• Paterson has a secret plan to fund the MTA · Embattled New York State Governor David Paterson has a plan for the MTA. What it is though is anyone’s guess. Paterson, speaking yesterday in Albany, shared some cryptic words with reporters. Right now, the governor has let slip nary a word about his plans, but he has been telling people some “enhancements” for the Senate.

    “It hasn’t been a problem with the leaders in terms of providing plans, but I think the problem right now has been acquiring the votes for those plans and that has moved us more into a political process, which really offends me. Because this is a very serious situation,” Paterson said. “I will be talking with leaders about some new ideas that I have later today and tomorrow so hopefully I can end this topic, by the beginning of next week, I hope. But it all depends on the ability of legislators to come together.” · (5)

New York City is covered in subway stations. There are, in fact, 468 of them, and not one of them was designed to be closed overnight. Some are designed for reduced capacity late at night; some are designed to have fewer entrances open; but no matter the hour, a subway will eventually stop at every single station in the system.

Now, though, Elliot Sander, executive director and CEO of the MTA, is threatening to take it all away. Faced with a crushing deficit nearly 50 percent beyond what officials first projected, the MTA is facing a second Doomsday this year. Without a major funding plan from Albany, the MTA is going to have to raise fares and cut services for an unprecedented second time in one calendar year, and no one is looking forward to it.

During a Wednesday board meeting in which the MTA brass gave the go-ahead to its finance committee to draw up an 18-month plan that could be approved as early as June, Sander sounded a dire tone. “I’m not sure the English language captures what goes beyond doomsday but to me, as a transit professional, as a citizen and a user of the system, they are just unbelievably difficult and I think some would view them as horrific,” he said said.

Horrific as in no more 24-hour service.

Of course, that’s a political red herring, and one unmasked by reporters a few hours later. William Neuman of The Times, for example, wrote:

Asked if he would consider shutting down the subway late at night to save money, he said, “One can’t say that anything is off the table.”

He said that he had not discussed an overnight shutdown with the president of New York City Transit, Howard H. Roberts Jr., and that there were strong arguments for maintaining all-night service.

A transportation authority spokesman, Jeremy Soffin, later clarified those remarks, saying, “We are not actively studying a nighttime shutdown of the system.” He said running fewer trains at night was a more likely option.

It all comes back to those 468 stations. The system simply wasn’t designed to stop. There’s nowhere to store all of the rolling stock; the cost of securing the system would be immense; and the cost in labor or time in shutting down and starting up the system basically negates — and is generally believed to outweigh — the cost savings of a shut down.

Of course, that’s hardly good news. The MTA can roll back subway service to two trains an hour on nearly every line from 2 a.m. to, say, 5 a.m. It doesn’t even need to add complementary Night Owl bus service. It will make taxis a more alluring alternative and will add significant time to off-hours workers’ commutes. In other words, it’s a second Doomsday.

“I want to wake up in the city that never sleeps,” Frank Sinatra croons in his classic rendition of “New York, New York.” The subways are in fact the main reason why this city never sleeps, and to take away the late-night subway rides would be to rob the city of its vitality, its allure and its 24-hour-ness. It makes for a dire Doomsday threat, but it won’t happen. At least we have that silver lining in this dark grey cloud.

Photo of a closed subway station by flickr user A30_Tsitika.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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  • Rising costs force changes at 96th St. · Just last week, we took a look at the growing new stationhouse at 96th St. along the West Side IRT. Everything seemed to be moving smoothly, but alas, it was not to be. According to Heather Haddon of amNew York, rising costs have forced the MTA to “shave features” from the project. The end result will be a less accessible, but cheaper, station finished earlier than anticipated.

    Haddon notes that the cost savings encompass $26 million of shelved plans. Most notable are reductions to the plans to widen the underground platform. According to an MTA presentation on Monday not yet available on the agency’s website, workers will not have to relocate utilities or dig into the Manhattan bedrock. Furthermore, one of three planned elevators have been shelved

    On the flip side, this project will now be completed in 2010, a full 20 months before originally planned. While I reported that Sept. 2010 completion date last night, I didn’t realize it was a revised date. The Second Ave. Subway death knell grows louder with every bit of MTA construction news. · (1)

Due to a procedural rule in the New York State Senate, any Senate-endorsed MTA funding plan will not come to a vote until next week at the earliest. Meanwhile, Albany-watchers still do not believe that Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith has the requisite 32 votes to pass any sort of bill, and the MTA is counting down the days until it must unveil 2009′s second fare hike plan.

Tuesday in Albany started with some minor amendments the MTA funding plan approved Monday by the Senate’s transportation committee. The bill, approved along a 10-8 party-line vote, contained a few mistakes that had to be rectified, but because the Senate demands a three-day ripening period for legislation, the bill won’t come up for a vote again until Monday.

According to Elizabeth Benjamin (linked above), the changes were mostly cosmetic. The taxi cab drop-off charge now applies to yellow cars only, and the language requiring a mandatory MTA audit was strengthened to “shall be” from “may be.” No matter the langauge, Newsday’s James T. Madore can’t find 32 Senators in favor of the bill.

