Archive for Public Transit Policy
In a sense, the New York region’s rail transportation has stalled out. New York City Transit and PATH cooperate only in a minimal sense of the word while the LIRR, Metro-North, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak would seemingly rather be caught dead than sharing or fighting together for precious funds and resources. So we’re left with infrastructure that doesn’t expand. We can add a few tunnels and some stations, but truly transformative projects do not happen.
Recently, after years of talking about the ARC Tunnel and now a Gateway Tunnel, the region’s transit leaders have started to take notice of this problem, and MTA head Joe Lhota has begun to speak out against it. At the RPA’s conference earlier this week, he issued a call for unity. “Right now, we’re as Balkanized as you can possibly imagine,” he said. “We need to find a way to coordinate that.”
Transportation Nation’s Jim O’Grady had more:
New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joe Lhota told a conference of transportation professionals that the only hope for moving more people under the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey is for the area’s commuter railroads to set aside their traditional enmity and work better together…
Lhota tossed out three ideas, each aimed at boosting capacity at Penn Station in Manhattan…He said the station’s 21 platforms should all be made to accommodate 10-car trains, which would mean lengthening some of them. He also said that the railroads using the station—Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and Long Island Rail Road—should do a better job of sharing platform and tunnel space…
Lhota’s third suggestion was the most ambitious. He said the three railroads—plus the MTA’s Metro-North line, which connects Manhattan to Connecticut and several downstate New York counties—should use each other’s tracks. In other words, trains should flow throughout the region in a way that sends them beyond their historic territory. For example, a train from Long Island could arrive in Penn Station and, instead of sitting idly until its scheduled return trip, move on to New Jersey. That way, trains would spend less time tying up platforms, boosting the station’s capacity.
For many transit advocates in the area, these are common-sense proposals that have been on the table for years, if not decades. Barring a new tunnel — and that may still be at least a decade away — these ideas may help alleviate some of the rail problems plaguing the area. The other problem, of course, is one of funding, and to that end, Lhota wants some political action as well.
“There’s been an absence of leadership on transportation in this country since the creation of the Port Authority,” he said. “I would imagine you know that both the president and former Governor Romney come to the New York metropolitan area and raise hundreds of millions of dollars. Not once is anybody talking to them while they’re in New York about the critical need for transportation. We’re losing that effort. So we may be losing this entire political campaign. We need to make it a big issue.”
If we want to see needed upgrades, improvements and expansions any time soon, that we do. That we do.
Over the years, I’ve mentioned the ways in which the federal government overreacts when it comes to rail safety. High-profile train accidents are so few and far between that the feds seem to deem them great failures that require immediate legislative responses. If only our representatives were so attuned to the problems of pedestrian safety.
Anyway, a few years ago, a train accident in California that caused the deaths of 25 passengers set off a flurry of action. Investigators determined that the train operator was texting while driving and failed to stop at a red light. The solution: Require all rail roads to implement Positive Train Control, a costly technology that doesn’t really even exist in a form usable by the most heavily trafficked commuter lines. Amtrak has spent an exorbitant amount of money on it and likely will not meet the federally-mandated 2015 deadline. The MTA is struggling with the unfunded mandate as well, The Post reported.
Jennifer Fermino had more:
A federally mandated safety program that will cost at least $750 million has forced the MTA to put off upgrades that would benefit millions of riders on the LIRR and Metro-North, The Post has learned. The improvements would have eased crowded train cars, reduced delays and increased parking spots, sources said. But instead, the MTA is being forced to spend money on a system called Positive Train Control, which must be installed by 2015. It’s even more outrageous because the agency has already spent $1 billion on safety upgrades that make Metro-North and LIRR the safest commuter railroads in the nation.
Still, to meet the deadline, the MTA has had to defer a host of rider-friendly projects. That includes signal upgrade work on Metro-North’s upper Harlem and Hudson lines, which would allow officials to run more trains in a shorter period of time and reduce delays. It will also defer the addition of electrical substations on the upper Harlem line, which will give officials the juice needed to run longer trains that would ease rider overcrowding. The Long Island Rail Road, meanwhile, has shelved plans to expand and add parking at busy stations…
The MTA’s preliminary estimates for PTC, which allows a computer to reduce a train’s speed in a number of situations, will cost $750 million for both railroads combined. But a recent MTA analysis found the true cost could soar to $1 billion, in part because the technology will have to be specially adapted to suit the nation’s two largest and busiest commuter rail systems. Adding to the cost, much of the software and hardware needed to install PTC in New York — which includes retrofitting 1,200 miles of track and 1,000 rail cars — hasn’t even been developed yet.
