Two weeks ago, the F train came under attack from riders in Brooklyn who noticed fewer, more crowded trains. These riders, rightly so, were upset with the MTA for cutting back service in an area of the city suffering from gentrification and a population boom.

This week, the F train riders responded to the original article in The Brooklyn Paper with a reply that, at the risk pissing off my fellow denizens of Brooklyn, is nearly as short-sighted as the MTA’s attempts to cut F train service without really acknowledging this service cut.

Jasmine Melzer of Park Slope wrote to Gersh Kuntzman’s paper. (Scroll down for her letter.)

I date the beginning of these problems to the introduction of the V train. Ever since the V came into existence, I have wondered whether Brooklyn was ever represented at the table that gave this service to Queens.

Elementary math tells you that two won’t go into one. For Brooklynites standing on Manhattan subway platforms, watching useless, empty V trains heading for Second Avenue is a constant source of frustration…

For the MTA spokeswoman to simply negate the possibility of either extending V service or utilizing the existing express tracks is to ignore the urgent need of a Brooklyn population that is nearing its historical peak.

Melzer, citing the popularity of the MetroCard as the reason for the subway’s new-found popularity (uh, what?), also calls for express service on the F out to Coney Island. Now, on the surface, Melzer’s ideas seem fairly straightforward. They may even make sense in the grand scheme of the MTA. But it doesn’t hold up.

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A Circle Line train leaving Edgware Road on July 7, 2005, was one of three attacked in London. (Courtesty of flickr user otama)

Maybe in New York we overlook what happened in London in July of 2005. Maybe we chalk it up to the Olympics announcement and the Muslim-European tensions that have long been simmering in cities across the Atlantic from us. Or maybe we don’t focus on it because we’re afraid that it could happen here, and we don’t know how to protect ourselves from such an attack.

In fact, that’s exactly how New York’s anti-terrorism chief feels, and he let his feelings be known in Washington this week. Speaking in front of the House Homeland Security Committee this week, Deputy New York Police Department Commissioner Richard Falkenrath stressed the vulnerability of the New York City transportation system and the vulnerabilities in similar systems across the country. In his testimony, Falkenrath really laid into the politics and policies that plague the Department of Homeland Security, a government agency that has succumbed to politics in doling out its money. amNY reported:

Despite [22 bomb threats and 31 intelligence threats related to subway attack threats this year] and a spate of deadly train bombings in London, Madrid and Mumbai, India, Falkenrath, a former White House homeland security official, said the federal government has done little to protect the nation’s subway and rail systems.

“Given the severity of the terrorist threat to the U.S. mass transit system … the disparity between the federal investment in aviation security and … mass transit security is a national embarrassment,” he said…”Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the field of homeland security has been gripped by a mania for plans, strategies and other mandatory reports … They are of almost no value to operating agencies in the field; and they seem to be ignored by virtually everyone except the government contractors paid to verify that the reporting requirements have been met.”

As Falkenrath noted, even those plans approved by DHS don’t target the country’s vulnerable areas in a way acceptable to the people on the ground. For example, a proposed bill that would earmark $4 billion for rail and tunnel security in the U.S. allows for spending only on equipment and not the people needed to defend the subways.

“This bias pervades virtually all homeland security grant programs,” he said. “It is a reflection of the interests of government vendors, who sell more products, and federal auditors, whose jobs are simplified when grants can be connected to invoices.” You tell ’em, Richard.

Falkenrath, meanwhile, estimated that the city needs 2700 cops a day to guard the hundreds of exits and entrances into the subway system. Simply put, we need the money to pay people to defend the subways, fancy equipment or not.

Outrageously, though, as CBS reported tonight, the federal government is pandering to the people in spending. The government spends nearly $7.50 per passenger on airport security and just 1.5¢. This besides that fact that simply locking and reinforcing cockpit doors could stave off nearly every airplane hijacking attempt. But hey, we didn’t vote for Bush in 2000 or 2004; why should we get the money or sensible policies?

