• MTA looking to reactivate SI’s North Shore Rail · As far as transit goes, Staten Island is the neglected borough. It has some express bus service, a ferry and one rail line, but hardly anyone who lives on the island thinks highly of its mass transit options. Borough President James Molinaro has made beefing up public transportation one of his biggest issues, and today, the MTA announced a $1.5 million contract with SYSTRA Engineering to determine the fate of the North Shore Rail line. SYSTRA, a frequent MTA consultant, will spend nine months studying whether the rail line should be reactivated for trains or turned into dedicated bus lanes. (For a sense of the route, check out this Wikipedia entry.)

    After this initial study is complete, the MTA would have to engage in a costly Environmental Impact Study. Although the money isn’t there yet for the EIS, it’s promising to see the MTA expending some effort on Staten Island, and the MTA acknowledged as much. “We’re excited to be moving forward with new ideas for improving mobility on the north and west shores of Staten Island,” MTA spokesman Jeremy Soffin said to SILive.com’s Maura Yates. “This study will shed light on the benefits and costs of several transit possibilities, and we look forward to an informed dialogue with Staten Island residents.” · (31)

Jay Walder is currently the MTA CEO and Chairman because of the success he enjoyed in London and then at McKinsey as a transit consultant. A veteran of New York’s MTA, he helped turn around Transport for London and led an effort to modernize the system. Now, as New York’s transit network stands in need of some major investment and massive upgrades, Walder is looking to bring his team from London across the pond to help drag the MTA into the 21st Century.

He is surrounding himself with his team, though, in an interesting and intriguing fashion. Instead of contracting out to a high-priced consultant firm such as McKinsey, he has proposed a deal that would bring Transport for London officials to the states on a two-year, no-bid consulting deal. It is an unorthodox approach toward transit management, but it just might work. Micheal Grynbaum has the details:

The arrangement, unusual for a pair of public agencies, would be worth up to $500,000 and would pay for Mr. Walder’s former colleagues to fly across the pond and work as on-site consultants in New York. The Londoners’ salary and benefits, along with travel and lodging, would be covered by public funds.

Many of Mr. Walder’s top priorities for the New York system — including computerized, scannable fare cards and arrival-time clocks at bus and subway stops — are modeled after similar programs he introduced in London, where he worked until 2006. “Rather than having to bring in high-priced consultants, we’re getting experts with success already in doing these things, and getting them at public sector costs,” said Jeremy Soffin, a spokesman for the authority.

Staff members from the London agency would charge $125 to $200 an hour, according to a document released this week. The authority called those rates “fair and reasonable,” and said the fees were half what a private consultant might charge.

Reaction to the deal from transit experts and advocates was mixed. Nicole Gelinas as the conservative Manhattan Institute told Grynbaum that she is hesitant over the no-bid contract. “A no-bid contract with a former employer could set a bad precedent,” she said. “Mr. Walder has to bend over backwards here to explain what exactly these people will bring to the table that we can’t get through the expertise for which we’re already paying him.”

Gene Russianoff though was more willing to give Walder the benefit of the doubt. “I think he’s made a case that he’s going to get value for the deal,” the Straphangers Campaign head said. “He deserves a chance to do it on his own terms.”

In the end, the MTA Board will have to approve the contract, and even the no-bid nature of it shouldn’t turn them off from it. They don’t need to make it a precedent if they are clear that it is a one-time offer.

My only gripe with this deal is its duration. It is definitely a cheaper deal than one the MTA would sign with McKinsey’s transit experts, but does the MTA need a two-year treatment with Transport for London? Can they bring the good ideas with them for 12 months?

As Walder wraps up his third week in the job, he has shown a willingness to throw out new ideas and bring in new people with a background of success. His desire to succeed and his background as a transit expert — as opposed to a real estate magnate or politically-connected businessman — are manifesting themselves. We can only he can deliver the results we need.

Categories : MTA
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  • MTA to pay for Second Ave. building bracings · For months, the MTA has been fighting with Second Ave. landlords and the Department of Buildings over the state of some Second Ave. residences. Earlier this years, two buildings had to be evacuated after structural deficiencies were discovered. Although the MTA states that cracks in the building had been there before construction on the Second Ave. Subway began, the buildings’ owners claimed that vibrations from construction had exacerbated the problem, and the two sides were at an impasse. The MTA has finally decided to pay $500,000 to shore up these buildings.

