The year of Andrew Cuomo started with a subway shutdown, included the Laguardia Airport, pictured here, and ended with some sort of agreement on the capital plan. (Photo via Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office)

What good is the end of the year without some sort of top ten list? It’s such deliciously snackable content that even the Straphangers are getting in on the action. The rider advocacy group named its top 10 best and worst stories of 2015. The lists included pizza rat, a fare hike, the opening of a new subway stop and whatever tenuously tentative and still-unapproved plan has been reached to fund the MTA’s gigantic capital plan. Whether those are good are bad, well, I’ll leave that up to you.

The Straphangers’ list didn’t include my top transit story of 2015 — which was Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s unprecedented decision to bar passengers from accessing the subway due to the threat of a snow storm. The trains kept running all night, devoid of passengers, and New Yorkers who had to be at their jobs — whether through economic necessity or their roles as emergency services providers — were forced to drive in potentially treacherous conditions. The storm hit to the east, and the move was first- and second-guessed to death. Hopefully we won’t see a repeat this year when and if winter’s snow arrives.

Anyway, as I’ve done in the past, let’s recap the most popular posts I’ve published this year. There is of course a bias toward the earlier half of the year, but these are a good indication of what we were talking about throughout 2015. Somehow, despite his less-than-enthusiastic embrace of transit, Gov. Cuomo sure dominates this list.

10. On Cuomo’s $4 billion overhaul for ‘un-New York’ LaGuardia and his lackluster support for transit
The Governor unveiled a $4 billion plan to cure Laguardia Airport’s ills. The plan, it seemed, stemmed from his personal experiences flying out of the decrepit airport, and it offered up a stark contrast to his unwillingness to commit state resources to the subway system. I looked at how Cuomo’s embrace of the airport plan squared with his arm’s-length treatment of other transit issues.

9. On the flawed LaGuardia AirTrain proposal and Astoria’s N train
As part of his Laguardia overhaul, Cuomo included some support — though not full funding — for a half-baked plan to build an airtrain to Laguardia. We’ll return to this plan later in this list, but in August, I looked at just how bad Cuomo’s plan really is. Ultimately, a Laguardia Airtrain via Willets Point is most likely worse than the no-build option.

8. At Cortlandt St., awaiting the final part of the post-9/11 work
It’s hard to believe the 1 train’s Cortlandt St. station has been closed since September 11, 2001, and thanks to various Lower Manhattan projects, including the endlessly delayed (but soon to open) PATH Hub, the station is still a year or two away from seeing passengers. In early 2015, the MTA assumed control of the work needed to rebuild the station, and the agency recently reiterated its belief that it will return to service in mid-2017, nearly 16 years after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers.

7. The 7 line extension: Adding a Midtown mess to the Map
The new 7 line station at 34th St. and 11th Ave. is shiny and clean. The addition of it to the subway map was a bit of a mess. These are the important stories.

6. Out of nowhere, Cuomo announces an AirTrain to Laguardia
In late January, Gov. Cuomo caught everyone by surprised when he announced plans to build an airtrain to Laguardia via Willets Point. We don’t know when this will happen, how much it will cost or why this poor routing was chosen over better options to send, say, the N train to the airport. This plan certainly made headlines, but whether it will go anywhere remains to be seen.

5. Q Train Quandaries: Astoria and the Second Ave. Subway
We’ll know for sure in a few months, but the W train is likely to return to serve Astoria when the Q gets rerouted up Second Ave. This has been a popular topic of conversation (and countless emails to me) over the years. One way or another, Astoria won’t see a reduction in service come the opening of Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway.

4. Previewing the L train’s looming Sandy work
Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, but its effect on the subways has lingered for years. At some point soon, the MTA will have to confront the ugly truth of repairing the Canarsie Tubes, and L train riders won’t like it.

3. New 7 line stop at 34th Street definitely officially opening on Sept. 13
Nearly 21 months late and 26 years in the making, the MTA finally celebrated the opening of a new subway stop. Ridership hasn’t met projections yet, but development work is continuing at a steady clip around the Hudson Yards area.

2. Snowmageddon 2K2015: Cuomo threatens subway shutdown ahead of storm
Spoiler Alert: He delivered on this threat.

1. After Cuomo’s surprise, overnight subway service continues without passengers
The need for a subway system arose out of the 1888 blizzard, and in 2015, my most popular post concerned Gov. Cuomo’s misguided shutdown of the subway system. The trains kept running, sans passengers, in what was the oddest development in the most confounding story of the year. (I ran a postmortem at the end of January.)

Honorable Mention: The MTA Board approved a new capital program but with less money for the 2nd Ave. Subway, and it caused politicians to finally focus on the 2nd Ave. Subway’s problematic timeline. We also don’t know how the capital plan will be funded (other than through additional debt.) This story remains an ongoing and important one, but it didn’t crack the top ten….We might get that Gateway Tunnel after all.

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A glimpse inside the PATH Hub as construction continued in November. The Calatrava-designed building is set to open in March. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

A glimpse inside the PATH Hub as construction continued in November. The Calatrava-designed building is set to open in March. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

By many accounts — some more concrete and reliable than others — the seemingly never-ending construction of the Santiago Calatrava-designed World Trade Center PATH Hub is holding up a lot of other ancillary transportation-related work in and around Lower Manhattan. The retail, for instance, at the Fulton St. Transit Center has been slow to arrive as Westfield, the lessor for both spaces, is working through which companies will open where and when (and which space is more desirable). A few blocks away,the Cortlandt St. 1 train stop, shuttered since the Sept. 11 attacks, won’t open until 2018, in part because of the lengthy delays that have plagued the WTC site rebuild efforts.

