This week’s MTA Board materials feature a glimpse inside the East Side Access project.

East Side Access, the long-awaiting plan to bring LIRR trains to the East Side, is one of New York City’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind public works that just keeps on going, seemingly without end but also without disruption. To that end, it comes and goes as part of the public conversation around transit priorities and any attempts at reassessing the project over the years via normal metrics has gone nowhere. Now, East Side Access is back in the news as costs have ballooned by another $1 billion, and the project which was originally expected to serve around 162,000 people per day, is going to cost at least $11.1 billion. Why exactly are we doing this?

The story first broke about a week and a half ago, and Alfonso Castillo had a deep-dive into the cost increases in Newsday, the Long Island-based paper that has been on top of the troubles with this complex for over a decade. In short, and as this week’s MTA Board materials make clear, the MTA wants to blame Amtrak for these latest cost increases, but finger-pointing doesn’t mean anyone else will cover this latest $1 billion uptick in a project that the MTA once estimated would cost $3 billion. Here’s Castillo:

The MTA is blaming much of the latest $955 million budget increase on Amtrak, saying that its failure to provide needed help at a critical work site in Queens has resulted in lengthy delays and ballooning costs. Despite the latest setback, MTA officials say the project — called the largest public works effort underway in the United States — will remain on schedule to be completed by the end of 2022, thanks in part to new management strategies that will speed up the pace of the work.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority chief development officer Janno Lieber, who last year took over management of East Side Access, acknowledged that MTA mismanagement of the project was also a factor in the latest cost overrun. Among the agency’s mistakes, Lieber said: setting unrealistic budget and timeline estimates “without really knowing the complexity” of the project; unnecessarily splitting the project into 50 different contracts that have frequently conflicted with each other; making discretionary design changes after the project was well underway; overpaying for some contracts that were not competitively bid and even at one point ordering steel beams that were the wrong size.

“We bear some of the responsibility. But the principal change impact to the cost is the extension of the time of the construction. And that is mostly attributable to Amtrak,” said Lieber, referencing what the MTA has said is Amtrak’s inadequate cooperation at the Harold Interlocking in Queens, where all work involving Amtrak’s overhead catenary wire system must be overseen by the federally funded intercity passenger railroad.

In a letter to new Amtrak president and chief executive officer Richard Anderson sent Friday, [April 13,] Lieber said Amtrak had ”ignored” the MTA’s repeated pleas for cooperation and caused $340 million in cost overruns just since 2014. “Going forward we need Amtrak to give the East Side Access project a very different level of effort,” Lieber wrote in the letter.

Lieber’s letter is available here, but it does not make clear exactly why Amtrak’s lack of cooperation has cost the MTA so much or why the MTA couldn’t simply pay Amtrak to staff up to ensure crews had proper access and oversight to the Harold Interlocking. This week’s Capital Project Oversight Committee materials that the MTA Board will be discussing tomorrow morning sheds some light on the dollar amounts involved. Take a look:

The bulk of the cost increases in the “force account” bucket are assigned to Amtrak, and this aligns with the letter blaming the national rail agency. But the larger increases are around third-party and soft costs. The soft cost increases, in particular, this late in a project’s timeline are alarming as it seems the MTA cannot project and manage costs that should have been anticipated at the outset (or at least during the 2014 re-baselining exercise). On the bright side, the MTA still anticipates a December 2022 opening date, and so at the least project timeline has not slipped over the past few years.

The exact details this time around are almost besides the point as we as a city have become inured to the utter absurdity of this project. Take a look at this timeline of delays and dollar spikes from Newsday for a project that is expected to serve fewer people than the total ridership for just the current phase of the Second Ave. Subway.

Via Newsday.

It seems almost too late at this point to ask why this project is continuing; it is after all far too late to go back and most of the money has already been spent. We seemingly have no choice but to keep going because the alternative is a costly infill of a massive cavern and a refund to the feds of billions of dollars spent years ago. But why wasn’t this a question years ago when costs started creeping up and timelines started falling by the wayside?

When first proposed in 1999, the project was billed at around $18,000 per rider. At current expectations and with the same ridership projects, East Side Access will now run to nearly $70,000 per rider. Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway came in at around $22,000 per rider, and ESA’s per-KM costs are now at around $5.5 billion. By any measure, this is an absurdly expensive project that wouldn’t stand up to a fresh cost-benefit analysis. Furthermore, with only around 8000 New York City residents expected to shift from the subway to the LIRR when East Side Access is complete, it’s a massive expenditure by the state in a project that benefits suburban commuters by an extreme amount as the city’s transit needs founder. It is practically antagonistic to a smart investment in transit capacity expansion.

These aren’t easy questions, and they pit New Yorkers against New Yorkers and suburban residents visit urban dwellers in fights that have unfolded for decades. It is also a thought experiment in futility as the MTA isn’t going to stop building the East Side Access project simply because the price has gone up again. But the MTA has gotten away with capital construction larceny here, and no one in Albany has raised a hand to question the worth of this project at any point in the last decade. It is a failure in construction management and a failure in politics as scarce transit dollars flushed into the deep-bore cavern below Grand Central time and time again.

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NYC Transit President Andy Byford last week urged the NYPD to prioritize moving trains.

A disputed seat becomes a fight between passengers becomes a crime scene becomes a 90-minute rush-hour delay to police activity. It all happens in the blink of an eye as it did last Thursday morning when a fight on an A train at High St. snarled rush hour service on both the 6th and 8th Avenue lines for 90 minutes. And now it’s touched off a bit of a war of words between new NYC Transit President Andy Byford and the NYPD over the right way for the cops to respond to subway disruptions so as not to snarl service for hundreds of thousands of riders.

The details regarding the incident on the A train at around 8:15 on Thursday morning are nearly inconsequential. Two people got into a fight over a seat on a crowded train, and a fight ensued which involved mace and reportedly some blood. The new combatants left the train and kept fighting on the platform at High Street, but cops held the Manhattan-bound A train in the station for 90 minutes. This led to MTA-acknowledged delays on the A, C, E and F trains and more crowded trains reported by riders along 6th Ave.

