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Here’s a bit of inside baseball for you: Citing productivity concerns for its board members, Joe Lhota has proposed that the MTA Board meet less frequently in 2013. Already, the MTA Board convenes 11 months out of the year — omitting the August — and the MTA head believes this schedule does not promote the “efficient use of time and resources” of Board members or agency heads. Thus, when the Governance Committee meets tomorrow, its members will address a proposal to reduce the number of meetings to eight a year. The Board and its committees would meet approximately every six weeks.

In addition to reducing the number of board meetings, Lhota has proposed a twice-yearly “Chairman’s Forum” in which Lhota and the agency presidents would field comments and questions from the public. These forums, Board materials say [pdf], would “promote transparency in MTA operations and ensure that MTA leadership remains accessible and accountable to the riding public, transportation advocates and elected officials.” These meeting would be streamed live over the Internet as well.

Generally, I’m agnostic on the issue of board meeting frequency. The meetings themselves are generally the same and only of interest when the MTA is fielding a big-ticket procurement issue, has a capital projects update or must debate a fare hike/budget. Fewer meetings may raise some oversight concerns, but an organization of the MTA’s size can easily get by with eight meetings a year instead of 11. The forums, on the other hand, are an intriguing idea that would allow more direct interaction (other than through Twitter) between MTA execs and riders. The trick though is to avoid the same litany of complaints and speakers at every forum, as has happened at these types of meetings in the past.

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The MTA drew criticism last year for being overly cautious when it shut down subway service in the face of Hurricane Irene. While New York City Transit was spared the brunt of the storm a year ago, Metro-North’s Port Jervis line suffered a wash-out, and the agency incurred significant planning costs. Yesterday, the MTA announced that it has submitted a $65 million claim to FEMA for reimbursement of these expenses.

So far, the MTA has recovered approximately $27.7 million in insurance proceeds and is targeting around $50 million as its total recovery. Of the $65 million, $21million will cove repairs of the Metro-North washouts west of the Hudson River, and New York City Transit has submitted a request for $22 million. That breaks down as $8 million in overtime costs for storm preparedness and $14 million in lost revenue when the subway system shut down for the first time in its history.

Meanwhile, as the one-year anniversary of the storm comes and goes, it’s tough to say that the MTA is any better prepared long-term for shifting ocean levels, major weather catastrophes and a changing environment. A request to FEMA to cover last year’s expenses helps the budget, but comprehensive long-term planning will help avoid shutdowns in the future.

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With the MTA Board meetings this morning came a flurry of news. I’ll round it up here.

Albany approves MTA Capital funding plan

While the details of the backroom deals have yet to be released, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has persuaded Republican State Senators to approve the MTA funding requests in his New York state budget. Originally, Dean Skelos and his GOP caucus in the State Senate had stripped all MTA funding from the budget in a show of faux-concern over MTA debt levels. But now, the MTA bond cap will jump by $7 billion, and the state will provide $770 million in new funds.

This move also assuages MTA fears that the feds would rescind favorable funding deals as well, and the authority was pleased with the deal. “The MTA is grateful for Governor Cuomo’s leadership and commitment in recognizing the critical importance of funding mass transit, and in particular fully funding our current Capital Program,” the agency said in a statement. “The MTA Capital Program not only provides for continued investment in our network, but also creates tens of thousands of jobs and generates economic activity across the entire state. With this funding, the MTA will continue to enhance our riders’ experience by investing in the future of our transportation network, as well as bringing our assets up to a state of good repair.”

I’ll have more on the capital plan later, but I do wonder what carrot Cuomo dangled for the Senate to secure these funds.

BusTime heading to 34th St.

Hot on the heels of a successful Staten Island adaptation, the MTA’s BusTime program is making its debut in Manhattan. The in-house option will replace Clever Devices’ expensive pilot in place along 34th St. effective April 8, 2012.

“We’re bringing Bus Time to 34th Street to replace the original pilot developed by technology firm Clever Devices,” Darryl Irick, President of MTA Bus and Senior Vice President NYC Transit’s Department of Buses, said. “However, unlike the previous pilot, the new system was developed in-house by the MTA at a fraction of the cost and allows us to expand Bus Time to more routes more quickly.”

The only drawback to the technology which allows riders with any phone to access bus location information concerns countdown clocks. When the Clever Devices’ system is shut off, the countdown clocks in place at bus shelters along the M34 and M34A SBS routes will no longer be in use.

Over 1100 buses to get security cameras

In an effort to better protect bus drivers, Transit announced today that it is exercising an option for the purchase and installation of cameras for 1150 buses in the fleet. The original contract with UTC Fire and Security called for installation of cameras in 426 buses, and the current option will include hardware and software for monitoring in 12 additional depots. Per Transit, the surveillance system features cameras for the interiors of 40- and 60-foot buses.

“Video surveillance is a vital element of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s ongoing effort to maintain a transit network that is as safe and secure as possible,” NYC Transit President Thomas F. Prendergast said in a statement. “Bus cameras offer a visible crime deterrent, while also providing a state-of-the-art electronic tool that will aid in the investigation and prosecution of criminal activity aboard the vehicle.”

