Archive for MTA Politics
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.
Thursday morning was a big one for Mayor Bill de Blasio. He had his security detail drive him from Gracie Mansion all the way back to the Y on 9th St. near 6th Ave. in Park Slope because, apparently, the Mayor of New York City can’t find a gym on the Upper East Side. Then, he took the subway for 20 minutes from 4th Ave. and 9th St. all the way to City Hall as a way to put public pressure on Congress to pass a comprehensive federal transportation bill. It reeked of inauthenticity while drawing apathy and derision from New Yorkers and exposes a big divide between the Mayor’s words and his actions.
On its own, APTA’s #StandUp4Transportation day was a worthwhile initiative. Federal funds for transit initiatives serve a wide range of public good in the United States (and help sustain job growth as well), and it’s not a sure thing that the current Congress is going to pass a bill that will encourage and support local transit investment. To hear from local politicians and constituents will only help move Congress in the right direction.
But for de Blasio, the mayor of the city with the largest transit network and greatest use of transit in the nation, the approach was all wrong. Setting aside the fact that the mayor drives 10 miles to his gym, he came across as far too excited about a subway ride that’s routine for millions. He tweeted about it last night, Vined it this morning, and posed with Chuck Schumer a little later. It was a Big Day, drawing Times headlines, as the two rode the R train. (Meanwhile, millions of us take the train twice a day to and from work, and we all have to Stand Up 4 Transportation because the MTA can’t run enough trains to meet demand and allow for some available seats during rush hour. But I digress.)
In addition to his super exciting ride on the Sub-way, de Blasio penned a piece in amNew York yesterday. Again, it’s on the right track, but there’s a big “but” and I’ll get to that shortly. In urging Congress to act, he said, “We are making it clear that failure to invest in our subways, buses, roads and bridges is nothing less than failure to invest in our country’s future…As every commuter knows, if you are standing still, you are falling behind — and in terms of maintaining and building our transportation infrastructure, we are standing still… Without a strong federal partner, maintaining existing infrastructure and preparing for the future will be virtually impossible.”
The mayor isn’t wrong with his words, but he’s wrong with his actions. His current budget so far commits a $40 million a year to the MTA’s $6 billion per year capital plan — down from $100 million under Bloomberg. The Mayor claims he will up that amount when the budget is finalized and that $40 million is just a placeholder. Still, the city’s contributions are laughably low, and even at $100 million, the contributions wouldn’t nearly sufficient. As a recent IBO study found, had city contributions kept pace with inflation over the past 33 years, NYC would be contributing $363 million to the MTA’s capital budget — a still low amount but moving in the right direction.
Meanwhile, on the operations side, the picture is equally dismaying. The Student MetroCards, for example, run the MTA over $240 million a year. They are a way for the city to foist its obligations to provide transportation for its public school students onto the backs of the MTA and its riders, and even after a massive fight five years ago, the city’s contributions are still only $45 million — the same they’ve been since the late 1990s. Simply put, de Blasio’s New York isn’t doing its job funding transit operations or transit’s capital plans.
Ultimately, the problem with Thursday’s stunt is how it fooled no one. It came across as inauthentic because it was. De Blasio didn’t take the 4 train back uptown to Gracie Mansion, and come next week, he’ll drive back to the Park Slope Y for his daily workouts. In a city that relies so heavily on its subways to remain viable and prosperous, standing up for transit starts at home and shouldn’t just be a one-time event when the cameras are rolling. That, though, is what it’s become for de Blasio, Schumer and countless other New York politicians. At least they took the train yesterday — which is more than anyone can say for our governor.
By some counts, Tom Prendergast is the sixth person to head up the MTA in the time since I started this site back in November of 2006. Peter Kalikow was the MTA chairman then, and when his term expired, he was replaced by the two-headed leadership of Dale Hemmerdinger and Lee Sander. That pairing proved short-lived for political purposes, and Jay Walder took over in 2009 after Helen Williams served as the interim head. Amidst tense relationships with both the TWU and then-new Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Walder departed for Hong Kong, and Joe Lhota took over until he ran for mayor. Prendergast has served in the role since the start of 2013 — seemingly eternity for an MTA head.
