Now that the dust has settled on Andrew Cuomo’s transportation and infrastructure tour of New York, the Empire State’s political watchers have had time to digest and assess the governor’s proposals. Inspired Robert Moses, the Master Builder who has been no stranger to controversy in life or death, Cuomo has promoted a bunch of plans aimed at improving the way people get into and out of New York City with only a superficial proposal to improve the customer experience for subway riders rather than system capacity or reach. A new Penn Station might be aesthetically pleasing, but where is the firm commitment to see through Gateway Tunnel, a project that, unlike those proposed last week, will extend well beyond the end of Cuomo’s tenure as governor?

I’ve said my share over the past few days, and I reiterated yesterday, these proposals, especially with regards to the subway system and inter-borough transit, leave me wanting more. But Cuomo likes his flashy ideas and hasn’t shown a willingness to take on bigger issues, including spending efficiencies, work-rule reform, and project staffing levels. But enough from me; let’s heard what everyone else has to say.

We start with cost. How much is this all going to cost? Well, according to a Cuomo aide, the full spending package comes in at $100 billion dollars which leads me to play this video clip for you:

It’s not clear how Cuomo’s team arrived this figure, what it includes and doesn’t include or how they’re going to fund $100 billion worth of infrastructure projects. But that is one large number, and already, commentators are wondering how Cuomo will fund it. As Jimmy Vielkind explored today, everyone is focused on cost. “Where’s the money going to come from?” John DeFrancisco, a State Senator from Syracuse, asked yesterday. “Once again, this sounds great — running around the state telling people a wonderful thing for them. But you have to take a look at what the cost is and what the other dollars could be used for.”

Vielkind adds:

For infrastructure, the state has a pot of $2.1 billion in un-budgeted proceeds from settlements and penalties wrought by the Department of Financial Services against major banks and insurers, $650 million of which was secured in the past year. Last year, Cuomo directed a much larger pot of settlement money to the Thruway Authority, to settle a dispute with the federal government over Medicaid over-billing and to fund an economic development competition.

The state currently projects spending between $3 billion and $4 billion for capital projects during the next four years, and borrowing another $6.5 billion to $7 billion for capital needs. Between 40 percent and 45 percent of that is marked for spending on transportation.

Some of this should factor into the $22 billion for upstate roads and bridges, but it’s unclear how much and exactly what programs — money for the Thruway Authority? A toll rebate program? $200 million for airports? — Cuomo has put into that overall number.

Meanwhile, Move New York proponents see Cuomo’s proposals as another opportunity to push through a rational traffic pricing plan. As Erik Engquist detailed, congestion pricing proponents see the revenue generated by the plan as a way to fund infrastructure improvements while disincentivizing driving. After all, Cuomo spent considerable time on Friday discussing mass transit usage as the best and most reliable way to ensure continually growth in and around New York City, and what better way to achieve that goal than to start pricing traffic as it should be?

But beyond the lofty price tags, a pair of pieces raise concerns regarding Cuomo’s approach. This too is a point I brought up last week. Much like Cuomo’s ill-conceived Laguardia AirTrain idea, his infrastructure projects aren’t the ones advocates view as most necessary, and many come across as aesthetic fixes to institutional problems or, in other words, lipstick on a pig. Jeremy Smerd in Crain’s says the governor has leapfrogged his agencies:

His love for a big project with his fingerprints on it seems to ignore the careful planning undertaken by the agencies charged with thinking about these things. The governor last week proposed adding a third track to the Long Island Rail Road—a project that was not important enough to make it into the MTA’s capital plan—and a Long Island-Westchester car tunnel that has gone nowhere since being conceived in the 1960s. His $1 billion idea to expand the Javits Center seems as slapdash as his plan four years ago to put a convention center next to Aqueduct. Consider that a similar Javits plan pegged at $1.7 billion in 2005 was canceled when the Spitzer administration found it would cost as much as $5 billion.

Cuomo’s vision for Penn Station seems equally curious. Rather than right a historical wrong that saw the destruction of the original Beaux-Arts building, he will keep Madison Square Garden, severely limiting the ability to bring light and space into the station’s congested warrens. The plan also appears to ignore a binding agreement giving the Related Cos. and Vornado Realty Trust the right to develop the Farley post office across the street into Moynihan Station. If these ideas are not coming from the agencies overseeing infrastructure, where are they coming from?

And finally, in a piece I’ll return to later this week, Philip M. Plotch and Nicholas D. Bloom urge the governor to get New York’s current infrastructure house in order before over-extending for expansive and expensive projects that don’t adequately address capacity concerns. I have some disagreements with Plotch and Bloom’s piece that I’ll discuss in a day or two, but they bring up some valid points regarding capital priorities. In the end, the overall reaction to Cuomo’s plans seems to be that $100 billion could be better spent and somehow doesn’t go far enough.

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

Is your station among the 30 due for a full top-to-bottom rehab over the next few years? (Click to enlarge)

On Friday morning at the Transit Museum, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a series of MTA projects designed to help modernize our subway system. By and large, these initiatives weren’t new as much as they were promises to speed up slow or stalled projects, such as wifi for underground stations, a move to a new fare payment technology, USB charging stations in the subway and B Division countdown clocks. I took a deeper dive into these plans in a rare weekend post that explored the tensions between Cuomo’s lofty rhetoric around expanding transit use and utter modesty of these proposals. I’d urge you to read that for my take. Today, I want to look closer at a different element of his MTA plans.

One part of Cuomo’s announcement that drew headlines and consternation involved plans to revise the way the MTA approaches station rehabilitation projects. For years, the MTA has seesawed between full station overhauls and a component-based repair system, often implementing the latter at stations that won’t undergo the former for years (if not decades). You see, with 469 stations — and soon to be 472 — under its purview, at current construction rates as set forth in the current five-year capital plan, it would take the MTA around a century to renovate every station. If only the lives of New York City subway stations were that long.

