The MTA has a problem. And no, I’m not talking about the duel threats of steep fare hikes and rampant service cuts. Instead, I’m talking about the capital campaign. The cash-strapped MTA needs $30 billion for its next five-year capital plan. Where that money is going to come from is, right now, anyone’s guess.

We know about the MTA’s current operating budget issue. The MTA has to find a way to balance a budget currently $1.2 billion in debt, and when they unveil their plans later today, the riders are going to suffer. But long term, the MTA has to remain in good shape.

For the past twenty years, the powers-that-be have pushed an aggressive capital expansion and modernization plan. Every five years, the MTA submits a new plan for approval and funds a significant part of that through borrowed funds and government contributions. But in a bad economy, the money has practically dried up, and as William Neuman explores in The Times today, the very future of the MTA is at risk if capital sources dry up.

“The authority,” he writes, “is uncertain how it will pay for the next five-year capital spending plan that could cost as much as $30 billion.”

The fare increases and cutbacks are meant to keep the system running next year. The capital plan is meant to keep it running for years beyond that through the purchase of new equipment, maintenance of tracks and renovation of stations…

The current capital plan expires at the end of next year, and the authority must submit a new five-year plan to the state for approval even as it seeks additional money to plug its operating deficit. Officials have estimated that the capital plan could cost $25 billion to $30 billion, much of which would be financed through bonds that the authority would repay over many years.

Both budgets are important, but Mr. Brodsky and others worry that the long-term needs will be lost in the tumult of settling the more immediate need. “It would be a terrible mistake to take whatever resources may be available and use them all on the operating side,” Mr. Brodsky said.

In the article, Richard Brodsky, Democratic assemblyman from Westchester, sounds like the MTA’s biggest booster. “The need for investment in the system is gargantuan,” he says. “Twenty-five years from now what we do on the capital plan will resonate much more loudly than what the debate is going to be about fare increases.”

He’s not lying, and in fact, the MTA chair backs him up. “Not enough people recognize that the system is vulnerable, and if you don’t keep spending this money it will go back to the way it was in the ’70s before you can blink an eye,” Dale Hemmerdinger said to Neuman. “All the focus and all the talk so far has been on the operating budget, and the capital budget runs out next year and we need to know the money is going to continue to flow.”

But Brodsky has also been one of the biggest thorns in the MTA’s side. From his position as head of the MTA’s oversight committee, he opposed congestion pricing, a progressive scheme to deliver $400 million annually earmarked for the MTA’s operations budget. He urged the MTA to ask the assembly for more money only to see the governing body deny the authority needed funds.

It’s very true that the MTA needs to find a way to ensure its capital campaigns continue. We can’t afford to see the subways slip back into the state of disrepair so rampant in the 1970s. That is indeed more important that arguments over short-term service cuts and fare hikes. But we also need politicians willing to put their necks out there to fund transit. Something has to give; what will it be?

Categories : MTA Economics
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  • Cutting people, instead of service, to save $1 billion · New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has long called on the MTA to pursue internal belt-tightening to save money. Today, with extreme fare hikes and myriad service cuts on the table, the comptroller talked with the New York Post about how the agency could save $1 billion by cutting internal bloat. According to DiNapoli, thousands of the MTA’s 70,000 employees are either redundant or nonessential, but the agency has acted slowly in trimming the bureaucratic fat. “We’d like them to show more urgency. They should have a more aggressive timetable to implement what they have to do,” he said. Perhaps, as we urge lawmakers to send more money transit’s way, we should urge the MTA to do some serious internal trimming as well. · (8)

While the Daily News may have scooped the rest of the New York papers with the news on the MTA’s planned extensive service cuts, The Times one-upped the tabloid today. The Gray Lady’s got the fare information, and it ain’t pretty

William Neuman details the planned fare hikes that will compliment the service reductions. While Neuman doesn’t mention the reported $3 base fare, he tosses around a 23 percent fare hike across the board. Yikes.

