• DN: MTA raise shows an agency out of touch · While Elliot Sander’s recent $10,000 package raise was largely symbolic, the timing, as I argued yesterday, could hardly have been worse. Today, the Daily News editorial board takes the MTA to task for approving the raise. Sure, Sander could have jumped to the private sector; sure, he’s not compensated as well as other transit heads. But when the MTA is rolling back promised service upgrades (more on that in a bit) and generally crying poverty, the time is not ripe for a high-profile raise no matter how small. [Daily News] · (0)

The most useful poster nowhere to be found. (Courtesy of Vignelli Associates. Click to enlarge.)

In 1966, the newly formed Metropolitan Transportation Authority was busy planning for its subway system takeover, still two years away. Within the five boroughs, the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Authority, as it was originally called, faced the challenge of rebranding a subway system that was, in parts, over six decades old.

At the time, the subways were a mishmash of signs and fonts. It was a graphics design nightmare. Signage left over from when the subways were run by competing corporations — the Interborough Rapid Transit company and the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Company — and the city’s own Independent Subway System dominated the tunnels and clashed with each other. There was no consistency to it, no unique identity.

To remedy this problem, the MTA turned to Massimo Vignelli, one of the foremost Modernist designers of the era. While Vignelli would come to fame and infamy in New York due to his artistic but confusing subway map, the system still relies on signage and graphics he designed over four decades ago.

Taking a modular approach to subway signs, Vignelli used a clear Sans Serif font — Akzidenz-Grotesk, a cousin of the popular Helevtica — and designed the familiar paneled signs that could be manipulated to present everything from line route information to station identification. While Vignelli’s original designs were white with black lettering, vandals armed with spray paint quickly defaced these signs, and the MTA adopted the familiar white-on-black signs we know today.

As I was poking around the Vignelli Associates Web site recently, I came upon a partial representation of one of Vignelli’s signs that you see above. I did a double-take when I saw it simply because it is exactly what the New York City subway system is missing.

Allow me to present a familiar scene. A large family, clearly not from New York, is huddled near the token booth trying to make heads or tails of the subway map. They’re at Grand St. in Chinatown; they need to get to the Upper West Side to visit their daughter at Columbia; and it’s Saturday. They can’t tell which trains are running where, what to transfer to or how to go.

Enter this long-lost Vignelli sign posted above. Adaptable to individual stations, this sign explicitly lays out how to get from that point of entry to any other major station in the system. Using two columns — one labeled “Destination,” the other “How to get there” — this sign is a textbook example of an easy and direct way to present complicated information. Suddenly, the tourists don’t need to decipher a map; they can read a sentence instructing them to take an uptown D to 59th St./Columbus Circle, where they can switch to a 1 train making local stops through the Upper West Side. Easy as pie.

Why the MTA (or, in this case, New York City Transit) doesn’t employ signs such as these in popular stations is a question I will have to research. It wouldn’t be too hard to stick these types of signs up in tourist hot spots with directions to other major New York City destinations, and, in fact, it’s easy to group stations served by the same line in nearby neighborhoods as well.

It’s a testament to Vignelli’s abilities that his designs have withstood four decades of time. They still look good in the subways today, and his designs are evocative of the New York subway system. Perhaps then we should bring back one of his earlier ideas; it’s much easier to read a sign telling riders “how to get there” then it is to decode the subway map.

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While the MTA is crying poverty and threatening fare hikes and service cutbacks, the Authority is also doling out raises to its executives. According to a report in the Daily News, MTA Chairman Dale Hemmerdinger has authorized what Pete Donohue termed “a $10,000 boost” to CEO Elliot “Lee” Sander’s compensation package.

Hemmerdinger attempting to defend the move, noting that Sander’s $340,000 annual salary is low. “I approved a 3% increase for the executive director/CEO, equal to increases earned by the management that reports to him. Lee is still paid less than the heads of smaller transit agencies in Washington and Los Angeles, and far less than what he would earn in the private sector,” he said in a statement.

The reality of the situation is that $10,000 isn’t going to make or break an agency looking at annual deficits of hundreds of millions of dollars, and Sander has done an excellent job looking to the MTA’s future while negotiating the tough financial constraints of the present. But at a time when the authority is practically begging for a money, a high-profile raise no matter how small isn’t the right message to send to the fare-paying public or the legislatures holding the purse strings.

Categories : MTA Absurdity
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Over five months ago — an eternity in the world of construction — Mysore Nagaraja left his post as head of MTA Capital Construction. Since then, the MTA has soldiered on with an interim head in place; Veronique Hakim is still just the acting head of the construction agency.

Now, however, this turmoil at the top has the feds worrying that the MTA is falling behind on their big-ticket items such as the Second Ave. Subway and the LIRR East Side Access project. The news just keeps getting worse for the MTA, and the future for a few much-needed expansion plans remains murky.

Pete Donohue had more about the feds’ concerns:

The Federal Transit Administration is concerned that major MTA construction projects could be mucked up because the authority hasn’t filled high-level management positions, the Daily News has learned.

