Mar
04

The NYC transit system has a mayoral problem

By · Published in 2019 · Comments (24) ·

Mayor Bill de Blasio see here on something called the sub-way. (Photo via NYC Mayor’s Office on Instagram)

The mayor of New York City rode the subway last week, and it was a Big Deal.

In most cities similarly transit-dependent as NYC, the simple fact that the mayor took a took a 19-minute, one-way, nine-stop subway ride from his gym to City Hall wouldn’t even merit an announcement, but New York isn’t most cities. In 2019, in New York City, a mayoral subway ride warranted a special announcement in the mayor’s public schedule, a press coterie, an Instagram post, and a media availability session afterwards. In year six of the Bill de Blasio Administration, this brouhaha around a subway ride — something as necessary as breathing to millions of New Yorkers every day — is a clear sign that something, somewhere went wrong with our mayor’s approach to transit, and the mayor’s comments afterwards laid bare the depths of the problem.

The purpose of the Great Mayoral Subway Ride of 2019 was to drum up support for an MTA reform-and-funding plan reliant and congestion pricing, and the mayor seemed to view it as a personal fact-finding mission. To start the press conference, Streetsblog’s Gersh Kuntzman asked the mayor what he learned from his subway ride, and the answer is something to behold. “What I gleaned,” the mayor said, “is people really depend on their subways. They need their subways to work and they are frustrated.”

Marinate in that statement; soak it in. The Mayor of New York City learned last week that New Yorkers, his fellow citizens of this city since he moved back here for college in 1980 and his constituents since he first won a City Council seat in 2002, really depend on their subways. This too is what a bunch of out-of-towners visiting from Nebraska learn on their first trips through the New York City subways.

The mayor continued with his answer:

A lot of people I talked to said I don’t know when I’m ever going to get to work. Some days I get to work on time, some days I’m a half hour late, 45 minutes late, you can hear the frustration. And you can hear the urgency. And I will tell you, this was just going out there, talking to a bunch of New Yorkers, I wouldn’t have been shocked by any number of reactions. What I heard consistently was a demand for action and a belief that we need a plan, we need it to be voted on now. So my message to all the strap hangers was this is the last best chance to get something done. The Governor and I have a plan, it’s going to actually turn around the MTA – we need people to support it. And most people responded very favorably.

Is this new to the mayor? Has he bothered to look into constituent complaints about the subway that have grown exponentially in volume over the past two or three years? Does he know how New York City works?

The mayor’s initial answer speaks to a six-year problem transit and livable streets advocates have long had with the mayor: He does not seem to understand New York City. The mayor has long been a self-proclaimed motorist first and a transit rider/pedestrian a distant second. Practically speaking, this means the mayor has a vastly different relationship with travel around the city than most New Yorkers who haven’t had the privilege of free car rides and free parking in Manhattan for the bulk of their professional careers.

During his tenure, the mayor has implemented a disjointed transit and transportation policy at best. My views on the NYC Ferry system are well-documented in my past posts on this site and on Curbed, and the BQX leaves much to be desired as a signature transit proposal. The Department of Transportation has made some strides toward its Vision Zero goal, but the city has no overall policy for reducing private vehicle use and congestion while promoting more equitable means of travel or safer streets for people who walk, ride their bikes or take the buses or subways. We do not have a mayor devoted to an aggressive policy of prioritizing street space for high-capacity buses — which could include city-implemented physically separated lanes, a citywide signal prioritization efforts, aggressive enforcement of bus lanes and/or a reduction of parking placards that lead to private cars parked in what are supposed to travel lanes for buses. We do not have a mayor devoted toward building a bike network that provides safe spaces for low-income travel. Instead, city vehicle miles are up; placards are ascendant and abuse rampant; and the mayor cannot even maintain a reasonable pace for something as simple as bike rack installation, let alone bus route rollout.

The ongoing debate over the 14th Street Busway is a prime example of de Blasio’s insufficient and non-supportive approach to transit promotion. The Busway, proposed for the L train shutdown that isn’t, could have been a model for a better way to move people across town. The current M14 routes maintain speeds below 4 miles per hour — or walking pace for healthy adults — and the traffic means that everyone who needs to rely on a bus can’t get anywhere particularly quickly. It’s an access issue and one that should get to the heart of the Mayor’s old “Tale of Two Cities” campaign rhetoric. But when Gov. Cuomo pulled the plug on the L train shutdown, the mayor threw the Busway to the wolves, and instead of strong executive support, it’s been up to local politicians who understand transit and transit advocates to fight to maintain these modest upgrades on one out of Manhattan’s 255 crosstown blocks.

Further afield, the mayor has constantly gotten outfoxed by the governor on issues relating to subway funding and governance. In fact, during the same press conference, the mayor played right into Cuomo’s hands. When defending the MTA reform/congestion pricing plan, the Mayor essentially ceded any say in MTA matters to the governor:

“This is a very bold plan…You know the estimate now is over $20 billion. That sounds bold to me – changing the entire governance structure of the MTA, finally assigning responsibility fully to the State and the Governor, a whole lot more checks and balances in terms of how the MTA does it’s work because we have all seen the problems. I think professionalizing the work and adding more transparency makes a lot of sense. So, this is perfectly bold.

“To the question of City revenue – clearly most of what happens with our subways and buses comes from straphangers, comes from tax payers, comes from New York City government, that’s where most of the revenue comes from already. But we didn’t have a governance structure that made sense. You think having four members on such a big board gets us anywhere? It hasn’t. So I would rather have – the equivalent I make is like mayoral control of education, I would rather have one person in charge, it clearly should be the Governor.

Later on, the mayor was challenged on this issue of gubernatorial control. Why, he was asked, is he more comfortable with control now if the Governor has presided over the MTA for the last eight years New Yorkers are not satisfied? He responded:

Because I don’t believe there has been clear, public acknowledgement of who is in charge. That is – you know better than anyone, the MTA structure was created for the purpose of making sure that no one was seen to be in charge. This is saying out loud, everyone understands, again, the equivalent of mayoral control of education, gubernatorial control of the MTA, full accountability, there have to be some checks and balances as always, but full accountability. And I think it changes everything.

There hasn’t been a clear, public acknowledgment of who is in charge because Andrew Cuomo rightly determined years ago that it benefits Andrew Cuomo to try to argue against reality and de Blasio went along with it because he couldn’t articulate an argument against the view that no one was in charge of the MTA. Through these words, de Blasio is essentially ceding any say in transit matters fully to Albany and Governor Cuomo. Before this proposal was revealed, Cuomo had full control over the MTA, but the city could exert a voice. In this instance last week after his very special subway ride, Bill de Blasio seems to be giving up even that voice on a local concern as vital as transit matters. It’s a state problem now, the mayor says, as he washes his hands of this mess. Whether city or state control would be best for New York City’s transit system is a separate issue worthy of a long post, but either way, Bill de Blasio isn’t too interested in fighting for his constituents to ensure Albany doesn’t keep mucking it all up again and again. Ain’t my issue now, he says.

To make matters worse, de Blasio undermined congestion pricing at the same time. He had already gone on record last week stating his belief that a millionaires’ tax, a plan that delivers none of the benefits of traffic control, would be best, and during his press availability, he spoke more on the watered-down congestion pricing proposal he support. He talked about how he has “taken the bridges out of the equation” and wants multiple hardship exemptions, a situation ripe for abuse on the same level as the city’s rampant placard abuse epidemic. He simply can’t speak to the benefits of reduced congestion in Manhattan or the need to envision a city without cars everywhere. It escapes his worldview and he will not try to understand this different perspective.

