It’s fairly ironic that Sheldon Silver, New York State Assembly speaker, is earning kudos for his brave step in embracing East River Bridge tolls to save the MTA. A little less than a year ago, transit-watchers were railing on Silver for quashing congestion pricing in committee, and had Silver seen Mayor Bloomberg’s plan through the Assembly, the MTA wouldn’t be in nearly as dire financial straits as it is today.

But for now, we’ll have to let congestion pricing bygones be bygones. The MTA needs this bailout, and based on the misguided opposition of State Senate Democrats and illogical rumblings from Marty Markowitz, Silver and his proponents have an uphill battle.

To that end, Silver seems to have at least two of the major city newspapers lining up behind him. The Daily News begrudgingly embraced Silver’s plan while noting the absurdities in protecting drivers:

On the lower East Side, represented by Speaker Sheldon Silver, 82% of households do not own cars and more than half the commuters take mass transit to work. Across the river, in Williamsburg and Bushwick, represented by Assemblyman Vito Lopez, three-quarters of the households don’t own cars and less than 2% drive to work.

Even so, it took until last night for Silver to float a sketch of a plan for scaled-down tolls, and Lopez has trashed tolls. You’d expect better from pols with districts that would be hammered by service cuts. Silver’s constituents would lose the W line and get fewer trains on 10 other lines. Three bus routes (M6, B39 and X25) would be dumped, and others would have weekend and night service service chopped. Lopez’s district would lose the Z train and get fewer runs on the M, J and L. The B39 bus would vanish, and weekend and night service on other lines would be wiped out.

The transportation patterns are similar in legislative districts across the city. Lawmakers must come to their senses and protect the well-being of the bulk of their constituents with properly funded mass transit. To reject tolls without a smart alternative would betray the greater good.

Today, The Times opines in favor of the Silver plan as well. Like the News, the Gray Lady’s editorial board is less than thrilled with the watered down version of the plan but sees it as the MTA’s last hope. While recognizing that Silver is “probably the only one in Albany with enough clout to sell such a compromise,” the paper calls his efforts to deliver this toll “mak[ing] amends” for killing congestion pricing.

At this point, it doesn’t matter how it gets done or who does it. It doesn’t matter what Silver did ten months ago or how he’ll feel ten months from now. If he is the one with the political will to save the MTA, we’ll have to hope for the best. MTA officials know that Silver’s plan won’t go far enough, but that’s a bridge we’ll have to cross after we toll it.

Categories : Ravitch Commission
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Photo of the altered MoMA installation by Doug Jaeger. A complete set of images from the attack are available here at PSFK.

For the last few months, a group of so-called street artists going by the Poster Boy moniker has taken to the subways. The idea, as presented recently by New York Magazine, is that by editing — or vandalized — subway ads and recreating them as something else, the artists are making some sort of political/creative statement.

Over the weekend, this group attacked the MoMA installation in the Atlantic Ave./Pacific St. station. By the time I heard of the attack and took a walk through the station yesterday at 3 p.m., nearly all signs of it were gone, and the concourses were teeming with police officers. A poster — the one pictured at right — had to be replaced and one of Aakash Nihalani’s boxes remained on a supply closet door.

As word of this attack spread, the response has been odd, to say the least. One of the groups responsible for the installation — not MoMA or CBS Outdoors — seems to have been complicit in the vandalism, and MoMA has had to deny responsibility for any role in the defacement of their installation.

New York Magazine’s Vulture blog broke the news of the attack on Tuesday:

[Poster Boy’s] accomplice was a less likely culprit: Doug Jaeger, the marketing executive who created the campaign for MoMA. Jaeger is CEO of the brand-management agency the Happy Corp and president of the prestigious Art Directors Club.

Wearing official MoMA jackets, the two convinced the MTA guards and station police that they were there on official business. Poster Boy and his crew then proceeded to mash up the reproductions in traditional PB-style, meaning Andy Warhol’s Marilyn was made to look as though she had a nose job, and a cutout of a race car was positioned to dive into another painting. When they were done, Jaeger staged a fashion shoot in front of Poster Boy’s reworked creations, using hired models and a professional photographer (the above model’s face is pixelated — says Jaeger, who hopes to sell the images at some point — because he doesn’t have permission to use his/her likeness without consent).

“Early on we saw Poster Boy’s work, and we realized it was inevitable that if we did this project, his crew would likely see it as an opportunity. Whenever you create something, you want to make sure you’re prepared for that,” Jaeger says. “What I would hope is that it would cause debate and generate some argument, at a minimum.”

