At every bus stop is a schedule, and people waiting for the buses in New York take that schedule to be the gospel truth. I don’t know why.

It comes as no surprise then that the New York City Transit Riders Council has issued an indictment of the bus schedules. The buses, you see, don’t really run on time. From amNY:

A survey by the New York City Transit Rider Council found buses are an average of 5 minutes and 15 seconds behind their published schedules.

Many of the delays are caused by “bunching,” when one, two, or even three buses arrive at the same stop almost simultaneously, the survey concluded.

The report was quick to blame conditions out of the hands of the MTA such as traffic, the weather and alien abduction. It’s certainly not the MTA’s fault that they publish schedules that do not reflect the reality of driving around New York City.

The report also had a great stat about bus signs:

The report also found that 5 percent of all bus destination signs had some sort of problem that “did not correctly reflect the route to be traveled.” Some buses displayed wrong signs, such as “Not in Service,” “Subway Shuttle” and even “Evacuation Center.”

So the next time you see an M104 incorrectly labeled as an Evacuation Center bus, don’t worry; we’re not under attack.

In other bus news, the MTA will roll out a new $7 million GPS tracking system on seven bus lines that will tell riders when the next bus will arrive at their station. This service will be available on the M15, M31, M35, M57, M66, M72 and M116 bus routes with plans in the works to expand it. Hopefully, this fancy system will be a little more accurate than the current schedules.

Categories : Buses
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Nothing screams bureaucracy quite like the Port Authority and the MTA trying to work together to build a ridiculously ornate transit hub in Lower Manhattan. And as we all could imagine, this project has not gone well. First, came the talk of fewer tunnel connectors than called for in the original plan.

Now comes the story we all expected: Cost overruns have led the Port Authority to order a re-engineering of the Santiago Calatrava-designed World Trade Center hub. The Times reports:

Faced with construction cost estimates up to $1.2 billion over budget, the Port Authority said yesterday that it would re-engineer, but not fundamentally alter, the birdlike World Trade Center transportation hub designed by Santiago Calatrava.

The budget was set four years ago at $2.2 billion. The contractor for the project, Phoenix Constructors, now estimates that it will cost from $2.7 billion to $3.4 billion to build the hub, a greatly enlarged version of the current PATH terminal.

For the mathematically challenged among us, that’s an increase in cost of nearly 50 percent.

Now, considering the design of this hub favors form over functionality, I would think that all the parties involved would do their best to sacrifice the gigantic porcupine with a retractable roof (for baseball games, perhaps) in favor of a fully functional transportation hub designed at cost and for the people using the subway instead of for the architectural design boards.

Not so fast.

Calatrava told The Times that he wants to keep the design elements in place while finding others ways to cut costs. Anthony E. Shorris, head of the Port Authority, said the agency would work to trim aspects of the project that are “less visible” than the overall design.

This strikes me as typical bureaucratic foolishness. This transit hub is about bringing people in to Lower Manhattan in an efficient way. At the same time, I understand that those behind the WTC Memorial want to incorporate some aspects of the Sept. 11 memorial into the transit hub. But should we really do that at a cost of nearly $1.2 billion? And should we give up “less visible” parts of this project that may affect commuters and riders more than altering the aesthetic design would? That seems most illogical.

Categories : Fulton Street
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The odds are pretty good this phone doesn’t work. (Courtesy of Flickr user Paololluch)

MTA pay phones are often a last-ditch solution for stranded Straphangers needing to make an underground call.

Just this Monday, in fact, I saw one subway rider walk approach the pay phone with exceptional caution. This woman in her mid-twenties looked to be running late. She peered into the tunnel at W. 4th St., hoping to spot a glimmer of an approaching F train. With no train nearing the station, she cautiously approached the payphone.

The payphone was your typical subway pay phone. It looked like a few drunk NYU students had probably smacked the receiver around a little. There was nothing growing off of it. But this woman didn’t trust the phone. She pulled a wool glove out of her pocket and then lifted the receiver, holding it an inch or so away from her ear. This woman would have no part of this phone touching her.

Into the slot at the top went the quarter…and into the change return slot fell that very same quarter. Surprising no one on the platform, the pay phone did not work. In fact, according to a newly-released poll by the Straphangers Campaign, nearly a quarter of the NYC subway pay phones are inoperable.

Here’s what the public interest group found:

In one survey of 886 telephones at 100 randomly selected subway stations, 29% were found to be “non-functioning,” with problems ranging from no dial tone to coin slot blocked (survey margin of error is +/- 4%). This finding is consistent with 2006 findings when an identical campaign survey also rated 29% of phones non-functioning.

In a second survey, the campaign tested 537 pay telephones in the 25 most-used New York City Transit subway stations and found 22% to be non-functioning.

