In Saturday’s New York Times, Jeffrey Zupan of the Regional Plan Association penned an excellent op-ed column on the state of public transportation in New York City. The arguments he makes in his column are pretty much right in line with what I’m trying to do with Second Ave. Sagas.

He writes:

What do we want our public transit system to look like? We want riders to prefer it to driving, rather than viewing the system as something to be avoided at all costs or begrudgingly accepting it as a necessary evil. We want it to be reliable and safe. We want it to be fast, frequent, nearby and uncrowded. We want it to take us to our three major airports and to emerging job centers like Downtown Brooklyn and Jamaica, Queens, and to our neighbors in White Plains, Jersey City, Newark and Stamford, Conn.

The projects that can make this happen are not fanciful or futuristic. They are measures that are within our grasp. They include new ways of thinking (like ferries in places where ground routes are circuitous and time-consuming), but also common-sense ideas that have long been needed (like buses, with lower floors to make boarding faster and easier, in lanes that are separated from traffic).

There are small things that would alleviate daily frustrations, like electronic signs that would tell us, in a way we can understand, exactly when the next bus or train is arriving. But there are also big things that would expand the capacity and usefulness of our transit system….

A well-functioning transit system is vital to our economy. Everyone — not just transit riders — should help pay for it, because everyone gains from it. Fare hikes may be necessary, but so are taxes. Car drivers see less traffic. Business owners and workers receive more profits and more jobs. And everyone else breathes cleaner air.

There has never been a more important time to improve public transit. The right question is not how we can afford a better system, but what will happen if we fail to pay for one?

This is why we fight for recognition for the transit system. This is why we fight for more funding and sensible congestion measures. This is why we want the MTA to improve its public image and why we want politicians and the public to understand that, while we all want a better transit system, it’s not going to come without its costs. This is why I write this blog everyday.

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  • More feelers on seatless cars · Two weeks ago, we talked about the MTA’s plan to install flip seats in subway cars in order to maximize rush hour train capacity. Today, The Times takes a look at the plan. While Javier C. Hernandez’s article doesn’t offer up any information we didn’t already have, it does seem as though the MTA is trying to gauge the public’s reaction to this plan before setting a timetable for its implementation. My blind guess is that by the end of the year, we’ll see test cars with flip seating in place along the East Side IRT. · (1)

Later today, New York City Council membrs Joseph Addabbo, right, and John Liu will unveil their latest anti-fare hike effort. As Liu has tried to do, unsuccessfully, in the past, the two hope that their group — Fight the Hike 08 — will succeed in convincing the MTA to avert a fare hike next year.

As part of this campaign, Addabbo penned an extensive piece in today’s Daily News that lays out the campaign’s approach. Ideally, their Website — as of this writing, just a Drupal instruction page — will feature more on how they hope to accomplish their goals. For now, we have just the Addabbo piece, and while on principle I believe their efforts to be noble, I feel that Addabbo and Liu are a bit misguided in their rhetoric.

Addabbo writes:

The cost of living is on the rise, and the state is experiencing financial difficulty, which usually jeopardizes jobs and income. The first answer to a budget deficit cannot always be to increase the cost of living for middle class people, especially without a serious improvement in service and facilities. Just recently, a survey of 50 stations by the New York City Transit Riders Council revealed that riders complained overwhelmingly about the state of disrepair of the city’s subway stations, many of which suffer from water damage, lack of proper signage and peeling paint.

New York City Transit even acknowledged the problem by proposing to include $71 million in their Capital Plan to address problem areas incrementally. Since the Bloomberg administration has already signaled that the city will not balance the MTA’s bottom line, it’s up to the state to prioritize spending in these tough fiscal times and focus funding where it is most needed, and where it’ll do the most good.

We in government need to make high quality, low cost public transportation a priority and send a message to the MTA that we expect to get what we pay for. As legislators return to Albany this week to reassess the budget, I urge them to not only act judiciously, but on behalf of middle class interests. Raising the fare should be a last resort, and I don’t believe we’re at that point.

I appreciate Addabbo’s efforts, but the middle class rhetoric is simply a councilmember’s efforts at pandering hidden in class conflict. Six months ago, Addabbo was an opponent of a congestion pricing on the grounds that the pricing plan would negatively impact the middle class in Queens who supposedly lived too far away from mass transit. The only problem with Addabbo’s argument is that those members of Queens who live too far away from mass transit and must rely on their cars aren’t really a part of the middle class. They’re a bit of the upper class who can afford congestion pricing and choose to live in non-transit friendly areas of New York City.

