• Bus cuts on the table as Transit addresses driver shortage · Since late January when the MTA started hosting public hearings on the Doomsday budget proposals, the future of the transit authority seemed uncertain. Albany had not yet committed to a rescue package, and the MTA Board had to go ahead with what they viewed as necessary cuts. As such, the agency couldn’t hire for numerous positions as they became available, and today in amNew York, Heather Haddon explores how this hiring freeze led to a bus driver shortage.

    Basically, says Haddon, Transit has around 230 open bus positions, and it’s going to take them until the summer to address the vacancies. In the meantime, bus service on a few lines around the city will be less frequent than usual. “It would have been fiscally irresponsible for us to have filled positions we would have cut,” Paul Fleuranges, NYC Transit spokesman, said to Haddon.

    The free daily also brings news of some permanent bus cuts on the table. Haddon says Transit may “save $4.8 million by scalling back bus trips on 35 routes across the city.” The documents presented to the board call for the agency to “more closely align service with customer demand.” Seventeen routes would enjoy more service as the MTA looks to spend along routes that need the service. · (0)

When the MTA Board passed a new fare structure earlier this week, the leaders of the transit agency stressed the fact that the so-called cuts to the public — fewer trains, less frequent service — would be voted down soon as well. The officials though also made clear that numerous positions within the MTA would not be filled. The station agent program, in particular, is slated for termination, and with it comes the elimination of over 800 jobs.

While many of these spots will be flat-out eliminated, a good number of MTA positions will be eliminated through attrition. As workers retire, the positions will remain vacant, not to be filled until and unless the MTA finds a sound financial footing.

This is an interesting way to eliminate jobs, but there is seemingly more at work than simply a reduction in workforce. Some MTA watchers believe this reduction-by-attrition method says more about the MTA’s future pensive obligations than anything else.

Nicole Gelinas is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an editor at City Journal. For the last few months, she — and few other transit watchers — has tackled the uncomfortable issue of the labor unions’ relationships with the MTA. Gelinas feels that much of the MTA’s supposed Doomsday could have been avoided had the transportation authority been willing to take a harder line in negotiations with its workers.

Most recently, Gelinas tackled just that topic in a Wall Street Journal column. She wrote:

The blunt truth is that New York City and state spent the good years giving its public employees generous raises, without asking for benefits concessions in return. City benefits costs, too, have piled up to an unsustainable $13 billion annually. That’s a third of the city’s tax revenue. Political leaders did nothing about it. When the transit union went on strike nearly four years ago to protect its pension benefits, Gov. George Pataki caved in and kept the status quo.

Gov. David Paterson and Gov. Pataki before him (let’s just leave out the farce of Eliot Spitzer) didn’t even need the unions’ cooperation to reduce pensions costs for new workers. Lawmakers could have passed legislation that would have cut benefits and increased contributions without union input. They didn’t.

Instead the state expanded its Medicaid program, which now costs the city $5.6 billion a year, up 44% over the past seven years. The city, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, similarly ramped up education spending by 70% to nearly $21 billion. Education spending has shot up 42% faster than spending on the MTA, even though public-school enrollment shrank while MTA ridership soared.

This April column is but the tip of the iceberg. In December, Gelinas called upon transit unions to sacrifice some of the financial upper hand. She wants the union workers to contribute more to their pension and health care plans and believes that a wage freeze would not be inappropriate. In March, she wrote about runaway pension costs.

The real issue here is one of a political cognitive dissonance. New Yorkers are, by and large, pro-labor, pro-union Democrats. Gelinas raises issues that don’t fit that bill, but they are ones transit advocates should consider. At a time when everyone else is being asked to shoulder the costs of our transit system, shouldn’t the unions contribute as well?

Categories : MTA
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  • Congestion pricing money New York’s for the taking · For the last few months, we’ve been covering the MTA’s budgetary woes nearly non-stop. The city’s transportation authority is facing a massive budget crunch, and advocates would prefer to see the hole plugged through contributions from drivers. That way, public transit will thrive while congestion, an environmental and social evil, will be curtailed. The solution out of Albany does not such thing.

    Last year, the city had a chance to take a first step in that direction, but the state legislature declined to pass a congestion pricing plan. That plan would have guaranteed around $400-$500 million a year for the MTA’s capital program and would have netted the city around $350 million in federal funds as well. Officials voted down the plan over concerns from drivers and worries that the MTA wouldn’t do an adequate job administering and spending the money. That’s quite the excuse from Albany.

