunity to write up more than just the weekend service changes and a kitschy YouTube video on subway delays, I’ve been to Berlin, Stockholm, Chicago and Boston. I’ve ridden on a variety of transit systems, some better and more integrated than others, and I’ve had a whirlwind month of May as I prepare for my wedding in less than two weeks. I’ve missed a good amount of transit news too, and I’ll try to recap everything that’s happened in my absence, as well as provide some thoughts on those other systems I rode, over the next few days. Still, despite the three-week gap, the big story — the MTA’s 2015-2019 capital plan — may in fact be worse for the wear than it was before I left.
The sad reality is that, as June dawns and New York’s lawmakers gear up to end their 2015 legislative session, Albany is unlikely to address the gaping $14 billion hole in the MTA’s capital plan. This utter failure in leadership comes amidst a period of record subway ridership and clear signs that the MTA needs support to both keep pace with demand and continue to grow to meet future needs. So far, the details on this development are slim, but Kenneth Lovett, the Daily News’ Albany bureau chief had a brief report on this latest development.
New York state leaders are set to slam the brakes on the cash-strapped MTA’s push to fill a $14 billion hole in its $32 billion capital plan, the Daily News has learned. Several lawmakers say the political will is not there to address the issue before the legislative session ends later this month.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been looking for help from state, federal and city governments as well as the private sector. The agency says failure to fully fund the 2015-2019 capital plan could imperil such projects as the next phase of the Second Ave. subway line construction, improvements to rails, switches and stations, and the purchase of new subway and commuter trains.
MTA officials vowed to continue to press for the needed funding. “This is the highest priority for the MTA and we’re going to continue pushing it with everyone we can,” agency spokesman Adam Lisberg said. MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast and other agency officials have been meeting regularly with Gov. Cuomo’s office and members of the Legislature to try to come up with a plan to fill the $14 billion gap. But they’ve been unable to get the issue placed on the front burner of the end-of-session agenda.
If the political will isn’t there now, it’s hard to see just when the will may arise. There’s been growing support for the Move New York fair tolling plan — support that hasn’t materialized since the now-disgraced Sheldon Silver torpedoed then-Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan in a closed-door session in 2008. Plus, in April, James Brennan had seemingly prepared to put forward his own plan to fund the capital program through gas and income tax increases and more contributions to the city. (City contributions remain a very controversial issue as the MTA, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Comptroller Scott Stringer have been duking it out in recent weeks, but more on that in a day or two.) None of these efforts have led anywhere, and the city’s 8 million daily bus and subway riders will be left with an uncertain future.
For now, the MTA’s ongoing projects aren’t in jeopardy. Nearly all were funded under previous capital plans, and the agency can still tap PAYGO resources, albeit at higher interest rates than otherwise would be available if Albany were to act. But down the road, if Albany continues to fail to find the political will to address the imperative needs of a majority of New York City residents and workers, the MTA will have to turn to fare hikes, service cuts and scaled-back plans. That means no future phases of the Second Ave. Subway, no MetroCard replacement and no signal system upgrades while the Mayor can forget about his unfunded plan for a Utica Ave. subway.
It’s not surprising to hear Albany suffer from a lack of political will. Over the past few months, the state’s Assembly Speaker and Senate Majority Leader were arrested in corruption probes; the governor doesn’t show much outward support for transit; and the mayor has his security team drive him from the Upper East Side to Park Slope so he can go to the gym. While voting constituents need the subways, politicians who drive at a rate disproportionate to the electorate don’t understand the role the transit system plays in the city’s current and future success. So here we are in June, no closer to answer to a giant gap than we were in March, January or last November. The more things change indeed.
When Bill de Blasio ran for mayor on a populist platform, he didn’t spend much time talking about transit. On one hand, that was by design. As the city has long ago ceded real control over MTA funding to the state, local politicians don’t feel the need to campaign on or do much to support the subway system. On the other hand, de Blasio wasn’t a subway guy. As a long-serving elected official, he drove everywhere. He didn’t — and still doesn’t — understand what the subways mean to the everyday lives of New Yorkers.
