High gas prices are pushing more commuters onto mass transit options. (Gas $4.37 by flickr user 54east)

As Americans prepare to hit the road later today for their Fourth of July weekend travels, gas prices are at an all-time high. The national average cost for unleaded regular gas checks in at $4.092 per gallon while New Yorkers are paying an average of $4.297 per gallon. These numbers, to Americans, are astronomical.

In New York City, however, the law of unintended consequences has taken over. As high gas prices drive Americans out of their cars, a few analysts are noting that the traffic-mitigation effects of the $4.30-gallon are mimicking, to a lesser extent, Mayor Bloomberg’s failed congestion pricing scheme. In a very well done article in The Times today, William Neuman explores how traffic volume is decreasing as gas prices increase.

The gist of it is as follows: As gas has climbed well past the $4-per-gallon mark, the MTA and the Port Authority have been reported decreases in traffic through their toll booths of around 4.2 to 4.7 percent. Meanwhile, subway ridership was up 6.5 percent over the same time period with smaller but noticeable increases on Metro-North (4.3 percent) and the Long Island Rail Road (5.5 percent). The PA’s PATH trains saw a jump in ridership of nine percent. Even parking garages in the area are reporting fewer cars.

In a way, then, the city isn’t too far from temporarily achieving Mayor Bloomberg’s goals of reducing congestion. Of course, as Neuman points out, the goal of congestion pricing was to reduce traffic at peak hours, and this current reduction is more spread out. Meanwhile, it’s clear that drivers who are opting not to drive will slip behind the wheel as soon as — or is that if? — gas prices dip again. So on the flip side, high gas prices aren’t at all like the congestion pricing plan, and a few traffic consultants believe that this is a questionable decrease as many drivers, looking to save all they can, are opting for free bridges instead of toll roads. The decrease in volume could be as little as two or three percent.

There is, of course, another catch as it relates to mass transit. The analysis is Neuman’s:

Gas price-induced traffic reduction might have a downside. Mr. Bloomberg’s plan was intended, among other things, to raise hundreds of millions of dollars a year for mass transit improvements by charging cars an $8 fee to enter the area of Manhattan below 59th Street. The plan was defeated in April when legislative leaders in Albany refused to bring it up for a vote.

In contrast, the current reduction in traffic at bridges and tunnels could actually take money away from transit, because a large portion of the tolls collected at the transportation authority’s crossings helps to finance the subways, buses and commuter railroads. In May, toll revenues were more than $4 million below budget projections, and Gary J. Dellaverson, the authority’s chief financial officer, said that June toll revenues appeared to be down even further.

So far, the drop has been more than offset by an increase in fare collections generated by higher transit and rail ridership, but Mr. Dellaverson said that the combination of slipping toll revenues and the increased cost of fuel for the authority’s buses and trains could eventually outpace ridership revenue gains.

In the end, then, it’s the same old story for the MTA. A lack of dedicated revenue not tied into market forces is forcing the agency into a corner. For our city’s air, for our roads, it’s encouraging to see traffic dipping as gas prices go up. But for the health of the MTA, this artificial free-market quasi-congestion pricing impact will only serve to deprive the agency of toll revenue while taxing train lines already at or near capacity without offsetting these increases with more revenue. And that is a recipe for disaster.

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  • Cement-truck drivers strike stalls Second Ave. Subway · Yesterday afternoon, news broke that the city’s cement-truck drivers had initiated a strike. Now, we learn that this strike’s impact reaches underground. Because no major construction projects in the city can proceed, the strike has halted work on one Second Ave. Subway line. In the end, this one-week delay, the expected duration of the strike, probably won’t impact the completion date of a project already two years behind schedule. · (1)
  • The cutest illustrated story about the subways you’ll ever see · Christopher Neimann, award-winning illustrator and former New York resident, has started a blog on the New York Times Web site this week. For this first post, he drew a 13-panel story about his two sons, ages three and five, and their love affairs with the New York City subways. It is, by far, the best and cutest subway-based illustrated story you’ll ever see. [The Boys and the Subway] · (2)

This sign is more permanent than anyone would prefer. (Cortland St Station by flickr user vanillarose20)

A few weeks ago, New York City reached a milestone most politicians — and especially the Port Authority — would prefer to ignore. It’s now taken more time to figure out how long it will take to complete rebuilding Ground Zero than it did for the original construction of the Twin Towers. Just 6 years, 7 months, 30 days elapsed between the groundbreaking and the ribbon-cutting ceremonies in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Meanwhile, the Towers fell 6 years, 9 months, 21 days ago and counting.

For Lower Manhattan, the news got worse this week. On Monday, the Port Authority released a 34-page report (PDF) that explained how reconstruction at Ground Zero is well over budget and well behind schedule. And, hey, the MTA isn’t even running this show.

On Tuesday, the news took a turn toward transportation. As the Port Authority’s original report noted, Port Authority’s WTC Transportation Hub featuring Santiago Calatrava’s retractable roof/porcupine-type building was well over budget and — here’s the kicker — the final design had not yet been chosen. As The Times reports today, gone are the retractable panels, and the final design may be drastically reduced.