Noting that the current contract between Verizon and the MTA does not guarantee any minimum number of working pay phones, members of the Straphangers were a bit dismayed. “Given the importance of being able to communicate with the outside world, especially during times of delay and emergency, we’re disappointed the MTA and Verizon removed the guarantee for a minimum level of service operability,” Neysa Pranger, one of the group’s coordinators, said in a press release.

Two of the Straphangers’ findings, in my mind, raise some interesting questions. The group found that all of the pay phones in the stop on East 86th St. were functioning as were all of the phones at the stop on the West Side IRT at 72nd St. But only 29 percent of the phones at the Jamaica Center stop on the E, J and Z lines were working. Do the socioeconomic conditions of the neighborhoods in which these stops are located have anything to do with the pay phones’ operability?

Meanwhile, as plans to wire the subways for cell service have seemingly faded away, it would probably be useful to have working pay phones in the tunnels. You never know when your train line might break down.

Any subway aficionado looking to get around the city quickly has long known about onNYTurf.com’s Google Map mash-up of the Subways and the PATH train. The popular site receivers over 2000 hits daily and has been the best source for all your directional needs and one of the most visually appealing Google mash ups around. Offering a wide-screen bird’s-eye view of New York City with the subway map overlaid on the grid, Will’s map is great for those times when you have to visualize your trip from Bay Ridge to the Bronx, from Forest Hills to Fourteenth Street.

But now there’s a competitor. Last week, John Campbell unveiled his own Google Maps subway map at GypsyMaps. While not related to Gypsies, Campbell’s map features the subways, the buses and directions.

For transit buffs, these two sites are A Very Big Deal. More user-friendly than HopStop and much more visually attractive, these maps are natural competitors. Let’s find out which one comes out the winner in some head-to-head contests.

Read More→

Categories : Subway Maps
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As political leanings go, President Bush and I rarely seem eye-to-eye. But this week marked the rare occasion where I could back, at least in part, some of the President’s budget plans. President Bush, you see, has promised $1.3 billion of federal money for the 2nd Ave. subway.

Speaking in New York last week, Bush acknowledged Senator Chuck Schumer’s new power by announcing federal funding for a rail link between Lower Manhattan and JFK Airport. This week, the President and the Department of Transportation further guaranteed another set of funding for this important construction project and blog namesake. The New York Sun reported:

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters will recommend today that the Second Avenue subway line receive $200 million in federal funds in 2008 and $1.3 billion from the federal government by 2013, when the first segment of the line is slated for completion.

The announcement marks a major step toward ensuring the completion of the long-planned project, which will run to 125th Street from the financial district in Lower Manhattan and ease congestion on the 4, 5, and 6 lines. Phase one of the project will run between 63rd and 96th streets.

This news couldn’t have come at a better time for the MTA which will have to kick in over $2 billion for this plan. Last week, with editorial pages urging maintenance priorities over construction plans, it looked like the 2nd Ave. subway was on a tentative footing.

But the New Starts program, which funds public transportation projects across the country, stepped in. New York City is going to receive a third of the New Starts money in 2008, and going forward, much of this money and future years’ contributions are earmarked for the subway. The rest will go to the LIRR expansion into Grand Central.

So things are finally looking great for the 2nd Ave. subway. “This is fantastic news for New York in general. This is the final step,” Christopher Boylan, MTA spokesman, said. While I think the final step will be the first Q train that runs up the new tracks and along 2nd Ave., this is certainly good news. With drilling scheduled to start next month, we may very well see tangible progress as the 2nd Ave. subway moves from a 70-year dream to a new reality thanks to a budget from a President for which few people in New York would ever vote.

Artistic rendering of a proposed station on the 2nd Ave. subway line from Arup Consulting.

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As The Times called upon Albany to send more money the MTA’s way to bridge the MTA maintenance budget gap, one of New York’s other papers called upon the riders to foot the bill. In an editorial on Saturday that won’t be too popular with the masses, The Post looked at the issues City Comptroller William Thompson raised last week and decided that the solution was a fare hike.

In their editorial, The Post is dismayed at the problems. They agree, rightly so, with Thompson that it is not acceptable for the city subways to be in a state of disrepair for the next two decades as the comptroller noted last week. But The Post, unlike Thompson and my commenters, refuses to lay blame on the suburban commuter rails that receive more than their fair share of the funds.

Thompson’s report is valuable in identifying these outstanding problems. But his claim that the city is being “shortchanged” is dubious.

For one thing, the subways – along with the LIRR and Metro-North – are part of a unified system. And a majority of commuters – who pay hefty fares to get to the city – ride subways to work once they’re here.

The Post, a conservative-minded paper owned by FoxNews guru Rupert Murdoch, is wont to call for taxpayer money for public services such as the subway. In that, their reasoning behind this so-called “unified system” is a bit flawed. Sure, the MTA oversees MetroNorth, the LIRR and the New York City Subways. But the MTA New York City Transit is a separate entity within the MTA. The distinction may be fine, but it is an important one.

