My apologies for the silence over the last few days. I’ve been swamped with a combination of baseball games, wedding planning and work, and I haven’t had time to move through the posts I have in the queue. You’ll unfortunately have to wait a little longer, but here’s a treat for you this Wednesday. I’ve always had a huge soft spot for this 1970s-era song from Sesame Street. Dig the Vignelli map cameo too.
My thoughts on the Santiago Calatrava-designed PATH World Trade Center Transportation Hub are no secret. It’s a multi-billion-dollar monument to the Spanish architect’s ego that does very little to enhance transit capacity or the aesthetics of the World Trade Center area. As the structure has arisen, it’s lack of visual appeal has become more obvious, and although its completion is a fait accompli, it’s still worth dwelling on the process. In fact, I’ve asked Port Authority, through a FOI request, for information regarding fees paid to Calatrava and his firm.
Meanwhile, in The Post on Sunday, Steve Cuozzo absolutely eviscerated the transportation hub. He doesn’t chart new ground, but his takedown is, to borrow an overused phrase, epic. He writes:
With each passing week, the embarrassing ugliness of this $4 billion boondoggle designed by Santiago Calatrava — a hideous waste of public money — grows plain for all to see. Not everyday-ugly, like a tacky brown tie or dress, but LOL-ugly. What are those spiky “ribs” and “wings” doing next door to 3 World Trade Center and the memorial pools? What happened to the “bird in flight” we were promised?
The elephantine excess won’t be fully realized until the scheduled opening at the end of 2015. But as the dragon slumbers to its feet, enough of it’s reared its head to give a sense of what the finished fiasco will look like: a self-indulgent monstrosity wildly out of proportion to everything around it, and 100% aloof from the World Trade Center’s commercial and commemorative purposes.
Hey, what’s wrong with a train station? Nothing — but today’s 40,000 daily PATH riders make do very well with the current temporary station. And the Hub’s vaunted subway line connections could have been more efficiently achieved with a simple passageway than an “Oculus” longer and taller than Grand Central Terminal’s main hall.
Having seen the parts of the Hub that are already open to the public, I’ve witnessed first-hand what Cuozzo terms “sterile and intimidating.” The floors are solid, slippery marble, and the dominant color is white — not what you’d choose for a New York City subway station bound to attract dirt, debris and all manner of grim from the surrounding environment. It’s a museum to an architect in which practicality was an afterthought if it was even a thought at all.
Cuozzo questions the architectural support for the structure and ponders who will shop in the underground mall. The latter point is less of a concern because New Yorkers and tourists tend to gravitate toward these kinds of shopping centers if the mix of retail is right, but the fact that not one but two under-built transit hubs with high-end retail are opening a block apart from each other at a time when the city desperately needs more space for housing makes me question the spending priorities and long-term planning for the city’s transit agencies.
Ultimately, it’s too late to stop the transit hub, and it will be with us for decades. But it’s a reminder of excess and poor planning. Will we learn anything from this mistake or just be doomed to repeat it, billion-dollar overrun after billion-dollar overrun, while transit capacity concerns go ignored yet again?
Nothing too nuts this weekend…
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, August 1 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 4, South Ferry-bound 1 trains run express from 145 St to 96 St due to CPM repair work on portal and elevated steel structure near 125 St.
From 3:45 a.m. Saturday, August 2 to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, August 3, due to track panel installation south of Prospect Av 2 trains will run in two sections:
- Between 241 St and 149 St-Grand Concourse with Manhattan-bound 2 trains running express from E 180 St to 3 Av-149 St.
- Between 149 St-Grand Concourse and Flatbush Av.
From 11:00 p.m. Saturday, August 2 to 6:00 a.m. Sunday, August 3, and from 11:00 p.m. Sunday, August 3 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 4, Crown Hts-Utica Av-bound 4 trains run local from 125 St to Grand Cantral-42 St due to CPM cable work south of 125 St.
