The New Yorker featured a cover last week by Bruce McCall that seemed to portend this weekend’s approval of congestion pricing. (Via The New Yorker)

Revenue from traffic fee will bolster MTA capital spending

More than a decade after a backroom deal in Albany shelved Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing, New York City will finally be able to price private automobile access to Manhattan south of 60th Street as the Senate and Assembly passed a budget early Sunday morning that includes authorization for congestion pricing to fund the MTA. The vote makes New York City the first in the nation to implement traffic pricing, and the move should help clear up Manhattan’s congested streets while funding Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan to modernize the subway system.

According to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who does deserve credit in pushing this plan through, the congestion pricing revenue will allow the MTA to bond out $15 billion for its capital plan, and the money will be supplemented by a mansion tax on the sale of properties at $25 million or more and an internet sales tax. “This budget,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said in a statement, “delivers on our promise to develop sustainable funding for the MTA and addresses critical transportation needs throughout the state.”

MTA officials too sang its praises. Pat Foye, current agency president and soon-to-be chairman, thanked Albany for supporting the traffic fee. “Today will long be viewed as a historic day for the transit system, the environment and the livability of the New York region. Central Business District Tolling is a transformative initiative that will improve our transit system, reduce air pollution, increase mobility, bolster the economy and, put simply, better the lives of all New Yorkers,” he said. “With the leadership of Governor Cuomo, who resurrected this plan and led the way to making it a reality, New York is taking a critical step towards providing MTA customers with the modern, reliable, robust system they want and deserve, while creating tens of thousands of jobs across the entire state.”

Transit advocates have been working on a congestion pricing push for months and took a deserved celebratory lap on Sunday. “This state budget is great news for subway and bus riders who have been advocating for fair and sustainable sources of funding to fix our ailing transit systems. The billions of dollars raised through congestion pricing and other new revenue sources will help modernize the MTA with new train signals, new subway cars, and faster and more reliable bus service,” John Raskin, Executive Director of the Riders Alliance, said. “In the coming months, we look forward to working with the TBTA and the new Traffic Mobility Review Board to ensure that the final congestion pricing plan is is robust and comprehensive, and that new funding translates into a faster and more reliable commute for millions of daily riders.”

Nick Sifuentes, Executive Director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign, echoed those sentiments: “At long last, we’ll start to get our city moving again and make both crippling traffic congestion and constant subway breakdowns a thing of the past.

Yet, while advocates have worked tirelessly to push this weekend’s approval across the finish line, the hard work has only just begun as the devil will be in the details. The budget legislation that approved congestion pricing did not provide details of the plan. Rather, it mandates the aforementioned Traffic Mobility Review Board, a new six-member board under the auspices of the Tri-Borough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, develop the pricing plan, and already politicians are angling for exemptions and carve-outs that would water down the effectiveness of it all.

Mayor Bill de Blasio conditioned his approval, infuriatingly enough, on the amorphous guarantee that the pricing plan would include carve-outs. In press appearances and conversations with Brian Lehrer, the mayor has constantly pushed for the idea of exemptions for various people he feels must drive into Manhattan, and while access to the East Side hospitals should be a consideration, congestion pricing will live or die on the limited scope of the carve-outs and the rigorousness with which they are enforced.

In this age of parking placard corruption, spearheaded by lax NYPD enforcement and constant NYPD abuse, though, anyone questioning de Blasio’s blind adherence to carve-outs is right to do so. After all, far more New Yorkers heading to doctors in Manhattan take transit than drive, a favorite de Blasio talking point. Still, the arrival of congestion pricing in New York City should be a celebrated one among transit enthusiasts and urbanists alike. (I’ve written at length as to why congestion pricing is a progressive solution to NYC’s transportation woes, and I urge you to revisit my Curbed piece from last August.)

Yet, despite this great victory, I too share some of the reticence recently expressed by Nicole Gelinas in The Post over the haste and lack of details in the current congestion pricing push. As she wrote, the MTA has never provided a definite cost-breakdown for all elements of the Fast Forward plan, and the state hasn’t actually given the MTA most of the $8 billion Cuomo committed a few years ago. “As it is, the MTA struggles to spend the money it already has when it comes to long-term physical assets, she noted. “The MTA is nearing the end of a regular five-year infrastructure-upgrade program, money to be invested in projects between 2015 and 2019, and to cost $33.3 billion. But it only has spent $10.9 billion of that money.”

