It’s no secret these days that the MTA is in financial trouble. While the word bankruptcy hasn’t been tossed around yet, with the agency facing a few billion dollars in debt, we’re probably not too far away from that point. But an unlikely source of funds — in the form of pork — may be riding to the rescue soon.

Yesterday, in The Observer, Eliot Brown summed up the financial straits in which the MTA currently finds itself. For the most part, Brown rehashes territory familiar to loyal SAS readers: The MTA doesn’t have a dedicated source of revenue outside of the volatile real estate taxes. Having spend years borrowing to fund both ambitious capital plans and operating budgets, the agency finds itself on the edge of a massive financial crisis.

But Brown touches upon a new source of potential revenue in the form of senior Democrat and chair of the House Transportation Committee Jerrold Nadler, one of the most influential New Yorkers in the House. Writes Brown:

At the center of the Congressional efforts is Mr. Nadler, the infrastructure devotee who is now the most senior Democrat from the Northeast on the House Transportation Committee, which is slated to reauthorize a 12-figure, six-year transportation bill in 2009 that would likely steer substantial money to the M.T.A.

“What helps is that not only am I very senior, but compared to five years ago or six years ago, we’re in the majority now, not the minority, and we have five Democrats from New York on the committee,” he said.

The M.T.A. is planning on more than $8 billion from the federal government, an amount Mr. Nadler said seemed reasonable. But much will depend on who wins the presidential election.

The presidential comment, by the way, is way anyone who cares about the New York City subways should take a good long look at the public transit policies of Barack Obama.

Anyway, the MTA is now relying on a substantial federal contribution which basically amounts to a big barrel of pork for the region from Nadler. They’re also hoping for a magically monetary solution from Richard Ravitch. Meanwhile, as MTA CEO Elliot Sander noted in Brown’s article, the agency can’t really trim the internal fat anymore. “The M.T.A. has already taken significant steps to tighten our belts,” Sander said to Brown.

This is, of course, a risky strategy for the MTA. While Nadler’s promise is refreshing and one our representatives in Albany should adopt, the federal transportation has a long way to go before funds reach New York City. The bills will have to clear the House and the Senate, and a president — Bush or whoever wins in November — will have to sign off on the bill. If John McCain captures the White House, it won’t be a result of any voters in New York.

The promised money from Nadler is a start, and it’s refreshing to hear from a New York politician who is willing to get money into the coffers of those agencies who need it. But I’m afraid that this might be too little, too late. We need Albany to take the MTA’s financial situation seriously. We need more money for our transit network before it gets much worse.

Categories : MTA Economics
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  • NYC Transit increases fare-jumping fines · It’s official. Beginning around July 7, 2008, fines for evading the fares in the buses and subways will go from $60 to $100. It is the first such increase in over two decades, and NYC Transit notes that “virtually all other forms of civil fines in the region have increased since the 1980′s, quite substantially in many cases.” Did you know that police handed out nearly 85,000 fare-evasion summonses last year alone? [New York City Transit] · (2)
  • MTA Board votes to end free perk program · After weeks of bad publicity and legal threats from New York’s Attorney General, the MTA Board voted this morning to end the free perk program. No longer will current and former board members enjoy free E-ZPasses and MetroCards for life. Instead, only current board members will receive the passes, and they are too be used for official MTA business only. Anyone want to bet that current board members are suddenly going to making many more trips for “official business only” now? [City Room] · (0)

The two-track station at 72nd St. will be significantly narrower than the originally-planned three-track stop. (Source: MTA Capital Construction)

When I started Second Ave. Sagas in November of 2006, I had planned to focus on the Second Ave. Subway and its progress. But the day-to-day construction of a new subway line doesn’t make for compelling blogging on a daily basis, and the MTA just has so much to offer. So Second Ave. Sagas has evolved to become a site about the MTA, its subways and public transportation in and around New York in general.

Today, though, we’re going to revisit those Second Ave. Subway roots. As the MTA struggles to meet budget projections by deferring planned capital improvements and cutting various services, the Second Ave. Subway is facing the same fiscal problems. Already over budget and behind schedule, the Second Ave. Subway is now facing the dreaded project modification axe as well.

In a presentation last week to Community Board 8 (available here as a PDF), the MTA announced plans to scale back the planned station stop at 72nd St. from three tracks to two. According to MTA documents, these cuts are a product of — what else? — rising costs. By eliminating one of the tracks, the MTA will reduce construction expenditures by lessening the amount of material excavated, the number of truck trips needed for the job, the amount of material needed for the station and the number of and dollar amount of the deep subsurface easements in the area around 72nd St. Yes, there will be a quiz.

Now, as critics of the current Second Ave. Subway plan have often noted, this new subway line is sorely lacking in express service, and while monetary concerts preclude a four-track system — something we’re bound to regret in, oh, twenty years or so — the third track at 72nd St. would have made orchestrating the Q’s merge from the Broadway line onto the T’s Second Ave. line easier. As the original environmental impact statement said in 2004:

[The 72nd St. station] would accommodate a three-track station and the transition to the existing Broadway Line, which would allow for a smooth merge between the two services (Second Avenue and Broadway) and permit turning back some Broadway services under special operating conditions, such as the closure of the Manhattan Bridge tracks, which result in additional trains on the Broadway Line.