    Because longer construction delays brought about by an inability to secure a blasting permit would lead to higher Second Ave. Subway costs, the agency will fork over the dough to fix the problems. For now, it is cheaper to do, in the words of MTA Capital Construction President Michael Horodniceanu, “just enough so these [buildings] are stable for us to proceed with work” than it is to wait out protracted legal battles and further postponements. When these buildings are secure, the MTA should receive the necessary blasting permits, and the work to build the launch box for the Second Ave. tunnel boring machine will continue. · (13)

4Bullets For three weeks in June, New York City Transit ran 4 express service in the Bronx as part of a pilot program. With a new signal system in place along the Jerome Ave. line, Transit ran express trains along the little-used middle track from June 8-June 26 in an effort to ease overcrowding on the popular 4 train and speed up the commutes of residents from the Bronx.

Today, Transit announced a new seven-week extension of this pilot program with an eye toward making it a permanent part of 4 train service in the Bronx. The new pilot will kick off on Monday, Oct. 26 and run through Friday, Dec. 11. As they did over the summer, Transit plans to run five Manhattan-bound express trains starting at 7 a.m. and continuing every 20 minutes until 8:20 a.m. The trains will skip eight stops along the way, one fewer than over the summer.

After receiving feedback from riders, Transit has decided to include Bedford Park Boulevard as an express stop. The trains, then, will start at Woodlawn and stop at Mosholu Parkway, Bedford Park Blvd.-Lehman College, Burnside Avenue and 149th Street-Grand Concourse. The route designation will indeed be a diamond 4.

For Transit, this pilot extension is a sign of the success of the line general manager program. David Knights, the IRT East general manager, has seen this project through from inception to its second pilot, and he would love to see it become a permanent part of Bronx 4 service. “Customers who use the Bronx Express 4 will skip eight stations, which should reduce their travel times by about four minutes from the 21-minute scheduled running time between Woodlawn and 149th Street-Grand Concourse during the height of the a.m. peak. This time savings is significant when heading to work in the morning,” Knights said.

Transit head Howard Roberts praised the time-saving nature of the program and the general manager’s initiative. “In New York City, every second counts and if we can give a few extra minutes to our customers, we will certainly strive to do so,” NYC Transit President Howard H. Roberts, Jr., said. “Thanks to the innovative thinking of David Knights, Group General Manager of IRT East and 4 Line General Manager Stepfone Montgomery, more service improvements like this should be expected by our customers.”

When all is said and done in December, Transit will evaluate the second of this program and determine its future. Hopefully, it will stick around, and hopefully, Transit will continue to explore how to utilize underserved express tracks — such as those along the F line — in order to ease congestion and reduce commute times while fully exploiting existing infrastructure.

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As Jay Walder gets more comfortable in his role as the new CEO and Chairman of the MTA and as he realizes what kind of power he might wield while relying on his Golden Parachute, he has spent much of this week discussing his future plans for the MTA. He knows that the agency needs to improve its construction efforts and wants to speed up the bus system as well.

Today, he spoke with Michael Grynbaum of The Times about a departure from the single-fare scheme New Yorkers have enjoyed for the last 105 years. While he has no plans to raise the fares (beyond the biennial adjustments for inflation), he is considering a new fare payment system that would allow for lower off-peak and weekend fares. This time-of-day pricing would be a big break from New York City subway past where a ride from the Rockaways to Inwood costs the same as one 42nd St. to 14th St. no matter the time of day.

This is, yet again, another transit innovation that Walder would bring with him from across the pond, and it is one in place already in Washington, DC, where the Metro is far more commuter-based than New York City Transit’s system is. Still, Walder sees off-peak discounts as a way to spread the commute for those who enjoy job flexibility and, thus, ease system congestion. “We have an infrastructure that is set for the capacity of the peak,” Walder said to The Times. “What we really want to do is use that infrastructure all the time.”

Grynbaum had more on this proposal:

The chairman ruled out charging higher prices for longer trips, a system used in cities like Washington and London, saying such a move in New York “would be a mistake.” But he said a frank discussion of changes to the pricing structure “will be an important part of what we’re doing.” A transit spokesman said later that Mr. Walder was not considering higher peak fares.

In a wide-ranging interview with reporters at The New York Times, Mr. Walder — who wore a pair of subway token cufflinks — shared his plans to overhaul the technology of the nation’s biggest transit system. He plans to introduce so-called smart cards equipped with computer chips, digital arrival-time clocks at subway stations and GPS devices that would let passengers know exactly when the next bus was arriving…

Mr. Walder was emphatic when discussing the prospect of a revised fare structure, noting with a hint of excitement that “you can see creative and innovative things that would happen with this.” He said an off-peak pricing plan could “generate the revenue we need and get more people to be using the transit system at different times of day.”