From 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, August 2, and from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Sunday, August 3, 5 trains are suspended between E180 St and Bowling Green due to track panel installation south of Prospect Av. 4 trains make all 5 station stops between 149 St-Grand Concourse and Bowling Green. 5 shuttle service operates between Dyre Av and E180 St all weekend.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, August 1 to 4:00 a.m. Monday, August 4, Brooklyn Bridge-bound 6 trains run express from Pelham Bay Park to Parkchester due to station rehabilitation work at Buhre Av and Zerega Av.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, August 1, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 4, A trains are suspended in both directions between 168 St and Inwood-207 St due to MOW track tie renewal near 181 St. Free shuttle buses provide alternate service.
From 11:45 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. Friday, August 1, to Sunday, August 3, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, August 3 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 4, Brooklyn-bound A trains run express from 59 St-Columbus Circle to Canal St due to MOW rail and plate renewal south of W 4 St-Wash Sq.
From 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday, August 2, and Sunday, August 3, C trains are suspended in both directions between 145 St and 168 St due to MOW track tie renewal near 181 St. Take the A train as a travel alternative. A trains run local between 145 St and 168 St.
From 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday, August 2, and Sunday, August 3, Brooklyn-bound C trains run express from 59 St-Columbus Circle to Canal St due to MOW rail and plate renewal south of W 4 St-Wash Sq.
12:30 a.m. Saturday, August 2, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 4, E trains run local in Queens due to CPM signal modernization at Forest Hills-71 Av and Kew Gardens-Union Tpke, and MOW track tie renewal at 65 St.
From 9:45 p.m. Friday, August 1, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 4, Jamaica-179 St-bound F trains are rerouted via the M line from 47-50 Sts Rock Ctr to Jackson Hts-Roosevelt Av due to Second Avenue Subway construction work.
12:30 a.m. Saturday, August 2, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 4, F trains run local in Queens due to CPM signal modernization at Forest Hills-71 Av and Kew Gardens-Union Tpke and MOW track tie renewal at 65 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, August 1 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 4, Coney Island-Stillwell Av-bound F trains are rerouted via the A line from W 4 St-Wash Sq to Jay St-MetroTech due to MOW rail and plate renewal south of W 4 St-Wash Sq.
From 6:30 a.m. to 12 midnight Saturday, August 2, and Sunday, August 3, R service is extended to Jamaica-179 St due to MOW Jamaica Yard lead switch reconstruction.
(Franklin Av Shuttle)
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, August 1, to 9:00 p.m. Sunday, August 3, the Franklin Av Shuttle is suspended due to CPM structural repair of Crown Street Bridge. Shuttle buses provide alternate service stopping at Franklin Av, Park Pl, Botanic Garden and Prospect Park stations
— Jody Avirgan (@jodyavirgan) July 30, 2014
Shortly after the Straphangers released their annual State of the Subway Report Card, a producer at WNYC, issued what I think is the quintessential New York take on these rankings. As you can see, his belief is that if your train isn’t at the bottom, you’ll be outraged and appalled. He’s captured the essence of the way New Yorkers tend to project their feelings on the subway, but even then, things aren’t that bad. Mostly, we get to work on time, and we get where we’re going relatively quickly even if things aren’t perfect.
So just how imperfect are things? According to the Straphangers’ rankings this year, somehow, the 7 train came out on top while the 2 train ended up at the bottom of the list. Sometimes, I think these rankings are, much like the U.S. News & World Report lists, designed to be different each year so we have something to talk about, but who am I to complain? These rankings are, after all, fodder for today’s post.
This year, the 7 line emerges victorious. Despite our seemingly endless wait for a new station at 34th St. and 11th Ave., apparently, this line with its service patterns and CBTC-inspired weekend shutdowns along with a creaky tunnel and constant crowds came out on top. The Straphangers say a ride on the 7 is $2 — though we’ll come back to that later — and praised the train for its “frequency of service”, lack of delays caused by mechanical breakdowns and, somehow, seat availability during rush hour.
