With the vagaries of other responsibilities, I don’t always have time to write lengthy posts every day, but that doesn’t mean you get get your fill of Second Ave. Sagas-style commentary elsewhere. For those days, such as today, when I don’t new content here, you can always find me on Twitter and fans of the site should give me a like on Facebook. Additionally, I post some scenes from the subway on Instagram. As always, thanks for checking in, and I’ll be back tonight with some thoughts on why New York City has been so resistant to adopt articulated train sets. For all of the talk about the subway’s capacity problems, open gangways would be an easy solution to a complex problem.
Last week, I bemoaned the near-total lack of capital funding for the MTA in the New York State budget, but one element of the budget that did include the bare minimum of a fiscal contribution to transit merits a closer look. The grant doesn’t help the MTA close its $15 billion funding gap, but it is earmarked for a specific project — and that is how these projects get built. Gov. Cuomo, you see, has guaranteed $250 million for Penn Station Access, the Metro-North project that will bring trains into Penn Station and four new stations to the Bronx.
In a sense, it’s strange to see Cuomo pushing this project and funding for it now. Metro-North trains won’t operate into Penn Station until some Long Island Rail Road trains are arriving at Grand Central, and as we know, East Side Access isn’t schedule to wrap until 2020 at the earliest and perhaps later. It’s hardly a pressing priority.
According to Cuomo’s budget release, the $250 million will cover a quarter of the project’s estimated $1 billion price tag, and New York expects the feds to pick up the remaining $750 million. Maybe Cuomo’s team feels this money won’t be available down the road; maybe the Governor just wants to cement the status of this plan or encourage the MTA start some work on the Bronx stations now even if the Penn Station Access piece won’t start until next decade.
As we know, the plan includes stations along the New Haven Line at Co-op City, Morris Park, Parkchester, and Hunts Point and will involve some negotiation over the right-of-way with Amtrak south of New Rochelle. For its part, the MTA has called Penn Station Access “a lot of bang for not a lot of bucks.” But I’m still worried about the fare structure.
The MTA has struggled to attract riders to its commuter rail stations within New York City because the fare structure is not aligned with the subway. The City Ticket provides some measure of relief on the weekends, but New Yorkers in solidly working class neighborhoods aren’t going to shell out $6 or $7 per ride. There is though an easy way to solve that problem, and for inspiration, the MTA could look to Paris.
The City of Lights is attempting an experiment in pricing by instituting a flat monthly, universal fare for travel within a region that would encompass much of the MTA’s network were it grafted onto New York. At $76 a card, the price is nice too. Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic penned a long post on this experiment, and he inexorably brings New York into the picture. “Imagine,” he writes, a single monthly fare card for all transit service” within the New York Metropolitan Area.
Freemark opines on the positives and negatives, and I excerpt at length to highlight some thought-provoking ideas:
It is an aggressively pro-transit policy that further reduces the cost of riding the train or bus compared to commuting by car; this effort corresponds directly to the [French] national and regional government’s massive investment in suburban tramway and BRT lines, plus a vast new network of automated metro lines. Perhaps its greatest benefit is that it encourages people to take the fastest services available on any trip, while current fare policies give people discounts for taking slower local services…
Most importantly, the decision to spend hundreds of millions of euros on reduced fares could mean hundreds of millions of euros not being spent on better transit service every year—and some would argue that the best way to improve transportation is to expand service, not to lower fares…The cost tradeoff is certainly not one to scoff at. Last week, New York’s independent Citizens Budget Commission recommended capping the number of rides that can be taken with the (far more geographically constrained) unlimited fare card on New York City’s MTA Subway and bus system, in effect putting a limit on unlimited. Though the cap would affect relatively few people, it would be designed to raise revenues in a fiscally tight environment for an agency that is struggling with quickly growing ridership.