In a way, despite years of feuding, de Blasio and Cuomo are more alike than they would probably care to admit. They are of the view that what each determine to be the way forward is the only right one and no one can charge either man’s mind. For Cuomo, that leads to spending with dubious value and transit projects that cement his legacy as a builder. For the mayor, that means largely ignoring the need to defend New York City and its transit riders from a disinterested but meddlesome governor and ignoring the need to promote best and more efficient and equitable uses of city streets.

We’re stuck with Cuomo until he loses or decides not to run again, but the mayor’s term ends in 2021. When we have another choice, we pick someone who understand what transit means to New Yorkers and how best to shape a city so that mobility for all comes to the forefront. A subway ride for anyone, let alone the mayor who has to represent everyone, shouldn’t be a reason for a press conference; it should just be a part of the day, like it is for millions of other New Yorkers day in and day out.

Categories : MTA Politics
Comments (24)

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s joint Governor-Mayor MTA reform proposal and after delaying a vote on the topic last month for no clear reason, the MTA Board on Wednesday approved a fare hike that eliminates the pay-per-ride discount and keeps the break-even economics of an unlimited card in place. Due to the one-month delay, the agency will lose out on $30 million this year, and the new fares will go into effect on April 21.

Here’s a look at what we’ll all be paying in two months. The increases clock in between 3-5% depending upon the service.

For pay-per-ride cards, this move finally wipes out the MTA’s bulk discount, long a target of fare hike proposals. Currently, the MTA offers a 5% on purchases over $5.50, making the effective fare $2.62. But come late April, all riders who aren’t buying time-based cards will pay the same $2.75 per ride. The unlimited passes go up by a similar percentage, but the breakeven points for each card remains the same. As it is today, on the 47th swipe, a 30-day card is a better deal than paying as you go, and on the 13th swipe, a 7-day card saves you money. I’ll have more thoughts on the MTA’s approach to fare structure in the coming weeks.

In comments following the vote, Fernando, Ferrer, one-time Bronx borough president and the interim chairman of the MTA, had this to say: “It’s painful for a lot of reasons, for a lot of people, but we had to do it, and it is within inflation. So it wasn’t exactly a mugging.” You can take that line to the bank.

Meanwhile, the MTA also announced a new series of internal cost-cutting and performance measures to go with yesterday’s congestion pricing/reform proposal, including a promise that each MTA subagency will issue consolidation plans that identify $500 million in cost savings. I’ll have more on this soon, and you can read about it here in the agency’s own press release.

Categories : Fare Hikes
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In a rare moment of political unity from the mayor and governor, Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo unveiled on Tuesday a ten-point plan to fund and reform the MTA. Notably, the plan showcases congestion pricing as the prime funding mechanism, and the announcement marks the first time the mayor has issued a public endorsement of congestion pricing. It also introduces an internet sales tax and the so-called “Weed for Rails” proposal NYU and Melissa Mark-Viverito introduced in December which directs cannabis excise tax dollars to transit funding.

All told, it’s an aggressive show of unity from the mayor and governor that could allow the MTA to bond out up to $22 billion a year for capital funding and should usher in an era of congestion pricing, in some form or another, to free up New York City’s overcrowded streets. But is it a good plan? Is it the right one for New York City? Does it deliver enough for beleaguered transit riders without giving away too much to a governor hellbent on exerting as much control as he can over an agency that, at its core, runs the transportation engine that powers New York City? Let’s dive in.

I’ve written this post as a series of segments so you can jump around if you’d like. I’ll tackle the proposal first; the political reaction second; feedback from other transit advocates third; and some concluding thoughts last.

A. Analysis of the Proposal
B. The Political Reaction
C. Transit Advocates Respond
D. My Take On The Whole Thing

The Proposal

The Governor and the Mayor’s ten-point plan arrived on Tuesday morning in the form of a massive press release. The Mayor put out a subsequent release with his own statement and spoke to reporters later in the day. Cuomo’s public statements came in the form of a friendly interview with Brian Lehrer. I’ll cover both of those in the next section. Let’s take a look at what the two politicians, not exactly friends or fans of transit, are proposing.

1. Reorganize the MTA

As the lead part of the proposal, the MTA is going to reorganize itself to create a more centralized governing body. As the two announced, “All common functions such as construction management, legal, engineering, procurement, human resources, advertising etc. will be consolidated and streamlined in a central operation. The individual divisions will focus on day-to-day management of their primary operation.” The MTA is expected to complete this plan by June and bring with it a change in culture “which will generate fresh ideas and new perspective from new and recently appointed senior and mid-level management recruited from the private sector and other cities and states.”

As an aside, for what it’s worth, the private sector does not have a magic wand that will fix the MTA, and based on current MTA hiring freezes and pay scales, most people moving into middle management roles from the private sector are unlikely to be top talent. That said, it’s not impossible to recruit top talent, but this is not likely to be a real fix. I touch on this more below in my analysis.

2. Congestion Pricing

Along with the MTA reorg, congestion pricing will become a reality with a go-live date of December 2020, following approval of the MTA’s next five-year capital plan. The congestion pricing zone will encompass Manhattan south of 61th St. and will be enforced via electronic cashless tolling, under the auspices of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.

Revenue from congestion pricing — and the internet sales and cannabis excises taxes — would be placed into a transit lockbox, but there are certain exemptions, implemented at the direction of the notorious motorist Bill de Blasio: “Tolls would be variable providing discounts for off-peak hour travel. Emergency vehicles will be exempt from congestion pricing tolls. Other exemptions or discounts will be provided to a limited group of vehicles entering the CBD including vehicles operated by or transporting people with disabilities and individuals who have an identifiable hardship or limited ability to access medical facilities in the CBD.”

3. Fare Hike Caps

All fare hikes will be limited to “inflationary increases” of 2% per year (which they already are and have been for a while).

4. MTA Board Appointments

All MTA Board appointments will be coterminous with the terms of the official who made the appointment or recommendation. Thus, all mayoral appointees would expire upon the end of a mayoral administration and ditto for a governor, county executive, etc.

5. Fare Evasion

I’ll quote this one because I am truly exhausted and tired of this red herring of a conversation:

Partnership between the State and City is necessary to combat fare evasion. We cannot have a voluntary fare system and still maintain a system that ensures operational stability. The State will work with the MTA, City and District Attorneys to develop an enforcement strategy, with both personnel and station design modifications that do not criminalize fare evasion but instead prevent fare evasion, sanction violators and increase enforcement.

6. Audit

According to the press release, someone will audit the MTA to “determine their actual assets and liabilities” and provide budgetary statements that do not “strain financial credibility,” as Cuomo has consistently claimed, not incorrectly, that they do.

7. Regional Transit Committee

Seemingly replacing the opaque Capital Program Review Board, which effectively offers a veto point to the governor, mayor, Senate and Assembly over the MTA Capital Plan, a Regional Transit Committee, consisting of members “who have no existing financial relationship with the MTA” will review the Capital Plan and any toll and fare increases proposed “as necessary to fund the Capital Plan.” It’s not clear if this board will review toll and fare increases that fund only operations or why an additional layer of bureaucracy is needed here.

