• Goethals Bridge replacement to save space for transit · One of the worst decisions Robert Moses ever forced upon the city of New York involved dedicated transit lanes along the Van Wyck Expressway that could have served as the right-of-way for a high-speed raillink to JFK Airport (then Idlewild). Moses refused to compromise with transit advocates, and we’re stuck with the set-up we have today. Across the city, along the Hudson River crossings, transit has always been an afterthought. While extensive tunnels lead into Penn Station, none of the major crossings have space reserved for transit. But now that these crossings are showing their ages and are up for replacement, the Port Authority is planning, tentatively, to rectify this historical oversight.

    According to the Daily News, the Port Authority’s plans for a Goethals Bridge replacement contain tentative plans for mass transit lanes. Of course, tentative plans are always the first to go when budgets climb, and this crossing won’t see the light of day by 2015 at the earliest. But we have to applaud this news now and urge our politicians to switch that label from “tentative” to “definite” by the time construction begins in a few years. · (12)

A desire named streetcar

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Streetcars are on the prowl in U.S. cities. (Photo by flickr user trainman74)

Once upon a time, in an alternate history that the auto industry today would prefer we all forget, the American city streets were paved with gold. Maybe they weren’t paved with the gold found at Sutter’s Mill, but they were filled with the comforting rails and power lines of streetcars. Back and forth these cars would go until one day, they all just stopped running.

But, hark, what is that I hear? Is that the nostalgic clanging of a streetcar bell? Perhaps, it is. Last week, the Gray Lady herself told us that streetcars are making a comeback in cities across the nation. From Cincinnati to Seattle, from Charlotte to Salt Lake City, city planners are looking to revive the vast network of streetcars that used to transport America’s urban dwellers from one point to the next while using existing surface routes and right-of-ways.

Bob Driehaus writes:

At least 40 other cities are exploring streetcar plans to spur economic development, ease traffic congestion and draw young professionals and empty-nest baby boomers back from the suburbs, according to the Community Streetcar Coalition, which includes city officials, transit authorities and engineers who advocate streetcar construction.

More than a dozen have existing lines, including New Orleans, which is restoring a system devastated by Hurricane Katrina. And Denver, Houston, Salt Lake City and Charlotte, N.C., have introduced or are planning to introduce streetcars.

“They serve to coalesce a neighborhood,” said Jim Graebner, chairman of the American Public Transportation Association’s streetcar and vintage trolley committee. “That’s very evident in places like San Francisco, which never got rid of its streetcar system.”

It’s a veritable utopia of light rail proposals. Of course, streetcars are not without their detractors. “It looks like it’s going to take you somewhere, but it’s only designed to support downtown residents,” Randall O’Toole, an expert on (anti-)public transit policy, said. “If officials fall for the hype and don’t ask the hard questions, voters should vote them out.” But we’ll ignore him and let his Cato Institute donors speak for themselves.

O’Toole aside, it’s hard to argue against streetcars, as The Overhead Wire noted this weekend. They’re relatively cheap, environmentally friendly and encourage reducing one’s carbon expenditures. In an age in which we’re all focused on shrinking driving mileage and making cities more pedestrian-friendly, streetcars are a grand ally in that scheme.

It is also not without irony that cities are starting to reclaim their streetcar past. While Americans today either don’t know about or willfully choose to ignore it, had American cities stood up for themselves fifty or sixty years ago, streetcars would still be a vibrant part of the urban landscape. While I mentioned that one day, streetcars just disappeared, it wasn’t as simple as that. Did you really think it would be?

Starting in the 1930s and continuing on through the 1950s, when American car manufacturers starting coming into their Golden Age and owning a car became not a sign of wealth but a trademark of the middle class, these companies starting snatching up streetcar properties. Now, while some of them bought the streetcar lines to create an internal monopoly in which these public transit systems would run only, say, GM buses and cars, others ripped up the streetcars and shut them down when they weren’t quote-unquote profitable enough.

While, as the Wikipedia entry for the Great American streetcar scandal notes, a whole bunch of other factors contributed to the demise of streetcars, the demise of American cities in the 1960s and 1970s was a direct result of the fall and decline of streetcars. Today, America is more urban than ever before, and city officials across the nation are finally realizing the benefits of streetcars. Better late than never again.

