In discussing yesterday’s news that Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum has called for more support for Second Ave. businesses, a few SAS readers wanted to know about the impact previous subway construction efforts had on local merchants. And so into the archives of The New York Times I went.

Submitted for your approval are my preliminary results. On Jan. 12, 1930, The Times ran a piece with the headline “Want No Subway Under 57th Street; Fifth Avenue Body Suggests Link Through Sixty-First Street.” It is available here for subscribers and those willing to pay an access fee. I’ll excerpt the key parts:

Petitions are being sent to property owners and business interests on Fifty-seventh Street by the Fifth Avenue Association asking for signatures to be presented to the Board of Transportation urging that the crosstown link to connect the proposed Sixth and Second Avenue subways be placed under Sixty-first Street instead of Fifty-seventh Street…

“While we approve of the construction of the Second and Sixth Avenue subways and endorse in principle the idea of a link across town connecting these subways,” states [C.J.] Oppenheim’s [Fifty-seventh Street] committee, “our studies indicate that it would work a great hardship upon the merchants and property owners of Fifty-seventh street to use that street for the connecting link…”

One of the objections cited in the use of Fifty-seventh Street is the serious damage to merchants due to the open-cut construction method, the conditions on Eighth Avenue for three or four years being mentioned as an example of the business disturbance which would be caused…

“The construction of a subway beneath Fifty-seventh Street,” states the petition, “with the long inconvenience to business which would result from building operation, would work a great hardship on this street and would bring about heavy losses in property and business values.”

We know how this particular story ends. While the Second Ave. Subway is still under construction, nearly 80 years after The Times first printed the story, 57th St. was never used as a crosstown subway link. Rather, the Sixth Ave. trains went north from 57th St. under Central Park and under 63rd St. The F stop at 63rd St. and Lexington and the 63rd St. tunnel — opened decades after this article appeared — are a testament to Mr. Oppenheim’s success.

Meanwhile, we can use history to learn a lesson. The disruption to businesses along Second Ave. is no surprise whatsoever. While the MTA is not going to use a cut-and-cover method of construction this time around, the agency still has to dig up the street to relocate utilities, to drop a tunnel boring machine and to construct subway entrances. While not as extreme as it was in the 1930s, the disruptions are still significant.

With this in mind, the city and authority did not adequately prepare Second Ave. businesses for the chaos of subway construction. With history as a guide, they should have recognized what a ten-year construction project would wrought. Instead, businesses will suffer, and the mistakes of the past will be repeated.

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7th Ave Tiles 3

The Seventh Ave. station on the IND Culver Line in Brooklyn has seen better days. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Since 1904, the New York City subways have had an uneasy relationship with water. In some places, the subway system is only a few feet below ground, and ground water and rain have caused problems for subway operations and construction for over a century.

Today, the problems are more evident than ever. As the photo above shows, the F/G station at 7th Ave. in Brooklyn looks terrible, and it’s not the only one. The Manhattan-bound 2/5 platform at 149th St./Grand Concourse is marred with water stains (and worse). Various stations flood constantly. Walls bulge with water, and earlier this week, a disaster waiting to happen finally happened. Community groups and residents had long complained of the water damage at 181st St. on the West Side IRT, and last weekend, the ceiling finally gave way.

As the MTA has scrambled to restore 1 train service in Northern Manhattan, Transit has defended itself from accusations of maintenance neglect. The agency knew of the problems and complaints surrounding 181st St. and had even planned to fix it — next year. What of the other stations long wearing the visible scars of water damage? What of the walls and ceiling retaining moisture or worse?

In today’s Post, three reporters delve into the issue of water-damaged stations, and the findings are less than comforting. According to the Post, the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA recently reviewed numerous stations, and 16 of them received an F for “water-leakage problems.” Of those, three are scheduled for rehabilitation by 2015.

These stations, contend MTA officials, are not of the same vintage and architectural style as the 181st St. stop and do not pose the same risks. MTA Board member Andrew Albert is worried though. “I’m very concerned about it,” he said to the Post. “It makes me wonder if stations are being renovated on basis of need, or if they’re being clustered on certain lines so they can all be done faster at once.”

While the Post highlighted a series of stations in every borough with visible water damage, the MTA says that water was not the root of the problem at 181st St. and isn’t always reason for concern. “Water leakage, while a considerable problem throughout the system, is not necessarily by itself, a clear indicator of a severe structural problem,” Charles Seaton, a Transit spokesperson, said. “A recently completed system wide station condition survey identified defects at all stations, including ceilings.”