With many agencies looking at few options, price tags will be significantly higher than they should be as well. “All the railroads in the Northeast simultaneously are having to do the same thing in a very small industry, so there’s clearly going to be a lack of competition” Metro-North President Howard Permut said last week.
The MTA failed to get a exemption two years ago and will now lobby the FRA for a compliance extension to 2018. No matter the outcome, the authority will have to spend money it doesn’t really have on a technology it doesn’t need. And this is why I grow wary every time the feds start talking about subway safety regulations or rail standards. It’s a hindrance to good oversight and future growth.
Whether we recognize it overtly or not, competition is a key to New York City’s transit success. The MTA doesn’t necessarily care too much if bus ridership is down if the subways are capturing those trips, but if, for example, the combined New York City Transit ridership declines while some other mode share increases, Transit loses out on revenue. If auto trips increase, the New York City society on the whole loses as well due to the impact of increased congestion and decreasing environmental conditions. The equation grows a bit more complicated when bike trips enter the picture.
Over the past few years of the Bloomberg Administration, biking in New York City has taken center stage. Reimagining street space for pedestrians and cyclists is something the city can do without interference from Albany. We may need a “home rule” message to institute a congestion pricing scheme or enforce bus lanes with cameras, but city planners do not need such approval to reapportion space as they see fit. So where biking was once a rather terrifying proposition in the city, an ambitious expansion of dedicated bike lanes and traffic-calming measures had made cycling safer and saner.
For transit both with a capital T and without, the rise of biking is a mixed bag. Most folks cycling to work are doing so not at the expense of a car but at the expense of a MetroCard swipe. I’ve heard many stories of riders switching to pedal power who are fed up with slower and less frequent subway service, more crowded trains and more expensive fares. Now that the city has unveiled its initial plans for the ambitious bike-share network, we have an even better sense of what the future will hold in New York City.
The details have been covered extensively elsewhere, but I can summarize: In late July, the first bike-share stations will hit the streets, and by the end of the year, the city will have 420 docking stations in the southern half of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn and Queens. The initial map — available here — clearly shows how the Citi Bank-sponsored initiative will, at first, compete with transit. By targeting Manhattan south of 59th Street and the readily-accessible areas in Queens and Brooklyn, the bike-share network readily imitates the subway system.
Over at his Spaciality blog, Steven Romalewski charted bike-share docking stations against distance from subway entrances and came up with the map below.
He also offered up the following commentary:
Here are the stats:
- 89 locations (22%) between 14 and 250 feet (length of a typical Manhattan block);
- 117 kiosks (28%) between 250 and 750 feet (the average distance between Manhattan avenues);
- 97 kiosks (24%) between 750 and 1,320 ft (a quarter mile);
- 89 kiosks (22%) between 1,320 and 2,640 ft (a half mile); and
- 21 kiosks (5%) further than 2,640 feet.
(The percentages do not equal 100% due to rounding.)
- The proposed kiosk closest to a subway entrance is in lower Manhattan, on the west side of Greenwich St near Rector St (ID 12364), 14 feet from the Rector St entrance to the 1 train.
- The kiosk furthest from a subway entrance is on Manhattan’s west side, in the Hudson River Greenway near West 40th Street (at the West Midtown Ferry Terminal; ID 12092), almost three-quarters of a mile (3,742 feet) from the 40th St entrance to the 42nd St/Port Authority Bus Terminal station.
In other words, half of the proposed kiosks are within an avenue of a subway entrance, one-quarter are within two avenues, and the rest are further away.
As Romalewski notes, a bike-share system is well designed if it works within the existing ideological framework of “first and last mile.” The bike-share isn’t supposed to be a replacement for transit; rather, it’s supposed to deliver people too and from transit in an cost-effective, efficient and quick manner. At some places, the early kiosks will do that; in other places, the first docking stations may make it easier for riders to eschew transit all together.