8. The Columbia and Cornell Experts Return

Not content to rest on his L train laurels, Cuomo is bringing back his pals from Cornell and Columbia to conduct construction review on every major project. The press release muddles terminology and glosses over the fact that Andy Byford recently brought in one of the foremost expert in signal technology to do exactly this, but take a read:

The MTA will have all major construction projects and planned projects pursued as “design build.” The MTA will do preliminary drawings only to the point necessary for bidding the project in a private sector competition based primarily on cost and timing of the project. Selections will be made with incentives and sanctions for performance. All major construction projects will be reviewed by construction and engineering experts who are not affiliated with the MTA or its consultants. The construction review team will be headed by the Deans of Cornell School of Engineering and Columbia School of Engineering to assure state of the art design and technology is being deployed. This group will also review the plans for signal system upgrade methodology and decide the best system to use, specifically comparing Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) to Ultra-Wide-Band (UWB) technology for safety, timeliness and cost. The MTA will be more aggressive in debarring failed contractors.

It’s not clear if these Cornell and Columbia deans have the expertise to review every MTA construction project or why they’re willing to engage in this charade. Notably, this item does not include actual cost control, a true reform that’s badly needed.

9. Expedite the Subway Action Plan

OK. This is really stretching a “ten items” list now.

10. Stop. Collaborate. Listen.

I quote: “The Governor and Mayor will work closely with the Legislature to effectuate provisions in this framework.” This shouldn’t count as an item, but it does. The bulk of this list arises out of items 1, 2, 7 and 8, and the rest are window-dressing. This is an four-item plan with some filler and a vague promise to enact (or maybe reenact?) current practices.

The Political Reaction

Following the release of this list, Cuomo and de Blasio spent some time defending the proposal, as they should. The mayor, who has long resisted the progressive pull of congestion pricing, threw some shade on the idea, as he does. He released the following statement:

“Working New Yorkers struggle every day to get around our city. We cannot let another year pass without action that makes people’s lives easier. This crisis runs deeper than ever before, and it’s now clear there is no way to address it without congestion pricing and other dedicated revenue streams. The time to act is now.

“The proposal we’re announcing today addresses concerns I’ve raised related to a lockbox for transit, fairness to the outer boroughs and accommodating hardships. I still believe a Millionaires Tax provides the best, most sustainable revenue source for the transit improvements our city needs. But the time to act is running out, and among all alternatives, congestion pricing has the greatest prospects for immediate success. In light of this reality, it is my hope that critics of congestion pricing will join me in acknowledging its necessity.

“I look forward to partnering with the Governor and the Legislature as we work to ensure this proposal to revitalize the MTA becomes a reality.”

I don’t believe the Mayor will ever get to the point of embracing congestion pricing. He is a self-proclaimed motorist who has spent years driving short distances easily covered by transit simply because he can and he likes it better. He doesn’t understand the environmental imperative for congestion pricing or the reality that the congestion-choking status quo is simply economically harmful and unsustainable for a vibrant urban area. He doesn’t care to learn how congestion pricing, if implemented properly, will clear the roads while boosting productivity and mobility. But if he’s willing to fight for this proposal, maybe that’s OK. Proponents need all the friends they can get, and that includes the mayor right now.

The governor, on the other hand, appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show shortly after releasing the press release and engaged in an enlightened discussion with the WNYC host. Cuomo talked about the exceedingly low percentage of New Yorkers driving into Manhattan and the need to clear streets to improve transit. “It doesn’t matter how well the bus is running if the bus is only going four miles an hour because there’s so much congestion,” Cuomo said of the congestion reduction benefits.

Overall, though, Cuomo said nothing new. He talked at length about the various arcane politics behind MTA governance and funding. He repeated his lies and half-truths about MTA control and spoke, as he often does, as one who does not control the MTA even though he very clearly does. He’s willing to go to bat for his plan, perhaps more than the mayor is, but that doesn’t get to the fundamental question as to whether this plan is good.

Some politicians weren’t convinced. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie expressed reservations about earmarking taxes from the legalization of recreational marijuana to transit. He feels these funds should go first to those who suffered due to the war on drugs.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson also expressed skepticism. He’s currently working on a proposal for city control of the buses and subways, an argument likely to be the centerpiece should Johnson run for mayor in 2021.

The Advocates Chime In

And what of the transit and good governance advocates? Unsurprisingly, reaction was mixed. Both the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and Riders Alliance celebrated the pro-congestion pricing statement. Nik Sifuertes, head of TSTC called it a “smart, sensible framework for congestion pricing that builds on the successes of other cities and is tailored to New York City’s unique needs.”

John Raskin of the Riders Alliance noted the two leaders’ kumbaya moment. “When the governor and mayor put out a plan together, it means real momentum toward enacting congestion pricing to fix the subway,” he said. “The agreement reflects a growing recognition that congestion pricing alone won’t solve the transit crisis, but that it is the single largest source of revenue on the table and should be the cornerstone of a bigger funding package.”

Others were a bit more skeptical. Transit Center raised a concern about the requirement that any reorganization of the MTA be completed by June.

But the most withering take came from Reinvent Albany, a good governance watchdog group pushing from reform and transparency in Albany. This group, headed by John Kaehny, raised “serious concerns” with the plan and wondered if the plan will do more harm than good. Reinvent Albany strongly supports congestion pricing and new revenue for the MTA, but we believe the MTA’s biggest organizational problem is the Governor’s endless political meddling and sidelining of the MTA and NYC Transit professional staff.”

Specifically, Reinvent Albany noted that Cuomo has yet to provide $7.3 billion of the promised $8.3 billion for the 2015-2019 Capital Plan and raised specific issues with the key items. I’ll quote a fe of them as these are astute and valuable observations.

  • Andy Byford, NYCT President stripped of power. The Governor’s proposed reorganization takes away a huge amount of fundamental management authority from New York City Transit President Andy Byford and shifts it to MTA Headquarters (HQ). What happens with Byford’s Fast Forward Plan if he can’t implement it? The governor proposes shifting engineering, contracting and construction management to MTA HQ. We note that MTA HQ has completely mismanaged the East Side Access project with up to $7B in cost overruns. (Item #1)
  • Congestion pricing proposal creates a gigantic new loophole by creating vast, vague exceptions for motorists. Given the disastrous experience with state and NYC issued parking placards, this is an invitation for abuse and petty corruption. (Item #2)
  • The Regional Transit Committee duplicates and subtracts from the MTA Board’s authority and will create even more confusion. If the legislature wants representation on the MTA board or changes to the board, it should make them instead of creating a confusing mess that further reduces accountability. The MTA board should determine fares, tolls, and budgets, etc. If it does it poorly, reform it. (Item #7)
  • The MTA, like other state authorities and agencies, should be run by professionals, not overseen by unqualified, arbitrarily selected academics hand-picked by the governor. There are many people in the world with more far more expertise on transit engineering and technology than the Deans of Columbia and Cornell engineering schools — including within the MTA. Why should these informal advisors to the governor determine what kind of signals technology the MTA uses? (Item #8)

The group further believes this effort by Cuomo is essentially a rush job with de Blasio’s blessing for the governor to shore up power and take over a city concern. “This is not the time to make major changes to redistribute power over the MTA’s governance structure, as there are too many stakeholders at risk,” the statement concludes. “Changes to the governance of the MTA should be made independently of the budget after full and thorough discussion by MTA stakeholders and the public.”

