Archive for Public Transit Policy

Politicians and policy wonks have begun to question whether a $10 per-passenger subsidy for the NYC Ferry system is a sound use of city transportation dollars. (Photo via NYC Ferry)

One of the greatest trick Bill de Blasio’s administration ever pulled was convincing New Yorkers that the ferries were a legitimate form of mass transit, worthy of hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies as the subway and bus system collapsed around them.

Now, after years of hiding spending, costs and ridership demographics behind the frustratingly opaque New York City Economic Development Corporation, rather than tasking the city’s public-facing Department of Transportation with running the boat network, the administration is finally taking heat for the ferry system. A recent report by the Citizens Budget Commission detailed how the ferry subsidies reach nearly $11 per ride and could spike to up to $24 per passenger on future planned routes. The city’s Comptroller Scott Stringer has also recently blocked city spending on boat acquisition, and with policy wonks turning a skeptical eye toward the costly ferries, the future of public spending on a little-used and costly boat network that seems to serve well-off neighborhoods that already have transit service may be in doubt. For this ferry skeptic, it’s a reckoning that can’t come a moment too soon.

My love-hate relationship with Mayor de Blasio’s ferry system is hardly a secret. I first cast a doubting eye on the mayor’s plans for a five-borough ferry system in early 2015 when, quaintly, the cost estimates included just $50 million in capital money and a $20-$30 million annual operating subsidy, two figures that would be a good deal today. At the time, I tried to fix his proposal, suggesting higher fares (and thus lower subsidies, a point to which I’ll return later). My pleas fell on deaf ears, and the mayor went forward with his ferry system as costs ballooned. When I wrote a piece for Curbed questioning the usefulness of a specialized low-capacity ferry service, subsidies were $6.60 per ride and capital costs nearly half a billion dollars. It’s only gotten worse from there.

In a report released last month, the non-partisan Citizens Budget Commission highlighted how the city is now spending $10.73 per ride to ensure ferry fares are kept at the same cost as the swipe of a Metrocard, and the report highlighted the seasonal nature of ferry ridership, indicating that the boats are more for leisure and convenience rather than for transit. In tandem with the report, Stringer declined to approve more city spending on ferry acquisition, calling instead for a DOT takeover of the program, and any 2021 mayoral candidate should heed the CBC’s recommendations. “New York should invest its transportation dollars wisely,” Andrew S. Rein, President of the Citizens Budget Commission, said. “When deciding how to expand services to those who may need them, the city should make policy choices that increase the ferry system’s cost-effectiveness, especially when it comes to weekend and leisure ridership.”

While my incessant harping on ferries has earned me the reputation of a hater, I take little joy in being right about the wasteful spending, especially at a time in which transportation dollars are at a premium and high-capacity, lower-cost solutions are obvious. I believe there’s a narrow path toward rescuing the ferry system, but it’s one that relies on choices that will result in higher fares and fewer year-round routes. But let’s dive in.

CBC study highlights high costs, lack of EDC transparency

The CBC’s report landed in late March while I was on vacation in Madrid, and from the title alone — “Swimming in Subsidies” — I knew it would be a good one. The essence of it is simple: Without even exploring who rides and which New Yorkers are enjoying the benefits of the subsidies, the city is spending $10.73 per passenger on a heavily-subsidized ferry service that serves fewer passengers in one year than the subway serves on a typical weekday. Future planned routes to Coney Island may require a subsidy of over $24 per passenger, and the CBC questions whether steep spending on low capacity boats is the way to improve mobility in New York City. “Before an expansion of service is implemented,” the report states, “city officials should reconsider the policy choices that contribute to the high subsidies, evaluate options that would reduce the level of subsidy, and consider whether alternative uses would meet the city’s transportation needs more efficiently and more effectively.”

The numbers are stark. The NYC Ferry system enjoys subsidies that lag New York City’s express buses by only a dollar per ride and are over ten times more than the subsidy for bus and subway rides. The ferry subsidy outpaces Metro-North by over $5 per passenger and the LIRR by around $4.50, and these are hardly paragons of efficient transit. Notes the CBC: “The high subsidy is due to high operating costs and low revenue, which are the product of policy choices to keep fares low and to provide daily service on routes with variable demand, low ridership, and high fixed operating costs. Spending to date includes some one-time costs associated with launching new routes; the per-ride subsidy may decline in future years as operating costs stabilize and ridership grows. Even with these developments, NYC Ferry would still require a greater subsidy than competing modes of transit while serving a smaller number of passengers.”

In discussing these subsidies, the CBC highlights the seasonal nature of ferry routes as a leading problem. Over the course of 2018, the ferries served just 91 passengers per revenue hour, and the ferries are particularly sensitive to seasonal demand, a clear indication that many riders view the system as one for leisure rather than for commuting. The report states:

The sharp increase in summer ridership is driven primarily by additional weekend travel. Weekend ridership, consisting predominantly of trips for leisure, is more responsive to seasonal trends than weekday ridership.12 Most of NYC Ferry’s weekend ridership accordingly takes place in the summer. During summer months weekend trips make up 40 percent of NYC Ferry ridership, up from 21 percent during the winter. 13 (Overall weekend ridership on NYC Ferry is higher than that of its peers, with weekend trips accounting for 33 percent of ridership compared to 22 percent on the Staten Island Ferry and 15 percent on the private ferries.) This extreme seasonality is also a byproduct of NYC Ferry’s comparatively small base of regular commuters.

EDC’s strategy to address the extreme seasonality of NYC Ferry’s ridership also has increased operating expenses and subsidies. NYC Ferry has struggled to meet its on-time performance target of 94 percent when ridership peaks in the spring and summer months, particularly on the Rockaway route.15 In response EDC has paid to charter additional vessels to add capacity to meet peak summer demand, rather than increase fares to reduce demand. While this improved on-time performance on some routes, it also increased operating costs and subsidies.

