New Jersey Transit's Hoboken crash was a tragic illustration of an agency in disarray. (Source: NTSB)

New Jersey Transit’s Hoboken crash was a tragic illustration of an agency in disarray. (Source: NTSB)

For New Jersey Transit, Thursday was, in its own pathetic way, a big day. Meeting for the time in months, the agency’s board finally filled its executive director vacancy — a spot left open since Ronnie Hakim decamped for New York City Transit — by appointing Steve Santoro, an accomplished project manager who may be in over his head, to lead the beleaguered agency. Santoro refused to commit to being available for press inquiries and stated in the obvious in his introductory remarks. “There are certainly challenges that we need to face going forward,” he said.

To say that it is an understatement would itself be an understatement. New Jersey Transit reeling from the recent crash in Hoboken, has come under intense federal scrutiny for recent safety lapses, and must find a way out of its current doldrums. With riders facing the strain of bad service and ever-increasing fares, it’s a nearly impossible task, and that’s thanks to the man at top — Gov. Chris Christie.

It’s no secret that I don’t believe Christie to be a friend of transit. It’s a remarkable charge for a governor of New Jersey, a state that wouldn’t exist in its current form without transit. With so many residents bound for jobs in New York City and a river serving as an imposing geographic barrier, New Jersey Transit’s buses and trains (along with ferries and the Port Authority’s PATH system) provide key lifelines, but Christie has denied New Jersey Transit state funding for years. He also recently engaged in a political showdown over the gas tax that became a back-burner issue as he stumped for Trump until the Hoboken crash made a solution a necessity.

That’s only recent history. We know he canceled the ARC Tunnel six years ago and never spent time or effort identifying or funding a replacement. We know ARC would have been nearing an opening date by now, and we know that Christie canceled ARC over spurious funding claims and not, as he tried to argue in hindsight, over concerns over the deep-cavern tunnel under Macy’s. He put that argument forward only because he knew it would win over New Jersey’s transit advocates who hated Alt-G and were willing to overlook the potentially damaging decision by Christie.

But New Jersey’s transit problem isn’t limited to my re-litigating the ARC Tunnel cancelation for the umpteenth time. Rather, we turn to The Times for a lengthy piece on New Jersey Transit’s current crisis. Some highlights:

The result can be felt by commuters daily. So far this year, the railroad has racked up at least 125 major train delays, about one every two days. Its record for punctuality is declining, and its trains are breaking down more often — evidence that maintenance is suffering…

A decade ago, New Jersey Transit was laying the groundwork for robust growth. While ridership has indeed boomed — nearly 20 percent more passengers have flooded the system in the past seven years — the railroad has failed to make the investments in infrastructure needed to meet the rising demand or to simply provide reliable service.

Today, its trains break down about every 85,000 miles, a sharp decline from 120,000 miles between breakdowns four years ago. The region’s two other large commuter rail systems, the Long Island Rail Road and the Metro-North Railroad, are twice as reliable: Their trains travel more than 200,000 miles between breakdowns. New Jersey Transit also reported more major mechanical failures: 213 in 2014, compared with 89 for the Long Island Rail Road and 169 for Metro-North…

Today’s grim picture is a far cry from the recent past, when major investments by the agency helped to fuel a real estate boom in New Jersey. Three initiatives — Midtown Direct in 1996, the Montclair Connection in 2002 and Secaucus Junction in 2003 — increased the value of homes near lines with improved service by $23,000 on average, according to a 2010 report by the Regional Plan Association, an urban policy group. All together, the projects raised home values by $11 billion…

Under the Christie administration, the agency’s finances have been dealt a blow. The direct state subsidy to its operating budget plummeted to $33 million last year from $348 million in 2009, according to the agency’s financial reports.

With delays frequent and state support short, NJ Transit has raised fares by around 30% since the start of the Christie administration, and as some New Jersey residents told The Times, the constant pressure is starting to erode resident comfort. “The railroad’s falling reputation,” The Times states, “some fear, could push people out of the state and turn others off from living there.”

So that seems to be the current end-game. New Jersey Transit service has degraded to the point where people are considering and following through on moves to other New York City suburbs with better transit access to their jobs. It’s a cautionary tale for New Jersey and one that should serve as a wake-up call to Christie’s eventually successor. The region’s economic health depends on a healthy New Jersey Transit, and right now, the Garden State has a ways to go.