On the flip side, my dear 2 train came in dead last. I ride the 2 fairly regularly in Manhattan and Brooklyn and, absent some crowding, don’t find much wrong with it. The Straphangers, though, fault the line for irregular service, mechanical breakdowns and seat availability during rush hour (but does any subway line worth its salt have seats available during rush hour?). What’s odd about the 2 train’s ranking is that its cars’ mean distance between failures is still well over 125,000 miles. But as this rolling stock is the oldest of the new breed and other lines are receiving the latest and greatest, the numbers start to sag a bit. However, in the Straphangers’ first State of the Subway report, the 2 train’s old redbirds latest just 71,000 miles on average between failures. My, how our expectations have changed.
The rest of the report card is a succinct summary of the subways. Most of the lines are very crowded at rush hour; announcements on newer rolling stock are easier to hear; trains themselves aren’t that dirty (while stations can appear dirty or grimy); and regularity of service is a low-level problem but one that’s more obvious than others.
Overall, though, for yet another year in a row, the Straphangers have determined that no subway line is worth the price of even a discounted MetroCard swipe, and this has always rubbed me the wrong way. By undercutting the value of a MetroCard, the Straphangers are urging everyone to think that we’re getting ripped off. Even as the group has tried to increase the dollar value of its rating to meet fare increases, the perception is that we’re not getting what we paid for. For at most $2.50, I can get just about anywhere reasonably quickly. I’d say that’s a good deal, warts and all.
As straphangers filed onto my Q train at Canal St. on Monday night, I let out an inward sighed. A “Showtime!” crew in full regalia with musical accompaniment boarded my train. They announced their routine, and before legs and hats and arms could go flying, they stopped. The big guy standing near the door seemed like an undercover cop and nearly confirmed as much. The troupe decided against risking it, sat out the ride across the Manhattan Bridge and quietly switched cars.
Now, watching a Showtime crew give up isn’t a new experience. Sometimes, they board a train at rush hour that’s too crowed for the routine; sometimes, riders simply will not move over to clear enough space. Before starting a fight, they wait and move on at the next stop. (They target the Q, of course, because the bench seating on the new rolling stock leads to wide aisles.) Still, I had never seen kids stop in their tracks due to the potential presence of a plain-clothes officer.
Lately, under Commission Bill Bratton so-called quality-of-life crimes have come under police scrutiny, and as The Times detailed yesterday, subway acrobats have been on the receiving end of an NYPD crackdown. As no fan of Showtime!, I initially applauded the move, but the more I read about it, the less I’m sure it’s the way to go. Here’s how Matt Flegenheimer, soon to be off the transit beat, and J. David Goodman put it:
Cheered by tourists, tolerated by regulars, feared by those who frown upon kicks in the face, subway dancers have unwittingly found themselves a top priority for the New York Police Department — a curious collision of a Giuliani-era policing approach, a Bloomberg-age dance craze and a new administration that has cast the mostly school-age entertainers as fresh-face avatars of urban disorder.
Arrests of performers have more than quadrupled this year, to 203 through early this month, compared with 48 over the same period last year…The attention is part of a broader policing strategy in which officers, who often act on complaints from the public, place an emphasis on low-level offenses with a goal of rooting out more serious crime…
Once emblematic of urban disorder, the subways have been a focus of renewed efforts, drawing significant resources for what Deputy Inspector Edward O’Brien called “a cat-and-mouse game.” Teams of officers, dressed casually, follow tips from riders or transit personnel and fan out across cars. “They know we’re out there,” said Inspector O’Brien, who heads special operations for the Police Department’s transit bureau and who was on the train in plainclothes when other officers moved in to arrest Peppermint and Butterscotch. “They’re stepping up their game to a certain degree.”
The Times notes thats around 20 percent of subway dancers have outstanding warrants while others face charges of reckless endangerment or disorderly conduct. Even that seems on the excessive side of things. I’ve objected to the Showtime! routine on the grounds that they’re loud and disruptive with the potential for an errant foot to meet an unsuspecting head. They’re nothing though that probably can’t be solved by ejecting the kids from the system and giving them a warning or a summons.
Any charges simply seem to be rubbing it and unnecessary for any future records, but maybe I’m being too lenient. After all, the kids keep coming back, and enough people keep donating to make the whole thing worthwhile. So let me throw it open to you by revisiting a poll from earlier this year. What do you think of Showtime?
