• SAS construction delayed for more entrance studies · According to NY1, the MTA is pushing back construction on parts of the Second Ave. Subway. As the news agency reports, the MTA will reconsider planned entrances at 86th and 72nd Streets because “East Side residents and city officials had expressed concern over the impact the mid-block entrances would have on parking and vehicle traffic in the neighborhood.” A Second Ave. Subway delay? Surprise! · (4)

Fourteen years, six months and 25 days ago, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority introduced the world to the MetroCard. These pieces of plastic — then blue with yellow letters — had a magnetic strip that would automatically deduct the $1.25 fare. Until Jan. 6, 1994, straphangers had the distinct pleasure of carting around packets of tokens or cash to buy tokens from surly clerks.

Over the years, the MetroCard has ushered in a mass transit ridership boom in New York. With the advent of discounts and unlimited ride cards — which just celebrated their tenth anniversary — New York’s vast public transit system became infinitely more accessible. Riders could pay by credit card — a fact the L train still oddly touts as a new development — and no one had to deal with pockets stuffed with tokens.

This week, in one of the more disastrous MetroCard-related incidents for the MTA in the card’s short history, the MetroCard Vending Machines went down throughout the system, leaving straphangers stranded at rush hour on two consecutive days. According to the MTA, these failures came about when an encryption device, required by credit card companies to process secure transactions, failed, and the one remaining device could not handle the load on its own.

According to Ray Rivera, writing for The Times, these outages resulted in 122,000 failed transactions. New York City Transit, the branch of the MTA that operates the MetroCard machines, has refunded all cards that were charged but did not result in a MetroCard being distributed to the charge card holder. According to Paul Fleuranges, the VP of Corporate Communications at NYC Transit, the problem has since been cleared up and the agency has issued 20,218 refunds.

This technological snafu got me thinking about the fate of the MetroCard. I’ve been long anticipating the demise of the MetroCard and the rise of the smart card in New York. That day, however, seems a long way off. Could a smart card technology have avoided this disaster though?

The short answer, of course, is no. As with any technological problems, once a computer glitch hits and particularly so for one based on a payment system, it will impact any attempt to buy a product. In thise case, the credit card problems had everything to do with the credit card transactions and nothing to do with the MetroCard itself.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t look for better ways to purchase MetroCards. Right now, we’re stuck, for better or worse with the MetroCard Vending Machines. We’re stuck with hulking machinery that isn’t too flexible with the change it distributes and often has problems — particularly at busy stations — reading credit cards. Those of us who rely on pay-per-ride cards can take advantage of the EasyPayXpress program, but the 50 percent of us who use Unlimited Ride cards are stuck waiting on line as outdated technologies lumbers along.

Why not add an EasyPayXpress option for Unlimited Ride cards? Why not start a mail-order MetroCard service not related to the TransitChecks program? Or why not make Unlimited Ride cards renewable with the option for an automatic refill billed to one’s charge card?

Fourteen and a half years ago, the MetroCard was the next great technology, and fourteen and a half years ago, Apple users were stuck with laptops that looked like this and sported a whopping 4MB of RAM. Perhaps it’s time to upgrade the technology.

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With both the City and State of New York facing precarious financial situations and the MTA’s deficit growing, money is tight across the board right now. With David Paterson in power, the MTA may have little choice but to raise fares. Little did we know, earlier this year, just how much Eliot Spitzer’s resignation would cost the MTA.

In a recent Newsday column, Anne Michaud explored the current relationship between the MTA and New York’s governor. Things could be better.

The story begins, in a way, with Eliot Spitzer’s long trumpeting mass transit and working closely with MTA CEO and Executive Director Lee Sander, a Spitzer appointee, to ensure a healthy transit system for New York City. The tale collapses in on itself when Spitzer is forced to resign just before congestion pricing — a potential dedicated revenue stream for the MTA — is set for a vote. The man who takes over, David Paterson, does not share the same relationship with Sander that Spitzer has.

It is in this shifting power that Michaud sees potentially dark days ahead for the MTA. She notes that Paterson has maintained something of an arm’s distance between his office and Sander. He did not intervene after Sander fielded criticism for a pay raise, and he spoke out, as he should have, against the MTA Board’s free perks. He has also second-guessed the MTA’s need for all of their fare hikes and in doing so, could be jeopardizing the future of some very big and very important projects. Write Michaud:

Transit advocates worry that, as a result, Sander will lose confidence to advocate for important projects in the next capital budget, such as the Third Track for the Long Island Rail Road. Now is an even more crucial moment for transportation than when Spitzer arrived as governor. As gas prices climb, all eyes are turning to urban-centric, transit-oriented development. Downtowns will not only be cool again, they will be essential.

