I bet you didn’t see this one coming: According to transit experts and sources at the MTA, New Yorkers may be in store for a second fare hike in two years come 2009 if the authority doesn’t come up with some money stat. It would be just the second time in city history that subway fares increased in consecutive years.

Pete Donohue has more on this alarming news:

A rare back-to-back increase – along with service cuts – could be in store for commuters now that MTA number crunchers are suddenly dealing with a massive hole in next year’s budget.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s projected 2009 budget gap has ballooned – doubling or even tripling original estimates, sources said. Without new state money, officials may soon raise the spectre of increases, service cuts – or both, sources and experts said. “They don’t have many options,” one source said…

The latest projections had the MTA struggling to fill a $220 million budget hole. That number has grown to $500 million to $700 million, sources said. Part of the problem is that last year the MTA predicted that revenue from fees on real estate transactions would drop by $160 million between January and May. Instead, they plummeted by $240 million, MTA documents show.

And despite pledges to fight for more MTA funding, the state Legislature later joined Gov. Paterson in slashing expected subsidies from one state account by $40 million earlier this year. The hit repeats next year.

Meanwhile, Donohue notes that Richard Ravitch, tasked with forming a panel to figure out how to close the MTA budget gap, is still reviewing the beleaguered authority’s finances. He has yet to put together the panel.

To those who have been watching the MTA this year as tax revenues have dried up, the arrival of this news comes as no surprise. For the last few years, in fact, city officials have grown increasingly wary of how the MTA has relied on tax revenues to shore up its budget, and a few public advocates had been sounding alarming bells for a while. The state legislature, however, seems loathe to give money to the MTA, and its decision to slash subsidies is both alarming and bewildering.

So what now? Well, this story — anonymous sources, rising numbers — could be a political ploy to get those in charge of the purse strings focusing on the MTA. But the reality is that if outside money doesn’t start flowing to the authority, the fares will have to go up.

Despite Donohue’s man-on-the-street Bryan Tran’s statement — “Any higher and I will have to walk everywhere. It’s ridiculous.” — the fares just aren’t that high. The average cost-per-ride for an unlimited ride user is still well below what the $1.50 base fare we all used to pay in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

If anything, this news just drives home what Sheldon Silver and the anti-congestion pricing contingent did when they opted to let that MTA-saving measure die in committee. Perhaps it’s time to start paying closer attention to Ted Kheel after all.

Categories : Fare Hikes
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Hold that train

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I’m going to do something I don’t do too often in this space: I’m going to rant about the way the MTA handles train transfers at stations with island platforms. Here we go.

On Tuesday, when I was on the way back to Brooklyn from work, I took a B from West 4th St. to DeKalb where I would switch to an M or R to take me to Union St. and my gym. Usually, it’s a pretty quick ride; during rush hour, I can get a B to DeKalb or a D to Pacific St. and the M/R trains usually show up after a few minutes’ wait.

Tuesday was no exception. As the B pulled into DeKalb, the R train was sitting across the platform with the doors open seemingly waiting for connecting passengers. The B did its usually crawl into DeKalb, and we sat for a beat before the doors open. The entire time we sat there, the R had been posed, doors open awaiting passengers.

When the doors to the B finally opened, the doors to the R slammed shut. All of us waiting for that train — the Bay Ridge-bound passengers and the folks looking for stops in between — were denied our connection. It was an inexplicable move by the MTA. Why bother holding the doors to the R open just to close them when the passengers on the B finally decamp from their train?

A few minutes later, an M showed up to whisk us south through Brooklyn, and I was soon at Union St., the incident largely forgotten for most of the people who were stymied by the R. I however couldn’t help but think about that R train. How many times have we seen this happen? Whether it’s at Broadway and Lafayette on the BMT IND or W. 72nd St. on the IRT, trains will routinely close their doors right as a train on the adjacent platform pulls up. Frustrated passengers are left staring at lights receding down the tunnel while their desired transfer heads off into the distance.

It wouldn’t be too hard to or too inconvenient for train operators to hold their doors and extra 10 or 15 seconds at major transfer points. It wouldn’t throw off the train schedules, and it wouldn’t create back-ups in the tunnels. It would create good will and positive feelings from other passengers, and that is something the MTA could sorely use these days.

Categories : MTA
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By virtue of its role as one of the world’s largest public transit agencies, the MTA is a very green organization, and now the cash-strapped MTA is looking to capitalize on its negative carbon footprint in an effort to maximize its revenue potential.