When the MTA started moving off of its net-zero labor demands a few months ago, we knew how this story would end. The MTA’s economic picture would improve as the region’s economy grew stronger, and the unions would demand a greater share of the pie. They would get their slice while the riders would get the scraps. Now that the MTA has sealed the deal with the TWU and LIRR unions, the financial picture for the next few years has taken shape, and lo and behold, riders are getting the bare minimum in service increases and biennial 4 percent fare hikes while the labor deals will cost $1.5 billion over the next four years.
As presented by the MTA on Monday during its monthly Board meetings and as later broadcast in a press release, the MTA anticipates that the new labor deals will result in annual increases in expenditures of $260 million. They swear, though, that the money won’t come from higher-than-anticipated fare hikes. Rather, the MTA will “reallocate” resources to pay for these labor costs as well as some service enhancements while maintaining pay-as-you-go funding for $5.4 billion worth of capital expenses for the next five-year plan. Without meaningful work rule reform, this is indeed a pyrrhic victory.
In fact, it may not even be a victory. The MTA will still take $80 million away from those PAYGO funds each year and simply have less to spend on capital projects. That’s one of the reasons the MTA faces a significant capital funding gap. Here’s the agency explaining other sources of money:
The plan makes several long-term trade-offs to ensure revenues meet ongoing obligations. Over the four-year period, supplemental contributions to an LIRR pension plan totaling $110 million will be eliminated, though all actuarially-required contributions will continue. Also, $254 million will be withdrawn, and additional contributions totaling $533 million will be suspended for four years, from a discretionary fund for future retiree health benefits which has no mandatory funding level. The plan also reduces pay-as-you funding for the MTA Capital Program by $80 million per year, which is equivalent to a $1.5 billion reduction in Capital Program funding capacity.
And how about the rest of us? Tell the people what they’ve won. For $15.5 million, we’re going to get….weekend J train service to Broad St. some time in mid-2015, extensions of service to Gateway Center II along the B13 and B83 bus routes, and added service along the Bx5. Staten Island residents will enjoy more frequent SIR and bus service to lineup with the increased overnight ferry service, and we’ll get two more Select Bus Service routes next year. Transit is also planning to better respond to signal problems in order to cut down unplanned service issues during the day.
Now, I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but it’s easy to see who gets the better end of that deal. This is the fiscal reality we live in though. The unions outlasted the MTA’s economic downturn, and the rest of us get saddled with a disproportionate amount of the costs without enjoying a similar share of the benefits. Less money for capital expenses; service improvements that raise just barely above the “token” level and more delays for future expansion and technology infrastructure projects — it’s all just part of the same old song and dance.
OK, OK. Maybe there’s no Jeffrey Lebowski to ask for money, but New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli can’t seem to find around $12 billion for the MTA’s next capital plan. This is hardly a breaking piece of news for anyone who’s watched the recent politicking behind the MTA’s looming need to present a new five-year spending plan, but DiNapoli’s report drives home the fact that the MTA has to spend a lot of money it doesn’t have to keep our trains and buses running smoothly.
“Millions of New Yorkers rely on the MTA transit system and while it is in far better condition than it was 30 years ago, much more needs to be done,” DiNapoli said in a statement. “The MTA has to find a way to finance improvements without putting the financial burden on riders. This can be achieved only by working closely with the federal government, New York state and New York City to develop a long-term financing program and by using resources effectively and efficiently. Otherwise, needed repairs will be pushed even further into the future, and fares and tolls could rise even faster.”
DiNapoli’s main point isn’t necessarily that $12 billion is missing, but rather that $12 billion in funding will not materialize without sending the agency further into debt. In his short report, the New York State Comptroller analyzes the spending needs for the MTA and concludes, as we know, that the next capital plan isn’t a sexy one. Unless the MTA is aggressive in requesting funding for future phases of the Second Ave. Subway or work beyond the never-ending East Side Access plan, the capital program will fund much-needed signal and infrastructure upgrades and rolling stock purchases.
