Is this art or vandalism? Twenty five years later, the debate still rages. (Photo by Martha Cooper)

It’s hard for New Yorkers in 2009 to conceptualize what the subways were like 25 years ago. I was reminded of this fact earlier this week when my Criminal Law case tackled the ever-popular decision in People v. Goetz. That seminal case, as students of New York history know, involved the vigilantism of Bernard Goetz on a subway car in 1984.

Without touching upon the moral issues raised by the case, the class discussion showed a clear divide between people who had grown up in New York and people who hadn’t. Those who hadn’t were having a tougher time understanding what the subways were like in the 1980s.

These days, we have no qualms about riding the trains at 2 a.m. heading home from a night out. Twenty five years ago, though, the graffiti-covered trains, prone to electrical problems, track fires and all sorts of breakdowns, were just not that safe. But back then, the system wasn’t that safe, and everyone knew it.

During the same year as the Goetz shooting, Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant released a book called Subway Art. The tome — a picture book — was one of the first to focus on the graffiti-covered subways as an art form. Today, the duo is reissuing the book in 25th Anniversary form with a whole slew of new photos. (The old one is available online here in its entirety.)

Over the weekend, as part of the recognition of this book’s release, The City Section ran a profile of Cooper, and it elicited some interesting feedback from New Yorkers who lived through the downs and ups of the city’s subway system.

“Wish that non-native NYers would stop idealizing the graffiti-covered trains,” wrote one lifelong New Yorker on Twitter.

And that’s the real debate, isn’t it? Should we be glorifying graffiti or should graffiti serve as a reminder of lawless and decrepit days underground when the subways were safe and New Yorkers used them not because they wanted to but because they had to?

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell explores all of these issues. The combination of the public outcry over the Goetz shootings and the NYPD’s push in the mid-1980s to rid the system of graffiti helped turn the subway systems around. No longer were the subways viewed as Anarchy Underground where anything went because no one was around to police it.

We sit here comfortably in 2009, and we’re able to look back on graffiti-covered trains as art if we so choose. I have to wonder though if we should so choose. This book and The Times’ coverage of it glorifies what in its simplest form was a destructive crime that contributed to the problems — both actual and perceived — that plagued the subways. Is it art for art’s sake or art done at the sake of other people’s safety?

Today, the parallels to the times of the graffiti-covered trains are not inapt. The MTA is facing funding shortfalls that could lead to massive fares and a partially shuttered system. Station agents will be let go, and that fear of safety could creep in around the edges. Perhaps the best way, then, to appreciate the impact street art had would be to talk about its problems as well as its artistic value. If we glorify this vandalism- and crime-filled past, don’t we risk repeating it?

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  • Business owners bemoan start of Bleecker St. renovations · Finally, the MTA is restoring order to the underground mess at the junction between the B, D, F, V and 6 trains at the Broadway/Lafayette-Bleecker St. station on Houston St. I first highlighted the planned renovations nearly two years ago, and recently, the MTA has begun work that will finally connect the uptown 6 with the rest of that station.

    But as with any surface work the MTA has to do come complaining business owners. The Daily News’ Rich Schapiro spoke to a bunch of Lafayette St. owners who say the MTA’s construction efforts are harming their businesses. Take, for instance, Mia Kwon of Save Khaki. “It’s a lot of noise, a lot of dust – all day,” she said. “With the economy the way it is, they couldn’t have picked a worse time. And this is just the beginning.”

    The economy, of course, has nothing to do with it. The MTA has to move the uptown 6 platform southward a few hundred feet to connect it with the rest of the station, and these owners would have complained in boom times as well. That’s just nature of things in New York. People like to complain about the inadequacies of the subway system, and they like to complain when the MTA temporarily inconveniences them in an effort to make the system better. NYC Transit spokesman James Anyansi summed it up: “We regret the inconvenience, but this is work that has to be done.” As heartless as that sounds, Anyansi is right. This is long overdue work. C’est la vie. · (5)
  • MTA to announce more service cuts soon · Earlier this morning, I reported the alarming news that the MTA’s deficit is growing by nearly $200 million. While the first reports noted that the MTA would consider new cuts, updates from this morning indicated that the announcement of those cuts could come before the month is out. According to The Post, the MTA is set to unveil a second round of service cuts on April 29. If Albany doesn’t act decisively and soon, New York City will be left with a crippled transit infrastructure and little hope for its immediate future. · (2)

In late February, as the MTA Board was approaching its date for enacting the Doomsday budget and funding efforts out of the State Senate had yet to collapse, I noted that the MTA deficit may wind up higher than $1.2 billion. At the time, the MTA’s year-to-date tax revenues were well below expected, and the deficit figures I tossed around were in the $1.8 to $2 billion range. The situation, in other words, could get worse before it gets better if Albany fails to find a permanent solution to the MTA’s funding woes.