On the other hand, were New York to change its fare policies to allow current monthly pass holders to ride the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad to far-off destinations deep in Upstate New York, Connecticut, or Long Island—in other words, do what Paris is going to allow this fall—the MTA would be left with fewer revenues. But customers would benefit. They’d get faster service on commuter rail lines that many now avoid because of the higher price of travel (a trip from Jamaica in Queens to Penn Station in Manhattan, for example, costs $10 on the Long Island Rail Road for a 19-minute trip versus just $2.75 on the Subway for a 35-minute trip). People in neighborhoods currently only served by commuter rail, both in the city and in the suburbs, would suddenly have a reasonable-cost travel option equivalent to their peers with Subway access. People living in the city would suddenly have a much cheaper way to visit Long Island beaches on weekends, and people living on those beaches would suddenly have a much easier way of working downtown. These are not imaginary benefits.
Moreover, the cost tradeoff is not so simple as a conflict between lower universal fares and better service. Rather, the funding used to pay for the universal fare comes from a revenue source that may not have been politically feasible to raise unless it addressed the issue of equalizing transport access among different areas of the city. In other words, the hundreds of millions of euros being spent on this change may have only generated political support for the improvement of the transit system in the context of standardizing fares.
New York, of course, faces its own challenges as the money to subsidize fares would have to come from somewhere, and that somewhere — Albany — has been reluctant to touch any progressive ideas on transit funding or transit growth. Still, as the governor has clearly made Penn Station Access a priority, for the project to be a success, the governor and his appointees should consider the fare structure too. Even if New York isn’t prepared for a regional one-fare system, better aligning intra-NYC fares would be a step in the right direction. If anything, in Queens, it may be a way to spare the Queens Boulevard lines a capacity crunch, and in the Bronx, it could usher in a successful Penn Station Access project in eight or nine years.
Whether it be Passover, Good Friday and Easter, or Opening Day, Transit's weekend work stops for no holiday. Speaking of Opening Day, on Monday at 11:30, you can ride the Nostalgia Train from Grand Central to Yankee Stadium for Masahiro Tanaka and the Bombers' return to the Bronx. I won't be on that train as I'm likely taking a later one, but I know more than a few of you may try to hop on that for the photo op. Meanwhile, the following, as always, come to me from the MTA. Travel accordingly.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, Van Cortlandt Park-242 St bound 1 trains run express from Chambers St to 14 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 6:00 a.m. Sunday, April 5, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, April 5 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, Wakefield-241 St bound 2 trains run express from Chambers St to 14 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, April 5, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, April 5to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, New Lots Av-bound 4 trains run express from 125 St to Grand Central-42 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall bound 6 trains run express from 125 St to Grand Central-42 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 4:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, Pelham Bay Park bound 6 trains run express from Parkchester to Pelham Bay Park.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, April 5, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, April 5 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, Brooklyn-bound bound A trains run express from 59 St-Columbus Circle to Canal St.
From 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, April 4 and Sunday, April 5, Euclid Av-bound C trains run express from 59 St-Columbus Circle to Canal St.
From 3:45 a.m. Saturday, April 4 to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, April 5, Norwood-205 St bound D trains are rerouted on the N line from Coney Island-Stillwell Av to 36 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, World Trade Center-bound E trains run express from 34 St-Penn St to Canal St.
From 11:00 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, World Trade Center-bound E trains run local Forest Hills-71 Av to Queens Plaza. Jamaica Center-Parsons Archer bound E trains run local from Queens Plaza to Roosevelt Av.
From 10:45 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, Jamaica-179 St bound F trains skip 75 Av, Briarwood-Van Wyck Blvd, and Sutphin Blvd.
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, Coney Island-Stillwell Av bound F trains run local from Forest Hills-71 Av to 21 St-Queensbridge and Forest Hills-71 Av bound F trains run local from 21 St-Queensbridge to Roosevelt Av.