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On Friday, Jeremy Soffin served his final day as Director of Media Relations for the MTA, and today, MTA Chairman Joe Lhota named Adam Lisberg as the new Director of External Communications. Lisberg, currently the editor of City & State and once the City Hall bureau chief of The Daily News’, will head up press office while setting the “communications agenda” for the MTA. He will serve as Lhota’s chief spokesperson as well.

“Adam is an award-winning journalist who is joining us at an exciting time as we attempt to change both the operation and the image of the MTA. His talents and experience will be instrumental in shaping our message as we move forward,” Lhota said in a statement.

Lisberg, a current Brooklynite with Chicago roots, has covered mass transit and the MTA for a good portion of his career. After all, state and city politics and our massive transit agency are often intertwined, not always for the better. With, as Politicker NY notes, a salary of $150,000 coming his way, Lisberg is saying all the right things.

“I’m excited to join an agency that plays such a crucial role in the New York City region, and to help the MTA deliver its message to the millions of people it serves across a wide range of media,” he said. “Mass transit is the lifeblood of New York City and the surrounding counties. As the MTA tackles enormous construction projects at a time of financial strain, I’m looking forward to helping the agency explain its challenges and its achievements to the millions of people who rely on it.”

Lisberg’s immediate challenge is to overcome both a skeptical public and media prone to superficial transit coverage as he shapes and reshapes the MTA’s image. He should also serve as a set of ears for the agency with his pulse to the ground. It can’t just be about telling about change; it must be about showing a response as well.

“The MTA has a good story to tell and I see my role there as telling it,” he his Twitter account.

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As the MTA and TWU once again sat down for negotiations toward the end of last week, the new head honco at the transportation authority let loose a few tidbits on a handful of key topics this weekend. In an interview with NBC New York’s Andrew Siff, Lhota offered up his take on everything from looming fare hikes to future subway expansion plans. It left me wanting more, but let’s jump in.

On Fare Hikes: In an attempt to bring regularity to the MTA’s fare structure, Jay Walder announced fare hikes for 2013, 2015 and every two years thereafter. Lhota voice his support for the plan as he said, “How sure is that? It’s going to happen.” The fares will go up next year, in 2015 and in 2017, but it seems as though the MTA will spend the bulk of the added revenue on paying down debt and employee obligations than on providing better service.

On Unrealized Revenue Opportunities: When I spoke with Walder back in late 2010, he discussed his desires to increase MTA revenues through better maximizing retail opportunities, and Lhota is on board with this initiative as well. “We’re trying to look for every place that we possibly can where we have foot traffic, where we can actually have retail operations,” he said. “There are thousands of people who come in here [to Grand Central] on the weekends just to go shopping.”

On Countdown Clocks: With nearly all of the A Division stations receiving countdown clocks, the MTA is eying how best to bring this technology to the rest of the system. I’ll have more on these attempts shortly, but Lhota hopes to accomplish this goal “within two years.”

On FASTRACK: As the MTA has embarked on an early-2012 pilot program created again by Walder that shutters track segments overnight during the week, riders are reportedly noting the improvements, and Lhota and the MTA have vowed to continue it. The program will inch northward next year, and Lhota noted brighter station conditions as one benefit. “Not only did we change all the light bulbs to make them brighter; we also cleaned the backs of them,” he said.

On Access to LaGuardia: Siff, who has long reported on the on-again, off-again efforts to bring the subway to LaGuardia, asked Lhota about subway access for the airport, and Lhota offered up a tiny tidbit. “We’re continuing to look at it. There are a lot of logistical problems. You can’t have an elevated train in the path of landing, so you’d have to submerge it,” he said. Of course, “logistical problems” is also code for NIMBYism, but even considering it offers a faint glimmer of hope. Maybe it’s something the MTA can explore for the capital campaigns once the Fulton St. Transit Center and 7 line extension are in service.

Ultimately, Lhota’s interviews in the early goings have given us a glimpse into his inner workings. I was initially skeptical of the appointment, but he has inherited an MTA that, while not perfect by a long shot, has been on a better path of late. He’s willing to acknowledge that and stick to the path. At some point, he’ll have to start forging his own path, but for now, he can push forward on efforts begun by his predecessor.

As he moves his agenda forward, Lhota, a train rider, seems to recognize what New Yorkers want, and I think his statement is key toward a better appreciation and support of transit by its riders. “I want it to work better, cleaner, faster and more frequent,” he said. “That’s not overly sexy, but that’s what New Yorkers want.”

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When Jay Walder announced in July his abrupt departure from the MTA, transit advocates viewed his resignation as a major blow to the authority. His was an independent voice with a mind for both fiscal savings and progressive transit policies, and his decision to move to Hong Kong was viewed as another sign of brain drain impacting the MTA due to a lack of support and investment from Albany. I had hoped that Walder would conduct an exit interview, but in an effort to avoid burning bridges, he never did.

Now that he’s settling into his new high-paying job in Hong Kong and must get the MTR budget into shape, the Hong Kong press has asked him about the numerous layoffs he instituted in New York. Vowing not to do the same in Asian, he spoke of the way New York politicians simply failed to support transit. “The assets were not renewed and the infrastructures were in terrible condition,” he said.

