Archive for U.S. Transit Systems
The MTA’s capital plan may be considered something of a mess. For $25 billion – give or take a few billion – every five years, the MTA embarks on a steady stream of expansion and rehabilitation projects. Sure, new construction efforts cost far too much, and sure, nothing seems to be completed on time. But the capital program, born out of the system’s 1970s nadir, isn’t going anywhere. It’s too important to the city, its subway riders and its construction lobby.
Of course, the capital plan isn’t perfect. I can’t overstate how project costs and construction pace have hindered rapid subway expansion, and the MTA is constantly fighting for the dollars it so desperately needs. It’s clear from even cursory glances around the system that the Momentum which includes a modest expansion of the Metro system, some long-awaited transfer tunnels between the Farragut stations and between Gallery Place and Metro Center and, finally, some express tracks along certain routes. Total expenditures would add up to approximately $1 billion a year through 2040, low by New York’s standards but high nonetheless. There’s a catch though: No one knows how these plans will be funded.
Dana Hedgpeth of The Washington Post delves into the funding issue. She writes:
Dubbed “Momentum,” and 18 months in the making, Metro’s new strategic plan catalogues the system’s needs and renews the long-standing argument for Metro to have a dedicated funding source, just as many big-city transit systems do. Metro’s lack of capital investment in the past decade has been blamed on that lack of dedicated funding, and planners say that unless that changes, there is little hope of executing the ambitious strategic plan that will be formally unveiled Thursday.
A new Metro line is being built in Northern Virginia, but it is being constructed for Metro by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, with revenue from the Dulles Toll Road financing a significant part of the line’s $5.6 billion cost.
No such obvious source of financing exists for the new rail line and tunnels proposed in Metro’s new strategic plan, and the plan does not specify how the agency would finance the rail expansion and other costly improvements….Unlike other transit agencies in New York, Boston and Los Angeles that depend on some level of dedicated funds from specific taxes, Metro receives contributions from the District, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government for its operating and capital budgets, which total $2.5 billion. Shyam Kannan, Metro’s chief planner, said it will take a “reliable, sustained stream of capital funding from a combination of local and federal” moneys to pay for the slew of proposed projects.
Metro is nearing its maximum capacity, and at some point, the region’s planners and politicians will have to address that prickly issue. If D.C. is to grow, its subway system must grow as well, but without a steady source of funding, that growth is never a sure thing.
Here in New York, we argue for more funding. We argue for direct contributions instead of debt financing, and we argue for more subsidies for the operations budget. Although our system is still struggling to overcome decades of deferred maintenance, a plan, no matter how tough to realize, exists. It’s easy to lose sight of that fact, but it’s one we should not take for granted. After all, it could always be worse: The MTA could be the protect of four governments all with their own political viewpoints, interests and financial endgoals at stake.
A few days ago, I was taking my usual 2 or 3 train ride to work from Brooklyn when I heard a sound emerging from one end of the subway car. It wasn’t an unnatural sound, but it was a deep, hacking sound — one that caused me to raise an eyebrow. A man, you see, was in the process of coughing up a lung or two, and he just couldn’t stop. A few passengers exchanged those knowing looks that said, “I hope this guy doesn’t have anything serious,” and we all breathed a sigh of relief when he exited the train at Wall Street.
For germaphobes, riding the subway can be a truly traumatic experience. Despite their best efforts, straphangers just aren’t clean, and subway cars aren’t tidied up more often than once every few hours if that. They aren’t sterilized or sanitized in such a way that would bring comfort to many, and with millions of riders carrying who knows what in and out of the system, the subways would spread an epidemic just as fast as they deliver us from Rego Park to Midtown. For the rest of us, we cast wary eyes upon sick passengers and try to remember to wash our hands after getting out.
Lately, although I fall into the latter category, I’ve found myself paying a bit more attention to what I touch in the subways and the people around me. It’s hard not to when tales of a flu epidemic are splashed across the front pages of our newspapers. So far, Manhattan hasn’t seen the worst of the viruses spreading across the area. Rather, Philadelphia and Boston have gotten it much worse, but it seems to be only a matter of time.