Over on Subchat, the debate over the fate of this track extends through many messages with some folks believing that it was a luxury that could go with money tight and others believing that we’ll come to miss it. I believe that the lack of a third track may, at times, hold up merges from Broadway onto the Second Ave. line. It will cause passengers transferring from a T to a Q at 72nd St. to wait for the next train instead of finding one waiting across the platform, but that’s getting way too far ahead of ourselves as the sections south of 72nd St. on Second Ave. are simply plans on paper with no funding behind them right now.

In the end, many people will see this move as a precursor to the eventual collapse of this project yet again. I don’t see that happening though. The MTA, the city, the state and the feds have spent too much money on this version of the Second Ave. Subway for it to fall apart again. We may only get three stops for now; we may get more. But sometime around 2015 subways will run up Second Ave. The city needs it too much.

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With construction fences lining the avenue, it’s easy to see why Second Ave. businesses are suffering. (Photo courtesy of The Launch Box. Click to enlarge.)

Amidst all the bad news surrounding MTA budgets and E-ZPass scandals last week, the Second Ave. Business Association is trying to draw attention to another subway-inspired plight.

The construction of the city’s long-awaited subway line is stifling businesses to the point of collapse along Second Ave. As construction slowly makes it way south, those in the line of fire are holding their breaths as advocates work for a financial solution to aid those in peril. Christine Lin of the Epoch Times has more on this story:

Since the Metropolitan Transportation Authority began construction of the Second Avenue Subway in March, businesses between 91st and 96th streets have suffered, say storeowners in the area.

Crowe’s Bar and Restaurant has had to lay off several employees in nine months. Sidewalk space has been reduced from 21 square feet to only six, discouraging foot traffic and ultimately causing six businesses to close, according to Barbara D’Antonio, owner of Wine Lovers just down the street on Second Avenue…

Due to extensive tunneling, the construction will continue until 2015, working its way down Second Ave. The area between 91st and 96th streets will serve as the launch box for the tunnel-boring machine, so the area will be affected for the duration of construction.

Business owners fear that in that time, the noise and dust will drive more stores to close, and in their stead chain stores will spring up. Already another six stores are in immediate danger of closing, say the business owners.

Currently, as Ben at The Launch Box detailed last week, three bills are winding their way through the New York State Assembly. These measures would help businesses currently impacted by the construction and those facing future problems due to the project’s making its way from the East 90s down to the 70s. These bills include tax abatements and grants for affected businesses. At the same time, the MTA is urging everyone to Shop Second Avenue.

But will these measures be enough? The Daily News provides some concrete figures, and businesses along Second Ave. are losing both customers and employees. Some owners are seeing significant decreases in revenue, and many others say their businesses will close if the bills don’t pass the Assembly.

I’m torn on this topic. I feel for the business owners along Second Ave. who are seeing their livelihoods impacted by the construction. But I know that the city needs this subway. It is again up to the people in charge to provide for these business owners during lean times. We can’t allow the city to run rampant over people’s lives as Robert Moses did while building the city’s numerous neighborhood-destroying roads, but we can’t watch mega-projects that are vital to the city’s future founder.

As Carolyn Maloney, Congressional representation from the Upper East Side, said, “We don’t want to wake up and find a brand new subway line surrounded by empty storefronts. It is only fair that the New Yorkers who are bearing the burden of Second Avenue Subway construction get the help they need.”

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The rehabilitation plan for the Smith-9th Sts. subway stop is just one of more “deferred” projects. (Photo by flickr user Victoria Belanger)

Ah, to yearn for the innocent days of November when it seemed like the MTA would actually be rehabbing the stations along the Culver Viaduct while they did the necessary engineering work on the Viaduct itself. Or perhaps we could revisit the days of early June when the MTA said the 4th Ave. station wouldn’t be getting an overhaul, but the Smith-9th Sts. station would enjoy a face lift.

Now, it’s all gone.

One day after we heard the rumors, the MTA issued a series of financial statements that include alarming real estate tax projections and what officials are terming deferrals for various capital projects — including the Culver Viaduct station rehabilitation plans — in an effort to cull together nearly $3 billion in short-term savings. The long-term prognosis for the MTA is hazier and bleaker.

William Neuman reports on this alarming and expected story:

In a series of public meetings of authority board committees, officials said the authority would be forced to cut projects valued at $2.7 billion from its 2005-9 capital spending program, largely because of soaring costs on construction projects already under way.

The projects being cut include 19 subway station renovations and important projects for the modernization of subway signals and repair facilities. The authority’s chief executive, Elliot G. Sander, said those projects were expected to be included in the authority’s next five-year spending plan, which begins in 2010. But he acknowledged that the authority did not yet know how it would find the financing for that plan.

Officials also said the revenues from taxes on real estate transactions, which have buoyed the day-to-day operations of the transit system in recent years, were falling off at an alarming rate, resulting in a shortfall this year of $122 million. Revenues from the real estate taxes are on track to end the year about $280 million below budget projections.