Anyway, the details:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority will seek to increase fare and toll revenues by 23 percent next year to plug a yawning budget gap, according to a person briefed on the plan…The result is straightforward and grim: Many riders will have to pay more to wait longer for trains and buses that are more crowded.

The fare and toll increase is intended to raise about $600 million next year, about half of the $1.2 billion deficit projected for next year. The increase would go into effect in June or July.

The authority will outline the budget proposals at a meeting of its board on Thursday, but officials said they had not yet worked out details of how the changes would affect different types of MetroCard fares on subways and buses, as well as fares on the commuter railroads.

It appears likely, however, that the base subway and bus fare would increase to at least $2.50, from $2, and that a monthly unlimited-ride MetroCard could rise to about $100.

I’ll be unveiling a second iteration of last year’s MetroCard Challenge later today to see how this move will impact me (and hopefully you, the user of a 30-day Unlimited Ride MetroCard). Needless to say, while the average price per ride will remain a good deal, no one will be happy about having to fork over $100 for a MetroCard while suffering through potential decreases in service.

For now, we can’t do much to assess this news. The MTA officials haven’t yet hammered out the details of a fare hike. But it is likely that users of the heavily-discounted Unlimited Ride cards will face steep increases as will bridge-and-tunnel users and pay-per-ride MetroCard swipes.

What this latest development ensures is that it will get ugly before it gets better. Already, the TV news stations are cornering disgruntled passengers who seem too willing to blame the MTA instead of elected officials who continue to withhold funding for the MTA. It’s time to reframe that debate and hold the officials who control the purse strings responsible for this mess.

Furthermore, the MTA seems to project the fare hikes to cover just half of the projected 2009 deficit. The other half will have to come from somewhere. Can service cuts and personnel decisions cover the rest? We’ll find out on Thursday.

Categories : Fare Hikes
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For the last few days, The Daily News has teased New Yorkers with references to the MTA’s “Doomsday plans.” The paper has run stories on the MTA’s potentially axing station agents and raising the base fare to $3.00.

Today, the tabloid dropped a bombshell: Reportedly, the MTA’s Doomsday scenario includes substantial service reductions and whole scale line eliminations. The paper’s sidebar tells the story:


  • W and Z lines shut down completely.
  • No more express J-train service, makes all local stops.
  • G line nearly halved with the northern terminal being Court Square, Long Island City, Queens, at all times. No more service from Court Square to Forest Hills.
  • M line halved, making stops only between Metropolitan Ave., Queens, and Broad St., Manhattan.
  • B line trains arrive every 10 minutes weekends, up from 8 minutes.
  • Overnight: Scheduled gaps between all trains running between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. increased to 30 minutes from 20 minutes.
  • Midday: Schedules changed – less frequent trains from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. – system wide so that trains carry more passengers: 125% of the seating capacity, up from current guideline of 100%.

Buses: A few dozen bus routes eliminated overnight and weekends, including X27 and X28 weekends. Bus routes targeted for less frequent service generally are those with lower ridership numbers or where subway trains are an option. A few routes running weekdays axed.

This, of course, is terrible news, but I am wondering how accurate it is. Fewer trains would leave many New Yorkers disgruntled. And while the Daily News reports that B service on the weekends should slow down, savvy straphangers know that the B doesn’t run on the weekends.

Jeremy Soffin, deputy director for media relations and the MTA’s press secretary, issued a statement on behalf of the MTA a short while ago. He said:

“We will not comment on the specifics of gap closing measures until the budget is presented to the MTA Board on Thursday morning. As we have said previously, plummeting tax revenues have increased the MTA’s deficit to $1.2 billion. The MTA began belt tightening long before the current financial crisis, and budget cuts start with further significant administrative and managerial cuts. The size of the deficit will also require a combination of fare/toll increases and service cuts, which will be presented on Thursday. We await the release of the Ravitch Commission recommendations in December and hope they will be implemented to restore financial stability to the MTA.”