That’s not to say that these aren’t 100 percent necessary for the future healthy of New York City; they are. But when it comes to headlines, few New Yorkers are going to read about signal modernization and long delays caused by the work with any joy. This is stuff we never see even if our daily rides depend on it. Still, says DiNapoli, despite 30 years of investment, the system is not in a state of good repair and may never get there without considerably more investment.
As DiNapoli notes, this funding gap was a problem with the last five-year plan, and the MTA “solved” this problem by cutting expenditures and bonding out its obligations, thus adding more debt to the ledger. Debt service in 2018, notes the Comptroller, will be three times what it was in 2005. How long can this go on?
Ultimately, then, the issue isn’t that $12 billion is missing from the MTA’s capital budget. Rather, the issue is that the MTA will have to continue to go into debt to cover the funding gap. Can they add another round of debt to their finances without beginning to impact service? As debt counts against the operations budget, already riders pay for this debt as fares go up to cover operating obligations. DiNapoli doesn’t offer a stark picture for the future, but the meaning is there. Someone will pay for that $12 billion. Either the MTA doesn’t perform work or somehow it gets paid. Either way, without direct contributions from outside sources, riders alone will foot that bill.
As I write this at 10:10 p.m. on Friday evening, we’re approximately 45 minutes away from the last Church Ave.-bound G train’s departure from Court Sq. That train is set to leave at around 10:52, and then the Greenpoint Tubes will be shut down until Sept. 2. The MTA has to shutter these tunnels to make repairs from Sandy, and in the coming months, we’ll hear about more Sandy-related work that must be repair and fortify the system.
Meanwhile, there’s now a free out-of-system transfer between the G at Broadway and J/M trains at Lorimer in South Williamsburg, and if you’re a G train rider, Uber has a deal for you. They’re offering a free transfer deal for Greenpoint and Long Island City riders. Essentially it’s one free ride anywhere between Nassau Ave. and Court Sq. for the next few weeks. Check out their blog for more information.
Meanwhile, here’s the rest of your weekend work.
From 3:45 a.m. Saturday, July 26 to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, July 27, due to track panel installation south of Prospect Av, and overcoat painting south of Jackson Av, 2 trains will run in two sections:
- Between 241 St and 149 St-Grand Concourse with Manhattan-bound 2 trains running express from E 180 St to 3 Av-149 St.
- Between 149 St-Grand Concourse and Flatbush Av.
From 11:00 p.m. Saturday, July 26 to 6:00 a.m. Sunday, July 27, and from 11:00 p.m. Sunday, July 27 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, July 28, Crown Hts-Utica Av-bound 4 trains run local from 125 St to Grand Cantral-42 St due to CPM cable work south of 125 St.
From 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, July 26, and from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Sunday, July 27, 5 trains are suspended between E 180 St and Bowling Green due to track panel installation south of Prospect Av, and overcoat painting south of Jackson Av. 4 trains make all 5 station stops between 149 St-Grand Concourse and Bowling Green. 5 shuttle service operates all weekend between Dyre Av and E 180 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, July 25 to 4:00 a.m. Monday, July 28, Brooklyn Bridge-bound 6 trains run express from Pelham Bay Park to Parkchester due to station rehabilitation work at Buhre Av and Zerega Av, and platform edge and canopy work at Pelham Bay Park.
