Archive for WMATA
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 remains elusive. Additionally, as the capital plan has lately been funded through a series of bond issues, the MTA’s dept payment obligations have increased rapidly over the last decade.
The perpetual stream of funding for capital dollars though is not something we should take for granted. Despite the frustrations we often feel toward Albany, someone had the foresight to put such a plan in place. If we turn our eye to the south, we find in Washington, D.C., an agency held hostage by two states, the District of Columbia and the federal government with a clear need for maintenance and expansion but no real plan to pay for any of it.
Earlier on Thursday, WMATA unveiled a new strategic plan called 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.
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.
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.
When I lived in DC way back in 2005, my nearest subway stop had, by any account, a ludicrous name. I lived a five- or six-minute walk away from the Woodley Park/Zoo-Adams Morgan station and always had a hard time coming to grips with its name. It was far longer than anything we have in New York, and it’s not particularly accurate. The Zoo is equidistant from the Cleveland Park station, and the walk from there is all downhill. Meanwhile, the red line services Adams Morgan in name only as that neighborhood is a good ten minutes away from the Metro stop.
This ungainly naming convention wasn’t unique to my station. The U Street/African-Amer Civil War Memorial/Cardozo stop leads the system, and others such as Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter or Mt Vernon Sq 7th St-Convention Center try to cram in as much as they can in 19 characters. It certainly makes “23rd Street” on the West Side IRT seem runty in comparison, and if our worst station name is Sutphin Boulevard/Archer Ave./JFK Airport, we’re probably doing OK.
Over the years, those concerned with the usability of the Metro have raised the issue now and then. Back in 2009, Dan Malouff on Greater Greater Washington called for an overhaul of WMATA names. “Do we really need to know,” he asked, “that students attending George Mason University sometimes use the Vienna station? GMU’s campus is over 5 miles from Vienna. The station does not directly serve the university. The name doesn’t have to be there.”
Now, the WMATA is gearing up to redesign the map, and I have to wonder if they should take a gander at station names as well. The impetus behind the redesigned map is a simple one: With new routes coming online over the next few days, the WMATA has to better represent its service patterns. Here’s how Dr. Gridlock explained it in March:
To plan for the proposed split in the Blue Line and the later addition of the Dulles rail extension, Metro is studying how people pick up visual clues about which train to take. Barbara Richardson, Metro’s assistant general manager for customer service, communication and marketing, announced last Thursday that the transit authority also is bringing back its original mapmaker, Lance Wyman, to revise the well-known map.
How often do riders use the map, and what do they use it for? On the trains, there are big maps at the ends of the cars and smaller ones near the center doors. In a crowded car, some riders will stand on tiptoes and peer at it. Others need to get real close and study the text. Most commuters are taking the same trip every day, and they ignore it, unless a tourist asks for directions. There’s likely to be a lot of map-gazing during the upcoming Cherry Blossom Festival.
Meanwhile, Greater Greater Washington has been hosting a contest this spring. They asked readers and cartographers to redesign the map, and a panel of judges selected the best. Readers have now been asked to vote on their favorites. The new maps had to show upcoming system expansions — an idea my readers have proposed for New York’s map — and must delineate between off-peak and peak service offerings, a key description now missing from our map.
For now, those in DC aren’t concerned with the station names, but they have recognized in the past that it makes maps particularly tough to design. With lengthy station names, squeezing in that much typography leads to areas of the map that are tough to read and station names that do not adequately pinpoint their location.
Should transit authorities label their maps based on the station location or the areas and neighborhoods within walking distance from that station? That seems to be the question with which DC must grapple, and the WMATA is leaning toward a new philosophy: The shorter, the better, says Barbara Richardson, the agency’s customer service officer. A map that’s easier to read may trump information overload. After all, it’s not too hard to tell someone to get off at Woodley Park to get to Adams Morgan. The station name needn’t be so inclusive and spare words may soon be getting the axe.
As New York’s MTA struggles to make sure it has enough money to avoid future service cuts and fare hikes, the WMATA is considering changes to America’s Subway in Washington, D.C. As Greater Greater Washington reported earlier on Thursday, to save money and add, in essence, 45 days to its maintenance schedule, the authority may end weekend service at midnight instead of 3 a.m. As the vast majority of District residents and some WMATA Board members are incensed by the idea, it is one to which the WMATA Board often turns in times of fiscal crisis.
The hours of the D.C. Metro and the way the system is run has always been a bit perplexing to me. It’s full of contradictions and highlights a tension between those who live in the District and those who live in the suburbs. Anyone from New York would probably find it infuriating as I often did when I lived in D.C. a few years ago.
Generally, the Metro’s peak-hour trains arrive very frequently as workers — many of them federal employees — shuttle back to Virginia or Maryland. Much like with New York, D.C.’s roads aren’t extensive enough to — and should not — support the auto traffic the thousands of people who work in the District would generate, and so the Metro is a prime necessity during peak hours.