So during Friday’s semi-surreal event, Cuomo and MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast announced what the agency is a calling a “new, rapid approach” to station redevelopment that may speed up work by as much as 50 percent while saving money as well. Take a look at how Cuomo described it. “And that, “he said, referring to the rapid pace of construction on the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, “is what we are going to do with the MTA, 30 stations put them out all at once, design build whole new station, let people walk in there and say, “Wow, this is the MTA.” This is the train station – amazing. Yes, we can.”

You can see why people might get upset about this. Cuomo sounds like he’s proposing that the MTA shut down 30 subway stations all at once, and New Yorkers — especially those in Astoria where four adjacent subway stations will get this treatment — were concerned about losing access to the subway system for extended periods of time. In subsequent comments, though, Prendergast said that not all stations would be closed at once. The MTA expects to wrap work on these 30 by 2018 for most and by 2020 for a few stragglers. With rehabs expected to last 6-12 months, MTA officials said the agency will plan so subway riders will always have a nearby station.

As part of this work, the MTA is going to “revamp the design guidelines for subway stations to improve their look and feel…These cleaner, brighter stations will be easier to navigate, with better and more intuitive wayfinding, as well as a modernized look and feel.” The navigation element confuses me because every single one of the 30 stations is a single- or side-platform one-line station without any transferring or confusing corridors. Some have closed entrances that should be reopened, but streamlining navigation is more applicable to major destinations — which these 30 are not. Hopefully, though, navigation considerations come into play in the agency’s design guidelines, and we’ll learn more about that as the process unfolds.

More importantly, the MTA is trying something new with regards to construction and procurement. As the governor’s subsequent press release explained, “The MTA will use design-build procurement to deliver the projects more quickly, at a lower cost and with better quality, as a single contractor will be held accountable for cost, schedule and performance. Stations will be closed to give contractors unfettered access with a singular focus – get in, get done and get out.”

Prendergast explained that, instead of work extending for two or three years on weekends and nights, contractors will be given uninterrupted access to stations within the hopes of completing work much faster. The inspiration is clearly the Fastrack repair program which has led to cost savings and speedier timeframes.

Riders won’t be without subway service, though some may have to work a few more blocks or alter their commutes. And from a State of Good Repair perspective, this work should push the ball along. But there’s an element of Sisyphus to this proposal. If the MTA can get through 30 stations in three years, rather than 20 in five as the current capital plan proposal allows,

Even if the MTA can realize cost savings and find ways to speed up the work, getting through 30 stations in three years still means nearly 50 years before every station is repaired, and those renovated early in the cycle will be well past the point of bad repair by then. It’s a start, then, but is it enough? And that seems to be a common thread with Gov. Cuomo’s MTA proposals.

Categories : MTA Construction
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From the Transit Museum yesterday, Gov. Cuomo announced a series of initiatives to bring the MTA into the 21st Century. (Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

Installing wifi at all underground subway stations by the end of the year; bringing mobile ticketing to the LIRR and Metro-North within six months and a form of contactless payment to the subways by 2018; completing B Division countdown clocks by 2018; speeding up station rehabilitation work and overhauling the look and feel of our subway stations — all are noble goals and all were part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s agenda for improving the MTA and attracting more New Yorkers to mass transit. But following a press event high on lofty rhetoric about increasing transit use, the proposal seemed to indicate that the governor doesn’t understand exactly what the city’s pressing transit needs are.

After spending a week criss-crossing the state, announcing a spate of infrastructure projects that will affect New York for the next decade, if not longer, Cuomo found himself Friday morning out of his element. The last stop on his whirlwind tour was the Transit Museum, a perfect monument to best laid plans that often go awry. During Friday’s announcement, Gov. Cuomo played headliner to MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast’s undercard. In a later press gaggle, Cuomo admitted he doesn’t take the subway as often as he used to and explained that he’s “not an expert an international expert on the best transit systems.” He has consultants who are, he noted.

He unequivocally said that mass transit growth is the way forward for downstate New York growth, but he made these statements amidst a monument both to New York City past and to a future that never was. After all, the Transit Museum lives in a 1930s-era subway station that was supposed to be the Brooklyn portal for a Second Ave. Subway still not completed. What better place to try to hold back a flood by sticking a proverbial finger into a dike?

The MTA investments Cuomo and Prendergast announced are badly needed for purposes of modernity and will improve MTA operations. If Cuomo can prod the MTA to complete a series of seemingly stalled technological improvements the MTA has been trying to launch for a decade or more, his program will be judged a success. But as with the Penn Station plans, without an ongoing and far-reaching commitment to expand transit capacity, these subway projects too will look like political lipstick for our proverbial pig.

So what, you may be wondering, of the plans themselves? In addition to state support for the MTA’s five-year, $28 billion capital plan, Cuomo ushered in a series of other improvements. Here they are:

Wi-Fi At All Underground Stations By The End of the Year
The MTA and Transit Wireless have installed service at around half of all underground stations, and the rollout for the other half was supposed to wrap in 2017. Now, that timeline will be accelerated so full underground connectivity will be achieved by the end of this year. Tunnels will not be wired, but riders waiting for their trains will be able to takes calls and connect to the Internet at every underground station.

Mobile Payment and Ticketing Initiatives

Coming Soon: QR codes for your smart phone.

Coming Soon: QR codes for your smart phone.

We’ve heard about the MTA’s Metrocard replacement efforts for years, and while the wheels are spinning, the ball isn’t moving forward. Now, Cuomo and Prendergast say the subways will begin accepting contactless payment system in 2018. Renderings show a QR code-based reader that isn’t exactly a cutting edge technology, and Prendergast later noted to reporters that this reader system may be an interim solution on the way to a full overhaul of the fare payment technology. Until we know more about this plan, I’m not convinced it’s the right approach, let alone a cure-all, to an ongoing problem. Metro-North and the LIRR will offer mobile ticketing by the end of the year — so I assume Cuomo is confident he can solve the labor problems that have been a barrier to implementation on the LIRR.

