Later this morning, the various committees that make up the MTA Board will meet for their monthly sessions. Ahead of next Sunday’s fare hikes, the news probably won’t be rosy for the financially-troubled transit agency. While we will await the meeting to assess the MTA’s bleak economic outlook, there is one storyline that warrants a preview because it will have an impact on both the MTA’s finances, the face of Brooklyn and the power real estate moguls have over this city.

Earlier this month, I explored how Bruce Ratner wanted a sweeter sweetheart deal for the Vanderbilt Yards, the MTA-owned railroads that make up a large chunk of his Atlantic Yards development. While the MTA originally agreed to sell the land rights to Ratner for a below-market $100 million, the Ohio native wants to pay just $20 million for the land. After all, the bad economy impacts him as well.

Over the last few weeks, Ratner has been utterly skewered for this move. In the four years since he first earned approval for the project, he has scaled back nearly every aspect of it. Just recently, he announced that Frank Gehry would no longer be designing the planned Nets arena. Instead, the venue would look like Any Sports Venue, USA. It’s boring and not worthy of New York City.

Recently, Atlantic Yards Report has wondered what — other than 8.4 acres worth of railroad land — $20 million can buy in the city. Norman Oder, the author of the Atlantic Yards watchdog site, has noted that $20 million can’t buy two sites in Alphabet City, can buy a 50-foot-wide piece of land in Chelsea and 46,000 square feet in Manhattan, among others. Needless to say, the $20 million offer is a joke.

Meanwhile, this debacle is going to come to a head today and Wednesday. On the one hand is the MTA. The transit agency has been working with Bruce Ratner to modify the agreement to better the suit the desires of the developer. The Finance Committee will see the amended agreement during their 11:45 a.m. meeting and will recommend it to the full Board for a Wednesday vote. On the other hand are our elected officials who are trying to stop the MTA.

Last week, a group of New York politicians sent a letter to the MTA (available here) in protest. “We respectfully suggest that a hasty decision to modify the obligations of the developer could be detrimental to the needs of the mass transit system and that any decision should only be made after the public and elected officials have had a fair opportunity to present their views,” the council members, State Senators and Assembly representatives wrote.

It doesn’t end there. State Senator Bill Perkins has also asked the MTA to delay voting on the deal, and Chris Smith of New York Magazine wrote a must-read piece on how the MTA is set to screw itself on this deal. He writes:

As disappointing as the cash may turn out to be, there’s another significant change in the works. “The thing to watch is whether the MTA gets screwed on the rail yards,” one party to the negotiations says. Ratner had agreed to build a new and improved rail yard for the LIRR. But he’s trying to cut back there, too, possibly delivering a new yard with 25 percent less capacity than the existing facility. “That would be a real loss,” the official says. “Ratner is supposed to build a rail yard that’s worth $200 to 300 million.”

This deal has the potential to be a flat-out giveaway. The MTA is going to give away valuable public lands. They’re going to give away provisions requiring a modern rail facility. They’re going to gift wrap this for Bruce Ratner.

The MTA has long suffered from a credibility problem. People don’t understand why the fares have to go up. They don’t understand delays and service advisories. What New Yorkers see is this blatant back-room bargaining. No wonder, as I said three weeks ago, few trust the MTA. They’re on the verge of squandering a public asset, and we’ll have to see if they can step back from this brink before it’s too late.

Categories : MTA Politics
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As the weekend draws near, I thought I would take a few minutes to promote the site a bit. Tomorrow, I’ll be riding the Nostalgia Train to the Bronx, and when the train goes above ground, I’ll upload some pictures via Twitter.

To that end, you can find Second Ave. Sagas on Twitter right here. Follow me for mass transit musings and updates in 140 characters or less. My more personal, non-blog related Twitter account is here. We’re also on Facebook, but that’s far more passive.

Finally, if you’re interested in advertising on Second Ave. Sagas, please contact me. I’m always looking for more advertisers, and this site attracts a solid number of high-value eyeballs. Competitive rates, preferential placement available. You know the drill.

Now on to the service advisories. As always, these are as provided to me by New York City Transit and are subject to change. Check the fliers posted at your local station and listen for announcements on board.

From 12:01 a.m. to 7 a.m. Saturday, June 20 and from 12:01 a.m. to 8 a.m. Sunday, June 21 and from 12:01 a.m. to 5 a.m. Monday, June 22, Manhattan-bound 2 and 4 trains skip Eastern Parkway, Grand Army Plaza and Bergen Street due to switch renewal.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 20 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 22, 4 trains run in two sections due to cable work:

  • Between Woodlawn and 125th Street and
  • Between 125th Street and New Lots Avenue

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 20 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 22, Manhattan-bound 4 trains skip 138th Street due to cable work.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 20, to 5 a.m. Monday, June 22, there are no 5 trains between East 180th Street and Bowling Green due to cable work. Customers should take the 2 or 4 instead. (Transfer between the 5 and 2 at East 180th Street. Transfer between the 2 and 4 at 149th Street-Grand Concourse.)