Later in the day on Tuesday, with CBS Outdoor, the lessor of the advertising space, criticizing MoMA for allowing this act of subway vandalism to go on with their tacit approval, the Museum denied knowledge and responsibility. “As far as we’re concerned, the Happy Corp is MoMA’s agent and has been throughout this entire process, so to detach them now at the eleventh hour when something kind of funky happens is not an assumption that I would make,” Jodi Senese, CBS Outdoor’s executive vice-president of marketing, said to Vulture. “They vandalized our property and they really got involved in vandalizing MTA property as well. I think it’s a negative press image that they’re pushing on the MTA and on us.”

MoMA’s spokesperson simply said, “That is not correct” when a New York Magazine reporter asked if the Museum had known about or approved Poster Boy’s changes prior to the attack.

While publicly the MTA, MoMA and CBS Outdoor have reached a detante, the debate over this art-cum-vandalism has raged online for a few days. Some commenters on PSFK feel that this mash-up is the very definition of Modern Art while others are worried about the chilling effects of this so-called stunt.

Personally, it’s tough to condone this work. At its basic level, it’s nothing more than glorified subway graffiti set forth under the pretext of a social statement. That one of the originators of the installation participated in the scheme should raise some red flags at the MTA, and the “artists” who impersonated MoMA employees are probably guilty of more than one crime here.

Maybe there is some artistic value in the Poster Boy movement. But I don’t see it. To me, it’s just plain old vandalism.

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Just a day after Albany promised fast action on the MTA’s financial situation, proposals are making their ways through the Senate and Assembly. While Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is primed to endorse a modified East River Bridge toll plan in the Assembly, Senate leaders from the New York City area have yet to embrace the plan, leaving the MTA’s financial future in doubt.

Silver’s proposal, while a start, would set initial toll levels at $2 a ride, on par with subway fare but well below the figure set forward by Richard Ravitch. In other words, Silver’s plan would probably be the worst of all worlds. The MTA would still need to raise fares and cut services to cover its deficit, and politicians would be up in arms over tolling. If that’s all he thinks he can deliver, so be it. It is, as some opposing Assemblymen noted, far easier to raise the tolls later on than it is to get them implemented in the first place.

According to The Times, Silver is ready to combat outer borough pols who misguidedly do not believe the East River bridges should be tolled. He’ll also have to face down Senate leaders who won’t embrace the Ravitch Commission recommendations as well. Jeremy W. Peters reports:

But by proposing new tolls — albeit more modest ones than what a state commission proposed in December — Mr. Silver has put himself at odds with many legislators in Albany, particularly those from boroughs outside Manhattan and the suburbs who represent people who drive into the city regularly…

“I put forth a plan that I thought was fair and reasonable,” Mr. Silver said as he was leaving a meeting with the Assembly Democratic conference in the Capitol on Wednesday evening. “Obviously there are some who don’t like the toll. And I put that in the juxtaposition of, ‘Look, this is the only game in town.’ ”

Some Assembly Democrats were already resisting the speaker’s plan on Wednesday. “Tolling the bridges is just not acceptable to me,” said Rory I. Lancman, who represents Queens. “Once you cross the Rubicon on tolling bridges the future conversation is merely, ‘How much is the periodic increase going to be?’”

“No one wants to have to do any of this,” Assemblyman Micah Kellner, who proposed his own plan a few months ago, said. “But we’re going to have to pay for the M.T.A. one way or the other.”

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Outer Borough representatives are spinning the same old tired rhetoric as they oppose all tolling plans at the expense of the MTA. If that is in there, there’s no way I’m going to vote for it and you can take that to the bank,” Ruben Diaz, Sr., a State Senator from the Bronx, said.

Do these politicians not realize that far more of their constituents will suffer if the MTA enacts its Doomsday budget than if tolls arrive on East River crossings? As that chart at right shows, only about five percent of all Manhattna-bound commuters from Brooklyn cross the bridges each day while over 32 percent rely on the subway. The numbers are substantially similar for the Bronx and Queens. Yet politicians are willing to sacrifice the subways for their precious free bridges that should be tolled anyway.

Furthermore, nearly as many Manhattan-based commuters used the bridges too. While these politicians are claiming that this plan penalizes the Outer Boroughs, that cry is far from the truth.

In the end, Kellner’s point of view will have to win the day. One way or another, the Assembly and the Senate are going to have to pay for the MTA. How they do so remains to be seen.

Categories : Ravitch Commission
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A new look for 96th St.

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Where: The 96th St. station on the West Side IRT.
What: Signs of progress during the ongoing renovation.

As part of a plan to substantially rehabilitate and renovate the IRT stop at 96th St. and Broadway, construction crews have unveiled a new look for the wall tiles. Gone are the ugly old black-box 96 numbers. Replacing them are red mosaic 96’s that are a part of the wall. I particularly like the mosaic trim as well.

