A new report by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli lays bare the MTA’s debt crisis.

If it seems inevitable that congestion pricing will arrive in New York City, that’s because it is. Although no one in Albany appears to be in a hurry to push through pricing plan, every gubernatorial candidate, including the incumbent set to win by 20 points or so in two weeks, has, to one degree of enthusiasm or another, endorsed a fee on cars entering Manhattan. But with expectations high, can congestion pricing be the savior everyone is hoping it will? Can it fund Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan or is the money already earmarked for something far less sexy? if I’m even asking, you can already guess the answer.

The most recent answer comes to us from a comptroller’s report on the MTA’s tenuous financial outlook. As Thomas DiNapoli explores in a new release [pdf], the MTA’s mounting debt is set to explode over the next few years, and with numerous competing demands on any new sources of revenue the state may authorize, along with a need to modernize the system, the MTA is in a position of promising the moon and stars while stretching dollars to cover investments it simply cannot afford. It’s a dire picture indeed.

The state comptroller summarized his findings in a press release on the report. In essence, even without addressing Andy Byford’s $40 billion Fast Forward plan, the MTA’s debt service payments are set to balloon to $3.3 billion by 2022 with the MTA’s total debt to reach $41.9 billion that year, and that’s before the agency starts bonding out Byford’s plan. Meanwhile, even though the MTA plans to raise fares next year and in 2021 and reduce certain expenditures, the operating budget gaps are projected to be $262 million in 2020, $424 million in 2021 and $634 million in 2022. To close those gaps, the MTA will need to implement massive cuts or fare increases or receive a new dedicated funding stream.

Even then, a balanced budget is no sure thing. As DiNapoli notes, the MTA’s current budget projections rely on “the assumption that the current economic expansion will continue uninterrupted.” As DiNapoli writes, that’s not sure thing: “As evidenced by the sharp drop during the Great Recession, the MTA’s revenues are sensitive to economic fluctuations. Changes in business cycles are inevitable, and the likelihood of an economic setback grows with each passing year.” Additionally, DiNapoli notes that, despite recent trends (including a very negative report on August ridership I’ll cover later this week), the MTA’s fiscal outlook relies upon a ridership increase in 2019. As the comptroller charitably notes, “While subway service has improved marginally in 2018, it remains far below riders’ expectations, and the improvement may not be enough to persuade riders to return in the face of higher fares.” Fare increases, as DiNapoli charts, have already outpaced inflation over the past decade, and if the MTA’s assumptions fail — if the economy falters and/or if ridership continues its precipitous decline — the MTA’s deficits, and corresponding fiscal pressures, will grow.

So how, you may ask, does this implicate the fight over congestion pricing? Well, the MTA has multiple competing fiscal demands right now. The agency is legally required to balance its operating budget and needs money over the next decade, as part of the next two five-year capital plans, to fund Byford’s Fast Forward program. Without it, service reliability will continue to decline, and eventually, the subway crisis will grind New York City to a halt. So essentially, the MTA needs two new revenue streams — one to fund its capital program and one to fund budget deficits (driven by the increased debt load from its capital spending). Congestion pricing can’t cure two ills in one fell swoop, but it’s being billed as a grand solution for the MTA’s woes.

On the one hand, New York City needs congestion pricing for numerous reasons. It needs to clear out congestion for economic, environmental and sustainability reasons, and it needs a new dedicated funding stream for transit. On the other, the MTA needs far more reform than congestion pricing. It needs a strong commitment from Albany to fund the capital budget through direct investments rather than new debt. It needs a strong commitment to reform capital spending so that projects aren’t orders of magnitude more expensive here than they are anywhere else in the world. And it needs an immediate response to the ridership and reliability crisis. These are not ills congestion pricing can solve immediately, and in certain ways, congestion pricing will put more pressure on the transit system to deliver reliable service immediately.

So as we talk about solutions to the MTA’s problems, and digest DiNapoli’s report in light of the MTA’s own budgetary picture, we have to be realistic. Congestion pricing is a piece of the puzzle, but that money will disappear into the agency’s budget as fast as it can. Perhaps congestion pricing can delay the inevitable, but can the MTA save itself from, well, itself? That’s the billion-dollar question upon which the fate of New York City rests, and as the Magic 8 Ball might say, “Reply hazy; try again.”

Categories : MTA Economics
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Generally, in recent New York City history, as the city’s economy grows and employment increases, transit ridership does as well. On a basic and obvious level, it makes sense. After all, people need to get to work, and if more people are working, more people are going to be using the subways and buses to get to their jobs. And yet, this time around, something funny is happening: As the city’s economy continues to add jobs, transit ridership has continued to plunge.

This story began years ago as ridership started to slip, and I looked into the numbers over the summer. When the agency released its board materials for last week’s meeting, the picture remained negative. Average weekday subway ridership in July 2018 was nearly 2 percent lower than in July 2017, and the MTA noted that this dip was a steeper decline than the one during the second quarter of this year. Weekend ridership has declined by over 5 percent. Take a look at the graph of the 12-month rolling averages. Weekend totals include both Saturday and Sunday.

July ridership numbers show an ongoing decline.