Now, to anyone following recent construction trends in the city, these announcements are not unexpected. In fact, the Port Authority — the only agency that has a worse time with construction timetables than the MTA — had already announced a delay in the Hub’s completion date six months ago. But this time, two key subway stations in Lower Manhattan will be impacted indefinitely by this announcement.

Both of the Cortlandt St. station stops — one on the BMT Broadway line that would service the N, R and W trains; one on the West Side IRT that would serve the 1 train — will remain closed indefinitely. According to the Port Authority, one of the many challenges they face in rebuilding at Ground Zero is doing so “while ensuring the continued uninterrupted operations of the MTA #1 and R/W subway lines.”

Worse still, though, is the indictment of the MTA in the Port Authority’s report. Difficulties with the Cortlandt St. project and the oft-delayed Fulton St. Hub are negatively impacting work at Ground Zero. Writes the PA:

The MTA is planning to rebuild the Cortlandt Street subway station, but there are design and construction issues that first need to be coordinated and agreed upon between the MTA and the Port Authority. Among the issues to be resolved include: the substantial duct work required for the MTA construction interferes with utilities on Greenwich Street; funding needs to be identified for the MTA project; the construction staging needs to be determined and an expedited schedule needs to be developed to assure that Greenwich Street can be ready in time to serve all the other projects – the Memorial, the WTC Towers, etc.

It’s so dry, yet so illuminating. The MTA isn’t sure what’s happening at Cortlandt St. while delays in the overall work at the Ground Zero make the point moot because these stations, once set to reopen in 2006 (hah!), will remain closed for indefinitely.

amNew York’s Matthew Sweeney notes that the stop on the IRT “remains as an unadorned box waiting for reconstruction.” For now, it seems, that’s the best we’ll get as that construction clock ticks ever upwards.

Categories : PANYNJ
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I’ve had a busy few days at the good ol’, bill-payin’ day job. So I had no chance to draw your attention to a lovely story yesterday morning in the New York Post proclaiming subway delays up 44 percent. Now, on the one hand, that’s a shocking number, but on the other hand, as anyone who ever rides the subways on a regular basis could tell you, this is about as big a “duh” story as one could find these days.

According to this nifty graphic, track work — with 4,117 citations — is the leading cause of train delays, and that number has nearly doubled from 2007′s 2,093 delays. While people holding doors — the number two cause — will always be a subway scourge, this news reflects nothing but the latest facts about the MTA. As budgets sag, construction projects get held up and that elusive state of good repair slips away.

The story in the Post doesn’t get into the why of construction-related delays. It similar features some rote comments from MTA officials unhappy with their numbers and unhappy with what Board member Mark Lebow termed a “lack of supervision of what goes on underground.” Outrageous as these numbers might be, breaking news it ain’t.

Categories : MTA Absurdity
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  • Assessing the BRT debut · Yesterday morning, Bus Rapid Transit service in New York City made its long-awaited and highly anticipated debut. While we won’t enjoy camera-enforced dedicated bus lanes thanks to this absurd Representative from Rochester, I received a few missives from readings clamoring to find out how day one went. To that end, both The Times and Streetsblog covered it on the big day.

    The short of it is that riders were slightly confused at first by the new pre-boarding fare options while the service itself is being praised. But the long of it is that, just as how a one-week stretch is too small a sample size in, say, baseball to assess a player, so too is one day of BRT service too small a sample to analyze the lasting impact of this new bus service on transportation in New York City. The City does, since it refused to build physically separated bus lanes, need to address the problem of people parking in what are supposed to be dedicated bus lanes sooner rather than later. [Streetsblog, The New York Times] · (1)

Pardon me while I leave the underground world of transportation and visit the devoted straphanger’s sometimes-nemesis, sometimes-friend: the taxi cab.

I’ve long been fascinated with New York City taxis in a more academic way than I am with the city’s subways. More specifically, I’ve watched with interest as the city has pioneered a radical plan to convert its entire taxi fleet from fuel-guzzling Ford Crown Vics to green hybrids of all shapes and sizes.

The root of my interest began in the spring of 2004 as hybrids were slowly becoming a popular item. I was enrolled in a class on the political economy of the automobile, and for one of my term papers, I proposed that the City of New York should convert its entire fleet into hybrids. Little did I know how prescient I would be.

The gist of the paper — which you can find here as a Word document — was that cab drivers would see significant fuel savings by switching to hybrids designed for optimal use in the stop-and-go traffic environment of New York City. Hybrids, in most cases, get fuel mileage in city traffic two to three times greater than the old Crown Victoria taxis do. While some passengers would be inconvenienced by the smaller trunk space and decreased leg room in the hybrids, the social benefits, ranging from a cleaner air to the city’s place as a model taxi fleet, would far outweigh the downsides.

While that is a fairly simple argument, I think it’s held up over time. Since I wrote that paper, the city has indeed embarked on a landmark program to convert its entire fleet to hybrids, and beginning this year, only hybrid cars may be registered as taxis. Considering that the entire taxi fleet turns over every three-to-five years, the clock is ticking for the 15 city miles-per-gallon Crown Victorias, a relic of the day when we worried too little about gas prices and paid too little at the pump for our gas-guzzling ways.

