A Brooklyn streetcar roams the streets of San Francisco. (Photo by flickr user phrenologist)

Once upon a time, Brooklyn was the borough of streetcars. Powered by catenary wires, this ubiquitous green cars would take Brooklynites from one end of the borough to another. With the advent of the automobile and the rise of buses, streetcars become obsolete. The tracks were ripped up and the wires torn down.

Now, though, New York officials are making sounds about a streetcar revival in Brooklyn. A few weeks ago while speaking in Toronto, NYC Department of Transportation head Janette Sadik-Khan praised the streetcar revival currently sweeping the nation. Streetcars, says, Sadik-Khan could streamline intra-borough transit while encouraging people to take advantage of their neighborhoods. “In Portland they just started a new streetcar and were able to leverage $3-billion in investment,” she notes. “We need to rebalance the transportation network and make it as efficient and effective as possible.”

Last week, Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic unveiled a very comprehensive study of potential streetcar routes in Brooklyn. Freemark analyzed current transportation patterns in the borough and proposed the following as a potential streetcar route. (Click the map to enlarge.)

It is a very appealing vision, and it’s easy to see how Freemark’s network fits in with my proposed Select Bus Service qualifications. These streetcar lines connect various subway routes at points deep in the borough, and they bring transit to underserved areas. This scheme offers up the option to connect into Queens, and the line terminating at Starrett City could easily extended out to JFK Airport.

There are of course very real objections to streetscars and very persuasive arguments in their favor. This came last summer when we discussed America’s streetcar renaissance. I’ll rehash them from this comment thread.

First, streetcars are clean technology. They rely on electrical power and do not emit exhaust. Buses on the other hand are only at their environmental best when full. Otherwise, they are historically inefficient automobiles. Streetcars encourage development along their routes; they run faster; and they eliminate some congestion by discouraging short-distance driving.

On the other hand, unless a city builds a dedicated right-of-way, these streetcars are beholden to surface traffic patterns. They can’t maneuver around accidents or traffic the way a bus can, and the catenary wires are rather unsightly in an urban environment. With the right-of-way, they aren’t appreciably more cost-efficient than bus rapid transit systems.

As Freemark notes, a streetcar system would require a serious transit investment. It would require infrastructure and rolling stock as well as a drastic overhaul of the Brooklyn streetscape. While we might want to toy with the idea, for now, it just might be a pipe dream

Categories : Brooklyn
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  • Handicapping the MTA leadership race · Elliot Sander is out as the MTA CEO and executive director on May 22. Dale Hemmerdinger’s term as MTA Chair ends in June. As David Paterson searches for a candidate, various transit-watchers are handicapping the race. Yesterday, I noted a three-way race between Marc Shaw, Tim O’Toole and Nathaniel Ford. Today, amNew York’s Heather Haddon adds a few more names to the mix. Haddon reports that Beverly Scott, CEO of Atlanta’s MARTA, is on the short list but isn’t interested in the New York position. She also notes that Richard Ravitch and former MTA CFO Jay Walder may be considered.

    While Shaw is seemingly Paterson’s top pick, he appears to represent the status quo at a time when Albany wants to move away from more of the same with the MTA. In fact, Senator Martin Dilan, head of the Senate Transportation Committee, has vowed to block Shaw from the job. I’d go with Ravitch right now. · (3)

As the political turmoil and debate over the future of the MTA recedes into the past of last week, I’m going to take some time today to talk about some future expansion plans for New York City’s transportation network. The later post will be published this afternoon, and both will focus on surface options rather than underground rail plans.

Our tale this morning starts in the Bronx with something called Select Bus Service. This program is a joint pilot effort between the MTA and New York City’s Department of Transportation. It features dedicated bus lanes and pre-boarding fare payment systems. It has resulted in a 24 percent decrease in travel times, and passengers along Fordham Road love the service.

Next year, as part of this so-called Phase I rollout, Select Bus Service will come to Manhattan. Sections of First and Second Avenues are slated for service. Now, as I’ve discussed now and then in the past, this bus rapid transit system along Second Ave. is a bit of a lightening rod. Opponents of the Second Ave. Subway see it is a viable and cheaper alternative to the expensive and oft-delayed subway line. In terms of capacity, though, a subway line trumps bus service, and for now, the two modes of transportation are both slated for the same avenue.

Eventually, Phase I will include service along Nostrand Ave. in Brooklyn, along Hylan Boulevard and into Bay Ridge from Staten Island and access to the Jamaica Center hub. Each borough will have its own Select Bus Service within a few years.

In an effort to expand the program to the five boroughs, NYC DOT recently announced plans for a series of workshops this summer in advance of Phase 2 of the Select Bus Service program. Streetsblog broke the news last week. The Department of Transportation will host seven workshops across the five boroughs in an effort to identify as many as 10 routes for future Select Bus Service.

As part of the pre-launch for Phase 2 planning, NYC DOT has released an unnecessarily large and poorly optimized PDF file explaining the needs of the city and the goals of the program. In a nutshell, DOT wants to target areas that are both underserved by preexisting transit options and areas that are suffering through overcrowding. They want to target high-traffic streets with the goal of reducing congestion as well.

