With word early this morning that Senate talks have all but broken down, transit advocates in New York are feeling the sting of rebuke. They’re also well aware that New York is sitting on the precipice of an transit abyss, the likes of which the city is ill-equipped to face.

The real problem is that, while this 2009 Doomsday plan looks bad, the MTA will have to enact something like this every year until their debt payments are gone. Many New Yorkers believe that if the Senate fails to act this year and fares go up while service gets scaled back, it will be a one-year cut. Next year, the MTA will operate with reduced schedules, but we’ll adjust. Life will go on, right?

Wrong.

Over the next three years, as the MTA budget documents available here show, dept service payments are going to balloon to a projected $2.2 billion by 2012. As other costs increase, the MTA will have to continue to cut service and raise fares to cover this gap. This is the real reason why transit advocates have been urging permanent action.

Eliot Brown, writing for Politicker NY yesterday, explored the MTA’s downward spiral. He does not paint a positive picture:

Should no new money come from the Legislature in Albany, entire lines would be cut, stations would grow dirtier and fewer booth operators would be around to help. The train cars and tracks would deteriorate rather quickly, giving rise to even more “signal problems” that so often hold up trains, boosting the number of “slow zones”—which are pretty much what they sound like—and increasing the number of derailments.

It wouldn’t exactly be New York in the 1970s, but a decaying transit system, if it gets bad enough, actually begins to undermine New York’s status as a vibrant urban center, interrupting the flow of a system that gives over 2.6 billion rides a year, doing damage to a central feature of the city’s business position and general quality of life.

Workers won’t be able to get to work on time. Business areas — transportation hubs — will be underserved. Up and coming neighborhoods will stagnant, and capital projects will remain half-finished and going nowhere fast.

The city, meanwhile, will suffer. Employers will find disgruntled workers who can’t work the hours they need to be putting in and will begin to turn elsewhere for employee bases. As Hope Cohen from the Manhattan Institute said to Brown, “It’s a vicious spiral—if there’s less and less service, and less and less people want to use it. That’s when it becomes more derelict and crime-ridden and all those things.”

This bleak picture is really what it’s all about. Transit advocates have to start pushing the reality that, barring state action, the MTA will be left with no choice but to cut, cut, cut until New York suffers from a barebones subway system that is in a state of disrepair. That is a reality no one wants to confront and no one can afford, but if Albany does not act, if New Yorkers do not demand a solution, this dystopic transit future will arrive sometime around 2012. It’s that close to reality.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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Last year, on April 1, I ran a post with the headline “MTA announces plan to shutter subways at night.” At the time, any plan to close or reduce subway capacity seemed so far from the minds of New Yorkers that we could sit back and laugh about our 24-hour transit system.

Today, I wish I were writing this story as an April Fools joke, but I am not. In a stunning development, State Senate negotiations over an MTA rescue package are on life support with only the barest of pulses. Three Senators officially killed the tolling proposal advocated by Richard Ravitch and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on Tuesday morning, and a few hours later, talks over other possible solutions ended when four Senators representing Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties vowed to kill the payroll tax provisions as well. Baring any further developments, the MTA will have to implement its Doomsday budget.

William Neuman and Nicolas Confessiore reported this bad news in The Times, and their sources are painting a dire picture. “It’s not dead but it’s definitely not in good shape. I think we’re nowhere,” one anonymous Senate insider said to the reporters, contracting a NY1 report proclaiming the plan dead.

This news comes on the heels of what was shaping up to be productive day, at least by Albany’s standards. While the morning starting out with the certain death of the bridge toll plan, Democratic leaders were confident they could find other ways to solve the budget gap. “I think what’s most important,” Silver said a press event on Tuesday, “is we’re dealing with the one thing the three of us agree: The actions of the M.T.A. board cannot be allowed to stand. We have to get together and provide the revenue and ensure these 31-percent fare hikes do not stand.”