During off-peak hours, though, the service becomes this hybrid mix of a subway and a commuter rale. During rush hour, the red line trains would roll in quite frequently, but as soon as 7 p.m. hit, the headways slowed to 10 minutes. By 9:30, the wait grew to 15 minutes, and the last red line trains passed through Dupont Circle and Metro Center at midnight or shortly thereafter. On other routes, headways can reach 20 minutes as early as 9:30 p.m., and people coming back from Kennedy Center shows, late nights at work or after-dinner movies often grumble about the poor service.
In July of 2008, Matt Johnson at Track Twenty-Nine tackled the issue of the Metro’s hours. The DC subway system, he noted, is one of the first in the nation to close entirely and the first to begin the closing process during the week. It creates, Johnson says, some tension in the area. He wrote:
It would seem on the surface to be essential for the subway to stay open late in Our Nation’s Captial. While it is true that Washington has long held the distinction of being known as an early-to-bed, early-to-rise sort of town, they don’t exactly roll up the sidewalks at 11:30. They do start rolling up the Metro, though. They start shutting it down at 11:24 every evening Sunday through Thursday.
And while the party-goers and clubbers have the benefit of an extra 3 hours of service on Fridays and Saturdays, this strategy leaves out the idea of equity. After all, it’s not just clubbers who are out after midnight. All of those service workers have to get home somehow, and many of them don’t get off until late. Besides, do we really want to be known as the city that has the first subway to retire each night? Even Baltimore’s Metro starts to close later than WMATA.
In its coverage of yesterday’s WMATA Board Meeting, Greater Greater Washington’s David Alpert pondered the same conflict. The debate over closing times, he says, “risks pitting rush-hour only riders, more often those who drive to stations and don’t live in walkable areas with ready transit access, against people for whom transit is a 24-7 mobility tool.”
As this debate unfolds in D.C., it certainly allows me to appreciate New York’s system, warts and all. Ours might not look as nice as the Metro’s vaults. It certainly isn’t as clean as D.C.’s system with its draconian enforcement of food and beverage limits. But it keeps running late. Most routes are covered by more than one train so even as, say, B train headways reach 10 or 12 minutes after the evening rush, that a D will show up makes the wait shorter. Even the R train with limited off-peak headways is still supposed to arrive every 12 minutes.
In New York — as in D.C. — too many people work off hours for the subway to shut down. The City that Never Sleeps can’t afford to see its transportation lifeline cut off. That does mean more inconvenient changes for necessary maintenance and a less clean system, but ultimately, that’s a trade-off I’m willing to make.
When I lived in Washington, D.C, my primary Metro stop was over 200 feet deep. When I would enter or exit at Woodley Park, I usually relied on the escalators to exit the station because the climb was just too long, and at least one of the station’s three escalators would invariably be out of service. The DC escalators, in fact, have a reputation for unreliability, and a recent report from the WMATA does nothing to dispel that stigma. As the Washington Examiner reports, the Metro’s escalators are breaking down more frequently, and repairs are taking longer and longer to complete.
The details themselves are actually pretty sad. Metro’s escalators average just 153 revenue hours of service — or a little over a week — between breakdowns, and it now takes the WMATA crews an average of 14 hours to repair the machines. Age isn’t the only culprit as some of the oldest escalators are the most reliable and some of the newest the least, and the elements are to blame as well. A systemwide plan to install canopies covering all outside escalators fell short of its goals when the authority ran out of money.
The real problems seem to stem from overuse and poor maintenance procedures. The WMATA simply isn’t equipped to handle the wear and tear on their escalators, and as I shift my gaze north, I see similar problems in New York. At those stations that have escalators, oftentimes, they’re out of service. For instance, Transit currently reports 18 out-of-service escalators, including two that have been offline for repairs since November.
For deep-cavern stations similar to those in Washington, escalators make sense, but elsewhere, they’re just inconvenient. They don’t increase accessibility enough to make an elevator unnecessary, and they cost a lot to maintain. The new Second Ave. Subway stations will likely have escalators, but maybe, they shouldn’t. At the very least, the MTA and the WMATA should remember Mitch Hedberg: An escalator can never break; it can only become stairs.
Every few months, as budget news trickles in and transit executives start talking about alternative sources of money and revenue streams, naming rights are dragged up by activists and enthusiasts. The idea is that resourceful authorities looking to generate free money can sell naming rights to private companies who stand to benefit from brand recognition. Disney owns Times Square above ground so why not sell the name of the Times Square subway station to the company?
On paper, it’s a great idea, and yet, in reality, it is one that has gained very little traction. In Philadephia, AT&T purchased the naming rights to the former Pattison Ave. complex at the end of the Broad St. line. They’re paying $3 million over five years. In New York, Barclays will append its name to the Atlantic Ave./Pacific St. complex with the Nets’ new arena opens, and they’re paying $200,000 a year for 20 years for that privilege. Finally, Chicago’s CTA worked out a deal with Apple for a station renovation sponsorship that includes the right of first refusal for subsequent naming rights deals. Only in Dubai, which managed to sell naming rights on 21 of its 23 stations before the emirate’s economy went bust, has seen prolonged marketing success.
