While we know what Richard Ravitch is going to propose — modest fare hikes, East River bridge tolls and a small, region-wide payroll tax increase — already this plan’s opponents are gathering to defeat it. Will no one step up to save the MTA?

As Streetsblog reported today, Micah Kellner, the anti-congestion pricing assembly representative from the Upper East Side, has unconditionally threatened the idea of East River crossing tolls. Kellner’s replacement plan — raising car registration and licensing fees — would bring in some money for the MTA’s coffers but wouldn’t accomplish what the Ravitch plan would.

Basically, the gist of Kellner’s proposal is that by raising the state’s relatively low registration fees and its relatively high licensing fees, the MTA could draw in $550 million. Here’s how he described it on his blog:

When CBC President Carol Kellermann testified before the Ravitch Commission she noted that today the cost for a driver license in New York is under $6 annually. Raising annual fees for driver licenses to $50 would yield nearly $300 million. New York has the 8th lowest vehicle registration fees in the country (according to the CBC’s 2006 study South Carolina has the lowest at $12, and Maine has the highest at $435), and raising the vehicle registration fees would net an additional annual revenue stream of $250 million.

With the Ravitch Commission’s report due to be released on Friday, now is the time to be examining all the options including this one and other good ideas like reinstituting the commuter tax…In these tough financial times, I believe that it makes sense that those who choose to drive should help bear the costs of maintaining our public transportation infrastructure. These two new recurring revenue streams would constitute a good start in getting the MTA’s finances back on track.

But then, in a letter to the Governor (link goes to PDF), he explicitly spoke out against the tolls:

Early indications suggest that the Ravitch Commission will announce Friday that tolls on the East River bridges are the centerpiece of their recommendations. This is a proposal that has been recycled time and again in each and every fiscal crisis but has always failed to gain the necessary support to be implemented. I don’t know why they think this time will be any different, but I am hopeful that the Governor’s office will look to other ideas like this one and reinstituting the commuter tax as he constructs his Executive budget.

I don’t really see why. As Streetsblog points out, tolls on the bridges are a “proven and equitable course of action.” Instead of front-loading the money in registration and licensing fees, tolls are a daily reminder about the costs of driving, and they generate somewhere between $100-$300 million more than Kellner’s plan would.

Additionally, as frequent commenter Julia pointed out last week, raising fees wouldn’t serve the environmental goal of reducing traffic and raising reliance on environmentally-healthy mass transit options. People will pay up front and just drive. Initially, car ownership levels may drop, but a $50 increase in fees will seem more like a minor annoyance than a big disincentive to automobile use.

In the end, the MTA is going to need some far-sighted politicians and business leaders to step and shepherd a toll-and-tax plan through the state and city’s legislative bodies. Earlier indications are that the Governor, Mayor and MTA heads may be taking the charge. But can they overcome assembly representatives who aren’t receptive to a plan before it is even published? The fate of transit in this city may depend on it.

Categories : Ravitch Commission
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  • New car purchase a matter of budget · The Post seems outraged — outraged, I tell you! — at the news that the MTA will proceed with a $1 billion purchase order for new subway cars despite what the tabloid terms a “$1.3 billion budget gap.” Now, granted, no one is denying the budget gap, but this $1 billion purchase isn’t coming from the same operations budget as the deficit. It’s coming out of the capital budget funded through different mechanisms. While riders pay when the operations budget falters, the capital budget is used to improve the system. It too has its problems, but New York’s newspapers should by now know the difference between the MTA’s operations budget and its capital fund. · (7)

On-time performance indicators are trending downward for New York City Transit. (Click to enlarge.)

Late to work again! The boss won’t be happy. But this time, it’s not your fault. You swear. It was that blasted MTA.

You thought it was your lucky day. The train pulls in right after that MetroCard swipe, and you run down the stairs, hoping the doors stay open just long enough. You sashay into the subway, not quite standing clear of the closing doors, but you can breathe that sigh of relief. You won’t be late to work after all.

Then disaster. The train crawls out of the station behind squealing to a halt. A minute goes by. “We apologize for the unavoidable delay,” the automated PA system says. “We should moving shortly.”