Gov. David Paterson announced the death of the tolls this morning. “The framework I see is that the Senate has really eliminated what my choice would be, which would be to have the tolls. If that’s the case, then we’re going to have to try to find alternative ways to come up with several hundred million dollars that would replace what would have been the revenues generated by the tolls,” Paterson said of the then-ongoing negotiations.

The Senate though was rumored to be considering numerous other options to replace the lost revenue, including auto registration fees, gas taxes, parking fees and even taxi surcharges. At this point, anything is better than the stunning inaction we have seen so far.

These provisions were supposed to be coupled with a payroll tax implemented among businesses in the 12 MTA counties. But disaster struck in the afternoon when four State Senators vowed no support for any MTA plan that included this tax. Those Senators — all Democrats — represent suburban counties: Craig Johnson and Brian Foley come from Nassau and Suffolk, respectively, and Andrea Stewart-Cousines and Suzi Oppenheimer represent the Metro-North lands in Westchester.

With this opposition, Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and his Democrats find themselves far away from the 32 votes they need to pass a plan. They’re even further away from coming up with a proposal that can approach the $1.2 billion in money the MTA needs.

Meanwhile, all sorts of insults and scathing editorials are being shot toward Albany. Vielkind called it the city where transportation plans go to die, and Peter Goldmark, former Port Authority head and Ravitch Commission member, wondered what our State Senators are smoking as they delay on a very serious issue.

As time ticks closer to Doomsday, only one thing is for sure: The MTA will have to keep cutting and raising fares. The debt is projecting to balloon over the next few years, and my April Fools post from last year may become reality under ground before we know.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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  • No matter what, MTA to lay off workers · While Albany is nearing a deal on the MTA rescue plan (more on that later tonight), the authority may have to eliminate 3000 employees no matter what, according to a report in the Daily News. Numerous workers are being informed that their positions will no longer be funded after mid-April. The authority, according to Glenn Blain and Pete Donohue, is looking to eliminate 3000 positions – 1100 through layoffs and the rest through vacancies brought on by resignations and retirements. As many of these positions are part of the station cleaning crews, this news is dismaying for riders as well as workers, and it jives with what we’ve heard about concerns over the future cleanliness of the city’s 468 subway stations. · (1)

trainplane

One day, my train to the plane may come. (Photo courtesy of NYCSubway.org)

When we last checked in on New York’s ambitious plans to build a one-seat rail link from Lower Manhattan to JFK Airport, it was 2007. In April of that year, Senator Chuck Schumer was on the verge of securing a $2 billion federal grant for the rail link, but transit advocates didn’t see the $6 billion project as feasible or a true priority at the time. A few weeks later, the city killed hopes for funding for the potential rail link when they announced that congestion pricing revenue would go to the MTA.

Both congestion pricing and the plans for the JFK Rail Link have since fallen by the wayside. The mayor’s congestion pricing died an inglorious death in the New York State Assembly, and that $2 billion in federal money never materialized. It remains tied up in the Senate because Republican Senators Judd Gregg and Jim DeMint believe it is a prime example of federal spending run amok, and the Rail Link plans simply haven’t materialized.

Recently, Eliot Brown of The Observer checked in on the dormant tunnel from nowhere. Brown secured a new engineering statement for the project. In Dec. 2008, the MTA cost estimates for the rail link were between $8.6 billion and $9.9 billion. Those figures, however, are based on 2006 costs. The true cost is significantly higher today. The Rail Link, it seems, is a plan for another day, another year, another time.

But what of the $2 billion, asks Brown? It could still be ours, he writes, if it ever makes it out of the Senate:

The language of the failed bills makes the funding applicable to “any transportation infrastructure project, including highways, mass transit systems, railroads, airports, ports and waterways, in or connecting with [Lower Manhattan].”

“Right now, the political will needs to be to get the $2 billion allocated to the City of New York,” said Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, which continues to push for the rail link.