I’ve expressed concerns about the overall framing of this congestion pricing push and have cautioned against treating congestion pricing as a solution to traffic and transit together. We need congestion pricing. It will help clear up our roads, but it must come with a pre-implementation guarantee of additional transit service in areas without robust subway access. I worry that treating it as a fix-all for transit funding and for the subways is overpromising on much needed benefits. Furthermore, as Gelinas pointed out on Sunday, the Traffic Mobility Review Board seems primed to hand over significant control of local New York City streets to suburban legislatures, a potentially damaging mistake that could harm the successful of comprehensive congestion pricing.

Despite this skepticism, though, I’ve spoken with numerous advocates who have urged me and others to celebrate this win, and environmental groups and transit advocates alike are looking forward to clearing the city streets. Plus, the budget finally includes a dedicated lockbox that Cuomo claims he will enforce to “ensure that 100% of this revenue goes to the MTA capital budget and prohibits the use of these revenues for non-capital spending.” (Whether this is an ultimate good remains to be seen. Some congestion pricing revenue should go to increased operations spending to ensure the transit system can withstand the boost in ridership a properly crafted traffic pricing plan should create.)

Other MTA reforms raise eyebrows

But — and when it comes to Andrew Cuomo and transit, there’s always a “but” involved — the legislature also passed Cuomo’s (and de Blasio’s) MTA faux-reform package. I wrote at length about this reform package a few weeks ago when it was first announced, and it’s worth revising the details here. Some of the key reforms are as follows:

  • An MTA reorganization plan issued by the agency by June, which is off to an auspicious start as the MTA recently gave away the deal to a contractor in a no-bid $2 million contract.
  • A long-awaited forensic audit and efficiency review.
  • The Cornell and Columbia professors who have limited expertise in MTA capital construction will review major projects.
  • A 20-year capital needs assessment beginning in 2023. For what it’s worth, the MTA usually issued a 20-year needs proposal every five years to coincide with the capital budget, but we have yet to see one this year.
  • Increasing the competitive procurement threshold to $1 million (from $100,000) to speed up the contracting process.
  • MTA Board appointees that are coterminous with the tenure of the official appointing the board member, a move that favors the term limit-free governor over the term-limited mayor.
  • A requirement that any Capital Program Review Board member who does not approve of the MTA capital plan issue a written explanation for their veto, and provide the MTA the opportunity to respond and revise the plan so the member may withdraw their veto.

All told, these measures give the governor, who already controls the MTA even more power and siphons more say in the future of its transit network away from New York City. If anything, this should lead to more dialogue around Corey Johnson’s proposal to bring the subways and buses back under city control, a topic I plan to revisit soon.)

Ands I mentioned, good governance groups are not happy with these proposals. Reinvent Albany dissected the plan in February and aired additional criticism over the weekend after the MTA reforms were essentially approved, debate-free, during a late-night budgeting session.

That’s an inauspicious start for MTA reform if ever there was one, and the good governance group wasn’t the one party voicing its concerns. Allen Cappelli, a former MTA Board member who was effectively pushed out over disagreements with the governor, told The Post, doing away with independent staggered appointments was “the wrong thing to do.” Cappelli added, “Cuomo has been the problem, not the solution. He’s been reluctant to fund the MTA properly. He’s deflecting.”

Cuomo loyalist named to head MTA; donor picked for Board

And just how is Cuomo exercising this new control? Well, we caught a glimpse of it late last week when he nominated Pat Foye to head the MTA and named a big-time donor to the board. Foye’s nomination came after Joe Lhota left abruptly last fall, and it’s a very Andrew Cuomo pick. Foye worked for Cuomo in 2011, served as Executive Director of the Port Authority (and president of the PATH train) from 2011 to 2017 and has been President of the MTA — a new position — since August 2017. He had the following to say about being named Chairman:

“As a lifelong rider – and a daily customer – of the MTA, I can think of no higher honor or more important challenge than serving at the helm of an agency that connects millions of people each day to their jobs, schools, families, and friends. There is no question that we have a great deal of work ahead of us, to bring truly innovative and meaningful reform to the agency and provide the service and system New Yorkers deserve.

I want to thank Governor Cuomo for this honor and opportunity. I have been honored to serve the Governor and the people of the State of New York. I know the new leadership team we have in place is up to this challenge, and I want to thank my colleagues for their hard work and commitment to making the MTA a more efficient and effective place. I especially want to thank our union member partners, who work tirelessly every day to keep this region moving. And I’m grateful to both Acting Chair Fernando Ferrer and our former Chairman Joe Lhota for their past guidance and leadership. I look forward to working with our customers, elected officials, the MTA Board and advocates as we continue to improve and build a transit system that truly works for all New Yorkers.”