The averages aren’t the only numbers showing an alarming dip. Year-to-date ridership is 0.5 percent below 2017’s pace even as total NYC employment has inched up by nearly two percent over the same period in 2017. Where is everyone going? Or better yet, how are they getting to work?

In the Board materials, the MTA doesn’t speculate as to the lost riders. The agency notes that bus ridership is lower due to fewer student rides, but student rides make up a small fraction of trips especially during the summer months. That’s an unsatisfying answer. Meanwhile, we’ve already seen the MTA attempt to explain the ridership decline with less than impressive results. The agency blamed for-hire vehicles for the declining ridership rather than the poor service, and it’s not clear the agency has a plan to stanch the bleeding or cares much about it.

And that brings me to the next question: Should we care? The answer is a nuanced one. On the one hand, the declining ridership in excess of MTA projections means the agency will miss its fare-based revenue projections, but the miss totals only around $3.1 million. The year-end total will be somewhere around $5.5-$6 million, a piddling amount for an agency with a $13 billion budget but still an amount that could lead to service cuts. Meanwhile, if a modern economy allows potential commuters to work remotely, perhaps we shouldn’t expect a ridership increase commensurate with employment numbers.

But the nagging feeling I have, based on that July report on ridership mode shifts and the general worsening subway service, is that subway and bus ridership numbers are declining because the MTA can’t provide regularly reliable and fast service. Thus, potential transit riders are looking at other modes for travel, and the increase in usage of FHVs (along with added congestion) will increase because the MTA’s service doesn’t provide the reliability New Yorkers need.

If Transit is worried about this ridership decline, the executives aren’t showing it. Andy Byford’s Fast Forward remains a plan without a funding stream rather than an ongoing concern, and agency officials haven’t spoken of the need to combat the decline or a fear that the bottom could fall out. I believe stopping this dip should be a primary concern if NYC is stay on a pace of sustainability with fewer car trips and more transit usage. This slow-motion death spiral will choke the city.

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A magic wand isn’t going to fix the subway without a chief executive willing to push through reforms and support leadership. (Photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

It’s no secret that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is a car guy. He loves to talk about his personal collection of muscle cars, and on Friday, he had an opportunity to host his favorite type of ribbon cutting for the opening of the second span of the new Tappan Zee Bridge. He gathered his entire family on the bridge along with the usual collection of local politicians and Hillary Clinton, and he “opened” the bridge by driving FDR’s 1932 Packard across the new span. And then the bad news arrived.

As The Times reported on Monday, the Cuomo administration essentially bribed contractors to rush the finish of the span so the Governor could host the opening before Thursday’s Democratic primary election, but the bridge couldn’t actually to open to traffic because engineers found that the old one had destabilized and is at risk of collapsing onto the new one. In a way, it’s a perfect metaphor for Cuomo who governs by press release and ribbon cuttings, trumpeting other people’s accomplishments, and it mirrors the way he treated the Second Ave. Subway. He demanded the project open by the end of 2016 even though an extensive punch list remained (and still remains). He wants his photo ops, and come hell or high water, he’ll get them.

Cuomo’s grinning appearance on the bridge on Friday was in marked contrast to his Thursday press conference in Penn Station in which he debuted a new entrance to Penn Station and some Moynihan Station-related improvements. He spoke about catacombs and the general dinginess of Penn Station in ways that clearly made talking about transit sound like a chore for him. His muscle cars and FDR’s Packard it was not.

After nearly eight years of Gov. Cuomo, it’s become abundantly obvious that his disdain of public transit (and its riders) is a feature and not a bug. By most counts, he’s taken the subway only around 2-3 times during his gubernatorial tenure, and at least one of those was a special train from the Rockaways. Thus, this piece of reporting on Politico New York from Dana Rubinstein should come as no surprise: Cuomo’s disdain for public transit runs deep and is rooted in his outdated preconceptions about transit riders. Rubinstein writes:

Would-be governor Cynthia Nixon does straphanger photo ops. Council Speaker Corey Johnson does them, too. So occasionally does avowed motorist Mayor Bill de Blasio. Across the Hudson, Gov. Phil Murphy does it, on the foundering NJ Transit. In fact, perhaps the only major local politician who doesn’t do it is the one who controls New York’s crisis-ridden subway system. That would be Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

It’s not like his advisers haven’t tried to persuade him to give it a try. They’ve urged Cuomo, who is running for a third term, to ride the subway on more than one occasion, according to two knowledgeable sources. The governor has demurred. One explanation has it that the image of a “passive straphanger” doesn’t align with the governor’s can-do persona. It doesn’t enable him to don a windbreaker or grapple with machinery alongside predictably deferential transit workers.

The situation on the subways, on the other hand, is less controlled and rife with potential landmines. What if he pulls a Hillary Clinton and his swipe doesn’t work — on a Metrocard machine he’s responsible for, because he runs the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway? What if the countdown clocks his MTA installed are inaccurate? What if he gets heckled? “He’s smart enough to know that if he showed up on a subway platform at this point, he’d get his ass kicked,” said one Democratic political consultant who asked for anonymity, lest he suffer a similar fate.