There are though some obvious problems with the preliminary Phase 2 plans. The maps in the PDF are very borough-centric. While Staten Island SBS connects into Brooklyn and some Bronx service connects to Manhattan, rare are the buses that run legitimate interborough routes. Mostly, these Select Bus lines drop people off at preexisting subway stops and do not offer a real alternative for a ride through Queens and into Midtown.

I have a series of suggestions, then, for the planners of Select Bus Service:

  1. First, these routes clearly, as I just said, need to be more than just feeder routes. A Select Bus route up Flatbush Ave., for example, should cross the Manhattan Bridge and run more than just a few blocks into Manhattan. It shouldn’t just be an easier way to get to the Atlantic-Pacific hub. It should be an easier way to get into Midtown.
  2. At the same time, some Select Bus routes should be planned as subway connectors. Right now, the Fordham Road SBS service connects to nine different subway lines. Woodhaven Boulevard, for example, could support SBS that connects a series of subway lines and leads to JFK Airport.
  3. The easiest way to accomplish point two would be to implement SBS along the Circumferential route. Such a route would intersect nearly every subway line and would bring riders from Brooklyn through Queens and into the Bronx faster than any subway could
  4. Feed the airports. This is obvious.
  5. Install physically separated lanes, priority signaling and automated lane enforcement efforts. The latter would require action in Albany.

New York City is clearly at a transit crossroads. It needs innovative leaders willing to lobby for plans that challenge the status quo. DOT and the MTA have a blank slate in the form of Select Bus Serivce, and how they proceed this summer will dictate the future of surface transit in the city for the foreseeable future.

Categories : Buses
Comments (12)
  • Paterson considering Shaw for MTA post · It was just yesterday afternoon when I wrote how the Senate Democrats will probably not approve Marc Shaw as the head of the MTA. So how does Gov. David Paterson respond to this political threat? By intimating that he is considering Shaw. According to Politicker NY’s Jimmy Vielkind, Shaw is on the short list of potential candidates to head the the post-Sander/Hemmerdinger MTA. I’d rather see someone else — say, Richard Ravtich — and the Democrats in the Senate would too. According to Elizabeth Benjamin, Tim O’Toole, the one-time director of the London Underground, and Nathaniel Ford, the CEO and executive director of the San Francisco MTA arealso on the short list. If Paterson wants another fight over the direction of the MTA, he’ll get it if he goes with Shaw. · (4)

Does the city need someone to staff these ubiquitous booths?

When the MTA Board met yesterday to approve a reduced fare hike, the authority’s governing body also discussed, albeit briefly, the service cuts that made up part of the Doomsday budget. While the so-called cuts to the public — the elimination of subway lines, the planned reduction in off-peak, weekend and overnight service — are off the table, I was surprised to learn that the MTA still plans to axe hundreds of station agent jobs throughout the system.

As I reported in January, the plans to cut the station booths were a stealth move by the MTA. The agency stopped filling vacancies last month and is hoping to phase out around 800 station agents and shutter around 42 booths. While every station will still have an open, manned booth with a token clerk in it, the red vest program will end, and some one-way stations — an uptown platform with no crossover to a downtown train, for example — will have no employees at all.

During yesterday’s fare hike hearing, union leaders and station workers were apoplectic over these cuts. Andreeva Pinder, TWU Local 100’s VP for stations, defended the station agents. “I’ve meant the different between living and dying,” she said.

Pinder discussed how she and other station agents have helped people in need who come in off the streets, how they can aid confused passengers and how they contribute to the overall safety of the stations. She was pretty outraged by the cuts. “What in the hell are you thinking about?” she asked the MTA Board as she finished her remarks.

Kendra Hill, another station agent and TWU Local 100 member, defended the station agents as well. “A MetroCard vending machine cannot help a parent with a stroller. A turnstile cannot give directions to lost travelers,” she said.

Initially, my reaction to Hill one of cynicism. It’s true that a turnstile can’t give directions, but in my experiences, neither can many station agents. While Pinder tells a story about her helping people, the news covers the tales when station agents do nothing in the face of danger.

What if, though, those stories make headlines because they are far more compelling than the alternate? Who wants to read a feel-good piece in The Post that says “Station agent helps lost straphanger find her way”? Dale Hemmerdinger, the chairman of the MTA Board, put it best yesterday. “Unfortunately, it’s human nature to remember only when something doesn’t work, and in that regard, we’re a very easy target,” he said.

So maybe the station agents do help out, but maybe, as I’ve written in the past, they serve a deterrent purpose. Simply by putting someone in the station, the MTA can deter fare-jumpers and would-be criminals. Simply by alerting riders to the presence of someone with a uniform, the MTA is creating second thoughts.

Of course, this doesn’t seem to stop would-be taggers and graffiti artists. It doesn’t stop people from littering or relieving themselves in subway stations. It may stop major crimes, but quality-of-life violations continue unabated.

When the MTA cuts the station agents, they plan to keep open the turnstiles at unstaffed stations. Fare-jumping could become rampant, and the cuts — some $52 million annually — will be eroded by petty crime. Soon enough, we’ll find out if it’s worth it. I’m not so sure it is.

