• Satirizing the MTA, 140 characters at a time · For those of us into both the subways and Twitter, the popular microblogging platform just got a bit funnier. Earlier this week, a new Twitter account called FakeMTA debuted, and it’s quickly becoming one of the more entertaining satire feeds out there. The tone is perfect, and the message amusing. “All passengers looking for IRT, BMT or IND lines will be directed to nearby bus stops,” said one earlier this week. For more serious public transit-oriented tweets, you can also follow Second Ave. Sagas on Twitter or New York City Transit’s Subway Scoop. · (5)

Earlier this week, I ran a story about some troubles with Access-A-Ride. My story focused on a FOX 5 report about people abusing the system and a driver literally asleep behind the wheel of an idling van.

Unfortunately, some of the FOX story — and thus my report — contained some incorrect information, and the MTA has issued a statement with a correction. Although a sleeping driver in an idling van is against regulations, this driver was not shirking other duties. Says Transit:

The driver took a scheduled lunch break between 8:45 and 9:45 a.m. Last minute changes were made to this driver’s after lunch route by the contractor’s dispatcher because of the traffic alert in Manhattan due to the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. The changes resulted in the unusual occurrence of a further 45 minutes of elapsed time before his next scheduled pick up. In this case, there were no other routes in the vicinity that required assistance.

MTA NYC Transit in no way condones excessive engine idling or sleeping while on duty. We have and will continue to direct the private transportation carriers to enforce the prohibition on engine idling. Maggies will proceed to discipline the driver for conduct unbecoming (sleeping in the vehicle), unsafe operation of the vehicle and arrival to the pick- up location earlier than five minutes prior to the scheduled pick up time.

In the end, the problems with Access-A-Ride stem from its mandate and purpose. It is a federally-required program, but it is also an unfunded mandate. The city and state have to pay for it without any assistance from the federal government, and they have to do so while meeting some stringent ADA requirements. The total cost this year is estimated to be $451 million.

In a way, then, we can take a lesson from this program and apply to the feds’ desires for more oversight over local transit safety. If that effort ends up as another federally unfunded mandate, transit agencies and local governments may have to foot some pretty expensive bills at a time when they can least afford to do so.

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MetroCardPoster

A collage of MetroCards with messages for everyone. (Click the image to enlarge.)

Since its introduction in 1993, the MetroCard has become a ubiquitous symbol of New York City. On the front, the familiar yellow-on-blue gave way to its current blue-on-yellow design. On the back, well, that’s a different story and one featured in the news today.

Recently, the MTA has begun to circulate MetroCards that say, simply, “optimism” on the back. The word is printed in the familiar Akzidenz-Grotesk font, the Helvetica precursor that permeates the Massimo Vignelli-designed MTA signage. It is a simple but complicated statement, and in today’s Times, Michael Grybaum delves into the philosophy behind MetroCard optimism. I’ll excerpt, but read the piece. It’s a prime example of excellent news-features writing.

On the back of seven million MetroCards distributed this fall is a single printed word: “optimism.” Composed in clean, bold, sans-serif letters, it floats in a sea of white just beneath the boilerplate fine print. Another seven million are on the way early next year.

At first glance, the word appears simple and unassuming, a non sequitur easily overlooked amid the blur of travel in the city. Even its creators acknowledge that many subway and bus riders may never see it.

But as unemployment in the city reaches a 16-year high, as corporations close and deficits mount, optimism has become a scarce commodity, aboveground and below. New York, it seems, could use a chance to restock…

Not all that the “optimism” project suggests is, well, optimistic. The word on the card can be read as an encouragement, a command, a taunt, an aspiration. “I like that people can digest it in any way they choose,” [artist Reed] Seifer, 36, said. “I accept all praise and criticism. I love artwork in which people perceive things beyond the intention of the artist.”

And so Grynbaum’s words got me thinking about the MetroCard. The Internet is a haven for old cards. Collector’s item MetroCards pop up on eBay on a daily basis, and there is even a site dedicated to collecting every MetroCard back the MTA has issued since 1994. The Winter Garden at the World Trade Center was among the first of the cards issued.

