• Board approves Walder, compensation and all · While the Mayor wasn’t too happy with it, the MTA Board voted yesterday in a closed session to approve Jay Walder as MTA head along with his compensation package. Wadler, who is leaving London to move back to New York, negotiated a Golden Parachute provision that enables him to secure more than twice his annual salary if pushed out of the job before his six-year term is up. The Mayor had objected on ground of fiscal policy.

    Meanwhile, as Walder prepares to take over an agency with a $12 billion budget and 67,000 employees on Oct. 5, Christian Wolmer, London’s leading transit expert, examines Walder’s time in London. He is full of praise for Walder the financial and technological guru, but some of his sources question whether Walder is fit for leadership of such an expansive and important public authority. “I would love to have Jay implement a project for me, but I would not like to see him run an organization,” an anonymous former colleague of Walder’s said. Walder is qualified as a veteran of transit agencies for the job, but I hope we don’t come to miss Lee Sander and rue the Senate’s ouster of him the hard way. · (0)

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Amtrak may one day be operating out of the Farley Post Office. (Photo courtesy of Friends of Moynihan Station)

Every few months, Senator Chuck Schumer’s desires to get Moynihan Station off the drawing board and onto 8th Ave. rear its head. Over the last week, twin news stories have pushed this new depot — a much-needed replacement for Penn Station — onto the news pages and into the minds of transit advocates.

The more recent story focuses on Amtrak. For years, Moynihan Station had been held up and generally left for dead because the rail giant had not signed onto the project. This week, though, Amtrak agreed to move its operations to Moynihan Station. According to Schumer’s office, Amtrak agreed to the deal after being promised more revenue from retail shops and a few design changes.

With Amtrak on board, the biggest hurdle to the project now seemingly becomes money. The project is estimated to cost up to $1.5 billion, and while the Feds have guaranteed at least $200 million, that still leaves a sizable gap. According to the Daily News, Mayor Bloomberg was “noncommittal” about the city’s involvement in the project. He would rather pay to extend the 7 nowhere than help build a much-needed railhub in Midtown.

In other Moynihan-related news, Metro-North announced a new study of Metro-North access to Penn Station. The agency became an environmental review nearly ten years ago and had reduced its initial proposal to four alternatives: two for the Hudson Line and two for the New Haven line. No matter the final choice, these routes were projected to provide service at all times and include stations on the far west side of Manhattan that aren’t served by regional rail.

Now, after consulting with the FTA, Metro-North will proceed with a study of full service for both the Hudson and New Haven lines. Hudson Line service would run into Penn Station via the current Amtrak Empire Connection with two new stations — one near W. 125th St. and one on the Upper West Side. In March, I noted that the W. 60th area seemed a likely spot for a Metro-North stop. The New Haven line will run to Penn Station via the Hell Gate Line, and it will stop at three stations in the east Bronx — one at Co-Op City, one at Parkchester and one near Hunts Point.

The final environmental assessment will be completed in 2011, and it will incorporate information about the long-range plans for Penn Station. That is, of course, where Moynihan Station comes in. It will behoove Amtrak, the city and state to finalize Moynihan Plans so that Metro-North can proceed with their expansion plans. One day, we may yet have more Metro-North options on the west side and a fancy train station in midtown. Slowly, New York will earn a station better equipped for rail travel than the current Penn Station.

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Right now, in my wallet, I have three MetroCards. One is my standard 30-Day Unlimited Ride card I use when I’m not planning on being out of the city for an extended period of time. The other two have cash on them. One currently has $10.50 and the other has $1.00. The one with just a buck is set to expire at the end of September.

For me to make full use of these pay-per-ride cards, I’d have to do some fancy math. The card with more money has 4 rides with $1.50 left over; the card with a dollar is useless until I add more money. With the new fare scheme for pay-per-ride cards — $2.25 per ride with a 15 percent discount at $8 and over — I am not alone in possessing MetroCards with awkward amounts of money left on them. In fact, the MTA is counting on just this problem for some of its budget.