From 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, June 20 and Sunday, June 21, Bronx-bound 6 trains run express from Parkchester to Pelham Bay Park due to station painting near Westchester Square.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 20 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 22, Queens-bound A trains run local from 168th Street to West 4th Street, then on the F to Jay Street, then local to Euclid Avenue due to the Chambers Street Signal Modernization project.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 20 to 5 a.m. Manhattan-bound A trains run local from Euclid Avenue to 168th Street due to the Chambers Street Signal Modernization project.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 20, to 5 a.m. Monday, June 22, there are no C trains running due to the Chambers Street Signal Modernization project. Customers should take the A instead.

From 4 a.m. Saturday, June 20 to 10 p.m. Sunday, June 21, Manhattan-bound D trains run on the N from Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue to 36th Street (Brooklyn) due to track panel installation.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 20 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 22, Bronx-bound D trains skip 170th, 174th-175th, and 182nd-183rd Streets due to track cable work.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, June 19 to 5 a.m. Saturday, June 21, Manhattan-bound F trains run local from Forest Hills-71st Avenue to Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue to due to track and roadbed replacement at Grand Avenue.

From 12:30 a.m. to 5 a.m. Saturday, June 20 and 12:01 a.m. to 5 a.m. Sunday, June 21 and Monday, June 22, Jamaica-bound F trains run local from Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue to Forest Hills-71st Avenue due to track and roadbed replacement at Grand Avenue.

From 8:30 p.m. Friday, June 19 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 22, there is no G train service between Forest Hills-71st Avenue and Court Square. Customers should take the E or R instead.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, June 19 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 22, free shuttle buses replace L trains between Lorimer Street and Myrtle Avenue due to track and roadbed replacement at Jefferson Street.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 20 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 22, N and R trains are rerouted over the Manhattan Bridge between DeKalb Avenue and Canal Street due to subway tunnel rehabilitation. Customers may take the 4 at nearby stations.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 20 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 22, Manhattan-bound Q trains skip Newkirk Avenue due to station rehab work.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 20 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 22, Coney Island-bound Q trains run express from Prospect Park to Kings Highway due to Brighton Line station rehabilitation.

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  • Non-voting LIRR rep joins MTA Board · Clearing out an item from the past week, the MTA announced on Friday, June 12, that Ira R. Greenberg of Sunnyside, New York, has begun his term on the MTA Board. Greenberg joins the board at the behest of the Long Island Rail Road Commuters Council and will sit on the Long Island Rail Road/Long Island Bus Committee. He is a non-voting member tasked to serve on the board until Jan. 1, 2013. He carries with him a background in transportation policy and has long been a supporter of the East Side Access project. Greenberg sounds as though he is a highly qualified representative, and the MTA Board could use more members like him. · (0)
  • Ridership, fare revenue down for 2009 · As NYC Transit releases its monthly ridership figures, the news begins to sound the same. Due to a worse-than-expected economy and high job-loss figures in the city, subway and bus ridership numbers as well as farebox revenue are worse than expected. As The Post reports today, NYC Transit’s April 2009 numbers saw a 3.6 percent decrease in weekday ridership totals over the April 2008 figures. With a drop-off of about 189,000 rides, Transit reportedly saw revenues fall short of their April projections by $7.4 million. Bridge and Tunnel usage is down as well for the year, and at some point, the MTA will have to make up for this shortfall. How? I don’t know. · (1)

One of the key issues in last month’s debate over the MTA rescue plan centered around source of revenue for a widely-used mass transit system. Should the state and city be subsidizing transit or should the MTA, through farebox revenue, be largely self-sufficient?

Similar to many political economic debates, this one gets to the root of government’s role in society. Those who support government funding of transit recognize that it is a social and public good. The city and state need transit to exist, and transit should turn to the state for money. Those who believe the MTA should survive on farebox revenue trend toward a privatized model of public transportation. Private entities set fares to run a profitable or net-zero operation. The government carries a small percentage — generally close to zero — of the costs but forfeits the rights to any profit.

Outside of a few key examples, the privatization of mass transit systems has been unsuccessful, and the vast majority of the world’s transit authorities rely on significant state contributions. New York, in a sense, is an outlier. It relies on farebox revenue for a majority of its operating expenses. In fact, New York City Transit’s 2009 adopted budget calls for a 60 percent farebox operations ratio. With so few government contributions on the table, no wonder the MTA’s finances are maxed out.

Even within the MTA, the numbers aren’t consistent. A piece by Mitchell Pally, the Suffolk County representative to the MTA, lays it out. In 2008, the MTA’s farebox operations ratios ranged from 16 percent on the Staten Island Railway to 44 percent on the LRR to 53 percent for New York City Transit. That hardly makes sense.

