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Top: Bill Brand in 1980 poses with his recently-installed Masstransiscope. (Courtesy of Bill Brand. Click the images to enlarge.)

When Bill Brand’s Masstransiscope, a zoetrope hidden behind a slitted wall at the long-abandoned Myrtle Ave. stop just north of DeKalb Ave., first debuted in 1980, straphangers could view it from the Manhattan-bound QB train. One of those things, it seems, is ready for a revival. After an extensive restoration that involved removed layers of graffiti, the Masstransiscope is back.

“When I made the piece,” Brand, a film and video artist, said to me this week, “I didn’t even have a VCR. I’m just really happy to have it back.”

The recent saga of the Masstransiscope goes back about five years, according to Brand. The piece, designed as a zoetropic image, had been lost to time. Many of the lights had burned out, and the hand-painted panels had long been vandalized. It had become a rather of New York subway lore, forgotten to time by all but a few.

Brand, giving a talk to a group of film archivists, threw in a mention of the Masstransiscope as what he called one “an unusual cinematic work.” The response from the audience was immediate, and these archivists urged Brand to restore it. “Do I spend the time restoring this or do I make the next piece?” Brand questioned.

In the end, Brand decided to contact the MTA about restoring the piece. While Arts for Transit was initially resistant mainly due to the price, Brand secured some funding through a grant from the Albers Foundation. When development above ground allowed for temporary access to the remnants of the Myrtle Ave. station, Brand headed underground to survey the damage.

What he found was not pretty, but with the grant in hand, volunteer labor from some of his NYU students and some good old trial-and-error, Brand eventually figured out the best approach to cleaning and repairing the unique work. “I was interested in restoring it,” he said, “but not sure how.”

At first, Brand consulted with Metroclean Express, the company tasked with power-washing the city’s bus shelters. While the original work contained an anti-graffiti film, Brand was unsure how kind the years had been to his now-28 -year-old piece. Four hours into the work on one of the Masstransiscope’s 57 segments, just half of the panel had been cleaned, and the cleaning was taking its toll on the panel. “I thought this isn’t going to work this way,” he said.

Back in his studio, Brand experimented with a variety of commercial paint cleaners and eventually discovered a combination that did the trick. In a few weeks, all 57 panels had been stripped clear of what Brand guessed were between 20 and 30 layers of graffiti. While the piece still has some minor damages, as Brand said, “that was dust and hair.” Riders espying it from the windows of a passing B or Q train won’t be able to notice the damage.

Newly restored, the Masstransiscope has enjoyed something of a soft launch. Randy Kennedy profiled the piece in a Times article on New Year’s Day, but the MTA has not held any sort of formal unveiling ceremony. It is now including on Arts for Transit’s permanent artwork website as well. “It’s really exciting to be able to present it again,” Amy Hausmann, assistant director at Arts for Transit, said.

Now relit with longer lasting lightbulbs, the Masstransiscope will be in the minds of MTA officials. Hausmann and Lester Burg, a curator at Arts for Transit, told me that they plan to keep on eye on it. Conservation is indeed an issue for the arts-minded side of the MTA.

Over the next few months, Brand is hoping to give a Transit Museum-sponsored lecture about the work, but in the meantime, he is quite content to let riders discovery it for themselves. In fact, just a few weeks ago, I overheard a couple wondering just how long that “flip-book type thing” had been on display. The two could not agree as they spent the ride across the Manhattan Bridge talking about it.

“I’ve been really tickled by how much self-generated interest it’s generating this time around,” Brand said of his piece that offers riders a 20-second glimpse at a zoetrope live in the subways.

Click for a video of the Masstransiscope and an old quote that still rings true.

Categories : Arts for Transit
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Late last week, MTA CEO and Executive Director Elliot Sander predicted that the transit authority and the Transport Workers Union would be able to avoid another strike as the TWU contract is set to expire later this month. While the two sides have been negotiating for the last few weeks, they are not going to come to a negotiated resolution and will instead head to arbitration.

A few minutes ago, the MTA released the following statement:

Over the past several months, the MTA and TWU Local 100 have discussed a possible agreement on a contract effective January 16, 2009. However, due to complications associated with today’s current economic climate, we have reached an impasse and have jointly decided to arbitrate contract terms.

