When the federal government approved the stimulus package, the money was supposed to go to shovel-ready projects that could spur on the economy. At the same time, many local entities are relying on stimulus dollars to cover budget gaps. The MTA is no exception.

A report released late last week by the New York Building Congress accuses New York-based agencies — including the MTA — of hoarding federal stimulus dollars. While $1.57 billion have been siphoned our way and New York City Transit has secured nearly half of that for work on the Fulton St. Transit Center and the Second Ave. Subway, the money is just sitting there. In fact, according to report, New York City Transit has yet to spend a single dollar of federal stimulus funds.

Meanwhile, the NYCB report goes in depth on the spending breakdown. The Fulton St. project has received $423.4 million for the rehabilitation of the mezzanine connecting the 4/5 with the A/C platforms and for the construction of the Dey St. corridor. The Second Ave. Subway has received $276 million with $197 million going toward the construction of the station at 96th St. The rest of the federal stimulus money earmarked for New York City Transit will go toward the rehabilitation of stations in Brooklyn.

According to State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, 44 stimulus projects have been approved, but little to money money has been spent by either Transit or the NYC Department of Transportation on its projects. Building Congress President Richard Anderson expressed his dismay with this turn of events. “It has been almost six months since Congress and the Obama administration approved the stimulus package, yet close to nothing has been expended on the capital side,” he said.

“We have seen a good deal of spending on workforce programs and health and social services,” he continued. “Unfortunately, those expenditures do not provide the same bang for the stimulus buck as direct construction spending, which creates jobs and revenues while pumping money into the broader economy. It is incumbent upon our elected leaders and agency heads to get these dollars flowing directly into the projects already approved and likely to be approved in the coming months.”

The economics behind the stimulus dollars are a bit more complicated though. While the MTA is using federal stimulus dollars for their so-called shovel-ready projects, the problem is one of accounting. The MTA can’t currently spend $423.4 million on the Fulton St. project in six months’ time. They can’t take the $197 million earmarked toward the Second Ave. Subway’s 96th St. station to start construction because the project simply isn’t at that stage yet.

Instead, the agency is using stimulus dollars to keep these capital construction projects funded to completion. The jobs will be there in the future, but the level of staffing will remain fairly consistent right now. In the end, this isn’t a failing on the part of the MTA; it’s a failing on the part of those doling out federal stimulus dollars. The oversight and requirements for spending weren’t rigorous enough to ensure that public authorities use the money now instead of on the typically slow public authority time frame.

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  • On the need for a new Penn Station · While my daily focus here encompasses New York City Transit and MTA projects, to the west of Manhattan, a new rail tunnel is under construction. The Port Authority’s ARC Tunnel, spurred on by a significant stimulus investment, is slowing making its way toward Midtown Manhattan. The current plans are to build a significant extension to Penn Station, but the reality is that New York City needs Moynihan Station with its increased capacity and better pedestrian flow. To that end, Bloomberg Media’s architecture critic James S. Russell explored the shortcomings of Penn Station and the need for a better solution to the city’s rail access problem. Check it out. It’s well worth the read. · (16)


The 181st. St. station on the 1 line will be closed until further notice. (Photo courtesy of New York City Transit)

Right now, the prognosis at 181st St. isn’t promising. According to the MTA’s most recent statement, Transit does not anticipate reopening the station to through-trains until at least this weekend, and repairs will take longer than that. Furthermore, the MTA today said that it had known about structural problems with the station, and while the wheels were in motion to fix the problem, a planned construction project was still at least a year away.

According to Transit, a “qualified contractor” is on the scene, and over the next few days, this contractor will construct a protective barrier across the track bed and platform. This barrier is going to be 300 feet long and 32 feet wide and will consist of metal decking and support beams.

With this structure in place, the work will turn to the ceiling, and the contractor will have to inspect the ceiling and remove any loose bricks. After that, construction and preservation — the station, remember, is on the National Register of Historic Places — can begin. Transit is trying to clear the tracks as fast as possible, and while trains could pass through the station soon, my uninformed belief is that the station will remain closed to passengers for a few weeks.