My Take

So after over 2000 words, you must be wondering where I come out. It’s no secret that I’m inherently skeptical of Andrew Cuomo’s views on transit. He hasn’t shown a willingness to understand transit’s primary role in the NYC economy, and he approaches projects with a very top-down attitude. What he wants to do is what goes, and he doesn’t speak to the experts. That’s how we end up with a fancy Moynihan Station headhouse a long block away from the subways and with no trans-Hudson capacity increases, the Backwards AirTrain and two airport rehabilitation projects that don’t expand runway space.

In this case, Cuomo seems to be punting on his own responsibilities as the executive in charge of the MTA while drawing the city into his funding fight and exerting control over New York City streets. He’s introducing a new layer of bureaucracy to MTA decision-making without tackling the fundamental cost, labor and management reforms the MTA desperately needs to succeed. He’s overseen a hiring freeze at the MTA while bringing in the academics without the right expertise to second-guess everything, and by appealing to the private sector — a sector not inherently better at the tasks with which the MTA struggles — he’ll attract bottom, rather than top, talent.

To make matters worse, Cuomo seems to be creating an MTA that embodies the worst of current practices. Centralized decision-making and procurement has led to a mess at MTA Capital Construction, an agency that constantly builds the world’s most expensive subways, tunnels, headhouses, and terminals. This isn’t the model to emulate, but it seems to be the one Cuomo is pushing. It also may sideline Andy Byford and remove his Fast Forward plan from the purview of New York City Transit, but various government sources denied that possibility throughout the day.

Don’t get me wrong: As I mentioned above, I’m quite pleased to see the mayor, begrudgingly at best, accept congestion pricing as the way forward, and I’m glad to see the governor will put his weight behind enacting a plan to start to limit traffic in Manhattan. That plan, of course, has to come with promised transit upgrades first and street redesigns to encourage higher volume and better quality usage.

Yet, for all of its words and promises, the plan seems to shuffle the deck chairs to give Cuomo control and more deniability. David Meyer, over at Streetsblog, picked up this theme in a post I’d urged you to read. I’ll quote:

The whole package represents a major power grab for Cuomo, whose eight-plus years as steward of the country’s largest transit system led to the greatest crisis it’s ever faced. Starved for money and facing criticism from all sides, the MTA has instituted a hiring freeze and is contemplating layoffs when it should be beefing up its operation to turn the system around. “Cuomo has blotted out all other political actors here,” said one longtime MTA observer. “These geniuses that he wants to bring in from Columbia, what do they think about hiring freezes and across-the-board cuts as a method for reinvigorating an organization?”

The observer noted that two previous attempts at inter-MTA consolidation have been abject failures. The first, MTA Capital Construction, created in the mid-2000s to improve the agency’s execution of mega-projects, is best known for its over-budget and delayed work on East Side Access and the Second Avenue Subway. The second, the Business Service Center, is notoriously loathed within the agency for its incompetence and unresponsiveness. “If you like the BSC, you’ll love this. And I don’t know anybody who loves the BSC,” the observer said. “This is an arson to cover up a robbery.”

Every time Cuomo and de Blasio wade into the transit space, I hold my breath and hope for the best. These are not leaders who are strong on transit, and the city is, for better or worse at a turning point. Andy Byford’s plans to speed up the subways are starting to work, despite political winds blowing against him, but the turnaround could be modest if the governor and the mayor pull the rug out from underneath everyone. The two seem to want international experts to stick around to oversee a planned subway renaissance, and congestion pricing ought to help the beleaguered bus system in particular. But is this a good plan, endorsed by those who are experts in transit governance and management? It this the right plan for right now? I’m not yet convinced it is, but as always, the devil will be in the details which will come fast and furious as the June reorganization deadline looms.

Categories : MTA Politics
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The comprehensive L train mitigation plans shown here were shelved when Gov. Cuomo canceled the shutdown. (Click to enlarge)

Since the MTA officially canceled the L train shutdown and Gov. Andrew Cuomo wrapped up his MTA powerplay last month, all has been quiet on the Canarsie front. Various advocacy groups have been jockeying for the city to commit to maintaining robust people-first travel options and a true dedicated busway along 14th St., but with politicians wavering and silence from the Mayor’s Office, we’ve seen more rallies but little concrete action.

The silence buckled a bit last week when MTA officials briefed reporters and local politicians on their mitigation plans for the L train’s upcoming not-quite-a-shutdown shutdown. Though the 14th St. busway remains a decision under NYC DOT’s purview, the MTA will still roll out Select Bus Service along the busy and painfully slow M14 corridor, but the rest of the mitigation plan involves beefing up nearby subway service and hoping for the best. The agency clearly believes that most L train riders who do not opt for taxis of various shades and apps will complete their trips via subway, and if the proposed mitigation isn’t sufficient, well, the L train shutdown plans are only just mothballed.

If not a full-blown, car-restrictive mitigation plan, what then is the MTA going to implement? So glad you asked.

We’ll start with the L train service plan. On weeknights from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. and throughout the weekend during the work, L trains will run between Brooklyn and Manhattan every 20 minutes. This does not, however, mean full L train service the rest of the day as the MTA has to “ramp down” L trains beginning at 8 p.m. on weeknights. The ramp down, as I understand it, is to allow work trains to move into position to maximize the seven-hour construction window. But even occasion service delays at that hour will be impactful. As regular L train riders know, the L train is far from empty at 10 p.m., let alone 8 p.m., and this service slowdown will inevitably disrupt nightlife along the L train, a big part of the NYC economy whether hipster-hating New Yorkers want to admit it or not.

On the Brooklyn side of the tunnel, L trains will run from Lorimer St. to Canarsie every 10 minutes until 1:30 a.m. until reverting to the current 20-minute overnight headways. Essentially, the MTA will run every other Lorimer-bound L train past Lorimer St. into Manhattan, and the other half will turn around at Lorimer and head east again.

To provide pick up the load, the agency plans to run five additional G trains on weeknights between 8:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. in both directions. G trains though will not be lengthened as initially promised under the original mitigation plan. Rather, Transit officials believe shorter trains with more frequent headways can better move more people. On weekends, the G will run every eight minutes from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturdays and noon to 8 p.m. on Sundays instead of every ten.

Similarly, M trains will run into Manhattan, terminating at 96th St. and 2nd Ave. (instead of Queens Boulevard) from 10 p.m. until 1:30 a.m., and M trains will operate with eight-minute headways running to the Upper East Side on weekends as well. Transit officials insist that this M train rerouting will not reduce service on the Queens Boulevard line, but it’s not quite clear to me how that’s the case.

Some other perks include five additional 7 trains between 8:30 p.m. and midnight and more frequent 7 train service on the weekends. The MTA will also institute free out-of-system transfers between the 3 and L at Junius/Livonia and between the G and J/M in the Broadway/Hewes/Lorimer area. Additionally, the MTA will institute bus loops on the Brooklyn side, providing weeknight service every three minutes from Bedford to Metropolitan to Broadway and from Hewes to Marcy to Metropolitan. Weekend frequency for these bus loops remain under review.

On the Manhattan side, things get a bit dicier as the MTA plans to run M14 buses every three minutes up and down 14th St. Without a commitment by the city to the busway though, it’s very easy to see how this plan falls apart instantly as significant bus traffic fights for limited street space with the private automobiles that already choke 14th St. in congestion. Without enforced, dedicated lanes, this bus plan will fail, and anyone who is able to will find walking across Manhattan faster.

