For Albany-watchers, Monday’s news of a Republican takeover of the State Senate made an unexpected splash. For now, the Senate is in flux. Malcolm Smith says the legislative body was adjourned when the Republicans+2 staged their coup, and he plans to challenge this takeover in court if necessary.

While the partisan fight is sure to grab headlines all summer, we here at Second Ave. Sagas are far more concerned with the Albany turmoil’s effect on downstate transit. As the Senate and Assembly have already passed the MTA rescue plan, the MTA’s short-term future is secure. The long-term picture remains hazy.

Monday’s surprising turn of events gives me cause to link to a recent piece in The Indypedent explaining why the MTA is broke and broken. The short of it is that due to poor funding choices made by Republicans during the Pataki Administration, the MTA has been saddled with crippling debt payments. As these payments have ballooned, the MTA’s once-lucrative real estate tax revenues have dried up in the market crash. With neither party willing to take the congestion pricing plunge, the MTA is left to beg at the feet of our state representatives.

(For the long version, check out Larry Littlefield’s very comprehensive post on the topic. He breaks it down by revenue and state and federal contributions. The blame lies squarely on George Pataki’s shoulders.)

So where does that leave the MTA today with Republicans primed to take control of the Senate and its future finances looking bleak? For one, split-party government — Sheldon Silver still rules the Assembly — could result in one of two paths: Either bodies will not agree on the future of the MTA or both bodies will take the path of least resistance. Neither option seems all that appealing.

With the Democrats in power in the Senate, the MTA could hold on to the hope that more tax plans could be on the table. Democrats today are far more open to the idea of new taxes than Republicans. With the GOP in control of the Senate though, a payroll tax plan similar to the one approved last month would never pass muster. Already state Republicans are trying to overturn the payroll tax in various counties surrounding New York, and it seems as though the MTA earned that victory just in the nick of time.

Further down the road are concerns that the transit agency will have again return to Albany for more money in another two years. The agency also needs to secure funding to at least issue bonds backing its capital plan. This move would force the authority to take on more debt, but unless Albany is willing to issue a blank check with a substantial ceiling, the alternative is no capital campaign. That would be disastrous.

In this regard, a lot will turn on the outcome of the 2010 gubernatorial campaign as well. If Republicans recapture the governor’s seat and lay claim to the Senate, the MTA will be forced to justify its budgetary problems well beyond what the Democrats demanded this year. In the end, that outcome may actually benefit transit in New York City, but for short-term needs, the MTA may find a G.O.P.-dominated Senate far from sympathetic.

In the end, this state of flux creates a lot of uncertainty surrounding the MTA. The counties outside of New York City feel as though they are being held hostage to the transit authority by this payroll tax, and the G.O.P. leadership is well aware that this rescue plan is not universally accepted. How this drama plays out is anyone’s guess, but I have a sinking suspicion congestion pricing may not be on the horizon anymore.

Categories : MTA Politics
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Both The Times and Politicker NY are reporting that a revolt in the Senate has left the Republicans in charge of the state’s legislative body. Pedro Espada, Jr., and the legally embattled Hiram Monserrate voted with the State Senate’s 30 Republicans to approve a change in leadership. Espada is the temporary Senate president, and Dean Skelos, the former minority leader, will take over the majority position from Malcolm Smith.

For now, Epsada and Monserrate are not calling themselves Republicans. The two say they will form their own caucus of “reform Democrats” and will probably side with state Republicans in Senate votes. While the two shifted parties ostensibly because of Espada has termed a “quagmire” and “chaos” in the Senate since the Democrats took over, the immediate ramifications are unclear. For now, it appears as though Gov. David Paterson’s gay marriage proposal is DOA.

What, though, of the MTA bailout? In a few weeks, the Democrat-approved payroll tax will go into effect, and it has so far proven to be wildly unpopular with areas outside of the five boroughs. The Metro-North corridors and LIRR counties are not too happy about another tax for the NYC-focused MTA.

As the bailout talks went on in the Senate, Skelos repeatedly expressed his displeasure at being left out, and while Paterson tried to reach across the aisle once or twice, the plan that passed did so with the support of the 32 Democrats. Right now, though, I can’t imagine the Republicans doing anything to upset the current rescue plan. Doing so would send the MTA into a stunning bit of turmoil ten days after the drop-dead date for the original Doomsday budget.