In the aftermath of the delay, Andy Byford diplomatically suggested that perhaps delaying service for 90 minutes isn’t quite the best way to handle it. Here is his full answer, via Dan Rivoli, in response to questions regarding whether the cops handled the situation appropriately:

“I need to look into it a bit more. The fact that it lasted so long would suggest to me – no. I very much appreciate what the police do. But we shouldn’t have been at a stand for that long so I’d say actually it’s between us and the police.

It should have been escalated certainly to my Chief Operating Officer’s level and ultimately to mine because I would have been all over that saying you have the train but you’re not having it there. We’ll give it to you, you could take it somewhere else but you cannot stop the service for 90 minutes for a fight.”

The cops of course responded graciously and with an acknowledgement that they would do better in the future. Oh wait no they didn’t. In anonymous comments to The Post, one law enforcement source was dismissive of Byford’s statement. “Where are you gonna move a train to if a police investigation is being conducted? Maybe Mr. Byford has a suggestion,” the source said. In milquetoast on-the-record comments to The Times on Friday, an assistant NYPD commissioner said the crime was “spread over a large area and needed to be handled with care” and that “safety of our subway system is a top priority.”

It’s indisputable that Byford is correct. The first priority, especially in a non-fatal situation, should be to get rush hour (or any-hour) trains moving as soon as possible, and a 90-minute delay in service for an investigation that led to one arrest on reckless endangerment charges is unacceptable. It’s also correct for Byford to engage in a dialogue with the NYPD on this approach to subway policing, as various MTA officials and spokespeople may clear on Thursday and Friday.

But it’s also notable and laudable that Byford even started to broach the topic in public and so directly, and it’s a good sign that he’s willing to advocate for keeping trains moving even in the face of an immovable object such as the NYPD. Keeping trains running smoothly at rush hour must be a top priority of both the MTA and NYPD, and I can’t recall an NYC Transit president willing to tackle this subject head-on. If that means addressing how police respond to incidents in the subway so that policing is more efficient and investigations conducted with an intent to move trains as soon as possible, that’s a good outcome for every straphanger and a good sign as Byford goes to bat for riders who have not often had a forceful, vocal ally leading the TA.

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New York City has a bit of a tortured history with its commuter rail lines. Although some LIRR stops in Queens are among the system’s busiest, unlike in many other cities (I’m looking at you, Paris), the commuter rail lines do not act as a rail option for a significant portion of New York City commuters. This is largely a function of two factors — cost and frequency — but more on that shortly.

Now, in an attempt to take pressure off the subway, NYC is studying ways to get more New York City commuters on these commuter rail services, according to a report in Crains New York. Joe Anuta writes:

The department has tapped engineering firm AECOM to look at potential changes that would boost ridership on Long Island Rail Road and Metro North lines running within the five boroughs. Reducing fares within city limits, for example, would entice more residents to use commuter rails like the subway system and connect more neighborhoods to transit hubs like Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station in Manhattan, Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn and Jamaica and Woodside stations in Queens.

“AECOM is under contract to … investigate service and policy strategies for the city zone of the commuter rail network to connect residents to more frequent and affordable regional rail service, and potentially reduce crowding on nearby subway lines,” a spokesman for the department said in a statement.

In particular, the de Blasio administration has floated the idea of running trains more frequently between Atlantic Terminal and Jamaica Station so Queens commuters could then transfer to a number of subway lines at the Brooklyn hub.

The study will cost DOT $787,000, but I’ll do it for half that. Any changes, of course, would have to be implemented by the state-run MTA.

Now, it’s all well and good to explore ways to get more New Yorkers to use rail lines that stop in the city and serve Midtown, but the equation is a simple one. Run trains more frequently; rationalize the fares; stop treating commuter rail lines like some plush luxury service for suburban commuters; and for the love of all that’s holy, figure out how to connect Grand Central and Penn Station and develop a plan for through-running.

In essence, use pre-existing infrastructure and some new build to create an RER-style network. Sure, suburban riders more throw a fit over Those City People riding their trains for less, but a rational distance-based fare would encourage city riders. Plus, Penn Station Access is designed to do just that anyway when and if it sees the light of day. In fact, this very plan was recently suggested by Alon Levy as an April Fools joke which tells you everything you need to know about transit planning in NYC.

And yet, as noted in Anuta’s piece, the scope of the city’s imagination seems to be limited to a frequent Jamaica-Atlantic Terminal shuttle that simply moves commuters from one subway station to another. A rationalized fare with frequent service could help move Queens residents to Lower Manhattan and open up Downtown Brooklyn, but that seems far too limited in scope and potential. Think big; think network. Someone around this city should.

Meanwhile, the MTA’s own internal effort at building NYC-based commuter rail ridership is running into political problems as city pols think the MTA’s Freedom Ticket pilot is going to fail by design. The pilot may permit city riders to access only Atlantic Terminal and not Penn Station, and thus, riders would not save time or money. Who needs best practices and an integrated rail network when you have…New York City practices?

Categories : LIRR, Metro-North
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To my readers: For 12 years, I’ve run this site through minimal ad revenue and as a labor of love. Lately, ads started interfering with the site, and I’ve decided to try to move this site via a reader-supported model. Raising money will also allow me to do more with this site (including relaunching a podcast). To that end, I have started a Patreon for Second Ave. Sagas. If you like what you read and want more of it, please consider a monthly donation so I keep this site running. Thank you.

A group of West Village residents has sued DOT and the MTA over the L train shutdown mitigation plans. Vehicle restrictions and a busway on 14th Street seem to be a central focus of their legal ire.

With just under a year to go until the much-heralded L train shutdown, Manhattanites are growing restless. They’re not, however, concerned with the transit apocalypse that may be headed 14th Street’s way, and they don’t seem to believe, as many transit advocates do, that DOT and the MTA’s mitigation plan isn’t robust enough. Rather, with a combination of trumped-up NIMBY-esque concerns over traffic, bike lanes and bus lanes and some last-minute seemingly bad-faith arguments over ADA compliance, a group of West Village residents has sued DOT, the MTA and the Federal Transit Administration over the shutdown.