While federal agents in New York and Washington are attempting to teach old dogs new bombing sniffing tricks, something tells me that just won’t be enough. If someone’s about to blow themselves up in the subway, having a dog point out that fact will simply lead to one more dead dog.

While the editorial pages of the Daily News were the only ones to take a stand on this issue, calling, as I am, for the government to listen to the New York officials outlining what they need to protect the city’s subways.

In his testimony, Falkenrath painted a dire picture of an attack on New York’s subways. “I go to work every morning … with the mindset that today will be the day that terrorists strike New York City again. The most likely scenario, I believe, is an attack in the subway system with multiple, near-simultaneous satchel bombs,” he said.

To me, this doesn’t seem far-fetched. I was in Europe on July 7, 2005. I saw the reaction of the citizens of the EU as bombs exploded in London’s subways. Just days before, I was on the Metro in Madrid and Barcelona, blissfully unaware that anyone on the train could have been carrying a bomb.

In the States, we think of terrorism as grand acts. We think of airplanes striking buildings and men driving trucks filled with explosives into big stationery targets. But ask people in London, Dubai, Madrid and Tel Aviv. Ask them about suicide bombs on buses and near-simultaneous explosions on subways.

Do we in New York have to wait to become victims before the federal government will act appropriately? I sure hope not.

Categories : Subway Security
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Gov. Spitzer doesn’t want more money dropped into the MTA’s turnstiles. (Courtesy of flickr user jlin45d)

The political grandstanding on the possibility of an MTA fare hike has begun. Look out.

Just yesterday, MTA CEO Elliot “Lee” Sander announced that the MTA may have to look at the possibility of a fare hike in 2008. Sander, vague on the possibility of a fare hike, knows the vultures will descend if he starts talking in definites. Chuck Bennett on amNY’s Tracker Blog said as much yesterday.

Other politicos in New York started taking positions on the fare hike pretty quickly. Our new governor Eliot Spitzer jumped into the fray as he announced his stringent opposition to a fare hike. In fact, Spitzer has promised to do “everything possible” to avoid a fare hike. Strong words from the man in charge. Metro New York reported:

Yesterday Spitzer said higher fares might be avoided by the state contributing more to the MTA. “We will increase state investment in transportation — both capital and operating sides of the budget — because that is the only way to maintain our transportation,” Spitzer said.

With this promise, the ball is squarely in Spitzer’s court. He’s right to note that the state can stave off a fare hike. If Spitzer can get the legislature to guarantee the City-based subway enough money and then some to cover the necessary costs, we won’t face a fare hike. But upstate representatives are always loathe to fund New York City-centric projects.

This will be one political dance worth watching as the City’s own Spitzer may have to battle a powerful upstate coalition of representatives opposed to giving more money to the MTA.

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The Fire Department doesn’t like that radio system either. (Image from The Times)

First, the Police didn’t find the MTA’s $140 million investment supposed ground-penetrating system workable. And now, unsurprisingly, the Fire Department has realized that, hey, radio waves don’t really penetrate the ground either.

Citing “dead spots” where the radio signal cannot penetrate, the Fire Department said yesterday that the system is a failure. The MTA is now looking at a mighty expensive failure at a time when money is tight. “It’s only been through the sort of exhaustive testing that’s gone on that we’ve found these areas that are of concern to us, and we don’t want to rely on the system until it’s as close to 100 percent as we can make it,” said Francis X. Gribbon, a Fire Department spokesman, to The Times.

New York’s paper of record had more:

The Fire Department has also given the system a failing grade, saying it is permeated with “dead spots” where radio signals do not reach. It is a setback for the authority, which built the system and had defended its work by saying that despite the rejection of police officials, the Fire Department was using the system and was pleased with its performance.

That is no longer the case. The Fire Department is preparing to circulate a memo to fire units this week which, in a draft provided by the department, says that “after many months of testing” it has concluded that the subway radio system does not “uphold the communications and safety standards of the F.D.N.Y.”

