One of the key issues in last month’s debate over the MTA rescue plan centered around source of revenue for a widely-used mass transit system. Should the state and city be subsidizing transit or should the MTA, through farebox revenue, be largely self-sufficient?

Similar to many political economic debates, this one gets to the root of government’s role in society. Those who support government funding of transit recognize that it is a social and public good. The city and state need transit to exist, and transit should turn to the state for money. Those who believe the MTA should survive on farebox revenue trend toward a privatized model of public transportation. Private entities set fares to run a profitable or net-zero operation. The government carries a small percentage — generally close to zero — of the costs but forfeits the rights to any profit.

Outside of a few key examples, the privatization of mass transit systems has been unsuccessful, and the vast majority of the world’s transit authorities rely on significant state contributions. New York, in a sense, is an outlier. It relies on farebox revenue for a majority of its operating expenses. In fact, New York City Transit’s 2009 adopted budget calls for a 60 percent farebox operations ratio. With so few government contributions on the table, no wonder the MTA’s finances are maxed out.

Even within the MTA, the numbers aren’t consistent. A piece by Mitchell Pally, the Suffolk County representative to the MTA, lays it out. In 2008, the MTA’s farebox operations ratios ranged from 16 percent on the Staten Island Railway to 44 percent on the LRR to 53 percent for New York City Transit. That hardly makes sense.

In his call for a dialogue, Pally makes a few good points. He writes:

For the past 44 years, under Democratic and Republican administrations, the state’s policy has been that mass transit riders should not pay the full cost of their ride. Instead, they pay a percentage – with the remainder of the cost coming from taxpayers. This fundamental policy extends to riders across the state, whether they take the LIRR, the city subways and buses, or the buses in Syracuse, Buffalo or Dutchess County…

The operating and capital costs to safely and effectively operate these complex but socially beneficial systems are simply too great to be borne by riders alone – that has been and continues to be the view of governmental decision-makers…

Under the original “doomsday” budget adopted by the MTA, riders would have paid more than 50 percent of the cost of their LIRR ride, and 61 percent of the cost of their subway trip. With the State Legislature’s rescue and this month’s increases, these percentages will be about 44 for the LIRR and 52 for New York City Transit. Are these numbers too high, too low or just right?

The answer can only be found in a public policy argument that must take place as part of the entire MTA financing discussion. Without a real answer, the region will just continue to move from one dramatic fare discussion to another without a real understanding of what is actually being discussed.

Right now, though, Pally is preaching to empty church. Our state representatives in Albany are too busy bickering over leadership issues to focus on anything important that might actually be plaguing New York state. While 62 Senate members fight it out, the rest of us are left to weather a bad economic storm on our own.

In closing, Pally issues a challenge to lawmakers and transit experts a like. “So policy-makers need to adopt an agreed-upon fare-box ratio for each of the mass transit systems in New York State, including the various MTA entities,” he writes. “With such an agreement on the table, the MTA and the public can engage in a reasonable discussion about fare adjustments that will be tied to an inflation-sensitive series of funding sources to cover the rest of the cost of the ride.”

Pally gets it. We need a steadier funded MTA that knows what to expect from its farebox operations ratio and the city and state which it supports. When we will get that is anyone’s guess.

Categories : MTA Economics
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trainmanycolors

The Train of Many Colors rides its way east past the Citibank building in Long Island City. (Photo by Ron Yee/New York Transit Museum)

The Transit Museum is breaking out their old cars this weekend, and they have asked me to help promote the trip. This Saturday, June 20th, the museum will run its Train of Many Colors for a day trip up to the Bronx. The train will depart from Shuttle Track 1 at Grand Central at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning. It will then travel south to the Brooklyn Bridge and then north to East Tremont in the Bronx. At the West Farms – East Tremont stop, railfans can either ride the Low-V train for a ride between East 180th and 239th Sts. or they can visit the Bronx Zoo at a discount.

The cost for this ride back in time is $30. Transit Museum members enjoy a discounted fare of $25, and children ages 5-17 get in for $10. As long as I can get up early enough on Saturday morning, I’ll be there. These rides are great fun. For more info on this and other transit-related events, check out the Transit Museum’s events page.