Meanwhile, the real story is embedded in this section of the release:

Despite claims to the contrary, NYC Transit is keenly aware that the ceiling was in need of repair and restoration.

Shielding was installed over the bridge and funding was proposed in the MTA Capital Plan amendment submitted in summer of 2008 to address the ceiling condition. A Master Plan for remediation and repair of a significant portion of the ceiling façade was completed in April, and the design process was started this past June by design consultants/Architects John di Domenico & Partners LP. Funding for the work, provided for in the 2005 – 2009 MTA Capital Program, was approved by the State Legislature this past Friday.

Design work is scheduled to be completed by December and the award of a construction contract is planned for early 2010. In addition, there are two other stations (168th Street 1 and 181st Street on the A) with a similar design, but only 168th Street features a brick ceiling. The consultant contract for the 181st Street ceiling will be expanded to include inspection of the 168th Street station as well. It should be noted that all NYC Transit tunnels and elevated structures are inspected on a yearly basis.

In The Times today, Jim Dwyer looks at the tortured history of the 181st St. ceiling, and Transit spokesman Charles Seaton explained the process to him. “It was identified as a localized failure in 2007,” Seaton said. “Certainly, that prompted our interest in further inspecting and repairing that ceiling.”

Transit knew about the problem and had put a plan in motion to fix the problem. However, because the MTA’s budget and construction problem moves at a snail’s pace, it would have taken nearly two years to repair a dangerous situation. Something has to give. This time, it was the ceiling; next time, it should be the process.

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  • A musing about the CCTV-equipped subway car · While I was away on vacation, New York Post reporter Tom Namako broke the story of an upcoming subway car equipped with security cameras. According to Namako’s story, the MTA will equip one lettered subway car with at least one camera in every car. In this train, writes Namako, “every corner of every car will be in the cameras’ view.” What is interesting about this plan is its cost and practicality. It would not be feasible for the MTA to review every minute of every train ride, and it would be cost-prohibitive to equip every piece of rolling stock with cameras.

    That does not mean, however, that this plan is without it merits. As Namako notes, the cameras will create a “computer-based log of events that can be viewed after a crime or emergency. No one will be watching the images live, but the cameras, authorities believe, will at least make would-be criminals think twice.” While MTA officials again cite terrorism concerns as a driving push behind this effort, if even cameras in select subway cars act as system-wide deterrents, this plan could be well worth it in the fight against vandalism and subway crime. · (8)
  • City to pay MTA for tolled trips · As part of his renewed commitment to mass transit solutions in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg announced while I was away on vacation that the city would be paying fares for city vehicles passing through or over the MTA’s tolled bridges and tunnels. For years, the city has refused to pay for these trips, citing some sort of executive privilege. Now that Bloomberg has called for an MTA overhaul, though, he has to stop the city hypocrisy. According to reports, the MTA will reap a few million from the city. The final tally is unknown right now, and marked emergency vehicles will still enjoy free rides. · (5)

Following the news yesterday morning that 181st St. was falling down, New Yorkers scrambled to adjust their commutes. As the day wore on, the prospects for a fast repair seemed bleak, and a few minutes ago, Transit spokesman Paul Fleuranges sent an e-mail update on the state of the station.

According to Fleuranges, 1 train service through 181st St. will “remain suspended until further notice.” Transit has brought on a contractor to repair the station, but this work will take several days to complete. Transit will not restore service “until it is safe to operate trains through the area.”

For now, riders needing to get through or past the 181st St. station will have little luck along that IRT line. The 1 train is running in two sections — between South Ferry and 168th St. and between Dyckman St. and 242nd St. in the Bronx. Shuttle buses are running between Dyckman and 168th Sts. Meanwhile, this evening, Transit announced that for as long as service is interrupted, the M3 along St. Nicholas Ave. will be free for customers traveling north at 168th St., any direction at 181st St. and south at 191st St. The A train remains an option.

In other words, it’s a mess up there, and I’m glad I’m no longer relying on the 1 train as I did when I traveled between Riverdale and the Upper West Side during high school. Meanwhile, the fallout from this incident — a collapsed tunnel ceiling at one of the system’s deepest stations — could stretch on for days and encompass more than just an inconvenient commute.