Cuomo, a car guy who can’t recognize the limitations of automobile travel or the fact that he has no control over traffic or other drivers, thinks that the subway he controls is beneath him because of all the things that can go wrong. Talk about a telling psychological reaction to a collapsing subway. So instead of understanding the travails of subway riders, instead of knowing what his stewardship of the subways has wrought, Cuomo feels emasculated by the trains because he’s not the one behind the wheel, zooming down the 8th Ave. line with his pedal to the metal.

After two terms of this attitude toward transit, it’s clear that no matter what his allies claim, no matter the absurd gaslighting campaign from the TWU, no matter his supposed support for some congestion pricing plan, Andrew Cuomo doesn’t care about the subways and isn’t going to be the one to save them. He’s sucked all the oxygen out of the room arguing over the legal technicalities of control over the subway and the allocation of money for his aesthetically-orientated Enhanced Station Initiative without addressing how the taxpayer base — New York City residents and workers — is the same whether the money comes out of the state budget (as it should) or from the city. He’s spent years siphoning dollars away from the MTA’s budgets, whether for state-run ski slopes losing money or road projects. He has constantly refused to sign lockbox legislation that would put stringent strings on his MTA budgetary sleight-of-hand, and he barely endorsed Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan until his lack of support was on the verge of becoming a political albatross.

Meanwhile, on his watch, as we all know, progress at the MTA has slowed to a crawl. The agency was enjoying boom times in the late 2000s as focus on investment seemed to be catching up with reality, and as service improved, ridership boomed. But on Cuomo’, delays and problems have become daily occurrences as ridership has shown year-over-year declines for the better part of his second term in office. These trends are not stopping without significant cost reform and investment, and Cuomo hasn’t embraced either yet.

Meanwhile, on the capital side, Cuomo has dragged his feet (some say to make the city look bad) so that with the opening of the rebuilt WTC Cortlandt station on Saturday, there are no big-ticket subway expansion items under active construction right now. A few years ago, we had the 7 line extension, South Ferry, Fulton St. and the Second Ave. Subway all ongoing, and today, we have the promise of Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway and nothing else. For a 21st Century city, this lack of growth and progress is a travesty that will hinder New York’s promise for decades to come.

On the edge of primary day, that leaves New Yorkers with a governor who doesn’t support transit, openly disdains it and won’t change his tune. Make no mistake about it: Governor Cuomo is in charge of the MTA and the New York City subways, and he has been a bad steward of the crown-jewel American subway system. If he earns himself the nomination on Thursday or a victory in November, I don’t expect anything to change, and neither should you. A Cuomo third term will bring more of the same: He’ll use the subways for photos ops without forging ahead on real progress, and without an aggressive primary challenger pushing him to act, do you think he’ll continue to embrace Andy Byford and his earnest push for improvement? After all, the subway, a lifeblood of New York City and the state, is too passive for the Can-Do Press-Release governor.

Categories : MTA Politics
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New renderings of the BQX show the light rail running on a cloud day, a perfect metaphor for the project’s stormy future. (Source: NYCEDC)

To coincide with the unveiling of yet another heavily-subsidized East River Ferry route last week, I wrote piece for Curbed New York laying out the case against ferries as a solution to the city’s mobility crisis. Those familiar with my skepticism toward subsidizing ferries will be familiar with the argument: These boats are a low-capacity mode of transit with a ridership that skews wealthy, and spending $6.60 per ride on top of $500 million in capital subsidies is a giveaway at a time when the city needs to wrest control of its transportation future for the benefit of those in transit deserts and not just those who live in waterfront condos.

Boats can serve as a small complementary piece to a larger holistic puzzle, but the de Blasio Administration doesn’t have a big-picture vision when it comes to transit. This lesson was on full display again later in the week when the mayor revived his dormant streetcar plan, the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, with a press conference touting the release of conceptual design report for the BQX. The report, available here as a PDF, was originally billed as a feasibility study, but it falls short in assessing the merits of the project and instead presents updated designs. And updated designs are in there a-plenty.

The new route is shorter, with a southern terminus in Gowanus rather than Sunset Park after neighborhood activists fought against new transit by leaning on a spurious anti-gentrification argument, and the project is now more expensive, with a price tag of $2.7 billion. Along with this new price comes the recognition of the reality that value-capture alone will not fund the project, and the city, living through the same federal administration the rest of us are, now believes the feds will be willing and generous funding partners to the tune of $1 billion. On the plus side, the entirety of the BQX will now enjoy its own dedicated right-of-way (and include the elimination of around 2000 parking spots from Red Hook to Astoria).

The new route of the BQX starts in Gowanus rather than Sunset Park. (Source: NYCEDC)

Oh, and construction isn’t set to begin until early 2024 with the line entering revenue service in June of 2029, eight years after the last year of the de Blasio administration. You will be excused for being extremely skeptical of this timeline and the entire project, which many have taken to calling transit vaporware.

The details of the report are worth perusing. Ridership estimates remain at around 50,000 per day with the bulk traveling between Greenpoint and Downtown Brooklyn, and while the routing largely mirrors the G train for significant stretches, a run through the Brooklyn Navy Yard could deliver New Yorkers to a growing job center that isn’t particularly well-served by anything other than infrequent local buses. The design too has gotten an update with catenary wires, rather than off-wire power, due to concerns that “were not sufficiently advanced to reliably power the expected BQX ridership demands and frequency of service” and salt corrosion during winter could erode reliability.