Now, though, as 2015 wraps while construction on the PATH Hub hasn’t, an end is in sight. According to a report late last week from Politico New York, Calatrava’s porcupine-esque building will open in March, nearly seven years later than originally promised by then-Governor George Pataki. In a short article, Dana Rubinstein reports on the opening date, rehashes the problems that have plagued this project and notes that the mall elements won’t open yet because they’re already leaking. I guess $4 billion just doesn’t go that far these days.

I’ve been an outspoken critic of the Calatrava boondoggle for years. It’s a $4 billion shopping mall that happens to house a train station, and it’s design is ostentatious in every way. From gleaming white marble that needs to be constantly cleaned to a lack of adequate staircases from track level to the fact that $4 billion resulted in no increase in trans-Hudson rail capacity, the station has been designed to be a great building first, a mall second, and a transit improvement a distant third.

Now, I can’t deny that the building is a sight to behold. It’s certainly something unique in New York City, and we should be trying to design transportation hubs as great public spaces. Utilitarian functionalism resulted in the current Penn Station — which isn’t particularly functional. Hopefully, it can get people excited about taking the PATH.

But. Of course you knew there was a but coming. From a cost-benefit perspective and from a usage perspective, the dollars are simply out of control. The Port Authority claims that 200,000 daily commuters will use the PATH Hub once completed, but these numbers defy reality. In 2014, the most recent year for which we have data [pdf], average daily weekday PATH ridership at the World Trade Center was 46,726, and there’s no way a station that doesn’t increase train capacity is going to usher in a four-fold jump in ridership. That 200,000 figure is likely from people coming from other subway stations who will walk through the mall part of the WTC Hub.

So in the end, the Port Authority spent $4 billion and over a decade building a monument to serve as the headhouse to what essentially the 18th busiest subway station in New York City with slightly more riders per weekday than the Canal St. complex that serves the IRT and BMT on the East Side. If I’m a bit disillusioned by the dollars and less than impressed by the building, perhaps you’ll understand. With money to burn, the Port Authority squandered an opportunity to invest in capacity upgrades for the sake of appearances. The pols will gather to cut some ribbons in March, but we should learn these lessons now. Calatrava’s PATH Hub will be a monument unto itself and unto the folly of spending improperly.

Categories : PANYNJ
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Some pre-Christmas quick hits for you. I’ll post the service advisories Friday but expect a quiet end of the week. Subways and buses are operating on a normal weekday schedule for Christmas Eve and on a regular weekend schedule for Christmas Day.

Second Ave. Subway Phase 1 vs. Star Wars Episode VIII

As the credits rolled on the end of The Force Awakens, and audiences everywhere were left wondering about … Well, I can’t say without spoiling the movie, and I don’t want to do that yet. The curious among us will just have to wait until May 26, 2017 to find out how our heroes’ journeys continue. That date, as you may realize, is five months after the MTA has promised to open the Second Ave. Subway, but that date is in doubt. The feds have long predicted the MTA would miss their self-imposed deadline, and we recently learned of moderate risks of delays that could plague the project over the next 12 months.

Recently, I posed a question regarding this very matter to my Twitter followers, and, well, they’re not too confident in the MTA’s ability to deliver on time. As you can see from the results, an overwhelming majority of a representative sample of people who follow me on Twitter think Star Wars — which is set to open five months after the Second Ave. Subway should — will arrive first. That’s an understandable, if damning, indictment of the MTA’s project management abilities. The race is on.

Council members skeptical over new ferry service

As part of a $55 million effort to present a flawed solution to something that’s not really a problem, the mayor has pushed a five-borough ferry plan that’s supposed to take off in 2017. With fares set at $2.75 (and with no free transfer between the boats and the subways or buses) and routes that are far-flung and serve few of the people who truly need better access to the transit system, I’ve been skeptical of this plan for years. It takes resources away from higher-capacity solutions and seems designed to avoid NIMBY complaints regarding street space allocation. I’m not the only one wary of this plan, and now, a bunch of City Council members have expressed their concerns. These representatives are worried the ferry system won’t include regularly scheduled service frequent enough to be a success. That’s only half of a valid critique, but they’re probably right. I still believe the $55 million would be better spent on, say, significant upgrades in bus service. The money would go much further.

New commuter benefits law

Finally, a new commuter benefits law goes into effect on January 1, and New York City residents can save up to $443 a year on pre-tax transit spending. That’s the equivalent of nearly four months of free unlimited ride Metrocards. Gotham Gazette recently published a comprehensive explainer analyzing the new law and its effects on New York City residents and employers. According to the law’s proponents, nearly half a million people will now be eligible for transit benefits, and I’d urge everyone who can to take advantage of it. It’s a great way to save on transit costs. (This law is a big win for the Riders Alliance, and in federal news, Congress finally upped the level of pre-tax contributions eligible for transit spending to $255 a month, putting this savings on par with their parking subsidies.)

The mayor should use the subway for more than just photo ops. (Credit: Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio)

The mayor should use the subway for more than just photo ops. (Credit: Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio)

In the run-up to the end of the year, the New York press has engaged in a mid-term review of Mayor Bill de Blasio. The narrative is an obvious one — missteps, victories, fights against Cuomo, a very skeptical public but a good chance of reelection based on the make-up of the electorate and lack of obvious opposition. One common theme that has emerged in the stories has been de Blasio’s attention to those who are skeptical of his policies and approach. A gem in this Wall Street Journal article particularly caught my eye:

The mayor has begun to read obscure transportation blogs as he worries about advocates who criticize him, and he urged aides to schedule more visits to Staten Island, where his approval ratings are especially low. He closely studies polls even as aides publicly dismiss them.

