mindthegap When the South Ferry station finally opened on Monday, it did so following a two-month delay due to an engineering error. MTA engineers, not accounting for a slight curve in the station, miscalculated the gap between the trains and the platform. When the agency ran some final tests on the station in January, this platform gap was in violation of ADA requirements.

Over the last few months, this gap — ranging from about one to three inches — has been the butt of many a joke directed at the MTA. It’s symbolic of the problems MTA construction projects have, and the fact that the station opened 15 months was hardly a surprise. From staircases to stations, the MTA’s on-time rate could use some work.

That said, Michael Horodniceanu, head of MTA Capital Construction, was more than willing to shoulder the blame. WNYC’s Matthew Schuerman reported:

REPORTER: Just days before the planned opening in January, the MTA discovered the gap between the trains and the platform measured up to four inches. That exceeded federal regulations by an inch. The head of the MTA’s capital construction division, Michael Horodniceanu, says the authority’s design guidelines didn’t take into account the curve of the platform.

HORODNICEANU: The standards that we had were for a straight-line station or a station that is in a very slight curve and this was more than that.

REPORTER: The MTA built an extra two inches on to the platform, knowing that some of it will rub off as trains come into and out of the station. The materials and in-house labor cost an extra $150,000. Horodniceanu says for a $530 million project, it’s a minor mistake.

I’m pleased to see Horodniceanu note the MTA’s mistake, but I have to hope that the engineer who didn’t allow for the sharper curve no longer has a job. It’s also worth noting that Horodniceanu, a few months into the job as head of Capital Construction, isn’t to blame. This one lies with Mysore Nagaraja and the people he had working on this project.

As the Senate debates disposing of Elliot Sander as MTA CEO and executive director, the men Sander has picked to fill his top spots are far more reliable and honest than previous MTA workers. While straphangers never want to see these construction delays and costs mount, at least now the agency is taking ownership of the problem. That’s progress we shouldn’t lose over politics.

Update 12:42 a.m. (Friday): I wanted to clarify something here. I don’t think that Nagaraja should have been fired for this mistake. I don’t think any of the engineers should have been fired. I meant that line as more of a flippant comment on Dr. Horodniceanu’s mea culpa. Nagaraja did an excellent job as head of MTA Capital Construction. He was a driving force behind the MTA’s current state-of-good-repair campaign and opened the tunnels south of the World Trace Center faster than anyone assumed.

This South Ferry mistake is a routine one that could impact any project. The longer delays are more of a concern, but those in charge are aware of the problem. Projects like these run into things — historic Battery walls, complications — and are tough to complete on time.

Categories : MTA Construction
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Prepping for a $2.50 ride

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While Senate Republicans are waiting for a call from Gov. Paterson in an effort to save the MTA, no one is too optimistic that any sort of acceptable plan will pass the Senate before next Wednesday. So with just six days left until the MTA Board is set to vote on its Doomsday budget proposal, word of the transit authority’s proposed new fare structure has hit the press.

The news is, of course, not very promising. A single fare will go up 25 percent to $2.50, and 30-day Unlimited Ride cards, while still a good deal, would pass the century mark. Shockingly, MTA Board members are calling this fare hike “the lesser of two evils.” Daily News transit beat reporter Pete Donohue has the story:

The price of a single subway or bus ride will soar from $2 to $2.50 under a menu of new fares the MTA is expected to adopt next week.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is on the verge of raising fares for millions of daily subway, bus and commuter train riders that would go into effect if the state doesn’t come through with a rescue plan. The MTA board’s finance committee is expected to approve the new fares Monday, followed by a full board vote Wednesday. Hikes are needed for the authority to have a required balanced budget and would take effect June 1, officials have said.

Under the proposal most board members appear to favor, the price of a monthly MetroCard would rise by $22 to $103. A weekly unlimited-ride MetroCard would jump by $6 to $31. The board is leaning against another set of proposed hikes that would jack up the $2 base fare to $3 and eliminate the 15% bonus on cash-based MetroCards valued at $7 or more.

