Just one day after Howard Roberts resigned as the president of New York City Transit, MTA CEO and Chairman Jay Walder has tabbed Tom Prendergast as his replacement. Prendergast, 57, is a veteran of the MTA and had been serving as CEO of Vancouver’s South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority. He stepped down from his post at TransLink today to prepare for the move back to New York.

Predergast will bring to Transit 30 years of experience in the industry. He worked at both the Chicago Transit Authority and the Federal Transit Administration before landing in New York in 1982. For 18 years, he rose thorough the managerial ranks at NYC Transit. He served as Senior Vice President of Subways from 1990-2000 and as President of the Long Island Rail Road from 1994-2000. Before joining TransLink in 2008, he worked as a consultant on numerous transportation infrastructure projects.

“It is a tremendous honor to return home to lead the outstanding men and women who run one of the world’s great transit systems,” Prendergast said in a statement today. “I look forward to working with Jay Walder to implement the customer service improvements that New Yorkers deserve. Running New York City Transit is one of the great challenges and honors in the profession, and I will bring all of my energy and passion to the job.”

In July 2008, Predergast left the private sector to move to Canada, and today, his departure, less than 18 months after landing in Vancouver, came as a shock. He put it, though, in terms New Yorkers can understand today. “Leaving TransLink is difficult because this is a great organization with great people and potential,” he said. “But at the end of the day, for me, being asked to run New York’s transit authority is like being asked to play in Yankee Stadium: You just don’t say no.”

Prendergast will inherit a position faced with numerous difficulties. The subway infrastructure is sagging under its age, and the MTA is about to begin a component-based repair program that should streamline State of Good Repair efforts. Meanwhile, Jay Walder has been very vocal in his desire to see technological innovation and 21st Century upgrades arrive in New York City. Still, many believe Prendergast to be a top candidate for the job. “I believe he is universally recognized as one of the leading lights in transit management,” an anonymous source told the Daily News.

Walder, in a statement, echoed that praise. “Tom is a leader who brings an extraordinary variety of experiences from around the world to a system that he already knows extremely well,” he said. “Tom’s work running one of the most technologically sophisticated systems in Vancouver will be invaluable as we take the MTA to the next level in performance and customer service.”

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Wet Paint signs portend an impending opening. (Photo by Matthew Denker)

Last night, on my way back to Brooklyn via an N local train, we slowly rolled past Cortlandt St., and I noted how the station no longer resembled a construction site. At least on the northbound platform, everything is nearly in place. The turnstiles and fences have been installed; the MetroCard Vending Machines are in place; the token booth is back.

According to MTA documents, the northbound platform itself will reopen in December, but the Dey St. connector won’t open until 2012. This morning, Matthew Denker sent me the above photo, and although wooden fencing still blocks the new staircase, the construction sheds no longer cover the station entrance. Transit is clearly gearing up for a reopening.

Shuttered since 2005 and a short walk from both the Rector St. and City Hall stops along the BMT Broadway line, the four-year absence of this station hasn’t been as bad for the area as it could have been. Lower Manhattan workers and residents and Century 21 shoppers, though, will be happy to see it reopen. I wonder, ifthe Dey St. passageway and the out-of-system connection to the Fulton St. subways will be featured on the sign in two or three years. Slowly, slowly, the pieces of the Fulton St. Hub are opening up.

Categories : Fulton Street
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  • A morning off · With the Yankees winning the World Series and the celebration continuing on into the wee hours of the morning, I’m taking the first half of Thursday off. I’ll be back this afternoon with some news about the slowest buses in the city and some state representatives who want to repeal the MTA payroll tax three days after it went into effect. Color me unsurprised on both fronts. · (4)

Updated 3:05 p.m.: Amidst speculation that new MTA CEO and Chairman Jay Walder would begin to staff the top agency positions with some of his own people, Howard Roberts has resigned as the head of New York City Transit. Roberts, a veteran of the MTA, had served in his position for 2.5 years.

Although New York City Transit has come under fire in recent weeks for the increased number of weekend service changes and generally less-than-satisfactory on-time performance, Roberts, who spoke with me last winter, has been a solid Transit president. With a focus on improving customer experience, he rolled out the rider report cards in 2007 and implemented the successful line manager program.

“Earlier today I accepted the resignation of New York City Transit President Howard Roberts,” Walder said in a statement this afternoon. “Howard deserves credit for his hard work leading NYC Transit over the last two and one half years, and I am grateful for his service to the MTA. He will remain in his position through the end of November. I intend to name a replacement in short order.”