Heather Haddon in amNew York details how the MTA relies on unused MetroCards for millions of dollars in revenue. The agency knows that people throw out MetroCards with money, and the agency is now including these millions in its budget estimates for 2010. Haddon reports:

Straphangers threw out an estimated $40 million in unused or unrefunded fare money in 2008, according to agency documents. The MetroCard windfall was up a whopping 38 percent from two years earlier.

What’s more, NYC Transit is budgeting for that revenue to increase to $48 million next year because of the recent fare hike…

At least two other transit agencies decline to budget for unused fares, arguing the revenue is a moving target that can’t be relied on for operations. “It’s a tricky one to compute. We don’t recognize it as a revenue source,” said Cathy Asato, a spokeswoman for the Metro in Washington D.C.

A MTA spokesman said including the figure for unused fares adds transparency, and all revenue estimates are updated three times a year.

Currently, straphangers with expired MetroCards can transfer the unused fare to new cards up to two years past the expiration date on the back. According to Transit spokesperson Paul Fleuranges, the agency fields approximately 1500 refund requests per month, but with fare math becoming increasingly complicated, busy New Yorkers are content to let the dollars slip away.

This fiscal reality could lead to a conflict of interests for those in charge. Transit should tell its riders how to use all of the money straphangers put on MetroCards, but if the agency needs the revenue to meet its budget estimates, officials may be less than forthcoming with refund information.

As far as I can tell, this $40 million doesn’t include Unlimited Ride MetroCards that do not pay for themselves. The MTA could, in fact, be recovering more than just the 21 million unused rides they currently take in.

Categories : MetroCard, MTA Economics
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The city’s billionaire businessman mayor isn’t happy with Jay Walder’s compensation package, and Bloomberg is going to make his displeasure known by withholding his MTA votes when the transit agency’s board meets to confirm its new Chair and CEO.

Bloomberg’s unhappiness focuses around Walder’s Golden Parachute provisions. When Gov. David Paterson nominated Walder as head of the MTA, the Board attached a severance scheme to the deal. Walder is due to server a six-year term, but if he is kicked out — by the State Senate, by Paterson’s successor — Walder earns severance. If he doesn’t serve the full term, he earns a $350,000 severance, or the equivalent of one year’s salary. If he is booted within six months, he earns an additional $500,000, and if he is removed after six months but before a year, he earns another $400,000. This number dwindles as time and Walder’s tenure goes on.

According to reports from July, these conditions were necessary to attract Walder away from his job in London. The transit expert had a comfortable role at McKinsey, the consulting firm, and a life in London. He wouldn’t come to New York with the risk that he would be fired within a year. “If you want to bring in people of the highest caliber, you have to be willing to pay them salaries that are commiserate with what others in the industry are getting,” MTA board member Mitchell Pally said at the time.

Now, Bloomberg is upset the MTA for what he feels is an overly generous compensation package issued during a bad time for the state economy. Because Bloomberg respects Walder and feels uncomfortable making a big issue about, the four votes Bloomberg controls will abstain from voting on Walder. In the end, this is a political statement by a candidate running for office on a platform of reforming the MTA and not a mayoral judgment on Walder. The new MTA head won’t be overpaid or overcompensated, and Bloomberg the business man knows that. Welcome to campaign season.

Categories : MTA Politics
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On and off for the last few months, I’ve explored the way labor costs are dragging down the MTA’s overall financial outlooked. I’ve examined how rising pension costs will saddle the MTA with more debt and have explored the recent arbitration decision, currently under appeal, that would grant TWU workers an 11 percent raise over the next three years.

Generally, my tone has come across as anti-labor simply because of the costs. While organized labor is generally a net positive, the unions have not been too sympathetic to the MTA’s financially reality. While union leaders will always look out for the rank-and-file, bad economic times for the transit authority will eventually impact its workers as well. Oftentimes, unions lose sight of that reality.

Today, I have another tale of union support contributing to the MTA’s economic woes. As Pete Donohue first reported, the MTA has been ordered to use — and pay — overtime workers to dispatch shuttle buses even though other dispatchers on regular time are available to do this work. This ruling could cost the MTA up to $1 million in increased and unnecessary labor costs. The Daily News transit writer reports:

The arbitrator of a labor-management dispute in Queens recently ruled the [bus] dispatchers’ contract is silent on how weekend bus shuttles can be staffed. So the agency must stick to what it has done for more than 20 years: Fill shuttle posts with workers who volunteer to work more than 40 hours per week for higher pay rates, contract arbitrator George Nicolau said.