From 7:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, July 26, and from 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Sunday, July 27, 6 trains run every 14 minutes between Pelham Bay Park and Parkchester. The last stop for some trains headed toward Pelham Bay Park is Parkchester, due to station rehabilitation work at Buhre Av and Zerega Av, and platform edge and canopy work at Pelham Bay Park.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, July 25 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, July 28, Times Sq-42 St-bound 7 trains run express from Mets-Willets Point to 74 St-Broadway due to CBTC related work on the Flushing line.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, July 25 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, July 28, A trains are suspended in both directions between Ozone Park-Lefferts Blvd and Rockaway Blvd due to CPM station rehabilitation work at 88 St and 104 St stations. Howard Beach/Far Rockaway-bound A trains skip 88 St. Free shuttle buses provide alternate service via 80 St.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, July 26 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, July 28, E trains will run local in Queens due to CPM signal modernization at Forest Hills-71 Av and Kew Gardens-Union Tpke, and CPM track tie renewal at 65 St.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, July 26 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, July 28, F trains will run local in Queens due to CPM signal modernization at Forest Hills-71 Av and Kew Gardens-Union Tpke, and CPM track tie renewal at 65 St
Beginning 10:30 p.m. Friday, July 25, until 5:00 a.m. Tuesday, September 2, G trains are suspended between Long Island City-Court Sq and Nassau Av due to MOW Fix & Fortify Sandy Recovery Work in the Greenpoint Tube. Transfer out-of-system (with MetroCard) between the Broadway G station and Lorimer St JM stations. Free shuttle buses provide alternate service along two routes:
- Via Manhattan Av between Nassau Av and Court Sq, stopping at Greenpoint Av and 21 St.
- Via McGuinness Blvd between Lorimer St L and Court Sq, stopping near G stations at Nassau Av, Greenpoint Av, and 21 St.
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, July 25 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, July 28, N trains are suspended between Times Sq-42 St and Queensboro Plaza due to MOW Track and plated work in the 60 St Tube, chip and pour south of 5 Av, and switch work south of Queensboro Plaza. Take the 7 or Q instead.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, July 26 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, July 28, Q trains will run local in Queens due to MOW Track and plated work in the 60 St Tube, chip and pour south of 5 Av, and switch work south of Queensboro Plaza.
From 5:30 a.m. to 12 midnight, Saturday, July 26 and Sunday, July 27, due to MOW Track and plated work in the 60 St Tube, chip and pour south of 5 Av, and switch work south of Queensboro Plaza, R trains are rerouted on the D and M lines in both directions as follows:
- Via the D line between DeKalb Av and B’way-Lafayette St.
- Via the M line between B’way-Lafayette St and Queens Plaza.
No one in his or her right mind would ever mistake the Port Authority Bus Terminal as a pleasant place to spend any amount of time. It’s dirty and dingy with little in the way of amenities and much in the way of dripping and collapsing ceilings, permanent residents and an overall feeling that it’s best days aren’t just decades in the past but may never have happened at all. The building is an eyesore amidst Midtown Manhattan and somehow manages to shepherd 225,000 per day through its doors. Imagine if it were actually something approaching state of the art.
At some point, the Port Authority will have to figure out how to tear down and rebuild Port Authority without disrupting travel plans. They should get around to advocating for permanent bi-directional bus lanes through the Lincoln Tunnel as well. For now, though, the PA is going to slap $90 million worth of improvements on the Bus Terminal and call it a day — or a Quality of Commute program. The problem is that $90 million in New York City just doesn’t go that far.
In a release on Wednesday, the PA heads announced the new expenditure. “The Port Authority Board of Commissioners today authorized $90 million to a “Quality of Commute’ improvement program for the Port Authority Bus Terminal,” Executed Director Pat Foye and Deputy Executive Director Deborah Gramiccioni said. “The functionally obsolete facility no longer meets the transportation needs of the hundreds of thousands of riders that pass through the terminal every day, and the Port Authority is committed to identifying comprehensive improvements within the context of its existing Capital Plan. This initiative will make interim improvements to the terminal as the agency explores a program to deliver a redeveloped facility.”
The exact details of the investments will be unveiled at a Port Authority board meeting in September, but PA officials let slip some details surrounding the plans. According to Foye, the bus terminal will see an improved heating and air conditioning system, better cellphone and wireless service and a more aggressive outreach program for the homeless New Yorkers who, for better or worse, call the bus terminal home. The bathrooms too may see some upgrades.
Ultimately and unfortunately, it’s insulting to pigs to say this is putting lipstick on a pig. The Port Authority Bus Terminal, simply speaking, is an embarrassment and likely an impediment to more transit service in New York City. People eschew buses because trying to travel through the terminal is a singularly unpleasant experience. But something is better than nothing.