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As you while away a lazy Sunday afternoon in August, allow me to guide your attention to a few rail policy links bound to infuriate even the most placid of rail advocates. Both of these articles use incredibly misleading arguments and rely on false logic to paint rail options and their advocates in negative lights.

We start with The Overhead Wire’s critique of an anti-rail piece in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. As always, rail opponents are still trumping the power of some Holy Grail electric automobile that’s just around the corner and will save the environment as we know it. Why should we invest in rail options if cars can save us all? As you could guess, The Overhead Wire eviscerates the Texas piece.

If that doesn’t quite boil your blood enough, mosey on over to the Hawaii Reporter and get a load of this gem. The headline: A Vote Against Rail is a Vote for Freedom and Prosperity. The pullquote: “Today’s average car is far more energy efficient than the average rail line.” Need I say more?

These arguments speak volumes about the state of the rail debate in our country, and while New Yorkers, by and large, understand and appreciate our region’s need for viable public transit, many Americans do not. Streetcars may be making a return in theory, but those transit advocates are facing an uphill battle. As funding public transit on a national level gets pigeonholed into the Red/Blue debate that so dominates politics today, everyone suffers in the end.

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Weekend service advisories

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Before getting to the weekend service changes, I want to thank everyone who contributed a guest column during my vacation this week. While readers may agree or disagree with those other points of view, it’s always interesting to hear what other people have to say about our subway system.

Without further ado, the service changes. Maps are available, as always, at Subway Weekender.

Free shuttle buses replace 1 trains between 238 and 242 Sts
Aug 16 – 17, 6 AM Sat to 7 PM Sun

Downtown 2 trains replace the 5 from 149 St-Grand Concourse to Nevins St
Downtown 5 trains replace the 2 from 149 St-Grand Concourse to Chambers St
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

No 3 trains between New Lots Av and 14 St
In Manhattan, take the uptown 2 or the downtown 5
In Brooklyn, take the 4 instead
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

Free shuttle buses replace 4 trains between Woodlawn and Bedford Pk Blvd
Aug 16 – 17, 4 AM Sat to 10 PM Sun

Bronx-bound 6 trains run express from 3 Av to Hunts Point Av
Aug 16, 12:01 AM to 5 AM Saturday

Flushing-bound 7 trains skip 33, 40, 46, 52, and 69 Sts
Aug 16 – 17, 4 AM Sat to 10 PM Sun

Downtown A trains run local from 168 St to Canal St
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

Uptown A trains run local from West 4 to 168 Sts
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

Manhattan-bound A trains run on the F from Jay to West 4 Sts
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

No C trains running
Take the A in Manhattan
Take the F in Brooklyn
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

F trains replace the C in Brooklyn
G trains replace the F between Hoyt-Schermerhorn Sts and Coney Island
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

No G trains between 71-Continental Avs and Court Sq
Take the E or R instead
Aug 15 – 18, 8:30 PM Fri to 5 AM Mon

G trains replace the F between Hoyt-Schermerhorn Sts and Coney Island
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

J trains run in two sections:

  1. Between Jamaica Center and Essex St
  2. Between Essex and Chambers Sts

Aug 16 – 18, 1 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

Free shuttle buses replace M trains between Metropolitan Av and Myrtle Av-Broadway
Aug 16 – 17, 4 AM Sat to 10 PM Sun

Brooklyn-bound N trains run on the R from Canal St to DeKalb Av
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

Downtown Q trains run local from 57 to Canal Sts
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

Q trains run in two sections:

  1. Between 57 and Pacific Sts
  2. Between Atlantic and Stillwell Avs

To continue your trip, walk through the passageway between Pacific St and Atlantic Av
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM to 5 AM Sat to Mon

Manhattan-bound R trains run on the V from Queens Plaza to Broadway-Lafayette St,
then over the Manhattan Bridge to DeKalb Av
Aug 16 – 18, 12:01 AM Sat to 5 AM Mon

Free shuttle buses replace the Franklin Av S between Franklin Av and Prospect Park
Aug 17, 6 AM to 6 PM Sunday

Categories : Service Advisories
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  • The subways, now with more rats · Forget economic woes and oft-delayed trains. New Yorkers are more concerned about the grossest thing in town. According to amNew York’s Matthew Sweeney, the number of rats in the subway are on the rise. This underground denizens are taking the subsurface tunnels by storm, and officials are blaming both increased construction and increased volumes of litter due to higher ridership figures for the surge in rodent population. From the sound of things, the IND line stations south of 34th St. are among the most rat-prone in the city. Lovely. · (0)

When it comes to the MTA and its recent economic difficulties, the media has enjoyed laying all of the blame for rapid fare hikes and fiduciary black holes squarely on the backs of the transit authority. Absent are many mentions of the inadequate city and state contributions to the MTA’s coffers. New York City’s Independent Budget Office would like to see this media approach change and, more importantly, would like to see more government contributions to the MTA.