The emphasis, of course, is mine, and I have so many questions. Is the mayor now reading this site — which has been critical of him (though moreso on my Twitter feed). Or is the mayor taking his transportation cues from Streetsblog, the hardly-obscure WNYC project Transportation Nation or from the LTV Squad, Cap’t Transit, Pedestrian Observations, the Invisible Visible Man, Bike Snob or Brooklyn Spoke? Obscurity knows no bounds. And while some of you may question whether this site or many of this listed are actually obscure, the truth is that they’re niche sites that attract people interested in the issues. Those who aren’t interested — those who view transportation policy as incidental (or inconvenient) to city life — don’t visit these sites, and an overwhelmingly large number of New Yorkers simply don’t consider the politics of the MTA or NYC DOT until these politics have an immediate impact on their lives.

So ultimately, I don’t know if the mayor is reading my site or someone else’s when the Wall Street Journal tosses off a reference to “obscure transportation blogs.” I hope he’s getting a broad range of policy exposure on issues of transport, from pedestrian safety, bike proposals and the nuts and bolts of the buses and the subways. Voters may not know that the MTA is a state agency rather than a city one, and de Blasio’s record on transit issues has been mediocre at best. If given the chance to speak with (or to) the mayor on these issues, I’d tell him something along these lines.

Vision Zero: I haven’t talked much about Vision Zero on this site; rather, I’ve saved my disappointment for Twitter. I commend the overall goals of Vision Zero but feel the city’s approach has been too timid and too siloed. A successful effort at driving pedestrian deaths caused by automobiles to zero involves more than just pure numbers. It involves a massive shift in mindset, one that actively encourages New Yorkers to use alternate means of transportation rather than a private car and one that ensures these modes are fast, reliable, frequent and prioritized. It involves support for bikes, a rational allocation of street space for buses and firm buy-in from the cops who are in charge of enforcement. It also involves being out in front on some form of traffic pricing plan, whether that’s Move New York’s comprehensive proposal or another plan that can reduce the prevalence of cars in NYC’s busiest pedestrian areas. Be aggressive; lives are a stake. And if it means upsetting a few motorists — and learning how not to be a self-described motorist in the first place — that’s a price to pay as a politician.

Buses: The mayor promised 20 Select Bus Service routes over five years. At the rate DOT and the MTA are going, we’ll get 20 new ones by the late 2020s. I appreciate the need to involve communities (and, begrudgingly by proxy, Community Boards) in planning changes at the hyperlocal level, but de Blasio’s DOT has been far too willing to kowtow to vocal pressure from a minority of residents on bus lanes, traffic calming and BRT/SBS planning.

Just recently, for the second time in two mayoral administrations, the city agreed to scale back plans for Bus Rapid Transit, this time on Woodhaven Boulevard. We have the street space for BRT; we do not have the political will. The mayor and his Department of Transportation should hold firm on rapid rollout for real BRT while doing a better job of explaining and defending these projects. The mayor and DOT should also consider the downstream impact of bus lane projects. People along Woodhaven aren’t the only ones who would enjoy better bus service. Are down-route communities isolated from transit (and the planning process) given an adequate voice at the table?

Parking: Can we just do away with free on-street parking already? Is there any other major city in the U.S. that gives away valuable street space for free with no real justification for it? This too is part of a proper Vision Zero mindshift.

Transit and the MTA: Finally, we arrive at the big one. In a way, the Mayor was right to fight Albany on MTA capital funding; after all, the MTA is a state agency and a state responsibility. But then, when de Blasio committed to funding some of the MTA capital plan, he showed his hands far too early and opted against exerting much control over the money. It was an embarrassing surprise to the de Blasio Administration when the MTA pushed back plans for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, and it was a move that a mayor more engaged on transit issues would have headed off at the pass. The mayor should not treat the subways like a mode of transit Other People use. Nor should he rely on it only for photo ops. Ride the subway regularly; talk with riders about their experiences; and pay attention to what’s happening with the MTA. Even if Albany has been frustratingly slow to act on mayoral recommendations to the MTA Board, de Blasio should keep a finger on the pulse of transit goings-on. After all, few things touch the lives of his constituents more frequently than the subway system.

Affordable Housing: Finally, let’s talk affordable housing. The mayor has made affordable housing a centerpiece of his proposal for a more livable New York, but he hasn’t invested in transit upgrades that make or break affordability. Providing apartments for a reasonable/affordable rents in areas far from the subway and without upgrades to bus service or increases in transit capacity does little to combat the affordability crisis. By necessity, better transit access has to be a key component of affordable housing, and the mayor has not shown support for the transit piece of that affordability puzzle.

Maybe you might think it’s presumptuous of me that this admittedly obscure transportation blog I’ve run for nine years can find a sympathetic ear in City Hall, but if the mayor is listening to any of these sites, he would hear similar themes. Hopefully, he is and can mull over these ideas during the holiday season. If he wants to address the skeptics, at least he knows where to start.