The timeline for BQX construction leaves much to be desired. (Source: NYCEDC)

But what was once billed a self-funding 16-mile route is now an 11-mile route with a massive budget hole. Value capture will fund only around $1.7 billion, and the city will require federal funding at a time when the feds are actively hindering investment in urban public transit. Like every New York capital transit project these days, costs have already gone up by 30 percent before an EIS is published, let alone a shovel hits the ground, and the timeline, with EIS, ULURP and preliminary design efforts stacked instead of parallel, seems designed to grind the pace of work to a halt.

Ultimately, it’s tough to say if the BQX is a good project or just a good-enough project. As many others have said over the years, the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront isn’t exactly a transit desert, and other high-ridership SBS routes or cross-borough connectors would be a better fit for high capacity, frequent light rail. The city could realize many of the benefits of the BQX route by running more frequent bus service and prioritizing bus service over this corridor. It also wouldn’t take 11 years and $2.7 billion, a good portion of which won’t materialize from the feds despite Bill de Blasio’s insistence, to accomplish these goals.

But I haven’t been quite the skeptic as others have, and two statements issued last week offer a peek at a potential light rail future for NYC that doesn’t involve cooperating with a recalcitrant Albany. “With the city embroiled in a transit crisis, the BQX will serve as an innovative model for how to build new mass transit sustainably and equitable, while creating new, good paying jobs along the way and making access to those jobs easier,” Jessica Schumer, executive director of Friends of the BQX, said.

A group of transit bigwigs — Richard Ravitch, Tom Prendergast, Jay Walder and Lee Sander — echoed these sentiments. “There are few, if any, projects that match the potential of the BQX to expand opportunity in an equitable way for a wide range of New Yorkers,” the four former MTA heads said in a joint statement. “And we know that light rail, with dedicated right of way and high ridership capacity, is by far the best mode of transit to accomplish that. Our international competitor cities are smartly and successfully investing in that mode of transit, and its encouraging to see New York City taking steps to keep pace on the global stage. Just as important, the BQX will finally put the City of New York in control of its mass-transit destiny by creating a model for impacting millions more in other areas of the ciyt through additional light rail lines.”

As a philosophy regarding light rail planning, no one here is wrong: A true, well-designed light rail network with a strong funding commitment, a realistic price tag and a reasonable construction timeline could give New York City a flexible alternative to the MTA for setting its own transit agenda while increasing access between disparate neighborhoods and across transit deserts. But it shouldn’t take longer for NYC to build an 11-mile line than for Paris to build most of the Grand Paris Express, and the analysis required to create a network simply hasn’t been conducted yet by the city. The BQX is one model, and it’s not a particularly robust one considering the hitches obvious in the new plan. But the seeds of a potential transit future controlled by the city are there if someone wishes to grab them. That’s reason enough to pay attention even if a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted.

For more instant analysis on the new BQX plan, check out this thread of mine on Twitter from Thursday. I cover similar ground but in 240-character bites.

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NYC Transit may put a pause on rolling out Select Bus Service routes for the next few years. (Photo by flickr user Stephen Rees)

With so many moving financial parts these day, it can be tough to keep track of where the MTA stands fiscally. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s state of emergency declaration regarding the subways and his subsequent Subway Action Plan, largely ineffectual so far, has allowed the MTA to bypass traditional procurement channels while adding nearly $1 billion to its expense ledger. Meanwhile, relying on the promise of a strong economy and steady fare revenue, the MTA’s out-year financial projections remain as tenuous as ever, and it seems that some cuts may be on the table.

The story took a few weeks to develop after the MTA released its July Financial Plan last month largely because the cuts are buried throughout, but it broke last week in an article in The Wall Street Journal noting that cost reductions required, in part, to find money for the Subway Action Plan may lead to bus and subway service cuts. Most notably, the MTA may be pausing rollout of Select Bus Service routes for at least four years. Here’s how Paul Berger reported it:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority plans to stop expanding a bus rapid-transit service, reduce bus fare-evasion patrols and cut dozens of positions for subway car cleaning as it seeks $562 million in cost reductions during the next few years.

According to emails reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, some MTA board members are concerned that the authority is taking such cost-savings measures even as it hires more than 1,000 workers under a plan launched last year to improve subway service, known as the Subway Action Plan.

MTA board member Carl Weisbrod, an appointee of Mayor Bill de Blasio, wrote in an Aug. 5 email to fellow board members and senior MTA officials: “It’s hard to escape the conclusion that we’ve giveth with one hand through the Subway Action Plan, and we’ve taketh away, to some extent, through these service cuts.”

In response, MTA Chairman Joe Lhota called the shifting funds a “redeployment of resources,” but a cut is a cut by any name. By holding back on Select Bus Service routes, other than those currently being planned and those needed on 14th Street for bus capacity during the L train shutdown, the MTA saves $28 million, a drop in the $500 million bucket the agency is trying to cobble together. It seems like a Pyrrhic victory as Select Bus Service routes are among the best in the city with touches of a modern bus system, including pre-boarding fare payment and dedicated lanes. So why cut them?

