493_09 Cold weather250 The poster at left — click it to enlarge — has gone up through the subway system. It is a rather innocuous warning about the impending winter. Because snow will slow down above-ground and at-grade subway lines, Transit is warning customers now, before it snows, to allow for travel time on service changes when the snows start to fall.

In cars along the BMT Brighton Line — the Q and the B — a similar sign has gone up in recent weeks. This one — available at the end of this post in full — warns of leaves on the tracks. Because much of the line from Prospect Park to Coney Island is in a tree-covered trench, falling leaves tend to create slippery rail conditions. Trains may experience problems braking, and although not frequent, delays may plague the lines as a result.

For Transit, these two signs represent the new face of customer relations. The agency is trying to keep straphangers in the loop about problems that may crop up along popular subway lines. Yet, as Sewell Chan explored, some people simply do not trust the MTA no matter what. In an article on the sign, Chan managed to track down a bunch of riders who accuse the MTA of making excuses for sub-par service.

“Because of leaves?” one rider, Sylis Gordon, asked incredulously on Wednesday as she waited for the Q train at the Parkside Avenue station. “That’s new.” She looked around her, noticing garbage on the tracks, but said, “There aren’t that many leaves.”

Kate Jassin, 29, a doctoral student at the New School who was waiting for the shuttle at the Prospect Park station, exclaimed: “Delays because of leaves? That’s amazing.”

To counter the problem, the transit agency has operated a vacuum train that sucks up leaves and other debris over the tracks once a week, as well as a special rail-adhesion train that applies “a gritty material that helps create some friction between the wheel and the rail” each night, said James E. Leopard, the line general manager for the B and Q and the Franklin Avenue shuttle.

Mr. Leopard said he decided to post the roughly 500 signs — focusing on 14 stations at or below street level, as well as in subway-car windows — starting in the middle of last month. The signs are to be taken down by early next week.

Now, I don’t believe that Ms. Jassin’s and Ms. Gordon’s comments are indicative of any sort of widespread popular opinion. Plus, these two probably know about as much about running a transit system as I do Medieval French literature. But these comments don’t exist in a vacuum: People — riders, customers, advocates — simply do not trust the MTA.

I believe this sense of distrust comes from Albany. It comes about when Carl Kruger blames the MTA for his own mistakes. It comes about when corrupt comptrollers level false charges of bad booking at the agency, and it comes about because our city and state leaders cannot make the commitment to mass transit that the area requires and demands.

The MTA isn’t creating excuses that aren’t there. Leaves, trash, snow, anything outside can get on the tracks and slow down trains. By knowing ahead of time, most rational riders would simply allow a few minutes. But with the MTA, few in New York are rational, and overcoming this PR problem is just as much a solution toward public acceptance and support as finding $200 million to cover an unexpected budget gap is.

Click through for a full view of the leaves poster. Read More→

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  • Adjusting to the new hybrid buses · As Transit gears up to replace the city’s bus fleet with hybrid vehicles while planning to expand and improve the bus network, the introduction of new technology has not been without its problems. amNew York’s Heather Haddon explored those issues today and found three major areas of concerns. Some of the new Orion hybrids have problems with the heating system that causes spontaneous fires; the acceleration systems are more sensitive than in the current fleet; and the shocks system can sometimes degrade.

    In light of these problems, the MTA and Orion are working to address these concerns. Orion and the transit agency have a $500 million contract for 850 fuel-efficient vehicles, and the MTA has already asked for $1.6 million for late delivery. Officials have already solved the combustion problem, and the hybrids have now received smoother acceleration systems. It’s all a part of the technological growing pains as the authority adapts to a new fleet of buses. · (4)

RecoveryLogo As the MTA financial staff is hard at work readying its budget proposal for Monday’s Finance Committee meeting, transit advocates are trying to come to terms with the latest MTA budget deficit. Although politicians are wrongly blaming the MTA, this latest gap is due to problems in Albany, problems the MTA shouldn’t have been facing if more sensible funding solutions had been implemented in the first place.

To that end, two groups — the Straphangers Campaign and Streetsblog — have proposed two different mechanisms for covering the gap. The Straphangers’ suggestion is a stop-gap aimed at filling this year’s hole while the Streetsblog plan is one with which we are familiar. There’s would be a more long-term solution.

