Rockettes Lauren Gaul, left, and Naomi Hubert urge riders to take the subway this winter. (Photo courtesy of New York City Transit)

As part of the annual MetroCard discount at Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular, New York City Transit rolled out both the Rockettes and a Nostalgia Train yesterday. The train ran from the World Trade Center stop on the E to 47th-50th Sts./Rockefeller Center on the D with a few of the Rockettes in tow.

While the event was ostensibly put on to promote the $10 discount a MetroCard will get you at Radio City Music Hall this winter, the bigger news is the Nostalgia Train. Starting Nov. 30 and continuing through the holiday season, New York City Transit will again be running the Nostalgia Trains along the V line from 2nd Ave. to Queens Plaza and back.

I hopped a ride on the vintage subway last year. For pictures and more, check out the coverage from Dec. 2007.

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An MTA worker, shown here in 2006, rests on the job. (Photo by flickr user pixxiestails)

A quick joint through flickr reveals a whole series of photos of MTA employees asleep on the job, and it’s no secret that MTA station workers aren’t known for their bedside manners and even demeanor. Now, with budget cuts looming, the MTA is going to have to start cutting workers. While the Transit Workers Union will push hard to make sure their members don’t lose their jobs, the MTA is going to have to trim the bloat.

To that end, Jim Hoffer at ABC’s Eyewitness News did some digging this week and found a whole of bunch of underperforming MTA employees. While the authority had no comment for his story, Hoffer paints a picture of agency ready to face an internal gauntlet. While the MTA will need more money than that available from internal cuts, paring down a large bureaucracy is beneficial for streamlining operations as well.

The tale of the employees, though, is a classic. Reports Hoffer:

He’s supposed to be working, instead a transit track inspector is headed home after a little grocery shopping. Other transit employees caught on tape should be working too, instead they’re using the MTA dump truck to drive 30 miles to a beach on Long Island to hang out, chat and catch an ocean breeze. Other transit workers have so much free time during their 8-houir shift, they set up an outdoor gym where they can exercise at all hours of the work day.

“How many hours do you actually work on the track in an 8 hour shift?” I asked a track worker, who asked not to be identified.

“Typically it’s about 1 hour, an-hour-and-a-half of actual work,” he responded. Fed up with what he calls a culture of waste and abuse at a time when the MTA threatens record fare hikes, this worker said the problem starts high up.

“The supervisors are the problem. The supervisors allow this type of behavior. There is a system that allows the workers to slip out to go an do whatever they want,” he said.

Hoffer’s tales are endless and amusing. He has one about a worker who checks out his bar every hour or so and another about a team that works about 90 minutes a day. The workers, though, get $25-$30 an hour for their eight-hour shifts and benefits too. Sign me up!

The TWU, of course, denies the allegations. Roger Toussaint told Hoffer that the 90-minute work days are exceptions and that crews loiter, for hours on end, on platforms because they’re not allowed on the tracks during rush hour. But this seems to me to be a tale of bloat.

I can’t say where the responsibility for this issue lies. Hopefully, soon, the MTA will release a response to Hoffer’s story. But for now, I will raise a skeptical eyebrow. From circumstantial evidence, I’m inclined to believe the report, and I have to think that, with funds tight, the agency will soon crack down on this waste. Only after they do so can they ask the government for more sources of funding.

Categories : MTA Absurdity
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  • DiNapoli: Security measures still behind schedule · New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has issued yet another report about the state of the MTA’s security efforts. According to this latest missive — available here as a PDF — the MTA’s capital security program won’t wrap up until 2011, three years after it was originally supposed to debut and ten years after the attacks of 9/11. Most alarming are the cost increases. The program is now set to cost $837 million, up 42 percent from the initial estimate of $591 million. The report does offer up some praise for the MTA’s popular “See Something, Say Something” campaign. [Office of the New York State Comptroller] · (1)

Lost in the discussion about East River tolls and congestion pricing is the great irony of the MTA. Since the tolled bridges into and out of Manhattan are such cash cows, New York City’s public transit network is kept afloat by the same forces many public transit advocates would like to limit.