The answer is not quite as black-and-white as it seems, and the MTA may not be cutting off its nose to spite its face. In my view, it takes far too long for the MTA and New York City to roll out Select Bus Service routes. There are far too many hyper-local considerations given far too much weight while the needs of the riders are often backburned by trumped-up concerns over parking spots. We’ve seen this play out again and again and again. So a four-year pause may impact only a handful of routes.

But that’s a bad reason to accept the pause. The better reason is embedded in the MTA’s 500+ breakdown of the financial plan [pdf]. Led by Andy Byford, New York City Transit is currently amidst an analysis and reassessment of the entire citywide bus network. This includes every route, every stop and every 20th century element of the bus network including the boarding process. By 2021, Transit expects to amidst a major rollout of a new fare payment system, and the agency will have completed its review of the bus network. It doesn’t make sense to spend political capital and dollars on rolling out Select Bus Service routes now that may not fit in with the redesigned bus network, and that’s a good enough, but not great, reason to pause so long as the MTA commits to resuming introducing proper SBS (or even real BRT) routes to NYC once the bus turnaround plan is unveiled.

The wild card here though is city politics. Since buses uses city streets, NYC DOT is essentially in charge of permitted Select Bus Service routes, and SBS has become one of the few tools the city has to control its own transportation infrastructure. (Whether the mayor has used this tool efficiently or effectively or frequently enough is open for debate, though I’m sure you know my thoughts.) By pausing SBS rollout and by not informing the city or even working with them to cushion this announcement, the MTA has put itself at odds with the city agency that can by a major ally in pushing forward on the eventual bus turnaround plan. This strikes me as bad city-state politics and a move that could be quite costly down the road.

So ultimately, I think this was a case of bad presentation and mixed messages in a 500-page financial document. The MTA shouldn’t penny-pinch the only good approach to new bus routes over a matter of $28 million spread out over four years, but the agency shouldn’t be introducing new bus routes until it has a handle on how to improve bus service overall on a citywide basis. It’s OK, but not great, to halt Select Bus Service rollout so long as it comes back with a vengeance when the Bus Tunraround plan is unveiled. And if there’s no Bus Turnaround plan, well, that’s a different issue entirely.

Categories : Buses, MTA Economics
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The latest MTA documents include detailed analyses of the anticipated travel patterns during the upcoming L train shutdown.

The dog days of summer are not often busy ones for transit news in New York City. Faulty subway air conditioning usually dominates complaints as the general malaise of sweltering platforms and sub-par service settles in. But this year, with the 2019 L train closure inching ever closer, August will host a transit hearing. Scheduled for Monday at 5 p.m., the MTA will host a public comment session on its latest and greatest Supplemental Environmental Assessment statement concerning the mitigation plans for the L train shutdown.

The document itself has been available online for a few weeks and has a bit of a controversial history as it was not published until well after a group of West Village residents filed a controversial lawsuit against the MTA, NYC DOT and Federal Transit Administration over the L train shutdown. As I wrote in April, I don’t believe this suit has much merit, and in recent court filings, the defendants have argued to dismiss the suit entirely. Essentially, the MTA, NYC DOT and the FTA have all claimed that Arthur Schwartz and his plaintiffs do not have standing, are asserting claims not yet ready for adjudication and/or has gotten the facts wrong in multiple filings.

I’m amused by that last part, but it’s neither here nor there right now. Soon the judge will likely dismiss the case, but it hasn’t been without its successes. Notably, the MTA has axed plans to install a platform edge door trial at the L train’s 3rd Ave. stop to fund ADA upgrades at the L train’s closed stations. This decision was the right one, and it came out directly as a result of the lawsuit.

Second, the feds and the MTA released the Supplemental Environmental Assessment that forms the basis for Monday’s public comment session and was a major element of Schwartz’s lawsuit. With the EA on hand and the finding that the MTA/NYC DOT mitigation plan will be more beneficial to the city while creating to significant adverse impacts, Schwartz’s main claim essentially disappears. He could re-file a suit alleging that the EA is wrong, but judges overwhelming give deference to government agencies in their findings in these types of assessments. It’s unlikely Schwartz was succeed in stopping any of the mitigation plans on substantive grounds so long as the government follows the right procedures in making their determination.

But my legal analysis aside, the EA is an interesting document but not for the reasons you may suspect. By and large, it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know and haven’t heard over and over again from the MTA. It charts in painstaking detail the various mitigation plans (which the MTA distilled into a handy PDF visual a few days ago). But I found a few parts worth examining. First, the main document uses the “temporary” 409 times in about 125 pages. The MTA and FTA have gone out of their way to underscore how the mitigation plans — the 14th St. busway, the bike lanes on adjacent streets, the HOV restrictions across the Williamsburg Bridge, the Brooklyn-Manhattan bus routes, all of it — are temporary. This too is designed to head off a lawsuit claiming the L train shutdown is serving as cover for the city to implement transit improvements without following the painstakingly long and arduous Community Board process. If these measures prove successful, the city should push to make some of them permanent, but that’s a story for another day.