Categories : Service Cuts
Comments (12)
  • Senate dems: Shaw a non-starter as MTA head · Earlier this morning, as the MTA Board voted to approve a lesser fare hike, many of the board members said their farewell to outgoing CEO and Executive Director Elliot Sander. As the MTA gears up for life after Sander, rumors are swirling in Albany surrounding the future head of the MTA. For months, we’ve heard Marc Shaw’s name pop up as the possible replacement. Not so fast, say the Senate Dems.

    According to Post columnist Frederic U. Dicker, the Senate Democrats considering Shaw’s potential nominee to be “laughable.” According to Dicker’s sources, Shaw tried to undermine the Senate’s power by changing the language and audit requirements in the MTA bill. As such, reports Daily News writer Elizabeth Benjamin, they don’t trust him to guide the authority as they see fit and probably wouldn’t approve him as head.

    I have another problem with Shaw: He was the one in charge of the MTA when Gov. Pataki forced the agency to pay for everything on credit. From 1996-2001, the years during which the MTA built up this massive debt they now have to down, Shaw did little to stop it. Should we really trust him to front the agency through a financial crisis of his making? · (4)

Earlier this morning, the MTA Board approved a series of measures designed to rollback their Doomsday plan. Service to the public will not be cut, and while the station agents may be slashed, the fare hikes have been rolled back as well. Instead of a 25-30 percent hike, fares will go up by around 10 percent. The new fares are scheduled to go into effect on June 28.

“Today we implemented a bittersweet solution that comes with additional pain for our customers, our employees and those who live and work in our region,” said H. Dale Hemmerdinger, Chairman of the MTA Board. “But it will – at least for the short term – prevent the Armageddon that loomed large when we last met.”

“The fare and toll increase passed today is not ideal, but it spares our customers from actions that would have been extraordinarily painful,” said Elliot G. Sander, MTA Executive Director and CEO. “Implementing severe fare increases and deep service cuts directly contradicts the MTA’s mission and my goals as CEO. It is a great relief to know we will be able to continue providing the service our customers expect at an affordable price.”

The fare structure is as follows:

Fare Type Current New Change
Base Fare $2.00 $2.25 12.5 %
Bonus and Buy-In 15 % at $7.00 ($1.74) 15 % at $8.00 ($1.96) 12.5 %
1-Day Pass $7.50 $8.25 10 %
7-Day Pass $25.00 $27.00 8 %
14-Day Pass $47.00 $51.50 9.6 %
30-Day Pass $81.00 $89.00 9.9 %

For more from the fare hike board meeting, you can replay my morning liveblog.

Categories : Fare Hikes
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Categories : Fare Hikes
Comments (2)

West of the Hudson River lies an area of New York State far removed from New York City. Rockland and Orange Counties have far more in common with Northern Jersey and Pennsylvania than they do with the other, closer regions in the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation District.

For years, those two districts have had a love-hate relationship with the rest of the state over the MTA. The station at the rural end of the Port Jervis line is over two hours away from Penn Station, and the rolling stock belongs to New Jersey Transit. On paper, Metro-North is responsible for the stations and the service, and as such, Rockland and Orange Counties contribute generously to the MTA.

In fact, these two counties carry more than their fair share of the tax burden. Some studies have reported that Rockland County pays $42 million more to the MTA than the service it receives is worth. Orange county carries a similar burden.

Since these two counties have some access to Metro-North and general MTA services, the payroll tax soon to be levied among business in the 12 MTA counties is heading to Rockland and Orange as well. County representatives are very unhappy about it, and politicians in both Rockland and Orange Counties want out of the MTA.

Duchess County officials are not too happy about it either. Duchess County receives more service than Rockland and Orange Counties and won’t be able to talk their way out of this one. “The passing of the payroll tax is absolutely unacceptable,” County Legislature Chairman Roger Higgins said. “It’s the talk of the town and I think representatives in Albany rally need to hear from us.”

East of the city, the general consensus sounds similar. Officials in Huntington on Long Island expressed their dismay with the taxation impact of the MTA rescue plan as well.

This is, in the end, a messy political issue, and the two counties’ endgames are questionable. Rockland officials say the payroll tax will cost the businesses in the county $18.5 million a year. They want something in return. In the past, more service has been a good enough carrot for those counties, but this time, they may want out.

It’s highly doubtful that anyone in Albany will heed their complaints. The MTA, after all, needs the money, and as long as the state refuses to implement sensible transit reform within New York City, the counties outside of it will carry a disproportionate tax burden.

For now, this is just another in a growing line of stories about the flawed rescue package. Eventually, these pleas won’t make headlines, but the dissent will sit there. Next time the legislature has to address transportation issues, these upstate counties won’t be willing to shoulder more burden, and this problem will merely grow and grow and grow.

Editor’s Note: Don’t forget about the 10 a.m. liveblog. I’ll be covering the MTA Board as those overseeing the transportation authority vote to rollback the service cuts and fare hikes. I’ll be taking reader questions then as well.

Categories : MTA Politics
Comments (15)
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