Categories : New Jersey Transit
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Numbers from July show a slight dip in subway ridership. (via MTA)

Numbers from July show a slight dip in subway ridership. (via MTA)

As legend has it, when asked about a popular restaurant, perhaps in New York or perhaps in his native St. Louis (history is vague on the answer), Yankees catcher Yogi Berra uttered the famous line, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” Lately, I’ve been thinking about this Yogism in the context of subway ridership as after years of growth, ridership has stagnated and started to slip a little. Have we reached peak subway? Or the are the trains so crowded that no one goes there anymore?

This issue has been percolating throughout 2016, but it came to the forefront in the most recent MTA Board materials. Those materials, released at the end of September, include subway ridership figures through July, and the numbers are starting to sag. Total subway ridership for July was 138.9 million, down from a projected 141.3 million. The MTA believed rain over the July 4th weekend and some New Yorkers’ decisions to extend the long weekend into a mini-vacation led to the variance. It’s quite plausible as subway ridership figures are very sensitive to weather and long weekends.

Now, in a vacuum, missing projected ridership estimates by one percent isn’t that big of a deal, but the year-to-year numbers show a decline. Average daily weekday ridership fell by nearly 2 percent between July of 2015 and July of 2016. Weekend subway ridership, meanwhile, dropped by 3.5 percent between July of 2015 and July of 2016. Again, the MTA blamed rain and vacation, but July continued the year-long trend of ridership either leveling off or declining it.

I had a few thoughts stemming from this trend: First, does it matter? It might if the MTA continues to miss revenue projections due to lower-than-expected fares. It also might matter because we need to understand where these riders are going and why. If the low costs and popularity of cab-sharing apps are sending potential subway riders into cars, that could be a concern for congestion on our streets and a source of long-term competition around the margins for some subway rides. If the continued increase in Citi Bike riders is a factor, this may be indicative of something else at play. It could be that people are fed up with overcrowded rush hour trains that crawl through tunnels and lead to uncomfortable riding conditions because trains are too crowd. It could be something else.

That something else is the second question: What else is going on with the subways? Throughout the same board materials, a variety of other reports indicate service problems. The rolling stock is aging, and failures now occur on average every 120,000 miles (rather than every 143,000 as it was a year ago). On-time performance has dipped to 73.4 percent with a 12-month rolling average of around 68 percent, and wait assessment figures so inconsistent headway gaps, especially during the weekends when getting around time involves deciphering complex and wide-reaching service changes. What if New Yorkers are starting to give up on the subway because service simply isn’t reliable enough?

The subway systems’ renaissance over the past 25 years has been remarkable as annual ridership has grown from 900 million a few decades to 1.7 billion last year without significant increase in track mileage. With new stations and the Second Ave. line set to come online within the next few months, that number will jump again. But it seems that service is starting to come under pressure of all these riders who demand more. Twenty five years ago, the MTA didn’t plan to have 1.7 billion riders in 2015, and it’s not clear that the agency has a plan that will meet today’s ridership demands in 25 years, let alone the demands of whatever ridership could be in 2040. It’s starting to show, and the subways may just be so crowded that no one goes there anymore.

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Via the tireless Max Diamond (better known to the internet as DJ Hammers) comes proof that yes, Virginia, there is a Second Ave. Subway. The eagle-eyed videographer spotted a series of test trains running north past the 63rd St. station on Lexington, a future transfer point between the Second Avenue’s Q train and the F train. Take a peek:

The test trains are a key element in prepping the line for its eventually opening as they run to ensure proper clearances in stations and tunnels (including gaps between the train and platform, as we saw at South Ferry in 2009), a functional signal system and a power stress test, as one worker noted on Instagram. This is certainly good news for those New Yorkers, like my dad, who have long since stated that they won’t believe the Second Ave. Subway exists until they actually ride a train, but it’s not clear if this good news for the MTA’s slowly shrinking timeline. As recently as two weeks ago, the agency’s own consultants noted that the pace of testing is still lagging behind the line’s planned opening prior to the end of 2016.

For now, though, trains are starting to roll without passengers. It’s a first step toward finalizing the first segment of a subway line over 80 years in the making.