Meanwhile, Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign praised Roberts’ service. “Howard Roberts Jr. has been a good head of New York City’s transit system,” Russianoff said in statement. “Although saddled with budget cuts and disruptions caused by needed repair work, he put managers in charge of each line and pushed to provide faster bus service. The subways and buses can drive New Yorkers nuts, but Howard Roberts worked hard for a saner system.”

Where Walder goes from here will be telling. With a background steeped in transit, he will mostly likely turn to another transit veteran to fill the role. Roberts will serve out the month, and on December 1, it’s day one all over again for Transit.

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Despite a late surge in support for Bill Thompson, brought about by previously undecided voters nearly all picking the Democrat, Mayor Michael Bloomberg will, for better or worse, be New York’s mayor for another four years. A centerpiece to his reelection campaign was a not-so-ambitious plan for a better New York City transit system.

I never believed the plan to be all that original, and I’ve already explored Bloomberg’s less-than-impressive transit record. With four more years on tap, though, Bloomberg can now go about delivering on his promises.

Of course, there’s one little problem: Bloomberg’s plan won’t come cheap. At a time when the city has no money and after eight years of Bloomberg’s cutting city contributions to the MTA, Mayor Mike will have to figure out a way to pay for his transit reform plan. Yesterday morning, Larry Penner of The Queens Courier wrote at length on this very issue. He explores which projects are worth funding and which aren’t. It’s a rather wordy take on Bloomberg, but the overall point is a good one. Someone will have to figure out a way to pay for these upgrades.

Some of the upgrades can be covered in non-MTA monies. The Department of Transportation can reassign roads and convert the necessary space into dedicated bus lanes. DOT can fund the signal upgrades and the construction of physical barriers to separate lanes. The MTA will have to supply the physical equipment and man power to run more buses, but that’s cheap compared to, say, the Second Ave. Subway.

But other plans require a commitment from the MTA. Increased ParaTransit service, for example, would represent a huge cost to the cash-strapped agency. F express service, a potential reality in 2014, would require more rolling stock and more train drivers and conductors.

Other options simply require more money. The Mayor wants the MTA to “fix stations more efficiently and cost effectively to ensure existing stations are in a state of good repair.” The agency plans to do exactly that with its new component replacement plan. However, for these repairs and renovations to go forward at a quick pace, the agency simply needs more money. It needs more investment in construction designed to maintain its current infrastructure.

That is where Bloomberg steps in. He should decide to up the city’s contributions to the MTA. That, however, would require a city nearly in the red to find more money. The mayor isn’t really in a position to raise taxes, and New Yorkers may revolt is taxes go up so soon during a third term.

The answer, as it often does, comes back to bridge tolls or congestion pricing. Bloomberg could try again to lead a charge for user fees for these bridges. It seems likely that we will have bridge tolls within a few years anyway, and his lasting legacy could be one of sound transit investment. It might be a dream, but after running a campaign based in part around reform at the MTA, the least Bloomberg could is deliver.

Categories : MTA Politics
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  • Behind the Scenes: Profiling those who restore the subways · While many New Yorkers who ride the subways see decrepit stations with uneven floors, leaky walls and cracked tiles, hidden amongst the 105-year-old subway system are some gems of another era. Some of the original IRT stations featuring mosacis that date from the early 1900s and ceramic tiling from the same period. Rich in history and architectural, these aspects of the subway system are too valuable for the MTA to simply discard them during renovations. To that end, the agency often sends away ceramics for restoration. Bob Shenfeld, a Syracuse-based ceramic expert, is currently working on the 96th St. tiles, and Dick Case of Syracuse.com profiled Shenfeld and his restoration work.

    Shenfeld says that he gets down to the city approximately once a week and that the MTA sends him carefully labeled shipments once a month. He has wall panels featuring sail boats that will return to Columbus Circle and has worked on a variety of stations up and down the West Side IRT line. His work can be seen at the under-construction 96th St. stop on the 1/2/3 in that station’s new tiling work. As Shenfled said, “They wanted to make the subway stations art gallers” 100 years ago, and today, someone has to keep the art in top shape. [Syracuse.com] · (1)

More than half of New Yorkers rely on public transportation to commute to work. More than half of New York households do not own a single car. More than one billion MetroCard swipes were counted by New York City Transit in 2008. Yet, I can’t help but feel that something is amiss with the city’s focus, or lack thereof, on transit policy issues.