Future ferry routes won’t improve this picture. The Coney Island route is expected to cost the city $24 per passenger and Ferry Point service to the Bronx will come with a price tag of $16 per passenger. On the capital side, including dock build-up and boat acquisition, the city is projected to spend $638.5 million on the ferry network. Meanwhile, the CBC had a harsh assessment of the financial relationship and EDC’s involvement in the project. I’ll quote a length:

The decision to place NYC Ferry under EDC has created redundancies within City government. DOT sets transportation policy and operates the country’s largest municipal ferry service; EDC’s role historically has been to manage piers and waterfront properties and to oversee private ferry companies that operate in New York City waterways, including managing the operations of the East River Ferry that preceded and was integrated into NYC Ferry. The original operating agreement with Hornblower anticipated EDC’s role in NYC Ferry would be limited to managing the on-shore infrastructure and setting the fare and service levels–tasks within EDC’s core competencies and the scope of its Maritime Contract. Subsequently, EDC has expanded its responsibilities, primarily by exercising its contractual options to acquire and expand the NYC Ferry fleet and to build a City-owned homeport. Going forward, EDC and DOT will own and operate separate ferry fleets.

Second, funding NYC Ferry through EDC rather than through the City budget limits the ability to track the dollars allocated to ferry service and to exercise oversight. DOT’s expense budget for the Staten Island Ferry, for example, includes detailed operating and maintenance data, including headcount and spending on personnel, contractual services, supplies, fuel, and other expenses. Similarly, the Mayor’s Management Report tracks indicators that tie back to these expenses.

In contrast, NYC Ferry is not funded through general fund revenue appropriated through the budget process, and EDC is not required to report detailed operating or budget data about its ferry service. EDC funds NYC Ferry’s operations through an arrangement in which the Mayor allows EDC to retain a greater share of the revenue it generates from operating City-owned commercial properties than is expressly allowed under its contracts with the City. While the City Council must approve any capital spending, paying for NYC Ferry’s operations through EDC means that its operating budget is not subject to City Council review. This funding model also differs from the operations of the now-defunct East River Ferry service, which was subsidized from the City’s General Fund.

In essence, the Citizens Budget Commission doesn’t believe the current system is transparent, sustainable or a good use of transportation dollars. “[The] ferry network,” the report concludes, “serves a small number of New Yorkers, is expensive to operate in part to support leisure-oriented travel, and requires a high subsidy that will grow higher to extend service to Coney Island and Ferry Point. Reviewing the system’s costs and subsidies through its first full year of operations should prompt consideration of whether maintaining the same operating strategy, pricing model, and expansion plans will be the most efficient and most effective use of city transportation funding.” They’re almost being too kind.

Fallout: The Mayor responds; the Comptroller calls for a takeover

Now, City Hall has not historically taken kindly to any criticism of the ferry system. For better or worse, the boats are Bill de Blasio’s signature transportation policy, one that just so happens to benefit many of his wealthy real estate donors with substantial interests in the waterfront who like to point to nearby ferry docks as a perk. Following the report, the mayor took the time during his weekly appearance on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show to address the critique, and he simply could not respond on substance. His answer is one for the ages. He said:

I disagree with the analysis to begin with because I think it’s a very short sighted analysis. I appreciate the Citizens Budget Commissioner, I think they’ve done some important work over the years, but I think they have a fatal flaw. They often misunderstand the value of government investment for the long haul and this is a government investment for the long haul. Let me sober everyone right here, Brian, 8.6 million people today. We’ve added half a million people over the last 15-20 years. We’re going to add another half million people over the next 15 to 20 years ahead. Anyone who thinks our existing transit system can handle all of that is someone who thinks marijuana is already been legalized in New York State and is smoking some. The fact is it is impossible to do what we have to do with the city if we don’t expand mass transit options.

It’s something else to hear the mayor claim that anyone who criticizes his boats must be high on marijuana, but that’s the city we live in these days. The mayor urged critics to talk to ferry riders — which is besides the point — and also claimed that delivering a one-fare option via a transfer to MTA-operated buses or subways would drive up ferry usage. Such a relationship would also require the city to reimburse the MTA for lost revenue, leading to even higher per-passenger ferry costs, and the biggest boats in the fleet max out at 350 passengers, hardly a high-capacity system. The mayor’s defense is a flimsy one and ignores the substance behind a critique of what is in essence a low-cost, niche transit system (that largely benefits those who live in watefront condos and want to avoid the subway). Doesn’t this exacerbate, rather than solve, NYC’s tale of two cities?

Meanwhile, NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer (and a likely 2021 mayoral hopeful) used the report and a subsequent story in The City on the high cost of boat acquisition to call for a city takeover of the ferry system.

“New Yorkers deserve reliable and comprehensive public transit systems, but not at the expense of transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility. The Economic Development Corporation’s contract with NYC Ferry operator Hornblower raises serious questions about the exploding costs and liabilities that the City is choosing to absorb, all while handing over millions in revenue to a private contractor – questions that to-date have not been sufficiently answered,” he said. “We must do better. That’s why I’m calling on the city Department of Transportation to immediately explore taking over NYC Ferry. This has the potential to improve efficiency and public savings across the board – capitalizing on DOT’s experience running the Staten Island Ferry, eliminating administrative redundancies, allowing the City to keep all fare box and concession revenues, and providing a level of budgetary and operational transparency that EDC has to-date refused to provide. Given all of these potential benefits, DOT should examine the feasibility of such a takeover as soon as possible.”

What Comes Next: Fixing the ferries through higher fares

At this point, clear battle lines have been drawn around the ferries. Ridership isn’t substantial or persistent enough for politicians to cower in fear over challenging the costs of the system, and while the mayor is committed to building out the routes the CBC has highlighted as particularly cost-inefficient, he’s in office for only two more years. The 2021 mayoral race will, in way or another, include jockeying on ferries, and as the current candidates appear to be more attuned to the transit needs of New York City than de Blasio has been, half a billion dollars in ferry spending and constant subsidies with diminishing returns will likely be on the chopping block. The city can and should spend this money to bolster bus service and a bike share system, two transit modes with far higher usage numbers (let alone pollution impacts) than ferries.