We’ll know for sure on Thursday after the MTA board meeting if these plans line up with the MTA’s reality. If they do, these plans could mean one of two things. Either the MTA is presenting this Doomsday scenario to get the attention of the people with the purse strings. In that regard, this move would be fairly politically motivated to get more money for the subways. Or else, the MTA is really in dire straits, and New Yorkers who rely on the subways for transportation are in for a world of inconvenience and declining service.

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When NYC Transit President Howard Roberts and I sat down to talk last month, I started off by asking him about the Rider Report Cards. As a pilot program, I thought they had a relatively successful debut. While the results weren’t surprising, they did help New York City Transit focus its priorities in its efforts at improving subway service.

As we discussed those initial results, I eventually asked him why he was engaging in a second round of report cards so soon after the first ones. While the 7 and L, with the pilot line manager program in place may show some improvement, I opined, would any of the other lines really see their grades go up? If anything, people are more disgruntled with the subways this year as they had to suffer through a fare hike with relatively few service increases.

In response, Roberts defended his Rider Report Card program. It’s a part of the new management system, he explained, that is responsive to the needs and wishes of the customers. Instead of operating in a top-down environment in which MTA officials dictate the needs of the subway, the customers get to express their views on the trains. While I wondered if New Yorkers would be willing to go through the process again, I believe that Roberts has a voice. By routinely asking people what they want and then responding to those desires, the NYC Transit is empowering its riders more than it ever has in the past.

Yesterday, the agency released its first set of results for the second round, and as expected, changes in the grades were minimal. The L, which last year pulled down a C, managed a C-plus this time while the 7 saw its grade stay steady from a C-minus to a C-minus. Small improvements to be sure, but improvements nonetheless.

For the most part, the individual trends were encouraging. The L train saw minimal delays (C in 2008, C- in 2007) and reasonable wait times (C+ in 2008, C in 2007) improve by a grade over 2007’s report cards. In fact, in no category did the L decline in performance. Still riders rate adequate room on board at rush, minimal delays during trips and reasonable wait times between trains as their top three priorities. Those rankings are unchanged.

On the 7 line, where the focus has been on cleanliness, the grades have risen. Trains are cleaner; announcements are easier to hear. But riders complained about more delays during trips (D+ in 2008, C- in 2007) and reasonable wait times between trains (C-minus in 2008, C in 2007). Delays, adequate room and reasonable wait times were the top three complaints.

These results are hardly a surprise, and it shows that NYC Transit still has a lot of work cut out for itself. But for now, it seems as though the Line Manager program is an early success. How far the grades can raise may depend on external forces — more money, updated technology that can allow for more trains, more subway lines — but what’s in place right now is working, albeit slowly and very, very incrementally.

As an interesting sidebar, numbers were way down, and the scientific validity of these samples still raise some eyebrows. For the 7 train, the MTA received only 4113 report cards, just 26 percent of 2007’s total, and on the L line, the agency 2216 cards, down about 45 percent from last year. The MTA Board was somewhat critical of the polling methods, as The Times’ William Neuman reported last night.

Categories : Rider Report Cards
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  • M96 takes home prestigious Pokey Award · The Straphangers handed out their annual Pokey Awards last week, and the crosstown M96 took home top honors. The city’s slowest bus reaches averages speeds of 3.7 miles per hour as it crawls across town. As William Neuman noted, chickens can run nearly three times that speed.

    The rest of the Straphanger report features much of the same arguments we frequently hear about New York City buses. We need: “tougher enforcement of exclusive bus lanes with barriers to discourage cars from entering; pre-boarding fare payment; reconfigured bus stops to speed boarding and reduce conflicts with other vehicles; and bus priority signals to help buses stick to schedule.” In the meantime, buses will continue to be among the least time-efficient means of getting around New York City. · (5)

It was just a week and a half ago that the Transit Workers Union promised not to strike again. A new day had dawned for the MTA and its labor relations.