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As New Jersey Transit gears up to reopen Hoboken for some trains on Monday and the agency prepares for its first board meeting in months, the National Transportation Safety Board has issued the first of what will be many reports on the recent train crash. The initial press release is simply a bullet point list of facts the NTSB has discerned from data recorders and videos of the crash. We know the train was going 21 mph when it collided with the bumper. We know the train had been going 8 mph approximately 38 seconds before the crash, and we know the throttled shifted from idle to 4. The NTSB has not yet provided any analysis, and it is premature to speculate on the causes of the crash yet. I’ll have more as we know more.

Now, the services advisories for this weekend’s subway trips:

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, October 7 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 10, 2 trains are suspended in both directions between 96 St and Wakefield-241 St. Take 45 trains and free shuttle buses instead. Free express and local shuttle buses provide alternate service between 96 St and 149 St-Grand Concourse. Transfer between 4/5 trains and free shuttle buses at 149 St-Grand Concourse.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, October 7 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 10, 3 service is suspended. Take 24 trains and free shuttle buses instead. 2 service operates between Flatbush Av-Brooklyn College and 96 St. 4 service operates all weekend between Woodlawn and New Lots Av, making local stops in Brooklyn. Free shuttle buses operate between 96 St and 148 St. Transfer between free shuttle buses and 2 trains at 96 St. Transfer between 2 and 4 trains at Nevins St or Franklin Av.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, October 7 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 10, 4 service operates to/from New Lots Av. 4 trains will run local in Brooklyn.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, October 7 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 10, 5 trains are suspended in both directions between Eastchester-Dyre Av and E 180 St. Free shuttle buses operate all weekend between Eastchester-Dyre Av and E 180 St, making all 5 line station stops. Transfer between trains and free shuttle buses at E 180 St.

From 3:45 a.m. Saturday, October 8 to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, October 9, Pelham Bay Park-bound 6 trains run express from Parkchester to Pelham Bay Park.

From 3:45 a.m. Saturday, October 8 to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, October 9, Main St-bound 7 trains run express from 74 St-Broadway to Willets Point.

From 6:45 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Saturday, October 8, and Sunday, October 9, Main St-bound 7 trains run express from Queensboro Plaza to 74 St-Broadway.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 7 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 10, A trains are suspended in both directions between 168 St and Inwood-207 St. Take 1 trains and free shuttle buses instead. 1 trains make nearby stops between 168 St and 207 St. Free shuttle buses operate along two routes: On Broadway, between 168 St and 207 St, making stops at 175 St, 181 St, 190 St, and Dyckman St, and also on Fort Washington Av, between 168 St and 190 St, making stops at 175 St and 181 St. Transfer between trains and shuttle buses at 168 St.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 7 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 10, A trains run via the F line in both directions between W 4 St-Wash Sq and Jay St-MetroTech.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, October 8 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 10, A trains run local in both directions between W 4 St-Wash Sq and 59 St-Columbus Circle.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, October 8 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 10, A trains run local in both directions between 168 St and 145 St.

From 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, October 8, and Sunday, October 9, C trains are suspended in both directions between 145 St and 168 St. Take the A instead.

From 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, October 8, and Sunday, October 9, C trains run via the F line in both directions between W 4 St-Wash Sq and Jay St-MetroTech.

From 5:45 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Saturday, October 8, and Sunday, October 9, Norwood-205 St bound D trains skip Bay 50 St and 25 Av.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 7 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 10, E trains are rerouted via the F line in both directions between 21 St-Queensbridge and W4 St-Wash Sq. Free shuttle buses run between Court Sq-23 St and 21 St-Queensbridge, stopping at Queens Plaza.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 7 to 7:00 a.m. Sunday, October 9, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, October 9 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 10, Manhattan-bound E trains run express from 71 Av to the 21 St-Queensbridge F station.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 7 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 10, Manhattan-bound E trains skip Briarwood and 75 Av.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, October 7 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, October 10, Manhattan-bound F trains skip Sutphin Blvd, Briarwood and 75 Av.

From 5:45 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Saturday, October 8, J trains are suspended in both directions between Hewes St and Broad St. Take 46f trains and/or free shuttle buses. For service to/from Manhattan, consider using ac or l via transfer at Broadway Junction.

From 6:45 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Saturday, October 8, M trains are suspended in both directions between Myrtle Av and Essex St. Take the J/L and/or free shuttle buses instead. Free shuttle buses provide alternate service between Hewes St and Essex St, stopping at Marcy Av. Transfer between J trains and buses at Hewes St. For direct service to/from Manhattan, use the L.