“Several key positions,” including Capital Construction president, “continue to be filled on a temporary basis and other key positions are still vacant,” FTA monitors wrote in an April report in a section titled Major Issues/Problems.

Later in the report, which focuses on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s extension of the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal, the feds observe that an MTA-hired consultant “continues to stress the importance for [the MTA] to fill these positions as soon as possible to properly manage a project of this magnitude.”

The Daily News also notes that the project’s completion date is now 2015, two years late, and that the plan is now $1 billion over budget. Somehow, that’s less surprising than it should be.

For their part, the MTA says a new Capital Construction head will be forthcoming, and that person couldn’t arrive soon enough. With their finances in turmoil, the MTA can’t allow their on-going and federally-supported construction projects to fall further behind. The agency needs the continued support of the feds, and New Yorkers need these expansion plans to become a reality.

Categories : MTA Construction
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  • AirTran announcement should scuttle Stewart raillink plans · For some reason, the cash-strapped MTA wants to spend a few billion dollars on a raillink from Manhattan to Stewart Aiport. I’ve discussed the folly of this plan before, and a recent announcement by AirTran should drive yet another nail into this idea’s coffin. Last week, AirTran, one of the two biggest carriers out of the Hudson Valley airport, announced plans to end service to Stewart Airport. Stewart becomes another in the long line of smaller regional airports that are too far from urban centers seeing a decrease in flight options, and the plans for a raillink to this airport should probably be frozen now as well. · (6)

For the past few years, the MTA has relied on various sources of real estate revenue to cover budget gaps. The authority had to turn to real estate taxes to keep pace with their operating budgets, and it has banked on land deals — such as the Hudson Yards sale — for vital economic contributions.

In the long run, this is, not to mince words, a terrible strategy. As we’ve seen this year, real estate taxes are very much at the whim of the economy, and when the housing market collapses, the MTA’s tax-based revenues follow suit. When those funds are supposed to be a key part of an annual budget, a public transportation agency will find itself strapped for cash.

In an ideal world — and one that New York State’s former three-term governor denied for the better part of a decade — the MTA’s operating budget would come from a separate dedicated revenue source. Whether that source be annual government contributions from the state for something — in this case, a transit system — that drives New York’s economy or, as it probably will be in the future, a congestion fee pricing structure, the MTA should not be dependent upon something as volatile as the real estate market.

By now, with the MTA’s repeated cries of poverty and financial problems, one would hope that New York politicians would start to understand that real estate does not a public transportation budget make. Alas, they do not. In a press conference on Sunday, City Council member Eric Gioia — from Queens — urged the MTA to sell its real estate holdings. He, of course, had an ulterior motive.

The Sun’s Benjamin Sarlin reports:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority should sell the roof over its head before raising fares on New Yorkers twice in one year, Council Member Eric Gioia said yesterday.

Mr. Gioia, a likely candidate for public advocate in 2009, is calling on the MTA to sell off the 20-story building it owns at 44th Street and Madison Avenue to raise the money necessary to avert a fare increase.

“There’s no justification for the MTA to be on Madison Avenue,” Mr. Gioia, of Queens, said at a press conference in front of the building yesterday. “This is a glaring example of an asset being underutilized.”

He estimated that the property, which contains more than 230,000 square feet of prime office space, could fetch “at least” $200 million on the open market. Mr. Gioia suggested that after the sale, the MTA should move its offices to Queens.

Now, I could debate this point with Gioia. I could tell him that the $200-million infusion of cash, if the MTA could actually sell their Madison Ave. space in a weak seller’s market, would do wonders for the MTA’s budget gap this year. I could say that this transaction would do absolutely nothing to shore up the MTA’s finances for next year or further into the future, and I could argue that the rent the MTA would have to pay on whatever property they move to would probably exceed the money they draw in for the sale sooner rather than later.

But instead, I think I’ll just laugh at Gioia for giving it the old college try. This statement was nothing but an attempt to look good in the eyes of his Queens constituents. The MTA should sell their office space — and move to Queens? There must be a better way to fund the MTA than that, Eric. How about some real proposals instead?

Categories : MTA Economics
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Earlier this week, we took a brief look at the Ravitch Commission. The 12 members tasked with saving the MTA are all highly-regarded transit and finance experts who will do their best to find the money to keep our trains running.

Today, Streetsblog lets us in a not-so-secret secret: A fair number of the commission members are suppporters of congestion pricing. Four of the 12 members, not counting Ravitch, would seem to support a congestion charge proposal, and my money’s on Ravitch’s commission producing a report calling for a fee. It will be much harder to ignore this plan than it was for the state legislature to shoot down Mayor Bloomberg’s fee.

Meanwhile, service advisories:

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 14 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 16, uptown 1 trains skip 79th, 86th, 103rd, 110th, 116th, and 125th Streets due to station rehab at 96th Street and track chip-out at 110h Street.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 14 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 16, uptown 2 trains replace the 5 from Nevins Street to 149th Street-Grand Concourse. Uptown 5 trains replace the 2 from Chambers Street to 149th Street-Grand Concourse. These changes are due to the Clark Street tunnel lighting project.

