To staff or not to staff?

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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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As the end of the day arrived in Albany yesterday and Passover fell, the State Senate adjourned until April 20. With a budget in the books, state representatives have all gone home for the holidays. Yet, the MTA’s uncertain future rests heavily on the Senate.

In just over seven weeks, the MTA will raise the fares a whopping 23 percent. Single subway and bus rides will cost $2.50. The 30-day unlimited MetroCards will cost $103 instead of $81. A few weeks later, the MTA will begin cutting service and firing employees across the entire New York City Metropolitan Area. No one will be happy, and the Senators seem to know this.

To that end, the Senators are still trying to come up with a funding plan for the fiscally-strapped transit agency. According to the Times Herald-Record, the various Senate plans consist of some of the following options:

  • Imposing new state and/or regional fees on car registrations and driver’s licenses
  • Adding new surcharges to taxi fares and parking garage fees in New York City
  • Levying new fees on car rentals
  • Adopting a modified payroll tax
  • Increasing the MTA-dedicated sales tax
  • Dedicating a percentage of the state income tax

The smartest and most equitable option — tolling the East River bridges — seems dead and buried. Despite that omission, though, this list is far from breaking news. At various points over the last year, politicians and transit advocates have proposed some combination of these factors. In my opinion, these measures will result in a temporary fix and don’t help the MTA secure a stream of revenue that would allow them to expand while meeting the demands of an operating budget. This are political stop-gaps designed by politicians and not policy-based solutions set forward by experts.

For now, though, that’s rather here nor there. As the State Senate left yesterday, though, their words were again alarming. Martin Dilan, head of the Senate Transportation Committee, stopped to talk to Politicker NY on the way out the door. “We were really trying to get something done, but this ‘rush’ thing really doesn’t work,” he said. “Basically, what’s on the table is a $25 registration fee for the 12 counties; there’s also a possibility of an additional cent or two within the 12 county region.” The fee is for keys; the tax, gas.

A few Senators have followed the bolded line of reasoning, and I don’t see the reality behind it. The Governor convened the Ravitch Commission in June of 2008, nine months ago. At that point, the entire state was put on notice that the MTA was struggling financially. Richard Ravitch released a preliminary report in September and a final report in December.

Between December and the end of March, the MTA held numerous hearings on the commission’s report and their proposed fare hikes with and without the money from that report’s proposals. During that entire time — during the past nine months — the State Senate did nothing to address an obvious and known problem. Now, after the MTA Board approved the Doomsday budget and seven weeks before it’s set to be implementing, State Senators are still bemoaning a time table they deem to be rushed.

That is, in a word, ludicrous. The time for excuses is over; the time to act is now. If the Senators need more than nine months to come up with a plan, perhaps we need some new Senators.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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We join today’s episode of “As the MTA Turns” now in progress.

As the State Democrats bicker about taxes and tolls, party leaders in the both the Assembly and Senate are trying to reach across the aisle to garner GOP support. State Republican leaders, however, are loathe to embrace any MTA funding package and believe that transit proponents are overstating the severity of the financial crisis.

Newsday’s James T. Madore has more:

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) warned jobs would be lost at the upstate factories making buses and commuter trains for the authority while Long Island commuters faced exorbitant fare hikes. The regions mentioned are represented by Republicans, who hold 30 of the 62 seats in the Senate.

Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans), the majority leader, was more conciliatory, saying he appreciated Republicans’ insistence that a rescue of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority be paired with money for roads and bridges on the Island and upstate. He said a meeting Monday with Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) had encouraged him.

Smith needs GOP help because of a rebellion in Democratic ranks over funding the MTA with bridge tolls on the now-free East River and Harlem River bridges, and a payroll tax on employers in the 12 counties served by the authority. Democrats’ narrow majority means the objections of one senator can scuttle a deal.

While these politicians now seem to be fighting as hard they can for the MTA, something that I didn’t mention this morning in the PCAC report leapt out at me. It’s rather relevant considering the politicking going on in Albany these days.