In a statement, a spokesman for Mr. Schumer suggested the senator will continue to try to get the funding secured in Congress, through he did not specifically mention the rail link. “Senator Schumer is committed to securing the federal funding promised to New York for Lower Manhattan transportation projects on the next appropriate legislative vehicle,” the spokesman, Joshua Vlasto, said.

I first started Second Ave. Sagas in 2006 because Schumer had pledge more federal money for the city’s subways. He has been instrumental in funneling money toward New York, and if he could do it again, the Second Ave. Subway, among other projects, is sure to benefit. The Republicans in the Senate, however, are not too keen on releasing those tax credits.

The Rail Link is dead. Never officially killed, the project no longer makes fiscal sense for the city. The only time it ever did was when Robert Moses built the roads to then-Idlewild and opted against included a right-of-way for mass transit. But there is hope yet for the money.

“This is money that was promised New York to help make it whole after the terrorist attack,” Robert Gottheim, a spokesman for Rep. Jerrold Nadler, said. “We’re going to use it for legitimate transportation.”

And if Nadler can’t get it, Schumer can always step back into the fight. As the RPA’s Bob Yaro said to The Observer, “I’m sure he’ll find a way of doing it if there is a way of doing so. He’s very persistent about these things.”

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Mar
31

MoCNY to host BRT panel

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mocny Bus Rapid Transit has been a hot topic among the transportation-minded advocates in New York over the last few years. While David Gantt and the state legislature denied New York a home rule measure that would have led to efficient BRT lane enforcement, Janette Sadik-Kahn’s Department of Transportation and the MTA have been very aggressive in implementing their version of Bus Rapid Transit in the city.

Tomorrow, some of the city’s leading transportation proponents will gather at the Museum of the City of New York to discuss BRT efforts and goals for the city. The museum’s website offers up a description of the panel, set to begin at 6:30 p.m.:

New York City has the slowest bus system in the country. Getting it to move faster requires re-imagining how buses operate in the city. Explore the options being piloted in New York, as well as successful Bus Rapid Transit models around the world, in a discussion moderated by Aaron Naparstek, editor-in-chief of Streetsblog. He will be joined by Joan Byron of the Pratt Center for Community Development and co-founder of COMMUTE; Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign; and Bruce Schaller, Deputy Commissioner for Planning and Sustainability at the New York City Department of Transportation.

I’m quite intrigued by this panel. Aaron Naparstek and Streetsblog have exhibited very strong preferences for BRT over new subway lines, and Cap’n Transit and I disagree with it. Bruce Schaller is the guru for all things transit in New York, and Russianoff will provide the rider reaction.

The event starts at 6:30 and carries with it a small cost for a good cause. I’ll be in the audience for most of it, and I’ll definitely report back afterward.

Categories : Buses
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Right now, I’m really hoping for the Senate to wrap up its budget talks. As the New York State budget stews, the MTA has landed firmly on the backburner, and while Albany will soon put forth an MTA rescue plan, right now, all we’re getting in the news is rhetoric.

It is, of course, the same old rhetoric the State Senate and Malcolm Smith, its majority leader, have been spewing for months. While I am trying to find optimism in the words, it all rings a little hollow as this late date. “It’s an emergency situation,” Sheldon Silver, Assembly speaker and one of the few Ravtich supporters in Albany, said to The Times today. “I would hope to do it as quickly as possible.”

While Smith himself acknowledged that “everything is on the table,” those words are simply not true. At this point, the Senate has all but killed the Ravitch toll plan. Rumor has it that steep increases in driver registration fees could be levied against the counties serviced by the MTA. Even that, plan, though is facing some opposition.

According to The Times, David Paterson and his advisers were hoping to implement an increased driver registration fee plan to fund New York’s road and bridge construction project. The Senators whose support this plan would need tend to agree. They believe that funds from drivers should be reinvested in the roads the drivers need and not in mass transit. That is, after all, how we got into this toll mess in the first place.