Earlier this week, Matthew Sweeney at amNew York broke the story that the MTA is working with analysts at Booz Allen Hamilton to develop a way to sell carbon credits in the growing emissions trading markets. Sweeney writes:

Last month, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority approved a $776,000 contract with consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton to measure its carbon footprint and look at ways to create revenues “in a tradable-carbon situation.”

What that means is that the MTA hopes eventually to quantify the amount of pollution it removes from the air through mass transit, put a value on it, and sell it to a company that is a high polluter. By paying the MTA, the company would legally be allowed to pollute.

“This is all quite new and unique and a little bit out there,” said Projjal Dutta, director of sustainability initiatives at the MTA.

The MTA, Sweeney notes, “actually has a negative carbon footprint because subways, trains, and buses take cars off the road and reduce congestion, which means that cars do not burn as much fuel sitting in traffic.”

In trying to wrap my head around the idea of the MTA trading its carbon credits in an emissions market, I keep landing on two distinct points that are seemingly at odds with each other. On the one hand, as we well know, the MTA is searching high and low for any dollars it can scrounge up. The authority needs money to keep our public transit system in a state of good repair and, looking ahead, for much needed expansion plans as well. To that end, if the powers that be feel they can capitalize on the MTA’s negative emissions, then they should do so.

But on the other hand, the environmentalist public transit advocate in me is a little wary of the carbon trading plan. If the MTA is allowing some other company to continue to pollute by trading them their carbon credits and profiting from it, does that really match the agency’s desired and publicly-stated goals of becoming a greener organization? Until the U.S. starts putting stricter caps on greenhouse emissions, the MTA is simply profiting off some other company’s pollutants. That’s fine for the bottom line but not so fine for the environment.

Categories : MTA Politics
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The city never received the subway upgrades in wanted in the late 1960s. (Click to enlarge.)

Every rail fan has their own pet project for a better New York City subway system, and everyone likes to dream a day in which that system is a reality. Recently, the topic du jour has focused around ways to connect the outer boroughs while avoiding Manhattan and ways to extend current lines past their outer terminals into under-served neighborhoods.

In recent months, foremost among those dreamers has been the MTA. Before the economy had completely collapsed underneath us, Elliot “Lee” Sander, CEO and Executive Director of the MTA, had unveiled an ambitious expansion plan during his State of the MTA speech. The plan focused around the Regional Plan Association’s circumferental subway route. This line, using a mix of MTA rights of way and pre-existing tracks would connect to 19 subway lines and three boroughs while avoiding Manhattan.

At the time, I expressed my support, in theory, for the idea while recognizing that the perfect storm of money and political circumstances would have to align for this pipe dream to approach reality, and I left it at that. Last week, Cap’n Transit opined on the state of Brooklyn-Queens subway connectors and briefly mentioned the RPA’s plan as an outgrowth of some long lost subway expansion plans from the 1960s.

So, a-diggin’ we shall go. The year was 1968, and Mayor Lindsay’s New York was a sitting on the rise. The financial crises of the 1970s, from which it would take the city a good twenty years to recover, were nowhere in sight, and expansion was all the rage. Among the city improvement plans was an ambitions, $2-billion MTA expansion plan for the New York City subway system. These plans, developed prior to the MTA’s takeover of the subways on March 1, 1968, called for an expansion of about 40 route miles or what was then 20 percent of the subway system.

As Richard Witkin of The Times reported then, we would have seen a great number of expansion plans come to fruition including:

  • A new Queens line through the planned 63rd St. tunnel that would shadow the LIRR to Jamaica and then veer south to the LIRR main line to the city limits.
  • Subway service out to Douglaston via the 63rd St. tunnel.
  • A Bronx line from the Harlem River to Dyre Ave. via the New York, Westchester and Boston Railroad tracks…
  • …and a Second Ave. Subway from south of Wall St. north to this new Bronx line.
  • An extension of the Nostrand Ave. line out to Mill Basin, an area still in need of subway service today.
  • A subway spur from the Atlantic branch of the LIRR to John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Over the next few years, subway advocates would continue to >trumpet these plans and talk as though they were just around the corner. Two years after this grand unveiling, John J. Gilhooley, a former Transit Authority worker, wrote at length about the MTA’s plans with little doubt as to their feasibility.

As time wore on, the plans changed to become even grander. As proposed maps from the time show, the outer boroughs would see more connections and a far-flung system while Manhattan would see train service to the far West Side, a Second Ave. line and an innovative subway running from 1st Ave. and Houston St. to 1st Ave. and 14th St. via Ave C.