In Boston, the MBTA has started taking steps to protect its riders. BostInno’s Steve Annear has a report:
To help combat the sickness spreading, MBTA managers met with SJ Services, the contractor responsible for cleaning subway cars, and directed workers to pay extra close attention to changing out the water used for cleaning as frequently as possible, and to not re-use rags. “Transportation managers have also stressed that the cleaners always use latex gloves and focus particularly on grab bars and hand straps,” according to T Spokesman Joe Pesaturo.
Pesaturo said the MBTA also has plans to play public service announcements through the loud speakers on the subway and display messages on digital boards, reminding riders to wash their hands often with soap and water and cover their nose and mouth when sneezing.
But even with all these precautions in place, experts say it’s easy to contract the flu when clustered with congested or coughing passengers. According to the Center for Disease Control, people can catch the flu from just six-feet away. “Most experts think that flu viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with the flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs,” according to health officials from the CDC. “Less often, a person might also get the flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth or nose.”
That’s enough to drive even those among us with the hardiest immune systems into a pandemic-inspired frenzy. But that’s always the risk we take when traveling by public transit. It’s only as clean as we make it and allow it to be.
So far, the MTA hasn’t taken any public steps to combat the spread of disease underground, but it could as conditions worsen. In the meantime, we can do each other some favors. Staying home while sick and washing up at a destination are the best approaches. The subways can spread a virus in the blink of an eye, and no one really wants to get sick.
The MTA’s current rolling stock is quite a mess of seating choices. We have trains that feature bucket seats far too narrow and center-facing seats to maximize standing room. We have trains with forward-facing bucket seats that lead to awkward passenger flow and cramped quarters. And we have all of our bright and shiny new rolling stock with center-facing benches that should, ostensibly, cram more people into the train cars while creating a more comfortable experience.
None of it works entirely properly. No matter which way the seats are oriented, Transit’s bucket seats — like bucket seats around the nation — are too narrow. In the winter, anyone with a warm coats winds up taking up too much space, and even the skinniest of riders will find themselves contained by the dip. Meanwhile, oftentimes, straphangers will either sit on top of each other or leave three quarters of an empty seat just sitting there. The forward-facing bucket seats on the R68s encourage riders to congregate around doorways, and riders on the bench seats — the best of three layouts — tend to take up more room than they should.
For New York City, though, the future is in benches. While a full R68 set has 560 seats and a full R142 set contains around 432 seats, the R142s fit far more standees, and thus, center-facing buckets rule the day. For the foreseeable future, all new rolling stock orders will be equipped with those grey-blue benches, and the forward facing cars, with their views out the window, will become relics.
Around the nation, though, consensus has not be quite as easy to reach. The Metro down in DC still has forward-facing seats, and trains quickly fill up at rush hour as passenger flow crawls to a stop. Now, Chicago is debating its approach to passenger seating. Calling the CTA’s latest iteration of buckets “New York-style seating,” Jon Hilkevitch of The Chicago Tribune opined on the right approach:
The center-facing scoop seat on the CTA’s new 5000 Series rail car, a departure from the forward-facing seats on the CTA’s older railcars, is only 17.5 inches wide. The design assumes 17.5 inches is a comfortable seat width for everyone. But if the “average-sized rider” is bookended by two larger passengers who are spilling over their allotted seat space, the poor commuter in the middle feels like a ham sandwich in a George Foreman Grill.
Benches, on the other hand, allow for some latitude and help each passenger have a little personal space.”We only have a few cars with scoop seating. Our R142 cars (delivered in the early 2000s) are bench-style and the new R179 cars that we ordered this year will have benches,” [New York City Transit Charles] Seaton said…
CTA riders who have ridden on the MTA cars know that the 5000 Series cars are not New York-style, despite the center-facing seat format. “CTA cars are nothing like New York cars,” said CTA rider Colman Buchbinder. He noted that the aisles are wider on the MTA fleet, “allowing a feeling of space,” and the grab poles are located in the middle of the aisle, instead of being wedged between the seat dividers on the CTA cars.