The history of MTA Bridges and Tunnels is one of Robert Moses. He ushered through the construction of the Triborough Bridge in the 1933s, and over the years, Moses used his position as head of the Triborough Bridge Authority to consolidate toll revenues while increasing his reach.

By the 1960s, Moses was gone; the city’s bridges and tunnels continued to generate large amounts of surplus cash; and the city’s subways were teetering on the brink of collapse. Hence, the MTA was born, and now the city’s bridges and tunnels subsidize mass transit to the tune of $700-$900 million a year.

But what happens when New Yorkers stop driving? That is the question posed by Pete Donohue in a Daily News article today:

The number of drivers using MTA bridges and tunnels has fallen for 12 straight months, another troubling threat to the agency’s bottom line, officials said Wednesday. “I can’t say I remember anything like that,” MTA Bridges and Tunnels Acting President David Moretti said.

The latest statistics show drivers took 25 million trips over bridges and through tunnels last month, down 1.3 million – or 4.8% – from October 2007.

Much of the 12-month slide can be attributed to high gas prices. But last month’s downturn may be the result of commuters no longer having jobs to go to in Manhattan, officials said. Traffic at the MTA’s four Manhattan crossings was down on average about 7% from September to October, even though gas prices had fallen, Moretti said.

Right now, since the fares were raised in March, revenues aren’t down, but if these trends continue into next year and beyond, the MTA will need to raise even more cash. In that regard, I wonder how a congestion pricing plan would come into play. While a congestion fee with guaranteed revenue heading to the MTA could generate upwards of $400 million a year, would enough cars be discouraged from driving to impact the bottom line for the MTA Bridges and Tunnels division?

As congestion pricing plans would allow for tolls to be deducted from the charge to enter the Central Business District, I doubt the MTA would see a decrease in revenue from the bridges and tunnels. But as the economy walks a dangerous tightrope, it will be interesting to see how one of the authority’s biggest sources of revenue fares. Little do we realize that, as the Bridges and Tunnels go, so go the subways.

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How do tabloids in New York sell papers? By splashing a MetroCard and a $3.00 price tag across the front page.

In something of a worst-case-scenario article, Pete Donohue explores the possibility of a $3.00 base fare if the MTA can’t cover the deficit. He writes:

Metropolitan Transportation Authority CEO Elliot Sander said Monday the authority’s budget crisis will force it to impose “Draconian” fare hikes and service cuts without an additional $800 million. Even after making cuts, the MTA will be short about $600 million, agency figures show.

Filling that gap would require a 24% fare hike for MetroCards, train tickets and tolls – if the MTA applied the increase evenly across every category. The agency hasn’t tended to do that in the past, however. Instead, the MTA is expected to take aim at the base fare for the biggest percentage increase – bumping it to $2.50 or even $3, a Daily News analysis shows.

What this article fails to mention is that now, even with a base fare of $2, a whopping 89 percent of riders pay less than that. The average fare per ride is under $1.40.

So in reality, this doom-and-gloom scenario is unlikely to happen and will not impact a lot of riders even if it were to come to fruition. Rather, the MTA will probably significantly raise the prices on Unlimited Ride cards and scale back the bonus system while raising the base fare to $2.50.

That increase of course isn’t one any of us want, and now is the time to start pressuring legislators to find the money for the MTA.

Categories : MTA Economics
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We’ve talked a lot about money this week, and with Richard Ravitch’s report due in less than three weeks, we’ll be hearing more about the MTA’s fiscal woes well into December.

We know that the MTA will soon be facing a $1.2 billion deficit. We know that the agency may cut service, services and excess bureaucracy. We also know that the Ravitch Commission is going to issue a series of recommendations focusing around tolling the East River bridges and a congestion pricing scheme. The fun is just beginning.

Both the East River toll plan and congestion pricing are fraught with political difficulties. City politicians — our so-called leaders — have already been railing against the calls to toll the river crossings while Albany has shot down congestion pricing once this year. Our state representatives aren’t going to be too shy about killing it again, Richard Ravitch’s imprimatur or not. Meanwhile, transit advocates have been couching this debate in either/or terms. Either the MTA enjoy the revenue benefits from congestion pricing or tolls or the MTA will jack up the fares well beyond their current levels.

