• Senate sticks MTA rescue plan on the backburner · Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith is so confident in his belief that the MTA’s self-imposed March 25th deadline is a flexible one that he is prepared to blow right past it. As the Assembly supports a modified Ravitch Plan and the Senate supports its own fatally flawed bailout plan, Smith is turning his attention to the state’s looming budget deadline. The MTA will now take a backseat to the April 1 New York State budget deadline. This all but assures an approval of the Doomsday budget on Wednesday. Fare hikes and service cuts could go into effect as early as June. · (2)
  • City set to cover more 7 extension cost overruns · The 7 line — to so-called subway to nowhere — is set to cost the city of New York $2.1 billion for one additional stop and perhaps the shell of a second. On Monday, the costs are going to go up by a bit when the board approves a $10 million increase in design costs. While the cost of this early work has already tripled to $124 million from its original estimated price tag a few years ago, the MTA is still on the hook for $0, and the Mayor’s Office has built the overruns into its budget for the project. “It’s not out of the ordinary, it’s covered and this will cost the MTA $0,” Andrew Brent, a Bloomberg administration spokesman, said to amNY’s Urbanite blog. Now if only they could solve that problem of the omitted stop at 41st St. and 10th Ave. · (2)

malcolmsmith When New York State Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith introduced his version of the MTA rescue package this week, the resulting condemnation was swift and universal. None of the major players — Richard Ravitch, Sheldon Silver, David Paterson, Michael Bloomberg — felt that the Senate’s temporary fix did anything to address the long-term issues plaguing the MTA or the need to fund its capital campaign.

While some critics on Tuesday questioned the numbers behind Smith’s plan, little did anyone realize just how terribly inaccurate and inappropriate his plan would turn out to be. In The Times today, William Neuman goes behind the numbers to reveal that the Senate plan is based on poor assumptions, incorrect calculations and just plain old errors. What’s worse is Smith’s camp trying to blame the MTA for their sloppy mistakes. This is a New York political folly of epic proportions.

Allow me to quote at length from Neuman’s article for full effect:

As an alternative [to Richard Ravitch’s tax-and-toll plan], the [Senate Democrats] propose imposing a smaller payroll tax than the one in Mr. Ravitch’s plan and increasing fare revenues by 4 percent. Mr. Smith says that his plan would provide the authority enough money to operate through next year and buy time for a longer-term solution.

But aides to the governor say that the Senate plan contains at least two basic errors — and a review of the data backs up their critique: the Senate plan overstates the amount of money it would raise over the next two years by more than $700 million. The governor’s office said that to make up for the shortfall, the Senate would have to increase fare revenues by a total of 13 percent.

Marc Shaw, a senior adviser to the governor, said the Senate plan miscalculated the amount of payroll tax that could be collected this year, overstating the amount by about $300 million. The reason is based in the way the state collects taxes and the way the authority does its bookkeeping. The Senate plan assumes that a full year’s worth of tax receipts would pour into the authority’s coffers this year.

But Mr. Shaw said that because the tax, like other similar taxes, is collected quarterly (in part this is meant to make it easier for employers), money from the final three months of this year would not reach the authority until January 2010. That means that the authority, which uses what is known as a cash method of accounting, cannot show the final quarter’s tax revenues on this year’s books.

The Senate plan gets that wrong, projecting four quarters of tax receipts this year.

So the Senate — the same Senate that has criticized the MTA for not offering up a full audit — doesn’t even know how the MTA records revenue or how tax collection in New York works? Who are these fools in Albany? If Marc Shaw, an adviser to Paterson and potential heir to Elliot Sander’s CEO-ship, knows this information, so should Malcolm Smith.

The problems, according to Neuman, continue:

Under the Ravitch plan, the authority would use hundreds of millions of dollars from the payroll tax to finance bus costs that had previously been paid for by New York City and the surrounding counties.

The Senate plan eliminates that provision. But in its proposal, it makes a mistake in accounting for those bus costs. Instead of simply removing them from the transportation authority’s balance sheet, it turned them into income. The mistake adds up to $409 million over the two years of the Senate plan.

Initially, Senate officials denied that they had made any mistakes in their calculations. But subsequently they blamed the authority for the errors. “The blatantly ambiguous manner in which they categorized their numbers clouded the picture of their finances,” said Austin Shafran, a spokesman for Mr. Smith. “If the math was wrong,” he said, “it was wrong based on the way they gave us the numbers.”

But Mr. Shafran said that Senate staff members had not checked their numbers with the authority or sought clarification.

Meanwhile, as Neuman notes, Smith has been questioning why the MTA is going to raise its fares 23 percent next week while under the Ravtich plan, the agency would enact just an 8 percent fare increase. Apparently, our State Senate Majority Leader is too daft to realize that under the Ravitch plan, the MTA would also enjoy dedicated revenue streams from taxes and tolls.

This isn’t rocket science. While your average New Yorker may not understand the MTA’s financial troubles, the State Senate is paid to do so. If I can comprehend these difficulties, if David Paterson’s advisers, Richard Ravitch’s team, the MTA Board and Michael Bloomberg can, then so could a bunch of people who have taken it upon themselves to fix the problem. The State Senators, however, would rather grandstand on the issue than bother to check their work against that of the MTA. How utterly sad for the state of New York.

In the end, of course, this gives me no confidence that an MTA rescue package will be approved before Wednesday. The Ravitch Plan is dead, and with it will go decent subway service in New York City for the foreseeable future.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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Two days ago, Democrats from the State Senate unveiled a universally panned plan to rescue the MTA. Since then, the politicking has trickled to a stop, and as Gov. Paterson and Senate leaders attempt to hammer out a plan, the MTA’s Doomsday clock is ticking closer to 12.

In four days, the MTA’s finance committee will meet to approve a fare hike. In six days, the entire board will vote to approve those hikes and numerous service cuts. Meanwhile, Paterson is lashing out at Senate leaders. Glenn Blain reports:

Gov. Paterson launched a radio offensive against fellow Democrats Thursday, accusing lawmakers of “hijacking” the effort to bail out the MTA and save straphangers.

In a three-station blitz, Paterson said Senate Democrats have been unable or unwilling to make the tough decisions needed to save riders from the crushing fare hikes and service cuts. “This is just a classic example of Albany thinking it can make up its own rules,” Paterson said on WOR’s John Gambling Show…

Paterson ripped the Democratic plan Thursday as incomplete and said it was done largely just to win public favor. “Either you’re going to have to put tolls on the bridges or you’re going to have to increase the fare dramatically,” Paterson said. “You can’t go in a third direction.”

At this late hour, Paterson is right, but it’s of little consolation. Unless the State Senate acts quickly and smartly, straphangers will be left paying more for worse service. That’s no way to treat a transit system.

Categories : Doomsday Budget
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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)
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