Writing in amNew York today, Heather Haddon reports on a potentially problematic development for the MTA. According to Washington Heights community groups, the MTA had advanced notice of problems at the station. Writes Haddon:

Transit officials failed to heed to three years of complaints over water leaks and crumbling tiles at the 181 Street No. 1 subway station, where a ceiling collapse covered 35 feet of track with debris and service has been knocked out for up to a week. “We’re not surprised. We’ve been hearing complaints about this from residents for years,” said Manny Velazquez, chair of Community Board 12 in Washington Heights.

According to Velazquez, the MTA had acknowledged the community board’s concerns but did not take action. The agency did not respond directly to the board’s allegations Monday. The MTA said they are still investigating the cause of the Sunday evening collapse of the station’s landmarked brick ceiling and archway, but local officials believe water seepage contributed to the problem.

Water is a chronic complaint at many of the deep stations on the No. 1 line, and residents sometimes use umbrellas to keep dry, Velazquez said.

It’s tough to understate the impact of this news. The 1 train services around 600,000 passengers per week day with 26,500 of them using the 181st St. station. If the MTA had a prior warning that something may be wrong, we’re in for an investigation.

And in fact, an investigation is just what Andrew Albert, a non-voting member of the MTA Board, has requested. Albert noted that the MTA generally does not replace station roofs during overhauls, but perhaps, the agency should. “This certainly calls for inspecting all of the tunnels to ensure their integrity,” Albert said to Haddon.

As Transit struggled to bring a station on the list of the National Register of Historic Places back online and continues to look into the cause of collapse, this story and its ramifications on the rest of the system is only just beginning to unfold.

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LACMTA_logo Would you pay the fare to ride the subways if you didn’t have to? Would you pay it if the MTA relied upon the honor system and some rare patrols by New York County sheriffs?

In Los Angeles, the LACMTA has grappled with just this very question since its founding. Nearly two years ago, I reported on plans in Los Angeles to end this practice. In late 2007, Los Angeles’ own Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s board voted to install turnstiles throughout Los Angeles’ subway system. After losing over $5 million a year to delinquent fare-evaders, the board had decided that enough was enough.

Today, we learn that the LACMTA has finally started installing those turnstiles. The 21-month turnaround may seem downright speedy when we compare it to our East Coast MTA’s construction and innovation efforts, but in the meantime, LA’s MTA has lost nearly $10 million in potential revenue. In the grand tradition of transit agencies, though, this program is still just in the pilot stages.

Dan Weikel of the Los Angeles Times reports:

For decades, the MTA has used a gate-free honor system in which passengers walk unimpeded to train platforms without verifying that they have a ticket. To catch fare cheaters, the agency has relied on random checks by civilian inspectors and sheriff’s deputies. But the fine for lacking a ticket — up to $250 — still hasn’t deterred some riders from taking their chances. Cheaters cost the system at least $5 million a year in lost revenue.

Now, eight turnstiles are in use on a trial basis at the Alameda Street portal for the Red Line stop in Union Station, and five are operating at the Wilshire-Normandie station. By the end of the month, 12 turnstiles are scheduled to be installed at the Pershing Square station and 10 at Westlake-MacArthur Park.

MTA officials want to determine whether the gates improve security and clamp down on cheaters while moving thousands of daily riders quickly to and from trains. If the system works well — a progress report is due by the end of September — the MTA will proceed with a $46-million plan to install 387 turnstiles and related security fences by early 2010 at all subway and Green Line light-rail stations and at selected stops for the Blue Line and Gold Line light-rail trains.

With that $46 million price tag, this program will take around nine years to pay for itself, but LACMTA officials claim the turnstiles are needed for more than just monetary reasons. Riders and officials alike cited terrorism and general public safety concerns as driving factors in the push to install turnstiles as well.

In the L.A. Times article, Weikel notes that the Los Angeles’ subway system handles 163,000 fares per day. New York’s system handles around 7.4 million more than that on a typical weekday. My, how the biggest cities on each coast have developed different approaches to transit.