Downstate, Mayor Bloomberg finally ramped up his campaigning for the MTA. Bloomberg, along with teacher’s union head Randi Weingarten and President and CEO of Parntership for New York Kathryn Wylde, sent a letter to the state’s leaders in Albany urging support for the beleaguered transit agency.

Meanwhile, Newsday’s editorial board just wants Albany to allocate its discretionary funds to the agency. “Is nobody willing to argue that maintaining subways, buses and trains is a basic governmental responsibility?” the paper asks.

All of this Doomsday politicking leads to one overarching bit of bad news: While I yesterday said that the MTA would have to enact a second fare hike by the fall, amNew York’s Heather Haddon says that the MTA could unveil a second fare hike as early as May if the Senate does not act. Further we go along the downward spiral.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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Over the last few years, I’ve written extensively about MTA security issues. It’s been nearly eight years since the 9/11 attacks, and the agency’s security efforts have been stymied, as State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli noted in November, by nearly every problem on the books. From a lack of technological compatibility to bureaucratic inefficiencies, the MTA has tried to institute some sort of closed circuit surveillance system in the subways with little success.

Yesterday, this issue came to a head as defense contractor Lockheed Martin sued the MTA in an effort to get out of its contract. Lockheed says that the MTA is responsible for the delays in the project and has been less that cooperative in helping out with the job.

The Post’s Bruce Golding, Tom Namako and Larry Celona first reported on the lawsuit yesterday. They write:

Lockheed is claiming losses of $3 million a month while “key personnel” remain in place on the stalled project, and says it will file a separate suit to recover damages.

The company, which was supposed to be done with the job last August, blames the MTA for refusing to let it work inside a series of “under river tunnels,” including four beneath the East River linking Manhattan and Queens.

Lockheed’s Manhattan federal court filing says the contract guaranteed it access to one of the four East River tunnels for at least 55 hours each weekend. “Currently, there is no schedule in place,” the suit says.

Lockheed also accuses the MTA of failing to clear out existing communication rooms for necessary upgrades. The rooms are cluttered with other contractors’ equipment, while several “have water infiltration, the presence of which makes it unsafe to perform work due to the risk of electrocution,” and many “have inadequate electricity which is essential to perform the work.”

Perhaps worst of all, “none of the communication rooms have necessary network access, the absence of which makes it impossible for Lockheed Martin to install communication systems that will actually transmit information,” according to the suit.

Those are pretty damning allegations from one of the nation’s leading contractors, and the timing could not be worse for an MTA already combating public image problems. The agency has already paid out $250 million on a contract originally valued at $212 million in 2005, and there is no end in sight to the project.

From a security perspective, this is, needless to say, alarming. The open nature of the city’s transit infrastructure make it a very vulnerable target to an attack, and this project was supposed to help secure it. Meanwhile, from an institutional perspective, this filing simply gives more ammo to MTA detractors who view it as a barely functioning bureaucratic mess. That the MTA is just bleeding money everywhere these days makes it all the more worse.

Categories : Subway Security
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  • Transit advocates to host evening rally against the cuts · While time has long run out on the MTA, a group of transit advocates are going to give it the old college try today. This evening, from 5:30-7:30 p.m., three groups will be hosting a rally in Union Square to “urge our elected officials to stand up for transit.” The Straphangers Campaign, the Working Families Party and Transportation Alternatives will gather to “send a clear message that New Yorkers are united against the 25% fare increases and service cuts.” That’s all well and good, but as Streetsblog’s Ben Fried wrote yesterday, until these groups — and in particuarl, the WFP — come out for something, they’re just spinning their wheels. · (1)

As Albany bickered over an MTA funding plan, the agency yesterday announce a $621-million increase in its deficit for 2009 and a $1 billion increase for 2010. Based on the response out of Albany, you’d never know how bad that news really is.

In a nutshell, the story is simple. Because ridership and tax revenues are both lower than projected, the MTA’s substantial budge deficit will grow by nearly 50 percent this year. While neither Malcolm Smith nor Sheldon Silver has realized it, this increase basically negates any Albany-produced funding package. Even if the State Senate and Assembly can come to terms — even if they pass something that brings some money into the MTA’s coffers — it will be enough to cover a $1.2 billion gap and not a $1.8 billion gap.

So then, what does this mean for New Yorkers reliant on transit? Well, at this point, the MTA will have little choice but to start cutting service. The cutbacks may not be as drastic as once feared, but a $600 million gap is pretty substantial itself.

The worse news though comes in the fare box department. Since the MTA is so reliant right now on fare box revenue, the agency said on Monday that it may have to raise fares twice in 2009. With no Senate action, the fares will go up by nearly 25 percent at the end of May, and for the first time in MTA history, the fares could go up a second time this calendar year and a third time in 2010.

Pete Donohue reports a potential eight percent increase on tap as the second fare hike of the year. I would expect that to arrive by October or November when the MTA has a clearer picture of how much money it needs to balance its books before the end of the year. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the eventual second fare hike ended up at over eight percent.