As for the bench design, “Big people take up big spaces and small people take up small spaces. That’s a huge difference from Chicago’s setup of narrow individual bucket seat forms that force people to squeeze or leave an empty seat,” Buchbinder said. “If you think it’s bad now, wait until winter when the coats come on.”
Chicago, it seems, has irked its customers by providing bucket seats too narrow for those who secure a seat, and aisles too narrow for passengers trying to make their ways through the cars. It’s a classic example of how seat and car design can impact subway mobility and rider happiness. While we all want to aspire to a seat, the reality is that most people in a packed subway will not be seating, and then, making sure straphangers can enter and exit quickly and easily becomes a paramount concern.
Ultimately, I think we’ll see center-facing benches become the norm, but it’s a slow adjustment. DC and Chicago aren’t quite there yet, and even international subway systems that can be a bit more progressive with their policies are finding it tough to let go of the forward-facing seats. A subway though isn’t a commuter rail, and I’ll give the last word tonight on benches to a CTA rider. “Smooth benches allow for a seating free-market of sorts, where wide and narrow find their own equilibrium,” James Jenkins added. “The molded forms don’t allow for that nirvana.”
When it comes to the City of Angels, New Yorkers possess quite the superiority complex. Ours is a more vibrant, worldly, cultural and cosmopolitan city with a true downtown and less soul-crushing traffic than that other place on the West Coast. And forget the subways. Californians don’t even know Los Angeles has a subway!
OK, OK. Maybe that’s a bit too Center-of-the-Universe for our tastes, but still. The LA Metro, with its 350,000 daily riders, pales in comparison with New York’s century-old system. Now, with an ambitious expansion plan underway, more attention being paid to public transit in LA than ever before in the city’s history and a dedicated publicly-supported funding stream, East Coasters are left wondering if New York could learn a lesson from LA.
Earlier this week, Dana Rubinstein at Capital New York penned such a piece, and it’s worth the read for the thought-provoking aspect alone. “Of all big cities in the country, L.A. is making probably the most substantial public transportation investment,” Joshua Schank of the D.C.-based Eno Center for Transportation said to Rubinstein. “In terms of an expansion, it’s unprecedented. What they’re doing out there is incredible.”
What they’re doing is building, with money they raised themselves. In 2008, the same year New York’s congestion pricing scheme died in Albany, Los Angeles voters approved Measure R, a half-cent sales tax that over the next three decades is expected to garner $40 billion for transportation. It’s the third such transit-dedicated, voter-approved sales tax passed there since 1980. Those three taxes comprise the bulk of the agency’s funding. In April of 2011, that agency’s budget included money for, “about a dozen rail lines that are either under construction or being planned,” according to the L.A. Times.
New York’s M.T.A. is expanding, too, in some targeted ways, but it’s also chronically short of money and so lacking in political support that it’s near impossible to imagine New Yorkers willingly going to a voting booth to support it with new taxes. Joe Lhota, the authority’s relatively new chairman, regularly says as much, and has made improving the M.T.A.’s reputation and shoring up its political support one of his explicit goals.
Rubinstein also explores the why of it all. She is not kind to New York’s leadership:
For one, L.A.’s political leadership is arguably focused on transit in a way that New York’s politicians aren’t, really.
Andrew Cuomo seems to view public transportation more than anything as a potential liability to be mitigated, going back a while before he actually became governor; the legislature uses the M.T.A. alternately as a whipping post and a piggy bank; Michael Bloomberg has given up on proposing enlightened transit-funding schemes that go to Albany to die; Bloomberg’s would-be successors, so far, have focused on the easy stuff. “Bloomberg’s talked about congestion pricing and then it kind of fell off the radar when it died,” said Schank.
Related: L.A.’s transportation people invest relatively heavily in P.R. “Our metro does a great job with marketing,” said Lisa Schweitzer, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy. “They have terrific advertisers and cute graphics and the whole shebang.”
From my casual eye, L.A.’s Metro has taken the failures of its East Coast compatriots to heart and has applied a few lessons to build a better organization that enjoys community support. In New York, the MTA is so entrenched in the minds of the public that it likely can’t overcome its image issues.