Over the past few months, as DOT and the MTA increased the pace of public presentations regarding the looming 2019 L Train shutdown, it seemed clear that a lawsuit was in the offering. Led by attorney Arthur Schwartz, who has variously put himself out there as (and seeming blurred the lines among being) a lawyer for a group of block associations, a resident, a homeowner and even the Democratic District Leader for some of the areas affected by the L train shutdown, various residents started making your typical NIMBY noises against the two-way bike lane planned for 13th St. and the temporary busway planned for 14th St. They raised concerns, not backed by numbers, of increased traffic on side streets and business Armageddon brought on by delivery vehicles being restricted to avenues. It’s been the typical litany of complaints safe streets and bus lane advocates have heard for years, and it seemed practically provincial coming from a wealthy group of self-proclaimed progressives living in the uber-gentrified transit-rich West Village.

Last week, the controversy boiled over when Schwartz filed his suit. It’s a lengthy complaint that relies on the argument that the various parties are in violation of state and federal environmental review laws. Schwartz alleges that the scope of the planned mitigation — a shutdown of the tunnel coupled with vehicles restrictions, pedestrianized streets and a two-way bike lane — along with its geographic proximity to a landmarked neighborhood requires at least an environmental assessment and perhaps a full Environmental Impact Statement. In light of recent bad press the MTA has received over its alleged flouting of ADA requirements, the plaintiffs tacked on allegations that the shutdown work itself is in violation of the ADA. (The complaint is available here as a PDF if you wish to read it.)

The ADA concerns are seemingly the easiest to address. In fact, the L train mitigation plan includes significant ADA accessibility upgrades with both the 1st and Bedford Avenue stations set to become fully accessible with the addition of new elevators and with Union Square set for an escalator to the station mezzanine. (Access to the L at Union Square is already accessible except for the transfer between the L and 4/5/6, but that is a function of the track layout and IRT platform positioning.) No ADA work is scheduled for 6th Ave. or 3rd Ave., but 3rd Ave. will receive platform edge doors as part of a pilot. The complaint alleges that stairway renovations without accessibility upgrades violate the ADA, but even amidst what many feel are rampant MTA ADA violations, that is a tenuous argument at best and one made in bad faith to stack claims at worst. Refurbishing stairways by itself isn’t generally enough to trigger an ADA violation.

The meat of the complaint revolves around the contention, as I mentioned, that DOT and the MTA are in violation of local and federal environmental review laws and additionally that the FTA is in violation of federal law if it has not required the proper environmental assessments. Here, the suit strays onto slightly firmer ground, but only slightly and only very narrowly. The bike lanes are easy; they are specifically exempted from federal environmental review requirements. In subsequent comments, Schwartz tried to claim the bike lane is one piece in an overall mitigation plan, the totality of which is subject to environmental review requirements, but the complaint on its face makes no such allegation. (Considering how easy it is to dismiss the complaint over the bike lane, you would think Schwartz would be careful here, but he fell back on the tired anti-bike trope of calling the pro-bike planners at NYC DOT zealots” during his comments earlier this week. Been there; done that.)

So the key legal question is a narrow one: Is a prohibition on most vehicles in favor of bus lane on a non-24/7 basis that is designed to be a part of a comprehensive mitigation plan for a temporary shutdown of the L train subject to environmental review laws? The FTA’s website on the topic provides some guidance but no definitive answer. DOT and the MTA’s planned bus way is a reallocation of existing space and not what the FTA generally considers to be new construction. Furthermore, the FTA itself has indicated that an EA or an EIS isn’t required, and courts often give significant leeway to agencies in interpreting their own regulations.

Schwartz’s complaint restates significant portions of the city, state and federal laws at play, and he details the dialogue to date over the shutdown plans. He doesn’t convincingly argue why the FTA doesn’t deserve deference or why the temporary non-24/7 bus lane requires these environmental assessments. Instead, the complaint draws conclusions — “closing 14th Street to vehicular traffic will cause horrific traffic jams” on nearby side streets — that likely wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny in litigation, but it’s not clear DOT and the MTA can win on an outright motion to dismiss. Even though we know the busway is a watered down plan and even though we all know a mitigation plan that doesn’t further limit vehicular access to the affected area will be far far worse for Schwartz and his plaintiffs, the law may still require some level of environmental review. I’m still working on reaching out to environmental law lawyers I know in the hopes of a more definitive answer.

But legal considerations aren’t the only elements at play here. Schwartz’s law firm is called Advocates for Justice, but it’s not clearly whose justice he’s interested in. One element is, as always, who gets to make decisions on streets and transit that impact everyone. Schwartz claims he’s suing on behalf of “residents of Williamsburg and west-central Brooklyn” but none of them are named plaintiffs. They also have the most to lose when the L train is shut down, but as we saw years ago with the demise of the 34th St. Transitway, those constituents aren’t often asked to the table in high-stakes legal discussions over a project fate.

Furthermore, Schwartz’s comments last week betrayed certain prejudices. He claimed that the MTA and DOT should have chosen the longer shutdown options on the table. Completely ignoring the MTA’s concerns that dust from the construction would make train operations through the Canarsie Tunnel unsafe for passengers during a piecemeal shutdown, a five-year plan that knocks out service on nights and weekends would be far more disruptive to a line that sees heavy ridership late at night and during the weekends and is a key conduit for lower income workers who need to commute in off hours. A total shutdown will be bad enough for 15 months, but five years of these disruptions would hurt those who can least afford it (and need transit justice more than the West Village does).