The Union, on the other hand, does not seem as optimistic:

After months of discussions with the M.T.A., a settlement could not be reached. As the contract moves to arbitration, we wait to see whether transit workers will be treated fairly or in a manner disparate to the other workers who serve this city.

While arbitration is not as ideal as a negotiated contract and can lead to animosity further down the road, both sides have so far seemed willing to do what it takes to avoid a strike. That is, of course, good news for straphangers, but today’s development throws a wrench into those plans. The TWU is obviously not too happy about the arbitration development, and another strike would probably throw MTA bailout efforts into turmoil.

I’ll have more on this development as the story develops.

Categories : TWU
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  • Transit we can believe in · As President-elect Barack Obama plans to take over the reins of a country in an economic recession, he has been putting forth some transportation stimulus package plans. Unfortunately, transit advocates are finding much to bemoan in Obama’s road-centric plans. Yesterday’s Times joined the fray with an editorial calling for transit investment. Hopefully, Obama will heed the call, and if he does, I have to believe that New York stands to benefit. · (0)

On March 25, this Doomsday budget-Richard Ravitch-MTA drama will come to a head for it is on that day that the MTA Board will have to decide whether or not to approve draconian service cuts and rampant fare hikes. Start your clocks, folks, because we’re in for a wild political ride.

“The drop-dead date is March 25, which is when the MTA board of directors meets and will vote whether to hit the riders with a 23 percent fare hike and massive service cuts or whether the state legislature and Governor Paterson will come to the rescue of the riding public,” Gene Russianoff, head of the Straphangers Campaign, said to NY1’s Bobby Cuza.

Meanwhile, New York State leaders are already lining up behind the Ravitch proposals. Whether the state legislature will is another question entirely. Cuza has more on this story:

The Paterson administration said it’s already drafting legislation to implement the recommendations of the Ravitch Commission, including a new payroll tax and new tolls on the East River bridges, to allow for a much smaller fare hike. The MTA will be sending a delegation to Albany next week to lobby legislators who go back to work this Wednesday…

Last week, MTA Executive Director Lee Sander said the proposed hikes are not just a scare tactic. “If we don’t get the money from Albany, we would have to do this. Having said that, do I hope that this will have a stimulative effect on our legislators and further encourage them to pass the recommendations of the ravitch commission? Yes,” said Sander.

While the MTA may also get money from a federal stimulus bill, it’s likely those dollars will go toward construction projects and won’t prevent a fare hike. As for the mayor, he said he has faith in Albany. “I’m optimistic that they’ll do something. But right now, if they don’t do anything, we’re going to have Draconian increases in fares and some cuts in services,” said Bloomberg.

We’ll be hearing a lot of that over the next two and a half months as New York’s straphangers and rail commuters await for a final judgment.

As this drama unfolds, it will be interesting to see how newspaper support lines up behind Ravitch. While The New York Times recently endorsed the Ravtich recommendations, other city newspapers haven’t embraced the full slate of tolls and taxes. Last week, the Downtown Express, while voicing approval of the tax-and-toll plan, urged state officials to consider higher on-street parking rates and vehicle registration fees as an alternate possibility.

In the end, this will boil down to the political feasibility of the chosen plan. While only three percent of Brooklyn drivers would be hit by a toll while nearly 60 percent stand to lose out if service cuts and fare hikes come to pass, for some reason, tolls are a political no-no. They might best for the city, but politicians are loathe to wreck their re-election chances. Either way, the Doomsday clock is ticking, and in 78 days, we’ll know what the future holds for our subway system.

Categories : Fare Hikes, Service Cuts
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  • The power of subway art, 20 years later · The 86th St. station on the West Side IRT has long been decorated with mosaic versions of paintings. While the third graders’ art at 59th St. have long been removed, these tiled paintings at 86th St. still give the station a more artistic feel. Today, Times reporter Martin Espinoza chats with some of the artists about the origins of the paintings and what these drawings mean to them 20 years later. It’s a nice New York story about some good that came out of an Arts for Transit program. · (4)

As the first week of 2009 dawns, we’ll soon be hearing a lot about more about the MTA’s finances. The authority has public hearings on the Doomsday budget set for this month, and at some point, the state legislature will begin to deal with a Ravitch-inspired bailout plan.

But in the meantime, let’s hop into the Wayback Machine. We’ll visit a time when the MTA had money and decided to spend all on us! Those were the days, eh?

