Gov. Cuomo ordered subway service suspended amidst a winter storm. (Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin)

Let’s start today with a proposition: New York City didn’t get as much snow as initially expected, and the supposedly disappointing nature of the storm has clouded the commentary. That said, even if the city had gotten 20-30 inches, I contend that, with service properly curtailed in the right spots, the New York City subways could and should have operated as originally planned. This is a widely, but not entirely, accepted contention, but it’s one that gets to the heart of the role transit plays in city life and the MTA in planning transit.

The trouble, as we well know by now, started when Gov. Andrew Cuomo decided to shut the subway system late Monday night. He spent a little bit of time consulting with MTA leaders, but by all accounts, this was a decision he imposed upon the agency. It wasn’t part of their well-developed snow response plan, and it was one that was unprecedented in New York City history. As I discussed last night, before we knew the storm wouldn’t be as substantial as threatened, the subway system can withstand the weather so long as the proper precautions are implemented.

In the aftermath of Cuomo’s decision, the Monday Tuesday Morning Quarterbacking has been nothing but blowback. We learned early on that Mayor Bill de Blasio — who admittedly has no political control over the subways — knew about the shutdown approximately 15 minutes before Cuomo announced it, if at all, and in a post on The Upshot on The Times’ website, Josh Barro delved into the economic costs of effectively closing down the city for a day. Barro explores the argument I made last night concerning a seeming overreaction to the storm, and he too feels that shutting down the subway should be implemented rarely and with great deliberation.

Meanwhile, WNYC’s Kate Hinds delved into the plans the MTA had at the ready. Her piece is informative and important as it highlights how the operations teams tasked with managing the subway were more prepared than the governor. She writes:

The MTA has a winter playbook it turns to when it comes to snowstorms, detailing just how much service it can safely provide. And speaking at a lunchtime press conference on Monday, as what looked like a blizzard bore down on the East Coast, the agency’s chief said it was time to put one piece of it into action. “We’re going to put a Plan V in effect,” MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast said, “which occurs when we have a storm of this magnitude.”

Plan V is meant to prevent debacles like the December 2010 storm which blanketed the city in 20 inches of snow. [After that storm, the MTA] revised and expanded its winter operations plan. According to that 360-page document, a copy of which was obtained by WNYC, Plan V governs operations during a declared snow emergency. To protect the fleet, subway cars are to be stored on underground express tracks, reducing service. Some lines which duplicate service, like the B or the Z trains, may be suspended. Lines that run outdoors — such as the N or the A lines in Brooklyn and Queens — may run less frequently. The plan also details specific crew actions, and even talks about where to position diesel trains in the event that a regular subway car gets stuck in the snow.

Plan V indicates how committed the MTA is to keeping subways running in the worst of winter weather. Since 2010, subway service has been occasionally disrupted during snow, but never completely shut down. And the system had never, in its 110-year history, been entirely closed because of snow until New York Governor Andrew Cuomo decided to on Monday.

The MTA’s eventual ex post excuses rang hollow because they were. As we’ve seen before, Tom Prendergast must stand by his boss, and he did that during a press conference Tuesday when he said closing the system allowed for a quicker restoration of services. That wasn’t a factor last winter when Transit implemented its severe weather policies, and it wouldn’t have been an issue this week even with 20 inches of snow. In response, the Straphangers Campaign has asked for some soul-searching. “What role,” they asked, “did Governor Andrew Cuomo and other non-MTA officials play in the decision to shut down the transit system?”

But, to return to my proposition, why should the subway run in bad weather? Because the city keeps running, even if at reduced speeds, and New Yorkers need to see that transit is a safe and reliable option when cars aren’t. Emergency workers and first responders need to get to their hospitals and firehouses and precinct houses. Low-wage workers who don’t have the benefit of taking a day off because it snowed need to get around. Cuomo’s move in fact made it more dangerous as people were left to trudge six or seven miles through the snow. That’s not, as I noted last night, how New York operates, and it’s not how the city and its subway is designed to operate. The system can weather the storm, and that’s a point that seems to be lost on the governor.

If Cuomo wanted the credit for responding to a Serious Weather Event, he has to take the blame too when his initial reaction was the wrong one. Giving him a pass would simply set the stage for another subway shutdown driven seemingly by long-term political concerns rather than short-term benefits to the eight million New Yorkers whose city never really sleeps.