There’s a lot of techno mumbo-jumbo in the article about radio frequencies and transmission signals. It delves into the differences between the police signals, which didn’t work too well off the bat, and the fire department’s signals which at least made it through some tests.

But the bottom line is stark and straightforward. The MTA will have to spend an additional $20 million to fix these transmission problems which one New York City Transit official called “not an unanticipated result.” The total cost of the project is now set at $210 million, and this radio wave problem is just another example of unforeseen costs plaguing the MTA. It’s nothing new for the MTA which has faced these cost overruns for, oh, the last 103 years. What’s another $70 million anyway?

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That sound you hear, it’s not a dance troupe practicing its tap routine. No, instead, it’s MTA CEO Elliot “Lee” Sander tangoing around the thorny issue of a fare hike in 2008.

The dance sounds a little bit like this. “I think the whole conversation is a little premature for us to engage in, but at the same time I think it’s fair for me to say it’s a real possibility,” Sander said to the Daily News.

Why the fare hike? Well, the MTA, running up annual deficits of $1 billion, needs to cover its costs. It’s simple economics really.

An unprecedented borrowing binge by the MTA – to make up for greatly diminished state and city funding – is coming back to haunt the agency, Sander said, appearing before the Daily News Editorial Board. Debt payments are soaring. Annual deficits are heading north of $1 billion…

The MTA’s grim outlook stems from the state and city cutting its funding for the agency’s core capital plans, which involve nonexpansion projects like track and signal upgrades, Sander said. The 2000-2004 capital plan “was put on the credit card,” he said.

With a new governor more sympathetic to New York City’s transit needs and Senator Schumer and Congressman Rangel in prominent Congressional seats, the MTA should receive more state and federal funding. But it won’t be enough to meet operational costs and capital improvement plans.

Meanwhile, straphangers should be able to shoulder a fare increase. As Sander noted, with discounts on pay-per-ride MetroCards and unlimited MetroCard use, the average cost per ride comes to about $1.30, among the cheaper subway rates in the U.S.

I’m not opposed to a fare hike; I, like Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign, would like to see more funding across the board, and I would like to see the money go toward improvements in the existing system. Those are sensible demands if the MTA is to raise the cost of commuting once again.

Image of the MetroCard Wheel by flickr user Dave Gorman, leading me to wonder Is he Dave Gorman?

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So apparently, the New York Police Department is bored. Cops assigned to the transit beat, you see, have been planting bags in the subway and then, uh, leaving them there until some unsuspecting subway rider takes them. At that point, the cops swoop in.

Nope, no entrapment there. Just walk away.

As you could imagine, the editorial pages of The Times were none too thrilled about this practice. While a Brooklyn judge, the Grey Lady notes, ruled that the police “do not need to manipulate a situation where temptation may overcome even people who would normally never think of committing a crime,” The Times’ complaint went beyond entrapment.

There is also the question of whether the sting does actual harm. In an era of terrorism, where the police have to rely on the help of average people to notice anything suspicious — including apparently abandoned bags — the last thing New York needs are cynical operations that encourage mistrust between the police and subway riders.

And of course, there is the effect on neighborliness. It is remarkable how many people in this city are willing to track down the owners of lost cellphones, wallets or bags. Arresting good Samaritans is bad enough, but encouraging them not to help in the future through this kind of overly aggressive policing is a downright shame. The best thing to do with this misbegotten program would be to end it.

Well, that’s the understatement of the year. The Times was just saving the snark for me.

By using these questionable methods, the police are clearly putting their “See something, say something” program at risk. If seeing something, saying something and doing something result in a ticket because you took an unattended bag, most straphangers will just become typical New Yorkers. “It’s not my problem” will become the familiar refrain. Gone will be the days of phoning in suspicious packages. And we’ll all just go back to our self-centered ways.

You can blame the NYPD and their Operation Lucky Bag. That is one bad idea gone horribly wrong.