From 6:45 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday April 4, and 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Sunday, April 5, M service is extended to the Chambers St J station. After Essex St, M service is rerouted via the J line to Chambers St, making stops at Bowery and Canal St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, N trains are rerouted via the R line in both directions between Canal St and 59 St in Brooklyn.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, N trains are suspended in both directions between Times Sq-42 St and Queensboro Plaza. Take the 7 or Q instead. N trains operate in two sections:
- Between Coney Island-Stillwell Av and Times Sq-42 St. Trains run local in both directions via the R line between 59 St, Brooklyn and Canal St.
- Between Queensboro Plaza and Astoria-Ditmars Blvd.
- For service between Queens and Manhattan, take the 7 and transfer between trains at Times Sq-42 St and/or Queensboro Plaza.
- For service to/from 49 St and 57 St-7 Av, take the Q.
- For service to/from 5 Av/59 St and Lexington Av/59 St, use the nearby 59 St 456 station. Transfer with the 7 at Grand Central-42 St or the N at 14 St-Union Sq.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, April 4 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, Q trains run local in both directions between 57 St-7Av and Canal St.
From 6:30 a.m. to 12 midnight, Saturday, April 4 and Sunday, April 5, R trains are rerouted via the D line between DeKalb Av and B’Way-Lafyette St, and via the M between B’Way-Lafyette St and Queens Plaza.
- N trains will make all R station stops between DeKalb Av and Times Sq-42 St. Q trains make all R station stops between Canal St and 57 St-7 Av. Transfer between NQ and R trains at Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr or 34 St-Herald Sq.
- Transfer between R and F trains at 34 St-Herald Sq or Roosevelt Av. For R stations along Broadway, use nearby stations along 6 Av instead.
At one point earlier this winter, it seemed as though the perfect storm of MTA funding had appeared on the horizon. The MTA had issued a request for a funding plan for a $15 billion capital budget gap while New York State had a $6 billion windfall in fines from financial institutions. When the dust finally settled on the budget discussions this week, yacht owners earned themselves a tax break while the MTA received a big, fat nothing. Instead, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his staff plan to work toward a resolution on the capital plan while budget watchers and transit advocates are left shaking their heads in dismay as Albany again lets down New York City.
The idea that New York City commuters have long drawn the short straw in budget talks isn’t a new one. Cap’n Transit explored the issue in an April 2012 post that’s still sadly relevant today. This year, though, the disparity grew worse as Cuomo used the $6 billion windfall for upstate projects and potential toll relief for drivers who will eventually use the New New York Bridge. Unless the governor is going to make a big push for the Move New York fair tolling plan — and even if he does — this is a disappointing turn of events.
The coverage of the budget shenanigans has now turned its focus to the MTA. In a headline that is as much an understatement as anything the Daily News will ever run, a Glenn Blain story trumpets: “MTA not allocated enough money from state’s new budget, advocates charge.” In fact, “not enough” would be a welcome amount; rather, the MTA received $250 million earmarked for one of Cuomo’s own pet projects.
At City Journal, E.J. McMahon of the Manhattan Institute wrote a scathing piece on the Governor’s failures. He writes:
Incredibly, however, the only piece of the windfall Cuomo and the legislature aimed anywhere near the MTA is a $250 million appropriation to begin construction of a new Metro North commuter rail line from southeastern Westchester to Penn Station. The Penn Station access project is an odd one to be singled out for preferential funding. As the Citizens Budget Commission noted, “its total cost has not been reported, its benefits have not been quantified, and it is not clear why it is preferred” over other priorities in the MTA plan. The new line can’t become operational until the MTA completes its massive East Side Access project linking Long Island to Grand Central Terminal, which will free platform space at crowded Penn Station. The latest completion date for that chronically behind-schedule, over-budget project is 2023. For now, the MTA will have to settle for a token $750 million that Cuomo agreed to provide in bonded support for the transit capital program.