“It really is the lesser of two evils,” MTA board member Allen Cappelli said. “Nobody wants to make these changes.”

NY1 had a few more details on the proposed fare schedule. Riders who stick with the pay-per-ride model will still earn a 15 percent bonus for all purchases over $7. That discount brings the actual cost of a pay-per-ride card down to $2.17.

Basically, these numbers are the same as those from November. At the time, the MTA hinted that fares could cover only half of the projected deficit. The other half will come from massive service cuts and personnel reductions. The details of those plans have yet to be announced.

With a $2.50 base fare, transit is slowly getting more and more expensive in New York City. Twenty years ago, a token cost $1.00. Ten years ago, the base fare sat at $1.50. Fares are now far out pacing inflation. Meanwhile, the East River bridges remain unnecessarily free.

One day, someone with the political will and power to do so will save the MTA. It doesn’t like that day will be any time this year though, and across the city, straphangers will have to soon budget for a $103 monthly MetroCard.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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MTA CEO and Executive Director Elliot Sander has had a rough go of it since assuming the position in Dec. 2007. A leading transit expert, he is eminently qualified for the top spot, but he inherited an agency fraught with financial problems. When the bad economy and the MTA’s troubles hit, it seemed as those Sander’s days would be numbered.

Last week, word emerged that a Senate bailout may come with the requirement of change atop the MTA leadership structure. I called it a petty and short-sighted move by the Senate. They shouldn’t penalize Sander for Albany’s decades-long neglect of the MTA.

Now, The Post is reporting that Sander could be out soon. In a short, cryptic piece, David Seifman and Tom Namako report that Marc Shaw, a former Pataki aide and one-time executive director of the MTA, could replace Sander soon.

Here’s the entire article. It doesn’t say much more:

MTA chief Elliot Sander’s days could be numbered, and a leading candidate for his job is a close aide to Gov. Paterson who is a former top transit executive, sources told The Post.

Paterson’s senior adviser, Marc Shaw, could replace Sander after state lawmakers decide how or if to fix the agency’s $1.2 billion budget gap and reorganize its management, the sources said. Sander, who took the helm at the MTA in 2007, would be entitled to collect one year’s severance – a cool $343,000, a source said.

An MTA spokesman had no comment.

Basically, this seems like a political move. The Senate would want to remove Sander (and possibly MTA Chair Dale Hemmerdinger) to send some sort of message to the public. Gov. David Paterson, who inherited Sander as MTA head when Eliot Spitzer stepped down, would get to appoint someone of his choosing to head up the beleaguered transit agency.

Odds are, however, that a change at the top isn’t quite what the MTA needs. Rather, they need funding and a renewed commitment from those who hold the purse strings. Petty political revenge does not make for good transit policy.

Categories : MTA Politics
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New York’s leaders roundly rejected the Senate Democrat’s idea for the MTA. (Click the image for a much larger and very readable version of this chart.)

In the end, the Senate Democrats came up with an idea yesterday that was exactly as reported. In an effort to close what they viewed as a $1.128 billion budget gap — a number about $700 million off from reality — the Senate Democrats propose no tolls and no service cuts but a four percent fare hike and a payroll tax of $0.25 per $100. The Senators would also request a full audit of the MTA and administrative trimming.

Even its proponents admit that this plan would be hust a stop gap measure. Meanwhile, New York’s leaders came out swinging, and no one liked this idea. It doesn’t provide a long-term solution to the MTA’s financial woes, and unlike the Ravitch plan, the Splan does not fund the MTA’s ambitious capital plan. It is, in the grand tradition of state assistance to the MTA, a token gesture designed to postpone, and not fix, a real problem. While the Four Amigos can claim a victory over tolls, the rest of us are losers.

