Archive for WMATA

A glimpse up WMATA's Woodley Park escalator. (Photo by flickr user magandafille)

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.

Categories : WMATA
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In Philadelphia, SEPTA has sold the rights to just one subway station. (Photo by flickr user Saturdave)

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.

Categories : MBTA, WMATA
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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.

Categories : Asides, WMATA
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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.

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Now and then, we leave New York for glimpses of life in other transit systems. While TWU members are protesting MTA’s current labor policies, other public transit systems are running into their own labor-induced fiscal problems. Today’s journey out of New York City takes us south to Washington, D.C., where the WMATA is in its own financial bind.

The excellent urban planning and pro-pedestrian and -transit blog Greater Greater Washington has tirelessly covered Metro issued in the District. Over the last few weeks, David Alpert and his team of contributors have explored the WMATA’s $100 million budget gap. To us, that figure represents small beans. After all, what is a $100 million gap after a year spent talking about a $1.5 billion gap? Yet, the vitality and viable of the D.C. area is heavily dependent upon a properly functioning Metro system.

Michael Perkins first tackled the causes of the gap a few weeks ago. According to Perkins, over half of the raise is related to increased labor costs. Nearly $20 million will go to mandatory 3 percent pay raises for WMATA employees, and another $33 million comes from pension, health care and benefits plan increases. MetroAccess, the WMATA equivalent of our ParaTransit service, will cost an additional $19.7 million. Energy costs round out the budget deficit.

To a tee, D.C. is facing the same problems as New York City. The MTA is facing a mandatory three-year, 11-percent raise for its employees. Pension and health care costs continue to rise, and ParaTransit’s economics were a sticking point during last winter’s fare hike debate.

A few days after exploring the sources of the deficit, Perkins examined some gap-closing measures. His main proposal examined a rather modest (by New York’s standards) five percent fare increase with fees designed to reward constant riders. The WMATA can also ask Maryland, Virginia and the federal government for more money. The MTA doesn’t enjoy that luxury but isn’t beholden to three ideologically different and very fickle overseers. Finally, Perkins explored some service cuts and cost reductions including turning escalators into staircases during off-peak hours as a way to save energy.

The GGW series wrapped up last week with an exploration of the long-term financial plans for the America’s Subway. While the MTA just announced a $28.8 billion five-year capital plan, the WMATA believes it needs just $7.6 billion over the next ten years to acehive and maintain its own State of Good Repair. Without more borrowing or contributions from the three jurisdictions served by Metro, the DC subway system will begin a slide into disrepair.

In the end, I’m not surprised by any of these fiscal challenges facing the WMATA. Around the country, the story is the same. High operations costs coupled with ever-increasing compensation packages for workers along with a weakening economy are sending the nation’s transportation authorities into fiscal difficulties. Although these networks move millions of people every day, the federal government is loath to invest in them as heavily as they do roads, and cities such as New York, Washington and Chicago are left with severely unfounded infrastructure agencies that are also heavily in debt. When will that policy change?

Categories : WMATA
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The signs have it

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Subway signs are rather mysterious creatures. Really do we see work crews hanging up new signs, but somehow, whenever the MTA adjusts its routes, the ubiquitous black signs hanging up in stations change along with it. An article in the Washington Post this week illuminates the sign-making process the District of Columbia’s WMATA. While their system is smaller and less prone to service changes than ours, Metro’s in-house sign shop makes 40,000 signs and decals a year. I can only imagine how busy New York’s own sign-makers are.

Categories : Asides, WMATA
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In Sept. 2007, the MTA announced plans to wire all underground subway stations for cell service. Nearly two years later, nothing has come from the ten-year contract the MTA inked with a less-than-secure company. Meanwhile, a few hundred miles to the south, the District of Columbia’s WMATA is continuing their slow and steady march to a fully equipped underground cell network, and the transit authority’s plans to wire their tunnels within three years is still on target.

According to a report last week on DCist, the WMATA is set to unveil the first phase of its plan in October. Shortly after Columbus Day, cell service for all four major carriers will be available in the 20 busiest Metro stations. By the end of 2010, the rest of the system’s underground stations will have cell service, and by October 2012, the tunnels will be cell-equipped as well. I know New York’s system is far older and more expansive than DC’s Metro. I know the challenges are greater in the city, but DC has been working to implement service since 2000. New York’s own MTA continues to fall further and further behind its technologically-advanced competitors.