Ignoring the MTA’s needs made it possible for Cuomo to spend upward of $1 billion in remaining windfall cash on other purposes…Late in the recent budget negotiations, Senate Republicans tried to persuade Cuomo to set aside more of the windfall cash for transportation infrastructure, as well for municipal water and sewer projects. When the governor wouldn’t budge, they countered by authorizing more borrowing to supplement a separate bonded appropriation Cuomo had already proposed for highways and bridges. (In true Albany fashion, the legislative additions also included a pork-like $400 million “transformative investment” fund just for Long Island.)
…It’s all too common for crumbling infrastructure to be ignored until it poses an imminent threat to health or the smooth running of the local economy…The manner in which Cuomo and the Legislature have chosen to divvy up the windfall pie is sure to win them plenty of thank-yous over the next few years from politically wired developers, corporate executives, and unions around the state. But future generations of New Yorkers probably won’t feel as grateful.
Disappointing and expected. Now we head into a spring of uncertainty. The MTA can’t keep megaproject costs under control, and now they’ll continue to rely on a pay-as-you-go funding approach to a capital plan that needs support. I sound like a broken record, but trains are more crowded that ever. The MTA can ill afford to wait, but the last best chance just passed by. What comes next is a political blank slate with no easy solution in sight.
In addition to a lack of political support from Albany, the highest barrier to MTA expansion efforts concerns costs. The one-stop 7 line extension clocked in at $2.3 billion, and the only subway expansion effort in the world that’s more costly is the first phase of the Second Ave. Subway. The MTA is spending nearly as much to rebuild the South Ferry station as it did to construct it, and the East Side Access price tag is comically high and ever increasing.
In a vacuum, the probably isn’t just the costs alone. We know everything costs so much, but we do not know why. Over the years, observers and experts have blamed everything from stringent federal regulations regarding emergency access, a costly and litigious environmental review process, corruption in the construction industry and the uncertainties of digging up old New York City streets. To me, this reeks again of New York City exceptionalism as these are issues facing most developed nations. Somehow, some way, other countries aren’t spending $2.7 billion per new subway mile.
In the latest issue of Capital New York’s monthly magazine, Dana Rubinstein went in depth on the cost issue. For long-time readers of my site (or infrequent and new readers), Rubinstein’s piece is a succinct look at an issue that New York City must solve if it is to meet the demands of its population. Without a handle on costs, the money to expand nets fewer and fewer improvements.
Rubinstein frames her piece around the idea that transit agencies have a rich history of low-balling costs to get money to start a project only to return, cap in hand, for more to finish. Robert Moses deployed this strategy to great effect throughout the city, and the MTA and Port Authority have essentially done the same with their recent construction binges. Think, after all, on how Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway should have cost $3.5 billion or how the Port Authority WTC station was originally budgeted at under $2 billion. Once shovels are in the ground, it’s hard to stop, especially if federal grants are involved, and local politicians are forced to fork over the dollars.
What I found even more intriguing though was this excerpt that shows how few people are engaged in this issue:
How New York City’s megaprojects compare in cost to those in similarly developed countries around the world is a question that is, somehow, very rarely studied. Stringer’s spokesman said the comptroller relied for his numbers, in part, on a mathematician named Alon Levy, who’s now completing his post-doc at the Royal Institute of Technology, and who notes, in his blog Pedestrian Observations, that, mass transit is a “side interest” for him and “entirely unrelated to my work.”
The experts at the Regional Plan Association, who are looking into the problem of megaproject cost overruns as part of their latest survey of regional infrastructure, directed Capital to a blog post by Levy, too. The post, from 2011, reported that the Toei Oedo Line in Japan cost $560 million per mile. The Berlin U55 cost $400 million per mile. The Paris Metro Line 14 cost $368 million per mile. New York’s construction costs blew all of that away, the study found. The Second Avenue Subway is coming in at $2.7 billion per mile. The 7 train extension to the far West Side? $2.1 billion per mile.