Two minutes. Five minutes. Same announcement. Finally, at ten minutes, the conductor describes the “sick passenger” at the next station. The train will be moving as soon as paramedics arrive.

As the minutes tick by, you realize that your boss isn’t going to buy yet another delayed train excuse. It’s the third time this month you’ve been late, and when you get to work, the boss is livid. Proof! he demands. Much like your eighth-grade history teacher, your boss wants proof that you’re actually telling the truth about the near-daily train delays.

Enter the MTA. For a while, the MTA has offered a call-in service that has provided 34,000 adult tardy slips a year. Give the transit authority a ring, tell them your train and the approximate time of your delay. Within a few weeks, you will get a note proving your claim.

“The program serves an important purpose to those customers who in the event of a delay arrive late to work,” NYC Transit spokesman Paul Fleuranges told the New York Post this weekend. “It is independent verification of what they anecdotally relay to their employer or school upon arrival.”

Now, in an effort to simplify the process, the agency is going digital with this process. James Fanelli from The Post had more:

[While now, passengers can call one of the MTA’s 80 customer-service agents at (718) 330-1234 to request a delay-verification letter], by mid-2009, the MTA expects to have an online request form that riders can fill out. MTA reps will still research the delay but issue paperless notes.

“Those who file a request online would receive an e-mail reply,” [NYC Transit Spokesman Paul] Fleuranges said. “It will be somewhat faster for our customers and less expensive for us, as we’ll be reducing all the related postage costs and cutting down on paper.”

The delay-verification letter shows the lines taken and any station transfers made. It provides the total time of the trip, plus the time due to delays. The note also details the longest delay times on the affected lines during that period.

How can you not love this idea? First, it should be a cost-saving measure because it automates an easy process. Calling people to request a delay notification is just a waste of time and resources on both sides of the call. Any time you can move a phone call to an online interface represents a cost improvement.

It’s also a sure sign of the MTA’s ongoing commitment to technological improvements. With the recent — if slightly buggy — text and e-mail alert system, the MTA is attempting to overcome some of its technological failures.

Finally, with delays on the rise and service cuts threatening to make matters worse, a lot of irate straphangers will looking for the grown-up version of the note from our parents we once needed in school. To put this service online is a very good move indeed.

Categories : MTA Technology
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Can Richard Ravtich deliver a miracle? (Photo courtesy of The Observer)

The news rests for nothing, and on Wednesday night, while most people were home spending time with their families and away from the Internet, The Times released the early word from the Ravitch Commission. Using a combination of tolls, taxes and slight fare increase, Richard Ravitch will save the MTA. That is, if anyone will help him.

As expected, the Ravitch Commission report will contain elements of all the plans we’ve heard over the last few weeks. It will call for payroll taxes and East River Bridge tolls. It will call for higher fares and no service cuts.

William Neuman detailed the early version of the plan with a caveat that the draft is not yet final:

The tax on payrolls, expected to be less than one half of 1 percent, would apply to businesses in the 12-county area served by the authority. It would bepaid by businesses, not employees. The tax would be designed to raise $1 billion a year or more.

It would be coupled with the new bridge tolls, which would generate about $600 million a year, after the cost of maintaining the bridges and collecting the tolls is accounted for. Drivers would pay a higher rate on the East River bridges than on the Harlem River bridges under the plan.

There would be no toll plazas: Most tolls would be collected through a system of E-ZPass readers. Drivers without E-ZPass would be identified and could be billed using digital cameras that snap a picture of each vehicle’s license plate.

Control of those bridges, which are owned by the city, would be transferred to the authority under the plan, although it was not clear how that would be achieved.

The third main element of the proposal is a more modest increase for next year in fares and existing tolls on the bridges and tunnels already controlled by the authority. That increase would allow Mr. Ravitch and his supporters to argue that the cost of running the system was being shared by all those who benefit from it.

That sounds like a pretty solid plan. Ravitch is staying away from the politically explosive congestion pricing plan, and he’s allowing the MTA to raise fares, albeit modestly, without cutting service. Considering all of the talk surrounding the MTA’s Doomsday proposal, Ravitch’s all-encompassing plan seems like a beacon of light.