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Now and then, I like to see what’s happening in transit systems outside of New York City. Often, I’ll turn to Washington, D.C., for a glimpse at what an efficient — and much smaller — transit system looks like. The lessons from D.C. can be illuminating as we watch the MTA carom from one ill-fated project to another.

Earlier this week, the Washington Metro’s board announced that WMATA passengers would enjoy in-tunnel cell service by the fall of 2012. Lena H. Sun, a staff writer for the Washington Post, reports:

Metro officials said the agency and a consortium of wireless carriers are on track to install equipment so riders can receive and make cellphone calls on all carriers at the 20 busiest Metrorail stations by mid-October. Only Verizon and Sprint roaming customers can use their phones on the Metro now, and coverage is often spotty…

But don’t expect to stay connected between stations. That won’t happen until the consortium finishes installing cable and other equipment underground, a process that is likely to take until October 2012.

Under an agreement announced in February, Verizon, Sprint Nextel, AT&T and T-Mobile will be allowed to install equipment in the tunnels over the next four years. The agreement will provide the cash-strapped transit agency with nearly $25 million over the first 15 years. The estimated $2.4 million in expenses will also be paid by the wireless carriers.

Now, we can debate for hours whether or not cell phone service underground is a positive development. Every day, I see the impact of cell service on a subway ride. As my Manhattan-bound Q or B train snakes across the Manhattan Bridge and as my Brooklyn-bound trip heads off into the heart of Brooklyn every day, I see passengers scramble for their phones and being their furtive five-minute calls. Most are respectful as they try to keep their conversation to a minimum, but others are screamers, intent on informing the entire car what their significant other has at home for dinner that night.

As those trains head back underground, cell service is lost until the trenched, open-air tracks arrive at the Prospect Park stop. It may be silent, but it’s also a technological blackhole.

In Washington, Metro riders have enjoyed cell phone service for the better part of this decade. It’s not perfect, but it’s there. Furthermore, the WMATA has negotiated a contract that’s beneficial to all. The agency earns millions of dollars, and the cell companies get access to a new network of customers. Everyone — except those looking for a quiet ride — wins.

Meanwhile, in the Big Apple, the MTA keeps promising to find some company intent on writing the system at a price too low to believe, and time after time, the project stalls. Outside of the luxury of an underground cell network, the MTA’s system doesn’t have the capacity for proper emergency communications, and it just isn’t a modern system. At some point the technological modernization of the New York City subways will begin. We could do far worse than look to our neighbors to the south for inspiration.

Categories : WMATA
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A tale of two transit websites

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The WMATA’s website presents a clear, clean and informative home page. (Click the image — and the thumbnail below of the MTA’s website — to enlarge.)

With The New York Times proclaiming New York to be over and with a new day dawning in the White House today, all eyes will be on Washington, DC.The Nation’s Capitol will have to cope with a crush of people, and the WMATA — a financially beleaguered transit system — will bear the brunt of the crowd.

Absurd Style Section articles aside, Washington’s transit website certainly earns the crown in the Internet wars. Last month, the WMATA unveiled a spiffy new website design, seen above, and the reaction was uniformly positive. Greater Greater Washington gave the site a good review, and I sat here in Brooklyn jealous of the WMATA’s AJAX-based, informative and easy-to-navigate new design.

Just look at that thing. On one screen, without having scroll down, a user gets a clear sense of what the WMATA is all about. There’s a trip planner in the top-right corner and a real-time display of train, bus and elevator status updates beneath is. Along the top are links to the system map and next train information, something sorely lacking in our subways. The centerpiece of the page is a rotating news story with links to the latest WMATA releases. Below that are key information boxes with links to pages about the SmarTrip Card and inauguration advisories.

mtasite600 Putting the MTA’s site — at left; click to enlarge — under a similar microscope reveals some stark differences. The main role of a transit agency’s website is to aid the rider in his or her efforts at getting from point A to point B in a timely fashion. The WMATA’s site fully realizes that goal; the MTA’s site does not. It shouldn’t take three clicks to get to the service advisories or latest news releases.