David Schleicher, an associate professor at George Mason University School of Law, has analyzed Levy’s numbers and says that his analysis basically confirms Levy’s. Barone, of Regional Plan Association, said, “The question is always why, why, why is it so expensive?” said Barone. The answer always seems to come back to a limited universe of issues, in varying combination: labor costs, work rules, managerial incompetence, the spaghetti of infrastructure tangled beneath Manhattan’s streets, a political firmament without incentive to tackle hard issues.
I’ve never met anyone who’s had reason to doubt Alon’s numbers (and you can read the post in question right here on his site). What’s surprising is how few comparative studies have been done to highlight these cost disparities. For its part, the MTA talks about a design-build process that’s supposed to mitigate costs, but working hand-in-hand with the parties responsible for the high costs (that is, the contractors) won’t lead to meaningful reform.
Meanwhile, it’s Chris Ward, a former head of the Port Authority, who has seized on this issue. “It is time to recognize that the delivery model for big projects is broken and fiddling on the margins will not build the kind of projects the region needs,” he said to Rubinstein. Without a better handle on costs, the MTA’s request for $15 billion in capital funding is a tough one to stomach, and future megaprojects are doomed to an expensive limbo at a time when the city and its current and future residents need them the most.
When last we checked in with plans to rezone Midtown East and build up a new tower across the street from Grand Central, we delved into the fancy renderings of the transit improvements. The carrot of $200 million in badly needed upgrades to the Lexington Ave. IRT stop at Grand Central is a hard one to resist, and I’ve been supporting this project from the get-go. As my office is now a few blocks away, I’ve seen the Modell’s empty out, and the building be prepared to be replaced.
Now, the effort is one step closer to reality as the city’s planning commission has approved the necessary rezoning. The whole project isn’t out of the woods yet as it heads to the full City Council, and the Council is sure to push for changes. But it seems more likely than not that we’ll get a tall building across from Grand Central and a far more pleasant subway experience thanks to it. More platform space, better passenger flow and easier access from street level all funded through developer contributions are all part of the deal.
Ryan Hutchins had more:
The biggest obstacle for the so-called Vanderbilt Corridor remains: Passage by the City Council, which is likely to push developer SL Green Realty Corp. to alter its plans for a 1,400-foot-tall commercial skyscraper…While de Blasio’s [rezoning] pitch has not met fierce resistance from community board members and local elected officials, it has been repeatedly attacked by the relatively unknown owner of Grand Central Terminal, Andrew Penson.
His worry? That the rezoning, which will allow developers to fund public improvements in exchange for permission to construct bigger buildings, would devalue the air rights above the landmarked terminal. For example, SL Green would receive additional floor area for its tower, One Vanderbilt, by making about $210 million in improvements in and around Grand Central.
…Specifically at issue, [Council member Dan Garodnick] said, will be whether the $210 million in work SL Green has committed to is enough to warrant the bonus the company will receive. “We just have to throw that onto the scale against a 30 F.A.R. building,” Garodnick said.
To me, this is a potential model for future transit improvements, and the City Council shouldn’t ignore this reality. For the MTA, it’s a new model that encourages public-private partnerships and allows the MTA to fund work it wouldn’t otherwise have the money to perform. Especially at Grand Central — the second busiest station in the system — the dollars will have an immediate impact on a problematic customer experience.
We’ll know soon enough what the future holds for this project, but after Community Board approval and a planning commission okay, it’s likely to pass the City Council in some form or another. The station improvements alone will be a welcome element.
In the circle of transit life, popular local buses lead to bus rapid transit which leads to light rail which leads to subway lines. It’s not the most cost-effective or efficient way of building a transit network, but it’s the flow of demand. Ideally, if a corridor is popular enough, we wouldn’t be watching politicians falling all over themselves to talk up a bus lane and instead we would go straight to the highest-capacity, highest-speed transit option. Could this play out along the Woodhaven Boulevard corridor?