Finally, the wild card in all of this planning is station metering — or the practice of limiting access to station platforms during periods of extreme crowding. Metering first became part of the public discussion when early drafts of this mitigation plan leaked to Streetsblog and Gothamist in late January. Although the MTA denied that these plans were ripe for public review, what the agency presented last week essentially mirrors those earlier leaks, and crowd control was a big concern.

Could the MTA, then, implement exit-only restrictions at certain Manhattan L train stations or station metering in which platforms are closed and passengers have to queue up in station mezzanines or at street level? In a statement on crowd control and station metering, Maxwell Young, the MTA’s new chief external affairs officer, downplayed this outcome. “We’re still evaluating the best options to deal with crowding, which we anticipate to be especially high only on only a couple of hours during the weekends,” he said. “We will be working with our partners at the NYPD and the DOT to put in place a plan to make sure everyone stays safe. Making stations exit only is not our preferred solution.”

There’s an element of “hold your breath and hope for the best” in this plan, and the pain points are quite clear. The uncertain fate of the 14th St. looms large, and the cancellation of HOV3+ restrictions on the Williamsburg Bridge could lead to an Uber-pocalypse during weekends as Brooklyn-bound riders get fed up with roundabout alternate routes, long waits and extremely crowded trains. But as I said, the city and MTA both have the plans for more expansive mitigation plans at the ready should traffic and transit service grind to a halt when the L train work begins in earnest.

The key here is what we’ve lost. Where once we had certainty, the MTA doesn’t yet know how long this new approach to the Canarsie Tunnel work will take or how many weekends the city will be stuck with 20-minute L train headways. Furthermore, we’re losing an opportunity to watch a new approach to work unfold before our eyes. The L train was to be a model for Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan, a way to shut down train lines, provide alternate service options and blitz the line with modernization work. But when push came to shove (or when a mystery many grabbed him by the lapels), Cuomo turned away from this new model. Maintaining service should be the goal of any transit operator, but in this case, maintaining — and, more importantly, improving — service might have required a temporary outage. Instead, we get a Band-Aid and a leaky one, at that.

Editor’s Note: Second Ave. Sagas is starting its second year of being fully reader-supported. To ensure ads do not interfere with the site and to expand my content offerings, I started a Patreon for Second Ave. Sagas. If you like what you read and want more of it (including the return of my podcast), please consider a monthly donation. I’ll be back later this week with an analysis of a key Scott Stringer report on subway delay reporting. Thank you, as always, for your support.

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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The slow churn of the BQX continued last week when the city awarded a contract to VHB to prepare an environmental impact statement. (Source: NYCEDC)

When last we saw the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s half-embraced, half-developed plan for a waterfront streetcar, the project seemed to be inching toward a quiet demise. The city had just admitted that the original self-funding plan would not generate enough money to cover construction costs, and operations would not begin until 2029, eight years after the project’s current champion is term-limited out of Gracie Mansion. But the zombie BQX isn’t dead yet as the NYC EDC announced last week a $7.25 million contract with VHB for the land-use and transportation planning group to produce the project’s environmental impact statement, due in September of 2020.

The EIS is the first in a very staggered planning schedule, and it will precede the ULURP review process with which VHB will also assist. The EIS is designed to, in the words of Railway Age, “preserve the city’s ability to use federal funds for the construction of BQX and ensure that work meets permitting standards set by the United States Army Corps of Engineers or U.S. Coast Guard related to construction in navigable waters.”

As part of the contract, the city also announced another round of significant community outreach to wary residents and politicians along the route, and the project’s proponents used the award of this contract to celebrate a step forward. “These steps show meaningful progress for the project — something we’ve been eager to see,” Jessica Schumer, Executive Director of the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, said in a statement. “We are pleased with the city’s commitment not just to moving the project forward, but to community engagement, which much play a central role. As the city grapples with a transit crisis, now is the moment for it to take control of its mass transit destiny and expand access wherever it can. The BQX is an essential first step and will provide a model for future city-run light rail lines in transit deserts across the city.”

Still, even with this contract award, the future for this project remains murky at best. Critics have questioned the city’s rosy ridership projections of 50,000 per day, and even that would put the BQX on par with moderately busy bus lines at a significantly higher cost. “We don’t expect the ridership to justify the cost,” Ben Fried, the spokesperson for Transit Center, said to The Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, many of the people the de Blasio administration have tapped for the project have moved on. Adam Giambrone, who served as the director of the BQX for over two years, departed his post in the fall to take a high-profile job in Saudi Arabia, and Jonathan Gouveia, a one-time NYC EDC VP who focused nearly exclusively on the BQX, joined NYCHA late last month as a senior vice president of real estate. It’s not actually clear who’s spear-heading the effort within the de Blasio administration, and it’s hard to say if the mayor will stay focused enough to push through a project that’s still at least a decade away from revenue service.

Ultimately, I see a city-run light rail as a potential opportunity for a new model of transit development in New York City that removes the MTA (and Albany) from the equation, but the process has to be aggressively managed and pushed forward in a timely basis. The route should be a high-capacity demand corridor that can be implemented quickly and can’t otherwise be replicated with better bus service via aggressive lane, curb and signal management. In that regard, a waterfront route probably doesn’t count it, and investment in the BQX should not take precedence over a renewed focus from the city on better bus service.

But the BQX isn’t dead yet. This EIS award is only a week later than anticipated, and for now, the project remains on schedule for construction to begin in 2024. That, however, I’ll believe when I see it.

Editor’s Note: Second Ave. Sagas is starting its second year of being fully reader-supported. To ensure ads do not interfere with the site and to expand my content offerings, I started a Patreon for Second Ave. Sagas. If you like what you read and want more of it (including the return of my podcast), please consider a monthly donation. I’ll be back later this week with an analysis of a key Scott Stringer report on subway delay reporting. Thank you, as always, for your support.

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New York City, they say, is a cyclical town. Neighborhoods wax and wane; popular restaurants open and close; the city rises and falls; and even the Mets may be good again one day. Not everything that comes back is welcome, and four years after finally silencing emergency alarms, the MTA has turned some back on, at the request of the NYPD, in an effort to fight fare evasion. That ear-splitting sound, the subject of much consternation a decade ago, is back.

I first wrote about the debate over emergency exits back in 2009 when the conversation focused around the the ethics of opening doors knowing an ear-splitting siren would follow. In 2010, the New City Transit Riders Council issued a damning report on the ineffectiveness of the alarms. With the alarms still armed, Riders Council observers witnessed thousands of riders streaming out of the doors (and a handful entering without paying through the doors). In 2014, The New York Times created an op-doc on the doors, and when 2015 dawned, the MTA silenced the alarms, seemingly for good.

“Our customers,” then-agency spokesman Kevin Ortiz said, “have been quite clear in displaying their annoyance and letting us know that the alarms really were the number one annoyance for them as they travel through the system.”

Well, sounds that were annoying have been forgotten, and as the MTA and NYPD look to combat what they claim is a real increase in fare evasion, alarms at certain key stations have been turned back on. I first got wind of the unwelcome return of these alarms in mid-January when Twitter reports came in of alarms at Union Square, Columbus Circle, Jay St.-Metrotech and Times Square, among other stations. The alarms are not, as I can attest, back on at every station, and it seems that only a few fare evasion hotspots have been tagged for activation.