On its own, Foye’s appointment isn’t a bad one, but it’s a very inside-the-box, Cuomo-loyalist approach to the MTA. Foye knows who he answers to, and he knows what Cuomo wants. He likely will give Byford enough leeway to implement the most substantive pieces of the Fast Forward plan, but this is an appointment designed to indicate to Byford and others inside the agency that Cuomo is very much in control. As Reinvent Albany’s John Kaehny said to Politco New York, “He’s an experienced technocrat and knows the transportation lay of the land and he’s trusted by the governor and he’s been reasonably accessible to the public, or certainly was when he was at the Port Authority. I would say it’s the conservative choice and the expected choice.”

New names fill MTA Board

Cuomo’s other MTA Board appointments are in a similar vein. Cuomo named Haeda B. Mihaltses, currently the Mets’ Vice President of External Affairs, to the Board. Mihaltses spent 12 years in the Bloomberg administration and worked for Peter Vallone before that. She replaces Peter Ward, a 2016 Cuomo appointee, and will be a fine Board member. But I chuckled at another Cuomo appointee named last week.

The governor tabbed Michael Lynton, the one-time CEO of Sony Entertainment, to the Board as well. While you would never know it from the governor’s press release, Lynton earned headlines a few years back during the Sony email leak when his extensive fundraising ties to the governor were laid bare for the public to see. We know full well where Lynton’s sympathies lie, and we can see exactly how Cuomo uses his own people to enhance and underscore his control of the MTA. (Lynton replaces Charles Moerdler, an eight-year board vet who was nominated by David Paterson in 2010 and whose appointment had expired in 2016. Moerdler had recently raised eyebrows with his aggressive calls to criminalize all subway and bus fare evasion.)

Also joining the MTA Board will be a new representative from Suffolk County as holdover Mitch Pally has been replaced by Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association. Pally was a 14-year vet whose last term expired in 2016 as well and had pushed the MTA to avoid its upcoming fare hike. David Mack and and Sarah Feinberg, a Federal Railroad Administration official during President Obama’s tenure, joined the Board in recent weeks as well. Mack, who has a history with Cuomo and the MTA. fills Nassau County’s empty seat while Feinberg replaces Schott Rechler. Rhonda Herman was named as Westchester County’s rep which may bounce Andrew Saul from the Board. With the recent departure of Carl Weisbrod, I believe that gives the mayor the chance to suggest a new board member as well.

Ultimately, this was a good week for New York City and a good week for MTA funding. We wasted a decade spinning our wheels on congestion pricing and still have to push through a properly limited plan to ensure it isn’t captured by special interests, but New York City’s streets will finally be priced. Congestion pricing can only improve from here. Where things stand with MTA reform and governance is an open question. Gov. Andre Cuomo, barely a friend of transit, continues to assert his control, as is his right, but it seems unlikely his plans will actually fix the MTA or its inefficient cost and construction problems. For that, we may just need a better governor, a more forceful mayor and a new way to approach transit governance that does not rely so heavily on loyalists and donors.

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The Second Ave. Sagas Podcast, Ep. 1: Corey Johnson

By · Published on March 21, 2019 · Comments (15) ·

As part of my Patreon and the push to make this site reader-funded, I promised to bring back the Second Ave. Sagas podcast. Though we haven’t quite hit the funding goal yet (and we can get there with your help), the podcast is returning. Last week, in the wake of his ambitious proposal to return the subways and buses to city control, I sat down with City Council Speaker Corey Johnson to discuss his plan. He’s my guest for the first episode of the new podcast.

We talked for about 45 minutes about the ins and outs of the plan, the political reception from the governor, and how Johnson feels it could be the centerpiece to a potential mayoral campaign. I’ll have more commentary on this interview shortly, including more thoughts on Gov. Cuomo’s tepid and sarcastic response, and for people who join the Patreon, I will post a transcript as well. In the meantime, give it a listen.

As a note, I’m still waiting for the iTunes approval to come through but you can find it here on Pocket Casts or grab the feed directly. You can also download it via the link above or listen via the player embedded on the site. I’ve been investing in new audio equipment so future episodes will sound even better. A big thank you to Joe Jakubowski for sound engineering this episode. I’m excited to have the podcast return and hope you enjoy it.