But of course, cab owners aren’t too happy about the switch, and they’re voicing their displeasures. Via Sally Goldenberg in the Post:

Owners cite a shortage of hybrids and argue that they’re also not as safe as the standard, heavy Crown Victorias. Ronald Sherman, a fleet owner and president of the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, said major hybrid providers Ford and Toyota can sell only a fifth of the number required to meet the directive. “Clearly, there will not be enough to sustain this mandate,” Sherman said. “The numbers simply don’t add up.”

In a letter to Matthew Daus, chairman of the city Taxi and Limousine Commission, he asked that the city push back the deadline due to a “nationwide hybrid car and parts availability crisis.”

“Crown Victorias are 5-star, across-the-board crash-rated vehicles that withstand severe accidents,” he wrote.

The Post also mentions that Sherman has long been a critic of hybrid taxis and testified against the Ford Escape hybrid earlier this year. That car has since been cleared by auto safety experts.

I can’t really explain Mr. Sherman’s opposition to the hybrids. While he is concerned about black-market cabs with more trunk space stealing the yellow cab businesses when the smaller trunks are prevalent, anyone who’s ever hailed a cab in New York will be quick to dispute this point with Sherman. The vast majority of people aren’t taking taxis with suitcases, and those who do will find a way to fit their suitcases into the back of a taxicab.

In the end, it’s all about an auto industry voice resisting change for the better. While not as egregious as various promotions celebrating subsidized gas for two years, Sherman’s voice is yet another trying to stem a tide that will help out the city environmentally and cab drivers financially. Trade reps should be encouraging these developments; they should work with the Bloomberg Administration to ensure a smooth transition. In 2008, with gas prices high and global climate change an accepted reality, Sherman’s words seem remarkably out of touch with the times.

Categories : Taxis
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  • MTA looks to wire 44 stations for PA service · While services are facing the budget cut, the MTA is hoping to bring some more stations up to date. According to the Daily News’ Pete Donohue, the transportation agency has filed a draft amendment to its capital plan that “includes funds to upgrade communications in 44 subway stations, repair some of the worst station stairwells and platforms, and seal up the most flood-prone subway tunnels.” These are, of course, vital projects intended to keep the subway system in operation during emergencies both weather-related and not. [The Daily News] · (2)
Jun
30

A state of _____ repair

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The 7th Ave. station along the Culver line in Brooklyn has seen better days. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

A state of good repair. The MTA tosses that phrase around a lot these days, but no one really knows what it means.

New Jersey Transit defines it as follows: “‘State of Good Repair” is achieved when the infrastructure components are replaced on a schedule consistent with their life expectancy.” The MTA’s definition is, for all intents and purposes, the same.

In New York over the last twenty five years, the MTA has been fighting an uphill battle to return the subway system to a state of good repair. They’ve overhauled track beds and switches; they’ve purchased new rolling stock. And when time and money allows, they’ve attempted to redo stations, but it is here that we run into differing opinions over what exactly a state of good repair entails.

Over the weekend, Times reporter Javier C. Hernandez ventured out into some of the 19 stations that will see their renovation plans deferred. As expected, commuters who frequent those stations aren’t too pleased to hear that the MTA is forgoing outer-borough renovations yet again:

In the distance is one of the city’s most stunning views: the Statue of Liberty, Manhattan skyscrapers and a pristine New York Harbor. But the trip to the top of Brooklyn’s Smith-Ninth Street subway station, the highest in the city, is not so appealing.

Inside the station, scraps of paint fall from the ceiling as commuters make their way up cracked, rusty steps. “I’ve been waiting so long for things to change,” said Steven De Jesus, a contractor who commutes by train. He pointed to the peeling walls. “It’s horrifying and despicable right now.”

[snip]

The authority has said that the stations, which sit above ground on the D, N, F and G lines in Brooklyn and the No. 6 line in the Bronx, were in good condition and posed no safety risks. But commuters say the stations urgently need attention. At some stations, stairways are crumbling, water is leaking through the ceilings and outdoor roofs, and gaps between wooden planks are widening.

Therein lies the rub. The stations may post no safety risks, but anyone who subscribes to the City Beautiful notion of public works won’t be too pleased.

Above this post is one of a set of five photos I snapped a few weeks ago in the 7th Ave. station on the Culver line; one, two, three and four are all available on flickr. The truth is that this station — and many like it — is not in a state of physical repair. Dirty water has corroded station tiles, and streaks of something run down the walls. In some spots, the tiles are gone; in others, they’re buckling. It’s generally not very nice.

But when funds are tight, the station renovation plans get the axe, but these superficial appearances don’t matter nearly as much as modern signals and solid track beds. In the end, the MTA will face more complaints from people dismayed with the state of their surroundings, and as the stations grow grimier, they take on the appearance of something less than desirable in any neighborhood. But until money flows the MTA’s way, that physical part of the state of good repair will be the first thing to go when the budget crunches arrive.

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