Countdown Clocks on the B Division
Countdown clocks — and the lack thereof in many stations — took center stage, and Prendergast said the MTA would wrap installation of B Division (that is, the lettered subway lines) countdown clocks by the end of 2018. Cuomo’s subsequent press release hedged on the date and simply said the MTA will “accelerate” installation but didn’t include a timeline. This is a promise from the MTA to continue to do what it has long said it would do but perhaps on a faster timeline maybe.

Other Technological Improvements
Cuomo and Prendergast also announced a laundry list of other proposals focused around “improving the customer experience.” These include USB charging ports on subway cars and new buses, wifi-enabled buses, and additional digital information screens including more On The Go kiosks and Help Point intercoms.

A New Focus on Station Rehabilitation Efforts

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

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

Finally, in a move that generated a lot of questions, the MTA announced a new approach to station rehabilitation efforts. Instead of stop-and-start weekend work and only partial closures, the MTA, at the request of its contractors, will close stations for concentrated periods of time to speed up the timing and efficiency of station work. Inspired by the Montague Tube work and in conjunction with its contractors, the MTA feels it can be more efficient in this system repair work by closing stations for weeks (or months) at a time rather than suffering through years of weekend diversions. In fact, the agency does this now, but usually only at stations around the edges.

Tom Prendergast discussed this focused effort. “In many cases the customers say its better that for 6-8 weeks, I need to do something different rather than for 42 weeks on weekends and nights our lives are totally disrupted,” he said.

As part of this effort, the MTA will tackle 30 stations over the next three-to-five years. Most will be finished by 2018 with a few trickling into 2020. It’s not clear whether these are in addition to the 20 stations identified in the five-year capital plan or encompass those 20 stations that were due for rehab work. In conjunction with this work, the MTA will “revamp the design guidelines for subway stations to improve their look and feel” and implement this new plan at these 30 stations. The plans will include “cleaner, brighter stations [that will] be easier to navigate, with better and more intuitive wayfinding, as well as a modernized look and feel.” Considering these stations are all single- or side-track platforms that aren’t hard to modernize, this philosophy sounds better tailored to overhauling transfer points or big hubs, but a fresh look is a welcome development.

Already, New Yorkers in Astoria and Clinton Hill, to name a few neighborhoods, are worried that station closures will negatively affect their rides, and in part, there is no way around this work. But this should limit disruptions to concentrated time periods, and Prendergast said the MTA is “not just shutting elements of system without worrying about impacts.” Thus, adjacent stations won’t be closed at the same time, and riders may have to use a station a few blocks away than they’d like.

Why I’m Disappointed
Despite these announcements and continued investment in the capital plan, though, I found Friday’s announcements lacking, and if we dive into Cuomo’s words, we find a disconnect between what he’s saying and what he’s doing and investing in. Here are some of Cuomo’s words from his prepared remarks:

“Number one: reliability. Number one: when the trains says it’s coming at 12:07. You know what that means? It means the train has to come at 12:07. Not 12:08, not 12:10, not 12 – 12:07! Its reliability, first. Accessibility, second. Third: the comforts that we expect. I don’t wasn’t to get in a train and feel like a sardine for an hour and a half on the way to work. I don’t want to do that. I want to be able to sit in the seat, I want to be able to listen to my music, I want to be able to make the telephone call, connected to Wi-Fi….

And that is what we are going to do with the MTA, 30 stations put them out all at once, design build whole new station, let people walk in there and say, “Wow, this is the MTA.” This is the train station – amazing. Yes, we can. We do what we need to do at the MTA, it will drive a different New York, it will allow a growth and an expansion that far exceeds anyone’s expectations, because it is the future. The transportation system determines the economic growth of the future. When they designed this system originally, they had 1 million riders, they designed it for 10 million riders. Look at the foresight, we now have to expand on that vision, and it all comes back to the MTA. We are going to do it.”

In the press gaggle after the event, Cuomo expanded on this vision. “The MTA system has to be better than it is today. It has to be more reliable, more comfortable. We want people getting out of cars and into mass transit, and we have to make that as easy as possible,” he said. “We’re not going to grow downstate with people getting into cars and commuting. We’re not going to build more roads and we shouldn’t build more roads” in the New York City area.

These are all noble goals that should be at the forefront of New York City transit and transportation planning, but none of what Cuomo announced on Friday accomplishes these goals. Riders want wifi but riders also want space on the subway and more frequent trains that go to more places. When the MTA wraps work on the Second Ave. Subway this year, its only remaining big-ticket capital project will be East Side Access, a project that does nothing to expand the reach of the subway system. If Cuomo is intent on delivering a reliable system that “allow[s] a growth and an expansion that far exceeds anyone’s expectations,” USB charging stations and countdown clocks won’t bridge that gap. Knowing that my train is 12 minutes away doesn’t make it emptier or faster.

So, yes, the MTA deserves some praise for trying to get out of its own way on technology upgrades, and reenvisioning the station environment is long overdue. (London’s new Design Idiom could be a constructive starting point.) Streamlining station rehabilitations too is praise-worthy, but the lofty rhetoric of improving public transit and increasing modeshare doesn’t align with USB chargers and wifi as the headliners. What we would need is a firm commitment to lowering construction costs to better align with international standards, a firm commitment to future phases of the Second Ave. Subway and a firm commitment to improving outer borough connectivity (such as Triboro RX, a Utica Ave. Subway, a connection to Staten Island or countless other projects that have been suggested and studied over the years).