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The MTA Board materials focused last month on new Access-A-Ride vans, and this weekend, the agency announced an expansion of the popular on-demand e-hail program.

One of Andy Byford’s signature initiatives over the past year has been an increased attention on ensuring New York City has an accessible transit system. Last week, I delved into the legal fight over station accessibility and how a recent court case could rightly force the MTA to pursue an aggressive plan to install elevators throughout the subway system. But legal issues aside, Byford has continually recognized the moral imperative pushing the MTA to improve transit accessibility, and his appointment of Alex Elegudin as Transit’s lead accessibility guru last summer was widely applauded.

It was thus a bit jarring last week to read a Daily News report that the MTA planned to end its popular e-hail pilot at the end of April. I didn’t have a chance to cover the launch of the program back in late 2017, but you can still read the MTA’s press release right here. At the start, the program was a pilot for 200 mobility-impaired Access-A-Ride customers to hail yellow or green taxis on demand, and it has been wildly successful. The pilot now covers around 1200 users and allows paratransit customers to book rides up to 24 hours in advance through an app.

In the 15 months since the launch of the on-demand options, Access-A-Ride ridership has spiked while complaints about the service have dipped considerably. For January, the latest month for which data is available, complaints about paratransit were down by over 46% compared with January of 2018, and the MTA attributes the increased usage and relatively more content customers with the use of the e-hail service.

When The News story broke last week, advocates went into overdrive, and the MTA denied it immediately. On Sunday, we learned that rather than ending the pilot, the MTA would in fact be extending the on-demand e-hail pilot through the end of the year while also implementing a new broker service designed to shift more Access-A-Ride trips to taxis and for-hire vehicle services. The news is good in the short-term for paratransit riders, but even in a press release touting the expansion, it’s not hard to read tea leaves. The MTA is worried about costs even as they promise to maintain a $2.75 fare for paratransit trips.

In the press release, the MTA noted that the agency will extend the pilot through the end of 2019 while “continu[ing] to establish how and if it can be made more sustainably permanent and even expandable.” MTA officials echoed these sentiments. “Making taxis and FHVs a growing part of our paratransit service is a win all around, MTA President Pat Foye said. “This service is good for our paratransit customers, good for the MTA, and good for the city’s economy. In recent years we’ve seen an increase in the use of this type of service, and under this program their use will increase even further providing customers better service and increased flexibility. We’d like to see more and more of our paratransit trips delivered by taxis and FHVs in a financially sustainable manner, and we’re beginning by making scheduled taxi trips an increasingly regular feature of our services.”

The key of course are the words on sustainability. A $2.75 fare for paratransit is a significant subsidy, and the MTA’s costs for paratransit service have outpaced projections for some time. The agency is, of course, legally obligated to provide this service, but as with ADA mandates regarding station construction, the requirement is unfunded. In fact, Paratransit Services contracts are the single biggest non-labor line item in New York City Transit’s budget with a cost in excess of $450 million last year. That figure is expected to top $500 million within the next two years, and the MTA draws in only around 40% of that via reimbursements from the city and farebox revenue.

It’s not clear how any of this — the pilot, the funding gap, the need for sustainability — resolves itself. Along with the extension of the on-demand program, the MTA announced a new broker service designed to move more Access-A-Ride trips to taxis which could reduce some of the services contracts, but by maintaining a $2.75 per-ride fare, the MTA will still be in the red by subsidizing taxi trips, albeit by less.

Yet, as Vin Barone detailed in his coverage of the announcement, disabilities advocates are concerned about the program’s future. “The announcement raises more questions than answers,” Joe Rappaport, head of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, said to amNY, citing language on costs. “The MTA is absolutely not committing to keeping the very popular version of on-demand going.”

It is, as always, a question of cost, and as the MTA gears up to study the cost efficiency of the e-hail program, the coming months will give us a roadmap of the MTA’s plans for Access-A-Ride.