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  • To save $60 million a year, a better deal on bus fuel · Not known for efficiencies in contracting, the MTA came under fire in September when the Daily News reported of a no-win fuel contract. Because no other suppliers bid on a bus fuel contract, the MTA had to stick with Sprague Energy Corp., and the company ended up exercising a contractual option that allowed it to charge $206 million for fuel with a windfall in the tens of millions. At the time, Transit spokesman Paul Fleuranges said the agency would “ensure that this never happens again.”

    Today, that goal came to fruition. While the agency is sticking with Sprague, they have negotiated a five-year, $700-million contract for the cheaper ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel. Not only is this fuel better for the environment, but the contract will save the cash-strapped agency $60 million a year over its current one-year deal with Sprague. · (0)

What do you do with poll results from a self-selected group of New Yorkers who opt to receive e-mails from the Straphangers Campaign? These poll results aren’t really indicative of the pulse of New York. They simply show what the more transit-aware are thinking, and even that’s up for debate.

The question has risen to the forefront in the Great Station Agent Debate of 2009. (More here, here and here.) The Straphangers Campaign has released results of a poll asking its members the following question: “Station Customer Agents (SCA) are the maroon vested employees of the MTA that provide customer assistance to the public, services like: providing travel information to riders, assisting riders with fare purchases at MetroCard vending machines, as well as contacting the proper authorities in the case of an emergency. Do you feel safer traveling on the subway with a station agent present?”

Of course, the answer was yes and not by a small margin. Per the press release from Straphangers attorney Gene Russianoff, 63 percent of the 627 members who voted said yes while 16 percent said no and 21 percent didn’t care. The group used these results to protest the cuts. “Riders want a human presence at the entrances to the subways,” Russianoff said.

There are a few things going on here that warrant a closer look. First, the MTA is not eliminating full-time staffing in its entirety from any station. At some locations — a planned 36 stations — the only person working will be in a booth that is across the street from one of the entrances, but every station will have at least one full-time employee. Furthermore, emergency contact points will be in place at every platform, according to The Post. The illusion of safety may lessen, but actual safety should not suffer.

Second, the Straphangers are seemingly protesting the loss of the red-vested station agents. These are people who work in high-traffic stations during high-traffic times. I see one of these workers at the 47th St. side of the Rockefeller Center station every day, and when he retires — the MTA is cutting jobs through attrition, not dismissals — I won’t even notice that he is gone. Late-night concerns are mostly unfounded. (N.B.: That’s a high-traffic, tourist-heavy station that won’t actually lose it’s agent, but you get the point.)

In the end, these cuts will save the MTA $16 million annually. As the budget plan enacted by Albany requires the MTA to shave $200 million off of its own books, the station agents will go. I’d rather see an illusion of safety disappear than train frequency and maintenance plans rolled back. Wouldn’t you?

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offeraseatsquare580

Over the last two weeks, I’ve talked a bit about the ethics involved in riding the subway. We looked at the age-old debate concerning the emergency exits and then went in-depth on some of the more selfish people in the subways.

This week, the MTA unveiled a new ad campaign focusing around subway ethics and the law. As part of a drive to remind straphangers to give up their seats for a disabled rider, new SubTalk ads debuted on Monday. Transit also plans to print reminders on the backs of MetroCards beginning in September.

“We take our commitment to the disabled community very seriously,” NYC Transit President Howard Roberts said in a press release. “With this campaign, we want to remind our customers that not all disabilities are visible. We’re asking riders to look around and be aware of others who may need that priority seat.”

The Times went more in depth on the new awareness campaign:

“It’s the first time we’ve really stressed this,” said Paul J. Fleuranges, vice president for corporate communications at New York City Transit, the largest arm of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Those who decline to give up a seat on request face up to a $50 fine, he said. (The new campaign also warns that “not all disabilities are visible.”) …

Mr. Fleuranges said it would be hard to gauge the effectiveness of the campaign. “We don’t have the staff to monitor that,” he said in an e-mail message. “Where we hope this campaign has an impact is in the area of customer education — in that our riders understand why these seats are made available and hope, if asked, they provide the seat to a fellow customer who requests it.”

In a way, it’s a sad commentary on the state of New Yorkers and their attitudes toward others that this campaign even exists in the first place. Do subway riders not know they should give up seats to those who need? Are we too involved in our iPhones and Blackberries to bother with other people?