In an ideal world, the MTA head would serve a full six-year term as Peter Stengl, Virgil Conway and Kalikow did. But the best laid plans often run afoul of politics, and the turmoil at the top has reverberated throughout the organization. Efforts at trimming the MTA fat have succeeded, but plans to, say, bring countdown clocks to the B Division haven’t progressed much. Now, the six-year term that began with Walder’s appointment in 2009 is set to expire at the end of June, and the governor hasn’t indicated if he plans to stick with Prendergast.
In a piece in today’s Daily News, Pete Donohue highlights statements from transit advocates and MTA Board members who wish to see Prendergast reappointed. Gene Russianoff called Prendergast “the perfect transit advocate for a system badly in need of adequate funding,” and others closely associated with the MTA offered similar support. “He’s a serious transportation professional who has brought tremendous stability and a forward-looking perspective to the MTA. I expect as long a tenure as possible, because God knows, as an institution, we’ve been hobbled by a succession of short-term chairmen,” Fernando Ferrar, the Board’s vice chair, said.
To me, it’s a no-brainer to reappoint Prendergast if he’s interested in sticking around. The MTA needs state support and leadership continuity to address a yawning $15.2 billion gap in the capital plan, and the Sandy recover efforts will continue, likely for the next 3-4 years. Prendergast has a good working relationship with the MTA’s unions and, to a greater degree than other recent MTA Chairs, the respect of enough representatives in Albany to be an effective champion for the agency. Cuomo shouldn’t wait until June or later to make a move here, but timely decisions relating to transit sadly do not appear to be on our governor’s agenda.
When I published my postmortems this week on the decision to halt subway service amidst the threat of snow and on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s LaGuardia AirTrain, I didn’t think I’d be revisiting those topics any time soon. I knew they would both be in the news, but I thought we could let them rest. I was wrong.
The Snow Plan
I’ll start with the snow plan. MTA head Tom Prendergast journeyed to Albany on Thursday to discuss the state of the MTA’s budget. He was there to lobby for the capital plan, but the talk turned to the snow. Since Prendergast is in the position — as we all are — of answer to his boss, he did his best yet again to defend the MTA’s reaction, but it’s been clear that Prendergast is out there as much to protect Cuomo as anything else.
At one point during the State Senate hearings, Prendergast discussed the reasons for the closure and decided to argue for public safety. “If people were inconvenienced,” he said, “that’s far better than somebody dying.” Of course, this ignores 110 years of New York City history in which no one has ever died in a snow storm walking to or from the subway, and it is in fact, as I’ve said, safer to keep trains running in a storm than shutting them down for the simple fact that some people will have to travel and should be accorded the respect to make the decision to go out in bad weather conditions.
But that’s an argument I’ve exhausted. I want to instead talk about the MTA’s plans. I had the chance to read the MTA’s 2014-2015 Winter Operations Plan. It contemplates running service in all kinds of weather from cold temperates (Plan I) to a declared snow emergency (Plan V). This is a 360-page document designed to maintain subway service through inclimate weather while working to ensure that no one is stranded.
On Tuesday — during a planned snow emergency — here’s what should have happened: The MTA would have moved trains from outdoor yards to underground express tracks while all service ran local. If conditions warranted, the agency could “order the orderly closing of lines to prevent incapacitated trains and uncertain travel plans for passengers.” As the plan notes, “if weather becomes too extreme…the Brighton, Sea Beach, West End, Dyre, Rockaway, Culver, and Canarsie lines will experience outages so that lines can be cleared and back to full service as soon as possible.”
This wasn’t some fly-by-night plan, and the idea, as some have put forth, that the public couldn’t handle on-the-fly service changes betrays the daily reality of service changes. It is, frankly, insulting to the public. With proper communication, people can get around relatively safely, and service changes are less confusion than stranding people miles from home. Ultimately, the MTA had a plan, and Cuomo made them deviate. We should understand why, and the explanation, which may very well be a political one, should be thorough.