Meanwhile, some upstate senators seem to be grumbling about the increased focus on the MTA. As William Neuman and Jeremy Peters report, “lawmakers say that in the past, the authority’s capital program and the state’s road and bridge program have usually been treated in tandem, to balance the needs of the city and the rest of the state.”

Right now, Senators are trying to find a New York City-centric way to address the MTA’s capital and operations budgets with little regard for upstate trade-offs. I firmly believe that upstate New York will just have to wait. The needs of the MTA and the millions of people who depend on it daily are far more important than a pork-laced project to repair and maintain roads outside of the city.

While Albany delays, it Sheldon Silver who has become the state cheerleader for the MTA. “We are going to examine the alternatives that are available to us and we will succeed, I believe, in overturning the draconian service cuts and the outrageous increases in fares that the board has proposed,” he said. I hope he’s right.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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While Albany may be nearing an MTA rescue plan, transit advocates shouldn’t lower their guards yet. The so-called Fare Hike Four remain a threat to adequately funded transit, and last week, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery — representing an area where 70 percent of households are car-free and transit commuters outnumber drivers by a 10-to-1 margin — joined their ranks.

On Friday, my friend and fellow subway rider Todd passed on the following e-mail from Montgomery’s office:

Thank you so much for reaching out to me about the MTA “Doomsday” plan. I am working with my colleagues in the Senate to find an alternative to the unacceptably harsh ideas suggested by the Ravitch Commission. The Senate Majority plan provides the MTA with more operating capital than the Ravitch plan, does so with a lower fare increase and with no tolls on bridges. In addition it provides for the ongoing future fiscal health of the MTA by requiring a thorough forensic audit of the MTA to root out excesses and duplications. It is unacceptable for the public to be continually subjected to fare increases and be denied any oversight of the MTA finances. With your continued support for the Senate Majority proposal, we can assure the continued responsible health of our transportation infrastructure.

Today, Streetsblog took the Senator to task for supporting a nonsensical plan with questionable math. Her support of this plan is, in the words of Ben Fried, “laughable” in light of her supposed commitment to both working families and mass transit, and it is becoming more and more obvious that the people we send to Albany are unqualified to be running our government. Montgomery ran for her Senate seat unopposed, and New York City is now paying the price for this political ineptitude.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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  • Post: Mayor to take fall for MTA woes · In his Inside City Hall column today, David Seifman analyzes the political woes of the MTA and comes to a conclusion that may surprise transit advocates. Mayor Bloomberg, he writes, will take the political fall from the inaction and ineptitude coming out of Albany. Bloomberg, he notes, has been largely silent on the MTA’s fiscal issues because Albany legislatures don’t like the mayor, and transit advocates worried Bloomberg’s statements would hurt their cause. Now, though, because the mayor is, according to Seifman’s sources, viewed by the public as “the king,” Albany insiders believe that Bloomberg’s poll numbers will suffer as the supposedly immune State Senators escape unscathed.

    As much as it pains me to admit it, Seifman is probably right. For some reason, New Yorkers are willing to forgive, ignore or remain ignorant of Albany’s problems and the ways in which our state senators are completely out of touch with their constituents. The Fare Hike Four — a bunch of populist phones doing more harm than good for transit in the city — will earn their reelections while people fighting for transit end up buried by the scorn. All we can do is point our fingers at the right villains, but if no one is listening — as City Room comments and various letters to the editors make clear — it won’t matter. · (0)

In an effort to find a way to connect Metro-North lines with Manhattan’s West Side, the MTA is working with the Extell to plan a new station at the real estate company’s Riverside South development. The new property is a 75-acre development on the site of the former New York Central Railroad’s 60th St. yards, and a Metro-North stop with quick access to Grand Central could greatly enhance the area’s appeal.

The West Side Spirit, a community newspaper covering the Upper West Side, first reported on talks between Extell and the MTA last week. This development came about at the behest of City Council Member Gale Brewer who reached out to Howard Permut, the president of Metro-North.