Looking for savings, NYC Transit last year began assigning shuttle posts to underutilized workers not assigned regular routes, a move challenged by a dispatchers union.

The “very unfavorable” decision means NYC Transit “literally can have a dispatcher…with no work to do but we cannot assign that dispatcher to shuttle work,” NYC Transit President Howard Roberts recently wrote to MTA board members. “Instead we have to leave that dispatcher idle and bring in another dispatcher on overtime to supervise the shuttle work,” he wrote in the letter obtained by The News.

In the grand scheme of the MTA, the $1 million per year this ruling could cost the agency is small beans. When budget deficits reach into the billions, a meager $1 million hardly makes a dent. But this ruling flies in the face of common sense. If idle workers are available to do this job and if the MTA can avoid paying overtime wages at the same time, why can’t the transit agency make use of those workers?

I don’t want to dislike the unions, and I want to believe they are sympathetic to the needs of the MTA. This story makes for bad press though. Maybe some of the pro-labor union members who read this blog can explain the rationale behind this ruling and the union’s position. For now, I just don’t get it.

Categories : MTA Absurdity
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  • Improving your commute · As part of a new series this month, WNYC’s Brian Lehrer is taking a look at how New Yorkers commute. Lehrer along with Robert Buzz Paaswell, Director of the University Transportation Research Center at City College, will help listeners redesign their commutes. The series kicked off yesterday with a question: “Does your commute shape the city, or does the city shape your commute? What one thing have you done or would you do to redesign your commute?”

    The comments on WNYC’s site are quite fascinating as New Yorkers have a wide array of commutes and views on their commutes. I’ll look closer at what people are saying and offer my take over the next few days. In the meantime, feel free to chime in. How would you improve or redesign your daily commute in this city of interborough and intraborough commuters? · (12)

New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli issued a report yesterday exposing billions of dollars of MTA waste over the last four years. DiNapoli’s office examined the MTA’s spending on personal and service contracts and discovered numerous inefficiencies and redundancies in the process that has cost the agency approximately $2.9 billion in unnecessary spending.

“The MTA has raised fares and received more tax dollars to cover its deficits and debt,” DiNapoli said in a statement. “At the same time, the MTA expanded its use of personal service contracts without a thorough evaluation of the need or cost-effectiveness of those contracts. Now more than ever, every dime counts, and the MTA needs to manage public resources more carefully. Consultant contracts should only be used when absolutely necessary, and there has to be documented justification of that need.”

According to the state audit, these contracts now consume nearly 15 percent of the MTA’s operating budget, and expenditures have increased from $315 million in 2006 to $881 million last year. Oftentimes, the MTA could not prove that the outsourced services — including contracts for engineering and architecture, waste management, consulting and information technology — represented the most cost-efficient option. DiNapoli also urged the MTA to establish a way to determine “whether these contracts were still necessary or if they could be suspended or scaled back to help manage fiscal constraints.”

Hand in hand with this recommendation was the comptroller’s finding that “the MTA contracted for some services that would appear to be within their in-house capabilities.” DiNapoli wants the MTA to document “the need to contract out for such services.” That’s being diplomatic. If the in-house capabilities exist, the MTA shouldn’t be paying anyone else to carry out its tasks.

As examples, DiNapoli’s audit cites 244 contracts worth $513.6 million for engineering and architecture services, 387 contracts totaling $203.9 million for maintenance services, 183 contracts worth $149.5 million for consulting services, and 46 contracts $99 million for waste removal. Furthermore, the MTA contracted out for real estate management services, tree trimming operations and bus engine repair efforts. All of these tasks could be and oftentimes are completed in-house.

In a press release, the Comptroller’s Office nicely bulleted its other findings:

  • MTA records showed that the agency initiated or completed consultant contracts valued in excess of $4.5 billion between January 1, 2005 and October 16, 2008;
  • Spending on miscellaneous contracts consistently exceeds $1 billion per year and is rapidly approaching $2 billion per year;
  • The value of awarded contracts nearly tripled between 2006 and the first 10 months of 2008, while the actual number of contracts declined by 35 percent during the same period;
  • New York City Transit alone accounted for 776 contracts worth $1.8 billion during the audit period; and,
  • Nearly one-quarter of all service contracts were non-competitive, including awards to sole contractors and well as emergency purchases.