    Streetsblog today points to a NY1 article in which Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood promises that the money for the city is still there if we want it. Earlier reports had indicated that the city had lost the opportunity, but LaHood does not want to close the door on anti-congestion innovation in the nation’s largest city. “The money that was going to be provided for that particular project is still at the Department of Transportation,” LaHood said. “If New York got its act together around that kind of opportunity, I think we would look at it.”

    Is it time to renew the push for congestion pricing? I saw we get on that. The MTA needs the money; the city needs a commitment to mass transit growth; and we all benefit from congestion reduction. · (21)

Over the last few days, we’ve heard rumors about various people who may or may not be nominated to head the MTA. Yesterday, Gov. David Paterson broke his silence on the issue and put forth a stunning defense of Marc Shaw, the one man the Senate seems intent on denying the position.

Elizabeth Benjamin reported on the diatribe yesterday while I was finishing up my last final of my first year of law school. A NY1 reporter asked Paterson to respond to the anti-Shaw sniping that has consumed the media over the last few days, and Paterson responded with a rant:

“I very much resent that people who I don’t even remember being in the meetings have so much comment on the governor’s staff and the governor’s perspective appointees and even the entire process.

“I think that when people want equity, they should come to court with clean hands, and the Senate, on a number of occasions, handed in suggestions that didn’t even add up – and I’m talking about the numerical add-up, not the logic aspect of it.

“And I really would call on the leader of the Senate to implore – at least publicly – his members that the governor has the right to make an appointment without deriving antagonism from a process where the appointments hasn’t even been made yet, and all you’re doing is damaging the character and service of a man who has been exemplary serving both parties, serving multiple administrations, serving as a deputy mayor to Mayor Bloomberg and a chief advisor to myself.”

Paterson ended his rant by eschewing the high road and taking some shots at the supposedly obstructionist Senators. “If it keeps up, maybe I’ll illuminate my feelings about some of the people who are commenting from time to time. Did that answer your question, Josh?” he said to Josh Robin. “We’ll work all of that out without the intervention from any more sourced or unsourced outsiders who really know very little about the process.”

It’s all well and good for Paterson to take such a strident approach, but the truth remains that he has little power in this state. He ushered through a sub-par MTA rescue package after months of deliberations. He has the lowest approval rating of any governor in recent history, and now he’s trying to pick a fight with the people who control the fate of his MTA appointee.

Paterson should just leave well enough alone. He should drop the idea of a Marc Shaw nominee. After all, Shaw was one of the former MTA leaders who spent the MTA into a debt-fueled oblivion. He should look for someone as policy-savvy as Elliot Sander is, and he should find someone whom the Senate will accept as well. That man is probably Richard Ravitch, but considering how the state just dumped the Ravitch recommendations, it’s hard to believe he would accept the post.

In the end, despite promises of reform and a new era in New York City transit policy and politics, we’re left with more of the same. Paterson is showing more of the same ineptitude and more of the same out of touch attitude that has nearly destroyed the MTA in the first place. Oh well.

Categories : MTA Politics
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A Brooklyn streetcar roams the streets of San Francisco. (Photo by flickr user phrenologist)

Once upon a time, Brooklyn was the borough of streetcars. Powered by catenary wires, this ubiquitous green cars would take Brooklynites from one end of the borough to another. With the advent of the automobile and the rise of buses, streetcars become obsolete. The tracks were ripped up and the wires torn down.

Now, though, New York officials are making sounds about a streetcar revival in Brooklyn. A few weeks ago while speaking in Toronto, NYC Department of Transportation head Janette Sadik-Khan praised the streetcar revival currently sweeping the nation. Streetcars, says, Sadik-Khan could streamline intra-borough transit while encouraging people to take advantage of their neighborhoods. “In Portland they just started a new streetcar and were able to leverage $3-billion in investment,” she notes. “We need to rebalance the transportation network and make it as efficient and effective as possible.”

Last week, Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic unveiled a very comprehensive study of potential streetcar routes in Brooklyn. Freemark analyzed current transportation patterns in the borough and proposed the following as a potential streetcar route. (Click the map to enlarge.)

It is a very appealing vision, and it’s easy to see how Freemark’s network fits in with my proposed Select Bus Service qualifications. These streetcar lines connect various subway routes at points deep in the borough, and they bring transit to underserved areas. This scheme offers up the option to connect into Queens, and the line terminating at Starrett City could easily extended out to JFK Airport.