From 5:45 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Saturday, October 8, and Sunday, October 9, Coney Island-Stillwell Av bound N trains run express from Astoria Blvd to Queensboro Plaza.

From 6:30 a.m. to 12:00 midnight Saturday, October 8, and Sunday, October 9, Manhattan-bound R trains run express from 71 Av to Queens Plaza.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, October 8 to 6:00 a.m. Monday, October 10, the 42 St Shuttle operates overnight.

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The Moynihan train hall will open by the end of December 2020. (Credit: SOM)

The Moynihan train hall will open by the end of December 2020. (Credit: SOM)

It’s hard to find a space in New York City transit planning as hotly contested as Penn Station. The destruction of the original Beaux-Arts masterpiece hangs over the city and echoes throughout today’s conservationism and landmarking process, and the current Penn Station rivals Laguardia as the city’s most scorned transportation space. Shoved under Madison Square Garden and operated as three separate fiefdoms by Amtrak, the LIRR and New Jersey Transit, the current iteration is a drab entryway to the city with poor wayfinding and passenger flow. It is constantly subject to fanciful ideas for improvement.

In early 2016, as part of his State of the State tour, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the Empire Station Complex, a redesigned Penn Station that involved shifting much of the passenger areas to Farley Post Office building west of 8th Ave. and perhaps demolishing the Theater at Madison Square Garden to open space for grand public entrance. It followed decades of wheel-spinning over the so-called Moynihan Station plan and recent NYC rumblings concerning Madison Square Garden’s occupancy permit covering the space above Penn Station. Many people seem to think that to fix Penn Station, and retain its usefulness as a rail hub in between the 7th and 8th Ave. subway lines, the Garden will have to go.

That, however, may not be in the card as Gov. Cuomo announced last week a $1.5 billion plan to build out Moynihan Station and fix up the preexisting parts of Penn Station. Related, Vornado and Skanska will collaborate on a 255,000 square-foot train hall in the old post office that will house the LIRR and Amtrak (though it’s not clear what becomes of New Jersey Transit or why these three entities can’t better collaborate on the use of this space). The project will include 112,000 square feet of retail in Moynihan Station, making it the third transit mall the city has built in recent years, and an additional 588,000 square feet of office space. This thing, funded somehow, will be completed by the end of 2020.

The redesigned LIRR concourse will feature wider passageways, bright ceilings and new wayfinding. (Credit: MTA)

The redesigned LIRR concourse will feature wider passageways, bright ceilings and new wayfinding. (Credit: MTA)

Within the existing Penn Station, the MTA will redesign the LIRR’s 33rd St. concourse with higher ceiling, brighter lighting, wider concourses and new wayfinding signs. Additionally, the two Penn Station subway stops will be modernized under Cuomo’s plan to update the look and feel of the subway system. (The renovations will not include reconfiguring tracks to allow for same-direction, cross-platform transfers between local and express trains.) And that was it.

“New York’s tomorrow depends on what we do today, and the new Moynihan Train Hall will be a world-class 21st century transportation hub,” Cuomo said in his remarks. “With more than twice the passengers of all JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports combined, the current Penn Station is overcrowded, decrepit, and claustrophobic. The Moynihan Train Hall will have more space than Grand Central’s main concourse, housing both Amtrak and LIRR ticketing and waiting areas, along with state-of-the-art security features, a modern, digital passenger experience, and a host of dining and retail options. This is not a plan – this is what’s going to happen. People are going to walk through this station and recognize that this is New York.”

The Moynihan train hall will cost $1.5 billion with all partners contributing funding. (Source: Gov. Cuomo's office)

The Moynihan train hall will cost $1.5 billion with all partners contributing funding. (Source: Gov. Cuomo’s office)

Now, don’t get me wrong: Penn Station is not a particularly pleasant train station for anyone, and it needs to be nicer. But redesigning Penn Station without addressing the trans-Hudson capacity concerns at the same time make me worry that we’re simply repeating the mistakes of the PATH World Trade Center station. How many billions can we spend on transit malls and fanciful headhouses without addressing operational issues (such as through running) or trans-Hudson capacity constraints (such as new tunnels)? On the bright side, Cuomo mentioned “coordination” with the Gateway Tunnels and indicated in another presentation that an announcement on Gateway funding and the project’s future may be coming soon. But shifting a busy commuter rail stop one long block away from nearby subways and not addressing capacity constraints seems short-sighted to say the least.

