• Ikea to scale back free service · While Ikea’s free shuttle bus service has been something of a transportation boom for non-Ikea bound Red Hook travelers, the Swedish furniture giant announced yesterday that they will soon be cutting back this service. Starting Oct. 1, Ikea plans to curtail morning shuttle service and will decrease the frequency of their shuttle buses. Due to fewer-than-expected number of passengers after Labor Day, the buses will run every thirty minutes from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. So it’s back to the MTA for all the free-loading passengers. · (0)

Thomas DiNapoli, New York State comptroller, has delved into the MTA’s books, and he doesn’t like what he has found there.

Three months ago, amidst talks of regular fare hikes and budgetary concerns at the MTA, DiNapoli announced he would conduct an audit of the MTA’s books. This week, he released his report on the MTA’s financial outlook, and the picture is not pretty. While the authority’s internal budget gap-trimming measures have been relatively successful, DiNapoli still sees budget gaps climbing to $1.8 billion by 2012. The financial future of the nation’s largest public transit authority has never been more in doubt.

In the report — available here as a PDF — DiNapoli urges the MTA to wean itself off government funding and warns that the recent economic problems coming out of Wall St. may spell financial doom for the agency. In fact, DiNapoli goes one step further and warns the MTA not to expect any additional government funding. Additionally, with the MTA so dependent on taxes and fare revenue, any widescale loss of jobs — such as the collapse of Lehman Bros. or the banking crisis in general — could significantly impact the future finances of the transportation authority.

“The turmoil on Wall Street has created serious fiscal challenges for the City and the State, which will likely limit their ability to provide additional assistance to the MTA,” DiNapoli said, in a statement. “To its credit, the MTA has directed its agencies to develop contingency plans, but the focus must be on administrative costs, not service cuts. Like everyone, the MTA has to learn to do more with less.”

DiNapoli’s office summed up the vital parts of the report in a press release:

In July, the MTA projected operating budget gaps, on a cash basis, of $1.1 billion in 2009, $1.9 billion in 2010, $2.1 billion in 2011, and $2.3 billion in 2012. These gaps represent 11 percent of revenue in 2009 and more than 22 percent of revenue by 2012. The DiNapoli report found that while the MTA’s budget gap estimates were reasonable when they were presented in July, the State has lowered its forecast of dedicated transit taxes by $381 million over the financial plan period.

To balance the 2009 budget and narrow the budget gaps for subsequent years, the MTA has proposed a $6.4 billion gap-closing program. The report found that the gap-closing program is risky because it relies so heavily on actions that are either outside the MTA’s direct control or are still unspecified. Nearly half of the resources are expected to come from additional State and City aid. Less than one quarter would come from internal actions, and 37 percent of those savings remain unspecified.

After assessing the gap-closing program and other risks, the report concluded that the MTA still faces budget gaps of $522 million in 2009, $1.4 billion in 2010, $1.6 billion in 2011, and $1.8 billion in 2012. DiNapoli noted that even if all of the MTA’s gap-closing measures were successful, it would leave a gap of $250 million in 2010 – or the equivalent of a five percent fare hike.

Basically, the MTA, which already relies more on farebox revenue than any other transit system in the nation, will have to keep pushing riders to pay more or else they’ll have to cut service to meet financial expectations. No organization — outside of the federal government — can operate by racking up $4.8 billion in debt over three years, and I have to wonder if the MTA is going to collapse under the weight of its borrowing before the next few years are out.

Meanwhile, as the MTA has increased fares at a rate outpacing inflation by 52 percent, the capital budget is still facing a seemingly insurmountable $15 billion gap. The MTA is also facing the prospects of unfunded pension liabilities reaching nearly $2 billion.

In the end, DiNapoli’s report is long on the doom and gloom and short on answers. He warns the agency not to expect state and city money, and he urges the agency to consider cutting services. From a practical, governmental perspective, DiNapoli’s suggestions are sound, but from a customer service viewpoint, the MTA — enjoying sixty-year ridership highs — can’t really cut service. How this plays out is anyone’s guess.

Categories : MTA Economics
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Bring your own seat

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Via Gothamist comes word of Jason Eppink’s public art installation in the subways: Take a Seat. Explains the artists:

Take a Seat is an ongoing series of public furniture installations aimed at increasing the availability of seating options in New York City subway stations. Perfectly functional chairs are rescued from trash piles and reassigned to stations where limited seating options leave subway patrons no choice but to stand for extended periods of time…

More than 5 million riders pass through the New York City Subway system every day, sometimes waiting as long as an hour or more for their trains. Unfortunately, benches intended for waiting passengers are sparse and inadequate, leaving many riders standing. According to NYC MTA’s founders, “the subway should be an inviting and pleasant environment, geared to the user, with the highest levels of design and materials.” I agree! What is more pleasant than sitting while waiting for your train?