First, the Straphangers plan: In an e-mail yesterday to the MTA Board members, Gene Russianoff expressed his concerns about the looming threat of service cuts. Citing “the harm to riders of service cuts in an already overcrowded system; the new blow to the MTA’s credibility if the agency institutes cuts that the riding public (paying a higher fare since June) were told would not happen; and cuts undermining MTA Chairman Jay Walder’s sensible plans to improve bus service,” he urged the MTA to take some of the uncommitted stimulus money at its disposal to cover the current gap. He wrote:

Use $91 million in federal stimulus funds for service in 2010. The money is there. “The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) received $915 million in stimulus funds. Contracts have been signed for work covering 89 percent of the total,” according to a December 2009 report issued by Gov. Paterson. Federal law permits 10% of the stimulus funds to be spent on operations. Transit systems like the one in St. Louis pressed for this option to maintain service and jobs.

Reprogram for service $50 million in 2010 in “pay-as-you-go” funds. The MTA is planning to spend $50 million in 2010 in operating funds on capital projects. Pay-as-you-go for capital needs is a good goal, but it should not come at the expense of service cuts.

These two sources total $141 million and would be enough to cover all the subway, bus and commuter cuts originally proposed by the MTA earlier this year.

As short-term solutions go, it’s hard to disagree with Russianoff’s plan. I hate to see money used to maintain and expand the system be taken away from that end, but the MTA is legally allowed to use stimulus funds for operating deficits. Right now, avoiding service cuts should be a paramount concern.

For a long-term fix, Streetsblog’s John Kaehny turned his attention to East River Bridge tolls. His warnings are dire:

The net result is that without a new source of funding, the MTA will soon run out of money and options. Let’s take it for granted the MTA will be forced by Albany to engage in desperate new financial sleight-of-hand and “seed corn eating” (capital money going to operating expenses, borrowing against future fare hikes). Let’s further assume the MTA will have to accelerate the fare hikes planned for 2011. If this comes to pass, in about a year the MTA will be out of options and have to cut service so harshly that even Albany will be forced to care.

It will be a political slug fest worth watching. How deep will service have to be cut before the East and Harlem River bridges are tolled? Are tolls dead, or are they actually inevitable?

I’ve long supported tolling the bridges as the most equitable and environmentally friendly approach to MTA funding. The tolls would provide the agency with a dedicated source of revenue and would cut down on driving through areas choked with cars and pollution. I fear the answer to Kaehny’s question. Only when the MTA is on the brink of a financial disaster would New York’s politicians begin to debate bridge tolls. Then, it might be too late to truly save the system.

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Top: A view of the IRT Flushing Line in Queens around the time service began in the 1920s. Bottom: The same view only 20 years later.

Pop quiz: What mode of transportation moved New York City away from a lower Manhattan tenement-based city into the current sprawling metropolis it is today?

A. Our feet. People just loved to walk and discovered that Flushing isn’t actually that far from Manhattan.
B. Automobiles.
C. Public transportation.

Considering the picture atop this pot, is it really a surprise that the answer is C? Although the automobile played a role in driving people away from the overcrowded conditions of Lower Manhattan, the subway — and the five-cent fare — made a dispersal of people to points north and east possible. Without the subway, New York’s eight million residents wouldn’t be able to live in Canarsie and work near Canal St. They wouldn’t commute from Forest Hills to the Financial District or from Midwood to Midtown.

This reality is lost on many in New York and not least upon our city’s elected representatives and politicians who control the purse strings. As the MTA has come to grips this week with a state calculation error of $200 million that will leave a hole in the MTA’s budget, politicians have tried to avoid taking any responsibility whatsoever for this Albany-inspired problem. Take, for example, Brooklyn’s own Carl Kruger.

His statement, in part blames the MTA for Albany’s inability to calculate revenue streams:

Our ability to budget is only as good as our ability to forecast. We were dependent upon data supplied by the Office of Management and Budget with the understanding that it was verified by the MTA’s own fiscal staff.

Furthermore, our projections were based on the fiscal year rather than the calendar year. This critical point should have been taken into account when the MTA fiscal staff developed its parameters.

It is my shared belief that the payroll tax will ‘kick in’ when the dust settles and smaller employers start making their mandatory contributions. It may not happen in the calendar year, but it will happen in the fiscal year. Since our cuts were calculated on a pro rata basis for the fiscal year and not the calendar year, for the MTA to charge its books with a cut of $143 million in the calendar year obviously has a more severe impact than spreading it out over the fiscal year.