The time is 2005, and the MTA has determined that they will enjoy a $928-million budget surplus for that fiscal year. That number would in fact eventually reach $1.04 billion. As The Times explained at the time, the surplus “stemmed from the unusually high real estate taxes and low interest rates.” We now know all too well what happens when unusually high real estate taxes turn into unusually low real estate taxes, but we’ll get to that later.

In an effort to give something back to the riders, the MTA in October announces a plan for discount holiday fares. Immediately, this move is decried as “a marketing gimmick” by city experts. This move will cost the MTA $100 million of their surplus with the rest going to reducing some unfunded pension liability, enhancing subway security and expanding service.

Experts were skeptical. “Why is the M.T.A. engaging in feel-good, short-term gimmicks rather than convincing riders and business leaders that it has sensible, long-term plans for a balanced operating budget and a fully funded capital budget?” James A. Parrott, chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute, said to Sewell Chan.

Some city officials wondered about the rational behind the move. “Whom does this actually benefit?” Preston Niblack of the city’s Independent Budget Office said to The Times. “It does not really solve any structural issues. It’s great from a public relations point of view, but it does not address long-term needs.” It never does.

In the end, the MTA Board approved the plan but not without dissent. Some board members feared the discount offerings would lead the public to believe the MTA had full coffers at a time when internal documents were predicting a $900-million deficit for as soon as 2009. (They clearly underestimated.)

In the end, the program earned mixed reviews, and transit advocates maintained that the money should have been reinvested in the system and used to shore up the MTA’s shaky future financial picture. Even in 2006, hindsight was 20/20.

Now, three years removed from the days of discount fares, the MTA has gone from a surplus to a deficit of a size larger than the one predicted in 2005. If the agency knew that their finances were going to head south, why didn’t they urge a Ravitch Commission-type investigation sooner? For years, we’ve know that real estate tax revenue is no way to fund a transit system, and now we’re paying the press.

At some point, the MTA’s finances will improve, and the agency may once again be saddled with the “problem” of a surplus. But for now, we can just look back on 2005 as a moment in time when transit funding seemed secure, and the riders got a discount, misguided as it may have been.

Categories : Subway History
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Weekend Service Advisories

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From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, January 3 to 5 a.m. Monday, January 5, uptown 46 trains run express from Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall to Grand Central-42nd Street due to a track chip-out north of Spring Street.

From 4 a.m. Saturday, January 3 to 10 p.m. Sunday, January 4, Manhattan-bound 6 trains run express from Pelham Bay Park to Parkchester due to track panel installation from Castle Hill Avenue to Parkchester. The last stop for some Bronx-bound 6 trains is 3rd Avenue-138th Street.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, January 2 to 5 a.m. Monday, January 5 (and the following weekend Jan 9-12), there are no 7 trains between Times Square-42nd Street and Queensboro Plaza due to track panel installation on the Davis Street curve and security conduit and cable installation in the under river tube. The NQ and free shuttle buses provide alternate service.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, January 3 to 5 a.m. Monday, January 5, downtown A trains skip 50th, 23rd, and Spring Streets due to fan plant rehabilitation south of 7th Avenue.

From 12:01 a.m. to 5 a.m. Saturday, Manhattan-bound A trains skip Shepherd, Van Siclen and Liberty Avenues due to track cleaning.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, January 2 to 5 a.m. Monday, January 5, free shuttle buses replace A trains between 168th and 207th Streets due to tunnel lighting work north of 168th Street. Customers may transfer between the Broadway or Ft. Washington Avenue shuttle bus and the A train at 168th Street.

From 10:30 p.m. Friday, January 2 to 5 a.m. Monday, January 5, free shuttle buses replace A trains between Beach 90th Street and Far Rockaway due to track panel work.

From 12:01 a.m. to 5 a.m. Sunday, January 4, Manhattan-bound A trains skip Rockaway and Ralph Avenues due to track cleaning.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, January 2 to 5 a.m. Monday, January 5, there are no C trains running due to fan plant rehabilitation south of 7th Avenue. Customers should take the A train instead.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, January 3 to 5 a.m. Monday, January 5, downtown D trains run on the A from 145th Street to West 4th Streets due to fan plant rehabilitation south of 7th Avenue.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, January 3 to 5 a.m. Monday, January 5, the D train runs in two sections (due to fan plant rehabilitation south of 7th Avenue):

  • Between 205th Street and Broadway-Lafayette Street
  • Between Broadway-Lafayette Street and Stillwell Avenue

Customers may transfer at Broadway-Lafayette Street to continue their trip.