Categories : MTA Politics
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  • Following ghost shutdown, passengers allowed back onto subways · Shortly after midnight, an hour and a half after the subways were supposed to stop running, I took a walk to Grand Army Plaza to check out the scene, and while I stood there, three trains arrived in the space of about four minutes. Their doors opened; the automated voices announced the station; and then the trains pulled out. Passengers were nowhere to be found, but by all accounts, as we learned early on in the evening, the subways ran without passengers. Some ran to de-ice elevated tracks while others ran simply because it was easier than powering down for less than 12 hours.

    At around 7:30 a.m. this morning, the Governor decided it was acceptable to allow passengers back on these ghost trains, and he lifted the unnecessary and ill-conceived total travel ban. The first trains with passengers ran at around 8:45 a.m., and the MTA expects to be able to run a full Sunday schedule by noon. As snow continues, bus service may be slow to non-existent, but New Yorkers will be able to get around quickly and safely via the subway just as they always have been in the snow no matter the severity of the storm. At this point, Transit expects to run normal service on Wednesday, but if anything changes, I’ll be here to update the site. · (78)
It's 11:45 p.m. Do you know where you subway is?

It’s 11:45 p.m. Do you know where you subway is?

Four years ago, when a huge winter storm socked New York City, the MTA and then-Gov. David Paterson, in the final few days of his tenure, got unlucky. For the first time in years, two subway trains — an N train in the Sea Beach line and an A train a few hundred yards outside of Howard Beach — were stranded for hours. Snow piled up; trains couldn’t move; lawsuits were filed. It was a political nightmare with the headlines to match. Since then, the MTA has tried to address bad weather events, and they have, by and large, succeeded.

The agency’s response to this worst-case scenario was to develop plans for various amounts of snow that largely maintained subway service. Generally, in blizzard conditions, all express service is curtailed so Transit can store trains underground, and service along the train lines that operate in open trenches rather than along elevated lines is curtailed. And you know what? It worked! Trains operated throughout most of the city, and no one was stranded in snowstorms. It required employees to clear elevated platforms, but the city could operate largely as normal.

And then today rolled around. It’s right now 11:30 p.m. on Monday, and the snow accumulations aren’t as severe as earlier forecasts predicted. Still, the worst of the blizzard is expected to hit while most of us are sleeping, and when we wake up in the morning, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx could have over two feet of snow on the ground while Manhattan and Staten Island may have around 18 inches. It doesn’t even really matter how much snow we get because, for some reason, Gov. Cuomo shuttered subway service at 11 p.m., and by all accounts, the decision was a unilateral one.

The MTA didn’t see this coming. After all, the city had never in 110 years closed the subways due to snow, and in fact, early on Monday, Tom Prendergast basically said that a shutdown was unnecessary. As he noted, most of the subway network is underground, and it doesn’t snow underground. Now, we learn that the subway shutdown caught the MTA off guard. Via a report in the Brooklyn Paper that’s been corroborated by other MTA sources, the agency may continue to run empty trains because the Governor thought he knew best:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s move to shut off the city’s subway system overnight on Monday ahead of an anticipated blizzard came as a surprise to transit workers and runs against common sense, because the trains need to move as part of keeping the tracks clear and will be running all night anyway, according to a transit insider. The governor’s 6 pm announcement that subway and bus service would be halted completely at 11 pm came as a surprise to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Incident Command Center, where workers first heard about it on the news, said the source, who lacks authorization to speak about internal matters and asked to remain anonymous.

The halting of subway service is the first ever for a snowstorm. It is ill-considered because an actual turning-off of the entire system requires moving all the cars to far-flung facilities for storage, as the agency did during Hurricane Sandy, when flooding was a concern, and rebooting from that takes ages, the insider said. Emergency personnel will be riding the trains overnight while no one else is allowed to, per the source. The closure will strand people and put lives at risk, not because the subways can’t run, but because Cuomo wants to look good, the source said…

The lack of ground transportation options makes keeping the subway open all the more important, the transit source said. “The roads being closed is all the more reason the underground lifeline should be open,” the source said.