After some tense back-and-forth on Twitter over the need for the alarms, the MTA provided me a statement on the emergency exits. The NYPD, it seems, asked the agency re-arm some doors as part of a test. They noted to me:

NYPD is working to combat fare evasion and recently we complied with their request to re-activate alarms at several high traffic stations. This is a test for them to determine the alarms’ effectiveness in deterrence. At the same time, NYC Transit is working with NYPD to evaluate ways to reduce the inconvenience of the alarms for our paying customers and employees, looking into techniques such as enabling timed shutoffs. Nobody wants to hear an alarm going off, but revenue lost to fare evasion is revenue that can’t be used for running and maintaining the system, so we’re working with the NYPD to find the right balance.

Sarah Meyer, Transit’s Chief Customer Officer, also noted that the MTA should have an update on the effectiveness of the alarms “in a couple of weeks.”

The problems New Yorkers had with emergency exits haven’t gone away in the past decade, but the MTA’s priorities have shifted. Right now, the agency wants to fight fare evasion at certain key hot spots, and the gate sirens are one way to do so. The problem, of course, is one of action and reaction. As in the past, when the alarms go off, nothing happens other than lots and lots of noise. Cops or MTA employees (if any are even around) rarely, if ever, investigate, and the alarms serve as a clear signal to anyone nearby that a door that may be locked is now wide open. It’s almost an invite to potential fare evaders.

Outside of the noise pollution, the other problem with these alarms is how they stigmatize certain subway riders. Not everyone can get through NYC’s relatively narrow turnstiles (narrow to fight fare evasion in the first place, I should add). Parents or caretakers pushing strollers and people in wheelchairs who already confront a hostile system and those with large packages or suitcases simply can’t navigate the turnstiles. With stations including fewer and fewer employees, these folks are forced to enter through exits, and if the exits are now alarmed, the simple act of opening the day at the least inconveniences everyone and at the worst draws a crowd. I said this years ago, but the MTA could combat this problem by redesigning turnstiles to include wider, accessible entry gates that can fit wheelchairs and suitcases, as are standard in metro and subway systems throughout the world.

In fact, Meyer told me those gates are on the way as part of the MTA’s push toward more system accessibility, and I’m looking forward to them.

For now, though, we left once again with subway alarms and a familiar debate. Can the NYPD respond to alarms in high-volume stations fast enough for them to serve as a fare evasion deterrent while the MTA responds to requests to open them fast enough to ensure people who need and have properly paid for access get it without causing an ear-splitting ruckus? That’s under review, and we’ll find out soon what end of the emergency exit alarm cycle we’re living through. Will it be the continuation of a quiet one or the dawn of a new, louder, siren-filled era?

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A $3 base fare for subway and bus rides were among the fare hike options the MTA decided to push off until February.

When 2018 drew to a close, a level of certainty seemed to surround the MTA. The long-planned L train shutdown loomed four months out; a looming vote on fare hikes seemed to be a mere formality; and with momentum building for a congestion pricing plan, Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan seemed well on the way to reality.

But then, thanks to Governor Andrew Cuomo, everything changed in the blink of an eye. Cuomo, circumventing the MTA Board, canceled the L train shutdown, sidelined Andy Byford from the project, and then capped off his month by pushing the MTA to delay the planned vote on the fare hikes. It was a flurry of activity orchestrated by the man in charge of the MTA who keeps insisting he isn’t pulling the strings, and it’s created uncertainty — and potentially budgetary pressures — at a time when the MTA can least afford to lose on the money.

The latest chapter in this saga began to unfold last week shortly before the MTA Board meeting that was planned to feature the fare hike vote. Now, as much as New Yorkers don’t want to pay more for what many perceive to be declining subway service, biennial fare hikes have been a feature of the MTA since the structure was approved as part of the 2010 bailout. Every two years, the fares increase by a modest amount, and these hikes, the best tool the MTA has for guaranteed revenue increases, have been met with relatively little resistance as the fare jumps are built into the budget.

But this time, after torpedoing the L train plans, Cuomo started speaking out against fare hikes, as Emma Fitzsimmons reported in The Times last week. Cuomo, expressing “no faith” in what his MTA says, urged the agency to avoid a fare hike. “Tighten your belt,” he said. “Make the place run better.”

In the same piece, former Cuomo aide and current MTA Board member Larry Schwartz said he was examining ways to tie fare hikes amorphously to, as he put it, “performance improvements” or would be otherwise “dead set” on voting for a hike. And then, during Thursday’s meeting, the MTA simply punted. Before any debate or alternative proposals could be presented publicly, the agency tabled all talks. “I’m concerned that we’re making a decision today when we need to be a little slower, a little more thoughtful, and need to consider a few more options,” Cuomo appointee Peter Ward said, moving to delay the discussion. The Board quickly decided to wait on debating fare hike proposals until the next meeting, currently scheduled for Wednesday, February 27.

What was so strange and abrupt about the move was how quickly it came about. The MTA Board had heard only some words from the governor and vague rumors of other proposals. After the vote, Schwartz said his efforts to develop a proposal tied to performance metrics was “in vain” despite internal conversations. To me, this is a good thing, as any attempt to tie guaranteed revenue to better service is one way to put the MTA on a path to a death spiral. If the agency can’t provide better service, the agency can’t raise fares or generate revenue for service at which point its only option is to cut service, thus leading to worse service, less revenue and that dreaded death spiral.

Much like with the L train shutdown shutdown, the “why” of the delayed fare hike vote remains an open-ended question. Dana Rubinstein tried to break it down. I’d urge you to read her entire piece, but I found this excerpt a succinct summary of this mess:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo controls the MTA’s L tunnel plans and the color of its tunnel tiles, but he claims he doesn’t control the MTA. The governor says he has “no faith” in the MTA’s leadership, which he helped appoint. He thinks the MTA doesn’t actually need more than $300 million a year in new fare revenue, because it can just “tighten” its belt and “make the place run better.” But he does think the MTA needs $1 billion a year in new revenue from congestion pricing, which he wants to see imposed on New York City. “It’s really hard to decipher,” said one board member, referring to the general state of MTA politics right now.

It’s well within Cuomo’s rights as the head of the state to attempt to reform the MTA, but running the agency as a fiefdom and operating behind closed doors at a time when the agency needs public support does little but undermine the MTA. With uncertainty clouding the fare hike discussion, it could now be a few months before the MTA can generate the revenue it claims it needs to avoid massive budget shortfalls. If new fare hike proposals are presented next month, the agency may need to hold additional public hearings, wait to vote on the new proposal and then wait to implement these proposals. Instead of a fare increase — and guaranteed revenue come April 1 — the MTA may have to wait to increase fares until July, losing out as much as $90 million it can’t afford to see wiped off the books. Ultimately, too, the public will pay for this politicking through increased hikes or service cuts.

To me, this is backsliding. After years of a commitment to transparency and a big show by Byford to produce a plan to do better, Cuomo has seemingly stepped in to blow everything up, and no one knows why. Did he do it because congestion pricing is now significantly closer to reality and he seems concerned about the political fallout from that move? Is he worried Corey Johnson and other city reps are making noises about re-asserting local control over subways and buses? Did someone actually shake him by his lapels to get him to focus on the L train and, by extension, the MTA?