Categories : Paratransit
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MTA contractors, seen here in a 2014 photo, celebrated the reopening of Middletown Road. The rehab project is now the subject of a federal suit alleging the MTA’s violation of ADA obligations. (Photo: MTA New York City Transit / Marc A. Hermann)

When New York City Transit embarked on the 29-stop station renewal program in 2011 targeting decrepit subway platforms outside of Manhattan, little did anyone realize how momentous this work would become. Last week, more than five years since starting the renovation that spurred a lawsuit — and after many more years of what many advocates have called a clear flouting of ADA requirements — the MTA lost the first round of this ongoing lawsuit as a federal judge ruled that the agency’s component-based repair work at Middletown Road, including replacement of a staircase without the addition of an elevator, was performed in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The ruling is a sweeping one, as Judge Edgardo Ramos held that the MTA must install elevators when renovating subway stations unless an installation would be “technically infeasible,” rather, as the MTA has argued over the years, too costly, and it is one I and many disabilities advocates saw coming last year when federal prosecutors joined the lawsuit. Even with this ruling on the books, the court battle is far from over as the MTA plans to argue that, in this case, installing an elevator at Middletown Road was indeed technically infeasible, but the decision opens the MTA to significant liability and may require the agency to pursue an aggressive uptick in increasing the number of accessible stations throughout the city.

For its part, the U.S. Attorney’s office took a victory lap. “The MTA is now on notice that whenever it renovates a subway station throughout its system so as to affect the station’s usability, the MTA is obligated to install an elevator, regardless of the cost, unless it is technically infeasible,” Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement last week. “Individuals with disabilities have the same rights to use the New York City subway system as every other person. The Court’s decision marks the end of the MTA treating people with disabilities as second-class citizens.”

The MTA, meanwhile, stressed the new philosophy pushed aggressively by Andy Byford: Accessibility is a new top priority. “The MTA is steadfastly committed to improving access throughout the subway, with a hard and fast goal of making 50 additional stations accessible over five years. We’re not wavering from that commitment,” MTA Chief External Affairs Officer Max Young said in a statement.

The question now though is whether that the MTA can perform any substantive work at any subway station without triggering the requirement to include elevators. In fact, I believe the ruling now requires the MTA to build elevators during any rehabilitation work. Let’s dive in.

Nuances in the ADA

The cruz of this case and in fact the long-time basis for the MTA’s antagonism toward installing elevators rests within two paragraphs of federal regulations relating alteration of transportation facilities by public entities. The governing regulation is 49 CFR § 37.43, and paragraphs (1) and (2) of section (a) form the basis for the legal dispute:

(1) When a public entity alters an existing facility or a part of an existing facility used in providing designated public transportation services in a way that affects or could affect the usability of the facility or part of the facility, the entity shall make the alterations (or ensure that the alterations are made) in such a manner, to the maximum extent feasible, that the altered portions of the facility are readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, including individuals who use wheelchairs, upon the completion of such alterations.

(2) When a public entity undertakes an alteration that affects or could affect the usability of or access to an area of a facility containing a primary function, the entity shall make the alteration in such a manner that, to the maximum extent feasible, the path of travel to the altered area and the bathrooms, telephones, and drinking fountains serving the altered area are readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, including individuals who use wheelchairs, upon completion of the alterations. Provided, that alterations to the path of travel, drinking fountains, telephones and bathrooms are not required to be made readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, including individuals who use wheelchairs, if the cost and scope of doing so would be disproportionate.

As you can see, these two paragraphs are very similar and rely on rather arcane legal nuances. Paragraph (1) mandates public entities to make accessibility alterations “to the maximum extent feasible” when altering “an existing facility or a part of an existing facility used in providing” transit “in a way that affects or could affect the usability of the facility.” The only limiting factor is thus the “feasibility” standard.

Paragraph (2) includes a carve-out the MTA has relied upon for years. If a public entity is undertaking an alteration that could affect usability of or access to a transit facility containing a “primary function,” the accessibility alterations may not be required “if the cost and scope of doing so would be disproportionate.” Whenever the MTA has argued that elevators would be too expensive to install, say, for example at Smith/9th Sts., this is the legal provision the agency cites in avoiding the ADA obligation.

What, though, you may be wondering, does it mean to “affect the usability” of a transit facility? And what does it mean for an area to “contain a primary function”? The feds describe a primary function as “a major activity for which the facility is intended” and lists a broad array of examples including fare collection areas and platforms. It seems then that nearly any alteration to a subway station would affect an area containing a primary function, and perhaps, you may think, the MTA has a legal basis for avoiding spending on high-cost elevators. Judge Ramos however does not agree.

The Court’s View

As part of the lawsuit, the MTA had argued that Paragraph (2), rather than Paragraph (1), contained the proper standard. Ramos’ decision essentially asks, “Why not both?” and holds that any time a public entity alters a station in a way that affects the usability in any sense, Paragraph (1), and the obligation to ensure wheelchair access unless technically infeasible, applies. Thus, even if the installation of an elevator would be expensive, the MTA still must include one.