Times are bleak indeed for transit in New York.

Categories : Fare Hikes
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As a current law student with a background in American history and political science, I’m more than a little dismayed about the recent news coming out of Albany.

According to numerous reports, Senate and Assembly leaders no longer really care about the substance of any MTA funding plans. Rather, our elected officials tasked with representing the city’s and state’s interests are going to support any plan as long as it has the requisite number of votes. If that isn’t a total derogation of political responsibility, I don’t really know what is.

“It’s not about merit, it’s just about what gets us there with the votes that we need to get it passed,” Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith said late on Monday.

Smith was not alone in these sentiments. “I can support a bill that has 32 votes in the Senate that we can look at seriously,” Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said, echoing Smith’s committment to, well, anything.

Albany started down the path to this sad state of affairs early on Monday. As the MTA Finance Committee sat through a presentation on the agencie’s ever-increasing deficit, the Senate Transportation Committee approved some version of an MTA funding bill. The only problem is that that passed this bil as “a conversation starter.” Transpo Committee head Martin Dilan said that he expected a lot of amendments, and it’s quite possible that the eventual bill will look nothing like the one approved today.

Meanwhile, as the day wore on, it was clear that this Senate proposal would rile up a lot of opposition. Both Gov. David Paterson and Mayor Michael Bloomberg reiterated their opposition to the taxi surcharge plan.

In fact, when the dust settled, Albany watchers were prepared to call the latest proposal dead on arrival. With strident opposition from the state’s leaders, it’s unclear if Smith can round up 32 votes to support a plan that he admits is lacking on the merits.

The day ended with a closed-door meeting between Smith and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. This meeting yielded nothing but more bad blood between Democrats and Republicans as the two legislative chambers continue to search for adequate funding measures.

“This should not be about Democrats and Republicans,” said Silver. “There are Republican commuters and there are representatives of Republicans who represent commuters who face the largest increases on the Long Island Rail Road who are not standing up and responding on this plan. They are standing and saying, ‘We are not voting for it because my Republican conference leader does not want me to vote for it.’”

The problem here — fairly obvious to transit experts — is that what will pass is not what will save the MTA from further fiscal problems. For years, the MTA hasn’t received proper state and city support, and these plans the Senate is currently debating are stop-gap measures aimed at closing a budget gap. They aren’t forward-looking plans that would discourage driving in New York City, encourage transit use and provide a steady revenue stream for a fully-funded MTA.

No matter what happens, no matter what plan 32 Senators eventually agree upon, it won’t be good enough, and that is a failure of New York State politics.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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As Albany dallies, so grows the deficit.

In a presentation to the MTA Board’s Finance Committee this afternoon, agency CFO Gary Dellaverson said that the MTA deficit has grown by $621 million this year. Even if the State Senate Transportation Committee passed a “conversation starter” funding plan bill to target the earlier $1.2 billion deficit, the agency will still be hundreds of millions of dollars in the red.

I had the opportunity this morning to watch, via webcast, some of Dellaverson’s presentation. What was notable about it was how utterly open it was. Anyone could have watched it; anyone could have walked into the MTA HQ to attend; and Dellaverson held nothing back. He talked about methodology and numbers; he talked about why the MTA projections last year were off and what external forces are causing the deficit to grow in hundred-million-dollar leaps and bounds. How anyone could claim that the MTA needs more transparency in that regard just shows me that the people saying that — our elected officials allegedly representing us in Albany — are just not paying attention.

Anyone, I digress. The real news here is a whopping $1.8 billion budget for 2009 with more bad news for 2010. That year, the MTA says their budget deficit will increase by $1 billion over original projections. The Senate is going to have to institute bridge tolls sooner rather than later. It’s just reality at this point.

During Monday’s presentation, MTA officials pinpointed three sources of the decline:

  • Real estate taxes: Down $336 million
  • Fare/toll revenue: Down $221 million
  • State dedicated taxes: Down $113 million

There was simply no way to soften the impact of this news. “The budget that was passed in December assumed large decreases in revenue, but we now know that the reality is even worse,” Elliot G. Sander, MTA executive director and CEO, said. “With this re-forecast in hand we have begun identifying ways to fill the new gap, but there are no easy solutions.”

“Today’s re-forecast is further proof that the MTA desperately needs stable revenue sources that don’t plummet during economic downturns,” MTA Chair H. Dale Hemmerdinger said. “This is terrible news for the MTA, our customers and the regional economy, and the MTA Board will do everything in our power to protect the transit network. Without assistance from Albany, however, it will be extremely painful for everyone who relies on MTA services.”

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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  • Delware adds 44 more cars to Redbird Reef · Where do old subway cars go when they do? The ocean off the coast of Delaware, of course. On Friday, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control added 44 more old subway cars to its extensive artificial reef off of the Delmarva coast. This latest group of cars bring the total size of the Redbird Reef to 934 old trains. It is 1.3 square nautical miles in size and is located 16 miles off of the coast. According to the Delaware DNREC, 13,000 anglers a year visit New York’s old rolling stock, and the site has become a haven for marine life. · (5)
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