Early on Thursday, the Daily News reported that the MTA may explore running trains in snowstorms. It’s a funny way to put it because the MTA already has a plan to run trains through serious snow storms. Prendergast and Cuomo could certainly reconsider the plan and implement a Plan VI shutdown that’s a bit more thought-out than Monday’s decision. Ultimately, they should remember though, as Glynnis MacNicol wrote, not everyone has the choice to stay home no matter how bad the weather gets.
The Cost of the LGA AirTrain
At the same public hearing up in Albany, Prendergast got to talking about the Governor’s plan for the LaGuardia AirTrain, and, oops!, it might cost more than $450 million. Prendergast mentioned under questioning that the $450 million was at the low end of a cost range, and that the upper bounds of the project’s budget is closer to $1 billion. It made little sense at $450 million; it makes no sense at $1 billion. And does anyone believe the MTA, the Port Authority or whichever other entity the State of New York tabs to build this thing would deliver it at under half a billion dollars? I don’t.
For more on the Albany hearing and Prendergast’s answers on the AirTrain costs, check out Dana Rubinstein and Jimmy Vielkind’s coverage at Capital New York. The MTA is trying not to come across as blind-sided by Cuomo’s proposal, but it seems clear that they were.
Let’s start today with a proposition: New York City didn’t get as much snow as initially expected, and the supposedly disappointing nature of the storm has clouded the commentary. That said, even if the city had gotten 20-30 inches, I contend that, with service properly curtailed in the right spots, the New York City subways could and should have operated as originally planned. This is a widely, but not entirely, accepted contention, but it’s one that gets to the heart of the role transit plays in city life and the MTA in planning transit.
The trouble, as we well know by now, started when Gov. Andrew Cuomo decided to shut the subway system late Monday night. He spent a little bit of time consulting with MTA leaders, but by all accounts, this was a decision he imposed upon the agency. It wasn’t part of their well-developed snow response plan, and it was one that was unprecedented in New York City history. As I discussed last night, before we knew the storm wouldn’t be as substantial as threatened, the subway system can withstand the weather so long as the proper precautions are implemented.
In the aftermath of Cuomo’s decision, the
Monday Tuesday Morning Quarterbacking has been nothing but blowback. We learned early on that Mayor Bill de Blasio — who admittedly has no political control over the subways — knew about the shutdown approximately 15 minutes before Cuomo announced it, if at all, and in a post on The Upshot on The Times’ website, Josh Barro delved into the economic costs of effectively closing down the city for a day. Barro explores the argument I made last night concerning a seeming overreaction to the storm, and he too feels that shutting down the subway should be implemented rarely and with great deliberation.
Meanwhile, WNYC’s Kate Hinds delved into the plans the MTA had at the ready. Her piece is informative and important as it highlights how the operations teams tasked with managing the subway were more prepared than the governor. She writes:
The MTA has a winter playbook it turns to when it comes to snowstorms, detailing just how much service it can safely provide. And speaking at a lunchtime press conference on Monday, as what looked like a blizzard bore down on the East Coast, the agency’s chief said it was time to put one piece of it into action. “We’re going to put a Plan V in effect,” MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast said, “which occurs when we have a storm of this magnitude.”
Plan V is meant to prevent debacles like the December 2010 storm which blanketed the city in 20 inches of snow. [After that storm, the MTA] revised and expanded its winter operations plan. According to that 360-page document, a copy of which was obtained by WNYC, Plan V governs operations during a declared snow emergency. To protect the fleet, subway cars are to be stored on underground express tracks, reducing service. Some lines which duplicate service, like the B or the Z trains, may be suspended. Lines that run outdoors — such as the N or the A lines in Brooklyn and Queens — may run less frequently. The plan also details specific crew actions, and even talks about where to position diesel trains in the event that a regular subway car gets stuck in the snow.
