As Michael Bloomberg campaigned for a third term as mayor, the MTA became his public whipping boy. He wanted to offer free crosstown buses and improvements to subway service in general. His “Plan to Reform Mass Transit” dominated headlines in August and airwaves in September.

Now that Bloomberg has secured his third term, though, he is humming a slightly different tune. The Mayor says he won’t increase city contributions to the MTA and seemed to dodge questions about his mass transit plan. How utterly disappointing and yet oh-so-predictable. Michael Grynbaum of The Times has more:

On Thursday, however, in his first public appearance with Jay H. Walder, the authority’s new chairman, Mr. Bloomberg’s fiery words had been replaced by something less aggressive: a plea for patience. Asked about a much-discussed proposal to make crosstown buses available to riders at no cost — a pledge repeated in bold print on thousands of his campaign mailers and pamphlets — the mayor appeared to retreat from his plan. “We have not talked about that one yet,” he began, noting that new technology, like computerized fare cards that could speed up boarding times, “might be able to accomplish part of that.”

“I thought it was a good idea, although, the real issue there, there’s two things we’re trying to do: one is to make it easier for people to go back and forth, but two is also to stop the delays from getting on and off the buses,” the mayor said. “That’s another one of these things down the road. I think there’s a whole bunch of things that we laid out that we can explore together.”

The mayor then quickly moved on to the next question.

An aide to the mayor said later that it would be impossible for Mr. Bloomberg to announce progress on every initiative so soon after the election. “We still believe in the proposal,” the aide said. “Are we guaranteeing everything is going to happen? No, we don’t control the M.T.A.”

Indeed, Mr. Bloomberg controls only 4 of 14 votes on the authority’s board. And he said on Thursday that he did not plan to increase the city’s contribution to the authority’s operating budget.

As Grynbaum notes, the City and the MTA announce not a partnership but the opportunity to explore a potential partnership. The Mayor and Walder announced a plan to study 311 integration with the MTA. The press release hedged its bets, though, in stating that the two parties “agreed to work together to see if the 311 could be the right fit for the MTA’s customer service needs.”

“We pledged to build a stronger relationship between the City and the MTA, so we can build the modern and efficient mass transit system New York City deserves,” Bloomberg said. “Today, we take the first step by agreeing to work toward utilizing the power of 311 to make life a little easier for the 8.5 million people who take mass transit every day in the city. If we can have one number to call to receive subway and bus information, report problems or get directions, it would bring the same great service that New Yorkers have gotten from City government since 2003 to the MTA.”

Agreeing to explore whether or not two sides can work together is a far cry from delivering actual results. As Bloomberg heads into a third term with a whole slew of campaign promises in hand, he should deliver. He owes it to us, and he owes it to the MTA.

Categories : MTA Politics
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  • MTA payroll tax under fire as Walder talks 2010 · MTA economics are never far from the news pages, and this week, two developments sparked headlines. In Albany, five State Senators have introduced a measure to repeal the payroll tax, and although many state representatives have not offered up another plan, this gang of five has. Their “revenue-neutral” plan calls for fare increases of 13 percent for Metro-North riders in Orange, Rockland, Dutchess and Putnam counties and in Connecticut. This, they say, is a more equitable way to fund the MTA. It does not, however, address the economic externalities — increased property values, general mobility — that all residents of those counties enjoy by having accessible and affordable public transit service the area.

    Meanwhile, closer to home, MTA CEO and Chairman Jay Walder has not ruled out a 2010 fare hike if Gov. David Paterson’s threats to slash over $100 million in state contributions to the MTA come to pass. Paterson recently announced that every state agency would see reduced contributions from the state as New York looks to shore up a massive budget hole. To balance the MTA’s ledger, then, Walder may have to examine the fares. “We don’t know yet what the circumstances will be and I don’t want to be in the range of conjecturing what’s going to happen,” he said to The Post. “Clearly, there is a discussion taking place in Albany about what they need to do in terms of the deficit-reduction plan that will take place. And we will deal with all the circumstances as they come up.” · (6)

Amidst news of upheaval at New York City Transit and some changes atop the MTA management structure, the Straphangers Campaign announced its latest awards for New York City’s much-maligned bus system. The group closed with calls for bus reform as new MTA CEO and Chair Jay Walder looks to improve the city’s surface transit options.

As has become an annual tradition, the Straphangers doled out awards for the slowest bus and the least reliable bus. This year, the group added an award for the bus with the longest scheduled run time end-to-end. This award could be bolstered with a distance comparison amongst bus lines, but it certainly underscores the absurdities of taking buses in New York City along certain routes.

The slowest bus this year is again a crosstown bus in Manhattan. The M42 was clocked at average speeds of 3.7 mph at noon on a weekday as it ventured across the busy thoroughfare. “The M42,” the Straphangers press release said, “would lose a race with a five-year-old riding a motorized tricycle with a speed of 5 mph, as advertised by X-Treme Scooters.”

This year, the group also highlighted slow buses in the Outer Boroughs. Averaging just 5.1 miles per hour, the B63 was Brooklyn’s slowest. The Bronx’s Bx19 averaged 4.9 mph while Queens’ Q56 reached 6.3 mph, still slowing than my average running pace over five miles. Staten Island’s S42, the slowest of that borough’s buses, was downright speedy at 10.6 miles per hour.

The Schleppie, an award for the bus with the least reliable service, went to a Brooklyn-based route. The B44 “arrived bunched together or came with big gaps in service” 21.7 percent of the time, according to official Transit statistics. The M15 took home the title for Manhattan.

Finally, the group handed out the Trekkie to the M4. This bus runs from Penn Station to Fort Tryon, a route of approximately 11 miles, and is schedule to take an hour and 50 minutes. As the Straphangers note, Amtrak from Penn Station arrives in Philadelphia, 99 miles away, in at most an hour and 27 minutes.

The real meat of the report, though, comes at the end when the Straphangers talk about speeding up buses. “The only way to stem the tide of falling bus speeds is by giving buses more priority on the street than the rest of traffic,” Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives said.

In effect, the MTA and NYCDOT need to implement a few key upgrades to improve bus service. A pre-board fare payment system or a contactless mode of payment would greatly enhance bus loading efficiency. A system of physically separated bus lanes with priority signaling would do wonders for New York’s buses. Finally, enforcement of bus lanes should be a priority as well.

These options are not revolutionary. They are in place in numerous countries and cities around the globe, and Walder should pursue them as low-cost, high-result techniques for improving bus service. The MTA, too, knows this and in a statement responding to the survey, discussed new approaches to buses:

Buses were introduced to New York City more than 100 years ago and despite being, by far, the most efficient vehicles on rubber tires as far as the numbers of people they carry, they are still forced to vie for the same street space as a single-occupant automobile. However, with recent innovations such as Select Bus Service (SBS) and signal light prioritization, as well as plans to further improve service recently outlined by MTA Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jay H. Walder, it is important for the city’s 2.3 million bus customers to know that we are working to achieve improvements in bus speeds and reliability.

Future plans call for the eventual expansion of SBS routes, new methods of fare payment, stricter bus lane enforcement, the use of cameras to nab offenders and the development of a reliable system offering next bus information to waiting bus customers. Since the start-up of SBS, travel times across the Bronx route have been reduced by 20%, ridership has increased, and an overwhelming majority of customers have indicated that they are satisfied or very satisfied with the service.

Better bus service for all. It’s a simple mantra easy to implement and with obvious immediate benefits. Let’s see it happen.

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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 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. [] · (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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