Meanwhile, while Cuomo controls the purse strings and can actually get something built, he’s not the only one with a vision for Penn Station. In The Times this past weekend, Michael Kimmelman highlighted Vishaan Chakrabarti’s plan to redo Penn Station by eliminating Madison Square Garden. Chakrabarti’s plan retains the Garden’s shape but removes the arena. He repurposes the building as an entrance to Penn Station and believes it would cost less than the Moynihan project while retaining access to subways. Unfortunately, a year after one of his top aides landed a plum spot at MSG, Cuomo has repeatedly said that the Garden isn’t going anywhere. “It’s called Madison Square Garden, and it’s private and they own it and they want to leave it there,” he said yesterday in comments. This too seems awfully short-sighted.

As the city has digested Cuomo’s proposals, it seems that the Empire Station Complex idea has fallen by the wayside. Dana Rubinstein reported that the elements east of 8th Ave. will take longer. We don’t know what will happen to New Jersey Transit or how Gateway truly fits in with this new train hall. The RPA and MSA both called on Cuomo to be more aggressive in relocating MSG and more vocal in plans for increased trans-Hudson rail capacity (although one Cuomo ally who will soon head up the RPA may temper these calls, Politico New York recently reported).

So for now, it seems the future of Penn Station is a nicer train hall that’s less convenient for train riders. It’s an expensive gamble with an unclear funding picture and one that may or may not include the more badly needed Gateway project. It rights a wrong in the design of Penn Station but seems to be a siloed project and not one that holistically reimagines train operations under the Hudson River and into and through Penn Station. Much like many other Cuomo plans, it almost gets us to where we need to be. But without further additions, it’s going to fall short of the region’s needs, and that’s the bigger lost opportunity yet.

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At least one person is dead and scores injured after NJ Transit train 1614 crashed into the Hoboken terminal this morning. (Photo by Ross Bauer)

New Jersey Transit service into Hoboken has been suspended since Thursday’s crash. (Photo by Ross Bauer)

It’s been a rough few days for New Jersey as the Garden State comes to grips with the fallout from Thursday’s fatal trash crash. Gov. Chris Christie, busy cavorting with the GOP presidential nominee, came home just quick enough to help implement an ex post quick fix to the state’s transportation funding crisis, and while no one knows if the New Jersey Transit train was speeding or by how much, the engineer claims to have no memory of last week’s incident. As the NTSB, it is a day of reckoning for New Jersey.

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, in a clear case of political CYA, Gov. Christie had what many think may have been his “come to Jesus” moment over transportation funding, except it was a pyrrhic victory. Christie agreed to a 23-cent increase in the state’s gas tax to add billions of dollars to the state’s empty Transportation Trust Fund while New Jersey will cut its estate tax and sales tax. If this seems to be a regressive step, well, it is, but it was also high time for New Jersey to raise its gas tax. The state still features the cheapest gas around but now by a bit less than before. That the funding measure came amidst the fallout from a fatal crash speaks volumes about New Jersey’s transportation approach.

That is, in fact, the point Nicole Gelinas made in a piece earlier this week on the crash and funding agreement. New Jersey, she wrote, was not prepared to handle a disaster, and a disaster is what it got.

Would investment in better technology have averted Thursday’s crash? It’s impossible to know. New York and Amtrak aren’t flat broke like New Jersey is, but they’ve been slow, too, in rolling out automated-stop technology. Capital investments would give people a better day-to-day commute — and could avert a future disaster. New Jersey needs to fund about $5 billion out of the $20 billion cost of building a new tunnel across the Hudson River to do major repairs to the existing, century-old tunnel. But it has no idea where it’s going to get that money.

Just how bad are the decisions state officials have been making? New Jersey continues to squander the infrastructure money it does have on trifles and amusements. Last month, as the Bond Buyer reported, the state made plans to issue $1.2 billion in debt to fund a long-delayed “megamall” in East Rutherford.

Using scarce tax dollars to fund a mall made no sense in 2002, when the state launched the bizarre project, and it makes less sense today. Maybe, though, Christie and lawmakers can prod the mall’s owners to add an indoor miniature train to the planned indoor ski slope and water slide. At least, then, the state could say it’s working on some train project.