Interestingly enough, in the past, Walder has called off-peak pricing a “revenue neutral policy.” As Grynbaum reports, as a speech at City College forever preserved on video, Walder spoke about using pricing to “improve the efficiency of the transport system we have, to allow people to make their choices about what they want to do.” Now, it’s about revenue.

Already, though, the MTA’s old guard is showing some resistance to the idea. Andrew Albert of the New York City Transit Riders Council practically dismissed it off-hand. “You really already have some crushed loads at off-peak periods,” he said. “London is not necessarily the same as New York.”

Despite the inherent pessimism in his statement, Albert might have a point. Would daytime discounts make as much sense for Times Square as they would for, say, the Brighton Line in Brooklyn or a 4 train at Woodlawn? How would the MTA avoid discriminating against more popular stations? Or should the agency be charging less based on station use depending up on the time of day?

I appreciate Walder’s outside-the-box thinking. Variable fares would be a major break from the norm for New Yorkers, and it could help spread out the pain of a congested commute. As long as he keeps thinking outside the box, the MTA will be in good hands.

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The more I read about Jay Walder, the more I feel as though he gets it. After his comments about increasing and improving bus service earlier this week, Walder spoke to the Citizens Budget Commission yesterday about the the fate of the MTA’s big projects. With the CBC criticizing the MTA’s capital construction efforts for constant delays and cost overruns, Walder believes the MTA must focus on its current projects and not add new ones.

“I don’t really think this is the time for grand plans. We have enough on our plate already,” Walder said. “I think we have to focus this organization right now on execution and delivery.”

For those of us who dream of the TriboroRX or the numerous other pie-in-the-sky subway expansion plans, we’ll have to suffer. But on the whole, Walder’s vision is the right one. The MTA should work toward completing projects currently under construction before taking on new ones. They should continue to work on the Fulton St. Transit Center; they should pick up the pace along Second Ave.; they should continue apace with the East Side Access project.

Yet, although I think Walder’s priorities are in the right place, he should consider looking ahead to a time when these projects are finished. He should think about planning for Phase II of the Second Ave. Subway simply because much of the tunnel is already in place. He should think about ways to improve service that don’t cost billions of dollars per mile.

At the same time, he has a perception problem to battle as well. As a part of the Daily News article covering his speech, the paper’s website presents a poll asking readers which project should be the first one tackled by Walder. The vast plurality of voters chose “Better service. Too many subway and bus lines have been cut.”

The reality is that no subway lines have been cut, and bus service hasn’t been reduced to a point where anyone should notice. Generally, a bunch of buses that carried few people were eliminated from the schedules, and no routes were axed. Could service be better? Sure. But most the improvements would come from the other proposed solutions — station renovations, mechanized trains lines with arrival boards, etc.

This poll simply highlights the disconnect between people’s knowledge of the subway and reality under ground. During the Doomsday talks last winter, the MTA said it would cut service, and the Straphangers held highly publicized funerals for the W and Z. Yet, in the end, Albany stepped, and these trains were not cut. Riders, however, are unaware of this fact.

So far, Walder has talked a good game, but he has to convince Albany that he is for a real and an ignorant public that he is looking out for riders’ interests. He’s had the job for all of 17 days now. In two and a half months, he plans to a report with goals and timetables for MTA projects. Then, we’ll see just how well he plans to handle a demanding job.

Categories : MTA Construction
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  • A defense and another Day of Outrage from the TWU · As the MTA continues to fight the TWU’s arbitration victory, the Transit Workers Union will keep on protesting the authority’s actions. Yesterday, union lawyers filed a response to the MTA’s appeal in the Manhattan Supreme Court. As Pete Donohue reports, the 67-page appeal claims that an 11 percent raise over three years is “just and reasonable,” the legal standard for the arbitration award. Meanwhile, the union will stage another Day of Outrage next Tuesday. This time, transit workers will march from Cadman Plaza across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall at 4 p.m. on Oct. 28. For more info, check out the Local 100 poster announcing the protest. · (11)

The Citizens Budget Commission has joined the long line of watchdog organizations bashing the MTA for its inability to manage its capital construction program. With a new five-year plan out that currently suffers from a $10.8 billion budget gap, the CBC report criticizes the MTA for its lack of fiscal awareness and its inability to control the cost and completion schedule for its big-ticket projects.

