With both the City and State of New York facing precarious financial situations and the MTA’s deficit growing, money is tight across the board right now. With David Paterson in power, the MTA may have little choice but to raise fares. Little did we know, earlier this year, just how much Eliot Spitzer’s resignation would cost the MTA.

In a recent Newsday column, Anne Michaud explored the current relationship between the MTA and New York’s governor. Things could be better.

The story begins, in a way, with Eliot Spitzer’s long trumpeting mass transit and working closely with MTA CEO and Executive Director Lee Sander, a Spitzer appointee, to ensure a healthy transit system for New York City. The tale collapses in on itself when Spitzer is forced to resign just before congestion pricing — a potential dedicated revenue stream for the MTA — is set for a vote. The man who takes over, David Paterson, does not share the same relationship with Sander that Spitzer has.

It is in this shifting power that Michaud sees potentially dark days ahead for the MTA. She notes that Paterson has maintained something of an arm’s distance between his office and Sander. He did not intervene after Sander fielded criticism for a pay raise, and he spoke out, as he should have, against the MTA Board’s free perks. He has also second-guessed the MTA’s need for all of their fare hikes and in doing so, could be jeopardizing the future of some very big and very important projects. Write Michaud:

Transit advocates worry that, as a result, Sander will lose confidence to advocate for important projects in the next capital budget, such as the Third Track for the Long Island Rail Road. Now is an even more crucial moment for transportation than when Spitzer arrived as governor. As gas prices climb, all eyes are turning to urban-centric, transit-oriented development. Downtowns will not only be cool again, they will be essential.

Insiders say that Paterson is as committed as Spitzer was to keeping the MTA in a state of good repair. But it’s possible that, faced with difficult choices, the governor will choose to stretch out the completion date of some expansion projects such as the Second Avenue subway, East Side Access and the Third Track.

This alarming news brings us back to the current budget crunch. As Paterson struggles to find money for key services, he will look toward New York City’s transit network and view certain projects as expendable. He will tell — not ask — the MTA to defer maintenance and upgrades and delay capital construction efforts.

Again, our eyes will fall on Richard Ravitch to rescue the system. He’ll have to battle through a hostile legislature and a skeptical governor. Hopefully, he’s up for the job.

Categories : MTA Economics
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Tuesday afternoon saw more bad news, in the form of two surveys, head the MTA’s way.

The Straphangers Campaign published the first one — a rigorous scientific survey focusing on the State of the Subways. As I mentioned yesterday afternoon, the L and 7 trains — the two trains operating as guinea pigs for the line manager program — walked away with the top honors. More on that shortly.

The second report, issued by Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind and based on system-wide observations, found the subways to be structurally unsound, poorly maintained and largely unhygienic. Hikind and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer stop short of charging the MTA with system-wide neglect and are not pleased with the state of the subways.

We start with the Straphangers’ State of the Subways Report Card. This survey has become an annual rite of passage for the Straphangers, and the findings stay fairly consistent on a year-to-year basis. The L line — populated with some of the newest cars in the fleet — pulled in top honors because the trains run frequently, are generally on time, don’t break down too often, are clean and have audible in-car announcements. The 7 followed suit, earning higher marks on seat availability but lower scores on in-car announcements.

These line rankings are well and good, but as Julia noted yesterday, the methodology does not account for overlapping lines. Sure, the W may be the worst stand-alone line in the city, but at no point does it stop at a station where it is the only train servicing that stop. Discounting for this vital fact lessens the overall impact of the results. (For a comprehensive overview of the results, this PDF chart shows the category breakdown, and this one shows the overall rankings.)

The Straphangers’ more important findings came from their overall analysis of the system. According to their findings, subway cars are breaking down every 149,646 miles (down from 156,624 the year before), and only 85 percent of subway announcements are audible, down from 90 percent. That 85 percent seems rather generous to me. At a time when the MTA has less money than ever to reinvest in the systems, these findings do not project to improve next year.

Meanwhile, originally spurred on by rider complains, Hikind and Stringer released their findings today as well (PDF available here). Their results — while expected — are not encouraging:

Surveyors found that subway stations throughout New York City, regardless of their size (large, small) or location (underground, outdoors, elevated) had platform conditions that were unsafe, deteriorating and easily recognizable by surveyors. A pattern of neglect, lack of maintenance, shoddy workmanship and seeming indifference has led to system wide safety hazards at station platforms…

Station platforms are cracked, have significant gaps in many locations, and represent serious safety hazards to riders, especially to the most vulnerable, the young and the elderly. Cement fillings and lifted
wooden and concrete beams on the station platforms are poorly connected to the platforms and represent tripping hazards to unsuspecting riders. Rubbing boards placed on the edges of the platforms are deteriorating as well. Riders’ footwear is liable to get caught in the holes of the rubbing boards and many have corroded to the extent that any pressure on them could result in riders falling onto the tracks below.