So the next time you’re in the subway, bemoaning a lack of seats, just go grab your own and take a load off.

Photo via Jason Eppink on flickr.

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For some reason, New York City transit advocates are fighting, mildly, a battle over modes of transportation in the city that shouldn’t be fought. At a time when we should be teaming up to advocate for an expansion of all modes of car-independent transit in New York City, divisive ideas still permeate the field.

Most Wednesday, Jim Dwyer penned a column for The Times questioning the need for more subway lines in Manhattan. With the economy in trouble and boom times for New York City behind us, he wonders if the Second Ave. Subway is really the best use of funds right now. He wrote:

Right now, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is digging a subway tunnel down a short piece of Second Avenue. The current estimate is that the construction will cost about $3,000 every minute of every day next year. Then the real money begins.

Which raises the question: Is it really such a great idea to be digging subway tunnels in Manhattan?

His argument here relies on the spurious idea that the original subway planners were digging through nothing. In fact, those workers had to negotiate utilities lines and aqueducts just as today’s workers along Second Ave. have to.

But the interesting part, as Streetsblog noted yesterday, comes later on in the column:

Only now are city and authority officials beginning serious exploration of using the surface of the city, rather than its underside, for mass transit.

One idea is to dedicate portions of big streets and avenues to protected bus lanes, physically separated from other traffic. Riders would pay their fares before they boarded. An experiment to do that in the Bronx has made a big cut in travel time, said Joan Byron, director of the Sustainability and Environmental Justice Initiative at the Pratt Center for Community Development.

Such systems are called bus rapid transit, and the cost to build them is $1 million to $2 million per mile, Ms. Byron says, compared with $1 billion per mile for the Second Avenue subway.

Now, on the surface, it’s easy to see why Dwyer would pursue this line of thinking. Bus Rapid Transit lines would be far cheaper than a new subway line, and implementing them would involve many fewer disruptions to the local businesses along Second Ave. But this is a false dichotomy. Why should we have one without the other?

As I noted yesterday on Streetsblog, if we were to cut a subway expansion project, the Second Ave. Subway — soon to be one of the city’s most useful lines — would not be the one to go. Rather, the city and the MTA should axe the multi-billion-dollar, one-stop extension on the 7 line. There’s a real need, in terms of ridership, for the Second Ave. Subway; the 7 line extension goes to a property that won’t be developed for at least another decade.

Meanwhile, there are obvious issues of scalability here. An eight- or ten-car subway running under Second Ave. can ferry hundreds of people every few minutes quickly down the avenue to other parts of the city. A bus can ferry tens of people and isn’t nearly as efficient as the subway. With the cost differences, you truly get what you pay for, and until New York City can enforce bus rapid transit lanes either through the use of cameras or physically divided lanes, BRT in the City will suffer from the whims of the congestion it is designed to combat. It is unlikely that BRT will ever be able to supplant the efficiency and capacity of a subway line.

Finally, in reality, this is an exercise in wasted words. Why do we have to chose a subway line over bus rapid transit? Shouldn’t the two be allowed to co-exist on the streets of New York? The city and MTA should develop a way to enjoy the benefits of bus rapid transit lines and lanes and a new subway as well. Sure, beggars can’t be choosers, but until the city is willing to think outside the box a bit for transit, advocates will have to make an unnecessary choice. Transit it should always be, no matter the mode.

  • MTA to bill City agencies for E-ZPass use · Following a contentious debate, the MTA Board voted today to charge City agencies for their E-ZPass uses. For years, Police and Fire Department vehicles were equipped with free E-ZPass tags, but this allowance cost the MTA around $10 million a year. With money tight and E-ZPass use under recent scrutiny, the transit agency, in a close vote with Mayor Bloomberg’s board reps dissenting, has opted to charge the agencies for their toll use. As The Times’ William Neuman reports, city officials argued that “it was legitimate for public vehicles conducting official business to use the E-ZPass tags free of charge,” but the MTA Board no longer buys into this line of reasoning. · (2)

For all its faults, the DC Metro tells riders how long they’ll have to wait. (Photo by flickr user NYCArthur)

Riders in Washington, D.C., know how long they have to wait for the next train. Straphangers in London are told how far away the next Underground subways are. Even Rome, with its graffiti-covered, two-line subway system, has managed to figure out train arrival boards. But not New York.