Again, Addabbo is relying on class rhetoric, and while his argument is more valid when it applies to the transit system, he can’t have his cake and eat it too. If Addabbo is serious about funding transit, then congestion pricing will have to a part of the equation. Raising the fare should be a last resort, but with the city and state eschewing their MTA responsibilities and the economy worsening by the day, the MTA has not choice but to turn to this last resort.

Until our politicians are willing to sacrifice something — whether it be free roads or higher taxes or something else out of the box entirely — the MTA will continue to rely on fare hikes for more funding. It seems to be the only resort these days.

Categories : Fare Hikes
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  • Goethals Bridge replacement to save space for transit · One of the worst decisions Robert Moses ever forced upon the city of New York involved dedicated transit lanes along the Van Wyck Expressway that could have served as the right-of-way for a high-speed raillink to JFK Airport (then Idlewild). Moses refused to compromise with transit advocates, and we’re stuck with the set-up we have today. Across the city, along the Hudson River crossings, transit has always been an afterthought. While extensive tunnels lead into Penn Station, none of the major crossings have space reserved for transit. But now that these crossings are showing their ages and are up for replacement, the Port Authority is planning, tentatively, to rectify this historical oversight.

    According to the Daily News, the Port Authority’s plans for a Goethals Bridge replacement contain tentative plans for mass transit lanes. Of course, tentative plans are always the first to go when budgets climb, and this crossing won’t see the light of day by 2015 at the earliest. But we have to applaud this news now and urge our politicians to switch that label from “tentative” to “definite” by the time construction begins in a few years. · (12)

A desire named streetcar

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Streetcars are on the prowl in U.S. cities. (Photo by flickr user trainman74)

Once upon a time, in an alternate history that the auto industry today would prefer we all forget, the American city streets were paved with gold. Maybe they weren’t paved with the gold found at Sutter’s Mill, but they were filled with the comforting rails and power lines of streetcars. Back and forth these cars would go until one day, they all just stopped running.

But, hark, what is that I hear? Is that the nostalgic clanging of a streetcar bell? Perhaps, it is. Last week, the Gray Lady herself told us that streetcars are making a comeback in cities across the nation. From Cincinnati to Seattle, from Charlotte to Salt Lake City, city planners are looking to revive the vast network of streetcars that used to transport America’s urban dwellers from one point to the next while using existing surface routes and right-of-ways.

Bob Driehaus writes:

At least 40 other cities are exploring streetcar plans to spur economic development, ease traffic congestion and draw young professionals and empty-nest baby boomers back from the suburbs, according to the Community Streetcar Coalition, which includes city officials, transit authorities and engineers who advocate streetcar construction.

More than a dozen have existing lines, including New Orleans, which is restoring a system devastated by Hurricane Katrina. And Denver, Houston, Salt Lake City and Charlotte, N.C., have introduced or are planning to introduce streetcars.

“They serve to coalesce a neighborhood,” said Jim Graebner, chairman of the American Public Transportation Association’s streetcar and vintage trolley committee. “That’s very evident in places like San Francisco, which never got rid of its streetcar system.”

It’s a veritable utopia of light rail proposals. Of course, streetcars are not without their detractors. “It looks like it’s going to take you somewhere, but it’s only designed to support downtown residents,” Randall O’Toole, an expert on (anti-)public transit policy, said. “If officials fall for the hype and don’t ask the hard questions, voters should vote them out.” But we’ll ignore him and let his Cato Institute donors speak for themselves.

O’Toole aside, it’s hard to argue against streetcars, as The Overhead Wire noted this weekend. They’re relatively cheap, environmentally friendly and encourage reducing one’s carbon expenditures. In an age in which we’re all focused on shrinking driving mileage and making cities more pedestrian-friendly, streetcars are a grand ally in that scheme.

It is also not without irony that cities are starting to reclaim their streetcar past. While Americans today either don’t know about or willfully choose to ignore it, had American cities stood up for themselves fifty or sixty years ago, streetcars would still be a vibrant part of the urban landscape. While I mentioned that one day, streetcars just disappeared, it wasn’t as simple as that. Did you really think it would be?

Starting in the 1930s and continuing on through the 1950s, when American car manufacturers starting coming into their Golden Age and owning a car became not a sign of wealth but a trademark of the middle class, these companies starting snatching up streetcar properties. Now, while some of them bought the streetcar lines to create an internal monopoly in which these public transit systems would run only, say, GM buses and cars, others ripped up the streetcars and shut them down when they weren’t quote-unquote profitable enough.