Don’t get me wrong; after a long day, I like my seat as much as the next guy. Yet, someone who obviously cannot stand can have my spot any day of the week. The more sensitive aspects of this new campaign involve those with disabilities that are not visible. Maybe, then, this latest effort will target those. Either way, stand up if you see someone who needs the seat. It’s the right thing to do.

After the jump, a look at the version of the ad that will be hanging in buses. Click the image above or the one below to enlarge.

Read More→

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Earlier today, the first of the MTA’s planned fare hikes went into effect. A remnant of the Doomsday budget proposal, today’s hikes impacted riders on Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road. On June 28th, New York City Transit riders will suffer through the same fate, and two weeks later, the MTA’s bridge and tunnel tolls will rise.

As part of the compromise out of Albany, the MTA will be raising the fares at least every two years to keep pace with inflation. MTA budget-watchers warn that even a biennial fare increase won’t cover the MTA’s rapidly increasing debt payments. Enter the federal government.

As first reported by the Poughkeepsie Journal on Saturday, Congress is may approve a provision in the federal stimulus bill that would allow 10 percent of transit aid to go toward operating costs. In the past, federal aid has been earmarked specifically for capital programs and procurement plans that spur on job creation. With transit agencies facing extreme budget shortfalls and the specter of job cuts, the government may allow the flexibility to maintain workforce levels.

Today, The Times and The Daily News got in on the act. They both, however, dance around the real issue: Once again, Congress is acting on a national transportation issue after the ship has sailed. Financial problems at transit authorities has been a not-so-secret problem for a while. Only after jobs and services are cut and fare are increased does Congress find it prudent to act.

As The Times notes in one paragraph, “But the change, if approved, will come after many transit agencies have already planned their budgets for the coming fiscal year.” The Daily News reports that this provision — which could provide a whopping $122 million for an MTA facing a $1.8 billion short fall — would stave off this year’s fare hikes or service cuts and won’t eliminate the planned payroll tax either. It’s simply a case of throwing pennies at a problem.

In the end, this move is indicative of the problems plaguing the federal approach to public transit. The commitment to sensible funding solutions just aren’t there. Transit is a public good, and the authorities running rail and bus lines can’t jack up fares to cover the entire cost of running a system. But until we have a real national investment policy, fare hikes and service cuts will remain the norm for debt-laden transit agencies.

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The F train, the F train. What do about that the F train? That always seems to be the question, doesn’t it?

In Brooklyn, the train snakes a path from Coney Island up McDonald Ave. through the southern parts of Park Slope and north up Smith St. toward Manhattan. For much of that ride, unused express tracks taunt riders stuck on one of the city’s most crowded rush hour trains. In Queens, meanwhile, it runs nominally express but has been slowed by track work.

Today, though, we’re concerned with that stretch of Brooklyn that runs from Kensington and Windsor Terrace to Park Slope and through the Carroll Gardens/Boerum Hill/Cobble Hill. As Gersh Kuntzman reported yesterday in The Brooklyn Paper, State Senator Daniel Squadron has, at the urging of his fiancee and other constituents, urged the MTA to review performance along the F line. Writes Kuntzman:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has begun a full performance review of Brownstone Brooklyn’s underground lifeline after repeated complaints that the train’s name was actually the grade that most riders would give it. The “performance and infrastructure” review, which goes beyond the agency’s normal oversight of the Coney Island to Queens line, came after state Sen. Daniel Squadron cornered the MTA’s Albany-based lobbyist and demanded action.

“I have been getting increasing complaints about the F line from my constituents and, no less important, my fiancee,” Squadron told The Brooklyn Paper. “So I asked the MTA to do a full review, and they agreed.

“There was definitely a sense in March and April, judging from the e-mails to our office, that something was wrong — the delays were longer, the trains more overcrowded,” Squadron added. “When I brought it up to the MTA, they did a quick search that suggested, at first glance, that something was wrong.

While The Brooklyn Paper hasn’t yet heard back from the MTA about the cost of the review or the last time the line was reviewed, I have a suggestion and an observation that will address this problem. Taking a page from the F Express Plan — on hold due to work on the Culver Viaduct — the MTA could simply extend the V train out to Church Ave. or beyond.