Plan V indicates how committed the MTA is to keeping subways running in the worst of winter weather. Since 2010, subway service has been occasionally disrupted during snow, but never completely shut down. And the system had never, in its 110-year history, been entirely closed because of snow until New York Governor Andrew Cuomo decided to on Monday.
The MTA’s eventual ex post excuses rang hollow because they were. As we’ve seen before, Tom Prendergast must stand by his boss, and he did that during a press conference Tuesday when he said closing the system allowed for a quicker restoration of services. That wasn’t a factor last winter when Transit implemented its severe weather policies, and it wouldn’t have been an issue this week even with 20 inches of snow. In response, the Straphangers Campaign has asked for some soul-searching. “What role,” they asked, “did Governor Andrew Cuomo and other non-MTA officials play in the decision to shut down the transit system?”
But, to return to my proposition, why should the subway run in bad weather? Because the city keeps running, even if at reduced speeds, and New Yorkers need to see that transit is a safe and reliable option when cars aren’t. Emergency workers and first responders need to get to their hospitals and firehouses and precinct houses. Low-wage workers who don’t have the benefit of taking a day off because it snowed need to get around. Cuomo’s move in fact made it more dangerous as people were left to trudge six or seven miles through the snow. That’s not, as I noted last night, how New York operates, and it’s not how the city and its subway is designed to operate. The system can weather the storm, and that’s a point that seems to be lost on the governor.
If Cuomo wanted the credit for responding to a Serious Weather Event, he has to take the blame too when his initial reaction was the wrong one. Giving him a pass would simply set the stage for another subway shutdown driven seemingly by long-term political concerns rather than short-term benefits to the eight million New Yorkers whose city never really sleeps.
Four years ago, when a huge winter storm socked New York City, the MTA and then-Gov. David Paterson, in the final few days of his tenure, got unlucky. For the first time in years, two subway trains — an N train in the Sea Beach line and an A train a few hundred yards outside of Howard Beach — were stranded for hours. Snow piled up; trains couldn’t move; lawsuits were filed. It was a political nightmare with the headlines to match. Since then, the MTA has tried to address bad weather events, and they have, by and large, succeeded.
The agency’s response to this worst-case scenario was to develop plans for various amounts of snow that largely maintained subway service. Generally, in blizzard conditions, all express service is curtailed so Transit can store trains underground, and service along the train lines that operate in open trenches rather than along elevated lines is curtailed. And you know what? It worked! Trains operated throughout most of the city, and no one was stranded in snowstorms. It required employees to clear elevated platforms, but the city could operate largely as normal.
And then today rolled around. It’s right now 11:30 p.m. on Monday, and the snow accumulations aren’t as severe as earlier forecasts predicted. Still, the worst of the blizzard is expected to hit while most of us are sleeping, and when we wake up in the morning, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx could have over two feet of snow on the ground while Manhattan and Staten Island may have around 18 inches. It doesn’t even really matter how much snow we get because, for some reason, Gov. Cuomo shuttered subway service at 11 p.m., and by all accounts, the decision was a unilateral one.
The MTA didn’t see this coming. After all, the city had never in 110 years closed the subways due to snow, and in fact, early on Monday, Tom Prendergast basically said that a shutdown was unnecessary. As he noted, most of the subway network is underground, and it doesn’t snow underground. Now, we learn that the subway shutdown caught the MTA off guard. Via a report in the Brooklyn Paper that’s been corroborated by other MTA sources, the agency may continue to run empty trains because the Governor thought he knew best:
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s move to shut off the city’s subway system overnight on Monday ahead of an anticipated blizzard came as a surprise to transit workers and runs against common sense, because the trains need to move as part of keeping the tracks clear and will be running all night anyway, according to a transit insider. The governor’s 6 pm announcement that subway and bus service would be halted completely at 11 pm came as a surprise to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Incident Command Center, where workers first heard about it on the news, said the source, who lacks authorization to speak about internal matters and asked to remain anonymous.