Over the years, numerous images have filled the cards. I have one from 2004 when the MTA celebrated 100 years of the subway system. This card has a picture of the first ride snapped on Oct. 27, 1904 at the now-abandoned City Hall Stop. I also have a few Green MetroCards from 2008. Otherwise, though, my collection of expired MetroCards feature mostly mundane warnings about subway safety. I remember the Subway Series cards from 1997 but no longer have any.

Of course, the oft-overlooked backs of the MetroCards aren’t used only for pithy statements and iconic images. As Grynbaum relates, the MTA sells the backs of these cards. (Spin City, anyone?) So far this year, the MTA has earned $165,000 from MetroCard ad sales, double the total from 2008. Yet, ads appear on just three percent of the 120 million MetroCards printed so far this year. Mostly, the backs of these cards remain firmly hidden, pressed up against credit cards and business cards buried in a wallet somewhere. Optimism, it seems, won’t always see the light of day.

Still, if just a few riders notice, it will be worth it to Christopher Boylan, the MTA official in charge of the “optimism” project. “God knows people want to feel good, they want to feel up, they want to feel positive,” he said to Grynbaum. “If I can make a couple of customers smile a day, that’s nice.”

Categories : MetroCard
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Despite increased attention to the program of sexual offenses underground and a recent PSA campaign targeting subway gropers and flashers, sexual harassment of women remains the top quality-of-life crime in the subways. At a joint meeting of the City Council’s transportation, women’s issues and public safety committee today, officials discussed their stark findings, and it is clear that women face a substantial risk of underground harassment.

Jennifer 8. Lee of The Times covered the meeting:

The peak times in which women report sexual harassment or assaults on the subways are the late morning rush, roughly 8 to 10 a.m., followed by the early afternoon rush, 4 to 6 p.m. One stretch of the subways — the crowded Nos. 4, 5 and 6 lines between Grand Central Terminal and Union Station — is a particular source of complaints. And the average age of the men arrested for sexual offenses on the subways is 39…

First to testify on Thursday was James P. Hall, chief of the Police Department’s Transit Bureau, who said that sexual harassment was the “No. 1 quality of life offense on the subway.” Chief Hall reported that as of Nov. 15, there had been 587 reports of sex offenses in the subway system this year. “However, we strongly suspect this is a highly underreported crime,” he said.

The police have arrested 412 people for sex offenses in the subway so far this year. Of that number, 71 had committed prior sexual offenses and 14 were registered sex offenders. Five of the 14 were the most serious level of sex offender, Level 3.

As the council members clamored for more enforcement, the MTA explained its recent efforts to combat these crimes. The PSA poster, above, will remain in place at least through January, and astute straphangers may have heard a recent addition to the automated announcements prevalent in the new train cars: “A crowded train is no excuse for an improper touch. Don’t stand for it, feel ashamed or be afraid to speak up.”

The MTA is fast to remind its passengers to say something if they see something. The same holds for these quality-of-life offenses. No one should be subjected to rude sexual behavior while riding the rails, but it is a deeply disturbing fact of life in the New York subways.

Categories : Subway Security
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Meet Richard Brodsky. He is an influential Assembly representative from Westchester, and he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. More about him in a minute.

Yesterday afternoon, the New York State Assembly approved a sweeping bill that would bring more oversight to the state’s 700 public authorities. Spurred on in part by rampant construction delays, cost overruns and general mismanagement at the MTA, this measure — soon to be approved by the State Senate — would impose more bureaucracy on the bureaucracy. Jeremy W. Peters of The Times has more:

State authorities — which range in size from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, with an $11 billion annual budget, to small ones like the Binghamton Parking Authority — would have to reveal more detailed financial plans and allow the state comptroller to audit any contract of more than $1 million that is awarded noncompetitively.

Under the measure, certain large authorities, like the Long Island Power Authority and the Thruway Authority, could not appoint leaders without Senate consent. The new rules would also restrict the sale of land at below-market values, a practice intended to spur development that has been abused by authorities over the years.

The legislation makes efforts to rein in the debt that state authorities and their subsidiaries have taken on — around $150 billion is outstanding — by requiring them to produce guidelines to better manage how they borrow.