At some point, the Port Authority will have to make some tough decisions with regards to its bus terminal. The agency estimates that it could take 10-15 years and at least $1 billion to replace the thing (though a future replacement could include lucrative air rights and development upward). For now, we get air conditioning and some better cell service. I guess that’s forward progress, but it sure ain’t reinventing something that sorely needs to be reinvented.
Under other circumstances, last week would have been a big one for the long-term future of the MTA. For three days, the MTA Reinvention Commission paraded a series of bold-faced transit names through the MTA offices as it fielded suggestions concerning the future of transit. Eventually, it will develop action items aimed at considering and responding to “changes in customer expectations, commuting trends and extreme weather patterns” while focusing on future capital plans. Of course, the LIRR negotiations stole the show, but the Reinvention Commission’s work isn’t done.
As I could, I followed along with the commission’s happenings. I couldn’t attend the meeting, but various transit reporters and other news websites covered the happenings. As you can see from the three-hour video above, the MTA recorded (and streamed) the proceedings, and at times, I wasn’t overly impressed with what I saw. You can, if you wish, watch nearly all the sessions on YouTube.
Early on, the meetings delved into a policy discussion on affordable housing, and many of the subsequent comments concerned fairly obvious initiatives that aren’t so much about reinvention as they are about forward progress. We know the MTA hasn’t been able to move quickly on a MetroCard replacement program, and we know the costs of maintaining the current fare payment system will balloon in five years. That’s old news.
In a way, one set of testimony sums up the need for reinvention and the problem with last week’s commission hearings. It came from REBNY, and as Dana Rubinstein previewed last week, it focused again around the idea to send the 7 line to Secaucus. The idea, seemingly born on the back of a cocktail napkin by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, involves an ambitious plan to send the subway beyond New York’s border to a densely populated area of New Jersey.
“It has been more than 100 years since we have built a rail connection under the Hudson River,” outgoing REBNY head Steven Spinola said. “Since then, the city’s population has almost doubled and the population of the counties west of the Hudson has tripled. More significantly, almost a third of the city’s workforce is comprised of suburban workers, with a growing share coming from New Jersey.”
As always, the MTA expressed lukewarm but noted that “the Transportation Reinvention Commission exists to consider a wide variety of ideas from a wide variety of stakeholders.” The real issue though remains costs. To reinvent the MTA involves asking tough questions about why every construction project costs so much and can’t wrap on time. Once those hard issues are resolved, the MTA can focus more on expansion, improvement and reinvention.
In a related vein, last week for The Atlantic’s City Lab site, I focused on the Second Ave. Subway and wrote about the MTA’s need to build and need to control costs. The two are at loggerheads right now with no real solution in sight. I’ve written about the need to think big on this site before, and here’s a selection from my piece:
At $2.23 billion per mile, the Second Avenue subway is orders of magnitude more expensive than similar projects across the world. At various times, MTA officials have blamed the exceedingly high price tag on overstaffing due to onerous union requirements, the environmental review process, NIMBY opposition, the cost of working in New York, and the number of eligible contractors. The dollars present a major impediment to the future of the Second Avenue subway and to citywide transit expansion at large. Few politicians will fund projects that outlast their terms and cost so much money.
Meanwhile, New York faces a capacity problem. The city is expected to add one million residents over the next few decades, and river crossings—a key barrier separating where people live from where they work—are increasingly nearing capacity. Economically, the city can’t support construction that costs more than $2 billion per mile and takes a decade to build out a mere two of them. And New Yorkers are facing a future where political inaction could prevent badly needed subway expansion projects from seeing the light of day…Only subway lines can sustain New York’s projected growth, but New York can’t sustain multi-billion-dollar subway lines.
I don’t have the answers; if I did, I could head up the Reinvention Commission. But that issue — the cost vs. the need — should be the primary focus of any effort to reform the MTA. We can’t build subway lines that cost a few billion per mile, and we can’t move enough people through half-hearted Select Bus Service lines. Hopefully, the reinvention commission can look beyond the reiterative interest group politics at play and find some way to reform the MTA.