• 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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  • A bus ride quieter than most · I currently live on the second floor of a building on 7th Ave. in Park Slope. Although the B67 doesn’t run when I want to, it runs often enough to make its presence known throughout the day. It noisly pulls up, sometimes idling at the traffic light, sometimes slowing down to make a stop, and it is loud. With a new generation of buses, though, the MTA hopes to solve that problem.

    In late August, Transit announced a pilot program featuring turbine hybrid buses These DesignLine vehicles are both environmentally friendly and very quiet. At the time, Transit had planned a 90-day trial with a decision to order more of these buses coming shortly after the test runs wrapped up, and right now, three of these buses are in service in Brooklyn and Mahattan.

    No decision has yet been reached to order 87 more of these buses at a cost of $559,000 per vehicle, but as the MTA gears up to invest in a four-year, $1.96 billion effort to replace 2500 old buses, the DesignLine vehicles are receiving their fair share of praise. Michael Grynbaum spoke to those who have ridden the DesignLine buses, and in general, the people approve. The drivers noted the smoother acceleration, and the passengers were appreciative of the quieter ride. Now if only the city would do something about the painfully slow crosstown trips. · (20)

A fancy new bus won’t held speed up the crosstown travel time.

One of the great aspects about New York City’s bus network is how extensive it is. Every major artery in the city and many minor ones have bus routes that run throughout most of the day. But for more trafficked routes — those that mirror subway lines along Manhattan’s, Queens’, Brooklyn’s and the Bronx’s major roads — speed is a problem. Because the city does not have dedicated bus lanes, because police do not enforce marked bus lanes and because cars unnecessarily fill the streets, buses simply are not a viable means of crosstown travel.

Every year, the Straphangers Campaign hands out its Pokey award to the city’s slowest bus, and this year, the M42 took home the honors. It achieved, they said, an average speed of 3.7 miles per hour at noon on a weekday. For many of us, that’s a brisk walking pace.

Last week, Pete Donohue tested that claim and found that the bus is, in reality, even slower. Due to cars, trucks and vans double parking or using the bus lane, what should be a convenient ride across the street is far from it. He writes:

On just one rush-hour ride last week, nearly two dozen vehicles were parked or idled in the bus-only lane, which stretches roughly from Ninth to Third Aves.

The entire trip, from First to 12th Aves., is just over 2 miles. The trip took 43 minutes, even on a day when traffic was much lighter than usual. The average speed: approximately 2.85 mph, slower than the average person walks…

“If the lanes were clear, it would make it a lot easier to go across town,” [M42 driver Vincent] Mashburn said. “No delays. No one blocking us. We could come in, pick up passengers and move.”

During Donohue’s crosstown experiment, he saw empty police vans and patrol cars blocking the bus lane. He witnessed a line of taxis and livery cabs parked in a bus lane outside of Port Authority, and he saw a U.S. Postal Service truck and other assorted delivery vans blocking the bus’s progress.

The police vans, while not a new problem, are particularly distressing. Who is going to follow the bus lane rules if police are openly flaunting them? The same holds true for the postal service as well.

In the end, Donohue’s experience is not an isolated one. Buses are inefficient for crosstown travel and downright painful for long distances. His article underscores the need for camera enforcement and physically separated bus lanes. The MTA and NYC DOT are engaged in an extensive effort to bring bus rapid transit service to the city, and those planning would do well to read Donohue’s article and pay careful attention to the lessons in it.

Categories : Buses
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MobileDevices As mobile device use permeates our society and smartphone penetration rates soar, application development has become the wave of the present. From the mundane — the weather, the nearest restaurants — to the complex — what subway car should I ride in if I want to exit efficiently at another station — mobile applications have revolutionized the way urban dwellers interact with their cities.

This weekend, The Times explored the onslaught of applications in an article about the inner workings of the Apple iPhone Application store. With low barriers to entry, low development costs and the opportunities to realize a high profit margin, programmers continue to search for ways to make life more convenient for those who carry advanced mobile devices.