This political problem reared its head in early April when, with good intentions, de Blasio drove from the Upper East Side to Brooklyn in order to take a 20-minute subway ride designed to drum up support for federal transit funding. Yet, the Mayor took a lot of flak for his stunt because it was so blatantly just that. Instead of offering up more city money first and putting his money where his mouth was, de Blasio used a subway ride to earn some political points.
This week, the Mayor’s transit problem reared its head again in two distinct, but perhaps related, stories. First, on the day de Blasio’s team unveiled a budget that included a whopping $25 million increase in MTA capital funding — all the way up to $125 million — MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast made the case for even more funding. Relying on a recent Independent Budget Office study that garnered a lot of attention, Prendergast asked for at least $300 million annually and urged the city to contribute at least $1 billion to the next phase of the Second Ave. Subway.
Noting that “the role of the city’s mass transit system is historical and obvious,” Prendergast said today is “the right time for the City to acknowledge the need for significantly increased investment” in transit. “We believe the City must share in the cost of projects needed to ease current ridership growth and the system enhancements and expansion needed to address further growth,” the MTA chief wrote. “An example of such an investment — similar to the role played by the city in the extension of the 7 line to the west side — is the construction of the Second Avenue Subway line. We suggest the appropriate level of City investment in Second Avenue is a minimum of $1.0 billion over the five-year capital plan.”
In a subsequent exchange on Twitter between Adam Lisberg, the top MTA spokesman, and Amy Spitalnick, a top mayoral aide, Spitalnick accused the MTA of moving the goalposts. “We decided to fully meet MTA’s request. Our budget went to print. Then MTA moves the goal posts,” she said, defending the low amount. Of course, advocacy groups have called upon the city to fund at the $300 million level for months, but that again speaks to transit as a priority.
With this ongoing battle over funding as the backdrop, the Mayor on Monday “accidentally” sent an email to a Times reporter bemoaning a long subway wait. He supposedly left just 15 minutes to wait for an A or C train, travel from Canal St. to 34th St. and get somewhere on time. The Mayor, known for his tardiness, supposedly found himself waiting for over 20 minutes before dashing off the email in a huff. For what it’s worth, the mayor is always late, and there’s no record of a delay in the MTA’s text alert longs. That’s not a definitive listing of all subway problems, but New Yorkers have a long history of fudging MTA delays as excuses for tardiness. Just ask anyone who’s arrived at work 20 minutes late for an important meeting.
The Mayor’s optics problem is that in his email he noted that “we need a better system” regarding subway delay notifications and that it is “a fixable problem.” Of course it is, and all it requires is some political and economic support, but the mayor’s tardiness again pushed a real issue — transit funding — off the front pages. Meanwhile, local pols are trying to look everywhere but here for support, and the MTA may be a pawn in the ongoing de Blasio-Cuomo feud. But the truth is that populism and capitalism and economic growth in New York — from affordable housing to a vibrant and competitive job market — relies on the subway. The sooner our politicians digest this reality, the sooner we can move beyond petty tiffs and discuss real funding solutions.
Due to the fact that the MTA has burned through leaders at a rate of nearly one per year over the last six years, Tom Prendergast, on the job only for two years, was nearing the end of the current six-year term when news broke this morning that Gov. Andrew Cuomo plans to reappoint him. The Governor let the word drop this morning during a breakfast speech in front of the Association for a Better New York, and in comments Prendergast made to the press later in the day, the MTA chief received the word the same way the rest of us did — through breaking news straight from Cuomo’s mouth at the breakfast. Now, the MTA may get some much-needed stability at a time when it’s searching for an even more badly-needed $15 billion in capital funding.