But in the short term, the city should consider reassessing the fare structure. It’s a nice gesture to keep fares for boats pegged at the cost of a Metorcard swipe, but it’s also an empty gesture. These ferries aren’t serving real transit deserts, and people who take ferries have long shown a willingness to pay a premium for what they view as a more comfortable or leisure-type service. In fact, the CBC recommends as much in its report:

EDC and City officials can take actions to improve the system. The high rate of leisure travel offers an opportunity to charge higher fares on weekends and for noncommuters to offset the cost of subsidies for daily commuters. Other premium transit options, like the private ferry services and the MTA express bus service, charge higher fares that are commensurate with their operating expenses. Other services use dynamic pricing that increases along with demand. When it was a standalone service, the East River Ferry charged a higher fare on weekends, which allowed it to recoup a larger share of its operating costs than NYC Ferry currently does. Private ferry operators offer limited weekend service because it is not profitable. Dynamic pricing models could be more appropriate for long, low-productivity routes that require substantial subsidies and see demand spikes on weekends. A different fare structure could also mitigate the need to charter vessels or purchase larger boats.

Ultimately, though, the ferries offer a lesson in government transparency: The EDC has long resisting calls (and FOIL requests) to release ridership data and demographics information. Capital costs continue spiking without City Council oversight, and the mayor’s response is catty defensiveness on the radio. That’s not a prescription for sound transit policy at a time when mobility is under scrutiny. The city should charge more for ferries, reducing the subsidies and freeing up taxpayer money for transit investments with a higher return. Until then, the ferries are simply a giveaway masked as whatever the mayor thinks passes for transit.

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For those of you who follow me on Twitter, it’s no surprise that I don’t have a particularly high view of ferries as a solution to New York City’s mobility issues. They’re very expensive to operate and subsidize and require a two-fare system, serve only those New Yorkers — generally wealthier and with more transit options — who live and work near the water, and don’t carry enough passengers. Last year, I wrote about my general disillusionment with ferries and the flaws in the mayor’s ferry plan while offering a proposal to fix the plan. Still, the so-called five-borough plan has moved on, none the better for time and feedback.

In today’s paper, The New York Times does a deep dive on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ferry proposal, and Patrick McGeehan’s piece is a doozy. The city is sinking $325 million into the ferry service, outside of annual operating subsidies; expects just 4.5 million riders per year; and is willing to sell off the assets if the ferry service flounders. It’s an uber-expensive Hail Mary, and it’s not hard to dwell on how $325 million in direct contributions could go a long way toward a real solution for increased access to transit.

What follows are some choice passages from McGeehan’s article:

The city has already spent $6 million on four commuter boats in 2016 and could own more than 30 in a few years. Mr. de Blasio also plans to spend at least $85 million to create 13 additional landings for the ferries and a home port for them at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But the mayor has raised the stakes in ways few other places have by pledging that a ferry ride would cost the same as subway fare, $2.75. That is a departure from San Francisco; Sydney, Australia; and other cities where extensive commuter-ferry systems have long operated. They tend to charge more to ride ferries than buses or trains, and their ferry fares are based on the length of the trip. The one-fare plan fits with the liberal agenda of Mr. de Blasio, who has championed “transit equity” for all New Yorkers. To fulfill the mayor’s promise, the city will have to contribute a substantial operating subsidy, a commitment that several of his predecessors were unwilling to make….

City officials have been leaning on Hornblower Cruises and Events, the San Francisco-based company they chose in March to operate the service, to order the boats it will need. Hornblower, which runs cruises to the Statue of Liberty, has settled on a design for 149-passenger boats and is negotiating with a few boatyards around the country to build 18 of them, at a cost of nearly $4 million each…Maria Torres-Springer, the president of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, said Hornblower was chosen primarily for its experience in starting ferry services around the country, as well as on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. The company, however, has limited experience with helping commuters get to and from work every day, though city officials said that did not weigh heavily against it…

Mr. de Blasio announced that the home port for the expanded service would be a pier in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But that pier is so dilapidated that it may not be rebuilt before 2018, Ms. Glen said. If the city-owned service starts next summer, as scheduled, the home port is likely to be in New Jersey at first, Ms. Glen said. The city’s ferry system, however, will not serve New Jersey…Hornblower will need nine boats to cover the three new routes, none of which it has now. Mike Anderson, former chief executive of Washington State Ferries, which runs a large fleet of ferries in the Seattle area, said that to have that many boats built would normally take a few years…

The city estimates that it will cost about $70 million to have 18 ferries built. Once they are done, the city plans to buy them from Hornblower, which will operate them for six years, with a possibility of renewing the contract for an additional five years. Ms. Glen said the city was employing “good, smart economics” in deciding to own the boats. “If, for some reason, Hornblower doesn’t perform,” she said, the city would either find another operator or run the system itself, as it does for the Staten Island Ferry. And, she added, “even if the service weren’t to be that successful, the city will have hard assets” that it could sell to recoup some of its investment.

By itself, none of these anecdotes are enough to sink the ferry plan, and city officials continue to insist to me that their numbers are rigorous enough to support the extremely high subsidies and capital costs considering even their optimistic, but still low, ridership projections. Yet, it seems as though the city is flying by the seat of their pants. They picked a company many say doesn’t have the right kind of experience for a daily ferry service or the boats to support the plans, and the likelihood of delay is growing.

As I’ve written in the past, too, it’s not clear who this plan and the subsidies benefit. The neighborhoods along the waterfront in Queens and Brooklyn south of Astoria are all wealthy with other transit options. The Astoria dock serves some middle class housing, but the two-fare system is a barrier for many who have to take a subway or bus to get to work on the other end of their boat rides. The Brooklyn Army Terminal is far from everywhere other than Industry City, and the Bay Ridge stop isn’t expected to have high ridership.

So we the taxpayers of New York City are left footing the bill for a bunch of boats that fit 149 people — fewer than one subway car — and may not serve many in particularly great need of more transit. Who, after all, is going to take a subway or bus to a boat and pay two fares for the privilege? The $325 million the city is so eager to spend could go a long way toward subsidizing transit rides for low-income New Yorkers, prioritizing and improving bus service throughout the city or even funding parts of construction of new subway lines (the real game-changers). But we’re getting boats. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t see how transformative they’ll be no matter how the mayor’s office defends this plan.

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Gov. Cuomo’s transportation plan for the downstate region focuses around getting into and out of New York City rather than around it. (Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)

When it comes to a comprehensive transportation policy for New York State, few governors in recent years have been able or willing to put forward a plan. By many accounts, Eliot Spitzer was on the verge of one before his sex scandal torpedoed his tenure, and before him, George Pataki played a part in launching East Side Access and was, through circumstances out of his control, instrumental in the post-9/11 transit investments in Lower Manhattan, for better or worse. Cuomo, a self-professed car guy through and through, hasn’t paid much attention to transit but seems to be formulating a cohesive policy with a peculiar theme.