Meanwhile, as more information regarding New Jersey Transit has reached public eyes and ears this week, we have since learned what many have already known: The agency does not have a good safety record, and the Federal Railroad Administration has noticed numerous safety lapses in recent years. It is, as Bloomberg noted, a test of a beleaguered system that cannot meet passenger delay, one The Times noted suffers from “neglect and mismanagement.”

As the feds dig into the causes of this crash and service remains suspended into Hoboken, it seems that New Jersey Transit is on the abyss of a disaster. It has no leadership, and the board hasn’t held meetings in months. No one in Trenton seems to care, and Christie has over a year left in his tenure. The state’s next governor will have a headache, and one very important to the region, on his or her hands. Last week’s crash was illustrative of the problems; hopefully, it wasn’t a harbinger of worse things to come.

Categories : New Jersey Transit
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At least one person is dead and scores injured after NJ Transit train 1614 crashed into the Hoboken terminal this morning. (Photo by Ross Bauer)

At least one person is dead and scores injured after NJ Transit train 1614 crashed into the Hoboken terminal this morning. (Photo by Ross Bauer)

Updated: At least one person has dead and 108 are injured, including one critically, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced this afternoon, after a Pascack Valley line NJ Transit train derailed and crashed into the station in Hoboken during rush hour this morning. The FRA is heading to the scene to investigate, and witnesses say the train crashed through a wall into a crowded waiting area. Reports indicate that some passengers are still trapped in the wreckage, and casualty numbers may be higher. According to initial reports, the woman who died was not on the train but rather on the platform when the crash occurred.

According to those on the train who were uninjured, the train seemed to be going too fast as it entered the station, and images indicate that the train broke through a station wall, severely damaging the roof at Hoboken. NJ Transit is amidst an effort to install positive train control, a technology that can limit train speeds based on location, but the agency has not completed this work. Meanwhile, with New Jersey’s transportation trust fund out of money, work on most long-term capital projects has slowed or stopped completely, pending resolution of a debate in Trenton over the gas tax. That said, it’s not clear if PTC had a role to play in this tragic collision or if PTC could have averted it.

NBC News had more on the crash:

Preliminary reports suggest the crash involving train No. 1614 on the Pascack Valley Line was accidental or caused by operator error, according to four law enforcement officials, though they stress it is early in the investigation…It appeared the train went through a bumper stop at the end of the track. It came to a stop in a covered area between the station’s indoor waiting area and the platform. From above, chopper footage showed the glass arches atop the building crunched like an accordion over the platform.

Currently, all PATH service is suspended at Hoboken, and the Hudson Bergen Light Rail is not running into or out of Hoboken either. However, PATH service to Hoboken is expected to be restored by this evening’s rush hour. Additional buses were be added as well.

Images and video from the scene are coming through on Twitter and this is currently a developing story.

Categories : New Jersey Transit
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The latest glimpses inside the 2nd Ave. Subway show test trains running from 96th St. (via MTA)

The latest glimpses inside the 2nd Ave. Subway show test trains running from 96th St. (via MTA)

MTA officials continue to promise a late December opening for Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway even in the face of mounting concerns that one station is not complete and systems tests are lagging. According to the latest MTA Board materials and a report yesterday by the agency’s independent engineering consultant, if MTA Capital Construction does not nearly double the pace of testing over the next six weeks, the project’s on-time opening could be in doubt.

“The test program is not meeting the completion rate required to finish the testing of all key systems needed for a for a start of revenue service in December,” Kent Haggas, an engineer who has been following the project for months, said. “We have about 300 [tests] left to go and about 12 weeks to make it. It’s our number one concern.”

For the MTA, these tests, and their slow pace, echoes back to the delays in opening the 7 line extension. MTA materials note that the tests involve fire safety and HVAC and vent systems as well as elevators and escalators up and down 2nd Ave. Additionally, certain escalators and elevators have yet to be installed at 72nd St., but the MTA says these elements of the project will not affect the revenue service date. Haggas, in his report however, noted that “the finish of elevators and escalators and their integration into the station fire alarm system by the end of December remains a concern.”

As this project nears its completion and contractors enter the finishing stages of work, it seems likely that work may bleed into the early part of 2017. So long as the agency doesn’t run into unforeseen problems at this point, even if it misses the revenue service date of December 31, an opening within the early part of the first quarter of next year seems likely. That said, the MTA is facing a lot of pressure externally and internally to deliver this project on time.