I grew up near the 96th St. station, and I’m excited to see the new station house on Broadway between 95th and 96th Sts. While this picture provides a tantalizing glimpse of what the inside of the station will resemble when the project wraps up, it still has a long way to go.

Photo taken at my mom’s suggestion by my dad with his Blackberry last Saturday night.

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  • MTA set to award Culver Viaduct rehab contract · When the MTA first announced plans for the Culver Viaduct, work was supposed to begin in the fall of 2008. Shockingly then, this project is already delayed, but after months of silence, the MTA is set to award a contract to Judlau Contraction for the rehabilitation work. Gary Reilly to a story in The Daily News about the project: In its board meeting today, the MTAwill officially award a contract to Judlau Contracting for the Culver Viaduct rehabilitation project.

    According to the Daily News (via Gary Reilly), the MTA delayed this project to give the potential contractors more time to submit their bids. On the plus side, though is word that because so many contracts are looking for work in a depressed economy, the winning proposal will be for $62.5 million less than the original MTA estimates. Meanwhile, those who rely on the F and G at Smith-9th Sts. will now face station closures in 2011 instead of 2010. At least now the viaduct won’t look like it’s about to collapse every time a train rolls past it, and maybe, just maybe, when it’s all over, we’ll have that F Express service too. · (2)

MTA Chair Dale Hemmerdinger talks about middle class drivers during his trip to Albany to fight for the MTA. (Via Elizabeth Benjamin on Vimeo.)

When New York State elected Eliot Spitzer as governor, transit advocates had high hopes for the future. Spitzer, a New York City native, seemed to understand just how important sensible transit policy and funding would be to the future of the city and state. Spitzer, however, met an inglorious end, and with him died the hopes of many.

Now, the state is stuck with an unpopular governor who is trying to stave off financial disaster. Yesterday, on a rather pessimistic day for the MTA, David Paterson threw what political weight he has behind the financially beleaguered transit authority. In a statement, Paterson urged immediate action from Albany for the MTA.

This week I asked Richard Ravitch, Chairman of the Commission on Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Financing, to come to Albany to advance my goal of enacting the recommendations outlined in the final Ravitch Commission report. This proposal is critically important to the people of New York. The fare increases and service cuts that will happen without this legislation will do further damage to our fragile economy and bring added financial strain to New Yorkers already suffering during this economic downturn. I have discussed this with the Legislative leaders, and they agree that this must be addressed before our final budget deliberations are underway. To this end, the Senate and Assembly have scheduled conferences for tomorrow to discuss this MTA issue.

The time to do this is now. These Ravitch Committee recommendations have the support of business and labor, civic groups and straphangers. I will speak with lawmakers who have any doubt about the critical nature of this issue, and have asked Mr. Ravitch to remain in Albany tomorrow to hold further discussions and bring this process to a close. We must get a final agreement in place within the next week.

And how did Albany respond? Well, no one can really tell. The Daily News’ New York political blogger Elizabeth Benjamin summed up Tuesday’s hearings:

MTA Chairman Dale Hemmerdinger ended his day of lobbying state lawmakers on Richard Ravitch’s tax-and-toll bailout plan much the same way he started it: Completely unsure whether it will pass in time to stave off massive fare hikes and service cuts.

“We are selling as well as we can,” Hemmerdinger said. “The alternatives are not pleasant. We will have to cut service. We will have to raise fares by 30 percent if this doesn’t pass or something like it.”

Asked to respond to lawmakers’ concerns that taxing the East and Harlem river bridges is unfair to working-class people who need their cards to get to work, Hemmerdinger responded: “I suggest they don’t drive. Take a bus take a subway. We don’t want to be unfair. We want to be fair but there is a presumption that people who can afford a car and they want to drive to work, that’s their choice as long we provide them with a reliable, reasonably cost reasonably reliable alternative and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Hemmerdinger’s words ring true to this transit advocate, but the politicians — the ones holding the purse strings — are being noncommittal. “At this point, we’re weighing all the facts, but we are going to do something on the MTA – I would tell you that in no uncertain terms,” Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith said. “Between now and next week, we are going to make a final decision on the MTA.”

On the Assembly side, Sheldon Silver, seemingly suffering from multiple-personality disorder when it comes to transit, couldn’t even commit to a timetable as Smith did. He again called the cuts “unacceptable” but wouldn’t reveal alternative plans or a timetable for a bailout. With exactly one month to go before the MTA Board must vote on the Doomsday budget, the clock’s a-tickin’ ever closer to midnight.

Categories : Ravitch Commission
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With just over a month remaining until the MTA Board gathers to vote on the Doomsday budget proposal, the Empire State Transportation Alliance has unveiled a new ad campaign calling for transit funding from Albany. The ad, above (click to enlarge), urges riders to visit Keep New York Moving in order to contact their elected representatives and Gov. David Paterson with a pro transit message.