While, as the Wikipedia entry for the Great American streetcar scandal notes, a whole bunch of other factors contributed to the demise of streetcars, the demise of American cities in the 1960s and 1970s was a direct result of the fall and decline of streetcars. Today, America is more urban than ever before, and city officials across the nation are finally realizing the benefits of streetcars. Better late than never again.

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As you while away a lazy Sunday afternoon in August, allow me to guide your attention to a few rail policy links bound to infuriate even the most placid of rail advocates. Both of these articles use incredibly misleading arguments and rely on false logic to paint rail options and their advocates in negative lights.

We start with The Overhead Wire’s critique of an anti-rail piece in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. As always, rail opponents are still trumping the power of some Holy Grail electric automobile that’s just around the corner and will save the environment as we know it. Why should we invest in rail options if cars can save us all? As you could guess, The Overhead Wire eviscerates the Texas piece.

If that doesn’t quite boil your blood enough, mosey on over to the Hawaii Reporter and get a load of this gem. The headline: A Vote Against Rail is a Vote for Freedom and Prosperity. The pullquote: “Today’s average car is far more energy efficient than the average rail line.” Need I say more?

These arguments speak volumes about the state of the rail debate in our country, and while New Yorkers, by and large, understand and appreciate our region’s need for viable public transit, many Americans do not. Streetcars may be making a return in theory, but those transit advocates are facing an uphill battle. As funding public transit on a national level gets pigeonholed into the Red/Blue debate that so dominates politics today, everyone suffers in the end.

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Weekend service advisories

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Before getting to the weekend service changes, I want to thank everyone who contributed a guest column during my vacation this week. While readers may agree or disagree with those other points of view, it’s always interesting to hear what other people have to say about our subway system.

Without further ado, the service changes. Maps are available, as always, at Subway Weekender.

Free shuttle buses replace 1 trains between 238 and 242 Sts
Aug 16 – 17, 6 AM Sat to 7 PM Sun

Downtown 2 trains replace the 5 from 149 St-Grand Concourse to Nevins St
Downtown 5 trains replace the 2 from 149 St-Grand Concourse to Chambers St
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

No 3 trains between New Lots Av and 14 St
In Manhattan, take the uptown 2 or the downtown 5
In Brooklyn, take the 4 instead
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

Free shuttle buses replace 4 trains between Woodlawn and Bedford Pk Blvd
Aug 16 – 17, 4 AM Sat to 10 PM Sun

Bronx-bound 6 trains run express from 3 Av to Hunts Point Av
Aug 16, 12:01 AM to 5 AM Saturday

Flushing-bound 7 trains skip 33, 40, 46, 52, and 69 Sts
Aug 16 – 17, 4 AM Sat to 10 PM Sun

Downtown A trains run local from 168 St to Canal St
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

Uptown A trains run local from West 4 to 168 Sts
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

Manhattan-bound A trains run on the F from Jay to West 4 Sts
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

No C trains running
Take the A in Manhattan
Take the F in Brooklyn
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

F trains replace the C in Brooklyn
G trains replace the F between Hoyt-Schermerhorn Sts and Coney Island
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

No G trains between 71-Continental Avs and Court Sq
Take the E or R instead
Aug 15 – 18, 8:30 PM Fri to 5 AM Mon

G trains replace the F between Hoyt-Schermerhorn Sts and Coney Island
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

J trains run in two sections:

  1. Between Jamaica Center and Essex St
  2. Between Essex and Chambers Sts

Aug 16 – 18, 1 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

Free shuttle buses replace M trains between Metropolitan Av and Myrtle Av-Broadway
Aug 16 – 17, 4 AM Sat to 10 PM Sun

Brooklyn-bound N trains run on the R from Canal St to DeKalb Av
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

Downtown Q trains run local from 57 to Canal Sts
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

Q trains run in two sections:

  1. Between 57 and Pacific Sts
  2. Between Atlantic and Stillwell Avs

To continue your trip, walk through the passageway between Pacific St and Atlantic Av
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM to 5 AM Sat to Mon

Manhattan-bound R trains run on the V from Queens Plaza to Broadway-Lafayette St,
then over the Manhattan Bridge to DeKalb Av
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

Free shuttle buses replace the Franklin Av S between Franklin Av and Prospect Park
Aug 17, 6 AM to 6 PM Sunday

Categories : Service Advisories
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  • The subways, now with more rats · Forget economic woes and oft-delayed trains. New Yorkers are more concerned about the grossest thing in town. According to amNew York’s Matthew Sweeney, the number of rats in the subway are on the rise. This underground denizens are taking the subsurface tunnels by storm, and officials are blaming both increased construction and increased volumes of litter due to higher ridership figures for the surge in rodent population. From the sound of things, the IND line stations south of 34th St. are among the most rat-prone in the city. Lovely. · (0)

When it comes to the MTA and its recent economic difficulties, the media has enjoyed laying all of the blame for rapid fare hikes and fiduciary black holes squarely on the backs of the transit authority. Absent are many mentions of the inadequate city and state contributions to the MTA’s coffers. New York City’s Independent Budget Office would like to see this media approach change and, more importantly, would like to see more government contributions to the MTA.