On the homepage, not all of the content on the MTA’s site fits above the fold and what is on top is arguably unimportant. The MTA in Pictures box is a nice touch, but it adds nothing of informative value to the site. Having the MTA’s powerful Trip Planner there would be a far better use of space. In fact, the Trip Planner gets very little play on the home page. It is the 18th of 21 links on the right side of the page, most of which don’t aid the casual rider in getting information he or she needs. A link to the Sustainability Webinar is useful for research, but the event was seven months ago. No one really needs that anymore.

For the most part, the boxes in the center column contain useful information but are generally not too timely. To get to the main list of MTA news releases, a user must click through two links. On the WMATA’s site, everything is right there. The MTA’s site can be as fun as a frustrating game of hide and seek.

Now, I realize that the MTA is a conglomerate of many different agencies, and I know that New York City Transit’s homepage features the Trip Planner link front and center. The main site, however, should be more user-friendly. Get me where I want to go first; tell me about Elliot Sander’s March presentations later.

As the MTA gears up for another week of abuse during the public hearings on the fare hikes and service cuts, the Board members and officials who opt to sit through the torture will hear a common theme. The MTA leadership is out of touch with the riders, people say.

We could debate the truth of that allegation for words on end, but in 2009, all it takes is the website, the true public face of the authority. If the MTA could present an easy-to-use and informative site as the WMATA has done, people would begin to think better of it.

Categories : MTA Technology, WMATA
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Every now and then, I like to check in on how the MTA’s competitors in other cities are doing. Today, we journey down I-95 — or is that Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor? — to our Nation’s Capital where the WMATA is facing its very own funding crisis.

For the last ten days, we’ve watched in New York as the state Assembly dealt a blow to the MTA’s financial situation, and we’ve seen the agency begun a fund-searching review in order to meet goals for its next five-year capital plan. Things could be worse.

In Washington, the WMATA is in the unenvious position of receving one-third of its funds from the Federal Government, and one of the Senators who holds the purse strings — Sen. Tom Coburn, a hard-line Republican from the car-happy state of Oklahoma — is threatening to block a $1.5 billion federal grant for Metro.

Now, this isn’t just chump change for the Metro. It’s money the WMATA needs to bring their old and decaying system up to a state of good repair. Considering that environmental movements are all the rage, the government — both in New York and in DC — is strangely hesitant to help out the greenest of green options: public transportation. WTOP Radio’s Adam Tuss has more from DC:

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., has authored a bill which would provide $1.5 billion for Metro over the next 10 years. If the bill passes, Virginia, Maryland and D.C. have agreed they will match the $1.5 billion. The funds would go a long way for Metro, which is the only major transportation system in the nation that lacks a dedicated source of funding.

But the Davis bill, as it is currently constructed, will likely never make its way past Coburn. “I’m happy to be a roadblock to that bill,” Coburn tells WTOP. “It’s $1.5 billion they want, we (the government) don’t have the money to pay for it, so where are we going to get the money?”

Coburn doesn’t think one penny of funding for Metro should come from American taxpayers. “How dare us say we are going to steal opportunity from our children so that we can have a ride on the Metro. I think the vast majority of Americans would disagree with that.”

Isn’t it cute that all of a sudden a Republican in the Senate is concerned about spending? And where, oh, where could the government find the meager sum of $1.5 billion for a transportation network that has a ridership of millions of federal workers and tourists? Considering that we’ve spent trillions of dollars on overseas wars — and, yes, Coburn supports those efforts without noting any effect whatsoever on our children — I’d think $1.5 billion wouldn’t be tough to find.

Coburn, ignoring that self-sustaining public transit would be too expensive to attract any ridership, wants the Metro riders to pay. “My position is, if you want to ride the Metro, pay what it costs to ride the Metro,” he said. “Riders will pay for the upkeep and the capital improvements that are needed.”

Coburn’s opponents on both sides of the aisle are ready to fight him for these funds, and I’d have to believe that Metro will get its money. But yet again, politicians are doing all they can to obstruct funding for mass transit. One day, maybe mass transit will get the respect it deserves as a major driver of urban economics. One day, politicians might be willing to go out on a limb to fund it.

But as we’ve learned in New York and as we see in DC right now, mass transit proponents are fighting and losing an uphill battle right now. We’ll just have to keep on trekking ahead as the cars continue to win.

Categories : WMATA
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