Ramos’ decision rests on his interpretation of “usability.” Relying on previous 2nd Circuit precedence, Ramos determined that alterations that replace something as basic as a staircase with a functionally equivalent staircase do indeed impact the usability of the station:

The Second Circuit found replacements of kitchen floors and bathroom light fixtures to be “alterations” that changed the “usability” of condominium units under Title III provisions analogous to 42 U.S.C. § 12147. See
Roberts, 542 F.3d at 369. Defendants’ replacement of the stairways at Middletown Road Station was clearly an alteration that affected the station’s usability under Roberts. The alteration thus triggered accessibility obligations under § 37.43(a)(1).

Defendants argue that § 37.43(a)(2), not (a)(1), applies to the alteration because the renovations were to areas of the station that contained a “primary function.” But (a)(1) and (a)(2) are not mutually exclusive. Under § 37.43(a)(2), accessibility obligations are triggered when “a public entity undertakes an alteration that affects or could affect the usability of or access to an area of a facility containing a primary function.” An alteration can both affect the usability of a facility, which triggers (a)(1), and affect the usability of or access to an area of a facility containing a primary function, which triggers (a)(2). In addition to replacing the stairways, Defendants made extensive alterations to the mezzanine and platform floors of the station. Since these floors are where tickets are bought and trains are boarded, they clearly contain primary functions. Therefore, the Court agrees with Defendants that § 37.43(a)(2) also arguably applies to the renovations made at Middletown Road Station.

The MTA’s request for the court to determine that Paragraph (1) did not apply to Middletown Road was rejected, and at this point, by nature of this lawsuit, the MTA cannot argue elevators are too expensive. Rather, the agency must rely on the argument that doing so is “technically infeasible.” The court will hear arguments on just that very question regarding Middletown Road in the coming months.

What Does This All Mean

Now, all of these regulations and legal analysis may make your eyes gloss over, but it’s important. For all practical purposes, based on this ruling, whenever the MTA does anything substantive to a subway station, the Paragraph (1) obligations to install elevators will apply. Thus, any of the stations that were recently renovated via the ESI program are likely in violation of the ADA, and any other component-based stations that were renovated without full accessibility are likely in violation of the ADA as well unless the MTA can prove elevator installation would be technically infeasible and not just cost-prohibitive.

As you can imagine, this will cause some consternation for station rehabs going forward. While the MTA has pledged to meet an obligation to make 100 Key Stations fully accessible by the end of 2020, any minor work to spruce up stations could be thrown in doubt. I believe the MTA could craft an appeal as the analogy Ramos made between renovations of a condo — which sees a true increase in value due to new floors and bathroom lighting — is a weak one and the crux of the legal decision. After all, the idea that a like-for-like replacement of a staircase affects or otherwise alters the usability of a subway station seems to be a stretch.

But the feds have long been clear that any post-1991 renovation to old structures grandfathered into the ADA were supposed to include full accessibility work, and even with a basis for appeal, the MTA will face an uphill battle to overturn this case. Whether the court will require the MTA to install elevators at all stations they’ve renovated in recent years remains an open question.

Meanwhile, since the component-based station rehab project kicked off, the MTA has significantly changed its thinking on accessibility. Andy Byford has expressed public displeasure that only 24 percent of stations are accessible and has promised 50 additional accessible stations within the next five years as part of his unfunded Fast Forward plan. That’s a laudable goal and one that may be accelerated as any work of substance the MTA performs on subway stations will now trigger ADA obligations.

Still, as always, without cost control, this lawsuit could carry a steep price tag for an agency that can’t figure out how to install elevators for a reasonable price. If it takes the full weight of the judiciary to force the MTA to cut costs, so be it. We’ll all be better off for it as accessible stations improves transit access for anyone who has to carry bags, push strollers, deal with injuries or grow too old to climb stairs. It’s high time for the MTA to work toward fully accessible stations throughout the city, judicial opinion or otherwise.

“This ruling highlights why the New York City subway system remains overwhelmingly inaccessible to people who cannot use stairs,” Michelle Caiola, Managing Director at Disability Rights Advocates and one of the parties to the case, said. “If MTA had been complying with the ADA over the past twenty-five years by installing elevators when it performs station renovations, we would be closer to full accessibility today. Clearly, MTA must change its practices related to accessibility as soon as possible.”