The future though is murky for the beleaguered transit agency. The G.O.P leadership will put more pressure on the MTA to undergo heavy internal belt-tightening, and the financial future of the next five-year capital plan remains cloudy. I’ll try to round up more views on the MTA’s future in light of the shifting political winds, but with a leadership structure in flux and the onset of political turmoil in Albany, I am not optimistic.

Update 5:30 p.m.: In a statement released this afternoon, Dean Skelos pointed to the MTA rescue plan as one of the problematic actions of the Democratic majority. That is not a good sign for the MTA and its backers.

Categories : MTA Politics
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  • Previewing Pelham 1 2 3 · This Friday, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 will open at theaters around New York. The action remake of the 1974 cult classic tale of a subway hijacking features John Travolta and Denzel Washington in the lead roles, and press coverage is starting to take off. We’ve looked at the film making process before, and today, we have more. The Daily News goes behind the scenes of a movie shot throughout the subway system. Using real New Yorkers in real subway cars in real stations, director Tony Scott is aiming to bring authenticity to the movie.

    Meanwhile, movie blogger Jordan Hoffman was part of a movie tie-in tour of an abandoned subway station. Hoffman and company were led on an underground tour of closed sections of the Brooklyn Bridge stop on the 4/5/6. Check out the pictures at UGO Movie Blog. I’m jealous. · (2)

Over the last few months, I’ve written about the joint effort between New York City’s Department of Transportation and the MTA to expand the city’s nascent bus rapid transit program. As part of the planning for BRT Stage Two, NYCDOT is hosting seven borough-specific workshops designed to identify travel corridors ripe for this transit expansion.

Last week, the traveling BRT show hit up two locations in Queens for feedback from the borough’s most underserved borough. While Queens enjoys the benefits of numerous subway lines, intraborough travel is very disjointed, and the quickest routes often involve heading into and back out of Manhattan. If any borough stands ready to enjoy the increased connectivity between subway lines and transit hubs that bus rapid transit can provide, it is Queens.

As expected, the reports from the workshop were fairly routine. Local store owners are concerned that decreasing street capacity for cars and parking lanes will negatively impact business. Increased transit though should improve efficiency and encourage mixed uses of the very same streets held hostage by automobile traffic and congestion.

DOT officials and transit advocates painted a sunnier picture. “If people are looking for short-term improvements to their transit service,” Joe Barr, NYCDOT’s direct of transit development, said, “this is really a good way to deliver that.”

While the usual suspects offered up support, more encouraging were the words from elected officials at last week’s event. Both John Liu and Eric Gioia, city council members representing various parts of Queens, recognized the impact BRT could have on the burgeoning borough. BRT, noted Liu, could link Flushing and Forest Hills, and Gioia praised it as a way to alleviate transit problems in Long Island City.

This is definitely good news. The city’s council members have a tenuous history of lukewarm support for break-through transit programs. Congestion pricing wasn’t embraced, and many have questioned the wisdom of spending billions of dollars on seemingly limited subway expansion plans. If council members are prepared to embrace BRT proposals, NYCDOT and the MTA should do all it can to exploit that support.

As megaprojects move slowly in New York City, bus rapid transit lanes could institutes quickly and cheaply. When the studies are through in a few weeks, the city’s agencies should move fast to act. We’ll all benefit from it.

Categories : Buses, Queens
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My gym inhabits an old bank at the corner of 5th Ave. and Union St. in Park Slope. The building has a pair of mezzanines on either end, and the treadmills are lined up facing out the windows on the second floor overlooking the avenue. With a clear view of the B63 bus shelter on the Bay Ridge side of the street, while running, I watch people wait for the bus.

A few Fridays ago, an interesting story unfolded, and while most people wouldn’t think much of it, I thought the tale is a clear indication why New York City’s transit technology is out of date and in need of an upgrade. This sordid story starts at six in the evening. I walked to the gym and noted a larger-than-usual crowd of people at the bus stop. After stretching, I hopped onto the treadmill and noted that the throngs of people were still there.

As the minutes and miles ticked by, I was struck by the scene at the bus stop. Thirteen minutes into my run, no bus had shown up. I could see frustration on the faces of those waiting for the B63. Some stood with their grocery bags staring futilely up the avenue. Others were attempting to keep their children from dashing into the street.