Early in the day, Mayor Bloomberg was highly critical of this effort. With New York political commentators wondering just how little control Majority Leader Malcolm Smith has over his own party members, Bloomberg slammd Albany. “We need a plan that solves the problem, not something that’s going to get us to next year,” the mayor said.

Bloomberg also took the opportunity to bash the Senate system: “There’s a tradition, sadly, in the Senate which I’ve never agreed with that you do all your party, and the other party doesn’t really get counted. And that’s not democracy. I think we’d all be better off if we had changed some of that, but that’s the tradition up there. So it’s going to have to be the Democratic senators to come together with the Democratic Assembly people and a Democratic governor and solve this problem.”

That system, though, might be changing. Reports from Albany suggest that Gov. David Paterson, upset with a splintered and obstructionist Democratic party, may be willing to court Republicans. The Times reported on this potentially bipartisan development:

Mr. Paterson chided the Democratic majority in the Senate for choosing what he described as a short-term solution that left big holes in future budgets at the authority. His strong stance suggested that the debate over how to prevent sharp fare increases and service cuts could drag late into the budget season…

The governor was asked if there were any way the Senate plan could be adopted and provide a solution for the authority’s problems. He answered bluntly, “No.”

The governor suggested he may seek Republican support to break the impasse, saying he is willing to sit down with leaders from both parties in the Senate to discuss the issue. So far, however, Republicans have refused to back any version of the rescue plan.

On a more practical level, as everyone from Sheldon Silver to Regional Plan Association officials called this plan “Irresponsible,” “Disappointing,” “Stopgap” and “Slapdash”, transit advocates challenged the Senate math. MTA Chair Dale Hemmerdinger said that the Senators did not “do their homework.” The fare hike with this half-baked plan could be closer to 15-20 percent than the projected four percent.

At this point, this whole thing is one giant mess. The MTA board meets in seven days to assess the agency’s short-term future, and the Senate has offered up no opinion on the Ravitch plan, the best of the long-term plans. Malcolm Smith can’t keep his caucus in line, and both the mayor and governor are ready to engage in open partisan warfare against a splintered caucus while transit in the city struggles to stay afloat.

Maybe it would be best for the MTA to fail. At least then constituents could vote out their Senators in favor of people willing to assess the numbers and take a real chance on a plan to save the city. That’s probably just a dream though.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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  • Envisioning Moses’ Manhattan · When Robert Moses ruled New York, roadways were king, and transit was shunned. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the leaders representing this transit-dependent city haven’t yet managed to overcome this irrational auto-friendly bias. As the State Senate debates the MTA’s future, design blog Vanshnookenraggen recently reimagined Manhattan in the image of Moses. Using Google maps and some imaging software, Vanshnookenraggen pictured the city as it would be with the ill-fated Lower Manhattan Expressway and Mid-Manhattan Expressway. Those projects would have been nightmares indeed for the city. · (10)

When all permanent measures fail, take the temporary road. That’s the lesson the State Senate is prepared to unleash upon the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, according to sources in Albany.

Faced with a March 25 deadline, irrational hatred of East River bridge tolls, an Assembly on board with Richard Ravitch and the need to do something quickly, the State Senate is prepared to unveil a temporary fix that will solve the MTA’s budget problems for this year.

According to NY1, the plan is a stop-gap measure: Tolls are out, any support for the MTA’s capital plan is out and a 25 percent fare hike is out. In will be a payroll tax, a four percent fare hike and a few other measures. While Richard Ravitch, the architect behind an equitable tax-toll-fare hike plan that would have saved the MTA, warned Albany against temporary fixes, the State Senate has all but officially rejected tolls and is going its own way.

Nicholas Confessore and William Neuman, writing an elegy to the East River bridge tolls in The Times, called the latest plan a “a scaled-back, short-term alternative to bail out the authority.” Reports the duo:

The Senate proposal, which was presented privately to Democratic Senators on Monday afternoon, would include a 4 percent fare increase, half of what Mr. Ravitch had proposed. It would also impose a tax of 25 cents on every $100 of payroll on employers within the 12 counties served by the authority. That would be significantly less than the 34 cents that Mr. Ravitch had proposed.