For transit in New York, the biggest obstacles to growth are speed and cost. The MTA can’t get a handle on costs, and projects come with price tags significantly higher than they are in similarly situated countries around the world. Furthermore, the MTA can’t nail down timelines, and projects that should have been finished years ago are still inching toward revised finish lines. These are operational and political barriers, but if enough forces line up behind a project, it can become a reality.
Lately, deep into Queens, an unused rail right-of-way has emerged at the center of a storm pitting advocates who are usually on the same side against each other. One group wants to turn this valuable rail right-of-way into a linear park akin to the High Line. Their plan isn’t clear on funding and includes numerous contradictions — such as promoting the idea with a dedicated bike lane that parallels Woodhaven Boulevard while assuring neighbors the park would close early at night. Another group wants to do nothing, and a third group — also not so clear on funding — wants to reactivate the right-of-way as part of the subway network.
I’ve covered this debate for years and am a voice for subway reactivation to an extent. After Gov. Andre Cuomo threw taxpayer money behind a biased study conducted by a pro-parks group, I’ve called for similar funding for a true alternatives analysis. We can’t dismiss the rail reactivation idea knowing now what we know about New York’s need for a resilient rail network in the face of increasing storm threats, but no official study has been released in nearly two decades.
Recently, though, a new voice has emerged for rail reactivation. Last month in a piece I admittedly overlooked at the time, TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen penned a piece for the Queens Chronicle advocating for rail. With BRT-esque plans for Woodhaven Boulevard back in the picture, it’s worth examining the union leader’s thought-provoking points:
On the surface, both parks and public transportation are similarly associated with safer streets, greater mobility, more walking, lower emissions and increased business activity. But the most meaningful, and often overlooked, difference between the two plans is the potential for increasing access to jobs. Reactivation of the Rockaway Beach Line, which was owned and operated by the Long Island Rail Road until 1962, would be far more economically advantageous for the 250,000 people residing within a half-mile of the existing right-of-way…
I would not be so quick to dismiss the reactivation of the Rockaway Beach rail line as too expensive and unrealistic. Notwithstanding the project’s necessity, phase I of the Second Avenue subway has a $4.45 billion price tag. In comparison, rehabilitating the rail’s existing infrastructure will cost about $800 million. This modest investment will significantly raise the quality of life in the far reaches of Queens. Furthermore, as suggested by a recent Queens College study done at the request of Assemblyman Phillip Goldfeder, up to 500,000 daily rides may be generated by the reconstructed rail line, and I completely expect ridership to grow over time.
This will directly produce the fares needed to sustain its ongoing operations and maintenance. As MTA and state officials work to figure out how to fund the MTA’s $32 billion five-year capital plan, they should consider prioritizing investment in the rail line. Residents’ overwhelming demand for public transportation in southern Queens will yield significant farebox revenues, minimizing the strain on the state budget. While it is tempting to choose parkland as the cheaper alternative, I doubt that the proposed park will see reliable income year after year…
Lastly, as a trackworker, I know firsthand that reconstructing the Rockaway Beach right-of-way is much more feasible than opponents claim. Following Hurricane Sandy, TWU Local 100 members rebuilt 3.7 miles of the A line (almost the same length as the Rockaway Beach segment) “from the ground up” within seven months. Restoring the damaged track, signal and electrical infrastructure with in-house labor cost the Metropolitan Transportation Authority only $75 million.
I’ve always been skeptical of the Goldfeder-funded study that claimed 500,000 trips per day. That would make it among the most crowded subways in the system, and the population of that area simply doesn’t support that kind of demand. Still, the ridership wouldn’t be insignificant.
To me, though, the intriguing aspect of Samuelson’s claim that construction wouldn’t be nearly as costly as opponents of rail reactivation claim. As New York State does not allow private entities to adversely possess government land, the acquisition costs even for land that isn’t currently physically reserved as the right of way would be slim to non-existent. Shoring up the structure for 21st Century rail operations and meeting federal safety guidelines would be more troublesome, but the A line to the Rockaways was part of the same ROW. Recent history may be instructive.