Kruger goes on to warn the MTA against creating “an atmosphere of confusion or a needless sense of unrest over what appears to be self-adjusting bookkeeping issues.” I’m not quite sure with what he can threaten the agency though; Albany can’t take away more money.

Anyway, the idea that this is somehow the MTA’s fault due to a calendar year/fiscal year mix-up is absurd. The state legislature has long been aware that the MTA’s fiscal year is a calendar year, and when they passed the bailout package earlier this year, they do so with an eye toward filling a smaller calendar year gap this year and a larger 12-month gap next year. Kruger’s so-called “share belief” that the money will “kick in” next year is nothing but a pipedream by a politician who isn’t fulfilling his duties as a member of the State Senate. (Or perhaps he just fits it with that august body all too well.)

Kruger’s statement is barely news-worthy anymore. We know Albany doesn’t understand how to govern, and we know politicians don’t understand the importance of mass transit in New York’s economy. When they wake up to that reality, it will be too late.

Categories : MTA Economics
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  • Bloomberg: It’s like taking candy from a baby · During a Q-and-A with reporters yesterday, Michael Bloomberg, who has overseen reductions in city contributions to the MTA during his eight years as mayor, got to talking about the latest MTA financial crisis. His comments showed that he understands the source of the MTA’s pain but doesn’t know what to do about it. “I don’t know why anybody is surprised at what is happening to the MTA,” he said. “It’s a piggy bank that keeps getting raided.”

    Bloomberg also understands the overall economic effect the transportation network has on our a region, a topic I explored yesterday. “It’s going to make it very difficult for people who rely on mass transit,” the mayor said. “That hurts our overall economy.” So what, Mr. Mayor, will you do about it? Will you lobby Albany for some accountability? Will you find some way to deliver on congestion pricing? Will you renew a push for East River Bridge tolls? Right now, Bloomberg is all talk and no action.

    In the end, the agency is moving ahead with its budget preparations, an authority spokesman said that the MTA will not raid its capital budget. It could try to shift some capital funds to its operating costs or use up to 10 percent of the federal stimulus funds for the same purpose. Maintenance and construction, though, are too integral to the future of the city to be neglected. “We are not using rebuilding funds,” MTA spokesman Jeremy Soffin said to the Daily News. “We can’t afford to compromise our maintenance and rebuilding program.” · (2)

When news broke early Monday evening that Albany’s MTA bailout would fall $200 million short of expectations, officials at the MTA began to scramble. At the time, agency representatives could not comment on the scope of the measures the MTA would have to take to close a potential budget gap. But in five days, MTA CFO Gary Dellaverson will have to present a balanced budget to the Board’s finance committee. As of now, those at the authority do not know what form the impending service cuts will take.

And service cuts they will be for the MTA has sworn not to raise fares. We could debate the merits of that decision for a while, and once the MTA’s budget adjustments become clear, we will. This morning, though, let’s look back to the MTA’s Doomsday service cuts proposal from last December. Facing a massive budget gap far greater than the one currently looming, the authority proposed a massive package of service cuts and fare hikes. Much of the service cuts were behind the scenes; the authority had proposed nearly $100 million in personnel reductions at levels from upper management to station cleaners.

Yet, the most costly public cuts were those to train and bus service. The service cuts were extensive and inconvenient. To make matters worse, they barely represented much of a cost savings. The plan below was on the table last year. Keep in mind that the dollar figures are a year stale.

  • Terminate the G at Court Square
    Net Annual Savings: $1.9 million
  • Operate the N via the Manhattan Bridge Late Nights
    Net Annual Savings: $390,000
  • Eliminate the W; extend the Q to Astoria Weekdays; operate the N local in Manhattan
    Net Annual Savings: $3 million
  • Eliminate M between Broad Street and Bay Parkway; eliminate Z and J/Z skip-stop service; and operate J local between Jamaica Center and Myrtle Avenue
    Net Annual Savings: $2.4 million
  • Operate 10-Minute headway on B division Weekends
    Net Annual Savings: $5 million
  • 125 percent of seated-load weekday middays and evenings
    Net Annual Savings: $8.4 million
  • 30-Minute Headways 2 a.m.-5 a.m.
    Net Annual Savings: $4.1 million
  • Total Net Annual Savings: $25.19 million

When the MTA proposes service cuts such as these, their aims are political as much as they are practical. These cuts would have impacted an estimated one million passengers a day but represented just a fraction of the $1.2 billion the agency had to find last year. This year, the same slate of cuts would, if we assume a budget gap of $200 million, cover a little over 10 percent of the needed cost savings. It’s a plan with a rather disproportionate impact considering its price tag.