The halting of subway service is the first ever for a snowstorm. It is ill-considered because an actual turning-off of the entire system requires moving all the cars to far-flung facilities for storage, as the agency did during Hurricane Sandy, when flooding was a concern, and rebooting from that takes ages, the insider said. Emergency personnel will be riding the trains overnight while no one else is allowed to, per the source. The closure will strand people and put lives at risk, not because the subways can’t run, but because Cuomo wants to look good, the source said…
The lack of ground transportation options makes keeping the subway open all the more important, the transit source said. “The roads being closed is all the more reason the underground lifeline should be open,” the source said.
The problem with Cuomo’s decision is that it doesn’t make sense. It’s a noble goal to keep cars off the road so that emergency response teams and plows can move through the city unimpeded. But it ignores the reality of New York City — an often inconvenient one for Cuomo — to shutter the subway. Now, New Yorkers, from everyone building cleaning crews to service employees at bars who are on duty until 4 a.m. to nurses and hospitals on duty overnight, can’t get around the city because the Governor decided it was somehow a danger for a subway system that operates largely underground to keep running through a massive but hardly unprecedented snow storm. Cuomo doesn’t want to deal with headlines placing the blame for the next stranded subway on his shoulders so instead, the entire city is effectively shut down.
A great irony in the governor’s move is that the subway itself arose from the paralysis of the Blizzard of 1888. New Yorkers needed a way to get around in a snow storm, and the subways were the perfect antidote to surface congestion. Now, after two hurricanes during which it made sense to stop subway service due to serious flooding concerns, the governor has decided that favorable headlines trump urban life. After all these years, should we expect anything else from a governor who hasn’t recognized the role transit plays in driving New York City’s existence? Sadly, I guess not.
Think of it as the MTA’s version of Captain Planet. With their powers combined, can they convince Albany to act on the MTA’s 800-pound gorilla in the room — that unfunded $32 billion capital plan? That’s the question looming ahead of a Tuesday morning press conference that will see Jay Walder, Lee Sander and Peter Stangle share the stage. The three former MTA heads were originally set to appear with Richard Ravitch, but the guru of New York state politics has seemingly dropped out of the event.
The lobbying effort is the brainchild of the Empire State Transportation Alliance, and the three men will call upon Albany to fund the damn thing. “For nearly 40 years, the New York State Legislature has recognized that our transit system underpins our state and the $1.5 trillion economy of the New York metropolitan region. This year, a broad alliance of former MTA leaders and transit and environmental experts have come together to urge leaders in Albany to identify stable, dedicated revenue to support the plan,” ESTA staid in a statement. “Without sufficient funding to cover all five years of the plan, we will severely damage the MTA’s capacity to provide safe, reliable and modern transit service and put our region’s growth, vitality and quality of life at risk.”
For the MTA, a gathering of this magnitude — including the who’s who of contractor associations, environmental groups, rider advocacy organizations and union leaders — is a momentous occasion, but the agency would be hard pressed to talk much about it. The MTA leaders know that, as they run a state agency that operates at the whim of Gov. Cuomo, they can’t really lobby for something without the go-ahead from Cuomo’s office, and so far, Cuomo hasn’t waded into the fray over the capital plan. So why not have a bunch of former agency heads to do the dirty work?
It’s interesting to see Stengl, Sander and Walder take the reins here. Each are very well respected within the transportation community, but each had issues navigating the politics of the MTA. Stengl had troubles with the first Gov. Cuomo (but left after George Pataki won election) while Walder had issues with the second. Sander was bounced due, in part, to his lack of relationship with Gov. Paterson but had a vision for the agency. But leaving the MTA’s top job isn’t a sign of anything other than normalcy these days, and here they are.
I won’t be able to attend Tuesday’s press conference, but we will hear these leaders talk about “why funding the plan with new revenue is vital for the continued success of the greater metropolitan region.” New revenue, perhaps, is a code word for a push for the Move NY traffic pricing plan or another revenue-generating scheme that will require action from Albany. It’s getting harder to ignore the drum beat, and having former MTA heads free from the shackles of Albany and willing to talk will only boost the view that, sooner or later, the city will have to comes to terms with its transportation priorities and the way it plans to fund the next five, 10 or 15 years.