I first started this blog nearly two years ago when Democrats, thanks in large part to the efforts of New York’s own Chuck Schumer, won the midterm elections. At the time, it seemed as though the party would deliver an urban-oriented policy with urban investments.

Two years later, my intuitions were correct. The MTA has seen an influx of investment in capital expansion projects from both the federal government and the city. While the federal money will spur on at least the first part of the Second Ave. subway and the city will pay for the 7 line extension to the Hudson Yards, a slow economy has derailed more investment in transit. It was, in 2006, a bittersweet victory then. The promise for support was there; the economic conditions failed to materialize.

Tonight, as we all witnessed a historic investment, those of us trumpeting urban policies, those of us urging for substantial investment in public transit and national infrastructure have a reason to smile. Barack Obama, a very urban-oriented candidate, won because urban voters turned out to support him. His vice president, Joe Biden, is one of the nation’s greatest proponents of its sagging rail system. This could truly be a watershed election for supporters of public transportation and rational infrastructure investment.

Of course, it is right now too early to tell what the future will hold. Our President-elect does not have an easy road ahead of him. America is still embroiled in two overseas wars; the economy is stagnating; the environment isn’t going to fix itself. But as more and more economists have recommended over the last few days, the next president should look to begin an economic recovery program by investing in cities and by investing in infrastructure.

For New York, arguably the center of America’s economy, this means an increased attention to the state of our transit network. This means better and faster transit into and out of the central business district of Manhattan. This could mean more money for the subways, more money for our aging and inadequate river crossings, more money for the commuter rail options and airports that feed our city.

It’s been a rough few months for the MTA. The organization is teetering on the brink of financial collapse. It needs millions of even billions more than it has access to, and it’s about to ram us all with a second fare hike in two years. But tonight, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Perhaps, just perhaps, federal investment in our infrastructure will be that bright light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

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Nearly a year ago, news came out that the MTA and its technology firms were at odds over a few key technology projects. The contractors could not figure out how to implement a GPS-based bus location system in New York and was, at the time, 16 months behind schedule.

Now, according to Pete Donohue, the GPS projects appears to be dying a slow, slow death. The Daily News transit scribe writes:

NYC Transit may pull the plug on a troubled $99 million project to track buses and post “real” arrival times on bus-stop message boards, the Daily News has learned. Officials have halted some work “pending a decision on the future of the project,” according to a report by the agency’s outside engineering consultant.

NYC Transit lawyers also are reviewing legal options, according to the report, which says the contractor is two years behind schedule and still having technical problems with the GPS tracking system. “It’s a dirty, rotten shame,” Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign said. “A bus locator system could greatly improve bus service with better dispatching and more real-time information. If your car’s GPS can guide you around town, I don’t see why buses can’t do the same.”

The report by the Carter-Burgess engineering firm refers to problems in general terms, citing software issues, a high failure rate of onboard equipment and inaccurate arrival times relayed to message boards placed on just a handful of routes in Manhattan so far.

The MTA has recently turned off a test-run of the program, but the contractors are still claiming that they are within the contractual requirements.

No matter how this ends up, one thing is certain: As the MTA moves forward with technological investments, the agency and its contractors have to be on the same page. Other transit systems in cities with tall buildings have GPS-based bus systems; other subway systems older than ours have train arrival boards. It’s time for New York to get these features, but these technology projects seem to be stalled out.

Categories : MTA Technology
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For the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the sale of the Hudson Yards space basically represents free money. All they have to do is sign the contract for the rights to develop the 26 acres on the far West Side above the train tracks, and $1 billion will be theirs.

But for months, the MTA has sat on this deal they have worked out with Related, and now the transit agency is blaming no one but themselves. Via Eliot Brown at The New York Observer’s The Real Estate blog comes the odd news:

The deal to put $15 billion in residential and commercial development atop the M.T.A.’s West Side rail yards has hit a delay, as the agency will not sign a contract with developer Related Companies this week, as was originally scheduled. The state authority says it has reached an agreement with Related (which is in a joint venture with Goldman Sachs) to push back the deadline for signing a contract for the property by another 90 days, as the M.T.A. has been slower than expected in producing the needed paperwork.

“We have together agreed on an extension of the designation period,” said Gary Dellaverson, the CFO of the M.T.A. (who has to have one of the least enviable jobs in government these days). “Our expectation was that the documents would have been turned a month and a half ago.

“This is my fault—the fault of the M.T.A.,” he said. “This is not a product of either Related or Goldman or their lawyers.”

For his part, Dellaverson doesn’t believe the economic slowdown will force Related’s hand. “I don’t have any indication, and they haven’t brought anything to me that would indicate slowness or desire to delay on their part,” he said to Brown. “Everything that I’ve seen, is they’re continuing to operate in good faith and pursuant to a desire to consummate the transaction.”