The problem with Cuomo’s decision is that it doesn’t make sense. It’s a noble goal to keep cars off the road so that emergency response teams and plows can move through the city unimpeded. But it ignores the reality of New York City — an often inconvenient one for Cuomo — to shutter the subway. Now, New Yorkers, from everyone building cleaning crews to service employees at bars who are on duty until 4 a.m. to nurses and hospitals on duty overnight, can’t get around the city because the Governor decided it was somehow a danger for a subway system that operates largely underground to keep running through a massive but hardly unprecedented snow storm. Cuomo doesn’t want to deal with headlines placing the blame for the next stranded subway on his shoulders so instead, the entire city is effectively shut down.

A great irony in the governor’s move is that the subway itself arose from the paralysis of the Blizzard of 1888. New Yorkers needed a way to get around in a snow storm, and the subways were the perfect antidote to surface congestion. Now, after two hurricanes during which it made sense to stop subway service due to serious flooding concerns, the governor has decided that favorable headlines trump urban life. After all these years, should we expect anything else from a governor who hasn’t recognized the role transit plays in driving New York City’s existence? Sadly, I guess not.

Categories : MTA Politics
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  • Cuomo: Subway, buses will shut down at 11 p.m. · (5:00 p.m.): As the snow continues to build and forecasts worsen, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced that, for the first time in city history in a snow storm, the MTA will stop running subways and buses by 11 p.m. tonight. Following the evening rush, express trains will run local beginning between 7 and 8 p.m., and as the Governor has warned that travel is banned after 11, the subways will stop running. I’m generally sympathetic of the need to protect MTA employees, the rolling stock and New Yorkers, but this strikes me as a huge overreaction. It’s supposed to snow a lot with some areas not expected to receive over 30 inches, but trains can run underground while providing safer transit options for people who must travel.

    It’s not yet clear when the transit will start up again, but the system is unlikely to run at full speed, if at all, on Wednesday. “Don’t count on the system tomorrow,” MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast said at a briefing this afternoon. More as details become available. · (46)
  • Snowpocalypse 2K2015: Cuomo, MTA announce systemwide changes with more expected this afternoon · (1:30 p.m.): The National Weather Service is still predicted up to 30 inches of snow for New York City, and as the storm arrives, the MTA’s plans are coming into view. The agency plans to provide a definitive update at 4 p.m. on whether or not subway service will be shuttered completely, but for now, expect slower service following the end of the evening rush hour.

    At a news conference about 40 minutes ago, MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast and Gov. Andrew Cuomo discussed the MTA’s plans. The agency expects to operate normal subway service until around 7 p.m., and then between 7-8 p.m., the agency will begin to curtail express service as trains are moved underground. Some above-ground/at-grade lines may see service reductions or cancellations entirely, but those will not be announced until 4 p.m. or as weather dictates. Meanwhile, LIRR and Metro-North will stop running at 11 p.m. at the latest. In the meantime, the MTA has announced additional service on the commuter lines between now and 4 p.m. (LIRR; Metro-North)

    Finally, in New Jersey-centric news, both PATH and NJ Transit will be reducing service as well. No New Jersey Transit trains will run after 10 p.m. with the last trains leaving their terminals at around 8 p.m. This gives crews plenty of time to store the trains to ensure maximum weather-related damage. PATH meanwhile will run on a weekend schedule after 9 p.m. with trains operating after 15 minutes or so. Both Cuomo and NJ Governor Chris Christie have urged residents to get home early and stay off the roads. I’ll update the site as more details become available. You can also follow me on Twitter for real-time updates.

    As an aside, tomorrow night’s “Problem Solvers” event at the Transit Museum has been postponed due to snow. Ironically, the event was supposed to be about the MTA’s efforts at recovering from a major weather event, and instead, we’re stuck inside of another major weather event. I’ll let you know when the session has been rescheduled. · (13)

The MTA’s snow-thrower clears the tracks at 20th Avenue following a Nor’easter in February. (Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

In case you’ve missed it, there’s a big amount of snow heading our way. The National Weather Service is warning of a “crippling and potentially historic blizzard” will hit the city with snow totals predicted to be 20-30 inches or more in some areas. The last time a storm of this magnitude struck, passengers were stranded for hours on an N train stuck in Brooklyn and an A left near Howard Beach. Since then, the MTA has been very proactive in managing subway service and its storm response.