In a report (PDF) released yesterday, the NYCIBO slams the city and state for shortchanging the MTA and blasts the media for failing to focus on the real financial issues at hand. City Room’s Sewell Chan reported on the IBO’s findings:

State and city subsidies to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have remained largely flat since 1990, exacerbating the authority’s fiscal pressures at a time when it is threatening to raise fares and facing steep deficits because of the turbulence in the real estate market, according to a new report.

The three-page report…did not make any policy recommendations, but it suggested that the intense news coverage of the authority’s troubled finances has largely overlooked the issue of government subsidies. The authority collects far more revenue from subway, bus and commuter rail fares, dedicated taxes, and bridge and tunnel tolls than it draws from direct government aid.

“It remains to be decided whether new types of subsidies are necessary, or whether existing levels should be altered by adjusting terms that have held some subsides flat for a decade,” the report’s authors, Alan Treffeisen and Doug Turetsky, wrote. “But in order to best decide how to aid the M.T.A. in the future, a common understanding of how much assistance the city and state provide today is needed.”

You won’t hear me disagreeing with this assessment. In fact, I have long called upon city and state officials to stay true to their words and adequately and fully fund the beleaguered Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Of course, politicians love to posture, and while New York’s leaders are happy to give lip service to this IBO statement, none of them will accept financial responsibility for the MTA.

On Thursday, in fact, Mayor Bloomberg illustrated just how the politicians are willing to talk the talk but not walk the walk. “Generally speaking, given the quality of mayors, they should be in control of their transportation systems,” Bloomberg said yesterday, The Times reports.

But when pressed to commit a greater level of city money to the MTA, Bloomberg changed his tune. “We have no money to do that, and it’s up to the state to find the money,” he said.

It’s always up to someone else to find the money, and as the city and state — two financially-strapped institutions in their own rights — bicker over funding, the MTA will turn to its one steady source of revenue: fare hikes. The only way to change this course of events is to convince elected representatives once and for all to show the MTA the money. That’ll be the day.

Categories : MTA Economics
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The two-dollar ride

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I’m on vacation for the next week, but since New York’s subways never shut down, neither will Second Ave. Sagas. I’ve enlisted the help of a few bloggers to help keep things fresh around here. Today’s guest post comes to us from Todd, a frequent SAS commenter and the author of Blog Name Removed.

Last Friday, I was slowly making my way downtown on the 4 train. It was a bad ride; we kept stopping between stations for long periods. Apparently, there was a problem further down the line and everything was backed up. It got to the point where people were cursing The MTA aloud. Then all of a sudden this elderly African-American man walked into the car. He was easily 7 feet tall; it was quite striking. (When was the last time you saw an obscenely tall old man?) He had to stoop, even in the tallest part of the train. After he found a seat next to me, we both sat and watched another guy grow increasingly angry at our whole non-moving situation.

Finally, the tall old man stood up and walked over to the angry guy. T.O.M. kinda tapped him on the shoulder, and in the most grandfatherly and non-offensive way, told him this:

“Son, this is what you get for a two-dollar ride. This is the cheap ride. It’s what you get. If you wanted to go fast, you go up there [pointing up] and pay for a ten-dollar ride. That’s the fast ride. This is the two-dollar ride. We go slower down here. No sense getting angry about something you can’t change.”

Angry guy stopped being angry. In fact, everyone within earshot just stopped for a second, including me. Then T.O.M. sat back down and everything was calm.

That experience has really stayed with me.