The mathematical truth, it seems, is not quite that simple. To whit: East River tolls will probably draw in approximately $500 million annually. Ccongestion pricing could bring in another $400 million. A fare hike will bring in around $200 million next year and approximately $384 million annually.

What does that add up to? Well, if each plan were to go into effect on January 1, the MTA would be able to raise, optimistically, $1.284 billion next year. Funny; that’s the precise amount of money the MTA needs in 2009 to cover its deficit.

Do you see now where this is going? For the MTA to enjoy a balanced budget, the Ravitch Committee will have to recommend tolling the bridges and implementing a congestion charge and substantial fare hikes. If not this precise mix, then the report will contain some mix that adds up to a similar total. Otherwise, the MTA will not be able to cover the gap or look forward to its future capital plans and its $30 billion price tag.

Politicians won’t like it; some drivers won’t like; in fact, most New Yorkers probably won’t like it. But unless the government ponies up the dough, the rest of us are going to have to pay in more ways than we’d like to admit if we are to enjoy a healthy MTA.

Categories : MTA Economics
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As the MTA is facing its worst financial crisis in decades, New York’s politicians have begun to speak out in droves. These comments could serve as a primer in assessing politicians’ attitudes toward transit. For example, we’ve already seen that John Liu, the chair of the City Council’s Transportation Committe, doesn’t get it, but what about a few other big names?

Curbed has Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz’s reactions to the East River tolling proposal:

“Haven’t we been down this road before? I have said it before and will say it again: East River tolls are discriminatory, impractical, and impose an unfair ‘tax’ on the outer boroughs—especially Brooklyn. Three of the four un-tolled bridges—the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg…Additionally, even with advances in E-ZPass technology, tolls will create even worse traffic backups for communities such as Downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg, DUMBO, and the ‘Brownstone Belt’ of Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn Heights and Boerum Hill, which already suffer.”

I hate to break it to Marty, but a financially crippled MTA would be far, far worse for Brooklyn than some tolls. In fact, two of the three lines up for service cuts run into Brooklyn too and serve many more people than the bridges on a daily basis. Unsurprisingly, Marty doesn’t get it.

But not everyone is as blind to reality as Markowitz. Richard Brodsky, a Westchester assemblyman who oversees the MTA, gets it, as William Neuman noted in The Times:

Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky, a Democrat from Westchester County who is the chairman of a commission that oversees the authority, said he was worried that the authority’s long-term spending needs would be forgotten in a discussion of its more immediate fiscal woes.

“You look back at the generation of leaders in the ’60s and ’70s and say, ‘How could they let the subway system deteriorate as much as it did?’ ” Mr. Brodsky said. “We are going to be faced with precisely the choices that they faced.” He added, “The real question here is do we repeat those mistakes?”

As Brodsky noted, the region cannot afford to let the MTA slip back into the hell it became in the 1960s and 1970s. That would be far, far worse for our economy that some tolls on the East River. Brodsky also gives me hope that not every politician will have a knee-jerk reaction to inconvenient truths the Ravitch Report will contain next month. We need to look forward for a solution. If that means higher tolls or a congestion fee or higher taxes, then so be it. A New York without a functional MTA with the ability to expand to meet the demands of a 21st Century city would be a bad place indeed.

Categories : MTA Economics
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It’s hard to wrap your mind around $1.2 billion. What exactly does it mean to face a $1.2 billion deficit?

In New York terms, it would take A-Rod 44 years at his current salary of $27 million a season to earn $1.2 billion. For Mayor Bloomberg, $1.2 billion is approximately six percent of his pre-stock market crash net worth.

But for the rest of us — the subway- and bus-riding public — that $1.2 billion figure is a harbinger of bad things to come. While Richard Ravitch may have a few politically untenable aces up his sleeve, the reality is that the MTA is going to have to cut, baby, cut to chip away at this massive deficit.

Pete Donohue has the news as it will impact riders:

Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials wouldn’t release details of a still-developing doomsday budget plan, but sources said bus riders – particularly on express routes – would likely see the biggest cuts.