Additionally, paying for all of these initiatives remains up in the air. Cuomo indicated that the MTA’s capital plan will be funded, in part, via debt, and the agency is sinking further into a debt black hole that will drive up costs borne by riders. It too is an untenable situation that will eventually undermine Cuomo’s rhetoric of increasing ridership and reach.

A few times this week during his New York tour, Cuomo referenced Robert Moses as part of his inspiration. He wants to build and get something done. He wants to be known as a governor who could accomplish things. But his words should give us pause. His philosophy, he said, is based getting things done, with less regard for long-term goals and more for ribbon-cutting. “Did you build a new station? Did you build a new bridge? Did you build a new tunnel?, he said” “That’s how they’re going to judge you.” Turning on wifi a few months earlier than planned is a pleasant surprise, but it sure isn’t a new subway line, more frequent service or all that transformative no matter what the governor says.

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As the week draws to end, we have some very big news to consider: The viral Pizza Rat video may have been staged. Gothamist’s John Del Signore did the digging and found a few common threads — and rodents — running through some recent viral videos showing particularly aggressive rats in the subway. Is nothing sacred any longer?

In all seriousness, though, we do have some big news to cover as Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s whirlwind tour through New York State infrastructure landed at the Transit Museum yesterday where MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast unveiled a series of state-inspired transit improvement projects. These included some promises to overhaul certain subway stations and a much faster pace of technological adoption (but nothing quite so ambitious as more of the Second Ave. Subway or Triboro RX.). I know many people have lots of questions, and I’ll write these up for a rare weekend post. So be sure to check back on Saturday.

As the week draws to a close, though, this weekend marks the annual No Pants Subway Ride. It’s going to be raining on Sunday so if a wet bum is your thing, by all means, participate. As my only New Years Resolution this year, I promised myself to ignore, rather than hate on, the stunt. You can find details for New York’s ride at Improv Everywhere’s website. As part of an organized protest against the No Pants ride, some New Yorkers have decided to launch the Extra Pants Subway Ride. They’ll wear two pairs of pants instead of none. Whatever floats your boat.

Anyway, if you’re riding the subways this weekend, whether in zero, one or two pairs of pants, here are your service advisories, straight from the MTA. Check signs, listen to announcements, etc.

From 3:45 a.m. Saturday, January 9 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, January 11, Hudson Yards-bound 7 trains run express from Willets Point to 74 St-Broadway.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, January 8 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, January 11, A trains are rerouted via the F in both directions between W 4 St and Jay St-MetroTech.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, January 8 to 6:30 a.m. Saturday, January 9, from 11 p.m. Saturday, January 9 to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, January 10, and from 11:00 p.m. Sunday, January 10 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, January 11, Brooklyn-bound A trains run express from 168 St to 125 St.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, January 8 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, January 11, Brooklyn-bound A trains run local in both directions between W 4 St and 59 St-Columbus Circle.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, January 8 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, January 11, Brooklyn-bound A trains skip 104 St.

From 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, January 9 and January 10, F trains are rerouted via the F in both directions between W 4 St and Jay St-MetroTech.

From 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, January 9 and January 10, Brooklyn-bound C trains run express from 168 St to 125 St.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, January 8 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, January 11, World Trade Center-bound E trains skip Briarwood and 75 Av.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, January 8 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, January 11, E trains are rerouted via the F line in both directions between 21 St-Queensbridge and W 4 St. Free shuttle buses run between Court Sq-23 St and 21 St-Queensbridge, stopping at Queens Plaza.

From 12:15 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, January 9 and 10, and from 12:15 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. Monday, January 11, Queens-bound E trains run express from Roosevelt Av to 71 Av.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, January 8 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, January 11, Brooklyn-bound F trains skip Sutphin Blvd, Briarwood, and 75 Av.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, January 8 to 6:00 a.m. Saturday, January 9, and from 11:00 p.m. Saturday, January 9 to 6:00 a.m. Sunday, January 10, and from 11:00 p.m. Sunday, January 10, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, January 11, Astoria-bound N trains are rerouted via the Q line from DeKalb Av to Canal St.

From 3:45 a.m. Saturday, January 9 to 10 p.m. Sunday, January 10, Manhattan-bound Q trains run express from Sheepshead Bay to Kings Hwy.

From 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, January 9 and January 10, 71 Av-bound R trains are rerouted via the Q line from DeKalb Av to Canal St.

From 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, January 9 and January 10, Queens-bound R trains run express from Roosevelt Av to 71 Av.

Categories : Service Advisories
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A mixed-use streetcar isn't the way to go, but initial word from the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector is promising.

A mixed-traffic streetcar isn’t the way to go, but initial word from the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector is promising.

For a few hours, at least, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s infrastructure improvement tour is on hold. Thursday’s announcement concerned the Javits Center, and I’ve learned that he’s going to announce a series of technology-related upgrades, including B Division countdown clocks, for the subways on Friday morning live from the Transit Museum. I don’t know if this announcement is in addition to ongoing MTA efforts to bring this technology to fruition or if the timeline for even a Cuomo project will still be 3-5 years as it’s been for the past five years. We’ll find out soon enough.

Meanwhile, the pause in this tour allows us a chance to examine another story regarding New York City transportation that nearly sneaked in under the radar this week. A few months after hearing about what one person called a “cool idea” to initiate a waterfront streetcar that would connect Brooklyn and Queens, word of the behind-the-scenes consultant work leaked to the Daily News, and we now have an understanding of what one routing for a $1.7 billion streetcar may be. I’ve learned that this is one proposal being examined, and it’s not yet finalized or even exclusive. It can still be revised and amended, and the final suggestion may look different. But here goes.

As Dan Rivoli reported earlier this week, consultants hired by the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector have identified a 17-mile corridor that could support a light rail line running. The group believes it would connect growing job centers such as Industry City and Dumbo with residential areas such as Red Hook that do not currently enjoy particularly efficient or robust transit options. The route would start near the Brooklyn Army Terminal, pass by Industry City, journey to DUMBO via Red Hook, swing past the Navy Yards and waterfront development in Williamsburg before crossing into Long Island City and terminating in Astoria Cove.