Lately, as the MTA has returned street and sidewalk space to the neighborhood around 96th St., many people have asked if they could open part of the project and skip 72nd St. if that station remains the sticking point to a December opening. As now, MTACC has to certify all of Phase 1 complete before handing over control and operations to New York City Transit. With the 7 line, that handoff occurred essentially just before the opening press conference, and it’s an all-or-nothing handoff. If a part of the project — one discrete station — remains incomplete, the entire project is incomplete.

So we’ll wait. The W train, as we learned last week, returns on November 7, the next new crew rotation before the Second Ave. Subway is supposed to open. Will this new subway line, nearly 90 years in the making following this year or early next? We still don’t know, and December 31 is now just 95 days away.

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Paratransit costs have started to skyrocket in recent years as New York City's population has grown older. (Source: CBC)

Paratransit costs have started to skyrocket in recent years as New York City’s population has grown older. (Source: CBC)

It’s been a few years since the MTA’s Access-A-Ride costs have made headlines, but two reports published this week have brought the issue back to the forefront of the discussion over transit offerings in New York City. Both the Citizens Budget Commission and the NYU Wagner’s Rudin Center have put forward proposals that could save the MTA over $100 million a year in Access-A-Ride costs, and while each report is worth consideration, they’re silent on the most important fix — investing in the accessibility of the New York City subway system.

Let’s start with the basics: The MTA currently spends around $470 million annually on Access-A-Ride, and trips cost on average $71. The fare is equal to a $2.75 MetroCard swipe so someone — largely subway riders and drivers along with a mix of tax dollars — supports this expensive program. Meanwhile, with out population rapidly aging, the MTA expects to spend over $620 million on paratransit in 2020 with the per-ride cost reaching nearly $80. With the MTA’s razor-thin budget margins, significant savings on paratransit can improve the program’s efficiency while averting future MTA budget crises.

The CBC’s report [pdf] is a straightforward presentation of fairly obvious policy solutions. The MTA, the CBC notes, uses wheelchair-accessible vehicles even in situations where the paratransit riders are ambulatory. The agency should better improve dispatching and refine its services offerings to align needs with vehicles while reducing costs. Better contracting practices, a common refrain for anything MTA, is part of the solution while the CBC also recommends “discourag[ing] excess use of paratransit by charging a higher fare” and calls for a better funding mix.

The Rudin Center’s report [pdf] leans on technology and ride-hailing apps in particular to improve service offerings. Both reports call upon transit agencies to work with Uber, Lyft and other web-based car hailing services to shift some paratransit trips to lower cost providers (though these companies’ fleets are far from sufficiently accessible for many riders). Both reports are sympathetic to the unfunded nature of the ADA mandate that transit agencies provide paratransit services. And both reports recognize how costs are going to begin to climb as the Baby Boomer generation starts to age.

Yet, I wanted to hear more about a potential other solution: Transit agencies, and the MTA in particular, should make more of an effort to ensure their systems are fully accessible. The MTA is working to fulfill a pledge to make 100 Key Stations accessible by the end of 2020, but our transit agency has seemingly interpreted the ADA in a way that doesn’t require them to retrofit old stations if the cost is prohibitively out of proportion. Thus, despite extensive renovations to, say, Smith-9th Sts., the station is far from accessible with no plans to rectify this accessibility gap in the future. (New build stations will, of course, be fully ADA compliant.)

Meanwhile, the MTA has shied away from reopening subway station entrances and exits that were closed shortly before the ADA become law because the agency is concerned doing so will trigger ADA compliancy obligations. Thus, all riders are paying the costs in high and increasing paratransit services and in inconvenient station design that leads to crowding and frustration.

What I would like to understand is another element of cost-shifting. The MTA has spent billions of dollars over the years on paratransit while barely complying with the ADA. How much money could it save on paratransit by investing upfront in a more aggressive plan to make more of the subway system accessible? These reports do not reach this question, but I think it’s key. If paratransit costs are going to increase by 33 percent over the next four years, is there another way to slow spending otherwise?