No one yet knows why Cuomo is suddenly doing what he’s doing. But shortly after the fare hike vote was delayed, Cuomo had an about-face and acknowledged that the MTA would have to implement a rate hike sooner rather than later. It was an odd admission from the governor who had spent weeks slamming the agency for planning to raise fares and one that left observers scratching their heads even harder. Right now, Cuomo’s endgame is opaque and playing out on a day-to-day basis. Where this ends is up in the air, but riders, agency officials and MTA rank-and-file don’t know which way the wind will blow on any given day. And that’s no way to run a railroad.

Categories : Fare Hikes, MTA Politics
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After nearly a year of negotiations, the MTA and Amtrak reached an agreement so the Penn Station Access project can move forward.

It sure does take a while to turn transit dreams into reality in New York City. Take this website’s namesake subway line. What started as a line on paper in 1929 became reality in part only 87 years later. Penn Station Access — a plan to bring Metro-North trains to Penn Station via four new stops in the Bronx — won’t have such a tortuous long history, but this idea, born in 1973, will turn 50 before the trains finally run.

Yet the trains will run. Twenty years after planning began in earnest and scoping documents were released to the public, Amtrak and Metro-North reached an agreement on a long-simmering dispute so that Metro-North can build its four in-fill stations and operate along Amtrak right-of-way, delivering New Haven Line and Bronx commuter rail passengers to Manhattan’s West Side, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, again in charge of the MTA, announced yesterday.

“Too many residents of the Bronx have been without reliable transit, which is why I proposed these new stations,” Governor Cuomo said, of a project the MTA scoped in 2000 when Cuomo, then 43, was the HUD Secretary in the Clinton Administration. “With a reconstructed Moynihan Station currently underway, these four stations not only will connect the east Bronx to Manhattan’s West Side, but also build upon our ongoing efforts to fully transform our state’s transportation infrastructure.”

In addition to providing New Haven Line riders with direct access to the West Side, the plan includes four new Metro-North stations in the Bronx at Co-Op City, Morris Park, Parkchester/Van Nest and Hunts Point. The MTA has currently allocated around $700 million to the project though the total budget is estimated to exceed $1 billion, an astronomical price tag for four in-fill stations along a preexisting rail right-of-way. Cuomo’s Tuesday announcement included details of the first contract as HNTB New York Engineering and Architecture will get $35 million for engineering and design work.

While the Metro-North stations in the Bronx can help speed travel times to Manhattan for far-flung corners of that borough, I believe the reverse-commute patterns will be more important for Bronx residents who work in Westchester. Still, the MTA should use Penn Station Access as an opportunity to rationalize the fares for commuter rail trips within the five boroughs (a topic I last explored in 2015).

“Bringing Metro-North service to the east Bronx is a game changer for the borough, and we have all been eager to get started,” Interim MTA Chair Fernando Ferrer said in a statement. “This project will significantly reduce travel times for east Bronx residents and help area businesses and institutions attract employees.”

Metro-North and Amtrak had been at odds over the project, which involves MTA use of Amtrak’s Hell Gate Bridge, for some time, and it seemed as though the project’s future was in jeopardy. So what did Metro-North and New York State give Amtrak? Cuomo’s press release puts a New York-friendly spin on the deal, noting that Amtrak and the MTA will “jointly study the feasibility of Amtrak running several trains daily from Long Island to Penn Station and continuing either north to Boston or south to Washington.” The MTA will also foot the bill for signal, power, communications and track upgrades along the route.

Two articles provide more detail on the deal that our governor reportedly brokered. WNYC’s Stephen Nessen reports on a trade-off involving the Pelham Bay Bridge:

The stalemate hinged on two demands from Amtrak. One was that the MTA pay to replace the century-old Pelham Bay Bridge, which would get more traffic with the expansion. As far back as 2010 Amtrak had labeled the bridge “beyond a state-of-good-repair” and in need of more than $500 million to build a replacement. Under the agreement brokered by Cuomo, the Pelham Bay Bridge replacement would be postponed for 10-20 years. The other sticking point was that Amtrak wanted to charge the MTA access fees for using its tracks.

Amtrak gave up the demand for fees in exchange for the Long Island feasibility study I mentioned above, and Thomas Zambito had a bit more on the horse-trading in The Journal-News:

Under the agreement announced today, the MTA will pay for the cost of improvements along the Hell Gate as well as the design of the Bronx commuter stations, according to an outline of the agreement obtained by The Journal News/lohud.com.

The two railroads will share costs for use of the Hell Gate and the replacement of the Pelham Bay Bridge based on usage, the outline adds. And, Metro-North will coordinate the project around Amtrak’s plans to increase service levels on its Acela Express between New York and Boston in 2021.

So for Metro-North and Gov. Cuomo, all’s well that end’s well yet again. The MTA is shouldering a lot of costs for railroad updates, and the agency gets its rail link from Westchester to Penn Station. The service is expected to begin a year or two after East Side Access opens or right around the 50th anniversary of the first calls to bring trains through the Bronx to Penn Station. All it takes is far too much time.

Categories : Penn Station Access
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The MTA will move forward with the new plans for the L train tunnel without putting the matter to a Board vote. (Source: PDF).

The bizarre and tiresome saga of the L train shutdown shutdown seemingly came to a conclusion Thursday as the MTA officially called off the shutdown in one of the strangest press release I’ve seen the agency issue in nearly 13 years of running this site. The move, rumored to be on direct orders of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, completes an end-run around both the MTA Board and Andy Byford that had been strongly suggested during Tuesday’s meeting and effectively neuters the MTA Board. The new project is less safe and less comprehensive than a full shutdown but doesn’t carry the headaches that would have accompanied closing the L train for 15 months. It is now, for better or worse, firmly Andrew Cuomo’s move to own.

The press release is written as an “MTA update to L train riders” and isn’t available on the agency’s website. You can read it here on the state’s website in all of its informal glory. It starts out with a strangely familiar “as you know” and goes from there to stress that the shutdown “will not be necessary.” Here are the newsworthy bits:

This project is a major priority for the MTA and reconstruction will be supervised by MTA Capital Construction and overseen by MTA Managing Director Veronique Hakim. The MTA will also hire an independent consultant to oversee safety operations that will report directly to the Board.

The MTA is now working with the various contractors on a new final construction schedule and contracts which delete some elements of the initial construction plan and add the new design alternatives. We do not believe the cost of reconstruction will increase, and given the tremendous benefits to the riding public, reduction in the volume of traffic and savings from the traffic mitigation efforts, it is a clear positive alternative and in the public interest.

We expect the formulation of the final construction schedule and contract completions to take several weeks. The current construction estimate is 15 to 20 months. As soon as we have more definitive information we will provide it to our customers and the public.

A few days ago, Byford and the Board had requested the ability to hire an independent engineer to assess the new plan for its pluses and minuses before the MTA was to go forward. This press release clearly shifts the conversation as it is clear the agency is going forward, and the Board’s oversight role is diminished as the MTA — and not the Board — will hire “an independent consultant to oversee safety operations.” This isn’t an independent assessment of the plan but rather a safety oversight position. This move is not what Byford or the Board wanted, and it’s a clear sign that someone high up in Albany did not want this plan subject to the scrutiny it should receive.

Next, note that the MTA says “we” — whoever “we” is supposed to be here — “do not believe the cost of reconstruction will increase.” This is significant as it’s how the Board is removed from the equation. If the costs are to increase, the Board must approve a modification to the contract. If the costs are to remain the same (or decrease, as may be the case here), the MTA can execute a change order to its contract with WSP and avoid any Board oversight of the new plan. This is how Cuomo is apparently legally removing the Board from the equation.