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  • Appealing the MTA/TWU arbitration decision · As the MTA and TWU officials continue the battle over last week’s arbitration decision, the Daily News reports that the transit agency may appeal the ruling. According to Pete Donohue, “a state judge can throw out a contract after concluding arbitrators didn’t properly apply the criteria mandated by the legislation, including an employer’s ability to pay wages and benefits.” The MTA will, of course, argue that it cannot afford the raises over the next three years. While the News article quickly devolves into mud-slinging by unnamed union and MTA officials, it seems clear that this saga is far from over. · (12)

The MTA is scrambling to restore 1 train service in northern Manhattan following a ceiling collapse at the W. 181st St. station.

According to reports, a 20- to 30-foot section of the ceiling as well as part of an old arch fell onto the tracks at around 11 p.m. last night. While no one was hurt, the debris damaged the third rail, and 1 train service has been impacted since then.

As of now, there is no 1 train service between 168th St. and Dyckman St. Trains are running in two sections between South Ferry and 168th St. and between Dyckman St. and 242nd St. in the Bronx. Shuttle buses are providing service between 168th and Dyckman Sts.

Right now, the MTA has no timetable for a complete restoration of service, but crews are working to repair the damage. I’ll publish an update when I have one, and in the meantime, keep your eye on the MTA’s service alerts page.

Categories : Service Advisories
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Metro New York rehashed the recent MTA technological failures. (Click to enlarge)

Let’s jump again into Mayor Bloomberg’s ubiquitous plan to reform the MTA. While the constant radio and TV spots scream of the pandering I wrote about last week, one aspect of Bloomberg’s plan deserves a closer look.

Mayor Bloomberg would like the MTA to hire a chief technology officer. According to Bloomberg, this CTO would restore a position the MTA once filled in the 1990s and would be, in the words of our mayor, “responsible for overseeing and upgrading technology for the entire system.” He presents more in the PDF detailing his plan:

Establish a Chief Technology Officer – Much of the MTA’s subway infrastructure was built 75 years ago and upgrading the technology, even under the best of circumstances, is an enormous task. Unfortunately, the MTA lacks a single office that is exclusively dedicated to this task. As a result, the Authority constantly lags in adopting technologies that have been in other systems for years; those technology upgrades and improvements it does attempt to make are consistently scuttled by poor planning, cost overruns, bidding problems, and other failures. The MTA should create an Information Technology department and appoint a Chief Technology Officer responsible for overseeing and upgrading the technology for the entire system. The CTO should be responsible for developing and implementing a technology plan.

Of course, this is a proposal that makes perfect sense, and it’s one that’s a little less populist than the Mayor’s call to make crosstown buses free. The MTA, as Metro New York detailed, has a terrible track record with its recent technology upgrades and innovations. The free daily wrote:

With the exception of MetroCard, the MTA has routinely floundered on high-tech. Contracts to put GPS on buses and an anti-terror surveillance system in the subway are now the subject of lawsuits.

“This agency has real trouble dealing with computer software,” said rider advocate Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign. “They’ve spent years trying to get GPS on buses. Avis has it in cars, so why wouldn’t they be able to do it in buses?” he asked.

According to Metro, the MTA eliminated the unifying CTO position a few years ago. Now, each division handles its own technology, and the results are obvious. From a website stuck in the late 1990s that pales in comparison to Transport for London’s or Washington’s WMATA’s to stalled train- and bus-arrival boards, technology-based projects are years overdue and plagued with problems that just shouldn’t exist.

Once the State Senate finally gets around to confirming Walder, the real work begins. The new MTA head will have to find the right person for the job, and that person will have to be willing to cut through the bureaucratic red tape of an authority whose division are not used to working with each other.

While I was away, NYConvergence suggested Walder himself for the job, but Walder can’t be both the MTA CEO and the MTA CTO. Walder, however, knows the need for a streamlined technology-focused office. I’m with the mayor on this one, and I hope Walder will be too. It’s time for a better and more robust focus on technology from the MTA.

Categories : MTA Technology
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