This uphill battle isn’t stopping others from trying. Up in Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is desperately seeking sponsors. Donna Goodison wrote of the effort in The Boston Herald this weekend:
The MBTA is considering selling naming rights for everything from the lines and stations of its subway, bus and commuter systems to its Web site, smart phone apps and Charlie Cards.
“We want to do it tastefully and not over-commercialize the MBTA,” said general manager Richard Davey. “I would probably be reluctant to rename Park Street the Anheuser-Busch Park Street Station. But, at the same time … we’re very open to hearing proposals.”
The MBTA is trying to close a projected $126 million budget gap for the fiscal year that begins in July. T officials are seeking a consultant to determine the feasibility of putting sponsors’ names on its assets and the revenue it could generate for the nation’s oldest subway system. “We’ve been pushing the last few months on a whole host of initiatives to try to capture non-fare revenue, from cracking down on parking scofflaws to possible naming rights,” Davey said.
More visual sponsorships are a possibility. If the Red Sox [team stats] wanted to sponsor the Fenway Station stop near its ballpark, the lettering could be redone in the team’s signature font. High usage and accessibility make the T a “compelling medium,” according to its pitch to consultants, but a smaller naming-rights effort went bust in 2001.
As Goodison notes, then-Transportation Security Kevin Sullivan tried to generate $22 million in revenue by offering up four popular subway stops — Back Bay, Downtown Crossing, South Station and Sullivan Square — for sale. The MBTA, however, received no offers even after extended the contract deadline and lowering the bid requirements. It’s beginning to sound like a familiar refrain.
Meanwhile, as MBTA officials claim that the advertising market has since changed, the WMATA board in Washington is heading down the naming rights route as well. As AFP recently reported, DC’s Metro is facing a $72 million, and it too will look toward naming rights to offset its gap. “We’re looking for creative ways to try to close that deficit,” Steven Taubenkibel, a WMATA spokesman, said.
In response to the news out of DC, Infrastructurist asks whether or not we should sell the naming rights to urban infrastructure, but I’m beginning to wonder if that’s the right question. Rather, is it at all reasonable to expect revenue from naming rights deals? Our limited experiences tell us that companies aren’t interested in shelling out big bucks, and many aren’t interested in shelling out any bucks. Citi, going through some tough financial times, declined to pay the MTA to slap its ballpark’s sponsorship on the Mets/Willets Point station in early 2009.
It seems that, for one reason or another, private companies just aren’t interested. Maybe they don’t want to be associated with something we view as dirty and unsafe. Maybe they don’t want their corporate image tarnished by association with beleaguered transit authorities. Maybe they don’t find the branding efforts to be worth it. Whatever the reason, municipalities aren’t earning much from naming rights deals, and the attempts to brand seem to be going nowhere fast. Until the money starts flowing in, perhaps it’s time to put this idea to bed.
A few weeks ago, a regular SAS reader sent me a link to an article on Progressive Railroading about the WMATA’s plans to spruce up their stations. Over the next 18 months, DC-based authority will restore 42 Metro stations. The work includes “cleaning masonry surfaces, painting interior and exterior surfaces, repairing interior masonry, installing or repairing signs, and refinishing platform shelter benches” and is part of the four-year maintenance-and-restoration the WMATA has implemented for its stations.
In New York, station repair and beautification efforts move at a rather slower pace. The MTA is currently amidst a 39-year program in which just 12 stations a year get a fresh coat of paint. By the time this program wraps up in 2047, most stations will be decades overdue for a new coat of paint. Of course, this program is probably going to be discarded in favor of the new component-based maintenance efforts the authority has proposed, but the two projects’ estimated durations are alarming.
On the one hand, the WMATA enjoys the benefit of five hours a day when their stations are not open. Trains do not run, passengers aren’t in the way. Furthermore, in 2008, the MTA said that its painting efforts were delayed by the need to remove old lead-based paint. Still, public acceptance of the MTA would be higher if our stations weren’t so dingy and in need of beautification. If DC can tackle 42 stations in a year a half, the MTA should be able to paint more than 2.5 percent of its stations per year.
Over the last few years, I’ve followed the MTA’s attempt at bringing cell phone service to its underground platforms while, at the same time, exploring how Washington’s WMATA has far surpassed the MTA in this technological effort. This past weekend, the Metro moved yet another step ahead of New York City as it expanded cell service at its busiest stations. While Verizon customers have enjoyed underground coverage for years, Friday marked the start of underground service for AT&T, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile at the system’s 20 most popular stations.
Friday’s service debut was just the start of an ambitious roll-out of cellular subway service. By the end of next month, D.C. straphangers will enjoy continuous street-to-platform coverage, and in a year from now, the unwired 27 underground stations will be hooked into the cell network. In Oct. 2012, full underground service inside the tunnels will debut. As D.C. moves ahead, here in New York, we’re just spinning our wireless wheels waiting for someone to bring cell service to the subways.