According to the Furman Center’s State of New York City’s Housing and Neighborhoods report, city-wide reliance on public transportation hit a decade-long high in 2007. That year, 56.7 percent of all New Yorkers 16 and over who do not work at home and commute to a job do so via our city’s transit. With a recession settling in last year and this, that number could approach 60 percent by decade’s end.

Comparatively, in the 2000 Census, car ownership covered less than half of the city’s households. In fact, 53.5 percent of all households city-wide do not own a car. With insurance, gas and parking as well as routine maintenance top considerations, that number should increase as well in the 2010 Census.

Yet, public transit seems to be the proverbial fifth wheel in New York City. The state legislature begrudgingly approved a bailout for the MTA that is now proving to be rather unpopular with, well, everyone. The city eschewed an opportunity for $354 million from the federal government when business and car owners, a distinct minority in this city, fought back against first congestion pricing plans and then East River bridge tolls. Free roads, they argue, are a necessity, and as our transit system limps along, these opponents to a sensible solution argue that tolls would destroy the economy. No; drastic cutbacks from the MTA would in fact destroy the city’s economy.

Finally, we have the residents of the city. Part of being a New Yorker involves complaining about the MTA. Complain about the service, the smell, the crowds, the waits, the decrepit stations, the weekend changes. Complain about the fares, the fare hikes. But then, when people — wide-eyed transit advocates — suggest radical solutions, most New Yorkers shrug it off. Think small seems to be the mantra when, in reality, the city should be thinking big.

Meanwhile, enter Michael Bloomberg and Bill Thompson. Mayor Bloomberg has put forth a strong transit platform with some great ideas, but his record of MTA support is lacking. Bill Thompson has a lackluster platform, but his public statements belie any sort of transit commitment. In fact, on the day before Election Day, Bill Thompson joined one Bed-Stuy business owner in bashing a planned bus-rapid transit lane while around the corner, scores of people waited for a packed bus to show up. This is Bedford Stuyvesant, an area of Brooklyn where 69.9 percent of the population relies on transit. Yet one car owner may lose her parking spot, and it’s a campaign issue.

Something has to give. One day, we might all wake up and realize the MTA can’t meet the demands of a international economic hub that relies on its subway and bus systems to shuttle people from one end of the city to the other. One day, we might all wake up and find that our politicians have recognized that cars are incidental to the way New York excels and that the public transportation system, and not free bridges, is the true lifeblood of the city.

For now, though, that is a dream. I’ll pull the lever later today for a candidate that I hope can do something for transit, and maybe in four years, someone will come along with a real plan for rational urban development in New York City, one that only pays lip service to transit but delivers results as well. The city can ill afford to wait much longer.

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  • Bus drivers face Halloween pranks · Of all the MTA employees who are not working on the tracks, bus drivers have it the worst. They are exposed and vulnerable to violent and unruly passengers. Over the weekend, another threat — Halloween pranksters — emerged. Heather Haddon reports on the death of a man who threw a heavy object and shattered a bus window. (For what it’s worth, the Daily News simply called the incident a jaywalking death.) Another bus faced an attack by a BB gun, and city buses are often egged on Halloween. Although the MTA workers tried to help each other out, bus drivers remain in a precarious position when under attack. · (1)

In a few hours, I’m going to get both my flu shot and my H1N1 vaccine. Luckily, NYU is making these sometimes hard-to-get shots available to students, but I know that many New Yorkers do not enjoy the benefits of group health care. What do you do then when someone on your train is hacking up a lung without so much as cursory attempt to cover his or her mouth?

In today’s economy, people can ill afford to take sick days. Workers need to be at their best, and most people need the money. When one gets sick, one is often inclined to ride it out while heading to work, and generally, riding it out means, literally, riding on the subway while sick. Meanwhile, with Swine Flu fears on the rise, with the government proclaiming health emergencies, New Yorkers generally wary of the petri dish of the subways are even less tolerance of the underground coughers.

Today, Lawrence Delevinge has a story for our times about a fight on his D train over Swine Flu fears:

If you think tensions over swine flu are exaggerated, think again. We saw a violent altercation between two women this morning on the New York City subway because of H1N1.

The D train was traveling south from Rockefeller Center (50th Street) to Bryant Park (42nd Street) shortly after 8:00 am. One woman, perhaps 5’7″, slightly overweight and with dyed reddish blond hair, was coughing without covering her mouth. Maybe it was swine flu, maybe not.

Another woman, roughly 5’2″, stocky, with her blond hair in a slicked-back bun, was nearby, clearly displeased. She made a curt comment to the first woman, something to the effect of “you need to cover your mouth — I don’t want swine flu.”