For years, New York City Transit has announced plans to bring this not-so-nascent technology into the subway system. In fact, they’ve been running a pilot program on the L line for years, and originally, this technology was to be ready for a system-wide roll-out in 2006. After announcing a projected 2009 launch date last December, the MTA has now admitted that the project is five years behind schedule and will not be ready until 2011 at the earliest.

Pete Donohue broke the story:

A project to display real-time train arrival times in 152 subway stations is now behind schedule – by five years. The project, featuring electronic message boards posted above subway platforms, was originally expected to be completed in 2006.

NYC Transit has pushed back that date several times over the years, citing software development problems, technical glitches and other problems. Earlier this week, officials pushed the date back again, this time to 2011. The delays in the $185 million project have frustrated riders and advocates who have seen such information provided in other cities around the world but not here.

“What a drag!” said Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign. “Riders really want to know when trains are due to arrive and when they are delayed.”

Besides the utter obviousness of Gene Russianoff’s quote, this project has turned into one giant joke. The MTA, for reasons both within their control and without it, have been unable to get a technological project off the ground, and now they’re talking about delaying it for five years. If I delivered something at work five years later, I would be fired.

Right now, we need this system simply to enjoy a modern subway system. But considering the price tag — $185 million — the delay and the fact that we’ve lived without it for so long, I have to wonder if this money wouldn’t be better spent elsewhere at this point. We all know the system could use it.

Categories : MTA Technology
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With Google Transit coming to New York and hypothetical service cuts heading our way, we haven’t had any time this week to talk about this past weekend’s great transit story. So without further ado, may I present to you the Long Island Rail Road, churning out disabled workers since 1966.

The fun started on Sunday when The Times published an expose on the “disability epic among a railroad’s retirees.” Four reporters worked on the story, and Walt Bogdanich reported the shocking news:

Virtually every career employee — as many as 97 percent in one recent year — applies for and gets disability payments soon after retirement, a computer analysis of federal records by The New York Times has found. Since 2000, those records show, about a quarter of a billion dollars in federal disability money has gone to former L.I.R.R. employees, including about 2,000 who retired during that time.

The L.I.R.R.’s disability rate suggests it is one of the nation’s most dangerous places to work. Yet in four of the last five years, the railroad has won national awards for improving worker safety.

“Short of the gulag, I can’t imagine any work force that would have a so-to-speak 90 percent disability attrition rate,” said Glenn Scammel, long one of Capitol Hill’s top experts on railroads. “That defies both logic and experience.”

The quartet’s piece goes on to talk about the economic benefits of this scam and the ways in which those in charge at the Railroad Retirement Board, a federal agency that pays these disability claims, allowed this to happen under their noses. Included in the extensive story are tales about retirees on disability playing golf at 50 and a married couple bilking the agency out of $280,000 annually. I wish I could find retirement that paid so well.

Since Sunday, things have really hit the fan. In quick succession, Gov. David Paterson ordered Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to investigate the railroad’s books and the LIRR’s work rules. On Monday, Cuomo unleashed his subpoena power, and yesterday, Federal Agents raided the Long Island headquarters of the Railroad Retirement Board.

Right now, it’s unclear how this impacts the MTA. While the Transportation Authority is not on the hook for these disability payments, they lose significant man hours to early retirees alleging disabilities, and as members of the RRB, they pay significantly more than they otherwise would in certain payroll and Social Security taxes.

For now, this whole scandal simply looks back. It will provide more ammunition for the opponents of the MTA who feel that the agency doesn’t offer responsible oversight and shouldn’t be running the vital transportation network in the New York City area. As the truth emerges, I’m sure many at the MTA and at LIRR will emerged worse for the wear. Perhaps this is the first step toward better oversight both within and of the MTA. If anything, it’ll force the Long Island Rail Road to clean up its act.

Categories : LIRR
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In a ceremony this morning at Grand Central Terminal, Google and the MTA announced a partnership designed to bring New York Metropolitan area transit directions to Google Transit, a feature of the popular Google Maps. Users will now be able to find comprehensive directions for New York City Transit, the Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North and the area’s bus service in one place.

First hinted at thirteen months ago, the service is now available online at both a special page on the MTA’s website and at Google Transit. “It is a very complicated transit system, and it just got less complicated today with the advent of Google Maps for transit,” Gov. David Paterson said this morning.

Currently, New York commuters enjoy numerous trip-mapping options. Independent sites such as HopStop, onNYTurf and Gypsy Maps offer up their own versions of integrated directions for intra-city travel. New York City Transit’s TripPlanner provides an MTA-sanctioned source for directions.