Connecting Sunset Park with DUMBO, Long Island City and Astoria could bridge a current transit gap.

Connecting Sunset Park with DUMBO, Long Island City and Astoria could bridge a current transit gap.

Here’s Rivoli’s report with comments from some who have been involved or watching the project:

A study commissioned for a nonprofit called the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector — whose members include transit experts, community leaders and business giants like Doug Steiner of Steiner Studios, investor Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures and Helena Durst of the Durst Organization real estate firm — envisions sleek streetcars zipping through 10 neighborhoods along the 17-mile stretch of waterfront land between Sunset Park and Astoria.

The Brooklyn Queens Connector is aimed at linking neighborhoods to new job hubs outside of the Manhattan-centric subway system as the waterfront adds new residential buildings and office space. The study estimates 15.8 million passengers a year in 2035. “Too much of the city is underserved by our transit system, and we need to be looking at ideas like this to create a 21st century network,” said Jill Eisenhard, director of the Red Hook Initiative community group and a member of the nonprofit supporting a tram.

Mitchell Moss, director of NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, said the Brooklyn waterfront is going through a “renaissance” but needs better transit options to spread the benefits. “This is a brilliant way to tie together several different areas, which offer jobs, which offer housing, which offer recreation,” said Moss, who is unaffiliated with the group.

The immediate issues I see with this proposal include the approach to service and funding. First, despite the renderings, anything we consider for the waterfront should not be a mixed-traffic streetcar. If the city, or private interests, plans to invest in light rail, it should be a light rail system with a fully dedicated right of way. It should also integrate with the MTA’s fare payment system so the city isn’t instituting a two-fare system as they’ve done with their ferry network.

Costs too are an issue. The reported initial price tag pegs this project at $1.7 billion, including build-out of infrastructure to support new rolling stock, and a $26 million a year operating budget with 16 million riders per year by 2035. The capital costs are necessarily high due to the need to build new shops and purchase rolling stock, but the operating costs aren’t outrageous. The consultants also maintain that light rail would generate “$3.7 billion of new tax revenue, ‘generating more than enough value to pay for its own construction,’ according to the study.”

Already, I’ve seen some backlash to this project. Some have argued that transit development through Sunset Park and Red Hook will increase property value and lead to gentrification which pushes out current residents. This is a slippery slope of an argument that maintains areas attract poorer residents because transit options are lacking but that we cannot invest in transit because transit will lead to value growth that pushes out these poorer residents. I don’t like this argument and believe it plays into my stance that affordable housing has to include transit development. In other words, it’s up to the city to improve transit and maintain affordable housing so people can continue to live where they live but still get around the city.

The second issue is one of need. When this project first bubbled up, I was skeptical. It seemed duplicative of the G train and targeted to wealth New Yorkers who could afford to buy up waterfront property. With an extension to Sunset Park and a routing closer to subsidized housing in Red Hook, the current proposal begins to address some of the issues I had with this plan when it was, as one proponent noted, just a “cool idea.” It connects growing job centers with residential areas in ways the current system doesn’t. Whether it’s a good use of $1.7 billion — or whether it should even cost $1.7 billion — is an open question.

So what we have here then is the start of a potentially good idea. The consultant report won’t be released publicly yet in full, and it’s not clear what the Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector will do yet. Someone will have to identify a proper plan and fight for it, and that’s a tall order a time when our governor is running around announcing pet projects and the mayor can’t be bothered with the details of a much-needed transit expansion.

Categories : Brooklyn, Queens
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Gov. Cuomo’s plans for Penn Station include shifting the main waiting room to the Farley Post Office Building.

Call it the return of Moynihan Station. Call it the Empire strikes back. Call it an ambitious plan to expand Penn Station (because of those “underwhelming dining options”). Call it misguided. Whatever you prefer, something seems to be coalescing around Midtown West’s train station, and it is all thanks to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desire to move us into and out of New York City.

In what I believe was the last day of Cuomo’s whirlwind State of the State preview tour that had him criss-crossing New York to announce various infrastructure upgrades, Cuomo announced two plans of dubious origin yesterday. The first is the bone he threw to upstate politicians who had asked for “parity” with regards to the MTA’s five-year capital plan. The state will, for some reason, spend $22 billion on upstate roads. It is ironically and appropriately called the PAVE NY plan, and it certainly isn’t parity. Considering the economic impact of such spending, the state would have to spend around $50-$60 billion on the MTA to create true parity. That was the appetizer though.

The governor returned to Manhattan early on Wednesday afternoon to announce an initiative that could usher in a completely overhauled Penn Station as early as 2019 — when Cuomo is still likely to be governor. The new plan looks suspiciously similar to the Moynihan Station proposal that’s been gestating for three decades, but it now bears the moniker of the Empire Station Complex, which is not, I’ve been told, Kylo Ren and Snoke’s plan for a replacement for the Starkiller Base. Rather, it is the start of Cuomo hopes is a $3 billion public-private partnership to usher in a “world-class transportation hub” for New York City. Considering our experiences with the other transportation hub at the World Trade Center site, you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t jump for joy.

In presenting this plan, Cuomo managed to praise Robert Moses for “designing for the future” in creating “much of the highway and parks system we still depend on.” You can spend 1000 words unpacking that statement and Cuomo’s intentions alone. Rather, though, let’s talk about what the Penn Station renovations do and what they do not do.

Demolishing the Theater at MSG would allow for a more passenger-friendly Penn Station experience.