The agency has what the Post called an emergency fund to fix stations that present an immediate the safety risk, but in my opinion, that’s too little too late. We shouldn’t wait until stations on the verge of collapse to renovate and rebuild them. We shouldn’t have to wait until a ceiling collapses to question water-stained walls missing tiles and ceilings that look less that secure.

In a few days, the 1 train will be running again, and we’ll forget about the incident. Yet, the MTA will still need that money for routine maintenance, and if this collapse — a disaster that happened — doesn’t spur on more transit investment, what will?

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  • Transit aims for 1 train service on Monday · The MTA’s latest foray into digital technology is Twitter. Via the account at NYCTSubwayScoop, agency spokespeople have been releasing numerous pictures of the repair efforts at 181st St. Crews are up there constantly, but the station — and Northern Manhattan transportation — is a mess.

    Meanwhile, as work continues apace, Transit is aiming for complete 1 train service on Monday. According to amNew York, service disruptions will last through at least the weekend as the MTA works to clear debris off the tracks and shore up the ceiling. They’re also inspecting nearby stations with similar architecture and similar community complaints of water damage. I do not yet know if the station will open Monday or if the tracks will open to through-trains only. · (1)

Over the last few years, I’ve covered the economic impact of the Second Ave. Subway construction. While the project promises long-term benefits of increased mobility for the Upper East Side, the constant construction and obstructed roads and sidewalks have left Second Ave. businesses reeling.

An official study released this week by Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum’s office confirms what we already know: The Second Ave. Subway construction is bad for business and the government isn’t helping. As part of the report, Gotbaum asked the city, state and MTA — three cash-starved entities — to help out these business owners and formulate a better plan for future phases of SAS construction.

The Public Advocate had asked 104 non-chain business owners in the so-called Second Ave. Construction Corridor to respond to a survey. Of those, 59 owners responded, and the 57-percent response rate is on the high end. The results find that two-thirds of business owners believe that subway construction has negatively impacted business “as much or more than” the economic downturn. The majority say they are in danger of closing.

Individually, the numbers are worse. Many owners have cut wages or store hours, and nearly half have laid of employees. According to Gotbaum’s office, none of the businesses have received support from the state, and most say that the MTA’s campaign — barely visible on the agency’s website — to promote Second Ave. businesses has failed.

“Officials should have been able to anticipate what was obvious to these business owners all along: construction on this scale is more than disruptive, it is devastating,” Gotbaum said. “A number of businesses have closed already as a result of construction, and most say they will not survive. They need grants and ongoing support to stay afloat. The city has had 80 years to plan for this, and it will take more than a decade to complete. It’s inexcusable to allow neighborhood establishments to go under because of a government project; and it’s insulting that the city, state, and MTA have failed to communicate with business owners so they know what to expect. We need to help these businesses before it is too late.”

Gotbaum’s office issued a number of suggestions:

  • The City Should Establish a Second Avenue Subway Construction Mitigation Fund to Provide Emergency Grants to Failing Businesses Located in the Construction Zone
  • The City Should Negotiate with Banks to Provide No- or Low-Cost Loans to Second Avenue Businesses
  • The City Should Help Second Avenue Business Owners Renegotiate Their Leases
  • The City and State Should Provide Property Tax Abatements to Landlords of Second Avenue Subway Construction Corridor Businesses for the Duration of the Project
  • The City and State Should Suspend Sales Tax on All Goods and Services Sold by Second Avenue Subway Construction Corridor Businesses for the Duration of the Project.
  • The MTA Should Improve Communication with Businesses in the Second Avenue Subway Construction Corridor
  • The MTA Should Improve Advertising for Second Avenue Businesses

Over the course of construction, I haven’t been too sympathetic to the please of these business owners. The city needs this Second Ave. Subway, and it will, in the end, impact far more people than a few Upper East Side businesses will. Gotbaum’s proposal, meanwhile, isn’t anything we haven’t heard before. If it can implemented painlessly, then by all means, the city, state and MTA should do so. But if the cost of construction is the closing of a few businesses now, that’s a price we have to be willing to pay.

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For the last two and a half weeks, New Yorkers have been bombarded with Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to Reform the MTA. Constant TV and radio ads as well as a ubiquitous Internet campaign have left astute political observers with little doubt about Bloomberg’s plan. From the pandering to the practical and everything in between, I’ve given Bloomberg’s the plan the once-over as well.