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Speaker Corey Johnson laid out the case for municipal control of transit with a sweeping and comprehensive approach to streets in a speech and 100-page report on Tuesday.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson thrust himself into the debate over the future of the MTA in a big way on Tuesday during his State of the City speech as he called for the city, and not the state, to control its subways and buses. Instead of the MTA, Johnson envisions a Big Apple Transit Authority to oversee transit and the city’s bridges and tunnels while introducing top-to-bottom reforms and introducing congestion pricing to NYC.

“Municipal control means we decide how our system is run,” Johnson said during his speech. “We decide how we raise our money, and we decide how we spend it.”

The proposal to unwind the MTA is the centerpiece of a companion report [pdf] that stretches to over 100 pages and includes a truly comprehensive vision change New York City streets by prioritizing mass mobility over private automobile use. It calls for significant investment in bus prioritization technology and a massive increase in bus lanes; planning for a truly comprehensive network of safe bike lanes; and a reduction of private automobile ownership by 50% over 30 years.

It is, in nearly every sense, a rebuke of de Blasio Administration’s lackluster approach to transit and a welcome wrench thrown in the ongoing discussion over the MTA. As Bill de Blasio falls for Cuomo’s bait-and-switch on MTA reform while showing his willingness to cede more city input on transit to the state as part of the 10-point deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic proposal announced last week, Corey Johnson has created a vision for a more mobile New York freed from the tyranny of the car.

Inside the Plan

With 104 pages to get through, it’s going to take some time to digest this report, but my initial take is that it is extremely thorough and well done. We knew Johnson had been working on this report for a while, and I was worried that calls for local control would gloss over the issue of the lack of city taxing authority to compensate for lost state revenue. But Johnson and his team devote significant attention to the need for more city financial power, and he adroitly couples this call with a lengthy discussion on all aspects of transit reform, from capital procurement process to labor costs and work rules, and continued support for commuter railroads and regional planning.

I’ll have a more detailed examination of the ins and outs of the reports in upcoming posts. For today, let’s run through some highlights. As I see it, the proposal includes an easy part and a hard part. Let’s start with the har part — which is of course the local control of the buses and subways.

As I mentioned, Johnson begins with a call to bring New York City Transit, MBSTOA, MTA Bus, the Staten Island Railway, the former Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and a portion of MTA HQ under one entity city-controlled entity called Big Apple Transit. The BAT would be a city agency on par with NYC DOT, under the auspicies of a Mobility Czar (akin to today’s DOT Commissioner) and fully controlled by the mayor. A board would oversee the BAT, and the board would be drawn from New Yorkers who use transit. The BAT, Johnson said, would be modeled on the Water Board, run as part of the city budgeting process and subject to outside scrutiny. The capital planning process would shift to a 10-year scope with far more transparency than currently in place.

In terms of finances, Johnson gets very creative. The MTA would survive to retire its massive debt, and thus, revenue would flow through BAT to the MTA until the debt is gone. But going forward, BAT would issue its on bonds, a move Cap’n Transit was particularly fond of in early reactions. Congestion pricing and increase in city taxation powers to offset lost state revenue are required, and Johnson wants to exploit intricacies of the Trump tax law to impose levies that remain fully deductible for corporations under federal law. Again, this is complicated, and I’ll have more on that in upcoming posts. This is the crux of the proposal, and it lives or dies with the city’s ability to raise sufficient revenue without relying on fare hikes.

Johnson then runs through the litany of typical transit reform initiatives: end inefficient procurement; address labor costs; implement work rule reforms, etc. He promises to support regional planning and commuter rail (including free up additional money for commuter rail investment), and he issued a nod to sustaining and building out the Fair Fares program.

Now, all of that requires cooperation and willing partners in Albany. We’ll come back to that, but let’s run down the easy part. To one degree or another, the city could do just about everything else Johnson proposed nearly immediately. It is, he says, a “master plan for city streets” designed to “Bring cohesion to what is now a patchwork system of upgrades,” clear shots fired across the bow of the de Blasio Administration.

To that end, Johnson wants to focus on buses. He wants to install at least 30 miles of truly dedicated and physically separated bus lanes a year; introduce signal priority technology to at least 1000 intersections per year; and implement a bus network redesign by 2025. He calls for a comprehensive livable streets program with more plazas and shared streets, accessible intersections citywide by 2030, and at least 50 miles of actually protected bike lanes a year with a fully connected bike network by 2030.

“We need to break the car culture,” Johnson said to loud applause during his speech. This involves reducing city vehicle usage by 25 in five years and reducing citywide car ownership by half by 2050. These are laudable goals and ones that have for far too long been lacking city transportation planning. These are also goals, as I mentioned, completely within the scope of the city’s current powers.