First, they certainly look nice. By shifting the main terminal to the Farley Post Office building site, the plans create a European-style sunlight waiting room with higher ceilings and an overall better passenger experience (less the avenue block walk from the IRT trains) than one currently enjoys at Penn Station. It solves what Cuomo identified as a major problem with Penn Station. “Penn Station is un-New York: it is dark, it is constrained, it is ugly, it is dated architecture, it is a lost opportunity. Travelers are relegated to a bleak warren of corridors,” he said. “Frankly, it’s a miserable experience, to cut to the chase, and to really cut to the chase, it is a terrible introduction to New York.”

But to “fundamentally transform” Penn Station, Cuomo has seemingly forgotten the transit options. His plan:

Penn Station Redevelopment: The existing Penn Station facility, which lies beneath Madison Square Garden and between 7th and 8th Avenues, will be dramatically renovated. The project will widen existing corridors, reconfiguring ticketing and waiting areas, improve connectivity between the lower levels and street level, bring natural light into the facility, improve signage, simplify navigation and reduce congestion, and expand and upgrade the retail offerings and passenger amenities on all levels of the station. The new station will include Wi-Fi, modernized train information displays and streamlined ticketing.

Several design alternatives will be considered, including major exterior renovations involving 33rd street, 7th avenue, 8th avenue, and/or Madison Square Garden Theater…

Farley Post Office Redevelopment: As part of the Governor’s proposal, the Farley Post Office, which sits across 8th Avenue from Penn Station, will be redeveloped into a state-of-the-art train hall for Amtrak, the new train hall, with services for passengers of the Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit and the new Air Train to LaGuardia Airport. The train hall will be connected to Penn Station via an underground pedestrian concourse, and increase the station’s size by 50 percent. At 210,000 square feet, the train hall will be roughly equivalent in size to the main room at Grand Central Terminal. The new facility will offer more concourse and circulation space, include retail space and modern amenities such as Wi-Fi and digital ticketing, and feature 30 new escalators, elevators and stairs to speed passenger flow. The Governor’s proposal also calls for an iconic yet energy-efficient architectural design.

Cuomo presented the proposal with an aggressive timeline. He wants companies to bid on it within 90 days, and as I mentioned, he wants it built within three years. It’s clear this is something he wants to see through as governor. In fact, as The Times reports today, a behind-the-scenes agreement among New York State, Related and Vornado nearly came to fruition last year, but the negotiations simply took too long. Cuomo is now opening up the process so that development companies can bid on parts — that is, only the 7th Ave./33rd St. half or only the Farley rebuild — or all of the renovations at once. Vornado and Related are expected to be involved in the bidding, and Extell and Brookfield will be as well.

Considering we all know that Penn Station is an ugly mess of a train station that doesn’t serve as a particularly alluring gateway to New York City, what, you may wonder, are the objections to this project? Simply put, it is another multi-billion-dollar expense that, by itself, doesn’t do anything to solve the region’s real problem of transit capacity. Amtrak’s CEO Joe Boardman stated that the Penn Station overhaul is “setting the stage for the future expansion of rail service and ridership that will be made possible by the Gateway Program,” but without a firm commitment to build the Gateway Tunnel, the Penn overhaul is nothing more than lipstick on a pig.

And so we arrive back at the problem that Cuomo’s plan is a lot of flash without much substance. Despite promises to build the tunnel in his presentation, we still don’t know what the future holds for Gateway, and nothing Cuomo has said over the past few days of infrastructure press conferences has changed that reality. Gateway exists as an idea with some momentum and vague commitments to reach a funding agreement. There are no dollars flowing, no timelines, no studies, no shovels. Much as the World Trade Center PATH Hub was a $4 billion expense to create a shopping mall, so too might the $3 billion plan to overhaul Penn Station. And the sad part is that for those $7 billion in building expenses, we could have had a new trans-Hudson tunnel sooner rather than later.

Of course, if Gateway materializes, the Penn Station overhaul will be a welcome element of a revitalized midtown transit-scape, but we’re talking multi-billion-dollar, decade-long if’s. Cuomo won’t be in office to cut that ribbon, and supporting a project he won’t be around to see through will take leadership he hasn’t shown yet.

Categories : Moynihan Station
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Gov. Cuomo’s transportation plan for the downstate region focuses around getting into and out of New York City rather than around it. (Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)

When it comes to a comprehensive transportation policy for New York State, few governors in recent years have been able or willing to put forward a plan. By many accounts, Eliot Spitzer was on the verge of one before his sex scandal torpedoed his tenure, and before him, George Pataki played a part in launching East Side Access and was, through circumstances out of his control, instrumental in the post-9/11 transit investments in Lower Manhattan, for better or worse. Cuomo, a self-professed car guy through and through, hasn’t paid much attention to transit but seems to be formulating a cohesive policy with a peculiar theme.

Until this week, Cuomo’s major transportation projects in the New York City region concerned a bridge and an airport. The bridge is the Tappan Zee replacement — a project without a consensus or clear funding plan. Even still, upstate New Yorkers are miffed that the new bridge doesn’t include rail, and Cuomo pushed this project through because, as he’s said, he’s personally afraid the bridge will collapse. The other project is the half-baked Willets Point-Laguardia Airtrain proposal (and the more fully baked multi-billion-dollar overhaul and modernization of the decrepit airport).

And then everything exploded this week. As part of his whirlwind tour in advance of his State of the State speech, Cuomo has unveiled some major transit and transportation investments. Today’s official announcement concerned Long Island. Despite constant NIMBY opposition, Gov. Cuomo has announced support for the LIRR Third Track proposal as well as money to study an automotive cross-Long Island Sound tunnel that is unlikely to ever see the light of day.

“Long Island’s future prosperity depends on a modern transportation network that eases congestion on our roads, improves service on the LIRR, helps this region’s economy and preserves the character of these great communities,” the governor said in remarks. “This is a robust and comprehensive agenda to do just that and help build a brighter tomorrow for Nassau and Suffolk residents.”