In his call for a dialogue, Pally makes a few good points. He writes:

For the past 44 years, under Democratic and Republican administrations, the state’s policy has been that mass transit riders should not pay the full cost of their ride. Instead, they pay a percentage – with the remainder of the cost coming from taxpayers. This fundamental policy extends to riders across the state, whether they take the LIRR, the city subways and buses, or the buses in Syracuse, Buffalo or Dutchess County…

The operating and capital costs to safely and effectively operate these complex but socially beneficial systems are simply too great to be borne by riders alone – that has been and continues to be the view of governmental decision-makers…

Under the original “doomsday” budget adopted by the MTA, riders would have paid more than 50 percent of the cost of their LIRR ride, and 61 percent of the cost of their subway trip. With the State Legislature’s rescue and this month’s increases, these percentages will be about 44 for the LIRR and 52 for New York City Transit. Are these numbers too high, too low or just right?

The answer can only be found in a public policy argument that must take place as part of the entire MTA financing discussion. Without a real answer, the region will just continue to move from one dramatic fare discussion to another without a real understanding of what is actually being discussed.

Right now, though, Pally is preaching to empty church. Our state representatives in Albany are too busy bickering over leadership issues to focus on anything important that might actually be plaguing New York state. While 62 Senate members fight it out, the rest of us are left to weather a bad economic storm on our own.

In closing, Pally issues a challenge to lawmakers and transit experts a like. “So policy-makers need to adopt an agreed-upon fare-box ratio for each of the mass transit systems in New York State, including the various MTA entities,” he writes. “With such an agreement on the table, the MTA and the public can engage in a reasonable discussion about fare adjustments that will be tied to an inflation-sensitive series of funding sources to cover the rest of the cost of the ride.”

Pally gets it. We need a steadier funded MTA that knows what to expect from its farebox operations ratio and the city and state which it supports. When we will get that is anyone’s guess.

Categories : MTA Economics
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The Train of Many Colors rides its way east past the Citibank building in Long Island City. (Photo by Ron Yee/New York Transit Museum)

The Transit Museum is breaking out their old cars this weekend, and they have asked me to help promote the trip. This Saturday, June 20th, the museum will run its Train of Many Colors for a day trip up to the Bronx. The train will depart from Shuttle Track 1 at Grand Central at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning. It will then travel south to the Brooklyn Bridge and then north to East Tremont in the Bronx. At the West Farms – East Tremont stop, railfans can either ride the Low-V train for a ride between East 180th and 239th Sts. or they can visit the Bronx Zoo at a discount.

The cost for this ride back in time is $30. Transit Museum members enjoy a discounted fare of $25, and children ages 5-17 get in for $10. As long as I can get up early enough on Saturday morning, I’ll be there. These rides are great fun. For more info on this and other transit-related events, check out the Transit Museum’s events page.

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  • To save $60 million a year, a better deal on bus fuel · Not known for efficiencies in contracting, the MTA came under fire in September when the Daily News reported of a no-win fuel contract. Because no other suppliers bid on a bus fuel contract, the MTA had to stick with Sprague Energy Corp., and the company ended up exercising a contractual option that allowed it to charge $206 million for fuel with a windfall in the tens of millions. At the time, Transit spokesman Paul Fleuranges said the agency would “ensure that this never happens again.”

    Today, that goal came to fruition. While the agency is sticking with Sprague, they have negotiated a five-year, $700-million contract for the cheaper ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel. Not only is this fuel better for the environment, but the contract will save the cash-strapped agency $60 million a year over its current one-year deal with Sprague. · (0)

What do you do with poll results from a self-selected group of New Yorkers who opt to receive e-mails from the Straphangers Campaign? These poll results aren’t really indicative of the pulse of New York. They simply show what the more transit-aware are thinking, and even that’s up for debate.

The question has risen to the forefront in the Great Station Agent Debate of 2009. (More here, here and here.) The Straphangers Campaign has released results of a poll asking its members the following question: “Station Customer Agents (SCA) are the maroon vested employees of the MTA that provide customer assistance to the public, services like: providing travel information to riders, assisting riders with fare purchases at MetroCard vending machines, as well as contacting the proper authorities in the case of an emergency. Do you feel safer traveling on the subway with a station agent present?”

Of course, the answer was yes and not by a small margin. Per the press release from Straphangers attorney Gene Russianoff, 63 percent of the 627 members who voted said yes while 16 percent said no and 21 percent didn’t care. The group used these results to protest the cuts. “Riders want a human presence at the entrances to the subways,” Russianoff said.