Embedded in the section assessing the overall effectiveness of the MTA was this paragraph on lobbying efforts:

While there have been more visible efforts by the MTA in recent months to press the New York State legislature and the U.S. Congress for increased predictable financial support, these initiatives must be enhanced and sustained. As the largest transit system in the U.S., with a full agenda of needed improvements and rapidly growing ridership, the MTA must aggressively promote its critical role in the economic vitality of the New York City region. As part of that effort, MTA must do better in quantifying the number of jobs that will be created by its capital and state-of-good-repair programs. When its dire financial situation was accelerating in the fall of 2008, the MTA was slow to produce these figures and slow to publicize them. Information about the impact of service cuts on the constituencies of NYS legislators was also delayed. Finally, the Authority did not harness the energy of rider advocates who could serve as a powerful voice on MTA’s behalf.

That assessment is right on the mark. For too long, the opponents of a sensible funding plan — requiring bridge tolls and other fees on businesses and services that benefit from a fully functional transit agency — have been winning the PR war. The MTA, while vocal, hasn’t been an organizing factor, and rider advocacy organizations haven’t enjoyed the coherence or the support they should be showing.

With Passover nearly upon us and Easter on the horizon, straphangers may have to wait until next week for another update from Albany. As each day that passes, we grow one day closer to service cuts and fare hikes. That’s bad news for everyone.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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Earlier this morning, I examined the MTA’s report card from the Permanent Citizen’s Advisory Committee to the agency. The MTA got slammed on its capital construction programs and technology implementation efforts while it earned praise for sustainability initiatives and leadership.

Now, let’s tackle New York City Transit’s write-up. The subway-operating agency earned high marks all around from PCAC. Again, the full report is here as a PDF, and I’ll run down the highlights right now.

The committee appreciates the leadership at NYC Transit. Howard Roberts, agency president, is praised for his “openness, thoughtfulness and foresight.” Roberts has come across the same way to me in my interactions with him, and he’s the right man for the job right now.

In terms of organization, PCAC also praises Joseph Smith and his efforts at consolidating the NYC Transit bus operations. The committee report offers up a qualified assessment of the line manager program: “It has imparted a sense of ownership to managers and helped quantify what it takes to provide a reliable level of service and well-maintained stations. However, it is still not clear how success is going to be measured.” I believe the Rider Report Cards are supposed to provide for a measure of success, but whether those are reliable remains to be seen.

Unfortunately for straphangers, PCAC’s most glowing praise refers to services that will soon be cut. The resumption of late-night 3 train express service from 148th St. in Harlem to Times Square is called “one of the most commendable achievements by NYCT” in 2008, and the shortened headways on the 1, 4, 6 and 42nd St. Shuttle “were appreciated.” With the planned service cuts designed to increase headway throughout the system, these positive gains may be short-lived.

The PCAC’s NYC Transit Riders Council also recognizes the success of the Select Bus Service in the Bronx. “As a joint MTA/NYCT project with the New York City Police Department and the New York City Department of Transportation, this is an excellent example of cooperation among various agencies,” they write. “The NYCTRC is pleased to see this promising start to implementation of SBS throughout the City.” The report calls upon Transit to provide more Select Bus Service with an eye toward the parts of Queens that don’t enjoy subway access.

As far as construction and system upgrades go, NYC Transit received mixed marks. The Myrtle-Wyckoff modernization project was haled as “an excellent example of station modernization.” The continued decrepitude of the Chambers St./Nassau loop continued to alarm the committee. “Unfortunately, this effort, costing $30 million, hardly made a dent in the overall deleterious condition of this once beautiful station,” the report says. “There is severe water leakage damage, peeling paint, loose wires, and a general ragtag condition throughout the facility. This situation is hardly appropriate for the New York City Hall location which is above the station.”

As they did with the MTA, PCAC reserves its most scathing language for the South Ferry debacle. “The Agency needs to identify where and why these errors occurred and describe steps that are being taken to improve project management.”

Escalators and elevators continue to haunt New York City Transit. While Transit has met its goal of 67 elevator stations by 2010 ahead of schedule, escalators are another beast. Six of the 12 new motion sensitive escalators at Herald Square were listed in a fourth-quarter report as “out of service awaiting contractor to perform warranty repair work.” Perhaps Transit purchased a few lemons.

On the communication front, again, Transit receives some mixed grades. PCAC likes the Rider Report Card program and calls it a definite step toward a better rider experience. They fault NYCT though for the state of its public address system. That’s not a surprise.

In the end, while the MTA is puttering along, New York City Transit seems to be thriving. They’re making smart choices that are designed to benefit the maximum number of riders. If Albany sits up and takes notice, they will see a city that needs this transit system and a transit system excelling at a time of great future uncertainty.