Until this week, Cuomo’s major transportation projects in the New York City region concerned a bridge and an airport. The bridge is the Tappan Zee replacement — a project without a consensus or clear funding plan. Even still, upstate New Yorkers are miffed that the new bridge doesn’t include rail, and Cuomo pushed this project through because, as he’s said, he’s personally afraid the bridge will collapse. The other project is the half-baked Willets Point-Laguardia Airtrain proposal (and the more fully baked multi-billion-dollar overhaul and modernization of the decrepit airport).

And then everything exploded this week. As part of his whirlwind tour in advance of his State of the State speech, Cuomo has unveiled some major transit and transportation investments. Today’s official announcement concerned Long Island. Despite constant NIMBY opposition, Gov. Cuomo has announced support for the LIRR Third Track proposal as well as money to study an automotive cross-Long Island Sound tunnel that is unlikely to ever see the light of day.

“Long Island’s future prosperity depends on a modern transportation network that eases congestion on our roads, improves service on the LIRR, helps this region’s economy and preserves the character of these great communities,” the governor said in remarks. “This is a robust and comprehensive agenda to do just that and help build a brighter tomorrow for Nassau and Suffolk residents.”

The governor’s third track proposal is, he said, designed to assuage concerns over previous plans. This is a 9.8 mile extension between Floral Park and Hicksville that is built, by and large, on pre-existing right of way. The mileage reduction from over 11 reduces property acquisition totals so that only 20 would involve residences. How much this will cost or how it will be funded remains to be seen, and why it wasn’t included in the revised version of the MTA capital plan that was published in October is an open question. The LIRR hasn’t been a particularly zealous advocate for this third track plan, but the MTA spoke in its favor yesterday

“Our efforts to expand the Main Line will support transit-oriented development around Long Island and make it easier for Long Island to attract businesses and employees. This isn’t experimental,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said. “It’s a well understood direct correlation that we’ve seen happen already in the region served by Metro-North. When there is train capacity to allow New York City residents to ‘reverse commute’ to suburban jobs, people take that opportunity and the job growth follows.”

Later in the day, Andrew Tangel of The Wall Street Journal broke the news that Cuomo also plans to support a Penn Station overhaul. He will become the fourth or fifth governor to throw his weight behind the Moynihan Station plan, but it’s not yet clear what Cuomo’s motivation is here. As Tangel tells it, “Among the goals of Mr. Cuomo’s plan, [sources] said, is to introduce more air and natural light and improved passenger flow into what critics liken to a dank basement maze marked by confusing signs and underwhelming dining options.”

For now, Tangel’s report is all we have on Penn Station. We don’t know the extent of the plan; we don’t know the cost; we don’t know how New York State and its taxpayers are going to pay for this project. We also don’t know if it includes a trans-Hudson Tunnel. It should. In fact, no overhaul of Penn Station should happen without the guarantee of a new tunnel, and as dingy and cramped as Penn Station is, underwhelming dining options isn’t a particularly compelling impetus to spend billions without addressing the city’s transit capacity crisis.

And therein lies the rub. As you may have noticed by now, all of Cuomo’s projects involve improving certain elements of getting into and out of New York City. They do not address what happens to everyone once these people are within New York City, and outside of some lukewarm promise to fund the MTA’s capital plan (likely by increasing the MTA’s ability to take on debt), Cuomo has done nothing to address subway capacity or interborough travel. Once you’re here (or, as Cuomo is more likely to conceptualize it, once you’re leaving), his job is done, and travel within the five boroughs is someone else’s problem.

As Cuomo put in comments to reporters on Tuesday, he is drawing his inspiration from those who got things done, but it’s a dangerous parallel. When asked if his plans were pipe dreams, he retorted in part “Was Robert Moses a pipe dream?” We may need someone who can deliver projects and funding on the scale Moses could, but we also need someone with a vision more encompassing, tolerant and holistic than Moses’ ever was. Cuomo is getting people into New York City. He has to get them through and around New York City too, and so far, he hasn’t. That’s not a particularly appealing theme when it comes to a comprehensive transportation policy for New York State.

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Some pre-Christmas quick hits for you. I’ll post the service advisories Friday but expect a quiet end of the week. Subways and buses are operating on a normal weekday schedule for Christmas Eve and on a regular weekend schedule for Christmas Day.

Second Ave. Subway Phase 1 vs. Star Wars Episode VIII

As the credits rolled on the end of The Force Awakens, and audiences everywhere were left wondering about … Well, I can’t say without spoiling the movie, and I don’t want to do that yet. The curious among us will just have to wait until May 26, 2017 to find out how our heroes’ journeys continue. That date, as you may realize, is five months after the MTA has promised to open the Second Ave. Subway, but that date is in doubt. The feds have long predicted the MTA would miss their self-imposed deadline, and we recently learned of moderate risks of delays that could plague the project over the next 12 months.

Recently, I posed a question regarding this very matter to my Twitter followers, and, well, they’re not too confident in the MTA’s ability to deliver on time. As you can see from the results, an overwhelming majority of a representative sample of people who follow me on Twitter think Star Wars — which is set to open five months after the Second Ave. Subway should — will arrive first. That’s an understandable, if damning, indictment of the MTA’s project management abilities. The race is on.

Council members skeptical over new ferry service

As part of a $55 million effort to present a flawed solution to something that’s not really a problem, the mayor has pushed a five-borough ferry plan that’s supposed to take off in 2017. With fares set at $2.75 (and with no free transfer between the boats and the subways or buses) and routes that are far-flung and serve few of the people who truly need better access to the transit system, I’ve been skeptical of this plan for years. It takes resources away from higher-capacity solutions and seems designed to avoid NIMBY complaints regarding street space allocation. I’m not the only one wary of this plan, and now, a bunch of City Council members have expressed their concerns. These representatives are worried the ferry system won’t include regularly scheduled service frequent enough to be a success. That’s only half of a valid critique, but they’re probably right. I still believe the $55 million would be better spent on, say, significant upgrades in bus service. The money would go much further.