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During their last meetings of 2015, the MTA Board on Wednesday took care of one piece of pressing business: The agency’s oversight body approved the 2016 budget with projections for the next few years. For the perennially beleaguered agency, the outlook is rosy. With a boost from what officials call “modest” fare hikes every two years, the MTA has predicted positive balances through 2019 and over $240 million in service increases on the horizon. But one watchdog worries that the agency’s planning could take a serious hit were another recession to arrive, and the riders would bear the brunt of the pain.

As budgets go, the MTA’s outlook is shockingly optimistic. After years of deficits and cost reduction efforts, the MTA is predicting surpluses until 2019 (and those out-year projections never seem to materialize). So with nearly $300 million on hand at the end of this year and with a $123 million surplus predicted for 2016, the MTA plans to add service but won’t eschew biennial fare hikes. It’s also not clear, as I’ve discussed before, if the MTA is adding enough service to meet spiking demand, but more service is on the way.

“The MTA is committed to bringing high-quality service to our customers at a reasonable cost, and our updated Financial Plan shows how we are putting that commitment into action,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said in a statement last mont. “We are continuing to find new ways to save money, we are making smart investments to serve our growing ridership, and we are doing this while minimizing the impact on our customers’ wallets.”

The new projections are powered by higher real estate tax receipts (which we’ll return to shortly), higher toll revenue. With this money, the MTA plans to do the following:

  • Fare and toll increases in 2017 and 2019 will be limited to 4% per increase.
  • The MTA will increase bus and subway service, but only by $38 million over the next four years. By contrast, the service cuts in 2010 resulted in nearly $100 million in savings.
  • The MTA will spend $13 million on new Select Bus Service routes and $35 million on Second Ave. Subway operations.
  • Maintenance backlogs will enjoy $42 million worth of work.
  • Capital contributions from the MTA will increase by $125 million annually which allows for $2.4 billion in additional bonding but also leads to more debt down the road.
  • The agency will reduce its liability for unfunded pension obligations by around $140 million.

As you can see, this is very much a mixed bag of expenditures, and the agency still needs to receive final sign-off on the 2015-2019 capital plan and has asked Albany to address declining taxi surcharge revenues due to the increase in popularity of Uber, Lyft, Via and other car-hailing services. There is also, according to a recent report issued by the Citizens Budget Commission, an 800-pound gorilla in the room. If another recession hits, they said [pdf], the MTA is ill-prepared to handle it, and riders would be socked by higher-than-anticipated fare hikes and deep service cuts. The CBC worries that the MTA’s revenue growth projections — 2.2 percent annually — are too optimistic and that by relying on real estate taxes and fares, the MTA’s budget is too susceptible to an economic downturn.

If a recession were to arrive during this financial plan, the CBC says we should expect these surpluses to turn into deficits that could be as much as $600 million. Such a deficit would require a fare hike of nearly 12 percent, and the CBC expects the state to turn to congestion pricing to fill the MTA’s coffers. Considering how New York politicians don’t seem to have the appetite for congestion pricing during good times, it’s tough to see them embracing this solution in bad ones. The MTA would also have to further reduce head counts and draw on any reserves they could.

So what’s the takeway? The CBC opines:

Based on the MTA’s response to recent budget gaps created by mandates for higher labor costs, the likely response would not be politically unpopular service cuts or fare increases. Instead resources in its financial plan related to capital funds and retiree benefits would be reallocated to cover operating expenses. This will increase future costs, create risks, and ultimately impose a greater burden for future transit riders and taxpayers.

A wiser strategy is to take other actions sooner to anticipate a future recession. More cautious
economic and revenue assumptions seem appropriate, and new policies regarding reserves would be a constructive step. Accumulation of general reserves should be permitted, and an explicit rainy day fund established covering a larger share of total expenses before releasing future reserves to reduce other long-term liabilities. Greater restrictions on diversion of OPEB funding and a firmer commitment to PAYGO capital allocations would reduce the risks associated with reallocation of those items. Finally, continuing to increase planned efficiency gains beyond current targets for future years would help bring expenditures in line with the revenues available when a downturn occurs.

In other words, even in good years, we shouldn’t grow complacent. It’s sound advice for an agency that has struggled (or even, as some may say, bumbled through various economic crises). For now, though, the footing looks solid, but the fare hikes will come. And that will be the way of things for the foreseeable future.

For the nitty-gritty on the MTA’s budget, feel free to peruse the 2016-2019 Financial Plan Adoption Materials, available here as a PDF.

Categories : MTA Economics
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The end of this week slipped away from me, and I didn’t have a chance to finish a few planned posts. Next week, we’ll tackle the line review for the A/C trains and some issues with the R in Brooklyn. This Sunday is your second-to-last chance to catch the Nostalgia Train running along 6th Ave. before next winter. Don’t miss out.

Meanwhile, service advisories from the MTA follow. It’s another light week as the holidays draw nearer.


From 12:01 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. Saturday, December 19, from 12:01 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. Sunday, December 20, and from 12:01 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 21, 4 service operates in two sections:

  • Between Woodlawn and 125 St.
  • Between 125 St and New Lots Av.
  • Transfer at 125 St to continue your trip.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 18 to 6:00 a.m. Saturday, December 19, and from 11:45 p.m. Saturday, December 19 to 8:00 a.m. Sunday, December 20, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, December 20, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 21, Crown Hts-Utica Av bound 4 trains run express from 125 St to Grand Central-42 St.