As now, it’s not clear how Monday is going to unfold. As of just before midnight, the MTA’s website offers up only this tidbit regarding tomorrow’s New York City Transit service:

NYC Transit personnel are in place to clear platforms and stairs of snow. De-icers and snow-throwers have been strategically deployed to focus on outdoor areas and open cuts that are the most susceptible to high snow accumulations.

The MTA is planning to operate normal bus service tomorrow morning, but depending on road conditions, service may be curtailed as the day progresses. All local buses, including articulated buses, will have chains or snow tires installed by tomorrow’s PM rush hour.

Paratransit customers may experience additional travel and wait times.

Gov. Cuomo meanwhile has sounded a more urgent alarm. While asking commuters to stay home if possible, the governor has said “the public transit network including…MTA Subways and Buses may be closed ahead of the evening commute.” The language is rather stilted, and it’s not totally clear what Cuomo means. My guess is that he’s referring to a Plan 4 response to the storm.

In all likelihood, then, as the snow begins to fall around 1 p.m. tomorrow afternoon, the MTA will look to curtail service. Trains will be stored on underground express tracks, and all express service is likely to run local. At-grade subway lines — such as the A through the Rockaways and the N down the Sea Beach Line — are likely to be curtailed while the trains that don’t run 24 hours — the M and the B — will stop early. Now, that’s not official, but that’s been the general approach to major snowstorms.

For the MTA, this week’s storm is shaping up to be a big test. They’ve had successful storms over the past few years, but we haven’t seen something of this magnitude in over four years. Since then, the subways weathered Irene and emerged limping out of Sandy. We’ll see how this week’s storm goes, but ultimately, the same advice applies: Don’t travel if you don’t have to.

I’ll update the site with any weather-related service advisories as they are announced. For now, we’re all just waiting for snow and waiting for service changes.

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With New York under the threat of snow for the first time this winter, the MTA has scaled back a good amount of the planned weekend work. Still, some service advisories remain in place, and you can read all about them below. Before that, though, check out the details on Tuesday’s Problem Solvers event that I’m hosting at the Transit Museum. We’re talking Fix & Fortify, and I’d love to see you there.


From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, January 24 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, January 26 4 service operates in two sections. To continue your trip, transfer at 125 St.

  • Between Woodlawn and 125 St.
  • Between 125 St and Crown Hts-Utica Av/New Lots Av.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, January 23 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, January 26, Crown Hts-Utica Av bound 4 trains skip 138 St-Grand Concourse.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, January 23 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, January 26, 5 service is suspended in both directions between E 180 St and Bowling Green. Take the 2 or 4 instead. 5 shuttle trains run all weekend between Eastchester-Dyre Av and E 180 St.


From 7:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, January 24, and from 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Sunday, January 25, 6 trains run every 16 minutes between Parkchester and Pelham Bay Park. The last stop for some trains headed toward Pelham Bay Park is Parkchester. To continue your trip, transfer at Parkchester for a Pelham Bay Park-bound 6.


From 2:00 a.m. Saturday, January 24 to 4:30 a.m. Monday, January 26, 7 trains are suspended between Times Sq-42 St and Queensboro Plaza. Use EFNQ trains between Manhattan and Queens. Free shuttle buses make all stops between Vernon Blvd-Jackson Av and Queensboro Plaza. The 42 Street S shuttle operates overnight. Q service is extended to Ditmars Blvd from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. on Saturday, January 24, and from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Sunday, January 25.


From 2:00 a.m. Saturday, January 24 to 4:30 a.m. Monday, January 26, Flushing-Main St bound 7 trains run express from Queensboro Plaza to 74 St-Broadway.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, January 23 to 6:00 a.m. Sunday, January 25, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, January 25 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, January 26, Queens-bound A trains run express from 59 St-Columbus Circle to Canal St.