Thanks to politicking and such, Prendergast’s current term is actually the end of Jay Walder’s six-year appointment. That term began in 2009 when Lee Sander and Dale Hemmerdinger were forced out, and the bifurcated MTA Executive Director and MTA Board Chair positions were merged. Walder gave way to Joe Lhota, and City Hall ambitions led Lhota to step down. Now, Prendergast, 62, will get his own six-year term and the opportunity to leave a lasting mark on the MTA. Advocated had endorsed this move in March, and I think it’s a good one. I’ll have more once Cuomo puts out the official word; the Governor’s full speech is available on YouTube.
In a bill some (OK, so far, just me) have called “underwhelming” and the “bare minimum of support for public transit,” the City Council passed a measure this week requiring NYC DOT to . . . write a report about Bus Rapid Transit and submit it to them in two years. DOT will have to update this report every few years and maybe implement some of the bus routes they identify in the report. But whether these are bus rapid transit routes, Select Bus Service or some watered down version of everything remains to be seen.
OK, OK. Perhaps I’m being a bit too cynical. Perhaps I’m predisposed to think anything short of monetary and policy support in the face of loud protests from drivers and inanities from vocal Community Board members have led me to view City Council through a biased lens, but perhaps I’m not so far off. At a time when transit advocates are struggling to drum up support for anything related to the MTA’s capital plan or an expansion of our transit network and a time when the subways are sagging under the demands of record ridership, the City Council’s measure, two years in the making, strikes me as something that should have been implemented a decade ago.
Here’s what the legislation does:
- DOT has to consult with the MTA. (n.b. DOT already consults with the MTA.)
- DOT has to issue a report by September 1, 2017 identifying areas of New York that need BRT (all of them), strategies for serving growth areas, potential additional inter- or intra-borough BRT corridors that may be established by 2027 (ambitious!), strategies for integration with the current bus network, and costs.
- Every two years thereafter, DOT has to provide status updates on implementation and explain why DOT deviated if it did. No word if “whiny Community Board members who can’t sacrifice 30 seconds of their drive to Vermont” is a valid excuse.
When you consider that Brad Lander first introduced this bill back in 2013, it’s amazing that anything gets done with regards to transit in a city that sees a combined 8 million bus and subway rides per day. That this is some crowning achievement is telling. And therein lies in the rub and the source of my skepticism. This move essentially codifies DOT’s current practice, but it does nothing to speed up implementation of BRT or SBS routes. It certainly doesn’t encourage best practices — proof of payment throughout the system or pre-board fare payment on every popular route. It also doesn’t bolster DOT’s efforts at overcoming minority resistance to a better bus network.
Over at Streetsblog, Stephen Miller picked up on that latter point as while City Council passed this toothless bill, DOT trimmed back plans for a BRT/SBS corridor through Kew Gardens to Flushing over concerns from a very loud minority. He summarized the problem in a few sentences:
Meanwhile, Miller’s neighboring council member, Rory Lancman, can claim victory in his fight against Flushing-Jamaica Select Bus Service. At a meeting of the Kew Gardens Hills Civic Association last night, DOT said it would not be adding bus lanes to Main Street in that neighborhood.
“We had a very productive community meeting last night,” said Lancman spokesperson Nadia Chait. “The council member found that in that situation the DOT and the MTA had really listened to the community.”
The city encountered vocal opposition to bus lanes from Lancman and Assembly Member Michael Simanowitz. Actual bus riders, however, seem to be missing from the discussion: At a public meeting about Flushing-Jamaica SBS earlier this year heavily attended by civic association members, most people said they rarely ride the bus.
This is a story repeated throughout the city. In Harlem, politicians afraid of losing a driving lane and those entrenched Community Board members claim a bus lane would affect traffic based on the fact that they drive through the area rather than based on traffic engineers’ studies. So tens of thousands of bus riders have longer rides while a few hundred drivers stand to benefit instead. That’s not how a city of transit riders excels or expands its network. But hey, at least we’ll read a bureaucrat’s report on this whole mess every two years. After all, that’s what the City Council demands.