But as with all good things, it wasn’t meant to be. Over the weekend, Pete Donohue dropped a twin bombshell: The MTA may eliminate 600 token booth workers, and the agency would like to offer up raises of just 1.5 percent next year. The TWU, as anyone may imagine, was not too happy with this development.

First, the news about the station workers:

The MTA’s doomsday budget includes closing many subway token booths and eliminating the program that shifted some agents into stations to help riders, the Daily News has learned. Dozens of booths would be shuttered if the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board approves the plan next month and implements it next year, a source familiar with the document said.

Also on the chopping block is the three-year-old Station Customer Assistant program that moved approximately 600 clerks out of their booths to help riders with MetroCard vending machines and directions, the source said…

Transit officials have said layoffs are on the table, but it’s unclear if those 600 or so agents would get pink slips or be redeployed.

The MTA has yet to comment on this issue, and it’s quite possible that this so-called “doomsday budget” never comes to pass. But hand in hand with this news was a retort from the TWU about a potentially lower-than-normal salary increase:

The cash-strapped MTA plans to help balance its books by skimping on raises for its workers next year, financial plans show. Agency bean counters predict the MTA can save $40 million by limiting 2009 raises for the Transit Workers Union to less than 1.5%.

“Their position is ridiculous, and it won’t happen,” TWU Local 100 President Roger Toussaint told the Daily News.

Toussaint, ever the politician, fired a salvo at the MTA over the Daily News’ unsourced report. “This is the first time they are putting into the public space, and into the airwaves, this type of garbage,” he said.

Personally, I’m not quite sure what the MTA stands to gain with the current red-vest station assistance program. While these workers lend subway stations a modicum of safety, the vast majority of reports have these employees refusing to offer assistance when asked, and of course, a good many of them seem to sleep on on the job.

Of course, the other side of the coin is a dangerous one. If the MTA upsets the TWU, things could get ugly in a hurry. We remember, not so fondly, the subway strike in 2005. A repeat of that dark time would be a bit disastrous for a city teetering on the brink of economic collapse.

Right now, though, the jury is still out. Later this week, we’ll know more about the MTA’s concrete proposals, and only then can we — and Roger Toussaint — really analyze the situation. Until then, we wait.

Categories : MTA Economics, TWU
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Weekend Service Advisories

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No deep musings from me tonight. Let’s just jump in. You can tell the holiday season is fast approaching because the service alerts are slowing down a bit.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 15 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 17, downtown 1 and 2 trains skip 66th, 59th, and 50th Streets due to station rehab work at 59th Street-Columbus Circle.

From 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, November 15 and Sunday, November 16, Bronx-bound 4 trains skip 170th Street, Mt. Eden Avenue, and 176th Street due to track repairs.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 15 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 17, uptown A, C and E trains skip Spring, 23rd and 50th Sts. due to pump room work at West 4th Street.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, November 14 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 17, free shuttle buses replace A trains between 168th Street and 207th Street. Customers may transfer between the Broadway or Ft. Washington Avenue shuttle buses and the A train at 168th Street. There are no C trains between 145th Street and 168th Street. Customers should take the A instead, which runs local between 145th Street and 168th Street. These changes are due to tunnel lighting, structural and track work.

From 8:30 p.m. Friday, November 14 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 17, there are no G trains between Forest Hills-71st Avenue and Long Island City-Court Square due to N and R work (see below). Customers should take the E or R instead. – It’s the random no G train excuse generator.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 15 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 17, there are no N trains between Queensboro Plaza and Times Square due to track replacement in the area of 5th Avenue/59th Street, switch work at Queensboro Plaza and tunnel security work.

  • For Lexington Avenue and 5th Avenue, take the 7 to Grand Central and transfer to the uptown 456 to 59th Street
  • For 49th Street and 57th Street, take the 7 to Times Square and transfer to the uptown Q

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 15 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 17, N trains skip Prince, 8th, 23rd, and 28th Streets. (Same work as above.) Customers should take the Q instead.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 15 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 17, N trains are rerouted over the Manhattan Bridge between DeKalb Avenue and Canal Street. (Same work as above.)