“The immediate impact would be, all service cuts are restored, fare increases would be cut in half, and there would be no tolls,” said one of the two people briefed on the plan.

Democratic staff members reviewed some of the authority’s finances in recent days and concluded that a scaled-back plan would suffice in the short term. But the Senate proposal would require the transportation authority to submit to a deeper forensic auditing, a step lawmakers from both parties have demanded as a condition of laying out more taxpayer money for the authority, long dogged by waste and corruption.

Senate staff members have not finished calculating precisely how much revenue their plan would generate. But it would clearly be far less than Mr. Ravitch’s plan, requiring lawmakers to return to the issue again within months. But one of the two people who were briefed said that since the authority’s capital spending plan was already financed through the end of this year, Senate Democrats believed there was time to return later to find a more comprehensive solution.

If this is what Carl Kruger earlier on Monday called “comprehensive and so outside the box that everybody should want to partner with it,” it’s clearly time for some new New York state leadership.

This is really just a punt by the State Senate. They’re enacting the least offensive measures of the Ravitch Plan while pushing off the MTA’s impending Doomsday by a few more months. Richard Ravitch knows what he’s talking about, and Sheldon Silvery, the Assembly speaker prepared to support tolls, recognizes now what the Senate will have to again tackle in a few months. The MTA’s long-term fix lies with the East River tolls just as it rested on the Triborough Bridge revenue a few decades ago.

If this is actually the plan to emerge from the Senate, I guess transit supporters should be happy. After all, if the MTA doesn’t have to cut back service while raising fares just four percent, New York has been saved from a transit doomsday. The MTA, though, is left with no clear vision for a future at a time when it should be laying the financial groundwork for more of the Second Ave. subway and more capital projects.

In six months or so, the Senate will have to revisit this issue. Maybe by then Malcolm Smith can corral the missing toll votes. The battle might be over, the war in a truce, but this whole story — a Ravitch-inspired fix that will require sacrifices from everyone — isn’t over yet.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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  • Twenty minutes after opening, South Ferry stop shuttered by Canal St. water main · It was the best of times and the worst of times for the MTA this afternoon. After fifteen months of delays and cost overruns, the new South Ferry terminal on the 1 line opened shortly after noon today. Twenty minutes later, a 140-year-old watermain near the Holland Tunnel broke, halting service south along the IRT to the new station. If that’s not a metaphor for this project, I don’t know what is.

    Update 6:20 p.m.: This sad parable just got more depressing. The MTA’s website reports “ongoing signal problems” at South Ferry. The MTA had months to test the operational signals at South Ferry, and yet, on day one, there are problems. MTA fail indeed.

    Update 11:30 p.m.: For the official word on the first new station to open in the subway system, check out the MTA press release. While we half-jokingly mock the transit authority about the delays and the unrelated water main break, opening up a new station and attempting to expand the system while combating other financial difficulties are laudable goals. At present, the MTA’s operating finances are in a sorry state, but those will improve in the future. When they do, the system should be a robust, far-reaching and modern one.

    The station is also the first post-9/11 Lower Manhattan project to open, and the politicians speaking earlier today were quick to praise. “This station represents not only our joint city, state and federal commitment to rebuilding Lower Manhattan, but also our commitment to mass transit in New York State,” Gov. David Paterson said. “This station is vital to the residents, commuters and tourists who pass through it each day, by allowing for increased subway service, better connections and spurring economic growth in Lower Manhattan. I thank our Congressional delegation for pushing for this funding in Washington. Projects like the South Ferry Station keep New York’s mass transit system among the best in the world.” · (6)

As the MTA’s self-imposed Doomsday rapidly approaches, New York Gov. David Paterson is resorting to a tried and true political method of buying time and votes for the MTA. According to The Post, Paterson is attempting to buy MTA votes with a $279 million slush fund for Senators. It’s government pork at its finest.