But should we expect anything less? Already, Albany is warning the MTA not to expect another bailout even though these gap, termed “shocking” by Dellaverson, came about due to a state — and not an MTA — accounting error. The MTA has little choice but to cut.

And so we wait until Monday morning when the budgetary axe comes down. I’d prefer to see a fare hike and not service cuts because once the MTA starts cutting service, the agency rarely restores what is lost. Once the W and Z trains are axed, once midday headways increase, once the Lower Manhattan local stations on the BMT Broadway line are shuttered overnight, that’s it. New York won’t see those service return until the city and state drastically rethink their approaches to financing mass transit, and that would be a shame for subway-dependent New Yorkers of all stripes.

Categories : Service Cuts
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  • TWU Updates: New leadership; a whistleblower injury · The Local 100 branch of the Transport Workers Union has elected John Samuelsen to take over the union presidency from Roger Toussaint, according to the Daily News. Samuelsen was running against acting president Curtis Tate on a platform of more direct opposition to the MTA. He is an outspoken critic of the MTA’s appeal of the TWU arbitration award and has spoken of more “direct action” against the agency if the two sides cannot come to an acceptable compromise. As the MTA’s finances worse, Samuelsen will become a major player over the next few months and years.

    In other TWU news, Juan De Los Santos, the union member who tipped off the MTA Inspector General to the problem of idle workers, claims he was shoved off a platform and onto an active track in retaliation for his whistleblowing. The NYPD is currently investigating, but one “police source” told Pete Donohue that De Los Santos may have simply tripped. The discussion on Subchat amongst some union members is decided mixed here. · (2)
  • Underground Signs granted MTA sign license · A few weeks ago, I came across a site called Underground Signs selling replicas of the now-famous Massimo Vignelli-designed subway signs ubiquitous underneath the streets of New York. I figured the MTA’s intellectual property team would swiftly crack down on them, and a few weeks later, the agency contacted the site about some rights violations. This story, though, has a happy ending.

    As CityRoom’s Jennifer 8. Lee reported yesterday, Trevor MacDermid and Michael De Zayas were granted a license to sell replica signs. The MTA will earn 10 percent of all signs, but the two can use all subway station names and the subway bullets as well. “This is going to be a win-win,” De Zayas said.

    Signs run from $99 for a column-sized 12-incher to $400 for an eight-foot-long replica wall hanger. The two have put up a photogallery, and if anyone is looking for gift ideas for their subway-obsessed loved ones, Underground Signs is a great starting point. · (6)

Early yesterday evening, news broke of a state error concerning revenue generated from the payroll tax that was supposed to bailout the MTA. Although up until last week, the state had been maintaining its initial figures, collection totals were $200 million off pace, and with a state appropriations cutback of $143 million going into effect, the MTA will end the year with $343 million less than expected.

Even though the state accountants are to blame for this large gap, for many New Yorkers, it will just be another arrow in the quiver of barbs to launch at the MTA. The agency, they say, cannot be trusted with any money because it all just disappears. Here, that’s not true, and as an agency spokesman said to me, Monday’s revelations represented “significant unraveling of the rescue package passed by the Legislature in the spring.” Twenty percent of the money promised by the state to the MTA just simply is not there.

The MTA and the state will now have to battle it out for funds, and the MTA will probably end up losing. Although they say they will do everything within their powers to avoid an unplanned 2010 fare hike, they might have to cut services across the board and will have to engage in serious internal belt-tightenin”

On the flip side, the MTA will be asked to do more. The agency will be asked to shuttle more people around New York City while relying on infrastructure that is badly in need of some major capital investments. The agency will be asked to provide more service to underserved areas, and more reliable and frequent service to those transit-rich neighborhoods. More, more, more is squaring off against less, less, less.

It is undeniable that the MTA is the engine that drives much of New York’s economy. The city is entirely dependent upon the subways for its transportation needs. Over seven million New Yorkers ride the subways each week day while Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road each carry approximately 300,000. The MTA’s bridges and tunnels see just 800,000 toll trips per day. It is clear that the city’s road network and geographical reach make the subway the prime people mover in this urban area.