Nine minutes later, as I cleared the 2.5-mile mark, people started to leave. An older woman with what I guessed to be a grandson hailed a cab to points south. The younger child was growing far too impatient to wait for the bus. Four minutes later, a mother and her son headed west on Union St., bound for the R stop on Fourth Ave.

By the thirty-minute mark, as I passed 3.5 miles, nearly everyone else had left. After a series of frantic phone calls accompanied with the exasperated arm motions of someone stymied on the way home, a twenty-something woman with red hair found a cab. Others started walking along Fifth Ave. They would try to get closer to home while waiting for the bus to catch up.

By the time I hit five miles at around 41 minutes, nearly all of the original commuters had found other means of transit. New bus riders had shown up to wait. Still, though, one woman sat there. She had been sitting there when I had arrived at the gym, and she was still there afterward. I had run the equivalent of the distance from the gym to 95th St. in Bay Ridge, and still one woman waited for the bus.

On my way home, I detoured by the bus station and asked her how long she had planned to wait. “A few more minutes,” she said with a laugh. For someone waiting over 50 minutes for the bus, she had a sense of humor about her. “I thought maybe 200 people are dead somewhere,” she said. She had a book, though, and didn’t mind waiting.

As I walked back home, I glanced up Fifth Ave. and saw not one but two southbound buses heading my way. The wait would be over, and no one would ever know why the B63 didn’t show up for nearly an hour at rush hour on a Friday. With no digitized arrival board and centralized system for announcements, bus riders in the city are left with that tried, true and not too useful technique of waiting and peering. One day, we’ll catch up.

Categories : Buses
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Weekend service advisories

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I don’t have too much to add to this one this week. I’ve been in Boston for the last few days for my sister’s college graduation, and while I’ve enjoyed using my Charlie card — a contactless smart card — to pay for my T rides, I’ve had less time to report on the latest underground happenings in New York.

Meanwhile, these are your weekend service advisories. In seven days, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 will be unleashed on the world. In the meantime, remember that these are as provided by the MTA. Check the signs at your local station.

From 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, June 6 and Sunday, June 7, Manhattan-bound 6 trains run express from Pelham Bay Park to Parkchester due to station painting.

From 4 a.m. Saturday, June 6 to 10 p.m. Sunday, June 7, Manhattan-bound 7 trains skip 111th, 103rd, 90th, 82nd, 74th, 69th, 52nd, 46th, 40th and 33rd Street due to track panel installation over the 74th Street interlocking and station painting at Junction Boulevard.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 6 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 8, Manhattan-bound A trains run local from Euclid Avenue to 125th Street, then express to 168th Street, then trains resume normal service to 207th Street due to tunnel lighting north of 168th Street and the Chambers Street Signal Modernization project. (For missed stops between 125th Street and 168th Street, customers must ride south from 168th Street.)

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 6 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 8, Brooklyn-bound A trains run local from 168th Street to West 4th Streets, then on the F line to Jay Street, then trains resume local service to Euclid Avenue due to the Chambers Street signal Modernization project.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 6, to 5 a.m. Monday, June 8, there are no C trains running due to the Chambers Street Signal Modernization project. Customers should take the A instead.

From12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 6 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 8, Manhattan-bound D trains run on the N line from Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue to 36th Street (Brooklyn) due to the installation of communications equipment.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, June 5, to 5 a.m. Monday, June 8, free shuttle buses replace D trains between Norwood-205th Street and Bedford Park Blvd. due to a track a chip out north of Bedford Park Boulevard.

From 12:30 a.m. Saturday, June 6 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 8, Jamaica-bound EF trains run local from Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue to Forest Hills-71st Avenue due to a concrete pour north of Grand Avenue.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, June 5 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 8, Manhattan-bound EF trains run local from Forest Hills-71st Avenue to Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue to due to a concrete pour north of Grand Avenue.

From 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, June 6, Coney Island-bound F trains skip 4th Avenue, 15th Street-Prospect Park and Ft. Hamilton Parkway due to rail repair.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 6 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 8, Queens-bound F trains run on the V line from 47th-50th Sts.-Rockefeller Center to Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue due to track equipment delivery.