But dreams do not become a reality. The Second Ave. Subway in the 1970s came to crashing halt when the city’s economy did the same. The 63rd St. Tunnel didn’t open until 1989, and the plans to extend the subway to JFK morphed into an airtrain that started service in 2003. We’re still talking about extending the subways westward and that good ol’ Second Ave. Subway.

It sure is fun to dream, eh?

Categories : Subway History
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  • Second Ave. businesses banding together · As construction creeps along on Second Ave. for the city’s newest subway lines, business are getting hit hard. We know that the MTA is trying to do what it can to alleviate the impact, but this subway line will benefit hundreds of thousands of people when it opens. It’s a trade off. The Second Ave. Business Association (SABA) is taking matters into its own hands. This Thursday, they’re hosting a fundraiser at Blondie’s on Second Ave. between 92nd and 93rd Sts. The money from entrance fees — $20 now, $25 at the door — as well as the proceeds from the raffle and auction will go to the SABA as it attempts to lessen the impact of the construction on local business. [Urban Digs] · (2)

As Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan rose and fell in inglorious fashion, another congestion pricing plan has lingered on the horizon, not quite dying but not quite getting the attention it deserves.

That plan is, of course, Ted Kheel’s plan to make the subways free while implementing a high congestion fee and delivering all the revenue to the MTA. When I first wrote about Kheel’s plan in January, it generated 20 comments worth of discussion, and the Kheel Plan still stands as something of a Holy Grail for congestion pricing advocates.

On the one hand, this plan solves a lot of the problems inherent in Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC2030 proposal. All of the money from the plan would go toward improving mass transit. If you accept the baseline assumptions inherent in the plan, the proposed fees — $16 for cars and $32 for trucks at all hours — would generate a significant surplus for capital expansion and infrastructure maintenance, and the subways and buses could be free. The extra money generated by the high fees would also allow the NYPD and the MTA to increase police presence to counter fears of unsafe subways if the barrier to entrance — in this case, the fare — is dropped.

When congestion pricing died at the hands of Sheldon Silver and the New York State Assembly Democrats, Ted Kheel vowed to make his plan an issue in the upcoming mayoral race in New York City. Kheel has commissioned Charles Komanoff, the research director and lead writer of the original plan, to refine the original Kheel plan. Yesterday on Streetsblog, he outlined the goals of the second version of the computer model for the Kheel Plan. In his words:

  • Time-variable congestion fees: instead of being locked into a straight $16 fee 24-7, we’ll assess higher peak-periods fees along with offsetting, lower fees when traffic is light.
  • Time-variable subway fares: we’ll test retaining the fare during the a.m. peak as a possible transition strategy to ease subway crowding and improve system efficiencies (buses will be free 24-7, regardless).
  • Closer integration of parking pricing with road pricing.
  • Possible differential tolls into the Central Business District by “portal” (New Jersey vs. Long Island vs. Bronx/Westchester).
  • Intra-Manhattan congestion charging: according to some GPS developers, it may soon be possible to charge per-mile or per-minute for driving within the CBD; this would open the door to even more revenue and less traffic and further dispel the rap on congestion pricing as a giveaway to Manhattan.

I, for one, am intrigued by these tantalizing glimpses into the future of the Kheel Plan, and I’m glad to see Kheel, 94, pushing to make this plan a central issue during the next election cycle. I also think this plan is the key to the future of congestion pricing in the city. As Komanoff wrote, “In retrospect, it seems clear that Bloomberg’s plan appeared to too many people to be ‘all stick.’ There wasn’t enough direct and concrete payoff, for anybody, to attract wide public support. The Kheel Plan remedies this defect with the very considerable, tangible, obvious ‘carrot’ of free transit.”

This is a plan that clearly benefits every subway and bus rider in the city. With these additions, the plan can be refined further with adjustments in how and when to charge what prices for driving and what fares for mass transit. While drivers and die-hard civil libertarians will not be too keen on using GPS devices to charge by the mile within Manhattan, this part of the proposed Kheel Plan 2 would ensure that the groundbreaking plan would not discriminate against the outer boroughs.

Later today, Komanoff will host a brown bag lunch at the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council. He’ll discuss the current model and elaborate on his goals for the future plan.

In the end, this plan — and whatever comes out of Kheel v. 2 in the fall — holds up to scrutiny pretty well. Economists and city planners may challenge the traffic assumptions of models, but the biggest challenge Kheel and his supporters face is in the political arena. If they can turn the Kheel Plan into a populist cause and really drive home the point of free and good public transit in exchange for the congestion pricing, a candidate supporting this plan could garner enough support to win. Otherwise, it will forever remain just another good idea that never saw the light of day.