It’s ultimately an uphill battle for anyone to see anything happen here. The park plan is well over $100 million away from becoming a reality, and real reactivation would be, optimistically, ten times that amount. But without clarity, we’ll never know the costs, the benefits and the right way forward. At the least, people whose voices deserve to be heard are thinking about it. Considering the city’s needs, that’s a step in the right direction.
As cocky as New Yorkers are, this exceptionalism sometimes leaves us missing out on good ideas implemented elsewhere, especially in the transit planning space. There is this tendency to think that just because something works elsewhere doesn’t mean it will work in New York, and opponents or skeptics find ways to argue around importing good ideas proven to be efficient because New York City is somehow different than Paris, London or countless other places that aren’t New York. Exploiting buses is just one area where we lag.
Lately, in fits and starts, at the pace of, well, a local bus inching its way up 3rd Ave at rush hour, the city has tried to overhaul the bus routes. In January 2008, the MTA and NYC DOT introduced Select Bus Service, a glorified express bus with pre-board fare payment and half-hearted lane enforcement. At some point, signal prioritization will arrive as well. Over eight years later, we have a grand total of eight SBS routes, and a mayor who promised to bring 20 more online in five years. It has essentially taken as long to build 79 percent of the Second Ave. Subway has it has to offer marginal upgrades on a handful of bus routes, but I digress. So far, Bill de Blasio’s administration has introduced zero SBS routes, but that’s about to change.
Last week, DOT finally unveiled their preferred design for the long-awaited Woodhaven Boulevard Select Bus Service/Bus Rapid Transit line. Call you what you want, but at parts, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. As the designs show [pdf], the city is finally thinking about something closer to physically-separated, center-running lanes, and they believe the design plans could improve bus travel times by 25-30 percent. For a congested corridor that has some of the highest bus ridership in the city, an improvement of this magnitude could benefit tens of thousands of people per day.
If you’d like to read more about the design, head on over to Streetsblog where Stephen Miller summarized the proposals in two posts last week. I’d like to discuss the messaging from city leaders instead. Along with the plans, DOT released a lengthy press release with the requisite back-slapping and sufficient amounts of New York exceptionalism.
They key word was “ambitious.” This, said Mayor de Blasio, “is the kind of ambitious overhaul New York City’s bus riders deserve.” Polly Trottenberg called it “an innovative design for Bus Rapid Transit” and summarized the proposal as “the biggest, boldest, and most ambitious design concept the City has attempted for Select Bus Service.” Senator Schumer called the plan “innovative” and “exciting.” (Meanwhile, State Senator Joe Addabbo Jr. had a windshield freakout over it, but whatever.)
Perhaps the Woodhaven Boulevard design is all of these things. It’s something the riders deserve, and it’s a first-of-its-kind-in-New York City proposal, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is somehow ambitious for anywhere other than right here in our backyards. It’s involves tried and true technologies and features that are in place in real Bus Rapid Transit networks throughout the world, and to make matters worse, DOT is still planning on hosting “block by block design workshops” which will do wonders for a speedy rollout of this $200 million project.
Ultimately — and I say this lovingly because I care — New York City is going to have to get over itself if it wants to get anywhere with transit planning. Our rollout rate for SBS lines shouldn’t be barely pushing one per year, and we shouldn’t be head-over-heels impressed with ourselves when someone finally has the political guts and gumption to propose elements of real BRT through a wide street in Queens. We have a capacity crisis, and it’s going to take leadership to solve it. Praising a plan that’s barely ambitious as though it’s the most innovative idea to come out of DOT in a decade has me more than a little worried for the future.