Yesterday, though, New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer succinctly eviscerated Mayor Bloomberg’s commitment to mass transit. He did so in a piece ostensibly about the ceiling collapse at 181st St., but a few paragraphs nearly overshadowed his overall point. Wrote Dwyer:

Under Mr. Bloomberg, what role has the city planned in subway maintenance? His priority has been to finance the expansion of the No. 7 line to the Far West Side of Manhattan — not to maintain the existing stations. The M.T.A. receives capital funds from a number of sources, including the city government. In the mid-1980s, the city contributed about $200 million annually, said Gene Russianoff, the staff lawyer for the Straphangers Campaign. In recent years, the city’s contribution has dropped to $75 million. Since the buying power of the dollar has eroded over the last 20 years, that means the city today is contributing only about 20 cents for every dollar it gave during the 1980s.

That last sentence says it all. Twenty years ago, the city would contribute five times as much money to the MTA than it does today. That $200 million in today’s dollars would be more than enough to issue bonds for construction projects, to close budget deficits, to upgrade technology. That $200 million would be a real commitment to mass transit from the mayor and the city of New York.

As Bloomberg gears up for his second reelection campaign, it is nearly inevitable that he will win. He has more money than Democratic hopeful William Thompson will ever see, and Thompson frankly is a dud of a candidate, barely able to keep reporters engaged for more than a story or two at a time.

It seems, though, that Bloomberg is hitching his ride to mass transit. He is committing to this MTA reform plan, and he is doing so in a very public matter. But as a wrote last week and as Dwyer noted yesterday, as long as the mayor continues to withhold city funding from the MTA, as long as he continues to dither over the 7 Line Extension, refuse to pony up money for student MetorCards and continue to hold city funding levels at 20 percent of what it was two decades ago, it’s hard to believe Bloomberg’s new found desire to fix transit in New York City.

Call my cynical or skepitcal, but it is all about the money. Right now, Bloomberg has the purse strings, and he’s not loosening them notwithstanding the populist anti-MTA rhetoric he will espouse until his reelection.

Categories : MTA Politics
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When the federal government approved the stimulus package, the money was supposed to go to shovel-ready projects that could spur on the economy. At the same time, many local entities are relying on stimulus dollars to cover budget gaps. The MTA is no exception.

A report released late last week by the New York Building Congress accuses New York-based agencies — including the MTA — of hoarding federal stimulus dollars. While $1.57 billion have been siphoned our way and New York City Transit has secured nearly half of that for work on the Fulton St. Transit Center and the Second Ave. Subway, the money is just sitting there. In fact, according to report, New York City Transit has yet to spend a single dollar of federal stimulus funds.

Meanwhile, the NYCB report goes in depth on the spending breakdown. The Fulton St. project has received $423.4 million for the rehabilitation of the mezzanine connecting the 4/5 with the A/C platforms and for the construction of the Dey St. corridor. The Second Ave. Subway has received $276 million with $197 million going toward the construction of the station at 96th St. The rest of the federal stimulus money earmarked for New York City Transit will go toward the rehabilitation of stations in Brooklyn.

According to State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, 44 stimulus projects have been approved, but little to money money has been spent by either Transit or the NYC Department of Transportation on its projects. Building Congress President Richard Anderson expressed his dismay with this turn of events. “It has been almost six months since Congress and the Obama administration approved the stimulus package, yet close to nothing has been expended on the capital side,” he said.

“We have seen a good deal of spending on workforce programs and health and social services,” he continued. “Unfortunately, those expenditures do not provide the same bang for the stimulus buck as direct construction spending, which creates jobs and revenues while pumping money into the broader economy. It is incumbent upon our elected leaders and agency heads to get these dollars flowing directly into the projects already approved and likely to be approved in the coming months.”

The economics behind the stimulus dollars are a bit more complicated though. While the MTA is using federal stimulus dollars for their so-called shovel-ready projects, the problem is one of accounting. The MTA can’t currently spend $423.4 million on the Fulton St. project in six months’ time. They can’t take the $197 million earmarked toward the Second Ave. Subway’s 96th St. station to start construction because the project simply isn’t at that stage yet.

Instead, the agency is using stimulus dollars to keep these capital construction projects funded to completion. The jobs will be there in the future, but the level of staffing will remain fairly consistent right now. In the end, this isn’t a failing on the part of the MTA; it’s a failing on the part of those doling out federal stimulus dollars. The oversight and requirements for spending weren’t rigorous enough to ensure that public authorities use the money now instead of on the typically slow public authority time frame.