New commuter benefits law

Finally, a new commuter benefits law goes into effect on January 1, and New York City residents can save up to $443 a year on pre-tax transit spending. That’s the equivalent of nearly four months of free unlimited ride Metrocards. Gotham Gazette recently published a comprehensive explainer analyzing the new law and its effects on New York City residents and employers. According to the law’s proponents, nearly half a million people will now be eligible for transit benefits, and I’d urge everyone who can to take advantage of it. It’s a great way to save on transit costs. (This law is a big win for the Riders Alliance, and in federal news, Congress finally upped the level of pre-tax contributions eligible for transit spending to $255 a month, putting this savings on par with their parking subsidies.)

The mayor should use the subway for more than just photo ops. (Credit: Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio)

The mayor should use the subway for more than just photo ops. (Credit: Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio)

In the run-up to the end of the year, the New York press has engaged in a mid-term review of Mayor Bill de Blasio. The narrative is an obvious one — missteps, victories, fights against Cuomo, a very skeptical public but a good chance of reelection based on the make-up of the electorate and lack of obvious opposition. One common theme that has emerged in the stories has been de Blasio’s attention to those who are skeptical of his policies and approach. A gem in this Wall Street Journal article particularly caught my eye:

The mayor has begun to read obscure transportation blogs as he worries about advocates who criticize him, and he urged aides to schedule more visits to Staten Island, where his approval ratings are especially low. He closely studies polls even as aides publicly dismiss them.

The emphasis, of course, is mine, and I have so many questions. Is the mayor now reading this site — which has been critical of him (though moreso on my Twitter feed). Or is the mayor taking his transportation cues from Streetsblog, the hardly-obscure WNYC project Transportation Nation or from the LTV Squad, Cap’t Transit, Pedestrian Observations, the Invisible Visible Man, Bike Snob or Brooklyn Spoke? Obscurity knows no bounds. And while some of you may question whether this site or many of this listed are actually obscure, the truth is that they’re niche sites that attract people interested in the issues. Those who aren’t interested — those who view transportation policy as incidental (or inconvenient) to city life — don’t visit these sites, and an overwhelmingly large number of New Yorkers simply don’t consider the politics of the MTA or NYC DOT until these politics have an immediate impact on their lives.

So ultimately, I don’t know if the mayor is reading my site or someone else’s when the Wall Street Journal tosses off a reference to “obscure transportation blogs.” I hope he’s getting a broad range of policy exposure on issues of transport, from pedestrian safety, bike proposals and the nuts and bolts of the buses and the subways. Voters may not know that the MTA is a state agency rather than a city one, and de Blasio’s record on transit issues has been mediocre at best. If given the chance to speak with (or to) the mayor on these issues, I’d tell him something along these lines.

Vision Zero: I haven’t talked much about Vision Zero on this site; rather, I’ve saved my disappointment for Twitter. I commend the overall goals of Vision Zero but feel the city’s approach has been too timid and too siloed. A successful effort at driving pedestrian deaths caused by automobiles to zero involves more than just pure numbers. It involves a massive shift in mindset, one that actively encourages New Yorkers to use alternate means of transportation rather than a private car and one that ensures these modes are fast, reliable, frequent and prioritized. It involves support for bikes, a rational allocation of street space for buses and firm buy-in from the cops who are in charge of enforcement. It also involves being out in front on some form of traffic pricing plan, whether that’s Move New York’s comprehensive proposal or another plan that can reduce the prevalence of cars in NYC’s busiest pedestrian areas. Be aggressive; lives are a stake. And if it means upsetting a few motorists — and learning how not to be a self-described motorist in the first place — that’s a price to pay as a politician.

Buses: The mayor promised 20 Select Bus Service routes over five years. At the rate DOT and the MTA are going, we’ll get 20 new ones by the late 2020s. I appreciate the need to involve communities (and, begrudgingly by proxy, Community Boards) in planning changes at the hyperlocal level, but de Blasio’s DOT has been far too willing to kowtow to vocal pressure from a minority of residents on bus lanes, traffic calming and BRT/SBS planning.

Just recently, for the second time in two mayoral administrations, the city agreed to scale back plans for Bus Rapid Transit, this time on Woodhaven Boulevard. We have the street space for BRT; we do not have the political will. The mayor and his Department of Transportation should hold firm on rapid rollout for real BRT while doing a better job of explaining and defending these projects. The mayor and DOT should also consider the downstream impact of bus lane projects. People along Woodhaven aren’t the only ones who would enjoy better bus service. Are down-route communities isolated from transit (and the planning process) given an adequate voice at the table?

Parking: Can we just do away with free on-street parking already? Is there any other major city in the U.S. that gives away valuable street space for free with no real justification for it? This too is part of a proper Vision Zero mindshift.

Transit and the MTA: Finally, we arrive at the big one. In a way, the Mayor was right to fight Albany on MTA capital funding; after all, the MTA is a state agency and a state responsibility. But then, when de Blasio committed to funding some of the MTA capital plan, he showed his hands far too early and opted against exerting much control over the money. It was an embarrassing surprise to the de Blasio Administration when the MTA pushed back plans for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, and it was a move that a mayor more engaged on transit issues would have headed off at the pass. The mayor should not treat the subways like a mode of transit Other People use. Nor should he rely on it only for photo ops. Ride the subway regularly; talk with riders about their experiences; and pay attention to what’s happening with the MTA. Even if Albany has been frustratingly slow to act on mayoral recommendations to the MTA Board, de Blasio should keep a finger on the pulse of transit goings-on. After all, few things touch the lives of his constituents more frequently than the subway system.

Affordable Housing: Finally, let’s talk affordable housing. The mayor has made affordable housing a centerpiece of his proposal for a more livable New York, but he hasn’t invested in transit upgrades that make or break affordability. Providing apartments for a reasonable/affordable rents in areas far from the subway and without upgrades to bus service or increases in transit capacity does little to combat the affordability crisis. By necessity, better transit access has to be a key component of affordable housing, and the mayor has not shown support for the transit piece of that affordability puzzle.

Maybe you might think it’s presumptuous of me that this admittedly obscure transportation blog I’ve run for nine years can find a sympathetic ear in City Hall, but if the mayor is listening to any of these sites, he would hear similar themes. Hopefully, he is and can mull over these ideas during the holiday season. If he wants to address the skeptics, at least he knows where to start.