Today, that scenario became one step closer to a reality. According to new financial documents released Monday, the MTA is now expecting to wind up with revenues at least $200 million less than expected. The agency may have to resort to more fare hikes and service cuts to balance its budget. William Neuman of The Times has more:

In the latest forecast, released Monday in materials for a coming bond sale, the authority said the state had informed the authority that it should expect a shortfall as large as $200 million in revenue this year from a basket of taxes dedicated to mass transit, including portions of the sales tax and a tax on corporate profits.

That is more than double what the authority projected in February when it tried to gauge how its tax revenues would be affected if the decline in the region’s economy became much worse. At that time it estimated that if the economy hit bottom, its dedicated state tax receipts could be down by as much as $82 million.

Making the picture even bleaker, the projected shortfall in dedicated taxes is in addition to a previously disclosed drop in revenue from taxes on real estate transfers and mortgages. For just the first three months of the year, those taxes were $123 million below the levels written into the authority’s budget.

In February, the MTA predicted at least a $651 million increase to the deficit, bringing the total to $1.8 billion on the year. That was before the state unveiled this bad news. Now, the deficit could reach the $2 billion mark before 2009 is out.

As I explored on Friday, this crushing debt is due to some very bad political decisions made during the Pataki Administration. In the mid-1990s, then-Gov. Pataki opted to pay for the MTA Capital Construction budget on credit, and now, the debt payments are due.

The news though for the agency keeps getting worse, and at some point, Albany will be forced to act. Whether that point arrives before the MTA is sitting on the brink of bankruptcy remains to be seen. Either way, what happens over the next few months will impact the future of New York City for years to come.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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  • Mets/Willets Point stop facing access complaints · When Citi Field opens later tonight, Mets fans long used to the odd configuration of the Shea Stadium subway stop will find themselves facing a renovated station. While the station — with its new Mets-Willets Point name and $15 million makeover — is now somewhat handicapped accessible, it features a few odd quirks. For instance, the wheel chair ramp services only the Main St.-Flushing-bound platform. Mets fans leaving for Manhattan will have to ride a 7 train one stop and then transfer to a Manhattan-bound train.

    As Heather Haddon details in Urbanite, disabled rider advocates are not happy about this odd configuration. “It should have been made a priority,” Michael Harris, head of the Disabled Riders Coalition, said to Haddon. “I’m frustrated. This was an opportunity to try to make the station right,” John Sheehan echoed. “If you sit in a game for two or three hours, you want to go home like everybody else.”

    For its part, New York City Transit recognizes that this set-up is less than ideal, but as Haddon notes, even half of an accessible station is better than fully inaccessible station. “We have been able to take the first step into making this station at least partly accessible,” NYC Transit President Howard Roberts said to the amNew York reporter. · (8)

While the New York State Senate does not formally meet this week, the political wheels are spinning fast and furious as time is running out for the MTA. While Senate Democrats continue to consider any and all possibilities for an MTA funding plan, transportation advocates are turning toward the GOP for support.

Republicans have been loathe to support any plan. The state party feels it has been largely left out of both the budget sessions and MTA discussions. Now, though, it sounds as though enough members of the Republican contingent could be convinced to support an MTA plan — but with strings attached. Any acceptable plan probably won’t include a payroll tax, and Republicans from north of the city want equal investment in upstate roads as a condition of any MTA package.

“To just ignore the highway, road and bridge plan and go to trying to negotiate a schedule for a new M.T.A. capital plan was just not the right thing to do,” Senator Thomas W. Libous, the top Republican on the Senate Transportation Committee, said to Times reporter William Neuman today. Neuman has more on the next potential move for the MTA:

In the past, the Legislature has generally allotted equal amounts to roads and transit. That has ensured support from both parties and all areas of the state: The city is seen as benefiting most from the transit money, while upstate areas rely heavily on roadway spending. But that pattern was broken last year when Mr. Paterson chose to seek a financial rescue for the authority first…

Mr. Paterson and Mr. Silver both support the plan, but in the Senate, where Democrats have a narrow 32-to-30 majority, a group of city Democrats has blocked the toll proposal while a group of suburban Democrats has opposed the payroll tax.