From 8:30 p.m. Friday, June 5 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 8, there is no G train service between Forest Hills-71st Avenue and Court Square. Customers should take the E or R instead.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, June5 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 8, free shuttle buses replace L trains between Lorimer Street and Myrtle Avenue due to a track chip-out at Jefferson Street.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 6 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 8, N trains run local between 59th Street-4th Avenue and Pacific Street due to station rehabilitation and construction of the underground connector at Lawrence Street.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 6 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 8, Brooklyn-bound N and R trains are rerouted over the Manhattan Bridge from Canals Street to DeKalb Avenue due to station rehabilitation and construction of the underground connector at Lawrence Street. Customers should take the 4 train at nearby stations.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 6 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 8, N trains skip Lawrence Street in both directions due to station rehabilitation and construction of the underground connector at Lawrence Street.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 6 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 8, R trains are extended to the 179th Street F station due to a concrete pour north of Grand Avenue.

From 6:30 a.m. Saturday, June 6 to 7 p.m. Sunday, June 7, there are no Franklin Avenue shuttle trains between Franklin Avenue and Prospect Park due to rail repair. Free shuttles provide alternate service.

Categories : Service Advisories
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In writing yesterday on the MTA contractor charged with fraud, I noted that the transit agency’s pilot program to outfit stations with cell service seemed to be on terminal hold. After all, the public unveiling of the plan arrived in September of 2007, and over 20 months later, nothing very much has happened.

Today, we learn that, despite the approaching internal deadline the plan remains on hold for a reason. As Bobby Cuza reports, Transit Wireless, the company awarded the contract to outfit six stations with cell service, has not yet received a Notice to Proceed because it does not have sufficient financial backing. “This doesn’t even seem like they have to go back to square one. It sounds like they never left the drawing board to begin with,” John Liu, city council member and Transportation Committee head, said to Cuza.

The NY1 reporter has more:

When Liu held a hearing in October 2007, MTA officials said they expected the Notice To Proceed would be issued within two months. But the MTA now says the contractor, a consortium of companies called Transit Wireless, never met the required conditions, which included demonstrating sufficient financing. Transit Wireless had no comment but the MTA acknowledged the group was hindered by the economic downturn.

“Unfortunately, the private sector response now to it, given the economy, has caused that to be stalled, not surprising. Again, just because of the overall economy,” said Former MTA Executive Director & CEO Lee Sander. “So the capacity is there, and hopefully the market will come back, and we will have that pilot move forward.”

In a statement released Thursday, the MTA said, “We continue to work with the contractor and hope that a resolution can be reached in the near future. The MTA remains committed to providing cellular service in underground subway stations.”

The agency, however, did not provide a new timetable.

At this stage, it’s worth noting two aspects to this story: First, Transit Wireless was created for the express purpose of winning this contract. As their website — not updated since 2007 — says, “Transit Wireless was formed specifically to respond to the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Request for Proposals to design, market, install, own, operate and maintain a neutral, shared wireless infrastructure to provide seamless, uninterrupted commercial wireless services to the MTA’s New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA) riders within the 277 underground subway stations in New York City.”

Second, while Cuza’s reporting yet again brings this story into the spotlight, this financial trouble should not be blamed upon the current economy. Back in October 2007, I noted that Transit Wireless seemed like a shaky company with no secure financing. Back then, I wrote, “It sounds like the MTA signed a 10-year deal worth around $200 million with a company that doesn’t really exist and may not have the funds to pay up or implement its plan.”

While the MTA didn’t pay anything for this deal and stands to lose only the revenue it would have drawn in from a successful implementation, the costs are steep. The agency is now two years behind in its modernization efforts with no relief in sight. Another technology upgrade — a program in place in transit systems around the world — is falling by the wayside.

Categories : MTA Technology
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Update (1:30 p.m.): In a move reminiscent of the diamond 6 service, NYC Transit is planning a pilot program that would see the 4 train run express in the Bronx. According to amNew York’s Heather Haddon, Transit hopes that by running some Manhattan-bound 4 trains as express from the 7-8 a.m. rush, the agency can reduce overcrowding along the popular line.