Categories : MTA Absurdity
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Continuing our look at the Mayor’s PLAN2030 for a sustainable New York City, we arrive at Bruce Schaller, noted transportation consultant. While Schaller did not have the same official platform as Gene Russianoff did, he long has enjoyed a position of prominence in New York City’s transportation field.

Last month, Schaller penned a long piece in the Gotham Gazette on sustainable transportation measures that should be implemented between now and 2030. While containing a few little ideas that would make the city much more pedestrian-friendly, Schaller focused around big ideas that would ideally provide for better public transportation and greater disincentives to drive in the City.

On a macro level, Schaller recommends against the “chaotic” status quo, urges quick action on big capital plans (such as the 2nd Ave. subway) so that they won’t be derailed and calls for cooperation among government bodies and agencies. All of these suggestions are pretty standard stuff for the good government groups and consultants that serve as watch dog organizations in New York City.

Specifically, Schaller pushes for three ideas. The first encompasses the congestion tax that every public transportation and livable streets advocate has called for recently.

The economic signals need to fixed. That means congestion pricing for the Manhattan business district. Pricing should be applied as narrowly as possible, affecting only those motorists who by driving at the busiest times and places most contribute to slowing down everyone else. I’ve outlined a plan for peak period charges inbound to Manhattan in the morning peak period, outbound in the evening peak period, and for driving anywhere in the business district midday.

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Around the halls of City Hall, the phrase “Sustainable City” has been making the rounds. The Mayor kicked off this focus on the future when he unveiled his PLANYC2030 initiative a few months ago.

Bloomberg, looking at how far the city had come since 1981, wants the next 25 years to be as prosperous for this rapidly growing Metropolis. Chief among New Yorkers’ concerns are issues surrounding transportation. From a congestion tax to new subway lines, to folks advocating for pedestrian-friendly traffic plans to groups calling for increased public transportation, how we will get around this fair city is on everyone’s minds.

As the mayor and his people are working to formulate concrete plans for the next two and a half decades, transportation advocates are having their voices heard. Last week, Gene Russianoff, senior attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, testified in front of the Transportation Committee. He spoke at length about adding capacity to the city’s crowded transportation system. Noting that average daily ridership during the week is at 7.2 million, Russianoff urged curbing traffic and adding funding to mass transit. Allow me to quote at length.

Achieving the goal of traffic reduction is only possible if the transit system can handle the increase in ridership from individuals shifting from driving to the subways and the buses…The City can help add transit capacity by providing added funding for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s core rebuilding program.

That program — at a price tag of $11 billion between 2005 and 2009 and with four more five-year multi-billion dollar increments through 2030 — now includes some funding for projects that would expand transit capacity. These include buying more subway cars and buses to modestly increase the size of the transit fleet and modernizing signal systems to allow for computer-driven subway cars that run faster and safer at more frequent service levels…All these projects could be more quickly advanced and have more ambitious goals with additional funding.

Right now, the City’s funding of the MTA’s core capital plan is the lowest it’s been in twenty years. The city now gives $70 million a year in general transit capital funds, a total of $350 million over the life of the 2005 to 2009 MTA capital plan. That’s about 3% of the funding for the plan…Tying specific goals to the 2030 timetable would help achieve the goal of added transit capacity set by Mayor Bloomberg. For example, the MTA and the City should move to computerized signals and a large transit fleet well before 2030 if they hope to move a City with a million more people.

It’s hard to argue with Russianoff. The City, no doubt, should be spending more on mass transit and other alternatives to automobile traffic. Even with the promise from President Bush, Governor Spitzer and Senator Schumer of money for capital projects (such as the 2nd Ave. Subway and the East Side LIRR link), the city should kick in more money.

Furthermore, with concrete goals, the city could earmark money for specific MTA projects as they have done with the 7 line extension. That way, money the mayor wants to go toward building a sustainable system wouldn’t be siphoned off by routine maintenance or increased salary demands. The MTA would still of course need to find those funds, but a plan that calls for improving transportation in a city of 9 million by 2030 should be able to earmark the funds for specific projects.