Eventually, as docking stations spread out to the areas of the city not so conveniently located to the Manhattan Central Business District, the “first and last mile” concept will become more important. Can bike share convince travelers in the areas of the city with poor transit connections to eschew their cars? Will potential drivers in Sheepshead Bay and beyond be willing to use bike-share to reach the B or Q instead of their cars to reach Manhattan? When we know the answer to those questions and can ascertain usage patterns, we’ll have a better sense of how bike share meshes with the transit network and how it competes as well.
At first, it will be tough to gauge the impact CitiBikes has on New York City Transit and mode share. It may, in fact, shift potential straphangers out of the subway. After all, it’s cheaper to join bike share than it is to buy monthly MetroCards, and many riders don’t often take particularly long trips. But eventually, bike share should increase transit usage as it brings people from isolated areas to the subway. If all goes well, bike share won’t compete with the subway system as much as it will enhance it. That last mile may wind up shorter yet.
Yesterday, I wrote about the need to better integrate the East River ferries with the rest of the city’s MTA-run transportation network. Today, MTA head Joe Lhota splashed some cold water on that idea. While speaking at the Regional Plan Association’s annual conference — more on that on Sunday night — Lhota spoke broadly of supporting a MetroCard-based fare payment system with the ferries but stressed that a free transfer isn’t the way to go. “The MTA is in no position to share its revenue with the ferries,” he said.
So let’s amend the idea a bit: Instead of a free transfer, the ferries become another part of the MTA payment network akin to the express buses. These rides cost more than a regular fare, but you can still use a pay-per-ride card on them. Still, though a transfer has to be a part of the equation somehow to make sure riders are being encouraged to use transit without having to pay two fares. Somehow, the revenue and subsidies have to work out so that the MTA isn’t losing money, but riders shouldn’t be either.
For the past year, I’ve been a skeptic when it comes to the East River Ferry plan. The city is essentially forking over $9 million over three years for what I believed to be a novelty act. The city’s waterfront is too removed from population and job centers to provide an adequate route for most commuters. Furthermore, the ferries aren’t the speediest of vessels; the rides during the winter can be cold; and the fare system had nothing to do with the rest of the city’s MTA-run transit network.
After a mild winter that saw East River ferry ridership top expectations by over 100 percent — ridership last week cleared 19,000 vs. an estimated 8900 trips — the city is trying to solve that last problem. As DNA Info notes, officials are attempting to convince the MTA and ferry operators to find a way to make MetroCards work for ferry fare payments. Jill Colvin has more:
Advocates and council members said they believe the numbers would soar even higher if commuters could more easily transfer to buses and subways and pay their $4 fares with a simple MetroCard swipe, just like travelers on JFK’s AirTrain and the PATH trains.
Tim Sullivan, a senior policy advisor to Deputy Mayor Robert Steel, said the city is already exploring the MetroCard idea. “We’d like to see if we can apply that to the ferry system as well,” he said.
The MTA confimed it has been engaged in preliminary talks about integrating ferries with the rest of the city’s transit system, but it is not clear if it would work with unlimited MetroCards. Roland Lewis, president of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, agreed that allowing customers to pay for ferries with the same MetroCard as they can use to pay for other forms of public transportation would be a major boost.
The key here though isn’t just allowing riders to use their MetroCards to pay; it also involves integrating ferry service as a part of the free transfer system so that riders can pay to use the ferry and get a subway transfer out of it or vice versa. Such an arrangement would solve the problem of a two-fare system currently in place today.
Of course, such a transfer solve only one problem facing the ferries. Right now, despite a $3 million annual subsidy and higher-than-expected ridership, the operators are still losing money. Billybey Ferry Company asked for a higher subsidy late last year, and the owners are not expecting the same ridership bump every winter. With a goal of reducing the subsidy to $0, the company may need to raise fares precipitously over the coming years.
So then can we integrate the ferries in with the MTA’s fare payment system? It needs to happen, but it’s not as easy as just asking nicely.
It’s been a few years since Mayor Michael Bloomberg put forward his PlaNYC2030 vision, and by now, we’ve had a chance to see what has succeeded, what will move forward and what won’t. As the political fallout from an ambitious and, according to some, heavy-handed attempt to change New York has settled, I’ve been disappointed by the lack of cohesiveness and clarity in the city’s long-term transportation planning. We have only the bare minimum of expansion plans in place with a lackluster attempt to improve the bus network and no steady and dedicated funding scheme in place. Where did we go wrong?