Categories : Paratransit
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The new South Ferry station, destroyed by Sandy in 2012 and shown here in early 2013, will reopen in mid-2017, but experts think the MTA's plan is heavy on the fix and light on the fortify. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

The new South Ferry station, destroyed by Sandy in 2012 and shown here in early 2013, will reopen in mid-2017, but experts think the MTA’s plan is heavy on the fix and light on the fortify. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Many pixels have been burned over the looming L train shutdown and the day-to-day effects losing the BMT’s Canarsie Line will have on the city. We’ve talked bus bridges and Peopleway; and we’ve talked holistic solutions to an 18-month problem that will lead to longer, more crowded daily commutes for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. We have not talked about how the L train repairs will start over six years after Sandy’s floodwaters swept through the subway tunnels, and we have not talked much about whether the MTA could weather another storm.

Last week, Neil deMause in the Village Voice shifted the focus from the Fix aspects of the MTA’s Fix & Fortify plan to the Fortify piece, and the picture is not a pretty one. Although the MTA has access to billions of dollars in relief money, the pace of spending has been slow, and the fortification efforts are far from complete. If another storm with a surge as high as Sandy’s swept through the region, the subway tunnels and stations would flood all over again, and as climate change outpaces the MTA’s ability to close nearly 6000 entry points from water can get in, it still seems as though damage from another storm is a question of “when” rather than “if”.

deMause offers up his story in the context of these fortification efforts and begins with an anecdote about covering station entrances:

Only fourteen Flex-Gates have been installed to date — subway entrances aren’t standardized, so each entrance plug has to be individually designed. ILC Dover is under contract to eventually provide another nine, with more than forty additional locations still waiting for the MTA to bid them out.

It’s an exceedingly deliberate pace, considering that nearly four full years have passed in the city since the flooding that resulted from Superstorm Sandy, inundating much of the subway system beneath a thirteen-foot storm surge, and resulting in damage that is still awaiting repair. But the MTA proudly points to the Flex-Gate as a major improvement in response to Sandy. “Right now, today, both with our temporary measures as well as what we’re working on long term, we are far better prepared to address flooding than we were back in October of 2012,” says authority spokesperson Kevin Ortiz.

Better prepared doesn’t mean fully prepared, though…In lower Manhattan alone, the subway system has over 5,600 such street openings that the MTA considers “vulnerable” access points for floodwaters. “It’s stairs, it’s vent bays, it’s hatches, it’s manholes, it’s duct entries, it’s elevators, it’s escalators,” says Ortiz. And to effectively protect the subways, every one of them has to be sealed in the day or two between a storm’s approach and its arrival. Ortiz says the MTA is working on deployable vent covers that can be triggered by subway workers in advance of a storm. But they’re not even in the prototype stage, and asking workers to cover up 5,600 openings would leave a lot of opportunity for simple human error to let the water in.

As the MTA completes its tunnel reconstruction work, various key systems such as signals and communications wires are better protected than they were four years ago, but climate experts tell deMause that the city and state and MTA do not have a long-term plan sufficient enough to address rising sea levels and more frequent storms. “We are fiddling around on the edges, and have no plan for a sea level–rise resilient, sustainable transit system,” Klaus Jacob, an expert in climate change, said. “These are all repairs post-Sandy. That does not really prepare the system for the next Sandy.”

deMause’s piece delves into familiar territory (the L train outage will over six years after the storm), but he adds some stark numbers to this tale. He notes that 30 subway entrances sit below the level of the Sandy storm surge and “dozens” more sit only four feet above that storm surge. With Sandy-like storms now 1-in-30 years events (and increasingly frequent as the climate changes) rather than 1-in-100 years, the MTA’s systems and low-lying tunnels will remain vulnerable for the foreseeable future.

As with many things MTA, there is enough blame for the slow pace of spending to go around. The governor and mayor haven’t been particularly receptive of calls to fund the MTA, and the MTA can’t spend the money it has fast enough as either the projects aren’t in the construction stage or there simply aren’t enough qualified contractors to execute. One might even call it the perfect storm.

The long endgame here is another catastrophic flood and a race to stave off destruction. The MTA would have to rethink station ventilation throughout Lower Manhattan, parts of the Upper East Side, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens as water levels inch upward without the help of a storm. As deMause notes, though, no one knows just how much it would take (or cost) to keep Sandy-like water out of the subways entirely, and as water will always seek out the lowest point, it may be a fool’s errand. There is no strategic retreat for the subway system, and that’s a sobering thought for New York City’s future.

Categories : Superstorm Sandy
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