That has led to appeals for support from Republicans, who have largely sat on the sidelines as Democrats bickered. Republicans have pointed to the lack of a corresponding highway and bridge program and have also said that they have been left out of negotiations about a rescue plan.

Even the most ardent of transit supporters recognize the reality that New York State may need both a transit and road plan. Politically, tying the two together could bring in enough votes to pass both. Economically, infrastructure investment in roads and transit could spur on a stagnant New York economy.

“If you brought in the bridge and highway program, that would help it become a bipartisan issue, as it’s been in the past,” Robert D. Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, said to Neuman. “This is a pretty fundamental economic issue for the whole state.”

Meanwhile, Neuman covers some key ground. The road bill would probably be looked to draw as much money to upstate infrastructure as the MTA would be receiving downstate. Considering the tenor of the debate currently raging among the Democrats, how can we expect Albany to act before the fares are raised next month and before service cuts begin to go into effect in June?

Politically, Gov. Paterson and Sheldon Silver aren’t the only two New Yorkers going after the GOP. The Transit Workers Union started airing ads aimed at New York City-based Republicans who won’t support transit. All in all, this is a smart move. Right now, the city needs the MTA to stay up and running. If it means investing in upstate roads at the same time, so be it. We’ll all benefit in the end.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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Nancy Shevell might just be the most famous MTA Board member these days. A 2001 Pataki appointee to the board, she is an executive with the New England Motor Freight, Inc. (NEMF) and the Shevell Group of Companies. But she is far better known these days as being the lady friend of one Sir Paul McCartney.

According to a recent AP story, though, Shevell seems to spend more time with the former Beatle than with the MTA. In fact, she is the most delinquent board member. Since last January, she has missed four board meetings and has 26 total absences. She has managed to appear at just one meeting of the MTA Finance Committee but hasn’t missed a red carpet appearance with her famous beau.

The AP gets into the details. She missed a meeting last fall only to be spotted in Israel with McCartney a day later. She missed the Finance Committee vote on the new fares in March to attend a premiere in London.

Yet, despite these absences, Shevell has earned himself some high praise from board members. They find her smart and thoughtful when she bothers to show up. “I think she’s great,” Andrew Albert said. “When she’s there, she’s conscientious and cares. If she’s happy, that’s great. She’ll decide when she can’t do it anymore.”

MTA Board members are uncompensated and can’t really be compelled to attend meetings. With the agency in need of some serious public advocates though, hopefully current and future appointees will make it a point to lobby for the authority in times of need.

Meanwhile, the weekend service advisories:

From 12:01 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. Saturday, April 11, from 12:30 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. Sunday, April 12 and from 12:30 a.m. to 5 a.m. Monday, April 13, 2 trains run in two sections:

  • Between 241st Street and Utica Avenue and
  • Between Franklin Avenue and Flatbush Avenue (every 30 minutes)

From 12:01 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. Saturday, April 11, from 12:30 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. Sunday, April 12 and from 12:30 a.m. to 5 a.m. Monday, April 13, Brooklyn-bound 2 & 4 trains run express from Atlantic to Utica Avenues.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, April 11 to 5 a.m. Monday, April 13, there are no 5 trains between East 180th Street and 149th Street. Customers should take the 2 instead.
Note: Shuttle trains run every 30 minutes between Dyre Avenue and East 180th Street.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, April 11 to 5 a.m. Monday, April 13, Bronx-bound 6 trains run express from 3rd Avenue to Hunts Point Avenue due to platform edge rehabilitation at the Cypress Avenue, East 143rd Street, East 149th Street and Longwood Avenue stations.

From 4 a.m. Saturday, April 11 to 10 p.m. Sunday, April 12, 6 trains run every 16 minutes between Pelham Bay Park and 3rd Avenue.

From 4 a.m. Saturday, April 11 to 10 p.m. Sunday, April 12, Manhattan-bound 6 trains run express from Pelham Bay Park to Parkchester.

From 4 a.m. Saturday, April 11 to 10 p.m. Sunday, April 12, the last stop for some Bronx-bound 6 trains is 3rd Avenue.

From 4 a.m. Saturday, April 11 to10 p.m. Sunday, April 12, Manhattan-bound 7 trains skip 111th, 103rd, 90th, and 82nd Streets.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, April 11 to 5 a.m. Sunday, April 12, there is no C train service. Customers should take the A instead. Uptown A trains run local from Euclid Avenue to 168th Street. Downtown A trains run local from 168th Street to West 4th Street, then on the F to Jay Street. A trains resume local service from Jay Street to Euclid Avenue. These changes are due to the Jay Street station rehabilitation project and rail work.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, April 10 to 5 a.m. Monday, April 13, free shuttle buses replace D trains between 205th Street and Bedford Park Blvd.