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pcacmtabullet The Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA released its annual performance review of the beleaguered transit agency. NY1 cited the report for giving high marks to the MTA while The Post believes the PCAC “blasted” the authority. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle.

This year’s report is notable for its release date. Generally, the PCAC publishes its annual findings earlier in the room. But they pushed back the drop date on it this year to ensure the document would not impact “the vigorous debate over MTA fares, service, and funding.” While that debate is far from over and proponents and opponents alike could find ammunition in this report, this document offers up a nuanced look at the MTA.

The top line summary is what we would expect. The report praises the various agency heads for increased transparency — take that, Senator Lanza — but slams the capital construction crew for inexplicably missing deadlines.

The full report is available here as a PDF. I’ll summarize as I did last year the parts concerning the MTA overall and and New York City Transit. What follows are the MTA-centric aspects. I’ll publish the New York City Transit analysis at noon.

PCAC is generally pleased with MTA CEO and Executive Director Lee Sander. They praise him for his forward-looking state of the MTA address but fault for him failing to meeting anticipated levels of interaction with advocacy groups.

More damning is the committee’s critique of organizational structure. The corporate structure, they say, “still lacks rationale.” Important divisions are understaffed; unimportant positions are overstaffed. The committee would like to see an internal personnel audit.

The PCAC report is very critical of the state of the MTA’s capital projects. While praising the tunnel-boring progress of the East Side Access plan, the committee writes,”It is not clear, however, what the prognosis is for an on-time, on budget delivery of a completed station.”

Similarly, PCAC faults the MTA for its standstill with the city over funding for the 7 Line Extension stop at 41st St. and 10th Ave. This latter shortfall, the committee says, “is particularly disappointed and ironic since the main goal of extension is to provide subway service for development projects at the West Side Hudson Yards, which are now on hold due to the poor economy.” Without the second station, this project is truly in danger of becoming the Subway to Nowhere.

The PCAC reserves its wrath for the Fulton St. mess. “This project has been a disaster from the start,” says the report, “and represents a monument to ineptness on the part of the MTA and the other largely uncoordinated agencies involved in this urgently needed project.” While the PCAC recognizes that stimulus funds may be required to jump start this program, they fear that the money “will again be wasted if the work is not properly coordinated and closely supervised.”

The South Ferry station too draws the ire of the advisory committee. PCAC found “no acceptable explanation for the 11th hour platform gap problem” and notes that “there has been no visible evidence that anyone at Capital Construction of NYCT has been held accountable for errors in design and the resulting delays.” Construction, it seems, is not the MTA’s forte.

In the realm of technology and security, PCAC finds the MTA lacking as well. They fault “the slow pace” of installation of a security system and question why the MTA is delaying for three years a SmartCard fare payment system already in place throughout the world. “This [delay] is extremely unfortunate and puts the MTA significantly behind other large transit systems such as CTA, WMATA, MARTA, MBTA, etc. where riders travel easily using a ‘Touch and Go’ card linked to a credit card,” they say. “We consider the failure to move forward based on NYCT’s program very shortsighted.”

It’s hard to quibble with this assessment, and public subway watchdogs should find themselves nodding in agreement. Unfortunately, the MTA’s fiscal woes aren’t going to improve this situation any time soon. With funding up in the air, technology implementation projects remain tenuous, and big-ticket items are no sure thing. The MTA is doing as good as it can considering the circumstances, but PCAC doesn’t think that’s quite good enough.

Categories : MTA
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The ever-growing realm of New York City blogs feature a fair number of train-oriented sites. Some, such as Rail Fan Window and SubChat, are rail-fan oriented. Others — Station Stops and Trainjotting — focus on the commute. Meanwhile, the usual gang of New York blogs — Curbed, Gothamist, City Room — incorporate subway stories into their daily schedules while Subway Blogger and I provide dedicated coverage of the MTA.

Soon, we’ll be welcoming an unlikely entity into our ranks. According to Metro, New York City Transit’s own L train soon have its own blog. OK, maybe the train itself won’t have a blog, but an official MTA L train-centric blog will makes its debut soon.

Amy Zimmer reported:

The L blog grew out of L line manager Greg Lombardi’s monthly newsletter, but because Lombardi won’t be able to sit in front of his computer all day, MTA marketing and public affairs staffers may post, too, Fleuranges explained. “It might get too intense,” he noted.