What is disconcerting is the fact that MTA employees failed to recognize these corrosive conditions when they were readily apparent to surveyors. It is apparent that safety issues at stations are not being taken seriously by the MTA. Each hazard documented was observed visually by surveyors and was easily recognizable as conditions that threatened the safety of subway riders. Additionally, in the rare situations that these safety hazards were recognized, MTA employees performed shoddy work in repairing them and in many instances, these partial repairs created even more dangerous conditions than beforehand. It is most shocking that these conditions are still prevalent throughout New York City after having been pointed out to MTA officials.

While the MTA has not yet issued a statement in response to either of these two reports, these findings highlight the funding problem facing the transit agency. Riders are nervous about their physical safety while stations are decaying and subway cars are breaking down more frequently. As the MTA’s deficit continues to grow, more and more maintenance projects and “state of good repair” renovations have been delayed or postponed until the money materializes.

These reports just remind us that the MTA is facing a crisis both in its wallet and in its system. Hikind is an elected official. Will he do something about it? Will he help deliver more money to the MTA? Someone has to step up. Who knows who it will be?

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  • Straphangers: L train ‘best subway line in the city’ · The venerable Straphangers Campaign released its annual State of the Subway survey results this afternoon, and the results are, in a word, shocking. The L train has been ranked as the best subway line in the city. Never mind that the trains are packed like sardines and often suffer through slow rush hour trips; the train earns its high marks because the announcements are easy to hear and the train runs frequently. While the Straphangers have long questioned the MTA’s own internal ratings systems for trains, I’m beginning to wonder if we should subject the PIRG’s announcements to the same scrutiny. More on this later. · (13)
  • A State of Disrepair · Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn-based assemblyman, and Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, both have fielded their fair share of constituent complaints about the state of the subway infrastructure. So they took matters into their own hands and examined 100 subway stations throughout the city. According to a report the two plan to release later today, they have found a system rife with structural problems and an MTA slow to respond to complaints. These findings are nothing new, but they are just another salvo for critics skeptical of the MTA’s ability to run the city’s transit network. · (4)

Thirty years ago, when the ten-year-old MTA was facing a subway crisis, New York turned to Richard Ravitch to step in and save a decaying and unsafe system. Now, the 40-year-old MTA, suffering from the same economy slump affecting Americans the country over, has once again turned to Richard Ravitch to revive and revitalize the MTA’s finances. Ironically, Ravitch and his panel are tasked with solving a problem created by Ravitch thirty years ago: crushing debt brought about by investment in the subway system.

This is quite the conundrum. Why would the MTA turn to Ravitch to fix a problem that stems, by and large, from policies he instituted and paths he chose in the 1980s? Better yet, how exactly did Ravitch create those problems? A very well done Ray Rivera article in The Times this weekend delved into the issue of MTA debt, and in Rivera’s work, we see the origins of the MTA’s current financial difficulties.

Rivera writes:

When Richard Ravitch was named chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 1979, he inherited a subway system in decay. Trains derailed or collided on average every 15 days. Stations were filthy and crime was rampant. Ridership sank to lows not seen since World War I.

To revive the system, Mr. Ravitch, a former construction executive, persuaded lawmakers to allow the authority to do what countless cities and states had long done to build and maintain their infrastructure: Issue bonds.

“The system was falling apart, and the only way I could get the money to rebuild it was to borrow it,” Mr. Ravitch said in a recent interview.

Nearly 30 years later, the system is by all accounts better. But the authority’s debt has ballooned, and like stressed homeowners across the country, the system is groaning under the pressure to repay it. Indeed, debt payments are the system’s largest single cost after payroll, and by 2012 they will account for one of every five dollars the authority spends.

Rivera goes on to talk about the recent restructuring of the MTA’s finances. The agency is on the hook for debt payments until, at the earliest, 2032, and those payments amount to at least $1 billion annually. If the agency wants to expand its system, as it is doing now, if the MTA wants to keep stations in a good state of good repair, renovate those that need improvements and keep equipment modern, those debt tolls could increase.

And it all started with Ravitch:

Money for capital improvements hovered around $50 million — not the billions Mr. Ravitch and his analysts knew it would take. So he went to Albany.