There are a few things going on here that warrant a closer look. First, the MTA is not eliminating full-time staffing in its entirety from any station. At some locations — a planned 36 stations — the only person working will be in a booth that is across the street from one of the entrances, but every station will have at least one full-time employee. Furthermore, emergency contact points will be in place at every platform, according to The Post. The illusion of safety may lessen, but actual safety should not suffer.

Second, the Straphangers are seemingly protesting the loss of the red-vested station agents. These are people who work in high-traffic stations during high-traffic times. I see one of these workers at the 47th St. side of the Rockefeller Center station every day, and when he retires — the MTA is cutting jobs through attrition, not dismissals — I won’t even notice that he is gone. Late-night concerns are mostly unfounded. (N.B.: That’s a high-traffic, tourist-heavy station that won’t actually lose it’s agent, but you get the point.)

In the end, these cuts will save the MTA $16 million annually. As the budget plan enacted by Albany requires the MTA to shave $200 million off of its own books, the station agents will go. I’d rather see an illusion of safety disappear than train frequency and maintenance plans rolled back. Wouldn’t you?

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Over the last two weeks, I’ve talked a bit about the ethics involved in riding the subway. We looked at the age-old debate concerning the emergency exits and then went in-depth on some of the more selfish people in the subways.

This week, the MTA unveiled a new ad campaign focusing around subway ethics and the law. As part of a drive to remind straphangers to give up their seats for a disabled rider, new SubTalk ads debuted on Monday. Transit also plans to print reminders on the backs of MetroCards beginning in September.

“We take our commitment to the disabled community very seriously,” NYC Transit President Howard Roberts said in a press release. “With this campaign, we want to remind our customers that not all disabilities are visible. We’re asking riders to look around and be aware of others who may need that priority seat.”

The Times went more in depth on the new awareness campaign:

“It’s the first time we’ve really stressed this,” said Paul J. Fleuranges, vice president for corporate communications at New York City Transit, the largest arm of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Those who decline to give up a seat on request face up to a $50 fine, he said. (The new campaign also warns that “not all disabilities are visible.”) …

Mr. Fleuranges said it would be hard to gauge the effectiveness of the campaign. “We don’t have the staff to monitor that,” he said in an e-mail message. “Where we hope this campaign has an impact is in the area of customer education — in that our riders understand why these seats are made available and hope, if asked, they provide the seat to a fellow customer who requests it.”

In a way, it’s a sad commentary on the state of New Yorkers and their attitudes toward others that this campaign even exists in the first place. Do subway riders not know they should give up seats to those who need? Are we too involved in our iPhones and Blackberries to bother with other people?

Don’t get me wrong; after a long day, I like my seat as much as the next guy. Yet, someone who obviously cannot stand can have my spot any day of the week. The more sensitive aspects of this new campaign involve those with disabilities that are not visible. Maybe, then, this latest effort will target those. Either way, stand up if you see someone who needs the seat. It’s the right thing to do.

After the jump, a look at the version of the ad that will be hanging in buses. Click the image above or the one below to enlarge.

Read More→

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Earlier today, the first of the MTA’s planned fare hikes went into effect. A remnant of the Doomsday budget proposal, today’s hikes impacted riders on Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road. On June 28th, New York City Transit riders will suffer through the same fate, and two weeks later, the MTA’s bridge and tunnel tolls will rise.

As part of the compromise out of Albany, the MTA will be raising the fares at least every two years to keep pace with inflation. MTA budget-watchers warn that even a biennial fare increase won’t cover the MTA’s rapidly increasing debt payments. Enter the federal government.

As first reported by the Poughkeepsie Journal on Saturday, Congress is may approve a provision in the federal stimulus bill that would allow 10 percent of transit aid to go toward operating costs. In the past, federal aid has been earmarked specifically for capital programs and procurement plans that spur on job creation. With transit agencies facing extreme budget shortfalls and the specter of job cuts, the government may allow the flexibility to maintain workforce levels.

Today, The Times and The Daily News got in on the act. They both, however, dance around the real issue: Once again, Congress is acting on a national transportation issue after the ship has sailed. Financial problems at transit authorities has been a not-so-secret problem for a while. Only after jobs and services are cut and fare are increased does Congress find it prudent to act.

As The Times notes in one paragraph, “But the change, if approved, will come after many transit agencies have already planned their budgets for the coming fiscal year.” The Daily News reports that this provision — which could provide a whopping $122 million for an MTA facing a $1.8 billion short fall — would stave off this year’s fare hikes or service cuts and won’t eliminate the planned payroll tax either. It’s simply a case of throwing pennies at a problem.

In the end, this move is indicative of the problems plaguing the federal approach to public transit. The commitment to sensible funding solutions just aren’t there. Transit is a public good, and the authorities running rail and bus lines can’t jack up fares to cover the entire cost of running a system. But until we have a real national investment policy, fare hikes and service cuts will remain the norm for debt-laden transit agencies.

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