Outside of the city, the MTA’s economic reach extends throughout the state. As the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA noted during its statement last week on the MTA’s capital plan, “more than 60 municipalities through out the state of New York benefit from the MTA’s Capital Program through subcontractors for subway, bus and rail cars.” The 2005-2009 capital plan, they say, leveraged around $42.1 billion in economic activity from an original investment of $24 billion. The state, though, will not pledge to cover a $10 billion capital gap just as they can’t put together a proper bailout package to fund the MTA’s operations budget gap.

Still, forces conspire against a financially strapped MTA. As the agency’s fiscal picture heads further south, a group angling for TWU leadership posts is threatening “direct action” if the authority does not honor the arbitration award. The union leaders are simply upholding their duties to protect and defend their workers, but it is but another demand on money the MTA does not have. Somehow, the MTA is expected to find $300 million more every year for employee salary and benefits raises.

In the end, where will a looming financial Armageddon take us? The MTA is too important to fail, and it’s too important to roll back services. Maybe we’ll have skyrocketing fares, but more likely, we’ll have sensible funding mechanisms such as congestion pricing and East River Bridge tolls. For now, though, the MTA continually has to make do with less and less from the state while providing more and more for its workers and the millions of customers each day who rely on it for basic transportation needs. Something has to give.

Categories : MTA Economics
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The Metropolitan Transportation Authority will end 2009 where it begin: amidst a financial crisis that could lead to service cuts — but hopefully no fare hikes — in 2010.

In an e-mail to the MTA Board members this afternoon, MTA CFO Gary Dellaverson said that, in addition to the $143 million in state appropriations cuts, the MTA is now facing the reality of a shortfall in the payroll tax collections that will reach approximately $200 million. In total, the MTA’s 2009 revenue totals will miss expectations by $343 million, and although the agency can roll this cuts over into 2010, the MTA faces, in the words of Dellaverson, some “very difficult choices” as it prepares its balanced budget for next year.

“Receipts from the recently enacted mobility tax now appear to be under-running projections by about $200 million for this calendar year,” Dellaverson said. “This is a shocking development both because of the magnitude of the under-run (about 20%) and the late date of its discovery. As recently as last week, the State was continuing to advise us of their comfort with the forecast. We do not yet know what is causing these disappointing results. While compliance and timing may be a part of the answer, there is a substantial disconnect from the current performance of other similar tax sources.”

MTA officials were prepared for the original $143 million in state cuts, but this new shortfall caught them by surprise. “It’s the extra $200 million that’s really painful,” MTA spokesperson Jeremy Soffin said.

Although the MTA has long borne the brunt of a public skeptical of its ability to manage its own finances, officials at the agency and outside transit watchdogs stressed the state’s role in this new found gap. Jeremy Soffin called it, a “significant unraveling of the rescue package passed by the Legislature in the spring.”

Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign was more pointed in his ire toward Albany. “The Campaign,” he said in a statement, “calls on Governor Paterson to investigate whether New York State Department of Taxation and Finance has adequately administered and enforced the new payroll tax and on the MTA to redouble its efforts to find new administrative savings and financial actions that will maintain current fare and service levels in 2010. In 2010, both the governor’s office and the State Legislature are up for election. Hundreds of thousands of riders will not take kindly to broken promises on decent and affordable transit.”

While we await a state response to this Albany accounting error, the MTA is springing into action. The agency’s fiscal year ends at the end of the calendar year, and the Board is under a legal obligation to approve a balanced budget before the end of the month. Furthermore, the agency has committed to avoid a fare hike in 2010 but has plans to raise fares in 2011 and 2013. “It remains our intentions to stick with that understanding on the fare schedule,” Soffin said.

So the agency will look to roll this budget problem into 2010, and as Dellaverson turns his gaze internally, agency spokespeople could not say how the MTA would cover a gap. Service cuts remain on the table, and Jay Walder, the new CEO and Chairman, will continue his initiative to “overhaul with how the MTA does business.”

Furthermore, the MTA is now putting a $350 million bond issuance on hold until the agency board has a chance to review the budget.

All in all, this news caps a turbulent fiscal year for the MTA, and it is news we all could have done without. The agency has promised to “be as transparent as possible about where we were, what caused the situation and what we’re trying to do,” and Dellaverson will have an updated budget proposal when the Board’s Finance Committee meets next Monday.

Still as the authority looks for guaranteed revenue sources, as state calculations continue to fail, the East River Bridges remain free, and congestion pricing is but a glimmer in the eyes of transit advocates. As 2009 nears its end, this story is far from over.

Categories : MTA Economics
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