• Bloomberg rips Senate plan · In a talk yesterday, Mayor Bloomberg slammed the Senate MTA funding plan for much the same reasons I did. The Mayor doesn’t appreciate how New York City is again being asked to foot the bill for upstate construction projects and feels that the Senate plan doesn’t adequately address the MTA’s long-term needs. “I’m a little bit bothered by a proposal that would put a taxi fare surcharge on here in the city to build roads upstate,” Bloomberg said. “New York City already sends more money to Albany than we get back, we are fundamentally the economic engine of the state and we subsidize it.”

    While Senate Majority Leader Malcom Smith responded in turn, his statement avoided the truth of Bloomberg’s attack: “I’m actually offended that somebody like you would try to separate New York City from the rest of the state…[The] best thing for all of us to do, as opposed to throwing bombs while the public’s getting screwed, is to sit down like adults and work something out.” Someone should remind Smith that his Senate has hardly behaved like adults over the last few months as they’ve shot down the best plan for the MTA without even giving it a vote. · (3)

The MTA is nearing its financial endgame. As the Senate prepares to vote next week on the latest MTA funding proposal, the transit authority is moving ahead under the reasonable assumption that the plan will not pass and that the Doomsday budget will have to go into effect.

Yesterday, the agency unveiled details surrounding the grace period for stockpiled Metrocards. Today, we discuss a different issue — a hiring freeze. In anticipation of the looming financial crisis, the MTA has implemented an agency-wide hiring freeze. While no one has been fired yet, no new employees will be brought on, and positions left empty through attrition and retirement will remain empty.

“The executive director and CEO has instructed each of the agency presidents to have a hard hiring freeze, which means unless it’s an absolute emergency, no slot should be filled,” MTA Spokesman Jeremy Soffin said to NY1’s Bobby Cuza.

The decision was announced to the MTA’s agency presidents in a memo by CEO and Executive Director Elliot Sander. The Post got its hands on that memo, and it is a memo familiar to many in today’s economy. In addition to a hiring freeze, the MTA is limiting all other kinds of employment-related activities. Take a look:

A hiring freeze is effective immediately — Only offers that have already been made can remain in place.”

Overtime — Additional overtime is not permissible unless it can be proved that it is required to meet scheduled service.”

Purchases — If you have to even think about it, don’t do it.”

Professional/Contractual Services — Please consider using existing staff wherever possible to replace professional and contractual services which cannot otherwise be delayed or deferred.”

Excess Employees — Please carefully re-examine the levels of excess employees and also any reimbursable employees that are not currently matched with a reimbursable project.”

These specific directives are related to what Sander called a need to “do everything possible to conserve cash.” Things, folks, are not looking up for the MTA.

I know many advocates for transit in New York City believe employment to be the Achilles’ Heel of this giant bureaucratic mess. Countless studies have trumpeted the shocking number of redundant and inefficient workers in all ranks of the MTA, and as the agency is gearing up to cut staff, those protesting the service cuts would rather see personnel ranks slashed significantly first.

In the end, though, this is just another reminder about the pressures we should be applying to our State Senators. If Albany doesn’t come through — if this latest proposal, flawed as it is, fails — this memo from Sander will represent just the tip of an iceberg destined to sink transit in New York City.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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  • Subway ridership, fare revenue down in February · With rampant job loss spurred on by the weak U.S. economy impacting New York City, the MTA said this week that subway ridership was down in February. According to numbers released by NYC Transit, February 2009 saw a drop in daily ridership of around 21,000 as compared to February 2008. While this number isn’t nearly as bad as the 98,000-trip decline we saw in January, Transit is now underperforming its fare-box revenue projections by around $3.2 million. The financial news just keeps getting worse for the MTA. · (0)

A subway station house grows in Manhattan. (Photos by Marsha Berkowitz)

The 96th St. station on the West Side IRT is currently a mess. As part of an $80 million overhaul of this heavily-trafficked station, the MTA is constructing a brand new station house in the middle of Broadway close to 95th st.

This station will be one of the Stations of the Future the MTA has been promoting lately. It will be fully ADA-compliant and will eliminate the current design flaw that forces Upper West Siders to go down a flight of stairs, swipe through, go down another flight of stairs and then climb back up to the platform. On the inside, it will eventually look like this:


For now, though, it is just a skeleton. A few months behind schedule, the new station house is slowly rising above Broadway. When I got word of the topping out of the new station, I sent Second Ave. Sagas’ Upper West Side correspondent — more affectionately known as my mom — to snap some pictures. The slideshow is below. One day — and according to my other UWS correspondent familiarly known as my dad, that day should be in September 2010 — that station with its new tiles and all will glimmer above Broadway.