Of course, some aspects of it are tough to stomach. No one wants higher taxes. Even an increase of less than 0.5 percent is a tough sell. No one wants East River tolls either. But at some point, New Yorkers have to make a trade-off. They can’t complain about bad subway service without accepting some costs on the other side. This plan allows for good service and some smaller increases in other costs. Nothing, in the end, is free.

The problem right now though is one of attention and support. This plan needs a champion, as William Neuman explained in the Sunday Times. The plan needs a David Rockefeller to rally political and business leaders behind it. This plan needs a public face, someone New Yorker trust, to sell it. Who that will be is up for debate.

Later this week, Ravitch will release his set of recommendations, and the time to act is now. The MTA can’t dally as its finances head south. It needs a clear-cut plan of action. It can either act on its own by cutting service and raising fares or it can hope that Ravitch’s plan becomes a reality. We’ll learn quickly how this tale ends.

Categories : MTA Economics
Comments (17)

Within the last week, I let two blog milestones pass me by without acknowledging them. Earlier this week, Second Ave. Sagas celebrated its second anniversary, and this morning, I published my 1000th post.

My first post introduced this blog to the world on November 21, 2006. It was a rather basic introduction, and at the time, I wasn’t sure where I would go with this site. Now, exactly two years to the day that I started posting daily (outside of a two-week break-up in December of 2006), I’m here going strong. I can unequivocally say that this blog is here to bring subway-related news, views, analysis, opinions and whimsy to New York City. It serves both watch-dog and entertainment roles.

I’ve built up a small but growing community of regular commenters, and just wanted to say thanks to everyone for stopping by over the last two years. Over the next few weeks, we’ll have news from Richard Ravtich, a guest contributor and more. So stick around.

But enough of the self-congratulatory prose. It’s Friday evening, and you want the weekend service advisories.


From 11:30 p.m. Friday, November 28 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 1, there are no 1 trains between 34th Street and South Ferry due to work on the new South Ferry terminal. Customers should take the 2 or 3 between 34th Street and Chambers Street. There is a free shuttle bus running between Chambers Street and South Ferry.


From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 29 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 1, 2 and 3 trains run local between 96th and Chambers Street due to work on the new South Ferry Terminal.


From 11:30 p.m. Friday, November 28 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 1, there are no 4 trains between Utica Avenue and Brooklyn Bridge due to work on the new South Ferry Terminal. The 3 and special J trains provide alternate service.


From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, November 29 and Sunday, November 30, Manhattan-bound 6 Trains run express from Pelham Bay Park to Parkchester due to rail work south of Pelham Bay Park.


From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 29 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 1, uptown AC trains skip 135th Street due to station painting at 135th Street.


From 4 a.m. Saturday, November 29 to 10 p.m. Sunday, November 30, Manhattan-bound D trains run on the N from Stillwell Avenue to 36th Street due to track panel installation.


From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 29 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 1, uptown D trains skip 155th Street due to tunnel security work.


From 8:30 p.m. Friday, November 28 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 1 (and weekends until further notice), there are no G trains running between Forest Hills-71st Avenue and Long Island City-Court Square due to N and R work (see below). Customers should take the E or R instead.


From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 29 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 1, there are no N trains between Queensboro Plaza and Times Square due to track replacement in the area of 5th Avenue/59th Street, switch work at Queensboro Plaza and tunnel security work.

  • For Lexington Avenue and 5th Avenue, take the 7 to Grand Central and transfer to the uptown 4, 5 or 6 to 59th Street
  • For 49th Street and 57th Street, take the 7 to Times Square and transfer to the uptown Q


From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 29 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 1, N trains skip Prince, 8th, 23rd, and 28th Streets (same work as above). Customers should take the Q instead.


From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 29 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 1, N trains are rerouted over the Manhattan Bridge between DeKalb Avenue and Canal Street (same work as above).


From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 29 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 1, Q trains replace the R making all local stops between 57th Street-7th Avenue and DeKalb Avenue (N and R project.)


From 12:01 a.m. Sunday, November 30 to 5 a.m. Monday, December 1, R trains run on the V line from Queens Plaza to Broadway-Lafayette Street, then via the Manhattan Bridge to DeKalb Avenue (N and R project). – I’d imagine this means the R trains are stopping at Grand St. as well.

