These pay phones might not work for phone calls, but they make great bagel holders. (Photo by pizza guru and flickr user Adam Kuban)

Every year, the Straphangers Campaign conducts a random test of pay phones through the subway system, and every year, the results come back about the same. Approximately a quarter of all subway pay phones are out of order at a given time. Some stations have more functioning pay phones than others, and overall, the rider advocacy group urges the MTA to repair its broken phones.

This year’s survey features some improvement, at least on the surface. As the group announced yesterday, in one survey of 921 phones at 100 randomly selected stations, 26 percent of the phones were found to be out of service. While the group touts this as “a modest improvement” over the 2007 rate of 29 percent, the margin of error is 4 percent and basically negates the improvement. Another survey of 638 pay phones as the 25 most heavily-trafficked subway stations found 23 percent of the phones to be out of order.

The Straphangers further broken down their survey to determine just how subway pay phones are out of order. Topping the charts with 24 percent of the share of broken phones were those with no dial tone. A problematic coin return encompassed 23 percent of non-function pay phones while 18 percent saw the coin fall through the phone. A bad handset — I’m not sure how detailed the Straphangers should get there — accounted for 16 percent. Another 11 percent could not connect to a 1-800 number, and eight percent suffered from a blocked coin slot.

Two items of note though popped up during the Straphangers’ own survey. First, the advocacy organization notes that their findings conflict with Transit’s own Passenger Environment Survey. NYCT’s internal metrics claim that 93 percent of all subway pay phones are functioning at any given time. However, an independent pay phone audit conducted by a third party at the request of Transit found 25 percent to be out of service.

The Straphangers point to methodology as the root of these numerical discrepancies. The PES surveys, says the Straphangers’ press release, are “less thorough. Surveyors do not perform a coin drop to test the phones, rating telephones as functioning if the surveyor notes an undamaged handset and is able to contact a specific 1-800 test number.”

Finally, the Straphangers pinpoint contractual issue that may be hindering pay phone performance. Verizon is the MTA’s phone service provide, and according to the press release, prior Verizon contracts required that 95 percent of all pay phones be “fully operative and in service at all times.” The current contract though calls up on Verizon to “exercise good-faith effort to clear 95% of all known troubles within 24 hours.”

It would certainly be an interesting study to chart the MTA’s and Verizon’s efforts to repair a pay phone after one reports it to them. Perhaps the next time I notice a broken pay phone, I’ll see if the agency and its contractor really can repair it within 24 hours.

In the end, this survey is nothing new. Pay phones have long been unreliable under the best of circumstances, and the subways are hardly the best of circumstances. With the MTA years away from realizing underground cell phone service, though, we are stuck with using those grimy, gritty, gross pay phones. That is, as long as they work.

Categories : MTA Technology
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Up in Albany, the Senate doors remain locked, and Malcolm Smith may be gearing up to file suit against the state Republicans. It is, in other words, a good old fashioned political deadlock with no clear end in sight.

As New York is coming to grips with its paralyzed State Senate, we’re still trying to discern how this shift in leadership will impact the MTA. The long-term outlook remains cloudy, but Pete Donohue in today’s Daily News speculates on the leadership void at the agency.

At the end of May, as part of the conditions of the Albany rescue plan, Elliot Sander stepped down as CEO and executive director of the authority. Since then, Helena Williams has been filling in on an interim basis, and with Albany in turmoil, she may be there for a while. As Donohue notes, the Senate will have to confirm any Paterson nominee before its scheduled summer adjournment on June 22.

Since the Senate will first have to reconvene, receive a nomination and then schedule confirmatin hearings, it is highly doubtful the MTA will have a permanent leader within the next 12 days. “Until there’s a Senate prepared to start confirmation hearings, I would think the process has to stop, temporarily at least,” Richard Ravitch said to the News. “Would you want it announced you were taking a job subject to confirmation that might not happen for six months? Your current employer would be pretty upset.”

The MTA will need a leader soon. The agency faces tough decisions over the future of its capital plan and the reality of a shaky economic foundation. Williams is a solid choice for interim head, but the longer this drama in Albany drags on, the more the MTA, with its uncertain leadership structure, will suffer. One thing is for sure: It’s never a boring day when New York politics are involved.

Categories : MTA Politics
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  • SAS construction blamed for UES building evacuation · Late last week, The Launch Box posted some photos of a Vacate order posted by the Department of Buildings at 1772 Second Ave. Today, The Post reports that vibrations from the Second Ave. subway construction are to blame. According to reports, the ongoing construction around Second Ave. and the low 90s has cracked the façade at 1772, and officials fear the building’s structural integrity could be at stake.

    On Saturday, the building was evacuated, and residents and local business owners are blaming the SAS construction. The MTA, according to spokesman Jeremy Soffin, is “closely monitor vibrations, which remain at acceptable levels.” Meanwhile, the building has a DOB record of structural complaints dating back to 1989. Make of that what you will. · (2)

For a long time, New Yorkers have been waiting for the debut of communications-based train control. Long promised for the L line, the automated control of trains should speed up travel and subway efficiency while increasing the number of trains the MTA can run per hour on one of the system’s most popular lines.

While the project has faced numerous obstacles — including the objections of union leaders who don’t want to see an automated system replace their union members — the MTA had been running live overnight tests of the system along the L line since February. Recently, the agency had increased the test runs to a 12-hour period starting at 7 p.m., but all has not been wine and roses though for Transit’s test case.