Categories : MTA Construction
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  • Silver: Assembly will pass something · As the Senate continues to make a collective fool out of itself debate an MTA funding plan, Sheldon Silver’s Assembly has emerged as a voice of reason. Silver, who came out weeks ago in favor of a modified Ravitch Plan, is ready to do whatever it takes to deliver funding to the beleaguered transit agency. He reiterated that stance in an interview with Politicker NY’s Jimmy Vielkind yesterday.

    First, he voiced Assembly support for the current Senate plan — if the Senate can pass it. “The actions of the board cannot stand,” he said, “and we will do whatever we can with the Senate to make sure that the outrageous fare increases are rescinded. If the Senate’s plan is the only plan that they can pass that accomplishes that goal in the Senate, then we will look at it very seriously.”

    Interestingly enough, though, he didn’t stop there. Silver also said he would hold an Assembly vote on his own modified version of the Ravitch plan if the Senate fails to enact anything. This is a shrewd political move because it will both force the Senate to confront its inability to do anything, and it will force Assembly representatives to go on record with a yea-or-nay vote on the tax-and-toll plan. Whether Silver goes through with this move is a different story altogether. “Nobody likes taxing people, nobody likes raising money,” he said. “But nobody likes fare increases or service cuts. So we have to go with the lesser of two evils.” · (3)

Every time the MTA gears up to raise fares, my inbox gets flooded with the same question: Should I, savvy straphangers want to know, stock up on Unlimited Ride Metrocards?

Usually, the MTA allows a few weeks — or even months — as the grace period. When the agency raised fares last March, stockpiled Metrocards were good until June. With finances very tight at the MTA, this time around, though, New Yorkers will enjoy a sunset period of only a few days.

Metro’s Patrick Arden broke the news this morning, and as the MTA prepares internally for no Senate-approved funding plan, New Yorkers will have just a few days to start swiping unused Metrocards.

Here’s how it works: On May 31, 2009, transit fares across the Metrocard-accessible New York City Transit region will increase. With no Senate plan, the increases will look like this: The base fare will increase to $2.50 with a 15 percent pay-per-ride discount for every amount over $7. Unlimited ride Metrocards will be priced at $9.50 (one-day pass), $31 (seven-day pass), $59 (14-day pass) and $103 (30-day pass).

The anti-hoarding plan institutes a very short sunset date. As Arden explains, “All unlimited ride cards purchased now must be swiped for the first time on or before June 8 in order to get their full allotment of days.”

In fact, this plan is an expiration plan and not really a sunset plan. The MTA has set expiration dates for all unlimited ride cards. If a Metrocard user has an unswiped card on that date, he or she can send it back to Transit for a refund. Those dates are: June 14 for seven-day cards; June 21 for 14-day cards; and July 7 for 30-day cards. That’s why these cards must be swiped on or before June 8.

NYC Transit Spokesman Paul Fleuranges urged riders to adhere to the time limits. “In order to get the full value on a time-based card, you have to use it for the first time no later than June 8,” he said to Arden. “The most important thing is, the first day it stops working, send it in. Go to the station booth and ask for a pre-addressed posted envelope, and we’ll send you back the prorated value.”

In a nutshell, this is a clear indication of the MTA’s precarious fiscal position. They can’t afford not to be drawing in the extra money, and the need the funds as soon as possible. While this entire process has been one big game of political chicken between the Senate and the MTA, the transit authority is serious about raising these fares and is going to do all it can to collect the money it needs to stay afloat.

Categories : Fare Hikes, MetroCard
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  • The problem with the escalators · Last August, New York City Transit installed motion-sensitive “green” escalators to much fanfare. On the first day of service, some of them had already broken down, and it’s been nothing but trouble for Transit since then. As both amNew York and WCBS TV reported on this week, Transit is having a hard time getting its contractor to make good on its product.

    In a nutshell, here’s what happened: The MTA spent $36 million to replace Herald Square’s 12 escalators. Fujitec America, the contractor, supposedly did not install the escalators properly, and now that the company is out of the heavy-duty escalator comapny, they haven’t been quick to make repairs. “The escalators are under warranty and while the vendor has made some of the required repairs, they have not done so at the pace we would have liked,” Transit spokesman Paul Fleurangs told CBS 2.