From 12:01 a.m. to 5 a.m. Sunday, April 12, Manhattan-bound D train skips 174th-175th and 170th Streets.

From 12:30 p.m. Saturday, April 11 to 5 a.m. Monday, April 13, Jamaica-bound EF trains run local from Roosevelt Avenue and Forest Hills-71st Avenue due to a track chip-out north of Grand Avenue.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, April 10 to 5 a.m. Monday, April 13, Manhattan-bound EF trains run local from Forest Hills-71st Avenue to Roosevelt Avenue.

From 8:30 p.m. Friday, April 10 to 5 a.m. Monday, April 13 (until further notice), there are no G trains between Forest Hills-71st Avenue and Court Square. Customers should take the E or R instead.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, April 10 to 5 a.m. Monday, April 13, there are no L trains between 8th Avenue and Union Square. Customers should use the M14 or shuttle bus instead.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, April 11 to 5 a.m. Monday, April 13, L trains run in two sections:

  • Between Union Square and Bedford Avenue every 16 minutes, skipping 3rd Avenue and
  • Between Bedford Avenue and Rockaway Parkway ever 8 minutes

Note: Overnight, trains run every 20 minutes.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, April 11 to 5 a.m. Sunday, April 12, N trains run local between 59th Street-4th Avenue and DeKalb Avenue.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, April 11 to 5 a.m. Sunday, April 12, Brooklyn-bound N and R trains are rerouted over the Manhattan Bridge from Canal Street to DeKalb Avenue. Customers may take the 4 at nearby stations.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, April 10 to 5 a.m. Sunday, April 12, there are no Q trains between 57th Street-7th Avenue and Prospect Park. N trains replace the Q between 57thStreet-7th Avenue and Atlantic Avenue-Pacific Street. Free shuttle buses replace the Q train between Atlantic Avenue and Prospect Park.

From 5 a.m. to midnight, Saturday, April 11 and Sunday, April 12, R trains are extended to the 179th Street F station due to a track chip-out north of Grand Avenue.

Categories : Service Advisories
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The word of the times these days is debt. From home owners defaulting on their mortgages to the extremes of the credit industry to our governments on both the local and federal level, Americans are crippled with debt. The MTA is, of course, no exception, and their debt problems and payments are at the root of the authority’s fiscal crisis.

In fact, just the week, the non-partisan Drum Major Institute released a succinct and thorough study of the MTA’s funding woes. They accurately pinpoint the debt as well as a steep decline in city and state contributions to the agency’s various budgets as the origins of the current transit funding crisis. To solve this problem, the Institute calls upon Albany to “develop a public investment strategy that incorporates revenue from a variety of sources at the local, state, and federal level.” It’s not a bailout; it’s simply smart transit spending.

To me, this revelation is nothing new. I’ve warned about the MTA’s precarious debt situation before, and I’ve spent the last few months urging for a properly funded MTA. The DMI study though really sums the situation up in a way that average New Yorkers — those who either refuse to or simply just don’t understand the MTA’s funding woes — should be able to grasp. After all, it’s about debt, and we as a society are well-conversant in that field right now.

John Petro, the urban policy analyst, at DMI, summarizes:”The MTA’s current budget crisis is the result of a series of irresponsible political decisions that have prioritized low taxes over adequate investment in mass transit. For more than twenty years, the city and state abdicated responsibility to fund capital programs, forcing the MTA to borrow huge sums to maintain mass transit service. This borrowing has led to the acute crisis we are facing today; as huge debt payments eat up larger portions of the Authority’s operating budget, the MTA is facing ever-larger budget deficits.”

Basically, the MTA has engaged in a two-decade-long capital construction campaign without having the money. Thanks to the city and state, the agency has been forced to spend on credit and now the bill is due. According to Petro, the state contributed 20 percent of the MTA’s capital fund from 1982-1986, 11 percent from 1987-1991 and 0 percent since 1992 when then-Governor Cuomo cut state contributions.

“For more than fifteen years,” Petro writes, “New York State has not contributed any direct funding towards the MTA’s capital needs, while New York City has also drastically decreased its contributions—from approximately 10 percent of total capital planning between 1982 and 1999, to about three percent for the capital program of 2000-2004.”