Now, this confidence is all well and good, but this news — coupled with yesterday’s examination into Dellaverson’s risky investment strategy — makes for a rough week for the MTA’s CFO.

It’s not a good time to be in charge of money, but so far this week, as the MTA heads into an emergency budget meeting next week, we’ve learned that Dellaverson OK’d some risky investment strategies and hasn’t yet seen fit to push forward on a $1 billion windfall deal for the MTA. What other motivation could the MTA’s money man need?

Categories : Hudson Yards
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“Scores Killed or Maimed in Brighton Tunnel Wreck,” screamed the Page One story in The Times on Saturday, November 2, 1918. The night before, a speeding train crashed coming around a sharp curve in the Malbone St. tunnel on the Brighton Line. Over 90 people died, and the accident remains the single deadliest crash in New York City transit history.

For weeks and months afterwards, the Malbone St. crash dominated the news, and the details are rather gruesome:

A Brighton Beach Train of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, made up of five wooden cars of the oldest type in use, which was speeding with a rush hour crowd to make up lost time on its way from Park Row to Coney Island, jumped the track shortly before 7 o’clock last evening on a sharp curve approaching the tunnel at Malbone Street, in Brooklyn, and plunged into a concrete partition between the north and south bound tracks…

The first car left the rails a few feet in front of the opening of the tunnel and rammed one end of a concrete partition separating the northbound from the southbound tracks. It was thrown at right angles across the roadbed in front of the entrance to the tunnel. The other cars cut right through it, the second car smashing it to bits and the whole train passing over the wreckage and coming to a stop 200 feet down the tracks inside the tunnel.

Packed together as in a box without structural strength to give them any protection, the passengers in the first car were crushed and cut to pieces. Not one is believed to have escaped. After breaking through the first car, the rest of the train dashed it against the partition wall and strewed wreckage and passengers along the tracks ahead, where the wheels of the cars following passed over them. Only splintered fragments of wood and broken and twisted bits of iron and steel remained of the first car.

The second and third cars, leaving the rails after their impact with the first, ran sidewise into a series of iron pillars supporting the roof of the tunnel at intervals beside the partition. The pillars cut great gashes in the sides of the cars, which were still traveling at high speed, and mowed down the passengers who were standing striking the heads of some from their bodies.

The left sides of the second and third cars were stripped away. Scores of men, women, and children were flung by the impact out of these cars against pillars and the concrete wall, where they were killed instantly or ground under the wheels after falling back upon the tracks. Some who were not flung from the car were killed inside when they fell upon the broken iron of seats, splintered timbers and iron beams which projected through the shattered bottoms of the car. Passengers on the platforms were nearly all killed instantly. One dead man was found impaled on a broken bar of iron, which had run underneath the car, but which broke and shot up into the air like a javelin in the crash.

Furthermore, the impact on the B.R.T. company and the concurrent motorman strike was immediate. Police arrested B.R.T. officials, and the motorman strike ended a few hours later. Over the next few months, Brooklyn grappled with this horrendous accident. At one point, nearly everyone in Brooklyn knew someone impacted by the crash, and in the aftermath, the city changed the name of Malbone St. to Empire Boulevard. The connection between the crash and the name of the street would forever scar the victims’ friends, neighbors and family.

Today, what is rather remarkable about the famed Malbone St. crash is how it has largely been lost to time. The BMT Brighton Line now runs a slightly different route, and the extremely sharp curve is now a part of the Franklin Ave. Shuttle tracks. The tunnel and tracks themselves are rarely used, and the accident is rarely mentioned in the history of the city.

Over the weekend, Flatbush Gardener memorialized the accident by remembering every single victim. It is a fitting tribute to one the city’s most tragic events.

For the full text of The Times article, click here.

Categories : Subway History
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  • Riding the haunted rail · Halloween on a Friday in New York City is always a dangerous proposition. The entire village is virtually shut down, and everyone’s out and about celebrating the season of the witch. The subways make for a particularly entertaining backdrop as costumed revelers board the trains dressed up. The Subchat thread featuring scenes from Halloween is a particularly fun one. Of course, on the subways, sometimes everyday is Halloween. · (1)

For the non-economists among us, variable-rate bonds are not very easy to understand. In sum, these stem from adjustable-rote loans in which the initial payments are low but can change over time. As we’ve recently learned, this change can be for the worse.