Enter urban governments. For years, government operated not quite in secrecy but not with great transparency. Before the Internet Age ushered in a digital way of life, condensing and synthesizing data was simply too onerous for the work. But now that information and records are kept online, government agencies are suddenly finding themselves besieged with requests to make the information available. Some governments, in fact, are complying with the requests, writes Claire Cain Miller in today’s Times.

“It will change the way citizens and government interact, but perhaps most important, it’s going to change the way elected officials and civil servants deliver programs, services and promises,” Gavin Newsom, San Francisco’s mayor, said. “I can’t wait until it challenges and infuriates the bureaucracy.”

Miller talks more about this push for more publicly-available data:

Advocates of these open-data efforts say they can help citizens figure out what is going on in their backyards and judge how their government is performing.

But programmers have had trouble getting their hands on some data. And some activists and software developers wonder whether historically reticent governments will release data that exposes problems or only information that makes them look good.

It is too early to say whether releasing city data will actually make civil servants more accountable, but it can clearly be useful. Even data about mundane things like public transit and traffic can improve people’s lives when it is packaged and customized in an accessible way — a situation that governments themselves may not be equipped to realize.

So what does this have to do with the MTA? Well, although Newsom is waiting for this drive toward openness to infuriate the bureaucracy, we have already seen it in practice here in New York. In September, I wrote a lengthy piece about the MTA’s struggles in an age of open information. At the time, they were battling Chris Schoenfeld, creator of the Station Stops iPhone App (and an advertiser here) as well as a few other application developers over information that was not really theirs to copyright.

The MTA has long held a reluctance to release application-ready data such as schedules because the agency doesn’t want to become responsible in the eyes of the public when the applications offer up improper or wrong information. On the one hand, the MTA’s rationale seems to be somewhat sound, but the other, it is a weak defense against the opportunities afforded developers and, by extension, the public were the agency to release detailed schedules, maps, exit locations, etc. The possibilities are truly endless.

As Miller’s article notes, government agencies often do not have the capacity to offer up mobile applications as sophisticated as those developed by private programmers. It’s not a part of the part of the expertise expect of, say, transit experts, and we need not look further than the MTA’s current website for validation of that fact.

Meanwhile, under Jay Walder’s short tenure as CEO and Chairman and at the command of Albany, the authority has begun to release more materials about board meetings and the agency’s finances. The rest of their data — the currency of developers who want to improve everyday life while making a few bucks — shouldn’t be far behind.

Categories : MTA Technology
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  • When to catch the Nostalgia Train · As reported last week, Transit is running the holiday Nostalgia Train every Sunday this month. Some people riding along the Sixth Ave. line will be pleasantly surprised when the train shows up; others want to know the times. Luckily, Subchat has a timetable. According to one poster there, the trains will leave 2nd Ave. every 90 minutes starting at 10:01 a.m. The last ride to Queens Plaza departs at 4:01 p.m. The trains leave Queens Plaza starting at 10:44 a.m. and continuing every 90 minutes until the last train departs at 4:44 p.m. If you hurry, there’s still time to catch the last few rides today. · (3)

Check out this video from City Harvest. As part of their efforts at reminding New Yorkers not to waste food during the holiday season, they loaded up a subway car full of apples and filmed it arriving at the shuttle platform at Grand Central.

Well, not really. The apples are computer-generated, but the ad, shot entirely on an iPhone camera, looks pretty slick. It certainly gets the point across. Draftcb, the agency behind this subway-themed public service announcement, put out a video showing how they put this one together. Watch it after the jump.

Read More→

Categories : Subway Advertising
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As I mentioned last Friday, with tourists and the holiday come far fewer weekend service changes. Since this is the first weekend of the month, Transit, as part of an effort to better prepare riders for the travails of weekend travel, sent out a glance ahead at this month’s major projects, and for the most part, the changes are rather non-disruptive.

The full release is available here, but even the highlights aren’t that major. Most of the projects impact stations at outer reaches of the outer boroughs, and those that do impact the central travel corridors are wrapped up this weekend or next. By the time tourists descend upon Manhattan, subway service will be near normal. It almost makes me appreciate the throngs of tourists who pack midtown.