When Ben posts bad news about the subways, I am one of the first people to start blasting The MTA. The trains are always late, they smell (you my boy C-Dog!), they are too hot, the stations desperately need rehabilitation, the unions ruin everything, the workers are lazy, the MTA never finishes anything they start, their report cards are useless, and on and on…

That tall old man was right. If I wanted the faster, cleaner, and more reliable ride, I could pay for a cab. Even then, I would probably end up sitting in traffic inside a hot car that smells like curry, sweat, and broken dreams. The subway is still the best way to commute. It is much better for the environment, and it is very inexpensive, especially with the monthly pass. Sure, it sucks sometimes, but it is nice to put it back in perspective every once in a while.

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Over the last two days, The New York Times has uncovered the police plans for the rebuilt World Trade Center complex. Originally presented as an open space with appropriate security measures, the rebuilt Ground Zero, as the NYPD sees it, will be a heavily-guarded area with an around-the-clock police presence.

While we’re only tangentially concerned with the above-ground world, when The Times via a City Room post drilled down on the police presentation, the findings impacted the underground world of the subway and should be dismaying to subway advocates, to say the least. According to the document, the police are aiming to conduct sweeps of train cars that pass underneath the World Trade Center complex. Even worse are the calls for on-board searches that could delay train cars up and down the various subway lines, creating even more subway delays.

According to the 36-page presentation that The Times says has been given “by top-ranking police officials in recent months,” the security zone encompassing Ground Zero would call for teams of eight to ten officers led by a sergeant to conduct on-board security sweeps. The NYPD would “briefly hold” trains in the station while officers — one per car — conducted the searches.

I can’t argue against security measures put in place to protect the subway system. As it stands now, New York City Transit’s underground network is a rather porous and vast system that runs under and above some of the city’s most vital areas. Hundreds of trains pass under Times Square and over the Manhattan Bridge each day. Rail yards are left unguarded and are accessible to anyone who puts some effort into getting in.

But subway cars are a different matter. The NYPD should not get into the business of holding subway cars in stations to conduct sweeps. While they may wish to only “briefly” keep those cars sitting idle, a brief delay, as NYC Transit is wont to point out, echoes up and down the entire line. If the NYPD holds a Brooklyn-bound R train at Cortlandt St. for a few minutes, trains in Astoria will feel like the shockwave of that delay. Subway service, already slower than we’d like and subject to a rising number of delays, will slow to a crawl around a Ground Zero security bottleneck.

The subways should be safer, but security measures should not include more delays. The NYPD has to find a way to improve subway security without sacrificing efficiency, and this plan — while simply a proposal — highlights measures that could drastically impact subway performance. That is not an adequate solution to any security problem.

Update: As NY1’s Bobby Cuza noted in the comments, this is not a new NYPD tactic. As part of Operation TOMS (Transit Order Maintenance), the NYPD has been conducted 40-second sweeps of train cars. Here, they are proposing to add the WTC site to their list of heavily-trafficked and closely-guarded stations. I haven’t heard much — negative or positive — about Operation TOMS, but I’m still not too keen on police sweeps holding up train traffic, even if only for a supposed 40 seconds.

Categories : Subway Security
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There’s an old saying out there that goes something like this: All is fare in love and subways. Or perhaps that’s love and war. But either way, this week has not been a good one for public transit and fare-payment technologies.

We’ll start in New York where the MTA has recently discovered a flaw in its vending machines that has allowed riders to acquire free tickets just by using a debit card. Oops.

William Neuman reports:

The Long Island Rail Road said that a check of its records from 2004 until this May, when the glitch was discovered, found that in addition to the scam, there had been 990 transactions totaling $74,000 that appeared to be related to the software error.

Metro-North said that it had not made such an extensive check but that in the first several months of this year it found that the error had allowed the sale of tickets worth $2,960 in which the buyer was not charged. The machines were installed in 2001, and a Metro-North spokeswoman said that there appeared to have been hundreds of the free transactions in the intervening years…

Technicians discovered that it was possible to buy tickets using one of the debit cards even if there was not enough money in the account to cover the cost of the transaction. Further investigation revealed that other debit cards from some smaller banks operated in the same way: if the account had insufficient funds, the vending machines dispensed tickets anyway, and did not charge the account.

So instead of alerting a customer to a potential overdraft and denying the charge, the MTA’s vending machines simply processed the transaction and dispensed a ticket for free. Needless to say, the glitch — seven years in the making — has supposedly been corrected, but this is an embarrassing admission on the part of an agency long criticized for its inability to adopt and respond to problems with new technologies.