That pretty much sums up the state of the city’s vital transportation infrastructure. The assets aren’t there and haven’t been for decades. Yet, the aging system must transport over 5 million people a day and plays a major role in driving the city’s economy. Will anyone wake up to this reality before it’s too late?

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For online information junkies, the annual release of the Google Zeitgeist is a much-anticipated December event. This year, amidst top global searches for Rebecca Black, Fukushima and the iPhone, New Yorkers showed their true dedication to transit as the top three local search terms in NYC all focused around transportation. The MTA emerged as the reason’s clear top search term followed by NJ Transit and HopStop.

For the MTA, it was quite the year. Between hurricanes and snow storms, the authority withstood some tough weather while end-of-year politicking has left the authority looking for more funding sources. Meanwhile, Select Bus Service continued to spread throughout the region, and the abrupt departure of its CEO and Chairman left many fearful for the MTA’s long- and short-term future. I’ll wrap up the year in a few days, but as the Google searches show, for better or worse, the MTA is never far from the minds of the millions of New Yorkers who ride the rails everyday.

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I took a walk through Grand Central this afternoon as word got around that the wrapping around the new Apple Store had come down. From the floor of the building’s main hall, the Apple Store looks tastefully integrated into Grand Central. There is no ostentatious glass cube, a winding staircase or any garish signage. A bright, glowing Apple logo is visible from all throughout the terminal, but the computers, iPads and iPods aren’t visible from below.

Meanwhile, members of the ol’ print media got a tour of the Apple Store courtesy of the Cupertino-based company. (Thanks for inviting me, Apple. Harumph.) Andrew Grossman of The Wall Street Journal calls the store “understated.” The main entrance simply features tables with computers, and Apple’s typical markings are reserved for the parts of the mezzanine not visible from the concourse. amNew York has some photos of the store. It all opes on Friday.

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Earlier this morning, current MTA Executive Director and future Chairman and CEO Joseph Lhota had the opportunity to attend his first Board meeting as leader of the much-maligned organization. Both Michael Grynbaum and Andrew Grossman were on hand to file reports from the meeting, and it sounds as though Lhota is at least prepared for the daunting challenges he faces over the next six years. “In the last two days, not a moment goes by that I don’t think about the budget,” Lhota said during the meeting. “I have to be optimistic about everything I do, because that’s how you get things done and move things forward.”

The next Chairman talked at length about both the MTA budget and its perception problems. He called the sprawling budget “a living organism” and spoke about improving the way the public views the MTA. “I do think the good that the MTA does, and all of its operating agencies, sometimes fails to get above the horizon,” he said. “Do I think it has a public-relations problem? I think it needs to focus on the good that it does and how important the MTA is to the economy of the region, because it is critical.”

Results will be more powerful for Lhota, who has already admitted the need to maintain a predictable pace for fare hikes that is tied to the overall inflation rate. As with Jay Walder and Lee Sander before him, though, the public will judge him on subway service, station cleanliness and fare policy. No amount of talk can change that reality.

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Former deputy mayor Joseph Lhota started at the MTA today as its executive director.

As the MTA is debating a new plan to speed up disruptive track work, the authority’s new boss is taking over. Although Joseph Lhota cannot assume his role as the MTA Chairman and CEO until after State Senate confirmation hearings set for early 2012, the Cuomo nominee and former Giuliani administration official joined the MTA today as its Executive Director, and he will be responsible for day-to-day operations. Andrew Saul will continue to serve as Acting Chairman until Lhota is confirmed in Albany.

“The MTA is the engine that drives our economy and makes our way of life possible here in New York, and we have a responsibility to operate our service as efficiently and effectively as possible,” Lhota said in a brief statement. “The MTA is facing a number of difficult fiscal and operating challenges, including funding our vital capital program and continuing to improve service in tough economic times. My focus in the next couple of months is understanding this organization from top-to-bottom, and listening to our employees, customers, and community leaders as we work together to shape an agenda and improve this vital service for all New Yorkers.”

His first official duty involved a rare joint statement with TWU President John Samuelsen. The two leaders asked New York City prosecutors to pursue maximum penalties for those who assault MTA employees. It is a good sign indeed for the upcoming TWU negotiations that the two parties are working together to make a public show of support.

In addition to the arrival of Lhota, the MTA announced a handful of other leadership changes as well, including one that is raising some eyebrows. Nuria Fernandez has joined the organization as Chief Operating Officer, and Catherine Rinaldi, former MTA and LIRR General Counsel will now serve as the authority’s Chief of Staff. Charlie Monheim, the outgoing COO, will remain on board as Director of Strategic Initiatives, and he will be working on the MTA’s technology projecting and overseeing labor relations.

The intriguing departure though involves Diana Jones Ritter. Brought in as a so-called efficiency expert, Ritter was to serve as the MTA’s Managing Director, but her appointment drew criticism. No one is saying much about her departure, but it seems as though the MTA will find its efficiencies elsewhere.

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