Insiders say that Paterson is as committed as Spitzer was to keeping the MTA in a state of good repair. But it’s possible that, faced with difficult choices, the governor will choose to stretch out the completion date of some expansion projects such as the Second Avenue subway, East Side Access and the Third Track.

This alarming news brings us back to the current budget crunch. As Paterson struggles to find money for key services, he will look toward New York City’s transit network and view certain projects as expendable. He will tell — not ask — the MTA to defer maintenance and upgrades and delay capital construction efforts.

Again, our eyes will fall on Richard Ravitch to rescue the system. He’ll have to battle through a hostile legislature and a skeptical governor. Hopefully, he’s up for the job.

Categories : MTA Economics
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Tuesday afternoon saw more bad news, in the form of two surveys, head the MTA’s way.

The Straphangers Campaign published the first one — a rigorous scientific survey focusing on the State of the Subways. As I mentioned yesterday afternoon, the L and 7 trains — the two trains operating as guinea pigs for the line manager program — walked away with the top honors. More on that shortly.

The second report, issued by Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind and based on system-wide observations, found the subways to be structurally unsound, poorly maintained and largely unhygienic. Hikind and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer stop short of charging the MTA with system-wide neglect and are not pleased with the state of the subways.

We start with the Straphangers’ State of the Subways Report Card. This survey has become an annual rite of passage for the Straphangers, and the findings stay fairly consistent on a year-to-year basis. The L line — populated with some of the newest cars in the fleet — pulled in top honors because the trains run frequently, are generally on time, don’t break down too often, are clean and have audible in-car announcements. The 7 followed suit, earning higher marks on seat availability but lower scores on in-car announcements.

These line rankings are well and good, but as Julia noted yesterday, the methodology does not account for overlapping lines. Sure, the W may be the worst stand-alone line in the city, but at no point does it stop at a station where it is the only train servicing that stop. Discounting for this vital fact lessens the overall impact of the results. (For a comprehensive overview of the results, this PDF chart shows the category breakdown, and this one shows the overall rankings.)

The Straphangers’ more important findings came from their overall analysis of the system. According to their findings, subway cars are breaking down every 149,646 miles (down from 156,624 the year before), and only 85 percent of subway announcements are audible, down from 90 percent. That 85 percent seems rather generous to me. At a time when the MTA has less money than ever to reinvest in the systems, these findings do not project to improve next year.

Meanwhile, originally spurred on by rider complains, Hikind and Stringer released their findings today as well (PDF available here). Their results — while expected — are not encouraging:

Surveyors found that subway stations throughout New York City, regardless of their size (large, small) or location (underground, outdoors, elevated) had platform conditions that were unsafe, deteriorating and easily recognizable by surveyors. A pattern of neglect, lack of maintenance, shoddy workmanship and seeming indifference has led to system wide safety hazards at station platforms…

Station platforms are cracked, have significant gaps in many locations, and represent serious safety hazards to riders, especially to the most vulnerable, the young and the elderly. Cement fillings and lifted
wooden and concrete beams on the station platforms are poorly connected to the platforms and represent tripping hazards to unsuspecting riders. Rubbing boards placed on the edges of the platforms are deteriorating as well. Riders’ footwear is liable to get caught in the holes of the rubbing boards and many have corroded to the extent that any pressure on them could result in riders falling onto the tracks below.

What is disconcerting is the fact that MTA employees failed to recognize these corrosive conditions when they were readily apparent to surveyors. It is apparent that safety issues at stations are not being taken seriously by the MTA. Each hazard documented was observed visually by surveyors and was easily recognizable as conditions that threatened the safety of subway riders. Additionally, in the rare situations that these safety hazards were recognized, MTA employees performed shoddy work in repairing them and in many instances, these partial repairs created even more dangerous conditions than beforehand. It is most shocking that these conditions are still prevalent throughout New York City after having been pointed out to MTA officials.

While the MTA has not yet issued a statement in response to either of these two reports, these findings highlight the funding problem facing the transit agency. Riders are nervous about their physical safety while stations are decaying and subway cars are breaking down more frequently. As the MTA’s deficit continues to grow, more and more maintenance projects and “state of good repair” renovations have been delayed or postponed until the money materializes.

These reports just remind us that the MTA is facing a crisis both in its wallet and in its system. Hikind is an elected official. Will he do something about it? Will he help deliver more money to the MTA? Someone has to step up. Who knows who it will be?