From 12:01 a.m. to 5 a.m. Sunday, January 4, Manhattan-bound F trains run local from Roosevelt Avenue to 21st Street-Queensbridge due to track cleaning.

From 12:01 a.m. to 5 a.m. Saturday, January 3, Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue F trains run local from Forest Hills-71st Avenue to Roosevelt Avenue due to track cleaning.

From 8:30 p.m. Friday, January 2 to 5 a.m. Monday, January 5, there are no G trains between Forest Hills-71st Avenue due to subway tunnel rehabilitation between Whitehall and Canal Streets.

From 5:30 a.m. Saturday, January 3 to 10 p.m. Sunday, January 4, free shuttle buses replace J trains between Broadway Junction and Cypress Hills due to fiber optic cable installation Crescent Street and Broadway Junction.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, January 2, to 5 a.m. Monday, January 5 (and weekends through February 2), there are no L trains between 8th Avenue and Union Square due to switch renewal near 8th Avenue. Customers may use the M14 bus instead.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, January 2, to 5 a.m. Monday, January 5 (and weekends through February 2), L trains run in two sections (due to switch renewal near 8th Avenue):

  • Between Union Square and Bedford Avenue, skipping 3rd Avenue and
  • Between Bedford Avenue and Rockaway Parkway

Customers must transfer at Bedford Avenue to continue their trip

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, January 3 and 5 a.m. Monday, January 5 (and the following weekend Jan 10-12), NR trains are rerouted over the Manhattan Bridge between DeKalb Avenue and Canal Street in both directions due to subway tunnel rehabilitation between Whitehall and Canal Streets.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, January 3 and 5 a.m. Monday, January 5 (and the following weekend Jan 10-12), NQ trains run local between Canal Street and 57th Street due to track panel installation on the Davis Street curve and security conduit and cable installation in the under river tube.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, January 3 and 5 a.m. Monday, January 5 (and the following weekend Jan 10-12), Q trains are extended to Ditmars Blvd. due to track panel installation on the Davis Street curve and security conduit and cable installation in the under river tube.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, January 2 to 5 a.m. Monday, January 5 (and the following weekend Jan 9-12), the 42nd Street Shuttle S operated overnight.

Categories : Service Advisories
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  • Sander predicts no strike as talks with TWU continue · To add insult to financial injury, the MTA’s current contract with the Transit Workers Union is set to expire at the end of the month. Now would probably be a good time to force TWU to accept staffing level cutbacks and stagnant salaries, but the MTA can ill afford another transit strike. To that end, TWU and MTA officials have been negotiated for a while, and MTA CEO and Executive Director Elliot Sander predicts that a strike will be avoided. That’s good news for the beleaguered MTA. · (8)

The MTA’s real endgame

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Before the year ended, the MTA released a whole bunch of numbers concerning the so-called Doomsday scenario that might come to pass. The agency unveiled four different fare hike proposals and outlined the various service cuts that could go into effect as early as June. It’s scary stuff for a city so dependent upon a healthy transit system.

While these numbers can seem a bit discouraging and overwhelming, the MTA isn’t releasing them into the void of the public for no purpose. Legally, they are required to announce the proposed changes in advance of this month’s public hearing, but politically, the powers-that-be at the MTA have an endgame as well. Newsday reminds us of just what that endgame is in an editorial:

But let’s look at the MTA’s underlying message. What the agency is trying to convey is a doomsday picture, which it will carry out unless the State Legislature comes to the rescue. We’re all familiar with that concept, now that our tax dollars have bailed out Wall Street and Detroit.

The MTA must find a revenue stream to fund its operating costs, which are out of whack by $1.2 billion next year. Its bailout would come in the form of East River bridge tolls and a payroll tax, which were recommended by a commission led by former MTA chief Richard Ravitch. The Ravitch Commission ideas could eliminate the need for service cuts and reduce fare increases to 8 percent. But that would mean more taxes and no incentive to squeeze fat out of the bureaucracy. No fare hikes can begin until March…

MTA news has been muddled, but keep the endgame in mind, and you won’t be fooled: The State Legislature is the real target of these fare-hike scary tales.