From 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, January 24, and Sunday, January 25, Euclid Av-bound C trains run express from 59 St-Columbus Circle to Canal St. C trains run every 15 minutes. Allow additional travel time.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, January 23 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, January 26, E trains are suspended in both directions between Jamaica Center Parsons-Archer and Briarwood-Van Wyck Blvd. Free shuttle buses operate between Jamaica Center and Union Tpke, stopping at Sutphin Blvd-Archer Av, Jamaica-Van Wyck, and Briarwood-Van Wyck Blvd. Transfer between E trains and free shuttle buses at Union Tpke or Briarwood-Van Wyck Blvd. For additional connections between Manhattan and Jamaica Center, consider the A and J via a transfer at Broadway Junction.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, January 23 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, January 26, World Trade Center-bound E trains run express from 34 St-Penn Station to Canal St.


From 11:15 p.m. Friday, January 23, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, January 26, Coney Island-Stillwell Av bound F trains are rerouted via the M line from Roosevelt Av to 47-50 Sts/Rock Ctr.


From 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Saturday, January 24, and from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Sunday, January 25, Q service is extended to Astoria-Ditmars Blvd.

42 St Shuttle
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, January 24, to 6:00 a.m. Monday, January 26, the 42 St S Shuttle operates overnight.

Categories : Service Advisories
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We love New York, but New Yorkers don’t love fare hikes. Photo: Marc A. Hermann/MTA New York City Transit

The MetroCard, still at least five years away from retirement, will live through at least three more fare hikes, if the MTA sticks with its current schedule, and the first of the three is officially set for March 22nd. At its meeting on Thursday, the MTA Board voted to approve a modest fare hike that will bump fare revenue — and most fares — by approximately four percent, and although some New Yorkers grumbled about the higher transit costs, most advocates focused their post-hike comments on the MTA’s gaping capital budget hole.

The details didn’t come as much of a surprise as the MTA opted to raise the base fare for the second hike a row while maintaining a pay-per-ride discount. The unlimited ride cards went up only a small amount while tolls and commuter rail fares saw similar increases. Beginning March 22, a swipe will deduct $2.75 from a MetroCard while the pay-per-ride bonus will jump from 5% to 11% on purchases above $5.50. Effectively, then, the per-swipe cost will be $2.48, up just ten cents from $2.38. The optics are bad, but the fare hike is modest.

For those of us who use the bulk/unlimited-ride options, this year’s hikes are smaller than recent jumps. The 30-day card jumps from $112 to $116.50 while the 7-day option hops up a dollar from $30 to $31. The four percent hike for the 30-day card is significantly smaller than recent fare increases, but it’s hard to ignore how the cost for a 30-day ride has gone from $70 at the star to of 2005 to $116.50 ten years later. Even in a shorter time frame, the jump is significant as a 30-day card cost $89 as recently as December of 2010. The $1 surcharge on all new MetroCard purchases remains.

“The MTA has been able to limit these fare and toll increases to the equivalent of 2% a year thanks to our continued aggressive cost-cutting, while still adding service and improving service quality for our growing number of customers,” MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast said after the vote. “Our Financial Plan assumes modest biennial fare and toll increases, and the Board has chosen options with lower increases for our most frequent customers.”

In a way, New Yorkers have come to accept these fare hikes. Some people were grumbling about higher fares without a corresponding increase in service, and the MTA has seemingly settled into a pattern of offering service that’s good enough. Generally, the subway works well, and although it’s very crowded, with nine individuals days in December witnessing over 6 million riders, we’ll deal with crowds and delays. Improvements are just out of reach, and that remains a big concern.

As many MTA Board members pointed out during the meeting and as many transit advocates noted following the vote, if the $15.2 billion capital budget gap isn’t filled, we could be in for much steeper fare hikes in 2017 and 2019. “Today the MTA Board voted to raise fares on more than eight million subway, bus and commuter rail riders. But the real scandal may be yet to come. If Governor Cuomo and members of the legislature don’t decide on new revenue sources to fund the MTA’s five-year capital plan, larger fare increases are lurking around the corner,” John Raskin of the Riders Alliance said. “Paying for public transit with fare hikes is a regressive way to fund a public service that the entire region relies on. We urge Governor Cuomo and the legislature to act quickly to fund the next MTA Capital Plan, instead of passing on the cost to overburdened riders.”