A few days ago, while browsing through The Other Side of the Tracks, I came across a story out of Washington, D.C. The Nation’s Capitol, with less than 1/10 the population of New York City, is hoping to grow by over 40 percent over the next two decades. Mayor Vincent Gray wants to add 250,000 to the district’s headcount, and he has a comprehensive urban plan that would help D.C. usher in this growth.
On the one hand, the plan is an ambitious attempt to re-imagine urban life in a mid-sized East Coast city. He wants to cut waste, eliminate the need for people to use cars and turn the city into a hyper-local, largely self-sustaining ecosystem. On the other hand, city officials are hoping that 75 percent of trips will be by foot, bicycle or public transit, but they seem to be intent on promoting street cars over an expansion of the Metro system. We could debate the wisdom of such a move forever, but the truth remains that without a more comprehensive Metro system within the District of Columbia, the city won’t be able to absorb a 40 percent increase in population.
Still, that’s besides the point. D.C. has a plan, and a mayor willing to put his name behind the plan. Furthermore, the plan has a significant transportation component that aims to reimagine how city streets are used and how city transportation is prioritized. In New York City, we have a once-powerful mayor who fought one battle, lost and then gave up.
Bloomberg’s story focuses around congestion pricing, and it was a one-off battle. He made congestion pricing a centerpiece of PlaNYC 2030, failed to gather political support before unveiling the plan and then lost the fight in Albany. Since then, we’ve had ineffective state executives unwilling to pick this fight anew, a mayor who has recoiled from dealing with the state and a new and very powerful governor who is unwilling to push for congestion pricing. As Streetsblog noted on Wednesday, Cuomo sets the agenda right now; if he believed in a congestion pricing plan, it could become law within a matter of weeks.
Yet, even with congestion pricing, New York City has no plan. Our subway expansion efforts, due to a variety of factors including out-of-control costs, are meager. We’re getting a one-stop extension of the 7 line and a three-stop extension of the Q up Second Ave. The Triboro RX plan is often scorned as impossible, and those who dare to dream about it speak in decades rather than years. Beyond that, we have a Select Bus Service plan that fails to unite boroughs, neighborhoods and job centers, and no unifying goal. New York City has no transit champion.
Partly, the political structure of the MTA is to blame for this deficit. The MTA is a creature of the state, and thus no mayor can do too much to impact the direction of MTA-related transportation growth. We need the state’s approval to move forward and the state’s dollars as well. Anything the city wants to do then will either have to involve the state or have to escape the purview of the organization that runs our buses and subways. It’s quite the conundrum.
So we’re left spinning our wheels. We need that reimagining of our transportation priorities, and we need a plan to move forward and expand. Instead, we have incremental technological improvements, regular fare hikes, a legacy of service cuts and no champion. Who can step up to save and improve the city’s transportation network and its long-term future?
New York City’s Borough Presidents don’t have much power within the city’s government. They have small discretionary budgets, can appoint Community Board members and are largely ceremonial. Because New Yorkers love a figurehead, though, serious politicians can use the BP spot as a spring board to greater ambitions. Many a former Manhattan Borough Presidents have moved into Gracie Mansion, and Scott Stringer is looking to do the same.
Armed with the support of his long-time family friend and native Manhattanite Scarlett Johansson, Stringer must overcome the presumptive front-runner Christine Quinn’s edge, but he is a vocal and tireless campaigner. As Borough Presidents go, he has also been a friend of transit — at least as much as he can be in his role. He hosted a conference late last year about the future of transportation in New York City and seems to recognize that our mass transit system powers Manhattan and the city’s economy.
Yesterday, at a speech before the Association for a Better New York, Stringer laid out his views on transit. We know he endorsed a commuter tax plan, but he had far more to say on the subway system. “We have a basic problem: The Metropolitan Transportation Authority—the central nervous system of our regional transit network– is a fiscal house of cards,” he said. “That’s not just bad for straphangers. Without a healthy MTA, our region’s 1.2 trillion dollar economy could come to a screeching halt. Without action, we risk becoming a first-class city with a second-rate transportation network. We cannot let that happen.”