So has L.A. surpassed New York? They still have around 5 million daily passengers, 16 subway lines and nearly 40 stops to go. But with money flowing freely and construction progressing, perhaps the Great Freeway State can shed some of its car-centric image and teach us all a lesson about embracing transit construction in areas that sorely need it.
When it comes to public-private partnerships, transit agencies and those in the private sector willing to participate have often struggled with their projects. We’ve seen some station rehabs succeed, some naming rights efforts falter and some private partners begin to understand why transit operators struggle with the finances.
In New York, one of the more problematic public-private partnerships has concerned the Atlantic Yards project. While more of a direct sale, Bruce Ratner’s obligations involved transit. In a nutshell, the MTA gave Ratner a sweetheart price for the air rights to the Vanderbilt Yards in Brooklyn with the original promise of a new nine-track train yard for $225 million. In 2009, the MTA agreed to a reduction in the size of the train yard. Ratner would have to build only a seven-track facility instead. A sweetheart deal had just gotten sweeter.
Now, we learn that despite a guaranteed delivery date of 2016, Ratner is facing delays in the construction of the train yard. As The Wall Street Journal reported last week, the delays are due to “higher-than-expected costs and a sluggish economy.” These same excuses have been percolating around the Vanderbilt Yards for years.
Brown had more:
Forest City spokesman Joseph DePlasco said the yard will still be completed on time. The developer has already built a portion of the yard, he said, and other related work will continue.
MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said the developer has agreed to do $10 million of additional work in the interim, and the LIRR is using a temporary rail yard meanwhile. “From our perspective, very little is changing here,” Mr. Lisberg said…
Forest City had previously agreed with the MTA to get construction on the new yard fully underway by June 30. But in recent months, the developer sought to push off that date. They recently reached an agreement with the agency to push off that date until Dec. 31, 2013, the terms of which were disclosed to MTA board members this week.
I’m not quite prepared to draw too many sweeping generalizations here. The economy has indeed been sluggish, and the MTA can’t do any better with projects it oversees itself. For us to expect Ratner, who has been bleeding money for years, to do any better would be foolish. Still, this delay, which clearly risks the target completion date, is just another black eye for a project replete with them.
Meanwhile, in Boston, we learn of a public-private partnership done right. New Balance, the shoe giant, has pledged to fund a rail station in the Allston-Brighton area as part of a $500 million development plan in the area. The company will fund the $16 million commuter rail stop that will service its new headquarters, and this total includes “all permitting, design, construction and annual maintenance costs,” a Boston.com reporter said last week.
Here is a company that recognizes the need for a commuter rail stop and is willing to take the steps to see it through to reality. It’s possible then to form a public-private partnership that works, just like it’s possible to screw one up.
If New York had its druthers, public transportation to its airports would be more direct than it is today. Right now, existing transit connections serve to get air travelers almost to their destinations. Instead of direct service, the trip to Newark or JFK Airports involves a two-seat ride with an automated people-mover that delivers travelers from one train station to a terminal. Of course, a subway to JFK’s door would still involve travel from a train station to the terminal, but as London’s Piccadilly Line shows, it’s not an impossible way to travel.
Down in the Washington, D.C. area, the WMATA is finally rectifying a grave oversight of travel. They are amidst work on a multi-billion extension of the Metro that will finally, mercifully bring subway service to Dulles Airport. By New York standards, this so-called Silver Line seems downright cheap, mostly because it involves a good amount of at-grade construction. The final project will bring 23 miles of track and 11 new stations to the area for under $7 billion. Jealous yet?
Still, one Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority board member isn’t satisfied. To save $70 million — or a little over 1 percent of the project’s total cost — Bob Brown proposed eliminating the Dulles stop, straightening out the alignment and constructing a people mover from the nearest station to the airport. “In my view this would be superior transportation service for our passengers,” Brown said.
Other WMATA board members were quick to shoot down the plan. “This is a creative idea,” Mame Reiley said, “but it’s not rail to Dulles. Fifteen years ago I might have been supportive, but I just don’t think that’s what we labored for is not to have rail to Dulles.”