The other part I found interesting is in the appendices [pdf], and it includes a detailed breakdown of the MTA’s alternatives analysis regarding the L train shutdown. Although the MTA had previously told the public that it had considered a one-tube-at-a-time approach to the work or a nights-and-weekends option, the agency had never gone into detail as to why it opted against either of these approaches until this Supplemental Environmental Assessment came out. First, the MTA readily dismissed the nights-and-weekends plan as technically infeasible. The overall timeline for work was up to a decade, and the agency determined that a 55-hour weekend window would be around 25-30 hours too short to ensure the air in the tunnel is free from silica dust, causing service delays well into the work week.

While the one-tube approach survived the first cut, the MTA determined that it failed on additional specific criteria. With just one tube of the L train open, the MTA worried about “severe overcrowding” and would have needed to implement significant mitigation plans as it will next year while completing work in 36 months rather than 15. “The only way to reduce L train overcrowding in this scenario would be to provide a robust alternative service plan of a similar magnitude to the one proposed for the double-track closure,” the document states. Ultimately, the single-track plan fared worse on every analytical criteria, and an overwhelming majority of L train riders preferred the shorter, full-time shutdown. It’s all laid out in print in painstaking detail, largely in response to Schwartz’s claims that the MTA hadn’t conducted (or released) this analysis.

Ultimately, this Supplemental Environmental Analysis document is one the MTA should have released from the get-go with the level of detail contained in the appendices. The agency opened itself up to potential lawsuits by not doing so, and an air of opacity settled around the project. This was a self-inflicted wound and one that should have been avoided. But with the EA public, the dirty laundry has been aired, and legal objections to the L train shutdown and mitigation plans should now be dismissed. And now how about extending that busway all the way across town?

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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On the effect and cause of the MTA’s ridership decline

By · Published in 2018 · Comments (36) ·

A Monday meltdown reinforces why transit ridership is down across NYC. (Source: MTA)

Monday morning dawned in New York City yesterday as it so often does these days: with a total MTA meltdown. The problem this time came about because of a year-long project to fix a stretch of tunnel under 4th Ave. about which the MTA forgot to tell riders and somehow messed up the GO. Thanks to a typo, the D, N and R were all running local and wooden plywood formed a surprising barrier on the express tracks. As complaints on social media piled up and no one knew what was happening, riders flocked to any other possible route — ferries, Ubers, whatever they could find.

Later in the day, the MTA determined that a typo caused the meltdown, and Aaron Gordon did a deep dive into the mess that was. As Gordon discussed, because the work order identified the wrong signal as the end point of the construction zone, D trains were routed onto the local tracks, and the entire 4th Ave. line south of Atlantic Ave. was thrown into disarray. Furthermore, since Transit had scheduled this work as a long-term change, the internal communications staff didn’t realize it required special word to passengers in the form of station posters and announcements. Thus, the powers-that-be at Transit simply didn’t know they needed to make an effort to bring word of these service changes to commuters during rush hour on a Monday morning.

The agency struck an apologetic tone. Sarah Meyer, Transit’s new-ish Chief Customer Officer, issued a lengthy statement about the issue (which notes how the blue wall actually improves service and eliminates the need for flagging). “We deeply apologize for our significant errors today and know that we need to do better,” Meyer (a long-time classmate of mine in elementary and high school) said. “We are working through our policies and procedures to ensure this does not happen again.”

But happen again it does time and time again. As Dave Colon detailed at Curbed (while linking to this post of mine on this very topic from 2011), the MTA constantly fails at communicating basic information about subway delays. As Colon noted, Transit’s twitter account had no update on the issue until 9:17 a.m., at least 40 minutes to an hour after initial reports started trickling in. No one anywhere knew what was happening, and this lag in getting information to the public is a near-daily problem these days.

Now, Monday’s delay was a particularly bad one, but this a long-winding way of getting to another point: Monday’s issue isn’t that rare and is illustrative of declining reliability of subway service and a main driver behind the alarming multi-year dip in ridership I charted last week. Following the release of the raw numbers, during the MTA Board meeting last week, agency executives presented a deep dive on ridership trends. What they unveiled wasn’t surprising: Subway ridership is on target for another two-percent dip this year, and the biggest declines in weekend ridership are from the hours of 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., not coincidentally when service gets less frequent and more likely to be plagued by track work-related changes.

Other than from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., weekday subway ridership is down across the board with the biggest dips in evening and late night travel. (Source: MTA)

It’s hard to find good news in the MTA’s report. The only time ridership has steadily increased has been in the hours between 5 a.m. – 7 a.m., and while the morning rush is still above 2014 levels, by the end of this year, ridership in the 22-hour period from 7 a.m. – 5 a.m. will be at its lowest in six years. Overall, the biggest declines are in the Bronx and Queens, with these boroughs seeing subway ridership fall by 6 percent and 5 percent respectively this year.

Not coincidentally, again, the MTA notes that growth in the usage of for-hire vehicles — the Ubers, Lyfts and Vias of the world — increased markedly in 2017. Growth in FHV usage was 13 percent last year as 63 million more riders used for-hire vehicles in 2017 than in 2016. That’s a larger increase than from 2012-2016 combined, and when combined with the 199 million bike and ferry rides (and the corresponding 6 million rider increase last year), this increase is a one-for-one match with the 69 million rider decline in subway service.