From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, December 19 to Monday, December 21, Woodlawn-bound 4 trains run local from Grand Central-42 St to 125 St.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 18 to 6:00 a.m. Saturday, December 19, and from 11:45 p.m. Saturday, December 19 to 8:00 a.m. Sunday, December 20, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, December 20, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 21, Woodlawn-bound 4 trains skip 138 St-Grand Concourse.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 18 to 6:00 a.m. Saturday, December 19, and from 11:45 p.m. Saturday, December 19 to 8:00 a.m. Sunday, December 20, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, December 20, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 21, Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall bound 6 trains run express from 125 St to Grand Central-42 St.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 18 to 6:30 a.m. Saturday, December 19, and from 11:45 p.m. Saturday, December 19 to 8:00 a.m. Sunday, December 20, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, December 20, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 21, Inwood-207 St bound A trains run express from Canal St to 145 St.


From 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, December 19 and Sunday, December 20, 168 St-bound C trains run express from Canal St to 145 St.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 18 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 21, Norwood-205 St bound D trains are rerouted via the C line from W4 St-Wash Sq to 145 St.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 18 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 21, F trains are suspended in both directions between Coney Island-Stillwell Av and Kings Hwy.


From 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Saturday, December 19 and from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Sunday, December 21, additional F service is provided between Jamaica-179 St and 2 Av.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 18 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 21, Jamaica-179 St bound F trains skip 169 St.


From 11:30 p.m. Friday, December 18 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 21, L trains are suspended in both directions between Canarsie-Rockaway Pkwy and Myrtle-Wyckoff Avs. Take free express and local shuttle buses and AC or J trains.

  • Free local shuttle buses provide alternate service between Rockaway Pkwy and Myrtle-Wyckoff Avs, stopping at East 105 St, New Lots Av, Livonia Av, Sutter Av, Atlantic Av, Broadway Junction, Bushwick Av, Wilson Av, and Halsey St.
  • Free express shuttle buses serve Rockaway Pkwy, Broadway Junction, and Myrtle-Wyckoff Avs only.
  • Transfer between free shuttle buses and L trains at Myrtle-Wyckoff Avs. To/from Manhattan, consider the AC or J via transfers between trains and shuttle buses at Broadway Junction.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 18 to 6:00 a.m. Saturday, December 19, and from 11:45 p.m. Saturday, December 19 to 6:00 a.m. Sunday, December 20, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, December 20, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 21, Astoria-bound N trains are rerouted via the Q line from DeKalb Av to Canal St.


From 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, December 19 and December 20, 71 Av-bound R trains are rerouted via the Q line from DeKalb Av to Canal St.

Categories : Service Advisories
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For a few years, I’ve noted that the MTA suffers from something we could call “Didn’t Think Of It Ourselves-itis.” If someone at the MTA didn’t think of it — or if someone from the outside the MTA isn’t funding — the agency not only doesn’t embrace the idea but usually finds a way to dismiss any proposal out of hand with the variety of usual suspects. It’s too expensive; it’s too impractical; it’s too timely; it sets a bad precedent. The list goes on and on.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen this drama unfold in response to two different proposals. First, in mid-November, when politicians began to clamor for rationalized commuter rail fares to alleviate the stress of certain transit deserts within the city, the MTA dismissed its $70 million out of hand. “We just can’t agree to accept that kind of loss especially since we already lose so much money on other services,” Adam Lisberg said at the time.

A few weeks later, when the Riders Alliance proposed a free bus to Laguardia, a Transit spokesman issued a similar statement. “At the end of the day,” Kevin Ortiz said, “there is simply zero evidence that making it a free shuttle would increase ridership on subways to the point it would make the shuttle self-sustaining.”

These two statements seemed to embody Didn’t-Think-Of-It-Ourselves-itis. As I noted last month, when it comes to multi-billion-dollar expenses — and some projects that could rightfully be called boondoggles — the MTA doesn’t bat an eye, but when it comes to incremental operating costs for customer-friendly initiatives, the MTA suddenly cares deeply about efficient spending. It’s quite the paradox and one that MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast apparently wants addressed.

As the Daily News reported earlier this week, Prendergast has asked his staffers to listen to ideas for service improvements rather than simply dismissing them out of hand. It may seem like an obvious point to anyone watching from the outside, but it’s an important culture shift within the MTA. Dan Rivoli explains:

The MTA boss told agency staff to stop trashing ideas to give riders a break on fares and improve service “out-of-hand,” according to an emailed memo obtained by the Daily News. MTA officials’ response to some recent ideas — such as cheaper commuter fares for trips within the city or extra subway and bus service — “seemed to indicate that we were rejecting these proposals out-of-hand, mostly on the grounds that they were too costly,” MTA chief Tom Prendergast wrote in a message emailed to board members Nov. 29.

The quick criticism and cries of poverty had some MTA board members feeling sidelined from the decision-making process, transit officials said. “We must not and we will not give the appearance that this Board does not play a very thoughtful and active role in these decisions,” wrote Prendergast, who holds the dual role of the top MTA executive and chairman of the board…

Prendergast wrote that he told MTA staff to be “far less strident” when responding to proposals that affect fares and service…Board members have picked up on the dismissive remarks from the MTA about policy proposals aimed at helping passengers at a time of cramped rides and spotty, unreliable operations. “We need to operate essentially on the margin, doing some jerry rigging … to be able to provide some relief to our customers,” said MTA board member Allen Cappelli. “Yes, it will take money and time to do these things, but (riders) want us as an institution to think outside the box and not just go along with the way things are.”