“This is a massive reform of a system that was in many ways corrupt, inefficient and dangerous,” said [Brodsky, a leader of the ] efforts in the Legislature to impose more control over the authorities. “These were Soviet-style bureaucracies doing the right thing some of the time, but rife with corruption and off on their own, outside the control of democratic institutions…Those days are over.”

Now, this all sounds well and good. There’s no doubt that New York’s public authorities, long a stronghold of the powerful, operate as a quasi-government within the state. Since the days of Robert Moses’ entrenchment at Triborough, New York’s authorities have needed more control and oversight. If this measure prevents sweetheart land deals similar to the one Bruce Ratner may enjoy for the Vanderbilt Yards land rights, I’m a-OK with that. Who can complain about reducing borderline corrupt or shady practices?

What bothers me, though, are willfully ignorant public statements by our elected representatives. In the Daily News coverage of the Assembly’s vote, Brodsky speaks at length about his targeting the MTA with this measure. “This is the most fundamental reform of Albany in decades,” he said. “This means the repeated catastrophies [sic] we’ve seen at the MTA on fare policy, on contract letting, on two sets of books, those days are over,” he said.

Brodsky is doing no one a favor by rehashing the old and tired claim about the MTA’s two sets of books. The charges come out of a 2003 State Comptroller report by Alan Hevesi, the since-disgraced politician. Eventually, not one, but two state courts ruled that Hevesi’s charges were flat-out false. (Click here for Times coverage from 2003.) Yet, the Internet is replete with people too lazy to investigate the truth: There never were two sets of books.

Brodsky was right to push for authority oversight in some form. The system doesn’t work as well as it should. But he has to take responsibility for his words, and the repeating old charges about two sets of books just makes him look petty while creating confusion and sowing ignorance among those he represents. Fix the MTa, but fix problems that exist and not ones that do not.

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One day, this cavern will be a subway stop at 34th St. and 11th Ave. (Photo courtesy of MTA Capital Construction)

When the MTA announced its projected budget on Wednesday afternoon, the news focused around the steady fare for 2010. At the time, I promised more news this evening if the budget documents warranted further exploration, and they do not. So instead of more numbers about projected revenue and ridership, let’s head underground.

Since late June, when the MTA stuck with its 2013 target date for revenue service along the 7 line extension, news from the Far West Side has been scarce. Although I wondered if stimulus funds would save the station at 41st and 10th Ave., those funds and plans have yet to materialize. The station remains as dead as it was in September when funding concerns killed it, and neither the city nor the MTA has leapt at the chance to avoid making a costly construction mistake by not building it.

A few days ago, though, the MTA’s Capital Construction division finally updated the 7 line construction website with three pictures of the progress. One, seen above, shows significant progress at the 34th St. station cavern. Some concrete is in place, and the waterproofing has been installed. The other photos simply show some men working and some cables and ventilation for the tunnel boring machines. Thrilling stuff.

Meanwhile, in its document dump of MTA Board committee materials, the agency provided us with more concrete information about the 7 line extension. Found in the Capital Construction PDF, we know how detailed budget info and a set timeline for the extension. According to current estimates, this project — a one-stop extension of the 7 line from 41st between 7th and 8th Aves. to 34th St. and 11th Ave. with tail tracks do the mid 20s will cost $2,152,946,333. With this project set to add a little bit more than a mile to the 7 line, the cost of underground construction in New York City is prohibitively expensive.

According to the MTA documents, the project is still on target for a late 2013 debut. Originally, the agency had hoped to debut the 7 line service in 2012 after starting construction in 2006. The work, however, did not begin until December 15, 2007, and as such, the revenue service start date was delayed. We should not lose sight of the fact that, despite this early hiccup, the project has stayed on schedule since construction began nearly two years ago.

As for the nitty gritty, those tunnel boring machines are working their ways through the Far West Side. Through October 26, over 1800 feet of tunnel — or 19 percent of the project’s total — had been carved. As the picture shows, one machine has reached 34th St., and the other is set to get there by early December. Crews are continuing to work on the abandoned lower level platform beneath the 8th Ave. stop at 42nd St. to underpin the current A/C/E station. The new extension will pass directly through the abandoned stop and under the current station.