That’s a rather singular vision put forward by Reiley. They’re not going to change their minds after 15 years of planning, and Greater Greater Washington issued a similar appeal. “Cutting so many corners that you don’t achieve your goal is not cost savings, it’s failure. Far from saving $70 million, by failing to provide Metro service to Dulles Airport Brown’s proposal would actually waste billions,” Dan Malouff wrote. He concluded: “The absolute minimum requirement for a Metro line to Dulles Airport must be that it actually reaches Dulles Airport. Period.”
I’m often skeptical of any argument that must be emphasized with a superfluous “period,” and another piece I read on the issue seemed to bare that out. Yonah Freemark ponders whether or not an airport line must actually service an airport. It may be perfectly acceptable and more beneficial for all riders if the airport line does what New York’s does. That is, if the train to the plane takes you to a people-mover that can better service airport terminals, everyone might come ahead.
After running some numbers, Freemark finds that total travel time from Route 28 — the station from which a Dulles people-mover would depart — to the airport isn’t significantly different if the WMATA goes with a station stop at Dulles or an airport connector. The difference, he notes, is in perceived convenience. It’s viewed as inconvenient for someone laden with bags and stressing to catch a flight to switch to yet another mode of transit. No one wants a two-seat ride; everyone craves a one-seat trip.
Ultimately, the people-mover proposal is a non-starter. It could streamline rides for folks traveling on the so-called Phase 2 of the Silver Line that connects parts north and west of the airport with the rest of the Metro system, but after years of fighting it out, the WMATA isn’t about to give up the airport station for an effort now called Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project. It might just be worth it though for everyone involved.
In 1976, the first stations along the WMATA’s Red Line opened, and with it, came a new era of development and mobility for the Nation’s Capital. Today, Metro is expanding outward toward Dulles Airport, and talk of a purple line that would ring around the district, connecting Silver Spring, Bethesda and beyond, bubbles up now and again. But what would happen to the area of there was no mass transit network?
As it argues for better funding, that’s the question one WMATA transportation analyst has tried to answer. As Emily Badger at The Atlantic Cities blog writes, a Capital without its subway system is a strange place indeed. Instead of a centralized downtown area, the region would be choked with traffic, thus leading to more localized economic development. “We looked at that and realized we were watching the economy splinter,” Justin Anthos, the author of the study said. “All of a sudden, we weren’t watching a regional economy function where workers could find jobs in the whole region.”
As 200,000 per day take the Metro into D.C., Antos’ research found that to maintain such commuting levels would require 15 new lanes of freeways and 166 blocks of five-story parking garages. The absurdity of it all, he says, is the point of the investigation. “Part of the study was to put in context the choices that our region faces in the future, which are that we can either continue to protect and expand our transit investment, or we can basically just keep it static, or even let it degrade,” he said. “You can’t just say ‘we chose not to expand.’ There’s some other alternative that you would be forced to live in. And we have to take a gander at what that alternative would be, so we can make informed decisions.” It is a lesson our fair city and its politicians should take to heart as well.
In a story familiar to New Yorkers, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is facing record ridership as it bottom link will soon lead to fare hikes and service cuts. As the Boston Globe reports today, October saw a record 1.35 million rides per average weekday across all MBTA subways, buses and commuter trains as the Massachusetts economy improves and gas prices remain high. Cuts, however, are on the horizon.
As the Globe notes, the MBTA is facing a $161 million operating deficit and is considering service cuts and fare hikes that would go into effect next summer. Amidst high ridership, Boston transit advocates are wary of the move. “I’m real concerned . . . because we could take what is obviously a very important and significant trend and pull the rug out from under it,” Richard A. Dimino, head of a group called A Better City, said. “The T is the workhorse for the Massachusetts economy.”
As with the MTA in New York City, the MBTA is carrying $6 billion in debt, and the deficit could lead lawmakers to eye new taxes for transit subsidies and a fare increase to “stave off significant service reductions.” It is, of course, the same old story: As costs increase and pressure to keep the fares low and affordable mounts, transit agencies slip into debt without state support. The only options are either higher taxes or higher fares. It’s not an ideal choice on either end.