Categories : Service Advisories
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As identifiable elements go, the signs in the subways are among the city’s most recognizable. Look up at the header on Second Ave. Sagas, and you will see a sight familiar to any who ride the subway: a modular sign featuring Helvetica — or one of its close relatives — on a black background.

But it wasn’t always like that. Now and then, relics of an old age pop up. These old signs pop up in various stations around the city or at the Transit Museum. For the most part, though, the signs are standardized.

This homogenization process started in the late 1960s. With the advent of the MTA and the arrival of free transfers among the old IRT, BMT and IND lines throughout the system, the transit agency had to figure out a way to get passengers moving swiftly and efficiently through the tunnels. Enter Massimo Vignelli.

The creator of the one the subway system’s most controversial maps also designed its omnipresent graphics, as he discusses on his website. Vignelli used a sans serif font — then Akzidenz-Grotesk, now Helvetica — to guard passengers throughout the system.

History isn’t this neat though, and it actually took a lot of wrangling and trial and error to develop a fairly efficient system that still has some quirks. (Anyone ever notice the signs that urge you to find an exit at another end of the “plat” instead of the platform?) To that end, Paul Shaw, a respected graphics designer, has penned an epic piece on the history of the New York City subway signs. While long, it makes for great reading over the Thanksgiving weekend, and it’s chock full of minutiae and urban history that subway buffs love.

Out of a great big mess of fonts, signs and designs came simplicity and uniformity. It is a Hollywood ending for graphics enthusiasts and subway buffs everywhere.

Comments (4)
Nov
27

A day of Thanks, on alert

By · Comments (1) ·

As millions of New Yorkers prepared for their Thanksgiving day celebrations, the FBI and the NYPD issued a guarded terror warning for the New York City transit network. While the threat sounds remote, city officials are ramping up patrols in the subway system are and are urging passengers to remain alert.

The Times had more:

Federal authorities in Washington informed law enforcement officials in New York this week of a possible Al Qaeda plot to bomb transportation systems in and around New York City. But officials sought to play down the significance of the threat on Wednesday, in marked contrast to previous cases in which they issued public warnings of possible terrorist attacks in the region.

In this case, an intelligence bulletin sent on Tuesday to city officials said that the F.B.I. had received “uncorroborated but plausible information” that, in late September, Al Qaeda terrorists may have discussed attacks on transit systems in the metropolitan area, including the city’s subway system, a federal official said on Wednesday.

The information was included in a routine document given each month to local law enforcement officials “for their information, so they can look at it and take whatever measures they deem appropriate,” another official said.

The terrorists, according to the document, reportedly contemplated deploying suicide bombers or using explosives set off by remote control. In response to the bulletin, federal and local law enforcement agencies in and around New York City increased patrols on Wednesday.

In response to this news, the MTA released a statement on Wednesday afternoon:

The MTA is aware of an unsubstantiated report of terrorist threats against transit properties during the holiday season. We are already on high alert and are always on a heightened state of readiness during this season. We have been working closely with local, state and federal law enforcement to increase police presence throughout our transportation system. As always, we ask that our customers remain alert and report any suspicious activity or packages, but there is no reason to be alarmed.

With the unrelated bombing in Mumbai fresh on everyone’s mind, this news will be sobering. Travel safely on Thanksgiving and be vigilant.

Just a service note: Trains are operating on Sunday schedules today. There will be a whole slate of service changes for the weekend that I will post on Friday.

Categories : Subway Security
Comments (1)
  • Fare hikes, service cuts could lead to more gridlock · The role of a mass transit system in an urban area is to discourage driving. Getting around New York by car is no easy feat, and the subways provide a relatively quick escape from the trials and travails of bumper-to-bumper crosstown traffic. To that end, the people of the Kheel plan, the proposal that called for a high congestion fee and free subways, believe that the Doomsday combination of MTA service cuts and substantial fare hikes will lead to more congestion. The authors of the original plan making a compelling case for why transit prices should not increase if service is decreasing. The last thing this city needs is more traffic. · (2)
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