The governor’s third track proposal is, he said, designed to assuage concerns over previous plans. This is a 9.8 mile extension between Floral Park and Hicksville that is built, by and large, on pre-existing right of way. The mileage reduction from over 11 reduces property acquisition totals so that only 20 would involve residences. How much this will cost or how it will be funded remains to be seen, and why it wasn’t included in the revised version of the MTA capital plan that was published in October is an open question. The LIRR hasn’t been a particularly zealous advocate for this third track plan, but the MTA spoke in its favor yesterday

“Our efforts to expand the Main Line will support transit-oriented development around Long Island and make it easier for Long Island to attract businesses and employees. This isn’t experimental,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said. “It’s a well understood direct correlation that we’ve seen happen already in the region served by Metro-North. When there is train capacity to allow New York City residents to ‘reverse commute’ to suburban jobs, people take that opportunity and the job growth follows.”

Later in the day, Andrew Tangel of The Wall Street Journal broke the news that Cuomo also plans to support a Penn Station overhaul. He will become the fourth or fifth governor to throw his weight behind the Moynihan Station plan, but it’s not yet clear what Cuomo’s motivation is here. As Tangel tells it, “Among the goals of Mr. Cuomo’s plan, [sources] said, is to introduce more air and natural light and improved passenger flow into what critics liken to a dank basement maze marked by confusing signs and underwhelming dining options.”

For now, Tangel’s report is all we have on Penn Station. We don’t know the extent of the plan; we don’t know the cost; we don’t know how New York State and its taxpayers are going to pay for this project. We also don’t know if it includes a trans-Hudson Tunnel. It should. In fact, no overhaul of Penn Station should happen without the guarantee of a new tunnel, and as dingy and cramped as Penn Station is, underwhelming dining options isn’t a particularly compelling impetus to spend billions without addressing the city’s transit capacity crisis.

And therein lies the rub. As you may have noticed by now, all of Cuomo’s projects involve improving certain elements of getting into and out of New York City. They do not address what happens to everyone once these people are within New York City, and outside of some lukewarm promise to fund the MTA’s capital plan (likely by increasing the MTA’s ability to take on debt), Cuomo has done nothing to address subway capacity or interborough travel. Once you’re here (or, as Cuomo is more likely to conceptualize it, once you’re leaving), his job is done, and travel within the five boroughs is someone else’s problem.

As Cuomo put in comments to reporters on Tuesday, he is drawing his inspiration from those who got things done, but it’s a dangerous parallel. When asked if his plans were pipe dreams, he retorted in part “Was Robert Moses a pipe dream?” We may need someone who can deliver projects and funding on the scale Moses could, but we also need someone with a vision more encompassing, tolerant and holistic than Moses’ ever was. Cuomo is getting people into New York City. He has to get them through and around New York City too, and so far, he hasn’t. That’s not a particularly appealing theme when it comes to a comprehensive transportation policy for New York State.

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Early 2016 transit developments have included the retirement of Dr. Zizmor.

As far as 2016 goes for the MTA, this year may promise to be something of a quiet one. The MTA has no fare hikes planned, and its recently approved budget is fairly rosy by agency standards. In fact, in a piece on Gotham Gazette published Monday, Ben Max posted 40 questions for New York politics in the new year, and none of them concerned the MTA. The biggest pressing transit issue seems to concern the fate of Uber in New York City and New York State.

But that doesn’t mean big stories are afoot. There’s plenty happening this year that could echo well into the city’s future. Allow me then to preview a few stories worth watching in 2016.

1. Will the Second Ave. Subway open by the end of the year? The MTA is under the gun to wrap up Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway before 2016 ends. For years, the agency has promised to deliver this long-delayed project on time (according, at least, to the latest estimates); for years, the feds have claimed the MTA will miss its 2016 deadline; and meanwhile, the clock is racing toward December. Most recently, an outside consultant warned of a moderate risk of delay, and we’ll learn more in March and again in June as the MTA issues its quarterly updates. If I were a betting man, I’d take the over and look for an opening in early 2017. But the agency is under a lot of political pressure to deliver on time.

2. Whither the MTA’s capital plan? In October (though it now seems like years ago), Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a funding agreement that would guarantee nearly $9 billion in state funding for the MTA capital plan and an additional $2.5 billion from the city. It was supposed to be a hallmark deal designed to bolster the MTA’s five-year $28 billion capital plan, but any movement on approvals has all but sputtered to a stop. The state’s Capital Program Review Board hasn’t blessed the MTA’s most recent proposal, and upstate politicians want “parity” on infrastructure (that is, road) spending in some of New York’s less populous areas that certainly shouldn’t be investing billions in roads right now. This is what happens when the governor has no comprehensive approach to transit funding.

On a more granular level, thanks to the delays, the MTA had to push back plans to start Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, and local New York politicians aren’t happy with the way money has or hasn’t been allocated to what they view as city needs. It is, in other words, a mess, and it’s not clear when this mess will be resolved or approved. The MTA is working with city stakeholders to address the Second Ave. Subway issues and accelerate Phase 2, but it’s not clear when state approval will arrive or what affect this long delay will have on projects that need to get started. This logjam should clear up in the early part of 2016, but we’re now in month 13 of this 60-month plan with funding not yet guaranteed.

3. Spinning wheels or moving forward on the Metrocard replacement. The MTA’s efforts to replace the Metrocard is one of those agency initiatives that, like B Division countdown clocks, are constantly three-to-five years away from reality, and as we sit at the start of 2016, the picture is worse for the Metrocard’s eventual successor. Thanks to the delays in the capital funding approval process, the MTA has held back the RFP for the next-gen fare payment project, and the Metrocard replacement may be delayed until at least 2023. When will the MTA release its RFP for the project and what will the parameters be? We should find out soon, if the MTA can get out of its own way with regards to this key technology project.