In Sunday’s New York Times, Charles Duhigg and Carter Dougherty explored how these adjustable-rate loans and variable-rate bonds from one bank in Ireland are impacting the MTA. The tale they weave is one of fiscal recklessness and global impact:

For years, municipal agencies like the M.T.A. had raised money by issuing plain-vanilla bonds with fixed interest rates. But then bankers began telling officials that there was a way to get cheaper financing…

The transportation authority, guided by Gary Dellaverson, a rumpled, cigarillo-smoking chief financial officer, had $3.75 billion of variable-rate debt outstanding. About $200 million of that debt was backed by Depfa. When the bank was downgraded, investors dumped those transportation bonds, because of worries they would get stuck with them if Depfa’s problems worsened. Depfa was forced to buy $150 million of them, and bonds worth billions of dollars issued by other municipalities.

Then came the twist: Depfa’s contracts said that if it bought back bonds, the municipalities had to pay a higher-than-average interest rate. The New York transportation authority’s repayment obligation could eventually balloon by about $12 million a year on the Depfa loans alone.

Basically, in a nutshell, the MTA got greedy. They could have plodded along with their regular bonds with fixed interest rates. These bonds, backed by the U.S. Government, could have served the MTA well even if they were not quite as efficiently sexy as the Depfa bonds. Now the risks are coming back to bite hard.

For their part, the MTA alleges that, for this year, it is within its debt-payment budget, but as we’ve seen time and again over the last six months, those debt payments could cripple the MTA over the next few years. While this year’s payments may be on pace, the subsequent years’ payments will be impacted by this financial crunch.

All of this economics mumbo-jumbo leads me to believe that perhaps the MTA needs some new fiscal leadership. Perhaps Dellaverson, the man who invested the MTA into this mess, needs to go. Perhaps he just needs new economic advisers who don’t play fast and loose with rather important public infrastructure funds. There is, after all, no such thing as a free lunch whether you’re a homeowner looking for a cut-rate mortgage or a cash-strapped public transit system beholden to millions of passengers each day.

Categories : MTA Economics
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Marathon weekend madness

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This is going to be some weekend in New York City.

We’re kicking things off tonight with one of the craziest nights of the year. When Halloween falls on a Friday, the city is in for a treat. At the stroke of midnight, the subways turn back into pumpkins as the myriad service alerts listed below go into effect. But it’s not a terrible weekend.

Meanwhile, on Sunday morning, the ING New York City Marathon hits the streets of the five boroughs, and the MTA has you covered. New York City Transit has released a a subway map of ideal viewing locations.

“We wanted to create a comprehensive guide that allows customers to easily navigate our system on the day of the race,” Paul J. Fleuranges, vice president of corporate communications at NYC Transit, said. “And we especially wanted to make marathon participants and their supporters aware that all of our downtown trains will be operating on their normal routes to Lower Manhattan.”

Sounds good to me. And now, on to the good stuff. Remember: These are subject to change and are only planned service advisories. Sometimes, the listing is 100 percent accurate; sometimes, things change over the weekend. Listen to announcements on the train.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 1 to 5 a.m. Sunday, November 2, there are no 2 trains between 96th Street and 241st Street due to several jobs, including track chip-out north of 135th Street, and communication and cable installations. Free shuttle buses replace the 2 between 96th Street and 149th Street-Grand Concourse. 5 trains replace the 2 between 149th Street-Grand Concourse and 241st Street.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 1 to 5 a.m. Sunday, November 2, there are no 3 trains running due to a track chip-out north of 135th Street station. Free shuttle buses and 24 trains provide alternate service.

From 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday, November 2, Manhattan-bound 4 trains skip 176th Street, Mt. Eden Avenue, 170th, 167th, 161st, and 138th Sts. due to cable installation south of Burnside Avenue.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 1 to 5 a.m. Sunday, November 2, 7 trains run in two sections due to switch renewal north of Willets Point:

  • Between Times Square-42nd Street and Willets Point-Shea Stadium and
  • Between Willets Point-Shea Stadium and Flushing-Main Street

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 1 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 3, there are no C trains running. Customers should take the A instead. Uptown A trains run local from Euclid Avenue to 168th Street. Downtown A trains run local from 168th Street to West 4th Street, then on the F line to Jay Street, then resume local service to Euclid Avenue. These changes are due to Chambers Street Signal Modernization.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 1 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 3, Manhattan-bound D trains skip 167th, 161st, and 155th Sts. due to tunnel lighting installation.

From 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday, November 1 and Sunday, November 2, free shuttle buses replace D trains between Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue and Bay Parkway due to light pole installation at Stillwell Yard.

From 12:30 a.m. to midnight, Saturday, November 1, E trains run local between Forest Hills-71st Avenue and Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue due to electrical work.

From 12:30 a.m. to 12 noon, Saturday, November 1, Jamaica-bound ER trains run express from Queens Plaza to Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue due to installation of track drains.

From 12:30 a.m. to midnight, Saturday, November 1, F trains run local between Forest Hills-71st Avenue and Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue due to electrical work.