We start tonight, begrudgingly but admirably, with I Quant New York. Last year, this website made a huge deal about the amount of money you could put on a MetroCard for an even amount with the bonus. It was something blown completely out of proportion as the ability to refill a MetroCard essentially ad nauseam prevents monetary loss by anyone paying attention. Cards that expire with money left can be transferred to an active card by any station agent no matter how begrudgingly accepting they are of this aspect of their job.
But the drum was beaten nearly to death, and in a victory for transparency, the MTA has added a new option to the MetroCard Vending Machine that allows you to buy a card that will leave $0.00 left over. Once the MTA started instituting bonuses of varying percentages at odd dollar amounts, the math became too complex to perform on a whim in front of a machine, but the agency — whether to capture dollars via unused fare media or otherwise — hadn’t introduced the concept of an even-amount purchase. Now, you can spend $27.25, get a $3 bonus and have 11 rides (so long as you don’t use the AirTrain). Voila. It’s magic.
In other news, there are a lot of service changes this weekend. In fact, the only weekend lines without some sort of advisory are the L and the G trains — a reality that probably fits Alanis Morisette’s weird definition of irony. But while the number of advisories seems steep, these aren’t terrible. Except for certain changes to the 7, J/M and 1 trains, the changes don’t touch most subway riders. It will be OK. And even though a bunch of North Brooklyn businesses are raising a stink about upcoming L train work, there’s no better time to take trains out of service than on the weekends. That the weekends are becoming more and more popular is an issue in and of itself, but for now, this is the solution. After the jump are this week’s changes. Read More→
One of the many challenges currently facing the MTA involves the lingering damage from Superstorm Sandy. Although it’s been nearly 2.5 years since the storm and its surge swept through New York, the MTA has repaired only two of the damaged subway tunnels, and the rest are seemingly on borrowed time. The agency simply can’t spend the money fast enough and can’t take multiple tunnels out of service at the same time. So long as the infrastructure holds up enough, the MTA can make the repairs over the next few years, but it’s a battle against the corrosive effects of saltwater and time.
In addition to the tunnels, the new South Ferry station remains out of service. Although the MTA is officially hoping to reopen South Ferry in 2016, in all likelihood, as we’ve heard rumored, the station will remain closed into 2017. It needs a full rebuild and more as the MTA is working to solve some problems with the original construction and fortify and harden the station and surrounding tunnels. It’s a project nearly as expensive as the original new-build station was nearly a decade ago.
But the money is on the way. Not that funding was in doubt, but in a statement released earlier this week, Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand along with Congressman Jerry Nadler announced $343 million for South Ferry, a new federal grant in addition to the nearly $200 million in federal dollars they had delivered last winter. This isn’t new money; the MTA had been expecting it as part of the Sandy recovery package. Still, it’s always a plus to have the cash in hand.
“After Superstorm Sandy devastated New York and damaged critical infrastructure throughout the city, we need to make sure we aren’t just building back, but that we are building back stronger so we can be prepared when the next storm hits,” Senator Gillibrand said. “I’m pleased to announce this federal funding for the South Ferry station and will continue to fight for resources to strengthen and build back the critical transportation infrastructure New Yorkers rely on to get to work every day.”
What I find most interesting about the press release though aren’t the mundane statements or announcement of the money. Rather, it’s a three-sentence description of the rehab work. “This project,” the release notes, “will rehabilitate the South Ferry Terminal Station to a State of Good Repair and protect the restored infrastructure from future flooding. The rehabilitation work will include leak remediation and repairs to the station, rail tracks, line equipment, signals and power equipment. Flood protection measures will include hardening of station entrances, vents, manholes, hatches conduits and ducts.”
Take a close look at that second sentence. The rehab work includes leak mitigation. This is essentially a tacit admission that the MTA’s contractors royally screwed up the job the first time around. Due to Sandy, the MTA has a do-over, but it’s not one they ever wanted. At least now, though, they can correct one mistake of the past, and as the federal recovery dollars continue to flow, I can’t help but wonder where this money is for the MTA’s capital plans needed for the future and not just those to rebuild after a storm.