“Our ad urges transit riders to speak up,” Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, a civic group and co-chair of the ESTA coalition. “Lawmakers need to act now or else draconian cuts will go into effect. At a time when the American economy has hit a weak point, it would be a big mistake to let public transit falter. Doing so will hurt our struggling businesses and discourage new enterprises from starting. Transit cuts also place an undue burden on the City’s poorest workers who are already suffering tremendously. We hope this campaign will challenge riders to stand up and take action.”

ESTA unveiled this PSA yesterday, and it will soon be seen in 3000 subway cars — or nearly half of NYC Transit’s rolling stock — throughout the city.

“The ad is effective because we don’t have a luxury system and there are no frills to cut. Our transit system is a necessity, and riders must send that message loud and clear to their State elected representatives and demand that they take action now,” William Henderson, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, said.

The ads cost $120,000 to make, according to ESTA, and hopefully will serve to spur on Albany. “These 3,000 ads are a call to action,” says Paul Steely White, Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives. “New York’s 7.5 million daily straphangers can’t sit (or stand) idly while their commuting costs soar and service erodes.”

Categories : Service Cuts
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  • CBTC finally makes its L line debut · After years of delays, millions of dollars in cost overuns and countless weekend service changes, communications-based train control made its L line debut this morning at 12:22 a.m. The system will allow NYC Transit to decrease headways on the BMT Canarsie line and add trains to a line badly overcrowded. For now, the computer-controlled trains will run only during overnight and off-peak hours before the MTA expands their use into the rush hour time frames. Additionally, both the conductors and motormen will remain on board — the motorman in case something goes wrong and the conductor because the Transit Workers Union objected to the removal. It’s forward progress in technology resisted by the union, and it’s a long, long time coming. · (1)

Oh, how I long for the days of yesterday when the news was simply about near-record ridership figures. Today’s news is bad, very bad.

With the economy slumping and ridership in 2009 on the decline, the MTA is now projecting a deficit for 2009 as high as $2 billion. Even with action out of Albany, the MTA is now planning on cutting weekend subway service no matter what. This, folks, is dire.

The bad news began on Monday with word that 2009 ridership totals were two percent lower than 2008 figures through this point last year. This marks the first time since 2003 that subway ridership has decreased.

Additionally, real estate tax revenues are already $75 million lower than expected. With the Dow closing at its lowest point since my sister celebrated her tenth birthday, the market isn’t going to help the MTA escape this financial crisis any time soon.

On the money front, William Neuman summarized the bad news: The MTA deficit could expand by $650 million this year. This increase would push the MTA’s deficit to nearly $2 billion. Relying on an informal budge assessment from MTA CFO Gary Dellaverson, Neuman writes:

Mr. Dellaverson said that revenue from taxes on mortgages and real estate transactions was $71.5 million in the first two months of the year, slightly less than half of what the authority had predicted it would receive when it made what it thought was a conservative forecast late last year.

That forecast called for the authority to receive $880 million in real estate tax revenue in 2009. But Mr. Dellaverson said that if the trend continued, the authority could receive $446 million less than predicted.

Mr. Dellaverson cautioned that the figures he was presenting did not rise to the level of a formal budget forecast. But the possibilities he sketched were grim enough. They included a $123 million decline in fare and toll revenue, below what was budgeted. And he said that state taxes receipts that go to the authority, including a sales tax and a corporate income tax, could be $82 million less than forecast.

Basically, Dellaverson’s informal calculations have the MTA owing well beyond half a billion dollars more than they were projected to owe when the Doomsday budget gained board approval last year. Even if the state legislature can somehow cover the original $1.2 billion gap, the transit agency would still be faced with a new and growing deficit that would need closing.

Enter weekend service cuts no matter what. According to Daily News beat writer Pete Donohue, New York City Transit will increase weekend headway on ten lines — the A, D, E, F, G, J, M, N, Q, and R — from eight minutes to ten. While NYC Transit President Howard Roberts defended this as an inevitable move spurred on by construction, MTA Board member Andrew Albert decried these cuts. “This is a major service cut for folks,” Albert said. “I think this is a terrible, terrible move.”

No matter how the officials slice or dice it, there is no way to spin this news. The MTA is facing a financial crisis of epic proportions. It’s one that could, if the worst comes to pass, trigger a monumental collapse of our city’s transit network — and thus its economic infrastructure. Right now, the MTA would need a full-scale bailout package and Mayor Bloomberg’s original congestion pricing plan to stay afloat, and that just isn’t going to happen.

Where this goes from here is anyone’s guess, but I don’t think this crisis has reached its nadir yet.

Categories : MTA Economics
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