Meanwhile, in Boston, a group of MIT students has hacked the MBTA’s own fare payment system. Basically, three students figured out how to reverse-engineer the magnetic strip on the CharlieTickets and how to crack the RFID technology used in the CharlieCard. Transit systems across the nation and globe rely on these technologies, and I’m sure no one is too thrilled to hear about these two developments.

For those of us who ride the subways every day and don’t want to see our technologies hacked, these news is not surprisingly but discouraging. Those who run subway systems are forever looking for ways to improve fare systems, and the obvious answer is technology. MetroCards allow for discounted fare options, and more flexible payment systems. RFID-based cards such as the CharlieCard or London’s Oyster Card allow for speedier fare processing. A touch-and-go system is a lot more efficient than our swipe, “Try Again at this Turnstile” and finally go technique.

But as with any technology, the people who can get at the root of the code and turn it around are always one step ahead. The hackers will always be able to exploit security holes and systematic loopholes. Once the MTA addresses its problems and the MBTA deals with their security holes, something else down the line will pop up. That’s just the nature of technology.

While it’s easy to say that we should go back to an era of tokens, even those relics of another age aren’t hack-proof. Just ask Alan Campbell and Kim Gibbs. I wonder how their token slug ring is doing today.

Categories : MTA Technology
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I’m on vacation for the next week, but since New York’s subways never shut down, neither will Second Ave. Sagas. I’ve enlisted the help of a few bloggers to help keep things fresh around here. Today’s guest post comes to us from Gerrit, better known as The Altar of Entropy at 2Log.

Hear it go clink, ya pansies… the gauntlet’s officially down!

Let’s recap.

2log, wherein I do my blogging, hosts a weekly competition among talented bloggers to determine who’s best of the best. Many fortnights ago, Ben threw his hat into the ring. And he bloodied us all bad. What can I say… he fights dirty. he came armed with… with… with mouth-watering pictures of nachos. Who could resist?!?!

Although I could use my short stint as a guest-blogger for Second Avenue Sagas to write one of my many flippant posts about the subway, I thought I’d use it to bring the fight back to Mr. Kabak’s home turf.

Way back in the day, I pitched Kabak a series of questions about the subway, but he only answered two of them correctly. For my post here at Second Avenue Sagas, I respin the underlying theme of my third question into a larger, more philosophical question:


I know what you’re thinking… it’s because they’re a pack of dorked up, Diet Coke downing, middle-manager rejects with curiously large nose hairs whose idea of creativity is putting a U2 album on shuffle. Whoa there, Mr. Negative… let’s not go all John McCain this early. Here’s some crazier ideas they could try as a possible source of additional revenue. Some are so crazy they just might work.

Stick Some Junk in That Trunk
This was my original idea… late at night, when the subway cars aren’t in use, use the MTA to transport freight about town. Gas prices are ridiculously expensive, right? Seemingly 20% or more of the city’s traffic is trucks hauling shipments. Why not use a few cars on the late-night trains, which are pretty much deserted anyway, to offer merchants cheaper rates on shipping. The upside for passengers is that, if the program becomes super-popular, then late night passengers will see more trains roll by and their wait time will plummet, especially along trains that touch a port (like the airports or any hub to dirty Jersey).

Kabak countered that it has something to do with the gauges, but I say that’s nonsense. A single subway car easily holds 50 people. At about 150 lbs a person, that’s at least 7,500 lbs of cargo per train without any modifications. So what you have to say ’bout that?!?

First Class Trains
Where do airplanes make their money? It’s not on coach, it’s on the rich idiots who are willing to pay extra to be separated from the commoners. So here’s what you do. Take the first car on every train, and call it a first class car. Tear up the orange plastic seating and install plush La-Z-Boy chairs. Offer a copy of the Wall Street Journal and a latte, and charge $50+ a ticket. There’s enough wealthy hedge fund bankers in the city who would take the deal, and the rest of us would be happy to not have to ride with them.

Chinatown Subway
Pretty much the opposite of the previous example. Some wizard figured out how to operate a bus at only $10 to Philadelphia that runs faster than the trains and outside traffic combined. Why not find this genius and offer him or her the key to the tunnels. For only a quarter, they’d build a high-risk train that could take you from Flushing to Canal Street in 13 minutes. BOOM BLAP! I don’t care if it’s hauling heroin, I just want to get to my danged discotheque.

Gauntlet’s down, MTA!

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