Brooklyn-bound trains skip Bergen St., Grand Army Plaza and Eastern Parkway from 11 p.m. on Friday, June 13 to 7 a.m. on Sunday, June 14, from 11 p.m. on Saturday, June 14 to 8 a.m. on Sunday, June 15 and from 11 p.m. on Sunday, June 15 to 5 a.m. on Monday, June 16.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 14 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 16, there are no 3 trains between New Lots Avenue and 14th Street. In Manhattan, take the uptown 5 or downtown 2. In Brooklyn, take the 4 making all local stops. These changes are due to the Clark Street tunnel lighting project.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 14 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 16, uptown 5 trains skip 79th and 86th Streets due to station rehab at 96th Street-Broadway.

From 4 a.m. Saturday, June 14 to 10 p.m. Sunday, June 15, Bronx-bound 6 trains run express from Hunts Point Avenue to Parkchester due to track panel work between Hunts Point Avenue and Parkchester. The last stop for some 6 trains is 125th Street.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 14 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 16, there is no C train service. A trains run local between 168th Street and Euclid Avenue. Manhattan-bound A trains run on the F from Jay to West 4th Streets. For Chambers, Canal, and Spring Streets, take the E instead. From High Street and Broadway-Nassau, take a Brooklyn-bound A to Jay Street and transfer to a Manhattan-bound A. These changes are due to Chambers Street Signal Modernization.

From 4 a.m. Saturday, June 14 to 10 p.m. Sunday, June 15, Coney Island-bound D trains run on the N line from 36th Street (Brooklyn) to Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue due to track panel work between 9th Avenue and Bay 50th Street.

From 8:30 p.m. Friday, June 13 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 16, there are no G trains between Forest Hills-71st Avenue and Court Square due to track chip-out between 36th Street and Roosevelt Avenue. Take the E or R instead.

From 4 a.m. Saturday, June 14 to 10 p.m. Sunday, June 15, free shuttle buses replace J trains between Crescent Street and the Jamaica-Van Wyck E station. (There are no J trains between Crescent Street and Jamaica Center-Parsons/Archer.) This is due to track panel installation between Cypress Hills and Jamaica Center-Parsons/Archer.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 14 to 5 a.m. Monday, June 16, Brooklyn-bound NR train are rerouted over the Manhattan Bridge from Canal Street to DeKalb Avenue due to track roadbed work between Prince and Whitehall Streets.

Categories : Service Advisories
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Ever looking out for the public’s bottom line, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has issued another report on the state of the MTA’s finances. This one reveals that the transportation authority has doled out over $1.2 billion for personal claims and property damage over the last 12 years.

The Times’ William Neuman broke the story on City Room on Thursday:

The report said that over all, the two commuter railroads and New York City Transit received a total of 86,875 claims of all types from 1996 to 2007. Since 1996, 85 cases have been settled for $1 million or more, at a total cost of $233 million, or a fifth of all claims paid.

Over the period covered by the study, claims have generally amounted to less than $100 million a year. Last year they reached $144 million because of the settlement of some unusually large claims. The authority’s annual operating budget is more than $10 billion.

The report — available here as a PDF — isn’t so much as critical of the MTA as it is just laying out the facts. Where the report is most critical is in the infamous LIRR armrest issue. The arm rest settlements have exceeded $285,000. That’s a lot of torn pants.

Most of the other claims and the big-ticket items in particular were focused around safety issues. People filed claims for falling into that LIRR platform gap, for getting struck by trains and for worker-related issues. For their part, the MTA in response focused on improving safety standards underground. Said Jeremy Soffin:

Protecting the safety and security of our employees and customers is the MTA’s top priority. The MTA has made great strides in improving safety over the past ten years, and we continue to pursue new initiatives. Since 1996, the employee injury rate has been reduced by 60% and in 2007 the MTA achieved its lowest employee injury rate ever. Customer injuries have also decreased. Since 1996 the number of customer injuries per million customers has decreased by 28% even while the MTA ridership is at record numbers. As a result, the MTA’s ultimate incurred cost for employee and customer accidents is less than what would have been expected, a savings of approximately $335 million from 1997-2007. In addition, two of the causes identified by the Comptroller of higher recent claims — gap incidents and torn clothing due to armrests on the commuter railroads — have both been addressed.

In the end, it’s hard to be overly critical of the MTA for this expenditure. Considering that billions of people ride the subways each year, the injury rate and the amount paid out per year are relatively slow. It would be better to see the MTA’s paying out zero dollars a year, but in our litigious society, that’s just a pipe dream.

Categories : MTA Economics
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  • House approves Amtrak bill, but Bush may veto it · The House of Representatives yesterday approved a $14.4-billion rail investment bill. The bill will reauthorize Amtrak’s funding, provide some money to long-awaited Moynihan Station project and provide money to construct a high-speed bullet train from New York City to D.C. While the White House may veto this bill, it has the votes in the House and Senate to pass anyway. While I applaud the focus on rail, this strikes me as a “too little, too late” measure. We could use a lot more investments like this one in our national rail. · (4)
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