How this will eventually manifest itself is still an open question, and the MTA is still likely to suffer from other symptoms of Didn’t-Think-Of-It-Ourselves-itis. But a time when service is suffering due to a system that’s too popular for its own good, an organization that can be as insular as the MTA should do all it can to attempt to improve the customer experience. If that means listening and implementing a few good ideas thought up by outsiders, so be it. It’s better, after all, than yet another cranky conductor yelling at riders trying to board a crush-loaded peak-hour train to “use all available doors” as though that will magically fix all of the system’s problems.

Categories : MTA Absurdity
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As ridership peaks, a typical morning ride on the Q train involves lots of hair and armpits and very little space. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

Could subway service be improved if the MTA adopted better operations practices? (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

Today’s post comes to us from long-time SAS reader and commenter Alon Levy. Alon originally published this on his own site this past weekend and has graciously allowed me to run it in its entirety here. With subway service trending toward unreliability and uneven headways becoming more pronounced, Levy has tackled the interrelated issues of the MTA’s load guidelines, service frequency, interlining and general frustration with NYC’s increasingly crowded subway system. You can read more of Levy’s work on his site Pedestrian Observations and follow him on Twitter.

In New York, the MTA has consistent guidelines for how frequently to run each subway route, based on crowding levels. The standards are based on crowding levels at the point of maximum crowding on each numbered or lettered route. Each line is designed to have the same maximum crowding, with different systemwide levels for peak and off-peak crowding. While this approach is fair, and on the surface reasonable, it is a poor fit for New York’s highly branched system, and in my view contributes to some of the common failings of the subway.

Today, the off-peak guidelines call for matching frequency to demand, so that at the most crowded, the average train on each route has 25% more passengers than seats. Before the 2010 service cuts, the guidelines had the average train occupied to exact seating capacity. At the peak, the peak crowding guidelines are denser: 110 passengers on cars on the numbered lines, 145 on shorter (60’/18 m) cars on the lettered lines, 175 on longer (75’/23 m) cars on the lettered lines. There’s a minimum frequency of a train every 10 minutes during the day, and a maximum frequency at the peak depending on track capacity. When the MTA says certain lines, such as the 4/5/6, are operating above capacity, what it means is that at maximum track capacity, trains are still more crowded than the guideline.

In reality, guideline loads are frequently exceeded. Before the 2010 service cuts, many off-peak trains still had standees, often many standees. Today, some off-peak trains are considerably fuller than 25% above seated capacity. In this post, I’d like to give an explanation, and tie this into a common hazard of riding the subway in New York: trains sitting in the tunnels, as the conductor plays the announcement, “we are delayed because of train traffic ahead of us.”

The key takeaway from the system is that frequency at each time of day is calculated separately for each numbered or lettered route. Even when routes spend extensive distance interlined, as the 2/3 and 4/5 do, their frequencies are calculated separately. As of December 2014, we have the following headways, in minutes:

Line AM peak Noon off-peak PM peak
1 3 6 4
2 6:30 7:30 6:45
3 6 8:30 6:45
4 4:30 7:30 4:24
5 5 8:30 5:45
6 2:30 4 3:18
7 2:30 5 2:30
A 4:45 10 4:45
B 8:45 10 9:15
C 9:15 10 10
D 6:15 10 6:45
E 4 7:30 4
F 4:45 7:30 5
G 6:30 10 10
J/Z 5 10 5
L 4:30 6 4
M 8:45 10 9:25
N 7:15 10 7:30
Q 7:15 10 7:45
R 7:30 10 7:30

Consider now the shared segments between the various lines. The 4 comes every 4.5 minutes in the morning peak, and the 5 every 5 minutes. There is no way to maintain even spacing on both lines with these headways: they share tracks for an extensive portion of their trip. Instead, the dispatchers move trains around to make sure that headways are as even as possible on both the shared trunk segments and the branches, but something has to give. In 45 minutes, there are ten 4s and nine 5s. Usually, on trunk lines with two branches, trains alternate, but here, it’s not possible to have a perfect alternation in which each 4 is followed by a 5 and each 5 is followed by a 4. There is bound to be a succession of two 4s: the second 4 is going to be less crowded than the guideline, and the following 5 is going to be more crowded.

It gets worse when we consider the extensive reverse-branching, especially on the lettered lines. For example, on its northbound journey, the Q initially does not share tracks with any line; then it shares tracks with the B, into Downtown Brooklyn; then it crosses into Manhattan sharing tracks with the N; then it again shares tracks with no other route, running express in Manhattan while the N runs local; then it shares tracks with the N and R into Queens; and then finally it shares tracks with the N in Queens. It is difficult to impossible to plan a schedule that ensures smooth operations like this, even off-peak, especially when the frequency is so variable.

Concretely, consider what happens when the Q enters Manhattan behind an N. Adequate separation between trains is usually 2 minutes – occasionally less, but the schedule is not robust to even slight changes then. To be able to go to Queens ahead of the N, the Q has to gain 4 minutes running express in Manhattan while the N runs local. Unfortunately, the Q’s express jaunt only skips 4 stations in Manhattan, and usually the off-peak stop penalty is only about 45 seconds, so the Q only gains 3 minutes on the N. Thus, the N has to be delayed at Herald Square for a minute, possibly delaying an R behind it, or the Q has to be delayed 3 minutes to stay behind the N.

In practice, it’s possible to schedule around this problem when schedules are robust. Off-peak, the N, Q, and R all come every 10 minutes, which makes it possible to schedule the northbound Q to always enter Manhattan ahead of the N rather than right behind it. Off-peak, the services they share tracks with – the B, D, and M – all come every 10 minutes as well. The extensive reverse branching still makes the schedule less robust than it can be, but it is at least possible to schedule non-conflicting moves. (That said, the M shares tracks with the much more frequent F.) At the peak, things are much harder: while the N, Q, and R have very similar headways, the D is considerably more frequent, and the B and M considerably less frequent.