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We spend a lot of time talking about where New York City’s transit system goes and how it could be better, but we don’t spend too much time talking about where the transit doesn’t go. We know how current service could be improved, and we all have fantasy maps regarding planned service extensions. But we don’t always address the so-called transit deserts where transit riders have few options and commuters face long rides to job centers.

At a time when affordability is a buzzword surrounding the political discourse in the city, these transit deserts stick out like a sore thumb, and last week, Ydanis Rodriguez, head of the City Council’s transportation committee, held a hearing on improving access. From light rail to ferries, the speakers ran the gamut of topics we’ve discussed over the past few years, and those facing questions responded adeptly. For instance, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg spoke about how light rail involves more than just tracks and a line on a map; it involves, she explained, the need to invest in the infrastructure behind light rail and create a sustainable network.

One idea though that has come up time and again over the years involves commuter rail access through New York City. When I was in Berlin and Paris this past summer, I had the opportunity to ride both the S-Bahn and RER trains, and for someone used to New York City’s concept of commuter rail, the European model is eye-opening. These trains enjoy the benefits of through-running through center city areas, and the fare structure is rationalized to encourage both intra-city and city-to-suburb travel. It didn’t cost me more to take the RER a few stops than it would have to make a similar trip on the Metro.

Here, the LIRR and Metro-North do not share a fare structure with each other, let alone with New York City Transit, and those who board commuter rail lines within New York City pay a much higher — and often cost-prohibitive — fare. If our politicians have their ways, this practice would end, and riders would be able to use commuter rail trains within the boroughs for a much lower cost. The city is pushing aggressively to make this happen, and one MTA Board member is embracing the cause.

As officials explained, last week, they want the MTA to reduce fares on intra-city travel and provide a free transfer from the LIRR or Metro-North to New York City Transit’s network. The MTA though is crying poverty. Agency Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast claimed that such a move would cost the agency $70 million per year and that no one has yet identified how to cover the missing revenue. “We just can’t agree to accept that kind of loss especially since we already lose so much money on other services,” spokesman Adam Lisberg said to Gothamist. “This year we will lose $575 million on unreimbursed paratransit service as well as discounted fares for seniors and free rides for schoolchildren. When we start each year more than half a billion dollars in the hole, we don’t want to dig it any deeper.”

Allen Cappelli, the Board member who plans to bring up the issue during today’s committee meetings, doesn’t accept the cries of poverty. “Honestly, it sounds to me like seat-of-the-pants analysis and I think this issue warrants more than somebody’s best guess,” Cappelli said to the Daily News. “Now that money is, while tight, not as dire as it was, we ought to be looking for ways to improve service for people in our region.”

This debate of course gets to the heart of the conflict between the suburban-focused commuter rail and the city-centric subway system. Do suburban riders want city passengers hoping on board their commuter trains for a few stops? Do suburban riders want to see their trains slowed in order to make more stops to better serve inaccessible areas? Can MTA agencies work together on rational fare policies? These are questions that hit at the very essence of the MTA’s regional approach and haven’t been satisfactorily addressed in years.

I expect this conversation to continue, especially as the MTA looks to reactivate certain LIRR stops in Queens and bring Metro-North into Penn Station via the Penn Station Access plan. Eventually, we have to move toward a European model. But can we get there without unnecessary kicking and screaming? We’ll find out soon.

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One Queens politician wants to convert this LIRR ROW into a light rail running from Glendale (shown here) to Long Island City.

Now that the head of the City Council’s Transportation Committee has opened the door to a light rail study, the floodwaters of potential political requests have been let loose. Barely had the pixels burned on Ydanis Rodriguez’s request when another council member — this one from Queens — called for a light rail investment in her borough. This one comes from Elizabeth Crowley, and it may highlight the pitfalls of Shiny New Thing syndrome.

The story comes to us from Gloria Pazmino and Dana Rubinstein writing in Politico New York. The two report:

In order to provide additional public transportation options, Crowley is proposing to use already-existing railroad tracks in her district to build a light rail line between Glendale and Long Island City along the Long Island Rail Road’s Montauk branch. “It’s a railroad that is in excellent condition that has no rail cars on it, so it’s a waste of track. It has no real use and there is potential for park-and-rides and development around the rail,” Crowley told POLITICO New York.

The rail line carried passengers between Long Island City and Jamaica stations in Glendale and Maspeth until the late 1990s, but service was discontinued due to low ridership. Currently, the track is used to transport freight overnight for only a few hours, Crowley said.

Citing the borough’s rapid growth and the increased need for public transportation, Crowley said installing a light rail would be much easier in her district due to the already-existing infrastructure and right of way. “We are very, very close to the city but it’s very difficult to get into Manhattan because it’s a transportation desert,” Crowley said. “More and more people are using their cars because it takes too long to take public transportation.”

This is a bit more of a problematic request than Rodriguez’s desire for a study. Crowley seems to have identified a route by examining a right of way that exists without really delving into why this right of way has no passenger service, and she doesn’t really explore a need here. Her idea seems to be to create a feeder light rail line from Glendale to the 7 in Long Island City via Maspeth. For what it’s worth, the Glendale LIRR station had just two daily riders at the time of its closure in 1998.

Would this help people get to Manhattan faster? What affect would this have on the already-crowded 7 train? Is it worth navigating the issue of shared freight and passenger service? And why would anyone spend the money to convert a heavy rail ROW that shuttered due to low passenger service into a light rail service that may not fair much better? These are questions that demand a rigorous analysis before this idea is anything more than idle musings, and while Crowley said the MTA “seemed receptive” of the idea, it’s not clear if there’s demand for this service or if Crowley is trying to think outside of the box (which in the realm of NYC transportation politics is much appreciated).

Meanwhile, there is some opposition brewing to the idea of light rail. It comes from Joan Byron, the Director of Policy at the Pratt Center for Community Development and a major proponent of bus rapid transit. Without holding her punches, Byron charged that light rail is simply a class-based approach to transit adoption. “Poor people and people of color ride the bus,” she said. “But we want something shiny and new that young white millennials will ride…You have to do something really shiny to get them not to drive.”