“The Legislature squawked,” recalled Mr. Ravitch, 75. “They said that will result in a fare increase, and I said ‘That’s absolutely correct.’ But I said it will also result in an improvement in the system and attract more riders and avoid the dysfunctionality in the system, and they were persuaded.”

The law passed in 1981, and the next year the authority issued its first bonds, totaling $350 million. The authority issued hundreds of millions of dollars in new debt over the next 20 years, nearly all of it going toward new stainless steel cars and buses, and track repairs, signal replacements and other system improvements. By 2000, the agency’s outstanding debt had reached $12 billion.

Over this time period, as the MTA fell further and further into debt, city and state politicians were content to let the transit authority crumble. Until 1991, New York City and State funded a combined 26 percent of the capital plans. From 1992 onward, that contribution fell to a meager nine percent, and the MTA had to rely on the money they could raise from bond sales. Right now, if all of the MTA’s bonds were recalled, the transit agency would, in all likelihood, default.

This time around, Ravitch is going to have to rely on something other than yet another bond issue to fund the MTA. The transportation agency cannot continue to borrow against itself to fund capital improvements, system expansions and maintenance programs. Ravitch will have to demand more money from a government strapped for cash, and identify some other sources of dedicated revenue stream. As we know, Ravitch got us into this mess by suggesting bond issues in the first place. Can he get us out of it?

Categories : MTA Construction, PANYNJ
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  • A few more service increases on the IRT lines · New York City Transit tried to sneak this by us, but we caught them anyway: While they publicly unveiled a whole bunch of service upgrades this past weekend, a few additions didn’t hit the wires until late this weekend. The transit authority has increased the frequency of service along the 1, 4, 6 and 42nd St. Shuttle lines. The adjustments add six additional trips to the local trains and ten additional trips to the 4 and Shuttle during the week. Considering the recent spate of bad news, the MTA should have been trumpeted this service increases this week. · (0)
  • Sluggish 7 line · For much of the morning, New York City Transit had a service alert warning of congestion on the 7 line. I wonder if the additional service was responsible for this morning’s delays. The MTA added more express trains and 14 more round trips on the IRT Flushing line, and today was the first weekday with the added service. We’ll have to see how things go tomorrow, but for now, the Subchat posters are keep their eyes on this development. · (0)

Hot on the heels of last week’s fare hike brouhaha, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has announced an upcoming audit of the MTA’s books.

The audit, first reported on Sunday morning by The New York Post, should be completedwithin the next few months, and DiNapoli’s office plans to release a preliminary report in September, well before the MTA Board votes on the fate of the fare hike proposal. “Mass transit is crucially important to the economic well-being of the city, and the MTA has historically not done the best job of managing its resources,” Dennis Tompkins, a spokesperson from DiNapoli’s office, said to The Post “Now it’s more important than ever that they implement every possible way to save money and increase efficiencies in the system before they raise fares on the public.”

Meanwhile, over the weekend, two different stories highlighted the need for such an audit. First, Pete Donohue of the Daily News uncovered 19,000 hours of unnecessary overtime. Some bus drivers were getting paid overtime to complete their duties when other drivers were available but not tasked to the job. Bureaucratic inefficiencies like these have long been a hallmark of the MTA, and as the transit authority streamlines their operations, the agency hopes to eliminate redundant overtime.

Then, on Saturday, shortly before the debut of the new service expansions Donohue reported on the MTA’s staffing of closed stations. Clerks had been manning the booths at 145th and 148th Sts. on the 3 line even though the stations were shut for six and a half hours each night. NYC Transit said that the stations were staffed to prevent vandalism and to “unlock turnstiles if an emergency ever required a train be rerouted to one of the depots.” This doesn’t strike me as the best use of resources.

In the long run, these two stories highlight small issues within the overall scheme of the MTA. The station staffing has cost the authority a whopping $1 million since 2000, and with budget deficits of nearly $900 million a year, one million over seven and a half years hardly seems important. But it’s the idea of it. Time and time again, city and state comptrollers have looked at the MTA’s finances, and time and time again, they’ve recommended ways to bridge the deficit gap that don’t involve fare hikes.

Nearly a year ago, when we were discussing this year’s fare hike, City Comptroller William C. Thompson issued a report highlighting how the MTA, with an assist from Albany, could avoid a fare hike. Included in that report was a study of student MetroCards that found the MTA’s footing more of the bill than it should have been paying. But nothing changes.

DiNapoli can dig and tally up figures. But it always seems that once a fare hike is on the table, nothing can stop it. The MTA will go on spending wastefully in certain ares and not enough in others. That’s just the way it is.

Categories : Fare Hikes
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