    NYC Transit President Howard Roberts echoed Fleuranges. “We respond as quickly as possible in house,” he said during a board meeting. “But we have little leverage with our current contracts to get warranty repairs made.” I’d love to see the terms of that escalator installation contract because it sounds like some deal for Fujitec. · (5)

While Gov. David Paterson called the latest Senate plan for the MTA “worth considering” and Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith claims he has the votes to pass it, the fate of this new funding plan is far from clear. Already today, I’ve delved into the taxi surcharge problem. That appears to be just one of many hurdles this new bill faces.

First up is internal dissent among the state Democrats. According to The Times, four Senate Dems will not support a payroll tax. The new plan calls for a payroll tax for all 12 MTA counties, but the tax will be lower in the outlying counties. This makes no sense on its surface because it actually costs more to the MTA to serve those areas further away from the New York City core, but whatever. If it wins votes, it wins votes

The problem is that it’s not winning votes. “I remain opposed to the imposition and use of a payroll tax,” Craig M. Johnson, Democratic senator from Nassau County, said. He — along with fellow Democrats Brian Foley (Suffolk County), Andrea Stewart-Cousins (Westchester) and Suzi Oppenheimer (Westchester) — remains opposed to any and all tax plans.

With these four Democrats in opposition, Malcolm Smith would have to pick up four members of the state G.O.P. Senate contingent. As we learned last night, though, right now Republicans are opposed to the tax plan as well with maybe one — Frank Padavan of Queens — open to supporting this funding plan. Maybe.

Today, Republicans voiced anew their opposition to the plan and raised some valid concerns that transcend ideological lines. “It’s an insult to upstate and downstate,” Martin Golden, Brooklyn Republican, said. “We’re going to put $200 million in taxes on the backs of the cabdrivers and the people who live in the City of New York.”

Martin’s point is echoed in a brief piece by NY1. This new plan has all sorts of mismatched priorities. Basically, the cab fare increase, a hyperlocal way of raising revenue, would go to upstate projects and districts that have never seen a yellow taxi. Meanwhile, New York City dwellers and drivers would get a reprieve from shouldering much of the burden because the licensing registration fee increases would apply to everyone across the board in all MTA counties. Those living outside of the city where car ownership rates are higher would be funding the subway system.

In an ideal world, the MTA funding plan would require money collected in New York City to be reinvested in New York City; money collected upstate to be funneled back upstate; and money collected in Westchester and Long Island to go toward transit and infrastructure there. This new plan accomplishes none of those goals and doesn’t seem to have the support it needs to pass the Senate. How utterly disappointing and how utterly typical.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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The latest MTA funding package put forward by the Senate has a taxi problem. With taxi advocates agitating against the plan and practical collection problems cropping up, this reliance on a new taxi surcharge might just be enough to sink the whole thing.

The new plan — outlined here — is centered around a new taxi surcharge. The Senate will soon vote on whether or not to institute a $1 drop-off fee for all New York City taxi rides. This fee will lead to at least $190 million — and probably well over $200 million — in revenue. Half of that money will go to fund upstate roads and bridges, a point with which transit advocates have taken issue.

The eventual destination for those funds, though, is besides the point. Just how will the city collect this money to siphon off to the MTA and the upstate transportation infrastructure fund? Crain’s delved into the issue, and many aren’t sure it’s possible. “We can’t figure that out,” Ethan Gerber, a taxi lobbyist, said to the New York-based business journal. “Most people still pay by cash.”

Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and his office punted on the issue. “I don’t think that has been worked out,” a spokesman for his office said. “There’s of course a technical aspect, just as there was for the collecting tolls.” That is, of course, a false argument as the collecting of tolls would have required the simple installation of high-speed tolling technology. Toll problem solved.

Daniel Massey and Erik Engquist have more from a taxi industry intent on protesting this hearty fee:

Taxi drivers said the $1 fee would eat into their already slim profit margins. “This is a wage cut on taxi drivers,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents 12,000 drivers. “Drivers would really suffer for a long time if this were to pass.”