It follows the MTA’s foray into Twitter, a micro-blogging social network service. Diane Chehab (@MetroCardDiane), an MTA marketing manager, last month began Tweeting — posting 140-character updates — to let her people know about rider promotions, like discounts at the Bronx Zoo.

Outside of the Tweeting, this blog will be Transit’s first real foray into a Web 2.0 world. “Like most blogs, we plan to have a comment section,” NYC Transit spokesman Paul Fleuranges said to Zimmer. “We expect and will encourage our riders to post comments and questions.”

Considering the public sentiments over the MTA, I wonder what that comment section will come to resemble come May when the fares go up. Still, if this effort can help the MTA increase its transparency, I’m all for it.

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  • Paterson blames [insert political group here] for MTA inaction · It’s tough being David Paterson right now. The accidental governor of New York state, Paterson’s approval ratings have fallen below 20 percent, and his own party is considering jettisoning him prior to the 2010 primaries. I have to give Paterson credit though for trying to push the State Senate on the MTA funding plan. While he has no political capital, he is keeping the issue in the press.

    Yesterday, Paterson again slammed State Republicans for their unwillingness to support anything despite the obvious benefits a fully funded MTA would bring to their constituents. “Right now, the Republicans could come in. They could pass the MTA budget and yours truly would have to thank them in public,” Paterson said. “That’s how you get back to being in the majority, not be being negative and hostile.” Republicans rejected the governor’s advances, and business as usual went on in Albany. · (2)

When the MTA raised the fares two weeks ago, the agency announced May 31 as the first day of the new fares. Now, thanks to a New York 1 report, details about the service cuts — the second half of the so-called Doomsday budget — have come to light.

These cuts will roll out over a span of five-and-a-half months with the last of them — the death of a few subway lines — to come in December. On its surface, then, this timetable may give the Senate a few months to get its collective act together as its members attempt to figure out an politically acceptable funding plan for the transit agency. With the first of these cuts, however, set to go into effect in June, time remains of the essence.

So what’s the timeline? Let’s take a look. This information comes to us via NY1 which get its hands on some MTA materials.

June 28
The MTA will eliminate 21 bus routes and increase headway from eight to ten minutes on nearly every lettered subway line. The first cuts include the deaths of the following bus lines:

  • In Manhattan: M6, 8, 10, 18, 27 and 30
  • In Brooklyn: B23, 25, 37, 39, 51, and 75
  • In the Bronx: Bx4, 14, 20, 34 and the Barretto Park Pool Shuttle
  • In Queens: Q26, 56, 74, 75 and 84

July 26
Twenty-nine maroon-vested roving station agents will be cut, and 29 token booths will be shuttered. Four stations along the BMT Broadway line in Lower Manhattan will be closed overnight. Those stations include City Hall, Cortlandt St. (if it ever reopens), Rector St. and Lawrence St. along the N line. No N trains will stop at Whitehall St. or Court St., but as those stations are parts of other lines, they will remain open.

September 6
Express service along five lines will be cut. Those lines include the X25, BxM7B, QM22, QM23 and X32. At some point over the summer, overnight and weekend bus service along numerous lines in all boroughs will be eliminated or drastically reduced as well. The timeline does not say when.

December 6
Subway cuts go into effect. The W and Z trains will eliminated entirely (with the Q continuing past 57th St. to Astoria and the J running local in Brooklyn and Queens). The G will be terminated at Court Square at all times, and the M will run as a shuttle. Overnight headway will be reduced to an anemic 30 minutes. Load guidelines will be adjusted to allow for more crowded trains as well.

So enjoy it while you can. Unless Albany acts, unless transit advocates band together and secure a funding plan, New Yorkers will see their transit options slowly whittled down over the next few months. That’s hardly a fun way to spend the summer.

Categories : Service Cuts
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  • Bill de Blasio supports Silver tolling plan · Bill de Blasio, City Council representative from Brooklyn, spoke out in favor of Sheldon Silver’s $2 East River bridge toll plan today. With his statement in support of the plan to fund the MTA, de Blasio becomes the first City Council member to take a stand on the issue. As Streetsblog reports, his support is notable because he was a congestion pricing opponent. Perhaps he is finally coming around on the issue, and we can only hope that other New York City pols take notice. · (0)
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