Categories : Congestion Fee
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The big news this summer as vacation season kicks off has focused around rising gas prices and the high cost of a gallon of gas. At the same time, people are flocking to mass transit systems around the nation and the dramatic increase of ridership coupled with rising fuel prices and poor infrastructure investments are crippling public transit systems at the time when they are needed most.

In an article available only to Wall Street Journal subscribers, Ana Campoy and Alex Roth take a look at the state of public transit in the U.S. The big picture is alarming to say the least, as Campoy and Roth write, “As gas prices go higher, the problem will get worse.”

Rising fuel prices have hit public transportation harder than consumers. Diesel, the main fuel for bus systems, has gone up 40% since the beginning of the year to an average $4.72 a gallon last week. Regular gasoline is up 27%. Adding to the crunch: Transit budgets that are largely funded by sales tax revenue are shrinking as consumers spend less in response to tough economic times.

“We’re all getting killed,” says Cal Marsella, general manager for Denver’s Regional Transportation District.

To compensate, many agencies have been canceling plans to expand service, raiding emergency funds and raising fares to stay in budget. When that’s not enough, agencies are resorting to cuts in service. In a survey of the nation’s public transit agencies to be released Friday, the American Public Transportation Association, which lobbies for greater support of public transit, found that 19% of bus operators responding are cutting service to some degree, while 21% of rail operators are doing the same.

Basically, the problem is one of the recurring cycles. Rising gas prices hit public transit agencies just as hard as they hit drivers. As the drivers flood to the transit systems, the agencies must meet demand. Thus, they are paying more for fuel and more for service while not drawing enough revenue to covering the rapidly increasing costs.

The blame of course lies with our governments who, on state and federal levels, have long been interested in investing in roads over public transit. We have cities that have sub-par public transit networks; hardly any metropolitan area is as blanketed in transit as the New York City region is. We have roads that choke off transit development, and we have agencies scrambling for money.

As with environmentally friendlier automobiles, the time is now for the government to reassess its commitment to infrastructure investments. We need to see more of a commitment to current and future public transit options. At this current crossroad, the nation’s economy — and its environment — depend on it.

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Londoners are very possessive about their drinking. They like to drink in pubs; they like to drink at home; and they like to drink on the Tubes on the way home from pubs. That is, they liked to drink on the Tubes until midnight on Saturday night/Sunday morning a new ban on alcohol on the Tubes took effect.

The ban is the product of new Mayor of London Boris Johnson. Johnson, the Conservative candidate, recently beat incumbent Ken Livingstone in what Calvin Trillin called an entertaining election in The New Yorker. Part of Johnson’s campaign was a drive to make London’s public transit system cleaner and safer for employees and non-drunk travelers.

As you could imagine, the general public was not too accepting of the ban when it went into effect late Saturday night. At a party called Last Round on the Underground to commemorate the last chance to drink on the Tubes, revelers went a bit overboard. The BBC reports:

Six London Underground stations were closed as trouble flared when thousands of people marked the banning of alcohol on London transport with a party.

Four tube drivers, three other staff members, and two police officers were assaulted, and there were 17 arrests. Several trains were damaged and withdrawn from service, which led to suspended services.

Drinkers gathered on Tube trains and station concourses for a last drink before the ban came in at midnight. Police said what should have been a fun event came to an “unfortunate” end.

The finger-pointing started pretty early on Sunday morning with union leaders blaming Mayor Johnson. They said the ban was hastily put into place and enforcement measures are not up to par.

In fact, London does not plan to increase patrols in the Tubes. Rather, they are relying on what the BBC has termed a “softly, softly” approach. Other riders and alert Transport for London staffers are supposed to police the ban as best they can. That sounds about as efficient as our beloved MTA.

Now, I’m fairly entertained by this story. During my first trip to London in the spring of 2001, I remember being struck by the prevalence of discarded alcohol containers. There were empty beer bottles all over the Tubes and I didn’t realize during that first trip that it was actually fine to drink on their subways. Here, in New York, people sneak drinks into brown bags and Nalgene bottles.

During a few of my subsequent trips to London, I was always entertained to see how the passengers were on the those final Tube trips as people rushed home from their nights out to catch the last trains back to wherever they’re heading — perhaps to some amusingly named suburbs. People just took the parties with them underground. Imagine that one in New York.

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