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  • On the need for a new Penn Station · While my daily focus here encompasses New York City Transit and MTA projects, to the west of Manhattan, a new rail tunnel is under construction. The Port Authority’s ARC Tunnel, spurred on by a significant stimulus investment, is slowing making its way toward Midtown Manhattan. The current plans are to build a significant extension to Penn Station, but the reality is that New York City needs Moynihan Station with its increased capacity and better pedestrian flow. To that end, Bloomberg Media’s architecture critic James S. Russell explored the shortcomings of Penn Station and the need for a better solution to the city’s rail access problem. Check it out. It’s well worth the read. · (16)


The 181st. St. station on the 1 line will be closed until further notice. (Photo courtesy of New York City Transit)

Right now, the prognosis at 181st St. isn’t promising. According to the MTA’s most recent statement, Transit does not anticipate reopening the station to through-trains until at least this weekend, and repairs will take longer than that. Furthermore, the MTA today said that it had known about structural problems with the station, and while the wheels were in motion to fix the problem, a planned construction project was still at least a year away.

According to Transit, a “qualified contractor” is on the scene, and over the next few days, this contractor will construct a protective barrier across the track bed and platform. This barrier is going to be 300 feet long and 32 feet wide and will consist of metal decking and support beams.

With this structure in place, the work will turn to the ceiling, and the contractor will have to inspect the ceiling and remove any loose bricks. After that, construction and preservation — the station, remember, is on the National Register of Historic Places — can begin. Transit is trying to clear the tracks as fast as possible, and while trains could pass through the station soon, my uninformed belief is that the station will remain closed to passengers for a few weeks.

Meanwhile, the real story is embedded in this section of the release:

Despite claims to the contrary, NYC Transit is keenly aware that the ceiling was in need of repair and restoration.

Shielding was installed over the bridge and funding was proposed in the MTA Capital Plan amendment submitted in summer of 2008 to address the ceiling condition. A Master Plan for remediation and repair of a significant portion of the ceiling façade was completed in April, and the design process was started this past June by design consultants/Architects John di Domenico & Partners LP. Funding for the work, provided for in the 2005 – 2009 MTA Capital Program, was approved by the State Legislature this past Friday.

Design work is scheduled to be completed by December and the award of a construction contract is planned for early 2010. In addition, there are two other stations (168th Street 1 and 181st Street on the A) with a similar design, but only 168th Street features a brick ceiling. The consultant contract for the 181st Street ceiling will be expanded to include inspection of the 168th Street station as well. It should be noted that all NYC Transit tunnels and elevated structures are inspected on a yearly basis.

In The Times today, Jim Dwyer looks at the tortured history of the 181st St. ceiling, and Transit spokesman Charles Seaton explained the process to him. “It was identified as a localized failure in 2007,” Seaton said. “Certainly, that prompted our interest in further inspecting and repairing that ceiling.”

Transit knew about the problem and had put a plan in motion to fix the problem. However, because the MTA’s budget and construction problem moves at a snail’s pace, it would have taken nearly two years to repair a dangerous situation. Something has to give. This time, it was the ceiling; next time, it should be the process.

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  • A musing about the CCTV-equipped subway car · While I was away on vacation, New York Post reporter Tom Namako broke the story of an upcoming subway car equipped with security cameras. According to Namako’s story, the MTA will equip one lettered subway car with at least one camera in every car. In this train, writes Namako, “every corner of every car will be in the cameras’ view.” What is interesting about this plan is its cost and practicality. It would not be feasible for the MTA to review every minute of every train ride, and it would be cost-prohibitive to equip every piece of rolling stock with cameras.

    That does not mean, however, that this plan is without it merits. As Namako notes, the cameras will create a “computer-based log of events that can be viewed after a crime or emergency. No one will be watching the images live, but the cameras, authorities believe, will at least make would-be criminals think twice.” While MTA officials again cite terrorism concerns as a driving push behind this effort, if even cameras in select subway cars act as system-wide deterrents, this plan could be well worth it in the fight against vandalism and subway crime. · (8)
  • City to pay MTA for tolled trips · As part of his renewed commitment to mass transit solutions in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg announced while I was away on vacation that the city would be paying fares for city vehicles passing through or over the MTA’s tolled bridges and tunnels. For years, the city has refused to pay for these trips, citing some sort of executive privilege. Now that Bloomberg has called for an MTA overhaul, though, he has to stop the city hypocrisy. According to reports, the MTA will reap a few million from the city. The final tally is unknown right now, and marked emergency vehicles will still enjoy free rides. · (5)
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