In the end, that’s about all she wrote for this update. The city still has not submitted to the MTA the necessary agreements for the agency to finalize station entrance designs, but that is a mere technicality at this point. If all holds according to plan, in four years, the 7 line extension — not quite a Subway to Nowhere, but not really a subway to anywhere other than the Javits Center right now — will open on time.

Categories : 7 Line Extension
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Earlier this morning, the MTA released its $11 billion proposed budget for 2010, and although the agency plans to raise fares to match inflation in both 2011 and 2013, the document contains nary a mention of service cuts or fare hikes next year. During the MTA Board meeting, Jay Walder explained how the agency would engage in a significant overhaul to improve operations efficiency and why the agency is setting aside $85 million in reserve.

Despite the good news on fare hikes and service cuts, Walder cautioned that the authority is not yet on a sound financial footing. “From a narrow context, we see increased stability and are grateful that we can present a balanced budget without impacting our customers,” the new MTA Chair and CEO said. “But the MTA remains in a very fragile position with a number of risks on the horizon. This fiscal reality demands that we permanently overhaul the way the MTA does business. The bottom line is that there is no more money for us in Albany, and we will learn to do more with the funding we have.”

Walder will soon chair a working group designed to explore MTA efficiently. It will examine the ways the agency can “fundamentally change its business model to operate more cost effectively, improve performance and provide better value to taxpayers and customers,” according to an agency press release.

For those interested, the budget documents can be found here on the MTA’s website. The two piece go in depth into a budgeting process that requires the MTA to pass a balanced budget by the end of December. For now, the biggest piece of news is the $85 million reserve the MTA has in place to cover cost overruns.

The money for this reserve, according to MTA CFO Gary Dellaversoncame from three sources. Although real estate taxes were lower than anticipated, ridership figures, as I noted earlier today, have been higher than exepcted this year. Furthermore, summer belt-tightening measures have led to lower-than-expected spending.

To that end, the $85 million reserve will play an important role in avoiding a budget crunch next year on two fronts. First, the state and city are faced with significant fiscal problems and are threatening to cut contributions to the MTA further than they already have. Second, if the MTA loses its appeal of the TWU arbitration award, labor costs will eat up almost the entirety of this reserve.

I’ll have more on this proposed budget later tonight after I have some time to read through the materials. For now, though, Straphangers can breath a sigh of relief. For the first time since 2007, the MTA believes it will not have to raise fares.

Categories : MTA Economics
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  • DOT ‘might’ include separated lanes for East Side SBS · When we talked about the MTA/DOT plans for the 1st and 2nd Aves. Select Bus Service routes late last week, it was with dismay that we realized physically separated lanes were not a part of the original renderings. Today, the Department of Transportation provides us with a glimmer of hope for a sensible East Side solution. According to Janette Sadik-Kahn, Mayor Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner, her agency might, in the words of Pete Donohue, “place barriers along some stretches to keep cars and trucks from invading the bus-only lanes.” Although barriers along “some” stretches would be a start, this project will need physically separated lanes along the length of the entire route to truly speed up bus service.

    In the meantime, we wait. The MTA has begun to purchase 62-foot buses with three doors in advance of this project, and the Department of Transportation will unveil final plans for the route next month. Only then can we judge the potential for reform at the surface level, and in the meantime, we should urge a sensible acceptance of separated lanes. · (6)

RidershipSept09

A bad economy has led to a slight decline in subway ridership this year. (To clarify, the bottom line is weekday ridership and the top line is the combined ridership for Saturday and Sunday.)

As part of the MTA’s bailout package, Albany required the transit authority to become more transparent. For an agency that had actually been working toward providing more information over the last few years, this was a simple request, and this month, for the first time, the MTA has made all committee and board meeting materials publicly available.

For transit junkies, having ready access to this information is similar to Christmas in November, but it comes with a downside. As with many document dumps, there is, simply put, far too much information out there, and most of it doesn’t matter. Every-day procurement orders don’t provide us with a deep understanding about the goings-on at the MTA.