My biggest fear, however, with this lawsuit isn’t its potential success but rather the potential for settlement. To make this go away before the project timeline is in jeopardy, DOT and the MTA could agree to drop certain elements of the plan. The residents made clear they want the bike lane to disappear and want mixed-use traffic on 14th St. I’m sure either of those would be enough of a carrot to get them to drop the suit, but eliminating any part of a plan that’s already been watered down based on the trumped-up concerns from the very same residents who are now suing would be extremely harmful to hundreds of thousands of transit riders who don’t have the luxury of living in one of Manhattan’s most exclusive ZIP codes.

For its part, DOT says the suit is without merit. The MTA, however, issued a more guarded statement. “We do not comment on pending litigation,” Jon Weinstein, agency spokesman, said to me. “The repairs to the Sandy-damaged Canarsie Tunnel are desperately needed to ensure the tunnel’s structural integrity so we can continue to provide safe and reliable subway service to hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who depend on the L train every day. We are working with our partners at NYC DOT to craft a thorough and robust mitigation plan.”

Meanwhile, over at Streetsblog, Ben Fried urges the agency and the MTA to fight hard on the transit elements of the plan and perhaps agree to additional ADA upgrades. Despite the protestations from residents that DOT has ignored their concerns, the plans aren’t as robust as transit advocates wanted, and any further movement in response to this lawsuit would set a bad precedent for future transit projects the city should implement. No retreat, baby, no surrender.

As I browsed the case file this weekend, though, pondering over how much this whole thing stinks, one filing from Schwartz caught my eye. In a subsequent letter to the court late last week when Schwartz and his clients erroneously believed that planned repaving of 13th St. meant that work on the bike lane was set to begin, Schwartz requested a conference in advance of potentially filing an injunction. The letter is impressive audacious as Schwartz seems to recognize the problems his suit may cause. “There is,” the lawyer writes, “clearly a need for expedited discovery in this case; although the shutdown is planned for April 2019, lengthy litigation, which could lead to a broad injunction and delays, is not in the public interest.” So I pose these questions: Who is in the “public” Schwartz refers to and what are their interests? Exactly what part of this suit is in the public interest after all?

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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To my readers: For 12 years, I’ve run this site through minimal ad revenue and as a labor of love. Lately, ads started interfering with the site, and I’ve decided to try to move this site via a reader-supported model. Raising money will also allow me to do more with this site (including relaunching a podcast). To that end, I have started a Patreon for Second Ave. Sagas. If you like what you read and want more of it, please consider a monthly donation so I keep this site running. Thank you.

The MTA will close these 30 stations at times over the next few years to speed up rehab efforts. (Click to enlarge)

The MTA could complete only 19 of its planned 32 station renovations before the Enhanced Stations Initiative fund ran dry. (Click to enlarge)

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo first announced the beginnings of the Enhanced Stations Initiative in early 2016, I was somewhat skeptical this spending program was akin to putting lipstick on a pig but willing to see if the MTA could find success in a new approach to station renovations. It’s been all downhill since then.

From the start, the ESI was intended to deliver a nicer station environment for the MTA’s customers while speeding up the pace of renovations and using a design-build approach to contain costs. The program was to cost just under $1 billion, and it targeted 32 stations. At a planned $28 million a pop, the ESI seemed to be relatively cost-efficient, but residents never embraced the 6-12 month closures required for work and local business have suffered.

As these types of programs go, it had a rough going when faced with the politics of the MTA Board. A few months ago, the city’s representatives to the Board all declined to vote for a procurement contract involving ESI funds over legitimate concerns that the ESI did not include accessibility upgrades and was in violation of the ADA. Although the contract was eventually approved, it could serve as further ammo in current litigation over the MTA’s alleged ADA violations. Still, the program seemed to be on track to deliver these new-look stations.

Not so fast. As Paul Berger in The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week, the Enhanced Stations Initiatives wound up costing more than Cuomo and the MTA said it would, and the program is out of funds 13 stations early. Berger writes:

MTA chairman Joe Lhota said Monday that most of the program’s $936 million budget has been used for the 19 stations completed or under way. Mr. Lhota said costs rose after contractors began work on stations and discovered “infrastructure rot” that broadened the scope of work.

Under the original plan, the renovations would have cost an average of $28 million per station. The current average cost for each station is $43 million. “We live in a world of limited funding,” Mr. Lhota said. “We need to make decisions about how we use that funding.”

The MTA will have spent about $850 million for the renovations to 19 stations and the Richmond Valley station on the Staten Island Railway. That leaves 13 targeted subway stations without any funding. They will have to wait for the MTA’s next five-year spending plan, Mr. Lhota said, which starts in 2020.

That the program was more costly than anticipated and is now out of money is hardly a surprise; it is, after all, an MTA capital project. But this development seems almost secondary as one digs into Berger’s story. During, and despite, a contentious debate earlier this year on the ESI, MTA Chair Joe Lhota knew the program was out of money and did not disclose the funding situation to the Board. Berger writes:

On Monday, Carl Weisbrod, a commissioner who represents New York City, said the program was “ill-conceived,” and that he is glad it has come to an end. “I don’t know when the MTA management realized that the program had run out of money but it would’ve been helpful to have informed the board when this matter was under discussion,” he said.

Mr. Lhota said he was aware of the increased costs last year, but he chose not to mention it until now. “I didn’t think it was relevant to the debate,” he said.

Knowing that city MTA Board representatives were already disapproving of the ESI, Lhota withheld information from the MTA Board that the program wouldn’t be as expansive as portrayed. Essentially, the MTA Board vote was a sham as the agency never had any intention of renovating all 33 stations, but the vote went ahead anyway. These seems problematic to me, to say the least.

It’s not clear what will happen with the ESI. If Cuomo is still around and the MTA feels this program is a priority, it could be included in the 2020-2024 capital program. I, however, anticipate that signals will be a major focus of that next spending campaign. More questionable though is the trust between the MTA Board and Joe Lhota and between the MTA and the public. What Lhota kept to himself has the potential to be far more damaging in the long-term than disclosure and a subsequent “no” vote would have been in February.

Categories : MTA Construction
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To my readers: For 12 years, I’ve run this site through minimal ad revenue and as a labor of love. Lately, ads started interfering with the site, and I’ve decided to try to move this site via a reader-supported model. To that end, I have 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 so I keep this site running. Thank you.