The Political Reaction

A plan this large and in-depth demands a reaction, but it also demands careful consideration. Allies and opponents won’t materialize overnight, but many in New York chimed in today with various reactions. The Transit Literati who have grown sick of Gov. Cuomo and the opaqueness and problems of state control (me included) seemed to like the plan, but the notable reactions were from politicians saying not much of anything.

“The City already owns the New York City transit system,” a Cuomo spokesperson said. The governor is essentially daring the city to go nuclear in canceling the state’s lease of the subways, but this would leave the city with an inoperable asset and no funding plan. It’s a sniveling and conniving response at best.

Leroy Comrie, one of the State Senators tasked with MTA oversight, also didn’t seem amenable to the idea. “As a former city council member, I understand the desire for people to be parochial about their communities, but as a now-state official looking at the needs of the entire state and the impact of congestion on the entire metropolitan area, I understand we have to figure something out,” he said. I don’t know what’s parochial about good transit governance or the state’s largest city controlling how its residents and workers get around, and I question how much leeway we give Comrie, a five-year Senator and 18-year New York politician, to “figure something out” because he certainly hasn’t done much figuring out in two decades. I’m also still waiting to hear a strong case for extra-regional control of New York City Transit, but I digress.

Similarly, Carl Heastie, when told that Johnson wants the city to pass congestion pricing if the state does not, had a terse comment: “We believe [congestion pricing] falls within the purview of Albany.” If anything, these voices from Albany show that holding onto power simply for the sake of having power is important, and these men will give up a power they don’t really need and shouldn’t have easily.

Meanwhile, the mayor, who discovered the subways only last week, said essentially nothing, via a spokesperson: “While he appreciates the Speaker’s transit vision and contribution, the Mayor is focused on immediate actions to fix the broken subway system. Our subways are in the middle of a crisis that needs an immediate solution. The Mayor stands with millions of riders depending on action right now. We have four weeks to deliver sustainable revenue sources capable of turning this crisis around.”

A few advocates unfortunately echoed these sentiments. While the Straphangers Campaigned praised Johnson and issued a call for “serious debate,” others did not want to change the subject away from congestion pricing. “Let’s deal with getting the MTA funded first, and then we can discuss how and who controls it after we get through that hurdle,” Nick Sifuentes, head of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said.

In comments to Politoco, the Riders Alliance had a similar view and seemed almost annoyed by a truly comprehensive rethinking of transit. “We’ve worked for years to demonstrate to everyone that it is Cuomo’s MTA, that the MTA is in fact run by the state and controlled by the governor. We’re at the point now where that’s been acknowledged. Now the challenge is to get funding out of the state,” Danny Pearlstein, the group’s policy director, said.

My Take: A bomb thrown toward transit complacency

The mayor’s statement and those from the leading advocacy groups seem to indicate that too many are putting all their MTA eggs in the congestion pricing basket. They seem to view congestion pricing as an “immediate fix” to the MTA’s woes, and this is misguided at best and dangerous at worst. Congestion pricing will solve other city problems while providing a new revenue stream for transit investment, and it’s an outcome NYC desperately needs. It will not “fix” the MTA; only aggressive reform and careful oversight will do that. Congestion pricing has to be implemented carefully and properly to work, and tying it into some magical MTA fix will harm both the efficacy of congestion pricing and real MTA reform efforts.

To that end, this is a plan worth probing and likely one worth pursuing. At a bare minimum, a reorganized mess winds up more efficiency than the disorganized mess it replaces, and even modest gains in all the areas Johnson’s proposal tackles would realize huge benefits from the transit system and city at large. If this plan works, it could go a long way toward solving operations, governance and spending issues that plague the MTA. It’s certainly worth debating.

Ultimately, Corey Johnson threw a bomb into a complacent crowd of people who have had years to solve the problem and have done nothing, and they don’t know how to react. That crowd includes seasoned politicians, transit advocates and outside authorities on how the MTA is run. Corey Johnson has succeeded where Cuomo, de Blasio and countless others before them have failed: He has shaken up the status quo and introduced a viable, new proposal into the mix. We’ll see where it goes from here.

Categories : MTA Politics
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The NYC transit system has a mayoral problem

By · Published on March 4, 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
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Nixing pay-per-ride discounts, MTA Board approves April fare hike

By · Published on February 28, 2019 · Comments (12) ·

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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BQX inches forward as NYC tabs VHB to lead environmental review

By · Published on February 12, 2019 · Comments (24) ·

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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