The emphasis, clearly, is mine.

It’s hard to understate this theory. The MTA does not want to institute a fare hike while significantly scaling back service. The agency doesn’t want to annoy millions of New Yorkers who suddenly find themselves waiting longer for more crowded trains that run on reduced routes. The transit authority would rather be adding more bus routes and select bus service instead of cutting bus routes and jacking up express bus fares.

But they can’t. They don’t have the money or political support to do so, and until that support arrives, they will be left with the only tools at their disposal to balance the budget: fare hikes and service cuts.

New Yorkers have a seemingly hard time understanding this point, but Newsday nails the issue. If straphanging citizens of this city are unhappy with the MTA, that’s their prerogative, but that ire should also be directed at Albany and City Hall. Until some politician can come up with a plan, the rest of us will be left out in the cold, paying more and waiting longer for the trains.

Categories : Fare Hikes
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As 2008 draws to a close, I’d like to look back on the year that was on Second Ave. Sagas. We talked a lot of transit policy as the MTA dealt with a financial crisis, the death of congestion pricing and fare hikes. While advertising often took center stage, we had our fun too as the MTA neared completion on a new station and an old Vignelli original returned.

To wrap up the year, let’s run down the Top Ten most popular posts of 2008 on the site. Thanks to everyone who stopped by to read my musings, to everyone who contributes and to everyone rides the subway. Have a safe and happy New Year, and remember that subway service on Jan. 1 operates on a Sunday schedule. I’ll see on you on Friday.

1. A subway system easier to navigate
While poking around Massimo Vignelli’s Website, I came across the ultimate New York City subway triptych. An old subway sign told riders which trains they needed to take and what transfers to make to get from one station to the next.

2. Inside the new South Ferry Terminal
A few weeks ago, the MTA held a press tour of 1 train’s new South Ferry Terminal. My camera I went inside the art-filled and state-of-the-art depot, the system’s first new station in nearly twenty years.

3. Finding love on the subway
After the Patrick Moberg story stole headlines in 2007, I mused on the nature of privacy in the subways and urged straphangers to talk to one another. My family felt I was secretly channeling my own subway crush.

4. Planning for a Second Ave. subway, 75 years ago
Modern Mechanix unearthed an article from 1931 in which the New York City of the future came equipped with a four-track Second Ave. subway. Over 75 years later, we’re still waiting for even a two-track version of that reality.

5. New Grand Theft Auto cuts down our subways
Everyone’s favorite anarchist video game took on New York City in its Liberty City release this year. While the subways played an integral role in the game, the map looked nothing like the complex city-wide snake we’re used to seeing.

6. Inside — and outside — the Second Ave. Subway
At a Community Board 8 meeting at the end of October, the MTA unveiled its architectural renderings for the three Second Ave. subway stops. We took a look at the so-called subway stations of the future. Some of the entrances — the canopied escalators in particular — look suspiciously like the WMATA’s stations in Washington, D.C.

7. For Men’s Vogue, Vignelli issues an update
The Massimo Vignelli subway map will be remembered in New York City for decades to come. It was either the most masterful work of art and the most useless subway map ever depending upon whom you ask. Earlier this year, Men’s Vogue commissioned an update from Vignelli, and the limited edition print series sold out in less than a day.

8. Thinking Out Loud: The MTA should double the fares
In a post that generated a SAS-record 53 comments, I suggested that, in order to apply pressure to Albany for proper MTA funding, the transit agency should double the fares across the board. While the MTA is set to raise fares by around 23 percent, my think piece proposal still stands.

9. Inside the Crown Jewel of the old subway system
In March, I took the Transit Museum’s tour of the now-shuttered City Hall stop. The station, a decadent display of another era, served as the launching point of the city’s subways in 1904. Today, it’s a ghost station, visible only from the windows of the 6 train as it curves through the stop on its way uptown.

10. Inside the circumferential subway route plans
During his State of the MTA speech in March, MTA CEO and Executive Director Elliot Sander unveiled the agency’s 40-year vision. This proposal included the long-debated circumferential subway route, a line traveling from Brooklyn through Queens and into the Bronx. The city needs it, but it will be a long, long time before this train becomes a reality.

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