The increase in for-hire vehicle and taxi usage corresponds closely with the dip in subway ridership. (Source: MTA)

So is Uber responsible for the MTA’s ridership dip? That is what MTA Chairman Joe Lhota seems to want the city to believe. As he said last week in response to a question to Dan Rivoli of The Daily News, “Some days, I drink Coke, and some days, I drink Pepsi.” It’s hard to read this as anything other than an attempt to blame personal choice and forces outside of the MTA for the decline in ridership. To me, though, this is both a gross misreading of the situation and an inverting of the cause and effect. The cause of the MTA’s ridership declines isn’t an increase in Uber use; rather, the effect of the MTA’s declining service reliability is an increase in the use of for-hire vehicles.

Notably, the MTA has charted steep declines in outer-borough routes (that is, travel between the boroughs rather than to Manhattan), and that can be explained by long and arduous trips that either require multiple transfers or multiple modes. With VC money still subsidizing for-hire vehicle fares, those New Yorkers who need to take these outer borough trips and can afford a taxi ride do so, particularly when subway service (and communication about that subway service) is a crap shoot. As one Uber rep said to The Wall Street Journal, “The best way to boost subway ridership is to improve service.”

These ridership declines are worrying trends. The spiral will continue to send those with means out of the subway system while New Yorkers who can’t afford alternate travel are left with an unreliable system that costs them time and money in delays and lost wages. The MTA should recognize that the cause is not Uber but rather the service, and Monday’s communications and travel meltdown was just another sign of the depths of the transit crisis.

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After a few months’ delay and some gentle nudging on social media over the past few weeks, the MTA this month finally released detailed ridership figures for 2017, and it’s not hard to see why the agency delayed releasing these numbers, as they usually do, in May. In short, 2017 was not a good year for the New York City Subway (and 2018 is shaping up to worse). The decline echoes with ramifications well beyond the confines of New York City Transit’s budget projections. Let’s dive in.

We’ll start with the bad, and the bad is pretty bad. Following years of unreliable service and constant subway disruptions, ridership dropped for the second consecutive year, and the total 2017 subway ridership was 1.727 billion, down by nearly 30 million riders from 2016. Last year’s figure is still historically high, but it’s the lowest annual total ridership since 2013 when the MTA recorded 1.707 billion passengers. The picture isn’t much prettier this year as, through May, average weekday ridership was down around 1.6 percent and average weekend ridership is off last year’s pace by nearly 6 percent. It’s very likely that 2018 will see the lowest annual subway ridership total since 2012, and this will represent the first four-year decline since 1988-1991 when a recession and rising crime rates led to the ridership decline.

To me, this decline represents a problem. Crime in New York is at historic lows, and the city’s economy and job market are strong. All leading indicators suggest that subway ridership should be booming, not cratering. But it’s not, and it’s worth pondering where these trips are going. By and large, the granular ridership figures show that the decline is generally concentrated in the off-peak and weekend slots. Anecdotally, more New Yorkers simply aren’t leaving their neighborhoods via subways on the weekend, and the city’s economy will be worse off for it. It’s also safe to assume that some people will rely on bikes and bike share while others will use for-hire vehicles or private automobiles. Thus, as subway service grows less reliable and ridership declines, the streets will become more clogged with cars (and the congestion and air quality will be worse). This is not a positive downward spiral, and it’s one with which city politicians should be concerned.

To make matters worse, this decline in total annual subway ridership comes after the MTA spend a few billion dollars to open up the three new stops along Second Ave. (and a few years after the 7 line extension opened). Thus, ridership is declining in spite of more revenue-service track miles. Even though the subways are still crowded — after all, 1.727 billion is still a very high figure in recent NYC history — the trend lines are all trending in the wrong direction. Andy Byford’s plan to rescue the subways becomes more important in this light.

But the news isn’t all bad, and in a roundabout way, we return to the Second Ave. Subway. As I mentioned, the 2017 numbers are the first reflecting the new service, and riders on the Upper East Side are enjoying the benefits. The three new stations along 2nd Ave. combined for over 20 million riders, and the Q’s shared station with the F at Lexington Ave.-63rd St. saw a 25 percent jump in station entries. With hospitals nearby, 72nd St. and 2nd Ave. is already the 40th busiest subway station in New York City.

Take a look at how ridership numbers across the Upper East Side compare year-over-year, and you’ll see the full impact of the 2nd Ave. Subway.

2nd Ave. Subway 2017 Daily Ridership

Station 2016 2017 % Change
Lexington - 63rd (F/Q) 16,988 20,893 +23%
68th St. - Hunter College (6) 35,068 24,456 -30.3%
72nd St. (Q)   28,145  
77th St. (6) 36,103 27,584 -23.6%
86th St. (4/5/6) 64,793 45,882 -29.2%
86th St. (Q)   23,722  
96th St. (6) 26,939 18,983 -29.5%
96th St. (Q)   17,150  

As promised, the Lexington Ave. lines are seeing significantly lighter passenger loads along the East Side while the 2nd Ave. Subway is introducing new riders to the system. A conservative estimate shows approximately 27,000 new riders per day entering the system due to the 2nd Ave. Subway with the potential for more depending upon particular ridership patterns. (For what it’s worth, the M15 buses on 2nd Ave. saw a decline of around 3.7% or 517,000 annual passengers as citywide bus ridership declined by around 5.6%.)