What’s particularly strange about Byron’s statement is its invocation of millennials. This generation — and in particular those who live in New York City — aren’t drivers or car owners. They already use transit at rates much higher than older residents of NYC (and cities in general across the country). Byron, who has a stake in beefing up the bus network, also undersells the psychological advantages of system that runs as a fixed-rail one via a dedicated right-of-way. Numerous studies have shown that these two elements alone draw ridership across racial and class lines. Buses simply aren’t the be-all and end-all of urban mobility issues.

Ultimately, light rail could be an answer to the city’s transportation cost and mobility issues, but it’s clear that many issues remain to explore before we understand where light rail would work and how. Both the Bronx and Staten Island are better candidates than one corridor in Queens, especially when you consider network effects, but perhaps light rail could work all over in various permutations as potential solutions. That’s what DOT will need to identify if they take up Ydanis Rodriguez on his request. It’s certainly worth considering.

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Rode the light rail a few times while visiting the Midwest this week.

A photo posted by Second Ave. Sagas (@secondavesagas) on

As New York politicians look around the country (and hopefully the world) for ideas on expanding transit, they often find themselves drawn to light rail. The revival of the old streetcar networks along fixed rail routes has been en vogue in recent years as cities from San Francisco to Los Angeles to St. Louis to Minneapolis to D.C. and beyond have installed new systems. In our city, light rail has lived among the margins of transit advocacy with a the Vision42 initiative and Bob Diamond’s Red Hook trolley idea the only streetcar/light rail plans out there. Now, a few months after developers discussed the “cool idea” of a Brooklyn-Queens waterfront route, City Council member Ydanis Rodriguez wants NYC’s Department of Transportation to explore light rail in New York City.

The ask is a modest one. As Politco New York’s Gloria Pazmino reports, Rodriguez, the chair of the Council’s Transportation Committee, has asked for a feasibility study. Where to begin is the tough part, but Rodriguez is, at least, thinking about means to improve mobility. “This is not a new idea in New York City,” Rodriguez said. “There have been advocate groups and others who have wanted the city to install a light rail corridor around 42nd Street in Manhattan and other areas. This is an effort to begin a discussion about an alternative way to improve transportation in New York City.”

Whether NYC needs to reinvent the wheel or improve the efficiency of the one it already has is up for debate, and Pazmino tackles the challenges an effort to introduce light rail to New York City may face. She writes:

Building a light rail system in the already crowded streets of Manhattan would be no small feat. Rodriguez’s bill would direct DOT to begin a one-time study to build the rail, include recommendations for how to do it, and if it would help to increase mass transit in areas of the city that are currently underserved by other forms of public transportation. “That system would allow pedestrians to use the light rail to transport to other places and in areas that are isolated and not connected with trains, and that can benefit them,” Rodriguez said…

Rodriguez said he’s not committed to idea of the light rail in a specific area. First, he wants to learn what it would cost and how long it could take to build, and what the actual benefit of the project would be for the city’s commuters. “The whole idea is to get DOT to conduct the study. Based on the study, we will have a better idea on the feasibility of bringing in a light rail. I do not want to jump into conclusions about any particular area,” Rodriguez said.

Rich Barone, director of transportation programs at the Regional Plan Association, said the idea is worth studying, but the question will be whether a possibly massive first investment will be worth it in the long run. “A light rail in the city is something that is reasonable and could be explored, but we have to consider the cost, and consider the infrastructure you would have to put in to support the service,” Barone said.

As with any new transit system, the biggest challenge is developing a network from the get-go. We can talk about installing light rail along 42nd St. — certainly a worthwhile project that would improve river-to-river mobility while cutting down on traffic — and we can talk about a waterfront line. But these two divergent systems wouldn’t rely on shared infrastructure, thus raising initial capital costs for shops and rolling stock considerably. (Any new light rail system should also be integrated into the MTA’s fare network so that riders aren’t double-charged, but that’s a different concern.)

That is not to say we should rule out light rail for New York City. It’s shown tremendous potential for urban growth throughout the country, and it could be a way to combat the MTA’s unsustainable capital construction costs while reengineering NYC’s street space. Imagine, for instance, instead of a 2nd Ave. Subway, a 2nd Ave. dedicated to two-way light rail and full-length bike lanes with cars eliminated from that north-south route, all for far less than the cost (but also far less the capacity) of the 2nd Ave. line. Or, more feasibly, imagine a light rail through less dense parts of Queens and Brooklyn that aren’t connected to the subways.

The other question too is whether any NYC light rail is a better option that a bus network. There is a psychological element involved as riders prefer the reliability of a fixed-rail system with dedicated running spaces, but real BRT could address those concerns as well without the capital outlay. Ultimately, it may make more sense to reform MTA spending and examine unused rail ROWs throughout the city, but studying light rail has its place in the NYC transit dialogue. I hope something interesting comes of Ydanis Rodriguez’s request.

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As anyone who’s kept up with my site over the years knows, I’m not a particularly big fan of the recent push to expand the city’s ferry network. If handled properly and if geography and economic forces dictate accordingly, boats can be a complementary part of a comprehensive transit network, but the recent attention — from Washington Heights to Soundview to Bay Ridge to the Rockaways — on expanding the network seems to treat ferries as a comprehensive solution to some of the travel woes affecting the city’s more isolated areas. As a history of failed ferry companies and eliminated routes tell show us, ferries are not the panacea they are promised to be.

The latest round of ferry fetishization comes to us from the Economic Development Corporation. The city agency recently unveiled plans for an extensive ferry network, and at the time, the mayor said, apparently with a straight face, that he expects the new ferry routes to help alleviate subway congestion problems. That’s almost as crazy as the idea that pedestrian plazas should be ripped up because of a handful of aggressive costumed characters and desnudas asking for tips, but I digress.

Now that the ferry service is inching closer to reality, the details are becoming clearer, and the planning seems to be as flawed as I feared it would be. Last week, Brooklyn’s Community Board 6 heard a presentation on the Red Hook plan, and what they heard does not inspire much confidence in the potential popularity of the ferry network. Two reports focused on different, but equally as problematic, aspects of the new service.

The first concerns fare payment and comes courtesy of DNA Info:

The planned Citywide Ferry System will begin service in the spring of 2017 with three routes — South Brooklyn, Astoria and Rockaway — but its $2.75 ticket will not integrate with the MTA’s MetroCard fare system or allow free transfers to subways and buses, city officials said at a community meeting Thursday night.