Per Haddon, some 4 trains will run express between Woodlawn and 149th St.-Grand Concourse. The trains would take advantage of the new signals on the line that would allow them run along the middle track and will stop at Mosholu Parkway and Burnside Ave. The pilot program is set to begin on June 8 and run through June 26. If it is succesful, the MTA will consider making it a permanent service.

The MTA offered up more more info in a press release, explaining the origins of the idea and the signal upgrades:

“The idea for this pilot is directly attributable to the Line General Managers program and it illustrates the types of innovations made possible when you have people running the railroad directly. David Knights, Group General Manager of IRT East and 4 Line General Manager Herb Lambert were looking to speed travel along a route that has been traditionally local in the Bronx,” said New York City Transit President Howard H. Roberts, Jr. “Signal improvements and the continued mechanical reliability of the car fleet have allowed them to try new ways of improving service.”

“By skipping nine stations, the Bronx Express 4 is expected to shave about 3.5 minutes off the 20 to 21 minutes scheduled running time between Woodlawn and 149th Street-Grand Concourse during the height of the a.m. peak. This is a significant time saving when you are headed out to work in the morning,” said IRT East Group General Manager Knights. “This pilot will determine the feasibility of bringing Jerome Avenue service in line with the Concourse, White Plains Road and Pelham Bay corridors by offering an express service to morning commuters.”

This pilot is possible because of the recent upgrades made to the center track signaling system within the 2005-2009 Capital Program. The signal job called for the installation of intermediate signals along the stretch of elevated track between Woodlawn and 161st Street. As a result of the project, we now have a greater flexibility of use with the middle track and can send trains in passenger service as well as work trains up or down the middle track. In the event of a disruption in service or track maintenance, we can also reroute trains onto the middle track. Similar signaling systems, allowing express service, are in place on the Flushing and White Plains Road Lines among others that have three tracks.

While the digital signs on the R142s render the 13 bullet rollsign moot, it’s worth noting that the MTA has four unused green bullets in its arsenal — 8, 10, 11 and 12. Maybe the express will earn a new numerical designation instead of the old diamond/express designation.

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angeliades When I first read the news about the M.A. Angeliades indictment, I wasn’t too shocked. Fraud and dishonesty among New York City contractors! Why I never!

Then, I got to thinking: This is an MTA contractor being accused of fraud in dealing with workers hired for MTA projects. Surely, there’s more going on then just a simple indictment. In light of the recent spate of stories surrounding the MTA’s construction projects and its low-bid philosophy, I think there is a tale to be told here, but first let’s recap the news courtesy of Elizabeth Dwoskin:

A Long Island-City-based contractor with ties to the MTA was indicted today for cheating its employees out of $600,000.

The firm, M.A. Angeliades, which had been contracted to repair 11 subway stations, had 150 employees (though the District Attorney’s office wouldn’t say how many were defrauded). The firm is charged with falsifying business records and defrauding its employees by not paying them the local prevailing wage, which for laborers is $35 per hour plus $24.57 per hour for nights and overtime.

Instead, they paid laborers a flat fee of $20 — while still billing the MTA for the legally required wage.

Apparently, D.A. Robert Morgenthau’s office got wind of the graft from the MTA Inspector General’s office. “If a contractor is stealing in one area, there are other areas,” MTA Inspector General Barry L. Kluger said to NY1 News. “So it’s obviously our responsibility in MTA to look back at these contracts to look at the execution of the contracts to see if there were any direct losses that may have been affected against the MTA, in terms of change orders, overcharging, over-billing.”

The MTA has no plans to end the contract, but according to a statement released by the agency yesterday, agency officials plan to “review the situation with the District Attorney and the Inspector General before determining how to proceed.”

So that’s all well and good, but isn’t this part of a longer story we’ve been seeing pieces of lately? Numerous MTA projects are behind schedule and over budgets. Others — such as the plan to wire some subway stations for cellular service, the plan to outfit the city’s bus stops with arrival boards and the plan to install similar boards and CBTC systems in the subway — are years past due with little forward motion.

Is this what happens when an agency is forced to accept the lowest bid? Is this what happens when an agency has to build everything on the cheap because the state won’t pay its fair share — or any share really? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and perhaps I’m making a mountain out of a construction fraud molehill. I can’t help but wonder though if the old adage, saying you get what you pay for, is in full effect here.

Categories : MTA Absurdity
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