I’ve reached out to some MTA Board members for comment and have not yet received a reply. The full Board is scheduled to meet for its regularly monthly sessions next week, and it will be interesting, to say the least, to see how they respond to this maneuver.

So we do not know the plan for mitigation; we do not know when the new work will start; we do not know how long it will; we do not know how the MTA and its contractors will manage silica dust or if the cable casings will be up to par for use in the L train’s tunnel. We do know that consultant on Tuesday said, “It certainly would have been advantageous for long-term service life to completely tear out the duct banks and completely replace them.”

The Post has a good rundown of some behind-the-scenes goings-on related to this L train move. One source they refer to as an “MTA insider” had harsh words: “Cuomo is saying he knows more about the technology stuff than the technology experts on the MTA board. “It’s just a demonstration of who runs the show. This is Cuomo being completely dominant over the MTA…We’re starting out marginally less safe. And that’s not a good place to start.”

Meanwhile, I’m still left wondering why Cuomo is doing this while also pushing for MTA reform. His call for reform involves more say and sway over the Board, but he’s demonstrated this week that he can simply dismiss the concerns of the Board if he wants something. Was this an intentional move to highlight how the Board is ultimately a figurehead? Or was this an example of Cuomo being Cuomo and one of those situations where he decided the way forward and heaven help anyone who tries to slow him down? We don’t yet know, but the L train shutdown is off, and the MTA Board isn’t getting a say in the matter after all.

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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WSP presented its new plans for the L train work during a special session of the MTA Board on Tuesday. The MTA later said it planned to move ahead with this work despite no Board approval yet.

About mid-way through hour three of Tuesday’s interminable MTA Board venting session on the L Train Shutdown Shutdown, it started to dawn on a few astute members of the board that they were in essence being iced out of the decision-making process. They weren’t in the room to start an informed dialogue and evaluate different approaches to the necessary repair work on the L train tunnel; they were in the room to serve as foil as a bunch of MTA and contractor executives laid out the argument for a decision that had been made for them. No matter what the MTA Board said they wanted to do, the MTA was going to listen to orders from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and cancel the full shutdown in favor of the new plan.

The conversation began when Neal Zuckerman and later Polly Trottenberg started pulling on the threads of the MTA press release that trumpeted, in past tense, how the agency had “averted the shutdown” and the fact that signs touting the cancellation of the shutdown had appeared in L train stations. If the MTA Board still had to chime in, Zuckerman and Trottenberg wondered, why was MTA management treating this as a done deal? The exchange between Trottenberg and Interim MTA Chair Fernando Ferrer was a fascinating one, captured by Gothamist in its liveblog, and it’s well worth replicating here:

TROTTENBERG: As the MTA has gone off and put up signs that said L train shutdown averted, the board has had no vote on changing the contract or any of the terms here. Is the decision made? Do we have any actual role here? I’m not hearing that we do?

FERRER: I can address that commissioner. See there isn’t a change in a contract before us because there is no actual change to a contract at this point. Once there is, I am happy to have that brought before the board if I am still acting chairman. That’s my job, that’s my responsibility to consider it. If we have to consider an amendment to a contract or any other action, at the appropriate moment that will be brought before us and we’ll vote yes or no and abstain.

TROTTENBERG: So you’re saying we could vote no. What would that mean? The L train shutdown isn’t averted.

FERRER: You vote whichever way you like. I’ve never suggested how you should vote.

TROTTENBERG: You think in the end it will be the board’s decision?

FERRER: That’s what I’m saying.

TROTTENBERG: Maybe it’s premature to announce it before the board has made a decision, isn’t it?

FERRER: Decision on what? You’re asking about a contract. Stop, stop. Let’s not conflate these things. You’re asking about board action relating to a change in a contract. If there is any other service change than we will deal with that at the appropriate moment.

TROTTENBERG: But will those service changes be subject to the review of the board?

FERRER: [Frustrated sigh]

VERONIQUE HAKIM: Contracts come to the board based on our procurement guidelines. Change orders at certain levels come to the board. Service changes I think the term in the board approved service guidelines is “major service changes” also comes to the board.

TROTTENBERG: This seems like this is a major service changes. If we’re making major changes to the contact in terms of scope, in terms of price tag, in terms of liability, those are things that come to the board. I’m not saying we wouldn’t be in favor of all of this, I’m just confused: Does this plan need approval by the board or not? I am confused about it.

FERRER: The purpose for this meeting was to share information. Once there is a change, a plan, it becomes before the board again. We’re not going away.

TROTTEBERG: So if the signs says shutdown averted, it should have a footnote that says “subject to board approval”?

At this point, Ferrer answered but with his microphone off, and when asked about his unheard comments following the meeting, he grew testy and reiterated what he said to Trottenberg during the exchange. At no point did he address her concerns, or Zuckerman’s before her, about how the MTA was messaging a done deal before an independent engineering assessment or Board vote. On Tuesday night, the MTA all but confirmed this outcome in a statement emailed to reporters.

So is that it then for the L train shutdown? The statement from the MTA sure makes it sound like this was a decision made a few weeks ago when Gov. Cuomo held his press conference. MTA Board members haven’t yet voiced their views on tonight’s development, and the full Board is scheduled to meet next Tuesday in what is now a can’t-miss session for MTA watchers. To borrow a football image, though, the MTA is sprinting downfield at their opponent’s 15-yard line with no defenders in sight.

Concurrently, the other person who was about to throw up some roadblocks on the way to changing the L train plans has been sidelined too. As part of the meeting today, the MTA essentially moved this project out from Andy Byford’s purview. He will, as Ferrer said, be in charge of running the largest rail network in North America but will not have day-to-day oversight of the L train work as this project now belongs to MTA Capital Construction. Byford had spent last week trying to put the brakes on a headlong rush into something new by, among other things, calling for a truly independent assessment of the plan, a call echoed Tuesday by MTA Board Members before the MTA’s statement landed in inboxes a few hours later. (Dan Rivoli had much more on Byford’s role.)

If that’s it for the MTA Board’s role in this project, it’s an ignoble end and one that effectively neuters the Board. What’s the point of an oversight body that can be so thoroughly circumvented? Following the meeting, Nicole Gelinas wrote a column questioning Cuomo’s approach to the L train, and she hit upon this issue tangentially in concluding that the governor, via his meddling, “created a problem that did not exist.” Now, he or his MTA executives are pulling harder on that thread, trying to unravel the entire oversight structure. The MTA Board will be reduced to voting on contract changes and service patterns when and if those arrive, but as with the budget votes, they’ll have no real choice. It’s not yet clear why or what the ramifications are yet, but I’m sure we’ll find out in due time.

An Overview of the Meeting

With the behind-the-scenes machinations out of the way, let me do a quick run-down of today’s meetings. You can check out my Twitter threads that begin here and here for some running commentary. Unfortunately, the slides aren’t online, and they do add some context considering The Times report on Tuesday morning that the MTA had considered and rejected a similar plan in the past. WSP officials insisted the new plan was sufficiently different due to the cable racks and monitoring systems, and they spent the meeting claiming that they can mitigate the impact of silica dust in a way that won’t interfere with restoring rush hour service. I’ve highlighted two key points:

We do not know when the work will begin, how long it will take, what mitigation plans will be in place or how much it will cost, but other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the show? If you’ve walked away from this week believing the fix is in, you’d be right to think so. It’s still, as I keep saying, not clear why, but the fix is in.

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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