Fredric U. Dicker writes:

Gov. Paterson plans to tap into a little-noticed, $279 million slush fund to “buy” the votes of state Senate Democrats who are resisting his bridge-toll plan and pared-down budget, The Post has been told.

The slush fund is buried in Paterson’s $121 billion proposed “bare bones” state budget and is made up of reappropriated pork-barrel “member item” money left over from past years.

Much of the slush money was appropriated for projects backed by Senate Republicans, who narrowly lost their majority to the Democrats in the November election. That money could now be shifted to Democrat-favored pork.

It’s unclear if this move will actually help win votes for the MTA. New York State Senators are anything but honest and could just take this money and run. But if it works, Paterson’s about-face on pork spending will just be another move in the long line of political compromise for the sake of the MTA.

Hopefully, this $279 million gamble works. We can’t afford for it not to.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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The less you know…

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On Friday afternoon, I linked to a Sewell Chan piece on The Times City Room blog about the impending cut backs and fare hikes the MTA may soon have to enact. As the day dragged on, Chan’s piece generated over 180 comments on The Times’ website, but as one of my readers noted, these readers are woefully uninformed about the state of the MTA.

Let’s take a peek at some of the more egregiously ill-informed comments, starting with comment 8:

It’s because there workers demand raises every year since they are part of a union, they are entitled to a raise. That’s what the last hike was about not our budget problem but giving the workers more money.

Comment 9:

Didnt they just have a billion dollar surplus?!? What happened to that money?

Comment 23:

LIES!!! There is no fiscal crisis in the MTA. The MTA runs 2 sets of books, as proven by State Comptroller Alan Hevesi in 2002. They hide millions of dollars in this second accounting ledger so they can cry “Bankruptcy!” and squeeze millions of more dollars from the state and city budgets.

Comment 53:

The MTA has been paying fraudulent LIRR disability cases and inflated overtime/social security benefits. What happened to the surplus a few years back? What happened to the second set of accounting books

My personal favorite, e-mailed to me by fellow transit supporter Chris, at Comment 130:

This is RIDICULOUS!!!!!!! These idiots decide to “invest” the money into dangerous and ultimately pathetically awful securities….actually, more like “get-rich-quick” schemes for the highest levels of our society….you know, those geniuses who know better than us morons…..and now we have to foot the bill? Why cant Peter Kalikow, in all his brilliance take a pay cut, huh? He makes upwards of 400K for what? To bury the MTA in debt and have to impose these hardships on us? They should be dragged out into the streets and each given 100 lashes. Then they can keep their jobs. I bet you it wont happen again after that!

In case anyone has forgotten, Kalikow last served as head of the MTA in 2007. To say that anyone who doesn’t know that hasn’t been paying attention would be a gross understatement.

If there’s any doubt about who is winning the PR game, I think this wraps it up in favor of the anti-congestion pricing, anti-tolling, anti-MTA crowd in the New York State legislature who would rather cut their own arteries than fund transit. People are hung up on six-year-old scandals, on misunderstandings surrounding MTA finances, even on how the tolling plan would work. And of course, some people don’t even know who’s in charge of the MTA.

When the MTA votes to enact its Doomsday budget in ten days, people will again protest the MTA. They’ll call for the heads of Dale Hemmerdinger and Elliot Sander. Again, transit advocates who have failed so far will attempt to educate the public, but the public just isn’t listening. They’ve made up their minds about the MTA, as at the City Room readers show, no amount of facts, truth or logic will convince them otherwise.

The MTA is not efficient, and its history as way too many separate entities has never been more glaringly obvious. A new public benefit corporation built from the bottom up with streamlined operations and inter-agency lines of communication would be far better for the City of New York in 2009. But right now, we’re stuck with what’s there, and whether New Yorkers know and understand it, when Albany fails to act, the state legislature will have won the anti-tolling war, but they will lose the mass transit battle for all New Yorkers.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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