With congestion pricing off the table, no one came to fix NYC this year.

A long time ago in a city not so far away, “wait ’til next year” became the mantra for die-hard Brooklyn Dodger fans who kept watching their crosstown-rival Yankees win World Series championships. This year, as New York State budget negotiations came to a head this past weekend, “wait ’til next year” will have to be the rallying cry for congestion pricing opponents who were, once again, let down by Albany inaction.

When his FixNYC panel unveiled a proposal for a comprehensive traffic pricing plan and Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced congestion pricing would factor into the 2018 New York State budget negotiations, many transit advocates raised a skeptical eyebrow and held their collective breaths. Cuomo never presented his own plan and didn’t seem keen to lobby the legislature (or work the backroom deals) to see congestion pricing through this year, and when the dust settled at the end of last week, we seemed to get a surcharge on for-hire vehicles and a vague promise of a phased-in approach to congestion pricing that may or may not accumulate in a real plan next year. As city streets remain choked with traffic and surface transit reliability crashing, it was, yet again, a disappointing outcome from the governor who loves to parade his love of cars around New York State.

In The New York Times this weekend, Winnie Hu wrote about the 2018 decline and fall of congestion pricing and the new surcharge on for-hire vehicle trips. She writes:

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo set the stage for an ambitious congestion pricing plan when he declared that it was “an idea whose time has come.”

But that time is not now.

There was little about congestion pricing in the state budget negotiated Friday by Mr. Cuomo and state lawmakers despite months of lobbying by advocates, a six-figure media campaign, and rallies by transit riders. The most significant development was a new surcharge that will be tacked on to every ride in for-hire vehicles in Manhattan south of 96th Street: $2.50 for yellow taxis; $2.75 for other for-hire vehicles, including Ubers and Lyfts; and 75 cents for car pool rides such as Via and UberPool.

Notably missing was the congestion zone that was the centerpiece of a congestion pricing plan, laid out by a state task force to reduce gridlock on the streets and raise money for the city’s struggling subway, which is operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Under that plan, unveiled in January, drivers could have been charged a daily fee — $11.52 for passenger cars, $25.34 for trucks — to enter a congestion zone in Manhattan, from 60th Street south to the Battery, at busy times.

A coalition of transit advocates was quick to express their displeasure. Transportation Alternatives, the Straphangers Campaign, Riders Alliance, and StreetsPAC released a joint statement on Saturday:

Our transit system is on life support. Fixing our transit system should have been Albany’s first priority this year; unfortunately, the final budget does not offer a credible plan to modernize the MTA, nor provide a sufficient revenue stream to make it possible. The crisis in our subways and on our streets will continue, and New Yorkers will continue to demand action from Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers.

If the governor is serious about alleviating the crisis, he must ensure that the initial steps laid out in this budget — for-hire vehicle surcharges, bus lane expansion and enforcement — be the catalyst for meaningful reform. First, Governor Cuomo must use a portion of the new revenue to help implement comprehensive congestion pricing, by constructing cordon infrastructure and addressing needs in transit deserts around the city. Then, the governor must establish, and commit to, a timeline to make congestion pricing a reality in New York.

New York’s transit and traffic problems may seem intractable, but with bold leadership, reform is possible. New Yorkers deserve better than broken subways, unsafe streets, and crippling gridlock, and it’s time for our representatives to deliver.

David Weprin, an Assembly Democrat of Queens, has long fought against congestion pricing despite the fact that only 4.2% of his constituents would pay a fee while a majority rely on public transit. He declared a temporary victory in the fight this weekend. “I haven’t won the war yet on congestion pricing, but I did win this battle — it’s not getting in the budget,” Weprin said to The Times. With short-sighted politicians like this representing us, Gov. Cuomo’s support was even more important, and he did not, as Gotham Gazette detailed last week in a must-read piece, come close to delivering. The bait-and-switch Cuomo pulled will enable Weprin in the future at the expensive of his own constituents and the rest of the city.

Meanwhile, the for-hire vehicle surcharge could be a first step toward comprehensive congestion pricing, if Cuomo wants it to be, and it’s worth exploring what this means for Manhattan’s crowded streets. In a tweet last week, Charles Komanoff detailed the benefits and I’ll summarize. The FHV-only surcharge will eventually speed up Manhattan traffic by around 6.7 percent but not until transit investments have significantly shifted mode-share. The charge will generate approximately $650 million per year with 64.6% borne by Manhattanites, 18.8 percent by those in the other four boroughs, and only 16.6 percent by those outside of New York City. (A full-fledged plan would have resulted in a 20 percent increase in speeds, $1.8 billion in annual revenue and a more equitable split of costs with Manhattanites picking up 32.4 percent, 36.9 percent borne by the boroughs and 30. percent carried by those outside of NYC.)

As constructed, the FHV surcharge moves the needle but has the perverse outcome of penalizing Manhattan residents while giving suburban drivers another year of a free pass. To the extent the FHV surcharge increases the costs of ride-hailing services ideally designed to eliminate private automobile trips, this FHV-only fee incentivizes private single-occupancy auto trips, thus countering one potential impact of a congestion pricing plan. A real plan has to disincentivize these discretionary trips while improving traffic flow (including, vitally, for buses) and generating money for transit expansion.

On a theoretical basis, congestion pricing polling numbers are, as they always are, middling, and congestion pricing plans that have been enacted throughout the world enjoy much more support after the plans are in place and the benefits tangible. As Justin Davidson detailed last week, the arguments against a pricing plan for New York City are not supported by data and facts. It almost seems like a fait acompli that NYC be the beneficiary of a congestion pricing plan, but it will, once again, have to wait as Andrew Cuomo and Albany failed to come through. The transit crisis, I guess, will have to wait another year for a real solution.