Once upon a time in 2008, the MTA and its advertising partner Titan proposed GPS-based advertising for New York City buses. The idea was a simple one: By equipping buses with LED screens and GPS responders, Titan could feed location-based ads to buses around New York. In 2009, the authority even tested a few buses with these next-gen ads, but the idea has seemingly fallen by the wayside. Likely, the costs were too high to justify the technology.
Up in Boston, we receive word of a similar initiative with an auditory twist. The MBTA is thinking of selling location-specific audio ads on its buses. Ben Wolfrord from The Globe has more:
For the second time in four years, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is considering selling audio ads on public transit as a way to drum up new revenue for the cash-strapped agency. A new pitch calls for targeted ads on buses that would be triggered by GPS technology. When the bus passes a particular business, an ad for that shop could play over the vehicle’s loudspeaker. If the audio advertising idea can generate money for the MBTA without irritating riders, officials said they will give it a try.
In 2007, the agency’s T- Radio, a program that mixed music and talk on T station platforms was short-lived. Hundreds of complaints poured in, and the MBTA killed the initiative after two weeks, before ads were aired. The MBTA is not yet sold on the latest idea, general manager Richard A. Davey said. “We’re going to take a look at it. We haven’t made a decision, but it’s something I’m interested in.’’
Before the end of the month, MBTA officials will hear a pitch from Ohio-based Commuter Advertising, which has launched similar advertising with several transit authorities, from Toledo, Ohio, to suburban Chicago, since its founding in 2008. “The company was founded by two transit riders,’’ said Russ Gottesman, cofounder of Commuter Advertising. For that reason, he said, they have the riders’ interests and their tolerance levels at heart. If the ads are profitable, Gottesman said, it could help prevent fare hikes.
According to The Globe, Commuter Advertising has figured out how to exploit audio ads that don’t annoy passengers. These ads would be short — only 29-39 words — and would play “when a bus drives past a business whose owner has purchased air times.” Only a few minutes per hour would be devoted to ads, and other cities — including Champaign, Illinois, have deployed these successfully.
As Boston debates this potentially revenue-generating projects, I wonder how New Yorkers would respond to such an auditory intrusion. Already, our daily rides are saturated with noise. Announcements than range from the unhelpful to the annoying bombard subway riders, and advertisements seem to be the next logical step. After all, the FIND displays have a space for video ads that the MTA doesn’t currently exploit; why not use the public address system to generate revenue?
For some reason, we seem to be more sensitive to paid advertisements than to run-of-the-mill announcements, but if these measures can drive revenue into the pockets of cash-starved transit agencies, why not? The MBTA thinks it can avert fare hikes if it can just find alternate sources of revenue, but that seems to be nothing more than wishful thinking. Still, if the choices are some audio ads or service cuts, I’ll take the ads every which way ’til Sunday.
Thirty five years ago, Washington DC’s Metro opened. It’s hard to believe the system is still so new, but basically, in New York terms, the Nation’s Capitol is where our system was in 1939. Of course, by the time 1939 had rolled around, New York had added on part of a Second System and had an ambitious plan for a huge expansion plan. Now it’s DC’s turn.
In an excellent piece for Greater Greater Washington, Matt Johnson highlighted a series of plans under discussion by WMATA planners that could be incorporated into a Metro Second System. These include a circumferential route, spurs off of the blue, yellow and red lines that would better cover Washington DC proper and a variety of better connections into the suburbs. Even if just some of these plans are realized over the next few decades, DC will be far better off for it.
While I’m giving Matt’s piece short shrift, I wanted to pose a discussion question: If New York could start all over again with its Second System plans, where should they build a subway in currently underserved areas? We talked earlier this week about a rail connection to LaGuardia, and the Utica Ave./South 4th St. line remains a great unrealized part of subway history. Would a Triboro RX circumferential line remain a priority? Better expansion past Jamaica in Queens? Crosstown connections from Upper Manhattan into the Bronx? New York hasn’t seen significant subway expansion since the 1930s, and I envy DC the opportunity to grow its system over the coming decades.