4. Yet another contract for the TWU. I’m sort of cheating with this one as it won’t become a real story until the first month of 2017, but 2016 marks the final year of the five-contract the TWU agreed to back in mid-2014. That’s what happens when you go over two years without a deal. How this will play out is anyone’s guess. Last time, Gov. Cuomo had to step in, and he failed to take advantage of any leverage the MTA had to reform work rules or streamline operations. TWU President John Samuelsen recently won reelection, and as expected, he has never embraced modernization, which would lead to reductions in staffing levels. This won’t develop into a story until the second half of the year, but it’s one worth watching.

5. The crowds keep growing. Last year, the subways reached ridership levels not seen since the end of World War II, and trains are constantly crowded at every hour of the day. Modest service increases aren’t set to go into effect until the summer, and by then, at the current pace of ridership growth, the increases won’t be adequate enough to reduce overcrowding. Is there a tipping point? Will we reach it sooner rather than later? What can the MTA do to improve service and meet spiking demand?

6. Who will be the next Dr. Zizmor? As 2016 dawned, we learned today that famed (though, at times, troubled) dermatologist Dr. Zizmor has retired from medical practice to spend his time, in part, studying the Talmud. Though his ads haven’t graced subway cars since 2013, he remains a symbol of 1990s New York, a time when the city was turning from bad to whatever it is today. Michael Grynbaum and Marc Santora penned an excellent paean to the doctor in today’s Times, and I wonder which subway advertisement will become New York’s next great icon. Dr. Zizmor, like Julio and Marisol before him, will join subway advertising history while a red manspreader may be just as emblematic of the mid-2010s as Zizmor was to the mid-1990s.

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Are Select Bus Service upgrades sufficient to avoid the problem of bus bunching?

With 2016 starting with a long weekend, with the exception of one quick trip into Manhattan for dinner on January 1, I’ve spent the past few days bumming around Brooklyn. I’ve taken a good mix of buses and subways, and the trips were smooth and efficient. That doesn’t mean everything is rosy with our public transit system, and I had my eye out for ways we can improve. Nowhere is that more obvious than with our bus system.

As I enter my tenth year of maintaining this site, I’ve occasionally examined buses and their problems, but my coverage has often focused on upgrades instead of operational issues. With Select Bus Service the flavor of the decade, the MTA and New York City are working to improve bus service. I haven’t been particularly impressed with NYC DOT’s willingness to stick to its guns (or make the case needed to show why these upgrades are necessary), and I’ve thought that our leaders haven’t shown much leadership with regards to the tougher decisions that need to be made. But that’s politics. I want to take today about operations.

This idea comes to me from a chance sighting on Saturday evening. A little before 8 p.m., my wife and I walked over from our apartment to the Brooklyn Museum. As we passed through Grand Army Plaza, not one, not two, but three Downtown Brooklyn-bound B41 buses arrived at the same stop at the same time. I didn’t notice if any were a limited, and I admit that it’s possible that only two local buses were bunched at the same stop while a third limited simply happened to be passing by at the same time. But still, there they were, all three together in front of Brooklyn’s Central Library.

Bus bunching is of course a symptom of the way we treat buses, but it’s also a symptom of the MTA’s long-standing inability to manage the problem. Buses in New York City bunch of three reasons, each of which could be addressed to varying degrees. In no particular order, they are: uneven dwell times, unpredictable surface traffic (along with a lack of infrastructure that prioritizes buses), and bad dispatching and route-management practices.

Dwell times for buses are an obvious problem. As we’ve seen with Select Bus Service, the number one driver of reduced travel time concerns dwell. By instituting a pre-board fare payment system, the MTA has sped up the torturous process of bus boarding we sit through today. Now, riders fumble for a Metrocard, wait for a seemingly endless dip, retrieve their card and move on. Those that pay cash have to fill up the coin slot with $2.75 in quarters, nickels and dimes. It’s slow and inefficient, and a full-system move to a pre-board payment system or, hopefully before the sun explodes or the ice caps melt, to a new contactless fare system will vastly reduce dwell time. With uneven and long dwell times, crowded buses are delayed while an emptier bus can gain ground quickly. Thus, bunching.

The second problem concerns travel conditions. Buses can bunch if one hits traffic while the other does not. Eventually, the two will meet. By not giving high-traffic routes — like, for instance, the B41 up and down Flatbush Ave. — dedicated lanes and signal priority, the buses are entirely beholden to the flow of traffic. Some speed up; some slow down; and by the time they travel over 5 miles down Flatbush Ave., they bunch. This is a choice we as a city have made with regards to the way we treat buses, and it is a symptom of a fundamentally broken approach to a mode of transportation for over 2 million people per day.

Finally, buses bunch because of route-management issues. As buses are delayed due to the conditions above — or as they make up ground due to empty stations — dispatchers could try to hold buses to ensure even spacing. Invariably though, riders on the the bus making up ground would have to sit out delays in their journeys forced on them by dispatchers, and this is not a particularly appealing outcome for anyone. Headways that aren’t maintained as buses leave their terminals may also cause bunching, but this is supposed to be a problem the MTA could address via the data available from the BusTime system.

Ultimately, though, there’s no easy answer to the bunching conundrum. Transit agencies are still trying to solve bunching, but in New York, we’ve created conditions ripe for bunching. Reducing dwell times and improving infrastructure that prioritizes buses are noble goals that improve service for every rider and can help avoid bunching. Even if they won’t represent a cure-all, getting there is far slower and more painful than it deserves to be, and for that, we can look to the politics of a city and transit agency too timid to make the tough choices and too bureaucratic to adapt to changing fare payment technologies. And so those three buses all arriving at one stop at the same time is a more common sight than we would all prefer to see.

For more on bus bunching, check out this neat interactive that lets you bunch buses.

Categories : Buses
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