Cuomo, of course, is too busy plotting an airtrain to address real funding concerns, and few people are paying attention to the way in which the fare structure seems to favor those with money who afford the $116.50 outlay. WNYC’s Matthew Schuerman analyzed the socioeconomic breakdown of the MTA’s fare structure, and it’s something I’ll revisit in a future post. Needless to say, although the MTA is on sounder economic footing today than they were five years ago, the agency is on the precipice of steep fare hikes that will make this year’s seem negligible if the capital gap is not closed. That would be bad news for New Yorkers.

Categories : Fare Hikes
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  • Event: Problem Solvers tackles post-Sandy Fix & Fortify on Jan. 27 · While we’re busy here discussing rail access to LaGuardia and the future of the MetroCard, on Tuesday, January 27, join me in person for the return of my “Problem Solvers” Q-and-A series at the Transit Museum for a discussion on the MTA’s Fix & Fortify program. I’ll be interviewing John O’Grady, an engineer with over 25 years’ experience at the MTA and in capital construction who currently serves as a vice president for infrastructure and facilities. The talk will focus on Sandy recovery efforts.

    It’s hard to believe the storm swept through well over two years ago, and as we know, the MTA’s challenges are immense. The new South Ferry station, totaled by the storm surge, isn’t expected to reopen until mid-2017 or even early 2018, according to the latest MTA materials, and although the Montague St. Tunnel has reopened following 14 months’ of repairs, the MTA has to address saltwater damage in many of the other East River Tunnels. During the talk next week, we’ll discuss the work that went into the Montague Tube repairs and the way the MTA is managing the project. We’ll touch on some flood-remediation efforts and the MTA’s attempts at ensuring the next big storm isn’t nearly as disruptive or destructive to the subway system.

    The festivities start at 6:30 p.m. at the Transit Museum in Downtown Brooklyn. As the Museum would like to better support its programming, the event is no longer free and carries with it a modest $10 charge (though museum members still get in for free). As a bonus, though, at 7:30 p.m., the Museum will put Sandy artifacts on display and discuss the process of retrieving and cataloging these items. Most of the public saw only the photos, but the destruction wrought by the storm was substantial. Pick up your tickets right here, and hopefully, I’ll see you next week. · (6)
Gov. Cuomo announced a Laguardia Airtrain via Willets Point and the Grand Central Parkway.

Gov. Cuomo announced a Laguardia Airtrain via Willets Point and the Grand Central Parkway.

After months of saying very little of anything while campaigning for a second term and hardly anything about transit for four years while governing, Andrew Cuomo stunned New Yorkers by announcing plans to build an AirTrain from the 7 train and LIRR station at Willets Point to Laguardia Airport. Cuomo, who has made modernizing New York’s struggling airports, said that the rail connection will cost $450 million and could be up and running within five years of the start of construction.

For transit advocates and, in fact, for travelers who frequent New York City airports, the announcement came as something of a bombshell. The is the first time in over four years that Cuomo has discussed a direct rail connection to Laguardia, and he seemingly announced it as a fait accompli without any detail as to how his administrative picked this alignment or, more importantly, how this project will be funded. In fact, while introducing the infrastructure elements of the 2015 Opportunity Agenda, Cuomo also discussed high-speed ferry service throughout the city, the Penn Station Access plan

The Laguardia AirTrain, Cuomo said, will be constructed by the MTA and Port Authority, similar to the JFK Airtrain, and the proposed routing is designed to avoid any NIMBY complaints. The proposal calls for a terminal at Willets Point above the Corona Yards in between the 7 line stop and LIRR station with a routing above the Grand Central Parkway to Laguardia Airport, under two miles away. “You can’t get to Laguardia by train, and that really is inexcusable,” the governor said.

The announcement seemed to catch MTA and Port Authority officials off-guard, and as with Mayor Bloomberg’s back-of-the-napkin plan to send the 7 train to Secaucus, the agencies had to scramble for a statement. This time, though, their boss had issued the challenge instead of just the mayor of New York City. Later in the day, Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye and MTA CEO Tom Prendergast issued a joint statement:

“Governor Cuomo has offered a clear vision and strong call for the transportation infrastructure that is absolutely essential for the New York region to compete successfully in the global economy. The Port Authority and the MTA are working closely to establish the scope, schedule and management of the LaGuardia AirTrain, just as they worked closely to create the successful JFK AirTrain. We will build this project in a cost-effective way that minimizes disruptions to nearby communities as well as airport operations, and we can get it done within five years of obtaining all necessary approvals. Both our organizations recognize the importance of these infrastructure projects and congratulate the Governor on his foresight.”