Anyway, you know the drill. Don’t forget to check out our map from Subway Weekender that shows just how the subway changes impact travel. Download this week’s version right here or by clicking on the image below. Remember: These weekend service changes come to me from the MTA and are subject to change without notice. Check signs in your local station and listen for on-board announcements for up-to-the minute changes. The specific alerts follow.

Uptown service on the R/W line is restored at Cortlandt St. as of November 25, 2009. The downtown platform remains closed. (Ed. note: For more on the reopening of Cortlandt St., check out this post.)

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, December 5 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 7, Manhattan-bound 2 trains skip Burke and Allerton Avenues, Pelham Parkway, and Bronx Park East due to track cable work.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, December 4 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 7, there are no 5 trains between Dyre Avenue and 149th Street-Grand Concourse due to installation of communications equipment. Free shuttle buses and 2 trains provide alternate service.

From 4 a.m. Saturday, December 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday, December 6, Manhattan-bound 7 trains skip 111th, 103rd, 90th, and 82nd Streets due to track panel installation.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, December 5 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 7, uptown A trains run express from 125th to 168th Streets due to the track chip-out near 163rd Street.

From 10:30 p.m. Friday, December 4 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 7, free shuttle buses replace A trains between Far Rockaway and Beach 98th Street due to station rehabs at Beach 67th Street, Beach 44th Street, and Beach 25th Street.

From 6:30 a.m. to midnight, Saturday, December 5 and Sunday, December 6, uptown C trains skip 135th, 155th, and 163rd Streets due to the track chip-out near 163rd Street.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, December 5 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 7, uptown D trains run local from 125th Street to 145th Street due to the track chip-out at 163rd Street. (The D replaces the suspended C at 135th Street.)

From 5 a.m. Saturday, December 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday, December 6, Coney Island-bound D trains run on the N line from 36th Street to Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue due to track panel installation at 20th Avenue.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, December 5 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 7, Manhattan-bound E trains skip Van Wyck Boulevard due to cable work south of Parsons Blvd.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, December 5 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 7, Manhattan-bound F trains skip Sutphin and Van Wyck Blvds. due to cable work south of Parsons Blvd.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, December 5 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 7, Manhattan-bound F trains run express on the E from Roosevelt Avenue to 5th Avenue-53rd Street; trains resume on the F route at 47th-50th Sts. due to signal and track work.

This isn’t one of the service advisories the MTA sent to me, but the G is actually running all the way to Forest Hills this weekend. I guess the stars are aligned just right for once this year.

From 5 a.m. Saturday, December 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday, December 6, the last stop for some Coney Island-bound N trains is Kings Highway due to track panel installation at 20th Street.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, December 5 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 7, Coney Island-bound Q trains skip Avenue J due to station rehabilitation.

– Rockaway Shuttle
From 10:30 p.m. Friday, December 4 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 7, there are no S trains to Rockaway Park due to station rehab work at Beach 67th, Beach 44th, and Beach 25th Streets. Customers should take the A instead.

Categories : Service Advisories
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  • So who hates the new Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Mobility Tax? · Why, everyone! The Mid-Hudson News says Dutchess County lawmakers want to repeal the tax, and the Times Herald-Record notes how Orange County business owners ripped into MTA CEO and Chair Jay Walder over the financial impact of the tax. The Poughkeepsie Journal, meanwhile, urges the state to overturn the tax because it overburdens businesses outside of the city who don’t enjoy nearly the same levels of public transit as the city does. At the same time, the paper urges the city to adopt either congestion pricing or East River Bridge tolls as more equitable funding routes.

    In a nutshell, these folks outside of the city are both right and wrong. Businesses and counties outside of the city benefit from having a fully-funded MTA and would probably lose more than they give up in taxes if the MTA’s transportation network failed. But at the same time, congestion pricing and East River Bridge tolls are both more equitable and better for the environment than a payroll tax. Those ideas will one day be implemented, and as more representatives out of the city witness the pains of the payroll tax, they can begin to put pressure on the state’s legislative leaders to adopt congestion pricing in the city. · (15)
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