There are of course very real objections to streetscars and very persuasive arguments in their favor. This came last summer when we discussed America’s streetcar renaissance. I’ll rehash them from this comment thread.

First, streetcars are clean technology. They rely on electrical power and do not emit exhaust. Buses on the other hand are only at their environmental best when full. Otherwise, they are historically inefficient automobiles. Streetcars encourage development along their routes; they run faster; and they eliminate some congestion by discouraging short-distance driving.

On the other hand, unless a city builds a dedicated right-of-way, these streetcars are beholden to surface traffic patterns. They can’t maneuver around accidents or traffic the way a bus can, and the catenary wires are rather unsightly in an urban environment. With the right-of-way, they aren’t appreciably more cost-efficient than bus rapid transit systems.

As Freemark notes, a streetcar system would require a serious transit investment. It would require infrastructure and rolling stock as well as a drastic overhaul of the Brooklyn streetscape. While we might want to toy with the idea, for now, it just might be a pipe dream

Categories : Brooklyn
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  • Handicapping the MTA leadership race · Elliot Sander is out as the MTA CEO and executive director on May 22. Dale Hemmerdinger’s term as MTA Chair ends in June. As David Paterson searches for a candidate, various transit-watchers are handicapping the race. Yesterday, I noted a three-way race between Marc Shaw, Tim O’Toole and Nathaniel Ford. Today, amNew York’s Heather Haddon adds a few more names to the mix. Haddon reports that Beverly Scott, CEO of Atlanta’s MARTA, is on the short list but isn’t interested in the New York position. She also notes that Richard Ravitch and former MTA CFO Jay Walder may be considered.

    While Shaw is seemingly Paterson’s top pick, he appears to represent the status quo at a time when Albany wants to move away from more of the same with the MTA. In fact, Senator Martin Dilan, head of the Senate Transportation Committee, has vowed to block Shaw from the job. I’d go with Ravitch right now. · (3)

As the political turmoil and debate over the future of the MTA recedes into the past of last week, I’m going to take some time today to talk about some future expansion plans for New York City’s transportation network. The later post will be published this afternoon, and both will focus on surface options rather than underground rail plans.

Our tale this morning starts in the Bronx with something called Select Bus Service. This program is a joint pilot effort between the MTA and New York City’s Department of Transportation. It features dedicated bus lanes and pre-boarding fare payment systems. It has resulted in a 24 percent decrease in travel times, and passengers along Fordham Road love the service.

Next year, as part of this so-called Phase I rollout, Select Bus Service will come to Manhattan. Sections of First and Second Avenues are slated for service. Now, as I’ve discussed now and then in the past, this bus rapid transit system along Second Ave. is a bit of a lightening rod. Opponents of the Second Ave. Subway see it is a viable and cheaper alternative to the expensive and oft-delayed subway line. In terms of capacity, though, a subway line trumps bus service, and for now, the two modes of transportation are both slated for the same avenue.

Eventually, Phase I will include service along Nostrand Ave. in Brooklyn, along Hylan Boulevard and into Bay Ridge from Staten Island and access to the Jamaica Center hub. Each borough will have its own Select Bus Service within a few years.

In an effort to expand the program to the five boroughs, NYC DOT recently announced plans for a series of workshops this summer in advance of Phase 2 of the Select Bus Service program. Streetsblog broke the news last week. The Department of Transportation will host seven workshops across the five boroughs in an effort to identify as many as 10 routes for future Select Bus Service.

As part of the pre-launch for Phase 2 planning, NYC DOT has released an unnecessarily large and poorly optimized PDF file explaining the needs of the city and the goals of the program. In a nutshell, DOT wants to target areas that are both underserved by preexisting transit options and areas that are suffering through overcrowding. They want to target high-traffic streets with the goal of reducing congestion as well.

There are though some obvious problems with the preliminary Phase 2 plans. The maps in the PDF are very borough-centric. While Staten Island SBS connects into Brooklyn and some Bronx service connects to Manhattan, rare are the buses that run legitimate interborough routes. Mostly, these Select Bus lines drop people off at preexisting subway stops and do not offer a real alternative for a ride through Queens and into Midtown.