So does it work? Let’s drill down.

The Good: A Rail Connection to Laguardia

In a vacuum, a rail connection to Laguardia with political support, political capital and a political champion behind it is a good idea. The governor, who is, despite his flaws, a strong executive in New York, is talking about improving the way we travel to the airport, and he has a vision that is, compared with other New York City transit projects, affordable and practical. It doesn’t involve construction through any neighborhoods replete with NIMBY opposition and solves an immediate problem by improving access to Laguardia in a way that isn’t as stigmatized as bus service is. In broad strokes, a Laguardia AirTrain is a badly-needed service that should have been built years ago.

The Bad: The Routing

That said, Cuomo’s proposal is something of a mess from a transit planning perspective. By avoiding any battle with NIMBYs — except perhaps with those who live above the Grand Central Parkway with views of the Long Island Sound — Cuomo has essentially picked the worst of the possible Laguardia rail connection routings, and we don’t know why. As I mentioned, Cuomo didn’t discuss how other alternatives were eliminated or how he settled upon his proposed alignment.

The real issue is travel time. The 7 train from Times Square to Willets Point is a 25-minute express ride and a 30-minute local ride. AirTrain passengers would then have to switch to an AirTrain and backtrack to reach the airport. To make this work, the MTA would have to consider permanent super-express service to Willets Point during off-peak hours, and I’m afraid consider the peak-hour effect on already-crowded 7 trains. At least the nearby LIRR station can alleviate some of the pressure, but a trip that takes a good 45 minutes from Midtown can’t compete with the Q70 from Jackson Heights, a shuttle bus or even a taxi.

Now, in the past, as we know, NIMBYs torpedoed a Giuliani plan to send the N to Laguardia. You can read the original engineering report and my recent analysis of the old plan. That’s probably the ideal alignment in terms of speed as it is the most direct connection to Manhattan and major destination points from Laguardia. The second best choice would have involved staging an AirTrain station near Jackson Heights and providing service from the 7/E/F/M/R station via the BQE and Grand Central to the airport. Instead, we have a Willets Point-based plan, and we don’t eve know why. This isn’t something we should accept simply because a politician has proposed spending money on an AirTrain.

The Ugly: The Money

The money, of course, is another major issue. The MTA is in dire need of someone to address a $15 billion capital funding gap in its current five-year plan. They need to spend $32 billion but can only generate around $17 billion. Meanwhile, this $32 billion doesn’t include the capital costs for a new airport rail connection. Now, the agency is scrambling to update its documents, but the money for the badly needed parts of the plan — signal upgrades, Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway — still isn’t there.

The other issue is the cost. It’s optimistic to think that the MTA and Port Authority can build a rail extension on time for around $300 million a mile, and although the JFK AirTrain was on time and on budget, nothing else of this magnitude has been. I can run through the litany of problems that have plagued the 7 line, the Fulton St. Transit Center, the PATH Hub, East Side Access, and the Second Ave. Subway, but we know this story well: Nothing comes in on time or on budget, and cost projections often do not align with reality. Without a better understanding of the sources of Cuomo’s $450 million price tag, we can’t adequate assess this project’s chances either. Still, as I mentioned, the MTA’s current capital proposal should take priority.

The Unknown: What Happens Next

Right now, I have no idea where this goes. When Bloomberg announced the Secaucus plan for the 7 train late in his third term without the support of the MTA, Albany or New Jersey, it was obvious this plan would go nowhere. But Cuomo is at the start of this second term and has banked a lot of political capital on dealing with New York’s airports. He has the weight, the pull and the financial resources at his disposal to get this project off the table. It might just happen, and it just arrived out of left field.

Still, I have serious reservations about the way this came about. It’s not a great alignment, and it leaves commuters on a slow and crowded train. It’s a connection, but it’s not a direct one. It doesn’t help improve access to Laguardia for airport workers, and it shifts economic resources from other projects and proposals that should be a priority. Still, it’s heartening to see Cuomo paying attention to rail. Is there time to improve this idea or are we doomed to another airport connection that’s only just good enough?

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