Categories : Congestion Fee
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The late-December The New York Times deep dive into the reasons behind the MTA’s massive cost problem was met with an odd degree of silence among the corridors of power in New York City. Albany, ostensibly tasked with oversight of the MTA, failed to convene a single hearing on the topic, and while the MTA has recently made noises about a task force fronted by RPA Chair (and MTA Board member) Scott Rechler that will dig in on these issues, the agency itself hasn’t said much about the conclusions from Brian Rosenthal’s series. The feds though are interested.

As part of the spending bill approved last week by Congress (which ultimately included money for Gateway despite President Trump’s bluster), the Government Accountability Office will study the high costs of construction in New York City and the U.S. at large. Brian Rosenthal had the story:

The Government Accountability Office said on Wednesday that it was preparing to launch a study of why transit construction is so much more expensive in the United States than in other parts of the world. Special attention is expected to be paid to New York City, where recent projects have cost far more than anticipated. Auditors plan to examine contracting policies, station design, project routing, regulatory barriers and other elements that drive cost, comparing practices in different cities in the United States and abroad, officials said. A final report with recommendations is to be issued by the end of the year.

The study was part of the spending bill that was approved by Congress last week. And it comes three months after an investigation by The New York Times revealed how city and state public officials had stood by as a small group of politically connected labor unions, construction companies and consulting firms drove up transit construction costs and amassed large profits.

The first phase of the Second Avenue subway on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, for instance, cost $2.5 billion for each mile of track. Another project known as East Side Access, which will carry the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal through a 3.5-mile tunnel, is on pace to cost $3.5 billion per track mile. Elsewhere in the world, a mile of subway track typically costs $500 million or less.

As Rosenthal notes, the study had originally been a part of the 2017 spending bill, but the funding did not survive the final version of that bill. Now, it’s been revived, and results are expected within the next nine months. An RPA spokesperson called the news “fantastic” while the MTA went on the defensive. “The MTA under new leadership is aggressively tackling these issues through working groups dedicated to procurement reform and containing construction costs,” agency spokesman Jon Weinstein said to The Times. “We are implementing new processes and procedures to streamline work, stop customization and reduce change orders, all of which will help us drive down costs.”

Despite these protestations, the GAO study is guardedly good news if it helps realize substantial progress in combating costs. In reality, Rosenthal’s initial reporting in December highlighted why everything cost so much. The next step isn’t to study these costs again but rather to identify ways to lower costs and combat what I call organized corruption. Plus, as Yonah Freemark noted on Twitter, the cost problem isn’t just related to transit in New York City; every major construction project throughout the country costs more than their European or Asian counterparts. Still people are paying attention, and that can hopefully be the first steps on the path toward much needed reform. Whether you want to hold your breath on this one, though, is entirely up to you.

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Categories : MTA Construction
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Once upon a time, before the 2010 cuts decimated transit service in NYC, the MTA worked to ensure that off-peak subway service met increasing demands. From 2000 until 2010, as off-peak demand, especially between 5 a.m.-7 a.m., increased, the MTA responded in turn, adding more service so that the percentage of off-peak trains generally aligned with the percentage of riders using the system during these early hours. But since 2010, as New York City’s economy has rebounded from the depths of the recession and off-peak commuting has increased, the MTA hasn’t added service at a commensurate level, and this service gap is hurting New York’s lower-income workers, according to a new report by NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer.

“During rush hour, we’re packed into subway cars like sardines. But outside traditional ‘9-to-5’ travel, off-peak service is fundamentally failing to meet demand. It’s a crisis within a crisis, because over the past decade, the nature of our economy has changed,” Stringer said in a statement, “and ridership late-nights and early mornings has risen while actual service to match it has not. That means that those who need service to get to work during non-traditional hours are stuck with a crisis not of overcrowding, but of infrequency.”

Subway service to and from the Manhattan hub has not kept pace with growing ridership in the early morning (5 a.m. to 7 a.m.)

The crux of Stringer’s argument is the chart above. Based on the nature of New York City’s economic recovery, as more jobs have shifted outside of the 9-to-5 realm, the MTA has not added service to meet demand. Thus, as Stringer put it, more riders are waiting longer for more crowded trains in the morning even as the MTA has engaged in an on-again, off-again PR campaign to ask riders to shift travel outside of the peak hours. Furthermore, riders who need to commute during these off-hours are generally earning around 20% less than those who travel for traditional peak-hour jobs. They can ill-afford sub-par transit service, but that’s what they’re getting.

The numbers are stark: Since 2010, ridership to and from Manhattan has jumped by 14% in the two hours before 7 a.m. and by 13 percent in the four hours after 7 p.m. Meanwhile, over the same period of time, train service declined by 3 percent between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. and increased by only 3 percent between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. Thus, anecdotes of 10:30 p.m. trains packed to crush load are borne out by numbers that show service failing to keep pace with ridership trends. As Stringer notes, these unreliable commutes can lead to reprimands at work, docked pay, termination and a general slow-down in productivity. His office had previously estimated that subway delays cost around $400 million annually in lost productivity and wages.

Subway service in and out of the Manhattan hub did not keep pace with growing ridership in the early morning and evening from 2010 to 2016

Stringer’s report has some interesting trend information concerning commutes. As ridership has exploded over the past 30 years, commuting patterns have undergone a dramatic shift. In 1985, a whopping 49 percent of daily ridership into the Manhattan central business district occurred between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. Now that number is only around 28 percent. In essence, all of the people riding in 1985 between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. are still doing so (and then some), but off-hour commuting which was non-existent to a combination of safety concerns and lack of jobs has exploded.

Meanwhile, people are waiting much longer. Stringer’s report notes as follows:

While the MTA may be restricted from increasing frequencies in peak hours due to aging infrastructure and underinvestment, these capacity constraints are less relevant in the early morning and late evening. In fact, the MTA runs 60 percent fewer trains from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. than it does from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 38 percent fewer from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. Clearly, there is ample train and track capacity at these hours.