For long-time readers of Second Ave. Sagas and for anyone who follows subway news, this report is hardly a surprise. After all, the Second Ave. Subway completion date has been pushed by nearly a decade since it was first announced, and the Fulton St. Transit Center is nearly 100 percent over budget and five or six years behind schedule. But the CBC report — available here as a PDF — is fairly stunning in its depth. On nearly every capital campaign project, the MTA has either not met costs or can’t meet its own construction timeline.

“The MTA should do a better job of managing its capital plans and be more realistic in what it promises to accomplish,” Charles Brecher, research director of the Citizens Budget Commission, said. “Now is the time to make improvements, so that the next plan is one on which the MTA can actually deliver.”

The CBC report examined nearly 800 MTA projects that totaled $18.6 billion and came away with the following conclusions as presented in its executive summary:

  • The MTA Board does not provide the public, or even collect for itself, sufficient information to determine whether the projects in the five-year plan are progressing in accordance with the plan. Available reports do not cover all of the projects in the plan, do not correspond to items and categories in the plan for covered items, and do not relate consistently to project milestones other than start and completion.
  • The limited information available for the projects indicates that the MTA encounters significant delays in work of all types with major problems in the mega-projects and signal and communication projects, but notable delays also in less complex work such as the replacement of subway cars. Of the five mega-projects, only the South Ferry Terminal has progressed substantially in accordance with the schedule; three others are delayed by at least one year, and the Fulton Street Transit Center is currently set for completion in 2014, five years behind schedule…
  • Many projects are completed close to the initial cost estimates, but cost estimates are problematic for some mega-projects, and some important signal and communication projects are seriously over budget. The cost of the Fulton Street Transit Center is nearly 90 percent above the initial estimate, and the South Ferry terminal is 24 percent above the initial estimate…Communication projects with large cost increases include Automatic Train Supervision (35 percent), customer information service on the Canarsie Line (55 percent), and computer-based train control on the Canarsie Line (51 percent).

The report highlights many of the projects I have followed over the last three years. In addition to the big-ticket items, the CBC notes that the roll-out of train information boards and an improved public address system along the A Division lines is now four years behind schedule. Even some new rolling stock orders were delayed by eight months.

To solve the problem, the CBC issued three recommendations:

  • The MTA should commit to an improved management information system for tracking capital projects and to greater transparency in informing the public about the status of its capital projects. The public should know how its money is being used. More information should be assembled centrally, it should be kept in a consistent format with clear milestones for assessing progress, and it should be made publicly available on the MTA’s website.
  • The MTA should improve its capacity to manage mega-projects and improvements in signaling and communication systems. These are the areas of greatest delays and cost increases, and they account for large sums in the proposed five- year capital plan. New procedures and an expanded pool of personnel with relevant expertise are urgently needed within the agency.
  • The next five-year plan should be based on a realistic assessment of what can be accomplished. At the end of the 2000-2004 plan fully 365 projects costing over $4.8 billion, or more than one-quarter of the total plan, had not reached the stage expected when the plan was approved. Much of the work undertaken during the 2005-2007 period examined was for projects in the previous five-year plan. It is likely that a similar proportion of the work included in the current 2005-2009 plan will have to be extended into future years. The new plan for 2010-2014 should be more realistic in anticipating the new work that can be accomplished and the funding needed to support it.

It’s almost surprising that it took the CBC two years to release this report. After all, a quick glance at the MTA’s website reveals that information is scare. For example, the page detailing construction progress for the 7 line extension hasn’t been updated since November 2008. That’s hardly informative.

For their part, the MTA said that they are working on the issues of transparency. “Today the MTA previewed an online dashboard that will provide the public with clear, updated information about all of the projects in the upcoming capital program,” MTA Spokesman Jeremy Soffin said.“For the first time, you’ll be able to search by project type, line or station to find out exactly where construction stands, why the work is necessary and whether it is on budget. The dashboard will be available online by the end of the year. We look forward to engaging with the Citizens Budget Commission and others in the ongoing public discussion on the MTA’s critical capital program.”

That dashboard would be a great step in the right direction for the MTA. There is but one question about it: Can the agency deliver it to the public on time?

Categories : MTA Construction
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  • CBC: MTA projects very delayed · Just in case we needed confirmation for what we already know, the Citizen’s Budget Commission has released a report slamming the MTA’s construction efforts. Basically, every major project is late and overbudget, and the transit authority doesn’t do enough to, in the words of the Crain’s report, “collect sufficient information to determine whether projects are progressing as anticipated.” I’ll have more on this report later this evening. For now, read the report here as a PDF. The MTA has already pledged to improve its transparency, and we’re still eagerly awaiting the MTA Inspector General’s report on the Second Ave. Subway project. · (2)
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