But the new service is the first to offer integrated mapping and directions across all three services. With the MTA’s making comprehensive schedule data available to Google and NJ Transit and Port Authority’s PATH service already on board, New Yorkers can now find directions from one end of the Metropolitan Area to the other.

The key feature here is the inclusion of schedule data. Over the last few years, many of the directionally-minded website developers — with Will at onNYTurf leading the charge — have tried to wrangle to-the-minute schedule details out of the MTA, but the agency has been reluctant to part with this proprietary data. Publicly available schedules, particularly for the subways, are incomplete. But now, users can set a departure time and find the most accurate scheduling information around. Incorporating all of the current features of Google Maps — walking directions, street view, local points of interest — the new service is a step above the others right now.

Both MTA officials and Google executives were quick to praise this partnership. “At a time when the MTA is facing mounting fiscal challenges, we are thrilled to be able to offer this service to our customers at no cost to taxpayers,” MTA Chair Dale Hemmerdinger said. “Google Transit will encourage ridership and underscores the importance of the MTA to the region’s economy and environment.”

“By being able to access station and schedule data for the largest public transit system in the United States via Google Maps, users are exposed to the availability and convenience of public transportation and are better equipped to take advantage of all that the New York metropolitan region has to offer,” John Hanke, director of Google Maps and Earth, said.

It wasn’t easy, however, putting together this project. As Sewell Chan at City Room reported this morning, the MTA delivered a large volume of data to Google, and the information giant had to parse it into a usable format. The MTA and Google plan to make the data available to other developers as well.

With the MTA’s preeminent place in the region, this is a very welcome and long-awaited development indeed.

Categories : MTA Technology
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Facing a budget deficit of nearly $1 billion and with no relief in sight, the MTA is preparing an agency-wide cut of 4.5 percent. While officials say they will cut management costs first, if enough money can’t be trimmed, the agencies will be forced to cut operations costs, which, in plain English, means subway, bus and rail service could face the axe.

William Neuman of The Times has more on this dismaying but unsurprising news:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has begun exploring possible cuts in subway, bus and commuter rail service to shore up its budget in the face of a projected deficit next year of nearly $900 million, officials said on Monday.

The cuts could be necessary if the authority does not receive enough additional money from the state and city or if the economic crisis deepens significantly, the officials said. They cautioned, however, that any service cuts were purely theoretical at this point…

Gary J. Dellaverson, the authority’s chief financial officer, said that he had directed the heads of the agencies that make up the authority…to come up with alternative budgets “in the event either the economy is worse than predicted, which is possible, or assistance from government partners in its entirety is not forthcoming.”

Jeremy Soffin, a spokesman for the authority, said that the agencies were told to explain how they would make cuts of 4.5 percent or so in their expenses. He declined to say how much that would amount to, but a 4.5 percent reduction of the total authority-wide budget projected to be $9.7 billion next year would equal $437 million. “This is an exercise in case of a hypothetical situation,” Mr. Soffin said. “It’s very preliminary.”

While everyone at the MTA stressed the hypothetical nature of this exercise — Doreen Frasca, head of the MTA Board’s transit committee, hopped on that bandwagon too — it’s hard to feel too good about it. New York has yet to experience the economic fall-out from the recent collapse of the investment banking business, and tax revenues — and thus city and state contributions to the MTA — are sure to be down.

Meanwhile, these hypothetical cuts do not preclude a fair hike. So, in other words, we could be in for both another fare hike in 2009 as well as across-the-board service cuts. Clearly, that’s not news anyone in New York wants to hear right now.

As riders, our options are limited. The best we can do is lobby our elected representatives and urge them to find more money for the beleaguered transit agency. Since voting them out of office didn’t pan out, our options are severely limited. Maybe now will be a good time for the MTA to ask Richard Brodsky for some money. After all, he promised them funds last July if only they would ask.

In the end, though, I bet the rest of us, through service cuts and fare hikes, will have to pay. That, sadly, is the way of it in New York City these days.

Categories : MTA Economics
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  • Keep on minding that platform edge · A way back in February, a few newspapers created a stir at the MTA when they reported on the bad conditions of the platform edge at numerous subway stations around the City. While New York City Transit has since inspected every platform and has made temporary emergency repairs to a good number of them, amNew York reports that the platform edges still pose dangers to passengers.

    The free daily contends that splintery and wobbly temporary platforms lend an aura of action to station in disrepair but no guarantee of safety. While passengers should not be spending too much time — if any — on the platform edge — the MTA should continue to ensure the safety of passengers. At some point, the agency will need to find a permanent solution to this problem. I hope they can do so before a bad accident befalls an unsuspecting straphanger. · (1)
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