As such, the MTA has been forced to borrow, borrow, borrow. The agency has a current outstanding debt of $25.5 billion, and the agency can probably not refinance any further. While labor costs have grown at 16 percent over the last five years, dept payments have increased by 45 percent. Payments will continue to balloon, and without a permanent solution, the MTA will just simply face more steep fare hikes and more service cuts each year until service reaches unacceptable levels.

So what’s Petro’s fix? He has a few. First, he calls upon a restoration of state and city contributions to the MTA’s capital budget. “To enable mass transit to function as a sustainable public good, the state’s contributions to capital planning must reinstate pre-1992 funding levels of the first two capital plans,” he writes. “That’s the most appropriate and responsible level of financing the state should pursue at a minimum.”

He also calls upon the state, city and MTA officials to lobby Congress for more federal investment in mass transit. I can’t argue with that point.

In the end, Petro’s analysis is exactly what transit advocates need. It easily presents the issues that have been plaguing the MTA; it pinpoints the people responsible for it; and it offers up a fix. While it’s being published a little late in the game, we should embrace it, propagate it and hope people start paying attention.

From more from Petro, check out this DMI blog post. After the job, bullet points from his report about the reasons why New York City needs the MTA. These too should become pro-transit talking points.

Read More→

Categories : MTA Economics
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To staff or not to staff?

By · Comments (11) ·

A glimpse at the now-completed station agent booth at the new South Ferry Terminal. Will these booths slowly fade into obsolescence? (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Station agents and token booth clerks, those caged employees of the MTA, have been often in the news lately. Last week, a judge dismissed a complaint against two MTA employees — including one token booth clerk — who failed to stop a rape. The station employee tried to summon emergency help and did nothing egregious in violation of any duty to rescue, according to a Queens judge.

Meanwhile, if Albany doesn’t come through with an appropriate MTA funding package, as part of the Doomsday budget, the transit agency will be eliminating numerous station agents and shuttering token booths at the end of July. In fact, New York City Transit has already begun reducing staffing levels at booths around the system, and in light of concerns — spurred on by the increased attention to the rape case — over safety, the reception to these staffing cuts has been decidedly mixed.

Earlier this week, amNew York’s Heather Haddon reported on the non-staffing of some station agent positions. This state of affairs underground will become commonplace as the MTA is gearing to eliminate 800 station agents. Writes Haddon:

Last Wednesday, the MTA stopped replacing station agents who called out of work or took vacation. Those who asked for overtime to fill the spots were told it was unavailable for station agent posts, transit workers say. “It’s scary. They are not covering the jobs at all,” said Jacqueline Allison, a Wall Street station agent, who tried to work one of the vacant positions.

As a result, booths in at least a dozen stations across the city have gone empty during eight-hour shifts. Straphangers searching for information or needing help entering the subway must walk to another entrance…

Most of the entrances will remain open if an agent calls out of work, Fleuranges said. But in some cases, the turnstiles are gated, creating a bottleneck when passengers have to squeeze through one high-entrance turnstile.

Obviously, no one was happy with this. Critics bemoaned the personal safety aspect of this plan. Without station agents around, people will not be — or at least they won’t feel — as safe as they would like in the subway. I say “feel” because it’s rather dubious that the station agents have a protective purpose. At best, they deter would-be criminals from attacking a person or MTA property. The TWU has been pushing this view as a way to get these staffing cuts off the table.

Other critics — and I count myself in this group — believe that the MTA’s plan is a bit disingenuous. While station agent numbers will be reduced throughout the system, each station will be staffed with at least one employee at all times. What this means, however, is that for stations such as 50th St. on the West Side IRT that require separate entrances for uptown and downtown trains, only one side of the station will be staffed. For larger complexes that have multiple entrances, only some of the entrances will be staffed.

By the end of the week, New York City Transit had reneged on its decision to gate turnstiles at unstaffed stations. All entrances will remain open as scheduled even if the station stops are unstaffed, Transit said.

This decision though requires more automated fare-evasion enforcement. While cameras could have an impact, if no one is watching — and if everyone knows no one is watching — what will stop turnstile jumpers from leaping?

In the end, the lesson is obvious: The system can ill afford any cuts. Albany, I’m lookin’ at you.

Categories : Service Cuts
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Streetfilms, the video arm of Streetsblog, tackled the Bronx’s very own Select Bus Service recently. Nick Whitaker and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s Veronica Vanterpool took to the streets of Fordham Road to profile the city’s first foray into bus rapid transit. Bronx riders love this speedy and efficient bus, and as DOT and the MTA have ambitions expansion plans in the works, the rest of the city should soon too. Check it out.

Categories : Buses
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