I believe that this system is one of the factors contributing to uneven frequency in New York, with all of the problems it entails: crowding levels in excess of guidelines, trains held in the tunnel, unpredictable wait times at stations. Although the principle underlying the crowding guidelines is sound, and I would recommend it in cities without much subway branching, in New York it fails to maintain predictable crowding levels, and introduces unnecessary problems elsewhere.

Instead of planning schedules around consistent maximum crowding, the MTA should consider planning schedules around predictable alternation of services on shared trunk lines. This means that, as far as practical, all lettered lines except the J/Z and the L should have the same frequency, and in addition the 2/3/4/5 should also have the same frequency. The 7 and L, which do not share their track or route with anything else, would maintain the present system. The J/Z, which have limited track sharing with other lines (only the M), could do so as well. The 1 and 6 do not share tracks with other lines, but run local alongside the express 2/3 and 4/5. Potentially, they could run at exactly twice the frequency of the 2/3/4/5, with scheduled timed local/express transfers; however, while this may work for the 6, it would give the 1 too much service, as there is much more demand for express than local service on the line.

To deal with demand mismatches, for example between the E/F and the other lettered lines, there are several approaches, each with its own positives and negatives:

– When the mismatch in demand is not large, the frequencies could be made the same, without too much trouble. The N/Q/R could all run the same frequency. More controversially, so could the 2/3/4/5: there would be more peak crowding on the East Side than on the West Side, but, to be honest, at the peak the 4 and 5 are beyond capacity anyway, so they already are more crowded.

– Some services could run at exactly twice the frequency of other services. This leads to uneven headways on the trunks, but maintains even headways on branches. For example, the A’s peak frequency is very close to exactly twice that of the C, so as they share tracks through Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn, they could alternate A-C-A-empty slot.

– Services that share tracks extensively could have drastic changes in frequency to each route, preserving trunk frequency. This should be investigated for the E/F on Queens Boulevard: current off-peak frequency is 8 trains per hour each, so cutting the E to 6 and beefing the F to 12 is a possibility.

– Service patterns could be changed, starting from the assumption that every lettered service runs every 10 minutes off-peak and (say) 6-7 minutes at the peak. If some corridors are underserved with just two services with such frequency, then those corridors could be beefed with a third route: for example, the Queens Boulevard express tracks could be supplanted with a service that runs the F route in Jamaica but then enters Manhattan via 53rd Street, like the E, and then continues either via 8th Avenue like the E or 6th Avenue like the M. Already, some peak E trains originate at Jamaica-179th like the F, rather than the usual terminus of Jamaica Center, which is limited to a capacity of 12 trains per hour.

– The service patterns could be drastically redrawn to remove reverse branching. I worked this out with Threestationsquare in comments on this post, leading to a more elegant local/express pattern but eliminating or complicating several important transfers. In particular, the Broadway Line’s N/Q/R trains could be made independent of the Sixth Avenue trains in both Queens and Brooklyn, allowing their frequencies to be tailored to demand without holding trains in tunnels to make frequencies even.

For the lettered lines, I have some affinity for the fourth solution, which at least in principle is based on a service plan from start to finish, rather than on first drawing a map and then figuring out frequency. But it has two glaring drawbacks: it involves more branching than is practiced today, since busy lines would get three services rather than two, making the schedule less robust to delays; and it is so intertwined with crowding levels that every major service change is likely to lead to complete overhaul of the subway map, as entire routes are added and removed based on demand. The second drawback has a silver lining; the first one does not.

I emphasize that this is more a problem of reverse branching than of conventional branching. The peak crowding on all lines in New York, with the exception of the non-branched 7 and 1, occurs in the Manhattan core. Thus, if routes with different colors never shared tracks, it would not be hard to designate a frequency for each trunk route at each time of day, without leading to large mismatches between service and demand. In contrast, reverse branching imposes schedule dependencies between many routes, to the point that all lettered routes except the L have to have the same frequency, up to integer multiples, to avoid conflicts between trains.

The highly branched service pattern in New York leads to a situation in which there is no perfect solution to train scheduling. But the MTA’s current approach is the wrong one, certainly on the details but probably also in its core. It comes from a good place, but it does not work for the system New York has, and the planners should at least consider alternatives, and discuss them publicly. If the right way turns out to add or remove routes in a way that makes it easier to schedule trains, then this should involve extensive public discussion of proposed service maps and plans, with costs and benefits to each community openly acknowledged. It is not good transit to maintain the current scheduling system just because it’s how things have always worked.

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The MTA will have to hit these critical milestones to open Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway by the end of 2016. (Source: MTA)

The MTA will have to hit these critical milestones to open Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway by the end of 2016. (Source: MTA)

No matter the scope of the project, the MTA is not known for wrapping up construction on time. We’ve all seen staircases to subway stations closed for months longer than announced as work drags on, and the MTA’s 20-month delay in opening the 7 line extension seemed to evolve from exasperating to the butt of a joke and back. Now as December’s end draws near and 2016 lurks on the horizon, the MTA’s most public deadline yet — the completion of Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway — looms large, and the agency will have to race against time to open this northern extension of the Q train on time.