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  • Straphangers: L train ‘best subway line in the city’ · The venerable Straphangers Campaign released its annual State of the Subway survey results this afternoon, and the results are, in a word, shocking. The L train has been ranked as the best subway line in the city. Never mind that the trains are packed like sardines and often suffer through slow rush hour trips; the train earns its high marks because the announcements are easy to hear and the train runs frequently. While the Straphangers have long questioned the MTA’s own internal ratings systems for trains, I’m beginning to wonder if we should subject the PIRG’s announcements to the same scrutiny. More on this later. · (13)
  • A State of Disrepair · Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn-based assemblyman, and Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, both have fielded their fair share of constituent complaints about the state of the subway infrastructure. So they took matters into their own hands and examined 100 subway stations throughout the city. According to a report the two plan to release later today, they have found a system rife with structural problems and an MTA slow to respond to complaints. These findings are nothing new, but they are just another salvo for critics skeptical of the MTA’s ability to run the city’s transit network. · (4)

Thirty years ago, when the ten-year-old MTA was facing a subway crisis, New York turned to Richard Ravitch to step in and save a decaying and unsafe system. Now, the 40-year-old MTA, suffering from the same economy slump affecting Americans the country over, has once again turned to Richard Ravitch to revive and revitalize the MTA’s finances. Ironically, Ravitch and his panel are tasked with solving a problem created by Ravitch thirty years ago: crushing debt brought about by investment in the subway system.

This is quite the conundrum. Why would the MTA turn to Ravitch to fix a problem that stems, by and large, from policies he instituted and paths he chose in the 1980s? Better yet, how exactly did Ravitch create those problems? A very well done Ray Rivera article in The Times this weekend delved into the issue of MTA debt, and in Rivera’s work, we see the origins of the MTA’s current financial difficulties.

Rivera writes:

When Richard Ravitch was named chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 1979, he inherited a subway system in decay. Trains derailed or collided on average every 15 days. Stations were filthy and crime was rampant. Ridership sank to lows not seen since World War I.

To revive the system, Mr. Ravitch, a former construction executive, persuaded lawmakers to allow the authority to do what countless cities and states had long done to build and maintain their infrastructure: Issue bonds.

“The system was falling apart, and the only way I could get the money to rebuild it was to borrow it,” Mr. Ravitch said in a recent interview.

Nearly 30 years later, the system is by all accounts better. But the authority’s debt has ballooned, and like stressed homeowners across the country, the system is groaning under the pressure to repay it. Indeed, debt payments are the system’s largest single cost after payroll, and by 2012 they will account for one of every five dollars the authority spends.

Rivera goes on to talk about the recent restructuring of the MTA’s finances. The agency is on the hook for debt payments until, at the earliest, 2032, and those payments amount to at least $1 billion annually. If the agency wants to expand its system, as it is doing now, if the MTA wants to keep stations in a good state of good repair, renovate those that need improvements and keep equipment modern, those debt tolls could increase.

And it all started with Ravitch:

Money for capital improvements hovered around $50 million — not the billions Mr. Ravitch and his analysts knew it would take. So he went to Albany.

“The Legislature squawked,” recalled Mr. Ravitch, 75. “They said that will result in a fare increase, and I said ‘That’s absolutely correct.’ But I said it will also result in an improvement in the system and attract more riders and avoid the dysfunctionality in the system, and they were persuaded.”

The law passed in 1981, and the next year the authority issued its first bonds, totaling $350 million. The authority issued hundreds of millions of dollars in new debt over the next 20 years, nearly all of it going toward new stainless steel cars and buses, and track repairs, signal replacements and other system improvements. By 2000, the agency’s outstanding debt had reached $12 billion.

Over this time period, as the MTA fell further and further into debt, city and state politicians were content to let the transit authority crumble. Until 1991, New York City and State funded a combined 26 percent of the capital plans. From 1992 onward, that contribution fell to a meager nine percent, and the MTA had to rely on the money they could raise from bond sales. Right now, if all of the MTA’s bonds were recalled, the transit agency would, in all likelihood, default.

This time around, Ravitch is going to have to rely on something other than yet another bond issue to fund the MTA. The transportation agency cannot continue to borrow against itself to fund capital improvements, system expansions and maintenance programs. Ravitch will have to demand more money from a government strapped for cash, and identify some other sources of dedicated revenue stream. As we know, Ravitch got us into this mess by suggesting bond issues in the first place. Can he get us out of it?

Categories : MTA Construction, PANYNJ
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  • A few more service increases on the IRT lines · New York City Transit tried to sneak this by us, but we caught them anyway: While they publicly unveiled a whole bunch of service upgrades this past weekend, a few additions didn’t hit the wires until late this weekend. The transit authority has increased the frequency of service along the 1, 4, 6 and 42nd St. Shuttle lines. The adjustments add six additional trips to the local trains and ten additional trips to the 4 and Shuttle during the week. Considering the recent spate of bad news, the MTA should have been trumpeted this service increases this week. · (0)
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