This dramatic decline in off-peak subway service, of course, leads to significantly longer wait times for riders. During the morning rush hour, for instance, 87 percent of subway lines run more than six trains per hour and 36 percent run more than 12. That means that passengers will rarely wait more than five or ten minutes for a train—provided all goes well.

By contrast, in the evening (8:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.) and early morning (5:30 a.m. to 6:30 a.m.)—when a growing number of workers depend on public transit—subway service is significantly diminished. Just 47 percent of subway lines maintain headways of less than 10 minutes in the evening and only 10 percent maintain frequencies of less than 5 minutes. In the early morning, meanwhile, only 43 percent have headways of less than 10 minutes and zero have headways of less than five minutes. Looking at individual lines, the biggest drop-offs in the early morning are on the 1, 6, 7, B, and W trains, where hourly throughput declines by more than 50 percent in the peak direction, as compared to the A.M. rush. In the evening hours, the 4, 5, A, B, and F lines experience a similar fall in service.

This is, of course, not a surprise to those who have tried to ride outside of peak hours. Waits are noticeably longer, and trains tend to be nearly just as crowded off-peak on some lines as during the peak due to these increased headways. As I mentioned, it’s particularly jarring in the context of numerous MTA officials urging those with flexibility to commute at off-hours to do so. Percentagewise, at least, a significant number of commuters have moved to these so-called off-peak timeslots, but the MTA hasn’t provided a carrot in the form of increased service to go with the stick.

Where I find Stringer’s report lacking however is in its messaging. The recommendations are on point; the MTA, he says, should perform a comprehensive review of scheduling and strongly consider how latent or induced demand can further drive up off-peak commuting. But in releasing the report to the public, he also tried to use it as a crudgel to beat on the drum of city support for the MTA’s subway action plan. He says city support of the subway action plan will ensure the trains run on time, but he could use this report to call for the subway action plan to directly add more off-peak service. It would be a better use of the money anyway than the SAP band aid that many think won’t actually fix anyone’s commute.

Ultimately, though, the overall message is one worth remembering: Yes, the MTA needs a new signal system and a comprehensive overhaul of its procurement and construction processes. By as with the signal timers, commutes are worse than they should be because of choices made at the MTA. The agency is not a bystander in the accelerated slow-motion collapse of the city’s transit system.

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A fatal J train crash on the Williamsburg Bridge consumed the front page of The Daily News on June 6, 1995 .

Early in the morning on June 5, 1995, Layton Gibson blew a red light on the Williamsburg Bridge and crashed his J train into a stopped M train. Gibson was going only about 20 miles per hour when his train collided with the one in front of him, and he died instantly as 54 passengers were hurt in the crash. A subsequent investigation determined that both human and mechanical errors led to the crash, and while Gibson did try to stop when he saw the M train ahead of him, the then-77-year-old signal system did not trip an emergency brake in enough time to avoid the collision.

Now, 23 years later, the MTA still hasn’t gotten around to beginning to replace that signal system, and it’s now 100 years old, a dubious achievement indeed. But in the aftermath of the crash, the MTA determined that many of the then-septuagenarian signals were too close together to adequate stop modern trains faster than their late-1910s counterparts, and thus, the MTA in conjunction with Parsons Brinckerhoff began to implement speed limits throughout the subway system. Richard Perez-Pena, writing for The Times back in 1995, told the story. The emphasis is mine.

About one-third of the system has the antiquated signals that are considered candidates for speed limits, though officials said not all of them will require one. Just how many will is still under study. Joseph R. Hofmann, senior vice president in charge of subways for the Transit Authority, an arm of the M.T.A., said the plan to improve the trains’ emergency brakes would eventually make many, if not all, of the slow-speed orders unnecessary. But that program will not be completed for more than two years, and in the meantime trains will have to slow down in dozens of places where no speed limits were in place before…In any place where there is not adequate stopping distance, the report said, the Transit Authority “must institute speed restrictions or take some alternate immediate action to insure at least 100 percent stopping distance.”

The PB report indicated that more thousands of signals did not have adequate stopping distances, and the MTA instituted immediate speed restrictions on some lines that, The Times said, added around four minutes of travel time. Over the years, those speed restrictions seemed to become a way of life and faded into the background of the subway crisis in which we are mired.

But a few months ago, I noticed something peculiar. Southbound 6 trains heading from 51st St. to Grand Central were inching through the tunnel, and it seemed a timer was to blame. I had noticed a few of these slower trips over the years; for instance, 2 and 3 trains heading north into 96th St. now begin to slow down as early as 86th when they used to run at speed well past the abandoned 91st St. station. I started asking around and heard the tales of new timers identified in the wake of that 1995 crash being freshly implemented and of a group trying to fight back against timers. No one could explain why the timers were necessary now, and nearly everyone involved with decision-making at NYC Transit and the MTA in 1995 has long since left the agency.

Aaron Gordon started asking around too, and he published this piece in The Village Voice last week on slower trains. It is a must-read on the state of the MTA. The gist of it is that much of the MTA’s woes, especially with regards to their default view that “overcrowding” is causing delays, are self-inflicted. The MTA slowed down the trains, and thus service is worse. I’ll excerpt here as Gordon picks up with the post-1995 changes to the speed limits:

NYCT had predicted that the signal modifications would only marginally affect run times. But the 2014 study — the first time the authority had attempted to analyze the impact of any of the revamped signals, using its improved data system — found 2,851 lost total passenger hours per weekday could be attributed to thirteen modified signals alone. That was almost double the predicted impact; for comparison, the modifications of those thirteen signals alone created 5 percent as much lost time as that experienced by riders of the entire London Underground on its average day…

NYCT’s estimates were so off in part because they didn’t account for a human element. The most problematic of the newly modified signals were “one-shot timers,” so called because the operator has only one chance to meet the posted speed limit. One-shot timers are easier and cheaper to install, say MTA sources; the more “shots” the operators have to get under the required speed, the more timing mechanisms have to be installed across a longer portion of track. (An MTA spokesperson disputed this, characterizing the decision to install one- or two-shot timers as safety-related.) But the consequences of going over the speed limit are high — the train is stopped, and the operator gets penalized — so many operators now opt to go well below the posted speed limit just to be on the safe side.