I have a series of suggestions, then, for the planners of Select Bus Service:

  1. First, these routes clearly, as I just said, need to be more than just feeder routes. A Select Bus route up Flatbush Ave., for example, should cross the Manhattan Bridge and run more than just a few blocks into Manhattan. It shouldn’t just be an easier way to get to the Atlantic-Pacific hub. It should be an easier way to get into Midtown.
  2. At the same time, some Select Bus routes should be planned as subway connectors. Right now, the Fordham Road SBS service connects to nine different subway lines. Woodhaven Boulevard, for example, could support SBS that connects a series of subway lines and leads to JFK Airport.
  3. The easiest way to accomplish point two would be to implement SBS along the Circumferential route. Such a route would intersect nearly every subway line and would bring riders from Brooklyn through Queens and into the Bronx faster than any subway could
  4. Feed the airports. This is obvious.
  5. Install physically separated lanes, priority signaling and automated lane enforcement efforts. The latter would require action in Albany.

New York City is clearly at a transit crossroads. It needs innovative leaders willing to lobby for plans that challenge the status quo. DOT and the MTA have a blank slate in the form of Select Bus Serivce, and how they proceed this summer will dictate the future of surface transit in the city for the foreseeable future.

Categories : Buses
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  • Paterson considering Shaw for MTA post · It was just yesterday afternoon when I wrote how the Senate Democrats will probably not approve Marc Shaw as the head of the MTA. So how does Gov. David Paterson respond to this political threat? By intimating that he is considering Shaw. According to Politicker NY’s Jimmy Vielkind, Shaw is on the short list of potential candidates to head the the post-Sander/Hemmerdinger MTA. I’d rather see someone else — say, Richard Ravtich — and the Democrats in the Senate would too. According to Elizabeth Benjamin, Tim O’Toole, the one-time director of the London Underground, and Nathaniel Ford, the CEO and executive director of the San Francisco MTA arealso on the short list. If Paterson wants another fight over the direction of the MTA, he’ll get it if he goes with Shaw. · (4)

Does the city need someone to staff these ubiquitous booths?

When the MTA Board met yesterday to approve a reduced fare hike, the authority’s governing body also discussed, albeit briefly, the service cuts that made up part of the Doomsday budget. While the so-called cuts to the public — the elimination of subway lines, the planned reduction in off-peak, weekend and overnight service — are off the table, I was surprised to learn that the MTA still plans to axe hundreds of station agent jobs throughout the system.

As I reported in January, the plans to cut the station booths were a stealth move by the MTA. The agency stopped filling vacancies last month and is hoping to phase out around 800 station agents and shutter around 42 booths. While every station will still have an open, manned booth with a token clerk in it, the red vest program will end, and some one-way stations — an uptown platform with no crossover to a downtown train, for example — will have no employees at all.

During yesterday’s fare hike hearing, union leaders and station workers were apoplectic over these cuts. Andreeva Pinder, TWU Local 100’s VP for stations, defended the station agents. “I’ve meant the different between living and dying,” she said.

Pinder discussed how she and other station agents have helped people in need who come in off the streets, how they can aid confused passengers and how they contribute to the overall safety of the stations. She was pretty outraged by the cuts. “What in the hell are you thinking about?” she asked the MTA Board as she finished her remarks.

Kendra Hill, another station agent and TWU Local 100 member, defended the station agents as well. “A MetroCard vending machine cannot help a parent with a stroller. A turnstile cannot give directions to lost travelers,” she said.

Initially, my reaction to Hill one of cynicism. It’s true that a turnstile can’t give directions, but in my experiences, neither can many station agents. While Pinder tells a story about her helping people, the news covers the tales when station agents do nothing in the face of danger.

What if, though, those stories make headlines because they are far more compelling than the alternate? Who wants to read a feel-good piece in The Post that says “Station agent helps lost straphanger find her way”? Dale Hemmerdinger, the chairman of the MTA Board, put it best yesterday. “Unfortunately, it’s human nature to remember only when something doesn’t work, and in that regard, we’re a very easy target,” he said.

So maybe the station agents do help out, but maybe, as I’ve written in the past, they serve a deterrent purpose. Simply by putting someone in the station, the MTA can deter fare-jumpers and would-be criminals. Simply by alerting riders to the presence of someone with a uniform, the MTA is creating second thoughts.

Of course, this doesn’t seem to stop would-be taggers and graffiti artists. It doesn’t stop people from littering or relieving themselves in subway stations. It may stop major crimes, but quality-of-life violations continue unabated.

When the MTA cuts the station agents, they plan to keep open the turnstiles at unstaffed stations. Fare-jumping could become rampant, and the cuts — some $52 million annually — will be eroded by petty crime. Soon enough, we’ll find out if it’s worth it. I’m not so sure it is.

Categories : Service Cuts
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