From 8:30 p.m. Friday, October 31 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 3, there are no G trains between Forest Hills-71st Avenue and Long Island City-Court Square. Customers should take the E or R instead.

From 1 a.m. Saturday, November 1 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 3, J trains run in two sections due to structural work at Canal Street:

  • Between Jamaica Center and Essex Street and
  • Between Essex Street and Chambers Street

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 1 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 3, free shuttle buses replace L trains between Canarsie-Rockaway Parkway and Myrtle-Wyckoff Avs. due to the replacement of the old concrete roadbed at Bushwick Avenue-Aberdeen Street.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 1 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 3, N and Q trains run on the R between DeKalb Avenue and Canal Street due to the biennial inspection of the Manhattan Bridge.

Categories : Service Advisories
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As I sat in the last car of my Coney Island-bound F train en route to 7th Ave., I glanced up to check out the placard ads decorating the car. My eyes quickly landed on the SubTalk ad. It was promoting the Second Ave. Subway!

As you can see — and if you can’t, click the above picture to make the image bigger — the MTA is already starting to promote the Second Ave. Subway, six or seven years before it aims to see the light of day. It will indeed help relieve overcrowding on the Lexington Ave. line.

When I saw this ad, I smiled and thought optimistically about the Second Ave. Subway. To me, this ad is a sign that the MTA is committed to perhaps finishing at least section I of the subway. If all they have for now is a train that runs from 96th St. and 2nd Ave. through the Upper East Side before cutting west to join up with the existing Q line, that will be progress.

Maybe we’ll never get the Second Ave. Subway. Maybe this budget drain and the bad economic times will mean the end of the current Second Ave. Subway project if they run out of money with a 15-block tunnel. Maybe with the volume of federal contributions, the MTA will push this project through this time. But no matter; the Second Ave. Subway is making its presence known even if it’s just through a SubTalk ad in a lone F car.

One day, we’ll ride on that Second Ave. Subway, and that SubTalk will promote Phase II of the Second Ave. Subway. Hopefully, that isn’t just a dream.

  • MTA prepping city for cut in services · In two weeks, the MTA is going to issue a revised financial outlook for 2009, and everyone is expecting a call for a fairly substantial fare increase. At the same time, the MTA is clearly planning on cutting services, as Pete Donohue reported today. It’s important to note that these services do not include train service.

    Rather, the MTA will first look to eliminate staff workers who provide cleaning and maintenance services. “I would define it as anything that impacts the service that we provide to the public,” Sander said to the Daily News. “So, I would would view a reduction in cleaners and station agents as something the public would experience.” Cuts are never good news, but at least the MTA is doing all it can to make sure the trains run with the same frequency as they do now despite trying economic times. · (1)

Things did not look good for me when I arrived down on the platform at 7th Ave. in Brooklyn at around 8:40 a.m. yesterday morning. A Q train was pulling in, and I thought I’d hop it to DeKalb and switch to my W. 4th St-bound B.

There was but one catch. This Q train was far too crowded to board. When the B then pulled up, it too was far too crowded to board, and a subsequent Q suffered the same fate. When a second Q pulled up moments later, I was able to cram my way in for the short hop to DeKalb. Then, I had to wait nearly 15 minutes for a B train. As usual, at no point did the MTA announce a problem, and it wasn’t until I arrived late to class that I learned I suffered through some good old “residual delays.”

Except I hadn’t really. A steady stream of Q trains kept arriving, but they were too full. Simply put, the demands of the ridership could not, for a morning, keep up with the supply of the trains New York City Transit had to offer.

This overcrowding to an extreme isn’t a new phenomenon. The MTA’s ridership levels over the last few years have approached records set over fifty years ago, and overcrowded trains have become a major problem.

Perhaps, though, the end is in sight. With thousands of people losing their jobs due to the recent economic slowdown, the MTA expects ridership levels to end their climb. Marlene Naanes has the report:

Transit ridership is at a 40-year high, continuing a steady increase since 1996. However, this month City Comptroller Bill Thompson predicted more than 150,000 job losses in the next two years, which could affect the number of people taking trains and buses or being able to afford fares.

An MTA spokesman, however, said that it is unclear if the number of straphangers will decrease. “There will be some reduction in the pace of growth, not necessarily a drop in ridership,” MTA spokesman Jeremy Soffin said.

In all likelihood, actual ridership won’t decline, but it won’t increase either. The MTA will lose some revenue because they won’t have the projected money from increased ridership, and the agency will still have to deal with overcrowding.

But, to find a silver lining to this cloud — or perhaps it’s the other way around — the trains won’t be even more crowded. This morning, as I crammed myself into a Q train packed to the gills with people, I could barely move. I doubt it could actually get much worse.

Categories : MTA Economics
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