With fuel costs skyrocketing, the MTA finds itself already $60 million over budget for 2008 with no sign of economic relief in sight.

According to Neuman’s report, the MTA is going all-out with the trimming. Foremost among the projects cut is the station rehab plans for the Viaduct. The Smith-9th Sts. station will remain as it is now, with boarded up windows, peeling paint and a generally unappealing aesthetic vibe. Joining it in rehab limbo will be a series of Brooklyn stations along the D and N lines and some Bronx 6 stations. The Brighton Line rehab plans may be saved simply because they aren’t too far along in the planning process.

The MTA is also sacrificing behind-the-scenes upgrades needed to keep the trains running. It is scraping parts of an in-progress signal modernization plan; it is doing away with proposals to install vents in the tunnels to clear the air in case of a fire emergency; and it is starting to cut aspects of their big-ticket items (but more on that later today). The MTA is, in other words, beginning to sacrifice quality due to money, not because they want to but because they have no choice.

In defense of these actions, the MTA officials say they will reapply for funding for these plans when the 2010-2014 capital plan comes up for review next year. These projects, officials maintain, will see the light of day. Of course, the problem with that assertion is that the MTA is facing capital budget deficits upwards of $10 billion, and unless Richard Ravitch can save the day again, we are facing a subway system in dire financial peril.

The problem, of course, lies with the way our public transportation network is funded. In short, it isn’t. The MTA relies on real estate taxes at the whim of a market and puts too much pressure on capturing fare revenue for operating and expansion plans. There is no secure dedicated source of revenue.

Apparently, no one learned any lessons from the 1970s. With the subways in shambles, the city collapsed. As the city rebounding and the subways did too, New York enjoyed a nearly unprecedented boom. Now, as the nation’s economy slows, our public transit network is paying the price of negligent overseers. Until Albany realizes that a healthy MTA is the key to the economic well-being of New York City, the agency is in for a rough ride.

Categories : MTA Economics
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  • Free ride, take it easy · So just how much driving do the folks in charge of our public transportation network do in a year? Well, according to numbers crunched by reporters, the MTA officials receiving free E-ZPasses tallied up bills worth over $30,000 in 12 months. According to William Neuman of The Times, 45 board members used their E-ZPasses 7513 times. That’s over 20 rides per day. [The New York Times] · (1)

The subways certainly aren’t known for their cleanliness. (Photo by flickr user Lanamaniac)

The MTA knows that it needs to increase subway service while facing a budget deficit. While bus expansion plans have kept pace with population growth, subway service hasn’t followed suit. Now, after one fare hike and with the threat of another looming, the MTA is going forward with some service expansion plans.

Meanwhile, the MTA is also facing a budget deficit that could see the agency’s bottom line reach record levels of debt. With Wednesday’s MTA Board meeting set to focus on budgetary concerns, New York City Transit is gearing up to approve its own budget with various services — but not subway service — facing the axe.

amNew York’s Matthew Sweeney took an in-depth look at how New York City Transit plans to save money behind the scenes to not only provide riders with more service but to meet budget deficits that could reach a billions dollars. He reports:

New York City Transit is expected to vote Monday on its budget-savings plan that would halt plans to repair 19 stations, put off paint jobs for flaking elevated structures, and institute a more “efficient” way of cleaning subway cars…

Many of the cuts, however, will take place behind the scenes and delay needed repairs to transit buildings that keep the system running, such as tunnel vents, bus depots, and a subway-car overhaul shop…

Another $8.9 million in savings will come from the MTA’s operating budget. The savings, which will fund increased service on certain train lines, include subway car cleaning and quality control.

For their part, the MTA says that riders won’t notice the changes brought about by the cuts. “None of the reductions will have an impact on what riders see,” Paul Fleuranges, NYC Transit spokesman, said to Sweeney in an e-mail.

I hope that is indeed the case, but I worry when I hear that subway car cleaning efforts may be re-examined. Subway cars aren’t that clean to begin with; my Saturday night Q train this week was a mess. Anything worse would make the cars resemble the T cars in Boston.

While the MTA will go ahead with the vital projects — the Culver Viaduct rehabilitation, for example, is not in jeopardy — I’m guessing that the planned improvements along the Q/B Brighton line will be shelved for now. Local officials will be up-in-arms about these cuts.

Overall, the MTA believes that these cuts to some capital projects could clear up $2 to $3 billion in savings to meet budget deficits in its current plan. There is a chance that big-ticket items — Second Ave. Subway, East Side Access plan — could face delays as well, but the MTA is hoping to avoid that scenario. The city needs subway expansion plans, and with the government set to contribute money earmarked for these projects, it’s growing harder for the MTA to delay or even shelve them entirely as they’ve done in the past.

In the end, the MTA is technically cutting service. But as we originally feared, they aren’t cutting subway service. Instead, they’re cutting services while adding more trains, and we’re left questioning Albany’s commitment to funding the MTA and public transit in New York. As MTA Board member Andrew Albert said to Sweeney, “You have to be concerned about the lack of funding support from the state and the city. They want all of these improvements and then they scream when we raise fares. They have to come up with more money.”


Categories : Service Cuts
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