The second woman continued to yell at the cougher, berating her until she reacted, beginning to curse back. It escalated, and the accosting woman yelled “get the conductor!”

No one got the conductor — it just seemed like a shouting match — but as the train pulled into 42nd Street, the coughing woman spit on the other, provoking what sounded like a punch from the reaction of the crowd (we didn’t directly see it). Then the cougher attempted to exit the train as the doors were open, but the second woman grabbed her by the back of the hair, violently yanking her down to the floor.

Eventually, the two were separated, and one of the women got off at 34th St. The other passengers, though, sided with the displeased straphanger. They noted that the offender “wasn’t even covering her mouth,” and another passenger said that he “could have decked her too. That swine flu is treacherous.”

There is little doubt in my mind what the proper course of action is. Although these two women should not have come to blows, a person who is sick but has to ride the subway must make every effort to limit the spray. I routinely see people coughing without covering their mouths, and it is, frankly, disgusting. Even without Swine Flu fears, people riding the subway should be more mindful of their germs. With the threat of a debilitating illness, though, now is the time to be ever-vigilant.

I know some of you might say I don’t go far enough. Maybe people who are sick shouldn’t ride the subways at all. In an ideal world, they would stay home and recuperate. But when a sick day isn’t an option, the rest of us on a packed subway car shouldn’t have to suffer as well.

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Today is Collection Day for the MTA. As the agency continues along without drastic fare hikes and service cuts after last year’s Doomsday budget scare, they do so at the expense of all of us. Taxi fares rose by 50 cents yesterday, and car registration and driver licensing fees increased a few months ago. Today, though, is the first day of collection for the payroll tax, and no one is happy about it.

To recap: After nearly six months of warnings, hearings and general politicking about the MTA’s $1.9 billion budget gap, the New York State legislature averred a 33 percent fare hike and some very steep service cuts by enacting a piece-meal bailout package. Although congestion pricing and East River bridge tolls were a few of the more equitable options on the table, the state tried to spread the pain around. by levying a 0.33 percent payroll tax, an MTA taxi surcharge, an auto-rental tax increase and, as I mentioned above, higher registration and licensing fees.

With those taxes and fees now a reality, Michael Grynbaum explores how few find them acceptable in practice. In theory, of course, bridge toll opponents claimed those tolls would harm the economy, but in reality, these taxes are far worse. Reports Grynbaum:

But the payroll tax has prompted the most animosity so far, most of it coming from suburban business leaders in the 12-county region who argued that their tax burden greatly outweighed the benefits they receive from the transportation authority. The tax also has drawn strong objections from private and religious schools whose officials say they are being forced to cut services and possibly raise tuition while public schools in the area get a pass.

Under terms hammered out in May by state lawmakers, public school districts will be reimbursed for the tax, which costs businesses 34 cents for every $100 of wages. The unusual provision was intended by the bill’s backers to win over reluctant legislators, but other nonprofit groups were not exempted.

“It’s really an issue, I think, of basic fairness,” said James Cultrara, education director for the New York State Catholic Conference, an advocacy group that represents the state’s Catholic schools. “Certainly we can understand why the Legislature would want to reimburse the public schools. Why not then also reimburse the Catholic and other private schools?”

Grynbaum notes that Albany may eventually allow reimbursement to independent schools as well, but for now, there is no relief in sight. With donations down to due to a slumping economy, schools are among the hardest hit. One school in Harlem will shutter its after-school basketball program to make up for the payroll tax short fall while others will try to hit up potential donors for more money.

Still, some government officials noted that the alternative — a drastically reduced MTA — is worse. “The MTA is part of the economic lifeblood of the region itself,” Tom Bergen from the state’s Department of Taxation and Finance, said. “Businesses benefit substantially from having the MTA serving as a transportation infrastructure.”

Some advocates called for a better solution from Albany and an end to unfair taxes. The answer is simple: Toll the East River bridges or institute a form of congestion pricing. The technology exists so that bridge tolls do not slow down traffic. Meanwhile, since numerous transit options exist in between the geographical landmass of Long Island and Manhattan, the tolls would simply be the cost of driving as opposed to the cost I pay to ride the subway.

Small businesses will object, but those owners will benefit from decreased traffic due to less congestion. Meanwhile, they are also better positioned to pass the incrementally higher costs on to consumers. Bridge tolls would, in fact, increase revenues for those people who rely on the roads and cross the river numerous times a day.

For now, everyone will suffer with this payroll tax. The MTA alternative was worse, but tolling the bridges would be a way out of this mess for all involved. Who has the political will to make it a reality?

Categories : MTA Economics
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