In a report (PDF) released yesterday, the NYCIBO slams the city and state for shortchanging the MTA and blasts the media for failing to focus on the real financial issues at hand. City Room’s Sewell Chan reported on the IBO’s findings:

State and city subsidies to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have remained largely flat since 1990, exacerbating the authority’s fiscal pressures at a time when it is threatening to raise fares and facing steep deficits because of the turbulence in the real estate market, according to a new report.

The three-page report…did not make any policy recommendations, but it suggested that the intense news coverage of the authority’s troubled finances has largely overlooked the issue of government subsidies. The authority collects far more revenue from subway, bus and commuter rail fares, dedicated taxes, and bridge and tunnel tolls than it draws from direct government aid.

“It remains to be decided whether new types of subsidies are necessary, or whether existing levels should be altered by adjusting terms that have held some subsides flat for a decade,” the report’s authors, Alan Treffeisen and Doug Turetsky, wrote. “But in order to best decide how to aid the M.T.A. in the future, a common understanding of how much assistance the city and state provide today is needed.”

You won’t hear me disagreeing with this assessment. In fact, I have long called upon city and state officials to stay true to their words and adequately and fully fund the beleaguered Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Of course, politicians love to posture, and while New York’s leaders are happy to give lip service to this IBO statement, none of them will accept financial responsibility for the MTA.

On Thursday, in fact, Mayor Bloomberg illustrated just how the politicians are willing to talk the talk but not walk the walk. “Generally speaking, given the quality of mayors, they should be in control of their transportation systems,” Bloomberg said yesterday, The Times reports.

But when pressed to commit a greater level of city money to the MTA, Bloomberg changed his tune. “We have no money to do that, and it’s up to the state to find the money,” he said.

It’s always up to someone else to find the money, and as the city and state — two financially-strapped institutions in their own rights — bicker over funding, the MTA will turn to its one steady source of revenue: fare hikes. The only way to change this course of events is to convince elected representatives once and for all to show the MTA the money. That’ll be the day.

Categories : MTA Economics
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The two-dollar ride

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I’m on vacation for the next week, but since New York’s subways never shut down, neither will Second Ave. Sagas. I’ve enlisted the help of a few bloggers to help keep things fresh around here. Today’s guest post comes to us from Todd, a frequent SAS commenter and the author of Blog Name Removed.

Last Friday, I was slowly making my way downtown on the 4 train. It was a bad ride; we kept stopping between stations for long periods. Apparently, there was a problem further down the line and everything was backed up. It got to the point where people were cursing The MTA aloud. Then all of a sudden this elderly African-American man walked into the car. He was easily 7 feet tall; it was quite striking. (When was the last time you saw an obscenely tall old man?) He had to stoop, even in the tallest part of the train. After he found a seat next to me, we both sat and watched another guy grow increasingly angry at our whole non-moving situation.

Finally, the tall old man stood up and walked over to the angry guy. T.O.M. kinda tapped him on the shoulder, and in the most grandfatherly and non-offensive way, told him this:

“Son, this is what you get for a two-dollar ride. This is the cheap ride. It’s what you get. If you wanted to go fast, you go up there [pointing up] and pay for a ten-dollar ride. That’s the fast ride. This is the two-dollar ride. We go slower down here. No sense getting angry about something you can’t change.”

Angry guy stopped being angry. In fact, everyone within earshot just stopped for a second, including me. Then T.O.M. sat back down and everything was calm.

That experience has really stayed with me.

When Ben posts bad news about the subways, I am one of the first people to start blasting The MTA. The trains are always late, they smell (you my boy C-Dog!), they are too hot, the stations desperately need rehabilitation, the unions ruin everything, the workers are lazy, the MTA never finishes anything they start, their report cards are useless, and on and on…

That tall old man was right. If I wanted the faster, cleaner, and more reliable ride, I could pay for a cab. Even then, I would probably end up sitting in traffic inside a hot car that smells like curry, sweat, and broken dreams. The subway is still the best way to commute. It is much better for the environment, and it is very inexpensive, especially with the monthly pass. Sure, it sucks sometimes, but it is nice to put it back in perspective every once in a while.

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