“The grade time signals force us to operate slower, and because they have been installing them gradually, the subways have been slowing down gradually,” the train operator told the Voice. “I used to be able to go from 125th Street to 59th Street on the A line in seven minutes. Now it takes around nine minutes!”

Gordon has talked with some train operators and others within the MTA who are laser-focused on the signal timer issue, and I have spoken with some within the MTA who have largely echoed Gordon’s reporting. A group within the MTA is working like mad to overcome bureaucratic inertia and resistance to rocking the post-1995 boat in an effort to better assess whether timers are necessary both in terms of safety and in terms of cost of worse service. If trains are running at slower speeds, then the MTA simply cannot run as many trains per hour as it needs to in order to meet service demands or as many trains per hour as the system was built to handle. Thus, bad service — slower service, more crowded service — is a choice the MTA has made and is not, as Gordon notes, due to overcrowding but rather a cause of it.

But Andy Byford, the new man in charge of Transit, seems to have his ear to the ground on this issue. In this week’s MTA Board materials, he states that he has “asked my team to look in detail at the effect on line capacity of various signaling changes that were progressively introduced as a result of the Williamsburg Bridge crash of 1995.” He also discusses his hopes to see if these changes can be “safely mitigated.” Gordon received a similar response from the new New York City Transit president for his article:

In an email to the Village Voice, Byford acknowledged that “changes made to the signal system (in response to a crash in 1995) have undoubtedly had an impact on subway capacity,” and added that NYCT leadership has already met to begin reviewing the issue. “We are studying the impact and what was done to see if adjustments can be made while still maintaining the safety benefit these changes (and more onerous flagging arrangements) were brought in to address. This renewed scrutiny is part of my drive to properly understand — then tackle — root cause. As I have already said, the real fix is renewed signal systems and that will be the anchor behind my Corporate Plan that I am currently working on.”

Gordon’s piece ends with a sad story from a TO who feels the MTA is trying to slow down trains at a time when New Yorkers need better subway service. I’ll leave you with the quote I gave Aaron for his story: “If you’re running trains at speeds that are lower than what the system capacity was designed for, then you’re losing capacity, and that’s a choice that you’ve made. If that’s a choice that you’ve made, then you have to prove to people why you’ve made that choice. And if it’s a question of a hypothetical safety situation that doesn’t come into play, then you kind of have to question how that analysis has been reached.” It’s now up to Byford to tell us why these signals are necessary and how the MTA can maintain safety standards while reducing timer-related delays and improving service.

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Over the past few months, as city and state representatives to the MTA Board have squared off over the scope and omissions in Transit’s Enhanced Stations Initiative, the MTA’s adherence to the requirements in the Americans with Disabilities Act has come under the microscope. The agency agreed a few decades ago to make 100 Key Stations fully accessible by 2020, and the MTA is, it says, on pace to meet this goal. Disabilities advocates say that, despite the Key Stations, the MTA routinely flouts the requirements of the ADA by not investing in elevators when non-Key Stations undergo renovations. That the ESI stations aren’t being made accessible is a key sticking point, and now the feds, focusing on a 2013-2014 renovation of the 6 train’s Middletown Road stop, have joined a suit alleging MTA violations of the ADA.

The suit, one of many the MTA currently faces alleging similar violations, has been working its way through federal court for nearly two years. A June 2016 DNAInfo article profiled it when the plaintiffs first filed. The feds, in something of a surprise move this week, filed a complaint-in-intervention to join the suit.

Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, condemned the MTA. “There is no justification for public entities to ignore the requirements of the ADA 28 years after its passage,” he said. “The subway system is a vital part of New York City’s transportation system, and when a subway station undergoes a complete renovation, MTA and NYCTA must comply with its obligations to make such stations accessible to the maximum extent feasible.”

The crux of the government’s complaint — available here as a pdf — involves the MTA’s request to the Federal Transit Administration for funding for the renovation. The agency spent $21 million but could not find a budget for elevators to make this elevated stop accessible. Prior to the renovation, the FTA had asked the MTA to defend its claim that it would be “technically infeasible” to include elevators, and the never MTA never provided such justification, the feds claim. Subsequently, the claim alleges, NYC DOT conceded that elevators could have been technical feasible had they been incorporated into early project designs. After a lengthy back-and-forth over funding, the FTA determined that the MTA had violated the ADA, and the MTA lost out on federal dollars for rehab. Now the feds are seeking an injunction mandating that the MTA install the necessary elevators at Middletown Road.

The MTA has said it will defend the suit on the merits, and disabilities advocates are thrilled that the feds are finally taking legal sides in this fight. A litigator with the Disabilities Rights Advocates noted that the feds’ involvement “sends a clear message to the MTA that they can’t continue to get away with business as usual.”

My semi-informed guess is that this is a test case for the feds and the MTA. Multiple other suits are percolating through the courts right now involving the MTA’s alleged violations of ADA requirements, but this one is a particularly strong one. It is focused on only one station and rests on a determination by a federal agency that the MTA actually violated Title II of the ADA. It’s as close to an open-and-shut case on the ADA as one may find, and if the MTA is intent on fighting it on its merits rather than settling, the feds are likely to win.

With a victory in their pockets, federal prosecutors would have stronger arguments for some of the tougher cases against the MTA, including potential suits targeting the Enhanced Station Initiatives. Transit Center’s Jon Orcutt, for one, recently told Politco New York that the MTA should probably be sued over the ESI, and this seemingly easy case puts that goal in reach. “They’re doing major work in stations and not doing anything on accessibility. They probably need to be sued directly on stations to bring that issue to a legal head,” Orcutt said.

Of course, this could still settle out, but it adds a new wrinkle to the MTA’s resistance to fulfilling the terms of the ADA on a system-wide basis, and it’s about time prosecutors forced the agency’s hand. The subway system should be on a path to full accessibility; it’s a moral imperative and a legal one too.

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