Subway riders would see fewer trains, especially on lines with parallel service, such as the Broadway line in Manhattan, where N, R and W trains run, sources said.

Layoffs also are on the table, officials said.

William Neuman has the bad news for fare-watchers:

The preliminary budget also called for an 8 percent increase in fare and toll revenues, starting in July, which would generate an additional $200 million.

Each 1 percent increase in fare and toll revenues would generate slightly more than $4 million in income each month.

Of course, the problem with that fare increase and the additional $200 million is that those are simply replacement funds. The MTA doesn’t think that city and state, also facing significant budget crises, will come through with a promised $200 million contribution. So the MTA will still be left with rising costs and debt payments while the fare hike will simply offset money they should have gotten in the first place.

Meanwhile, for the first time, MTA officials, off the record, are talking about cutting service and increasing the fare at the same time; there is no plan in place to fund the next $30 billion capital campaign; and other services — maintenance workers, station cleaners — may face the axe as well. This is a sorry state of affairs for a vital transit agency.

One day, when it’s too late, our legislatures will wake up and realize that we as a city are doomed to repeat the recent past when the subways weren’t properly funded. But by the time we reach a point analogous to the 1960s and 1970s, it will be far too late. This week’s news should serve as a warning shot. For some reason, I don’t think it will.

Categories : MTA Economics
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Earlier today, the MTA Finance Committee held a special meeting to update the MTA Board on worsening financial projections. According to reports from the meeting, the MTA could be facing a crippling $1.2 billion deficit if the agency cannot find economic relief from the city, the state, a fare hike or measures suggested by the Ravitch committe.

Sewell Chan and William Neuman filed a report on City Room:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority faces a $1.2 billion budget deficit in 2009 — $300 million more than it had projected in July — that will very likely require new fare and toll increases or service reductions unless it gets new state and city aid or finds new sources of revenue, officials warned on Monday morning.

At a meeting of the finance committee of the authority’s board, the authority’s chief executive, Elliot G. Sander, said the authority faces a dire fiscal situation that could influence riders across the subway, bus and commuter-rail networks. The deficit was caused, he said, by the collapse of revenues from real estate and corporate taxes, which until just a few years ago had given the authority a string of healthy surpluses…

The magnitude of the fiscal challenges confronting the authority was evident in a PowerPoint presentation presented at the meeting and posted to the authority’s Web site. Real estate transaction taxes, which represent an important share of M.T.A. revenue, provided the authority with more than $1.4 billion in 2006 and nearly $1.6 billion in 2007. This year, the authority is on track to collect only $995 million in such taxes — about $50 million less than had been projected in July. And the situation is expected to get even worse. The authority now expects to collect $895 million in real estate taxes next year, and $877 million in 2010.

The PowerPoint presentation is available here, and in the next day or two, an archived video of the committee meeting will be posted on the MTA’s website.

“They will be very, very significant,” Sander said during the hearing. “Whatever that mix that we come up with, in terms of fare and toll increases and service reductions, there’s no question that they would have an impact, significantly, on our customer and on the functioning of that region.”

Right now, the financing mechanism for the MTA is clearly broken, and it’s up to the government to fix it. While the feds are working on a $700 billion bailout plan for the rest of the U.S. economic, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of the ordinary to suggest that less than 0.2 percent of that money be siphoned to ensure a healthy MTA. The New York Metropolitan Area’s transit infrastructure is probably at least that valuable to the national economy on the whole.

Meanwhile, the Ravitch Commission’s recommendations — discussed at length this morning — loom larger now. Somehow, someone will have to pay to fix the MTA. It will come out of taxpayers’ pockets either at the expense of everyone or at the expense of drivers who opt to enjoy the luxury of driving. In all likelihood, the end result will be some combination of both.

But no matter the solution, the government cannot allow the fortunes of the MTA to raise and fall on something as unstable as real estate tax revenues. It’s hard to underestimate the city’s need for a healthy public transit network. I’d hate to see New York learn the hard way a lesson we all should have picked up from the 1970s.

Categories : MTA Economics
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