Ms. Desai was leading a delegation of drivers to Albany on Tuesday to give legislators an earful. Thousands more are expected to participate in a phone-in campaign to legislators’ offices. “Who has ever heard of a private industry bailing out a government agency?” she asked…

The Alliance also agrees there would be no easy way for the state to collect the surcharge and charges that lawmakers lack a fundamental understanding of the industry. “There is an underlying assumption here that the money will just be deducted from paychecks and easily collected by the state,” Ms. Desai wrote in a letter to Gov. David Paterson, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Mr. Smith. “This is absolutely false.”

As anyone with any inkling of a clue about the taxi industry knows, cab drivers rent their cars for a flat fee each day and keep all of the cash they make. Instituting a $1-per-ride fee will either lead to more off-the-books rides or rampantly inefficiently collecting practices. Yet again the Senate has shown an inability to understand how transportation works in New York City.

Outside of these practical concerns, cab drivers are concerned about their bottom lines. Some taxi driver advocates believed rides could drop as much as 33 percent, and it’s nearly undeniable that tips will continue to drop as they do every time taxi fares go up.

For its faults, the Ravitch Plan got it right. It penalized the people taking advantage of the free roads and did so in a way that would have benefited the MTA specifically and New York City on the whole. This latest plan is just a mess, and while it may have enough votes to pass, it’s just another bad political compromise from the Senate.

Categories : Doomsday Budget, Taxis
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As transit advocates and State Senators have a chance to digest the latest MTA funding plan, two questions have continued to pop up: Does this latest plan have a chance to pass the Senate? Does it accomplish what it needs to accomplish?

Unfortunately for transit advocates, these two questions often lead to different answers. We want to see a solid commitment to mass transit; we want to see measures to return the streets to pedestrians and transit; we want to discourage the car-owning minority in New York City from unnecessary driving.

In answer to the question of support among advocates, Ben Fried at Streetsblog comes down firmly on the side of no. He outlines his five reasons why this plan doesn’t do what it should:

  1. Raising tolls on MTA crossings while keeping East and Harlem River bridges free gives car commuters and truckers even more incentive to detour across city streets to the free crossings. Neighborhoods like Downtown Brooklyn, Long Island City, Williamsburg and the Lower East Side that are already pulverized by traffic will see things get worse.
  2. Raising fees on car ownership through higher registration and licensing fees does nothing to discourage car use, and may actually encourage people to drive more in order to get more bang for their buck. Using tolls or congestion fees to price driving would have the opposite effect.
  3. Raising the cost of car sharing, rentals and taxis makes it tougher to live without a car. And, like higher ownership fees, increasing these one-time charges encourages renters to maximize their driving. Congestion pricing or tolls are far superior.
  4. Unlike private motorists taxi drivers faced with higher fees will increase their driving. Why? Since passengers will choose to ride less, given the higher fare, cabbies will have to drive more to recoup the flat fee they pay to operate a taxi.
  5. Using cab fees to pay for highway and bridge projects outside of the city transfers wealth from the dense, environmentally sustainable city to the car-dependent suburbs. If anything, taxes on cabs should fund the city bridges and streets used by those cabs.

There’s not much left to add to Fried’s analysis. He hits all the key issues and the complaints that I’ve had with the plan — poorly thought-out licensing fees, encouraging driving — are reflected in Fried’s word.

So then if we’re going to settle for a less-than-stellar pro-transit funding plan, does it have the political support to pass muster in the Senate? The answer is maybe, according to Elizabeth Benjamin.

If the Senate Democrats were hoping to capture support among the city’s Republican senators with their latest MTA bailout plan, the early returns are not promising, the DN’s Glenn Blain reports.

Of the three, only Sen. Frank Padavan of Queens seemed open to supporting the plan. Brooklyn Sen. Martin Golden and Staten Island Sen. Andrew Lanza both said they haven’t yet had the opportunity to review the new plan in detail (as of last night, it existed only in the form of a concept and had not yet been drafted into a bill).

But upon hearing the details as they were presented to reporters by the Senate Democrats’ spokesman Austin Shafran, both Golden and Lanza expressed misgivings about the proposal – especially its reliance on a payroll tax. “I just don’t see how I could vote for that type of a tax increase again into the city of New York after what they’ve already done with the tax increase in this budget,” Golden said Monday night.

That’s not a positive prognosis for the bill really. It doesn’t really line up with what transit advocates want, and it doesn’t seem have to the support it may need. Once again, the State Senate has seemingly failed to deliver, and even if this bill passes, it’s tough to say that it addresses the MTA’s long-term funding needs. Where is the political will when we need it most?

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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