Without a free transfer, most riders who do not work within walking distance of their docks would effectively see their transportation costs double. But the higher cost would still be in the range of the fare for an express bus, said Lydia Downing, the city Economic Development Corporation’s vice president and deputy director for government and community relations.

“I think it’s a dealbreaker if you can’t get it integrated with the MetroCard,” Bahij Chancey, an architect and Cobble Hill resident, told the EDC at the meeting. Commuters won’t bother with the additional ticket and the extra fare, and the city will find there isn’t enough rider revenue to sustain the operation, he said.

EDC officials claimed that the fare payment system could be integrated with the MTA’s once the agency phases out the MetroCard, but that’s not likely to happen before the initial three-year ferry pilot term expires. For now, the ferries will create a two-fare system, and that’s not a plus in my book. We’ll revisit that in a few paragraphs.

The other problem concerns terminal location. The Brooklyn Paper summarizes:

The city should jetty-son its plan to open a new commuter ferry stop on the southern edge of Red Hook and drop anchor in Atlantic Basin instead, say locals. Officials intend to send ferries to either the privately-owned Van Brunt Street pier or the city-owned parkland Valentino Pier when the city expands its ferry services in 2017. But those sites are out of walking distance for many Red Hookers, not close enough to transit, and lack parking, critics said.

“The two locations you have picked — unless they can take their car, fold it up, and put it in their briefcase — there is no parking,” said Jerry Armer, who is a member of Community Board 6, which encompasses Red Hook. Instead, locals are floating their own plan to open the dock in Atlantic Basin, in the corner closest to Conover Street, which they said has a giant parking lot and is closer to more Hook homes.

The idea of creating a ferry terminal that requires a car to be accessible to the neighborhood it’s supposed to serve is completely anathema to ferries as a solution to the transit problem; the two-fare system simply exacerbates and underscores this flaw.

Red Hook, in particular, is a prime spot for ferry service. It’s surrounded by water, isolated from the subway system, and contains a high amount of lower- and middle-income housing. It’s an area may regard as a transit desert, and yet, the ferries don’t help those citizens who can’t reach transit. By locating terminals too far from the public housing complexes — which aren’t near the water in the first place — and instituting a two-fare system, the ferries are essentially unreachable and unaffordable for those most in need of better access. If ferries can’t work for Red Hook, what chances do the rest of the proposed system have?

Ultimately, these flawed plans leave me with the same question I’ve had from the start: If the city is willing to subsidize expensive ferry service so that the fare for a boat ride is $2.75 but won’t ensure a transfer to a bus or subway, would New Yorkers be better off if the EDC simply invested the money in a better bus network for Red Hook or even a light rail system on a dedicated set of tracks running from Borough Hall to Red Hook to Smith/9th Sts.? If the Red Hook ferry — particularly low-hanging fruit — is being set up to fail, it’s hard to think otherwise.

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The RPA’s latest study features simply fixes for intra-borough mobility.

Thanks to the foresight of our New Yorker ancestors, we have an extensive subway system that allows someone, if they so choose, to travel from the Rockaways to the norther edge of the city limits in the Bronx for one fare. Whether leaders in City Hall and Albany realize it, the subway system powers New York City’s economy, and the city wouldn’t be home to 8 million people without it.

Thanks to that same history, though, the subway system remains unchangeably Manhattan-centric. It was built at a time when the southern tip of Manhattan was overrun with people and was designed to spread out the masses teeming through the tenements to other areas of the city. In that regard, it has been an enduring success that more than attained the goals of its creators. But it remains a relic of the early 20th Century, and with job centers — and people — leaving Manhattan, the subway isn’t quite as useful for borough-to-borough trips that would otherwise connect New Yorkers to jobs. Sure, we have the G train, but try traveling from Brooklyn to the Bronx, Staten Island to Queens or even Queens to Brooklyn.

Earlier this week, in an extensive report, the Regional Plan Association tackled just this issue. Transit planning for the 21st Century, the organization says in a new publication [pdf], must be focused on connecting the so-called Outer Boroughs. For anyone who’s been keeping an eye on the RPA, the report is the culmination of a theme, and it’s one worth exploring. In it, the RPA calls upon the city — and by virtue of its role, the MTA — to do better. Their ideas involve (1) creating a first-rate bus system; (2) improving and extending rail service; (3) and, importantly, making commuter rail work for borough residents. The last part is easy; rationalize the fare and run more trains. The other two require some work.

The foundation for the report is the growing evidence that job opportunities in the Outer Boroughs are increasing at a greater rate than in Manhattan and that people have a tough time getting from home to these jobs. Sure, the subways are focused around Downtown Brooklyn, Long Island City and Jamaica, but trips can be circuitous and time-consuming. It’s great for those who work in Manhattan and less great for everyone else.

“Too many residents of Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island are forced to make long and circuitous commutes every day, often going out of their way to travel relatively short distances,” Jeffrey Zupan, the RPA’s senior fellow for transportation and one of the report’s authors, said. “In the many neighborhoods that are located beyond a comfortable walking distance from a subway or railroad station, residents have to rely on slow and infrequent buses, adding to the time and inconvenience of their commutes.”

With the exception of their plans for the Second Ave. Subway, the solutions aren’t expensive. The RPA wants a better bus network (though I think their BRT proposal is ill-designed), and they want the Triboro RX subway (though omitting a station at Broadway Junction is a mistake and so is the northern extension through the Bronx). They want a commitment to send the Second Ave. Subway into the Bronx and through Lower Manhattan, and they call upon more off-board fare payment options for buses. They propose more frequent Metro-North and LIRR service within the city with lower fares as well.

Nothing in this report is a reach, and any quibbles should be around the edges as mine are. Of course, what these ideas don’t have are funding or a champion, and that’s a real problem. Without either, they won’t see the light of day no matter how easy they are to implement and how important they could be to the city’s mobility.

So the RPA, which has been trumpeting Triboro RX for nearly 20 years, will keep trying. As Tom Wright, the organization’s president, said, “Good transit access plays an enormous role in expanding opportunity to education and jobs. As New York works to foster a new supply of housing to meet surging demand, we need to think more broadly about how our transit network will accommodate the city’s needs well into the 21st century.”

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