Still, it’s important to understand the parts of these documents that do matter, and to that end, I’ve been working my way through the Transit committee documents. Generally, I’m intrigued by the ridership numbers. These figures drive the economy of the MTA. Since the agency is so dependent upon fare-box revenue, ridership numbers can significantly impact the bottom line, and every year, the agency uses the previous year’s numbers along with external economic condition to project ridership levels and, thus, revenue totals. The November documents feature the September ridership numbers. Let’s drill down.

SeptRidership

Across all modes, weekday ridership figures for Transit were down 5.3 percent over September 2008. The agency attributes this to “the weaker economy, the June 2009 fare increase and calendar differences,” meaning more weekend days in September 2009 than in September 2008. The rolling average weekday ridership is down slightly as well. But lower ridership totals do not automatically mean revenue loss for the MTA. For that, we turn to the chart detailing projected revenue numbers vs. actual revenue collected.

SeptRevenueChart

As you can see, September’s total revenue figures were, at least preliminarily, higher than anticipated. Subway revenue was up 2.5 percent over initial projections, easily enough to make up for lower-than-expected bus ridership totals. Transit credits “lower-than-anticipated job losses” on the “higher-than-forecasted subway ridership” figures.

Take a closer look at the Fare Media Liability line. This item details money the MTA has captured due to unused value on expired MetroCards. For the month of September, the MTA recouped $5 million in pre-paid fares that went unswiped. September’s figured was 25 percent over the estimated value, and over the course of a year, that would net the agency $60 million in recovered revenue.

Year-to-date, the agency has recouped $7 million more than expected via the fare media liability route. I’ll have to find out if this figure includes Unlimited Ride MetroCards that aren’t used often enough to pay for themselves. For example, if buy a pay-per-ride card with the 15 percent bonus, I, in effect, pay $1.96 per ride. If I buy a 30-day card for $89 and use it 45 or fewer times, my rides cost more than that $1.96 per swipe. The MTA could claim recouped revenue off of underutilized Unlimited Ride cards.

SeptAverageFare

Finally, we arrive at my favorite chart in which Transit divulges how much we actually pay for our subway rides. The posted fare may be $2.25 per ride, but no one pays that. Amongst pay-per-ride discounts and unlimited card purchases, the average subway fare was $1.55 this past September. A year ago, the average fare was $1.41, and that ten percent increase can be attributed to the fare hike.

As always, the MTA urges a historical, pre-MetroCard fare incentives comparison. “The September 2009 average fare was 9.6¢ above the average fare of $1.379 in September 1996, before MetroCard fare incentives began,” the document says. “In constant 1996 dollars, the September 2009 average fare was $1.04, 34¢ lower than in 1996.” Personally, I spent the last month tracking my MetroCard usage and made 88 swipes last month for a total of $1.01 per ride.

It’s tough to draw too many conclusions from just one month’s worth of data, but I can say that the subways remain popular despite the fare hikes. Furthermore, the subways remain a pretty good deal too. We may complain about the shortcomings of the MTA, but we don’t pay a lot for the millions of rides we New Yorkers take each month.

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During the buildup to the near-enactment of the Doomsday budget and the subsequent Albany bailout, supporters for Access-A-Ride were among the most vocal. The MTA had planned to save a significant chunk of change by jacking up fares and cutting some services, but the activists, citing ADA compliance, dominating many of the public fare hike hearings. In the end, Access-A-Ride was left unscathed. Although the service costs the MTA well over $60 per ride, users are charged just the regular subway fare for it, and determinations of eligibility are left up to Transit employees.

With that in mind, is it any wonder that Fox 5 has found some rather shady practices within this paratransit structure? According to an undercover investigation conducted by John Deutzman, abuse of this service is rampant. Deutzman tells the story of an auxiliary police officer who used Access-A-Ride to travel so he could march in a parade. The officer denied the accusation. At another point, they found an Access-A-Ride van idling but empty in Lower Manhattan as the driver took a nap. Supposedly, a scheduling snafu was to blame.

In the end, this story isn’t so shocking as it is an example of the problems with bureaucracy. There is no effective oversight over Access-A-Ride, and powerful lobbying forces work to keep the service as it is. It will cost around $451 million to run paratransit this year. For that much, we should demand more accountability.

Categories : MTA Absurdity
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