DiNapoli also issued a set of recommendations for the MTA:

  • Improve documentation of compliance with the MTA’s “All Agency Guidelines for Procurement of Services” by determining whether agencies can collaborate on contracts, or fulfill their needs by using another agency’s in-house expertise or existing contract;
  • Periodically re-evaluate personal and miscellaneous contracts after they begin; and,
  • Take steps to scale back or suspend reliance on service contracts, where appropriate.

The MTA took few issues with the findings and created a subcommittee on service contracts while the audit was ongoing. Whether any financial streamlining comes of it remains to be seen. This audit was one of nine on the MTA DiNapoli has released recently, and his office promises more to come. No matter how much posturing the State Senate does, this is real financial oversight, and the MTA should listen to these recommendations.

You can find a copy of the Comptroller’s Report in PDF form along with the MTA’s response to it right here.

Categories : MTA Economics
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A little over one year ago, in June of 2008, Christopher K. Bennett, the vice president of the DMJM+HARRIS join venture tasked with designing the Second Ave. subway, issued a progress report about the subway construction project. On page 13 of the report (PDF), Bennett wrote that the tunnel boring machine for the Second Ave. subway was “expected to arrive on site in June 2009.” Three months after this date, we know Bennett’s report was overly optimistic, and over the last year, the due date for the Second Ave. subway has been pushed back from 2015 to late 2017 or even 2018.

This week, we learn that more delays of the legal variety are plaguing the project. One source concerns the stability of buildings and the MTA’s need for a blast permit while the other is a follow-up from last week’s relocation saga. Both present the possibility of even more delays for this troubled project.

We start with the blasting permit problems, first reported in Our Town nearly two weeks ago. Dan Rivoli writes:

The June evacuation of two buildings encompassed by the Second Avenue subway construction zone will delay some aspects of construction for an indefinite amount of time.

The MTA was set to conduct blasting underneath Second Avenue in the East 90s, with a blast test scheduled for the first week of August. Orange signs were placed in the area to warn residents of the blasting. But the Department of Buildings ordered residents of 1766 and 1768 Second Ave., at East 92nd Street, to evacuate because the buildings had pre-existing structural problems that made construction unsafe.

Now the Department of Buildings, which is working with the building owners on a plan to stabilizing the structures, is demanding that the structures be shored up before permits are given for any blasting, which makes tunnel boring easier. “When the partial stabilization is completed and accepted by [Department of Buildings], we will move forward with the controlled blasting program,” said Kevin Ortiz, an MTA spokesperson, in a statement.

The MTA decilined to offer Rivoli a comment on either the “start date for building construction or how long such work will take.” In the words of David Rosenstein, chair of the Friends of Ruppert Park, the project is “stuck.”

Today, the The Times offers up news of a legal challenge to the MTA’s relocation plans. Last week, I explored how the MTA had, according to Upper East Side residents, not provided relocation options that were “comparable housing.” Now, Upper East Siders are heading to court, and a State Supreme Court judge wants more information from the MTA. Michael Grynbaum reports:

Justice Walter B. Tolub of State Supreme Court in Manhattan told lawyers from the authority to return in a week with written details about the agency’s plans to provide assistance to the tenants, many of whom are elderly and living in rent-regulated apartments.

The authority is hoping to receive final approval this month to acquire the four residential properties along Second Avenue, which will be converted into ventilation shafts and other infrastructure for the $4.5 billion underground line, scheduled to open in 2017.

Under eminent domain law, tenants must be given assistance to move to a comparable new apartment in a similar neighborhood, but some of them say the authority has encouraged them to leave the Upper East Side and consider moving into affordable housing, including one building opposite an on-ramp to the Queensboro Bridge. (The authority says no one is being forced to leave the area.)…

[Lawyer Anthony P.] Semancik described a complicated formula used to determine how much rental assistance can be provided to rent-regulated tenants moving to a new, presumably more expensive apartment…But the authority could not produce a written version of [their relocation] formula and admitted that the formula had not been published except for presentations to community groups. Justice Tolub adjourned the proceedings for a week, until the authority could provide written documentation.