In his speech, Stringer laid out what he called a “roadmap” for the MTA. This wasn’t about taking cheap shots at the beleaguered transit authority or flat-out ignoring transit as our current Governor has done. Rather, this was a speech about paying attention, making some hard choices and investing in our present and future. He issued a call for a New York City Transit Trust Fund with dedicated revenues from the mortgage recording fund; he urged Albany to embrace Sam Schwartz’s traffic plan; and he called upon the restoration of the commuter tax.
“Under my plan, the New York City Transit Trust will also leverage private dollars, but will do so responsibly, by tying the infrastructure bank to a dedicated revenue stream – our existing Mortgage Recording Tax. Now as many of you know, the Mortgage Recording Tax is a fee that gets paid every time property changes hands in the City and the 7-county MTA region. Today, those fees flow directly into the MTA’s operating budget.
Now, unfortunately, the MRT is a horrible source of operating funds – it swings wildly from year to year, making solid projections very tough. At the height of the housing bubble, the Mortgage Recording Tax and other transfer taxes generated $1.5 billion for the city and the MTA. But by last year, with a flat market, revenues dropped 75 percent to just $400 million.
Relying on a source of revenue that can plunge 75 percent over a five year span is no way to run a railroad, much less the nation’s largest transit system. Over the long haul, however, we know that the Mortgage Recording Tax brings in an average of $400 million a year. A dedicated revenue stream of that size can be used to leverage over $10 billion in capital that could be quickly put to work.”
What then would the city be able to do with this money? Spend it wisely, says Stringer. Echoing a point I’ve made before, he leveled his sights on current projects. “We can’t be throwing precious dollars at projects like the Fulton Street station in Lower Manhattan,” he said. “That station is costing taxpayers 1.4 billion dollars and will do nothing to add capacity when work finally ends in 2014.”
With the added dollars, we could reimagine the transit network, he said. Stringer would expand bus rapid transit. He wants to add light rail to 42nd St., and he wants to deliver an AirTrain to La Guardia. He even spoke of the Triboro RX line. “Here’s why it is not a pipe dream: The line is built entirely along existing rights of way,” he said. “That means no tunneling, which is the biggest hurdle in this day and age to building new subways.”
It’s unclear what Stringer’s political future is right now. The 2013 mayoral race is both a long ways off and very unsettled. But no New York politician has taken such a vocal and ardently pro-transit stance as Stringer did yesterday. For that, he deserves a good long look even as his ideas would face steep opposition in Albany. He might just be the city’s best hope for a better transit policy.
Stringer’s speech is available in full right here.
By a vote of 74-22, the Senate yesterday passed their version of a reauthorization of the transportation bill. You can read all about the vote at Streetsblog and Transportation for America. I wanted to discuss a few key New York-centric aspects of this new measure.
First, the good: New York City stands to benefit tremendously under the Senate version of the bill. As The Post notes, New York State would receive $1.4 billion in transit dollars and $1.7 billion in road money. The bulk of the transit dollars would fund MTA projects, and the commuter tax benefits would be restored to $240 per month. “It’s one of the most important bills for New York that’s going to come this year,” Chuck Schumer, Senior Senator from the Great State of New York, said.
Now the bad: Besides the fact that the House seems intent on enacting a Tea Party-style death by a million cuts on the Transportation Bill and the final version will have to go to conference for a reconciliation, the safety measures are something we should not be quick to embrace. As The Washington Post explains, the Senate, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that the derailment and collision problems through which only the WMATA suffers warrant sweeping federal safety oversight of the nation’s subway systems.
“We have federal safety standards for planes, trains and automobiles. We need them for transit systems like Washington’s Metro,” Maryland’s Sen. Barbara Mikulski said. “I will keep pushing forward on reforming Metro until it’s safe for the people who work on it and the people who ride on it.”
Now, it’s all well and good for the Senate to be concerned with the lone subway system that literally runs through its backyard, but as I said a few weeks ago, federal oversight for subway systems is unnecessary and likely costly. It will carry unfunded federal mandates that lead to detrimental redundancies that just aren’t necessary to operate a fast and efficient rapid transit network. We’ve seen it with the FRA, and there’s no reason to expect otherwise here. If the Senate has a problem with their own Metro, they should address it at home and not by making the rest of us suffer.