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 15 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 17, Q trains replace the R between 57th Street-7th Avenue and DeKalb Avenue. (Same work as above.)

From 12:01 a.m. Sunday, November 16 to 5 a.m. Monday, November 17, R trains run on the V line from Queens Plaza to Broadway-Lafayette Street, then via the Manhattan Bridge to DeKalb Avenue. (Same work as above.)

Categories : Service Advisories
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Rockettes Lauren Gaul, left, and Naomi Hubert urge riders to take the subway this winter. (Photo courtesy of New York City Transit)

As part of the annual MetroCard discount at Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular, New York City Transit rolled out both the Rockettes and a Nostalgia Train yesterday. The train ran from the World Trade Center stop on the E to 47th-50th Sts./Rockefeller Center on the D with a few of the Rockettes in tow.

While the event was ostensibly put on to promote the $10 discount a MetroCard will get you at Radio City Music Hall this winter, the bigger news is the Nostalgia Train. Starting Nov. 30 and continuing through the holiday season, New York City Transit will again be running the Nostalgia Trains along the V line from 2nd Ave. to Queens Plaza and back.

I hopped a ride on the vintage subway last year. For pictures and more, check out the coverage from Dec. 2007.

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An MTA worker, shown here in 2006, rests on the job. (Photo by flickr user pixxiestails)

A quick joint through flickr reveals a whole series of photos of MTA employees asleep on the job, and it’s no secret that MTA station workers aren’t known for their bedside manners and even demeanor. Now, with budget cuts looming, the MTA is going to have to start cutting workers. While the Transit Workers Union will push hard to make sure their members don’t lose their jobs, the MTA is going to have to trim the bloat.

To that end, Jim Hoffer at ABC’s Eyewitness News did some digging this week and found a whole of bunch of underperforming MTA employees. While the authority had no comment for his story, Hoffer paints a picture of agency ready to face an internal gauntlet. While the MTA will need more money than that available from internal cuts, paring down a large bureaucracy is beneficial for streamlining operations as well.

The tale of the employees, though, is a classic. Reports Hoffer:

He’s supposed to be working, instead a transit track inspector is headed home after a little grocery shopping. Other transit employees caught on tape should be working too, instead they’re using the MTA dump truck to drive 30 miles to a beach on Long Island to hang out, chat and catch an ocean breeze. Other transit workers have so much free time during their 8-houir shift, they set up an outdoor gym where they can exercise at all hours of the work day.

“How many hours do you actually work on the track in an 8 hour shift?” I asked a track worker, who asked not to be identified.

“Typically it’s about 1 hour, an-hour-and-a-half of actual work,” he responded. Fed up with what he calls a culture of waste and abuse at a time when the MTA threatens record fare hikes, this worker said the problem starts high up.

“The supervisors are the problem. The supervisors allow this type of behavior. There is a system that allows the workers to slip out to go an do whatever they want,” he said.

Hoffer’s tales are endless and amusing. He has one about a worker who checks out his bar every hour or so and another about a team that works about 90 minutes a day. The workers, though, get $25-$30 an hour for their eight-hour shifts and benefits too. Sign me up!

The TWU, of course, denies the allegations. Roger Toussaint told Hoffer that the 90-minute work days are exceptions and that crews loiter, for hours on end, on platforms because they’re not allowed on the tracks during rush hour. But this seems to me to be a tale of bloat.

I can’t say where the responsibility for this issue lies. Hopefully, soon, the MTA will release a response to Hoffer’s story. But for now, I will raise a skeptical eyebrow. From circumstantial evidence, I’m inclined to believe the report, and I have to think that, with funds tight, the agency will soon crack down on this waste. Only after they do so can they ask the government for more sources of funding.

Categories : MTA Absurdity
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