While Russianoff was speaking to the right crowd, he wasn’t the only one talking sustainable transportation issues. Transportation consultant Bruce Schaller discussed similar themes as it relates to PLANYC2030 in his most recent piece for the Gotham Gazette. Later today, I’ll take a look at what Schaller has to say about expanding and maintaining transportation capacity for the next 25 years.

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For years, the proposed 2nd Ave. subway has been the butt of New York City jokes. Frequently called “The Line that Almost Never Was,” this phantom subway line has become the poster child for New York City’s bureaucratic and fiscal difficulties for the last 80 decades.

Like Sisyphus pushing that boulder up hill, every time it seemed as though the 2nd Ave. subway was closer to reality, a financial crisis would come along and uproot everything. The boulder would roll back down hill, and New Yorkers would have to wait another few decades for some overly optimistic politicians to tackle the East Side subway line one more time.

But now we have a Mayor in place who wants to leave his mark on New York City in the 21st Century. Mike Bloomberg and his NYC2030 plan have everyone talking about building for a future. This future will, ideally, feature fewer cars but more people in a packed city. So the 2nd Ave. subway line is of vital importance for the success of his plan.

All of this is to say that we may have reached a tipping point for the 2nd Ave. subway line. As amNY’s Tracker blog noted last week, MTA officials now consider the 2nd Ave. subway as an inevitability. Gone is the doubt that has plagued this project since the days of Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt and the heyday of Robert Moses.

So why the optimism? Well, recently, the MTA purchased, for $15 million, a piece of real estate on 93rd St. that is a key piece of the subway puzzle. As Bennett noted in his blog, optimism is reigning supreme at MTA board meetings.

“All of the sudden it turned from doubtful to inevitable and nobody quite know when it happened,” Bennett quotes MTA chairman Peter Kalikow. And that is good news for straphangers indeed.

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Every day, thousands of straphangers are violating New York City Transit’s Rules of Conduct. I’ve done it; I’m sure you, dear reader, have done it too. Sometimes, you just have to get away from that un-air conditioned car with the stinky homeless guy in it. But by moving from one subway car to another, we are in clear violation of Rule 1050.9 (d).

Oops. That’s all I have to say.

For the most part, I believe riders don’t realize they’re breaking the law, and it’s an unlucky S.O.B. who gets tagged by a transit cop and handed a ticket. In 2006, according to The Daily News, transit cops handed out 3600 tickets or fewer than 10 a day. The cops must be catching, oh, 0.1 percent of all of New York City’s hardened criminals who move between subway cars.

Interestingly, though, as the The News reported, about 60 percent of those given tickets had outstanding warrants. What did the MTA have to say about this?

Of the 88 straphangers who got summonses in Brooklyn so far this year, 51 had outstanding warrants, Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne said.

Two had loaded handguns, and two others were found to have knives. Ten had committed crimes or offenses in the subways before, and 26 refused to identify themselves, Browne said…

Paul Fleuranges, a spokesman for the MTA’s rail and bus division, said he wasn’t surprised that “among those who would move from car to car there are individuals who had more than an empty seat in mind.”

And that, folks, might just be the best quotation from an MTA official ever. Fleuranges seems to think that those shifty-eyed folks moving from car to car just might be trying to evade someone or something in their criminal past.

Of course, that just ignores the idea that maybe, just maybe, police will be a little discriminating in their enforcement of Rule 1050.9 (d). Maybe a transit cop won’t give out tickets to 15 people who are trying to hide from a bad odor. Maybe the transit cop will give out a summons to those folks who already look suspicious. And nevermind the racial aspects to these findings (and Fleuranges’ statement).

Just remember, every time you move between cars of the subway, you are breaking the law. Criminals, all of us. Guilty as charged.

Image of the oh-so-effective sign warning against moving in between cars comes courtesy of flickr user Paula Ramírez.

Categories : MTA Absurdity
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