In the first year, the Second Ave. Subway seemed to deliver on its promise to ease overcrowding along the Lexington Ave. lines, and these numbers should serve as ammunition for project proponents as the MTA gears up to deliver Phase 2 to East Harlem. As a counterpoint to my optimism, Aaron Gordon at The Village Voice questioned the Second Ave. Subway in light of ridership figures, but I’m more concerned with the cost and construction timeline for Phase 2 than for its utility. It should be built for a variety of reasons and will bring with it big benefits to areas of Manhattan relatively isolated. (More on that later.)

For now, though, the subways are still crowded, but less so. That “less so” part should scare everyone thinking about the long-term successes and challenges facing New York City. The picture slowly coming into focus isn’t a pretty one if ridership declines aren’t reversed soon.

I’m on vacation, currently in Marrakech after a week in France, so that’s why posting has gone silent. I’ll be back in the States later this week and will attempt to catch up on transit news. There’s been a lot happening lately, all worth some of our attention.

In the meantime, the MTA is finally set to unveil a new website on Monday morning along with a new app that’s supposed to unify and streamline the agency’s various online offerings. I first caught wind of this effort a few years ago and saw an early prototype of the app a few months ago. The bones for something useful were in place then, but the MTA bureaucracy has a way of stymying the best of technological intentions. The proof will be in the pudding come tomorrow.

In the meantime, read James Barron’s preview of the new app and a behind-the-scenes look at the MTA’s social media team in this Times article. It’s worth your time. I’ll have an in-depth look at the new site when in return, but feel free to share your thoughts in the comments to this post once the new site and MYmta app are public come late Monday morning.

Categories : MTA Technology
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Over the past few years, as subway service reliability has declined, New York City Transit has been loathe to take responsibility for the various delays, slow speeds and assorted problems. Instead, they’ve taken to blaming riders, and in particular, the high number of them, for delays. This isn’t particularly satisfying or rider-friendly, and it’s also come across as disingenuous. Delays due to too many riders isn’t a cause; it’s a symptom — a symptom of a poor and unprepared management.

An MTA prepared for increasing ridership, and perhaps an MTA that had noticed trends in the late 1990s and early 2000s and anticipating increasing growth, would have built demand into the system. A modern signal system in place before the current one started to completely break down would have allowed the MTA to ramp up service as ridership increased, but instead, we have a system weighted down by numerous signal timers that limit both train speeds and system capacity, thus leading to overcrowding that can further slow down trains. As I said, it’s a symptom and not a cause.

Now, though, Andy Byford has a plan to stop this victim-blaming. As Dan Rivoli reports in The Daily News today, the new New York City Transit president would like to phase out blaming delays on “overcrowding” and identify instead the root cause of these delays. Rivoli reports:

NYC Transit President Andy Byford and his team are ditching the “overcrowding” category in an overhaul of how information on train delays is collected and reported. Officials will use the data to speed up slow trains and fix spotty service, cutting down on the number of late trains.

Byford, in an interview with the Daily News, called “overcrowding” a “misrepresentation” and “misnomer.” Now, with the MTA in a repair blitz to fix aging equipment that causes major commuting headaches, Byford plans to tackle the small holdups and slowdowns that make for a crummy ride. “They just find that the service is very patchy, it’s very gappy,” Byford said, speaking of commuters. “That’s very frustrating to them. Our trains per hour isn’t as high as the signaling system will permit.”

…MTA board members on Monday will see the new way that delays will be tracked and tallied, which is still a work in progress. The most significant change will be the ambiguous “overcrowding” category, which became the most commonly cited reason for late trains that effectively blamed the riders for suffering subway performance. A new “operating environment” category will now cover many of the overcrowding and unassigned mystery delays.

While seemingly vague sounding, these metrics will have teeth behind them. As Rivoli reports, “operating environment” delays will include delays due to signal timers, and the “right of way” delay category will be axed in favor of one that specifically identifies delays due to failed signals and associated repair work. Much of these changes were driven by Rivoli’s reporting earlier this year when he detailed how the MTA hid the true causes of delays in the “overcrowding” category, and some increased transparency is much welcome.

On the surface, this isn’t a move with a direct impact on most riders. New Yorkers don’t really care why their trains are delayed; they just want to know that fewer and fewer trains will be delayed in the future. That is, however, something the MTA hasn’t been able to promise of late. But this granular level of delay information gets Transit on the right track toward combating delays. It’s easy to ignore delays due to “overcrowding” if you think overcrowding is the root cause of the problem. It’s harder to ignore delays due to signal timers when you know signal timers are the cause of the delays, and it’s easier to combat these delays by identifying and eliminating those signal timers that aren’t absolutely necessary.

These are of course baby steps, but they’re the right baby steps that Byford has to force Transit to take so service can get better in the future. He’s still saying and doing the right things, and as long as he has political cover to act, slowly and surely, he can work the subways out of this crisis. It’s going to be a long ride though, but at least it’s not one delayed by you and me and the 5.6 million other subway riders every day.

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