Before we get too upset over these developments, though, we must wait for the House. A looming showdown could drastically alter the structure of this bill, but at least the Senate is willing to move forward with a somewhat sensible transportation solution.
As things in Washington, D.C., stand now, H.R. 7, the transportation bill that has had many wringing their hands over the past few weeks, is unlikely to become law without some serious work. Still, New York representatives from both sides of the political aisle are concerned that the city will lose a major source of transit funding (and money that goes toward job creation in the area). They and leading transit officials have been speaking out against the bill.
Yesterday, in a conference call with numerous transit agency heads, MTA CEO and Chairman Joe Lhota explained how New York City benefits from the current funding scheme. “That billion dollars in funding is used to buy rail stock and switching and signaling equipment, critical to maintaining our system in a state of good repair,” he said.
Under the new bill, a dedicated funding stream for transit projects would dry up, and the money allocated for various grants for transit projects would be thrown into a common pot. Every project would compete for scarce funds, and transit and pedestrian-improvement projects would be a complete disadvantage to road building. But that’s the problem only on the top level. Below the surface the bill is rife with inefficient practices.
Take, for instance, Section 5310 of the new bill. This section concerns the bus and bus facilities formula grant. According to some commentators, approximately $900 million would be available for transit agencies under this section, but there’s a giant caveat. Section 5310(c)(1) discusses eligibility and defines it as such:
RECIPIENTS- Eligible recipients under this section are providers of public transportation in urbanized areas that operate fixed route bus services and that do not operate heavy rail, commuter rail, or light rail services.
In simple English, the only agencies eligible for funding under this section — the only folks who could claim a piece of a lofty $900 million pie — are those who operate bus systems only and also do not operate any rail service. That will lead to two consequences: Either any major transit agency — the MTA, the WMATA, the MBTA, etc. — would all be eliminated or they would have to spin off their bus operations into brand new agencies thus creating another layer of transit bureaucracy.
Transportation for America is highly critical of this section of the bill. This section, they say, “needlessly diverts tax dollars to bureaucratic overhead that should be used to provide much-needed transit services to local communities.” Why have one transit agency without streamlined operations that wastes money on bureaucracy when you can have two?
On a granular level, this is the kind of transit policy coming out of the House of Representatives right now. As three decades of dedicated transit funding sources are coming under attack, common-sense governmental operations are under the microscope too. The MTA has worked hard, with varying degrees of success, to tame a multi-agency bus system, and if H.R. 7 becomes law, the authority would either have to forfeit funds or discard its bus system entirely. Nothing about that sounds like sound policy to me.
As of now, the bill doesn’t have the votes to pass the House, but as Streetsblog noted yesterday, we’re not out of the woods yet. “I think that the drafters go back to the drawing board and they recognize that we have some issues that we can’t just overlook,” Michael Grimm, a House rep from Staten Island said. Hopefully, those drafters will listen to officials who are urging a better bill, but I’m not so optimistic.
When it comes to the nation’s rail networks, many transit advocates insist — and generally rightly so — that federal oversight is holding us back. The FRA imposes crash-test regulations that lead to train cars that are unnecessarily heavy and operations unnecessarily slowed down. Thus, train travel cannot achieve speeds and efficiencies it otherwise should.
It is, then, somewhat alarming that we now learn Congress is considering federal oversight for subway systems. Basically because subways are under local rule and Congress grew concerned over a spate of crashes in its own backyard involving the WMATA, the country’s federal legislative body is now toying with the idea of bringing every subway system’s safety regulations under federal control. “We have federal safety standards for planes, trains and automobiles. It’s shocking we don’t have them for the 7 million Americans who rely on metro systems every day,” Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) said to The Washington Post.
As we sit here in New York, though, we shouldn’t embrace this idea. Already our subway cars are generally heavier than they need to be. We also don’t have the same troubled history with safety regulations as the WMATA does. If Congress is truly concerned with that bi-state (and one district) subway authority, it should exercise its oversight powers there. Otherwise, federal oversight of New York City subways will likely lead to onerous regulations and unfunded mandates that will slow down service and rob us of our efficiencies. It’s just not necessary.