And so it goes. The MTA needs its blasting permits in order to dig the hole for the tunnel boring machine. The MTA needs these apartments on the Upper East Side in order to build infrastructure for the new subway. With these two aspects of the project in limbo, we will just keep waiting for the Second Ave. subway to arrive. Who will still be here to ride it?

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  • Look out, old Macky’s gone · When then-Nassau County Executive Thomas Gulotta appointed David Mack to the MTA Board in 1993, the appointment seemed to be a solid one. Mack had an accomplished résumé of police experience under his belt that included an assistant commissionership with the Nassau County Police Department and a similar role with the Long Beach Police as well. While his term expired in June, Mack had retained his position of co-vice chair of the MTA throughout the unsettled summer. He

    Recently, though, Mack has come under attack as New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo investigated the State Police. While Mack refused to cooperate with the investigation, Cuomo determined that state officials had, according to The Times, “inappropriately granted Mr. Mack a dress uniform and the title of deputy superintendent, even though he had no law enforcement experience and appeared to perform few duties for the State Police.” Cuomo determined that the appointment to the MTA Board was one of patronage rather than of merit. On Friday, Mack announced that he would resign from the MTA and Port Authority Boards.

    As Steven Higashide writes today at Mobilizing the Region, this resignation is a clear victory for transit advocates. Mack has in the past defended poor MTA practices of giving away far too many free transit passes and noted that complaints from the public were routinely ignored. Tom Suozzi will have a chance to appoint a new MTA Board member, and he would be wise to heed Higashide’s call to find a “good ambassador for the system.” · (0)

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When I first came up with the idea to begin this blog in November of 2006, I brainstormed a name that I could spell with subway bullets. I wanted to relate the name of the blog to the subway and express that through an easily recognizable image. The current name and above banner were the end result of my brainstorming.

At the time, I didn’t realize that the MTA had trademarked the subway bullets and that I had run afoul of their trademark. Nearly 20 months after starting this site, I received a letter — in the form of a comment on a post that was at the time three weeks old — from the MTA’s Senior Associate Coounsel (sic), as he spelled it. In the initial letter, Lester Freundlich told me that I couldn’t use the image of the MetroCard in a blog post reporting on a MetroCard and that I couldn’t use the subway map. He didn’t even complain about my using the subway bullets; that issue came up later on.

Eventually, I worked out the issue with the MTA’s Marketing and Advertising department. I had to change the image, as you can see from the current one evocative of the Massimo Vignelli-designed subway signs, and I had to add a disclaimer to the site. As the use of the MetroCard image was a fair use, I was in the clear. All’s well that ended well for me.

I’m not the only person though that Lester Freundlich and the MTA legal department has contacted over the last few months. Two stories — one involving a Metro-North blogger and his iPhone application and one involving someone in San Francisco — raise some serious questions about how the MTA enforces its intellectual property rights and how prepared the MTA is for a digital world.

StationStops and an iPhone Application

Chris Schoenfeld is a Metro-North commuter and a web programmer. (Disclaimer: He’s also one of my advertisers.) In 2006, he started the Metro-North blog Station Stops, and in 2007, he wrote an application with the Metro-North schedule data. The MTA hasn’t yet figured out the digital world, and Schoenfeld’s application filled an obvious niche.

Over the years, Schoenfeld had, as I did, ran afoul of some of the MTA’s intellectual property rights. He had employed some copyrighted images of MTA property. At each turn, he removed them as requested.

In August, the MTA stepped up its campaign against Schoenfeld. In its original dealings with Schoenfeld, the MTA claimed that Station Stops was presenting itself as an official MTA site. That claim is, quite frankly, laughable. Schoenfeld’s site doesn’t resemble an MTA site, and it’s clearly a journalistic blog. A few days later, they seemingly dropped this complain but ordered him to cease selling the iPhone application. This charge rested on the claim that the MTA owns the copyright to the schedule data and that Schoenfeld’s use of the data violates that copyright.

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Categories : MTA Technology
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