Right now, the Culver Line isn’t close to being at capacity. It could easily support the V train running out to Church at rush hour, and as one person commenting on Gersh’s article notes, the MTA could probably even run the V along the A/C through Lower Manhattan to pick up Wall St. commuters bypassed by the F. In one felt swoop, the MTA would make travel easier while alleviating congestion on the Culver line through Brooklyn.

The second solution — an observation — is a call for those people impacted by this service to just wait. On July 5, the MTA will extend G train service south to Church Ave. While not ideal, those who cannot get on the F train due to congestion can ride the G to Hoyt-Schermerhorn and transfer to the A or C. It’s not nearly as convenient as extending the V, but it may serve the same function.

There you go. One problem; two solutions. Who needs a full study anyway?

Categories : Brooklyn
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  • Second Ave. business picking up good vibrations · Well, maybe not good vibrations, but vibrations nonetheless. According to The Post, shop owners along Second Ave. have found yet another aspect of the Second Ave. Subway construction project that irks them. This time, vibrations from the construction have shaken up the bricks in the surrounding buildings. Due to the dangers of falling bricks, the MTA has constructed sidewalk scaffolding, and owners say their businesses are suffering. The agency, however, says that the vibrations are not weak enough to loosen the bricks and that the buildings were structurally weak before the construction. And so it goes. · (7)

busmodel

A model of the three-door articulated buses soon to arrive on New York City streets. (Click to enlarge)

Throughout debate over the MTA rescue plan, upstate Senators refused to budge on their anti-payroll tax stance. These state representatives did not want to raise taxes for what seemed to be a very New York City-centric purpose. Transit proponents argued that the entire state would benefit from a healthy MTA, and today’s news out of Plattsburgh, NY, a small city on Lake Champlain approximately 30 minutes from Canada, shows why.

New York City Transit has just put in an order with Nova Bus for 90 articulated buses featuring a low-floor system and three doors. Nova Bus, a Quebec-based subsidiary of Volvo, has recently opened a plant in Plattsburgh, and that plant will produce these 90 buses.

These new buses promise to be state-of-the-art vehicles. They are set to be 62 feet long and will featuring motion-controlled rear doors. According to Mobilizing the Region, this order for more buses comes after a successful trial in the Bronx, and the 90 new vehicles will deployed along the city’s latest bus-rapid transit routes. Delivery is set to begin during the first half of 2010.

As reports from up north show, the MTA is more than just the economic driver behind New York City’s success. Nova will employ 172 New Yorkers in Plattsburgh, and by keeping this equipment order in state, the MTA is spreading it tentacles well beyond its service area.

Categories : Buses
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schumer Sometimes, the Associated Press under-writes a story. Take, for example, this short one about Senator Chuck Schumer and the MTA.

In it, the AP explores how New York’s senior Senator would prefer to see the MTA implement wireless service aboard commuter rail trains sooner rather than later. It could be perhaps the most understated story in a while. Take a look:

Sen. Charles Schumer contends the commuter railroads serving New York City have been slow to implement wireless Internet service.

Schumer is calling on the MTA to follow through on plans he says have been in the works for months. He says other major mass transit systems across the United States already have on-board major wireless Internet service.

He says that puts the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad behind railroads in Texas, California and Utah.

The senator says adding wireless Internet would help improve productivity for commuters and the thousands of students who use the rails.

That’s the whole thing. My favorite part is how Schumer is contending that the MTA has “been slow to implement wireless Internet service.” Considering the state of the MTA’s various wireless campaigns, “slow” is a compliment. I generally opt for the less flattering “inept.”

The truth is that Schumer is 100 percent correct, but his critique extends well beyond the MTA’s reach. It’s true that railraods in Texas California and Utah may offer wireless service on board, but in our own backyard, Amtrak doesn’t even provide wireless service in its heavily-traveled Northeast Corridor.

This call, then, by our Senator strikes me as a perfect opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Through New Haven, Amtrak and Metro-North share rights-of-way. Schumer should work to ensure that the wireless service for the commuter rails can cover Amtrak. It may be infeasible. Perhaps the trains are equipped with different signal receivers. Perhaps what works at Metro-North and LIRR speeds doesn’t work at Amtrak and Acela speeds. It’s worth a shot though.

In response to Schumer’s calls, the MTA said it would be fielding requests for proposals on the project until September. The agency wants to gauge both interest and feasibility. Considering that airplanes now come equipped with wireless, our commuter rails should too.

Categories : MTA Technology
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