The MTA’s struggles with opening the Second Ave. Subway are well documented. Setting aside the 80-year history of this project, since 2005, the MTA has, at certain points, projected completion in each of 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Amidst a rash of bad publicity and serious doubts over Capital Construction’s project management skills — doubts that still linger today — the agency vowed to open the first phase by the end of 2016, and even though the federal government has projected an early 2018 opening date, the MTA has not moved off of its promise to deliver a Second Ave. Subway before 2017.

With one year left, the MTA’s endgame is finally coming into view, and the agency is going to need to have a lot of things go right to meet that December 2016 promise. It hasn’t yet moved off its deadline, but in MTA Board materials released this weekend [pdf], the agency offered a glimpse at challenges that remain. Furthermore, the MTA’s Independent Engineering Consultant noted that the current schedule has “a moderate risk of delay” that would push completion beyond December 2016, but the MTA has “obtained high-level commitments from its contractors that support a December 2016 Revenue Service Date.” In other words, it’s all hands on deck from here on out.

So what are the big obstacles? The MTA and IEC acknowledge plenty. Currently, the IEC lists four key activities behind schedule. The first concerns permanent power at the 86th St. station which will delay the start of systems testing. The second involves construction of the entrances to the 72nd St. station, a problem obvious in its description. The third involves installation of communication and traction power equipment, and the fourth is track installation at 72nd St., another element problematic by its very existence. Try as they might, the MTA simply can’t run a subway without tracks.

The MTA currently has a proposed timeline for achieving each of these key activities, but the timeline is losing its flexibility (or contingency). Track installation, for instance, is 67 percent complete, and the contractor has vowed to finish on time. Permanent power energization for 86th St. is on target for a late April date, and the contractor at 72nd St. has promised to complete the station entrances so training can begin on September 1.

In addition to key activities already behind schedule, the IEC identified areas of risk that could lead to delays over the next year. These include design and scope changes, fire alarm system testing (which you may recall was one of the reasons for the delay of 7 line extension), installation of certain power and communications systems, and personnel availability. With three new stations scheduled to go online within 8-10 weeks of each other, the IEC is concerned that Transit will not make available enough staff to ensure training and testing can be completed to accommodate a revenue service date of December. As the MTA hasn’t activated this many new stations at once in a generation, the agency is on unsure ground here, but Capital Construction says it will work with Transit to ensure staff is made available for necessary training.

Other than noting these issues, the IEC’s solution involved speeding up work and spending faster. It’s not exactly a ground-breaking suggestion, but at this point, the MTA’s wiggle room is disappearing. Things are moving forward, but it’s going to be a sprint to get to next December. The next quarterly update on the Second Ave. Subway will be published in March. If these scheduling obstacles remain, wrapping by December will be questionable at best, and history, as we all know too well, isn’t on the MTA’s side. If I were a betting man, I’d probably take the “over” on December 2016. How about you?

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The weather says “spring,” but the relatively small slate of weekend service changes says “December.” Enjoy it while lasts and don’t forget about the Nostalgia Train rides around 6th Ave. on Sunday.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 11 to 6:00 a.m. Saturday, December 12, and from 11:45 p.m. Saturday, December 12 to 8:00 a.m. Sunday, December 13, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, December 13, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 14, Crown Hts-Utica Av bound 4 trains run express from 125 St to Grand Central-42 St.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 11 to 6:00 a.m. Saturday, December 12, and from 11:45 p.m. Saturday, December 12 to 8:00 a.m. Sunday, December 13, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, December 13, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 14, Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall bound 6 trains run express from 125 St to Grand Central-42 St.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 11 to 6:30 a.m. Saturday, December 12, and from 11:45 p.m. Saturday, December 12 to 8:00 a.m. Sunday, December 13, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, December 13, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 14, Inwood-207 St bound A trains run express from Canal St to 145 St.


From 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, December 12 and Sunday, December 13, 168 St-bound C trains run express from Canal St to 145 St.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 11 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 14, Norwood-205 St bound D trains are rerouted via the C line from W4 St-Wash Sq to 145 St.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 11 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 14, F trains are suspended in both directions between Coney Island-Stillwell Av and Kings Hwy.


From 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Saturday, December 12 and from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Sunday, December 13, additional F service is provided between Jamaica-179 St and 2 Av.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 11 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 14, Jamaica-179 St bound F trains skip 169 St.


From 11:30 p.m. Friday, December 11 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 14, L trains are suspended in both directions between Canarsie-Rockaway Pkwy and Myrtle-Wyckoff Avs. Take free express and local shuttle buses and AC or J trains.

  • Free local shuttle buses provide alternate service between Rockaway Pkwy and Myrtle-Wyckoff Avs, stopping at East 105 St, New Lots Av, Livonia Av, Sutter Av, Atlantic Av, Broadway Junction, Bushwick Av, Wilson Av, and Halsey St.
  • Free express shuttle buses serve Rockaway Pkwy, Broadway Junction, and Myrtle-Wyckoff Avs only.
  • Transfer between free shuttle buses and L trains at Myrtle-Wyckoff Avs. To/from Manhattan, consider the AC or J via transfers between trains and shuttle buses at Broadway Junction.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, December 11 to 6:00 a.m. Saturday, December 12, and from 11:45 p.m. Saturday, December 12 to 6:00 a.m. Sunday, December 13, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, December 13, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 14, Astoria-bound Q trains are rerouted via the Q line from DeKalb Av to Canal St.


From 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, December 12 and December 13, 71 Av-bound Q trains are rerouted via the Q line from DeKalb Av to Canal St.

Categories : Service Advisories
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