At some point soon, Robert MacLagger, the acting V.P. for planning with the railroad agency, will meet with Brewer and the developments to discuss the potential for this project. “The next step is to conduct further analysis of this potential station location and others,” Permut said in a letter to the council member.

For her part, Brewer expressed her belief that adding this access point to an area devoid of subway routes would encourage people in this new development to take the train. “It’s positive. It was nice to get this letter,” Brewer said of her response from Metro-North. “I can’t think of a better way to add transportation and get people out of their car.”

Expanding Metro-North access is a very positive goal. The tracks run right through this development, and a station there would make the area more transit-accessible while encouraging potential drivers to eschew cars. To make this station stop work, though, the MTA would have to set low fares from 60th St. to Grand Central, and if this stop ever comes to pass, the agency should make inter-system transfers available for those continuing on via subway.

(Ed. Note: As Marc notes in the comments to this post, one of the benefits actually doesn’t require an adjusted fare. This station would allow Metro-North to run trains into Penn Station via the Amtrak lines. Once the LIRR shifts some operations to Grand Central following the completion of the LIRR East Side Access project, the track space at Penn Station would open up as well.)

I would also encourage a substantial fiscal contribution to any potential project from Extell. A stop on the Far West Side at 60th St. would greatly enhance the appeal and value of the new developments, and real estate companies that stand to benefit from city expenditures should contribute to those projects.

Categories : Metro-North
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For months, the New York State legislature has resisted efforts to save the MTA, and last week, the MTA Board approved a package of fare hikes and service cuts designed to eliminate a budget gap in excess of $1.2 billion.

But finally, with New Yorkers’ collective backs against the proverbial wall, the State Senate is on the verge of passing something that will save the MTA. According to reports from the weekend, a political stalemate may be on the verge of breaking as the Senate will soon unveil a rescue plan insiders believe to be adequate to stave off fare hikes and service cuts. Whether this plan will solve the MTA’s financial problems or simply postpone the need for a permanent solution to a future date remains to be seen.

No matter what happens, the legislature will have to act fast to ensure passage and implementation before the MTA is set to enact its own cost-saving measures in May. Glenn Blain and Pete Donohue had the details:

State legislative leaders said Friday they expect to soon have a plan sparing riders from jarring fare hikes and punishing service cuts. Revenue-raising measures under discussion don’t include tolling East and Harlem river bridges but Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith (D-Queens) said all options remain on the table.

Either way, a final package wouldn’t let drivers off the hook completely, sources said. If not tolls, motorists would have to help plug the MTA’s massive budget gaps through higher vehicle registration fees or some other driving-related charge, sources said. The rest of the plan is expected to include two other key recommendations from a panel headed by…Ravitch: modest fare hikes and a payroll tax on businesses in the MTA region, sources said.

After they emerged from a closed-door meeting with Gov. Paterson, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and Smith said they expect to finish hashing out the details of the doomsday-derailing plan early in the week. “Based on the conversations we’ve had of late, I think it won’t be in the budget bill but I think we’ll be passing it around the same time,” Smith said.

As the weekend ticked on, nothing else leaked out, but Senators expressed their belief that a deal could be reached early this week. The quotes NY1 dragged up from the Senators are rather priceless too. “The Democratic conference was always committed to do something responsible to stop the fare hikes, to improve service, to not develop tolls which exacerbate the problems of the working class in this city,” Bronx Senator Pedro Espada Jr., said.

Said Ruben Diaz, Sr., one Senator who probably doesn’t ride the subways, “My conscience is telling me that we in the Senate are having the best package for everyone that rides the subway.”

I will wait to reserve judgment on the adequacy or effectiveness of this plan until the details are released. It sounds as though Comptroller William C. Thompson’s driver license fee plan may be back on the table.

As is always the case from Albany, the Senate will now end up claiming the fare hike/service cuts high ground. They can craft a media image as rescuers of the MTA and earn undeserved political points for a financial crisis of their own doing.

Obviously, this story is far from over, but I am optimistic that the MTA’s Doomsday budget will be avoided. For now.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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