As Heather Haddon reports today, a few technical glitches have led trains to miss station platforms by a few feet. When a train does that, Transit regulations require that it move on to the next station, and some straphangers have missed their stops. She reports:

Running the L line on autopilot at night is causing trains to shoot past platforms, forcing straphangers to miss their stops, motormen and union officials said.

Because of the software fluke, drivers have to travel to the next station to let passengers off, according to the officials.

One Brooklyn mailroom worker, who didn’t want to be identified, said he was late for work repeatedly for several weeks after the L train missed his stop in Bushwick.

“It’s not perfected yet. It’s not working. And it’s definitely not cost-effective,” Keith Harrington, union vice chairman for train operators, said of the $326 million system.

This isn’t the first time technical problems have popped up in regards to the CBTC program. Last month, I wrote about jerking motions and breaking problems aboard the CBTC trains. What is interesting this month, however, is Haddon’s sourcing.

In this article, the complaints about the CBTC program come from “motormen and union officials.” These are the same people who stand to lose their jobs if and when CBTC is deemed a success. As the MTA plans to start running it in Queens soon as well, train drivers may have a reason to fear for their employment future.

For Transit’s part, spokesman Charles Seaton said the problem, according to Haddon, “does not impair passenger safety” and will be solved soon. It should be. CBTC, after all, is a technology whose time has come.

Categories : MTA Technology
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Playing off a piece on Beliefnet, last week, we discussed the ethics of using the emergency exit to speed up travel times out of a crowded station. While it is illegal to use the emergency exit not in an emergency without permission from the station agent, that doesn’t stop too many straphangers.

On Friday, in the second part of her series look at the ethics of subway riding, Hillary Fields examined more bad behavior on the subway. She and Beliefnet Entertainment Editor Dena Ross put together a list of the worst subway offenders. My favorites:

The Big-Backpack-Wearer: This offender, often a tourist, a young student, or an oblivious yuppie, sports a gigantic knapsack, usually positioning himself or herself in the middle of a subway car (or worse, the door–see The Door-Blocker), getting in the way of all who traverse the crowded train.

Proper Subway Etiquette: Remove the knapsack from your back and hold it at your side. I don’t care if your arm hurts. Put it on the floor next to you if you must (gag!) but don’t be inconsiderate by blocking people from moving around. I’m not an expert on fire hazards, but I’m thinking big back packs are one of them…

The Door-Blocker: Despite signs all over the subway cars advising against it for safety reasons, these riders prefer standing against the door and refuse to move out of the way for people entering and leaving the subway. These inconsiderate losers are the bane of my existence.

Proper Subway Etiquette: Move out of the way! If for whatever reason you find myself stuck at the door with a number of people looking to get off (and onto) the train at a given stop, get off the train along with those exiting, making sure to stay close to the door. This ensures that everyone exits the train in a semi-orderly fashion, without having to step around you. Plus, you’ll be one of the first ones to enter the train. You deserve it for being so courteous!

The Music-Sharer: I’ve really got to thank you Mr. DJ, for playing your crap music (is it your band?) so loud on your iPod that I, and the entire subway car, are forced to listen to your tunes (if we’re luckily, we get to hear it on repeat! Yay!) Here’s a little secret, even if I like the music you’re playing–maybe I’m even mouthing along the words–I’m still cursing you under my breath for being a jerk.

Proper Subway Etiquette: If you’re unsure whether your iPod is likely audible to your neighbors, take off your headphones (with the volume on your desired setting) and hold them in front of you. If you can still clearly hear the music, it’s surely disrupting your neighbors when it’s on your ears. If so, turn it down!

The two writers also tackle seat-stealers and people who aren’t discrete in their cell phone use, among others. It’s hard to argue with any of these. The plague of music-sharers has reached epidemic proportions, and as numerous people around my age blast their iPods, I can imagine myself living in a New York City full of deaf 60-somethings in 40 years.

For better or worse, the subway is a microcosm of the way we behave toward others in New York City. Are we considerate on the subway? Do we get out of the way when others need to exit? Do we remember that 50 other people have no desire to hear our music or our cell phone conversations? By and large, New Yorkers manage the subway with perhaps not with grace and aplomb but grudging respect for other straphangers. Those who flaunt the societal rules deserve the wrath of Dena Ross and those who pass judgment on the behavior of others.

Photo of a subway seat hog by flickr user MikeyPics.

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  • Praising the 4 express service · Yesterday morning marked the debut of NYC Transit’s 4 express service in the Bronx. The trial run, set to last until June 26th when it will be reevaluated, features four trains from 7-8 a.m. that skip most Bronx stops. The express trains shave approximately three minutes off of commuters’ travel times and, during day one at least, helped ease congestion on the perennially overcrowded IRT line.

    During the inaugural day of this service, NY1 News spoke to those straphangers who took advantage of the new service, and it earned raves all around. With more room and a speedier ride, what’s not to like? “Express service is definitely much better. Get to work quicker and the local is always crowded. I’d prefer the express to stay,” one rider said.

    I have to praise the MTA for this move. At little cost to the agency, Transit is taking existing unused tracks and adding service over them. This service alleviates overcrowding and provides for a faster ride, and it doesn’t require a significant capital outlay of new tracks, new tunnels or new stations. In fact, it sounds materially similar to the F Express plan for which I had lobbied in 2007. · (5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories : Buses, Queens
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