In the end, the Alexander Hamilton-founded paper has this to say:

It’s much easier for the city comptroller to “call” for another $673 million from the state, rather than follow his reasoning to a more logical – yet less popular – conclusion:

If there’s not enough money to keep the system’s infrastructure up to speed, perhaps the fare should go up.

Perhaps the fare should go up but not to cover an operating deficit brought on by an imbalanced allocation of monetary resources within the MTA. The Post just isn’t being more logical here.

(Hat tip to the Wonkster at Gotham Gazette. Tokens from NYCSubway.org)

Categories : MTA Economics
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The City Hall stop, open to Transit Museum members this past weekend, evokes the grandeur of another age. (Courtesy of Triborough on Flickr)

Toward the end of last week, I wrote about the financial troubles of the MTA’s current capital fund. Over the weekend, a more influential voice chimed in as The Times ran an editorial in The City Section urging Albany to folk over the funds for the necessary subway repairs.

Here’s what The Times had to say. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it’s good to see New York’s paper of record taking up this underreported cause even if just in The City section.

Underfunded for years by the administration of Gov. George Pataki, the M.T.A. became dependent on borrowing to make up the difference, and it has had to divert hundreds of millions of dollars annually just to service the debt interest. Ever-increasing operating budget shortfalls are projected, approaching $2 billion in 2010. Mr. Spitzer’s first budget seems to do little to change the trend.

All this occurs as the city relies more and more on public transit. Some 7.5 million people ride daily, more than ever before. And as the population continues to grow — to a projected 9 million in the next 20 years — the battle against wear and tear can be expected to further overwhelm resources. The city’s subways are in much better shape than they were in the 1980s, when filth, delays and crime were commuters’ constant companions. To remain that way, and to meet future needs, the system needs intensive care, and a realistic contribution from Albany.

Personally, I couldn’t agree more. New York itself is sitting pretty politically these days. Our Senator with Brooklyn roots just delivered the Senate into Republican hands. A Manhattan representative holds the purse strings in the House. And our governor is a city boy as well. I have to hope that the MTA and the five boroughs can enjoy some of the political pork as spoils soon.

The editorial in The Times also delves into my territory: the Second Avenue Subway. The Times board believes these big projects such as the Second Avenue Subway should be put on hold indefinitely while the necessary upgrades and modernization projects are completed. To this, I say, no. The Second Avenue Subway has been put on indefinite hold for the past 70 years, and it’s time for this project to go forward.

As the trains on the East Side grow more and more crowded, what better way exists to alleviate the pressures on that aging system than by building a new line parallel to that one? While I am no MTA economist, I have to believe that a new line in an overtaxed area may actually lower the modernization costs for the old line because the system wouldn’t be facing the same crush of people as the 4, 5 and 6 do now.

Of course, I know the city needs to maintain the current system so that everyone can keep riding. But they need to find a way to build new lines at the same time. We should be working to find money for both and not just one of the projects. It’s too bad The Times didn’t acknowledge that on Sunday as well.

Categories : MTA Economics
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The 7 line, immortalized by John Rocker, is one of the most popular and important subway lines for the city. It transports hundreds of thousands of passengers from Flushing through Queens into the heart of midtown Manhattan with connections to nearly every other subway line along the way.

And now the MTA will be shutting it down on weekends for the next few weeks as the line is set to undergo some major maintenance and signal work. Riders are none too pleased either because this 7 shut-down will interfere with the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day parade as well. The Daily News reports:

Starting Feb. 10 and continuing for the following six weekends, the No. 7 will be largely shut down as Transit Authority crews do signal and track work, officials said.

The first weekend there will be no trains between Times Square and Queensboro Plaza. After that, there will be no trains from 74th St./Broadway in Queens to Times Square.

TA spokesman Paul Fleuranges said the work is part of the agency’s long-term plan for maintenance and upgrades, including replacing tracks, signals and rickety trains.

Riders in Queens are upset because the work is scheduled to run through March. Thus, Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Day parade will be largely inaccessible unless the 250,000 weekend 7 train riders who live in Queens want to take two trains or a shuttle bus.

What the article doesn’t mention is the poor timing of this event for the new exhibits at the Queens Museum of Art. Just this past weekend, in conjunction with the city-wide Robert Moses exhibit, the Queens Museum reopened the amazing panorama of New York after a $750,000 renovation project. Since the 7 train services the museum, visitors — such as, well, me — won’t be able to go for a few weeks.

While folks in Queens are complaining about the work schedule, the truth of the matter is that these upgrades had to be done now. With baseball season right around the corner, the MTA is under the gun to get the 7 train up and running on the weekends before April 14 when the Mets square off against the Nationals in their first weekend home game of the 2007 season. For once, the MTA might actually complete a construction project on schedule.

Categories : MTA Construction
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A new entrance at one of the busiest stations in the system is set to open this weekend. Just watch the ice. (Wikipedia.org)

Stories like this one are what make the MTA so damn entertaining. Two years ago, the MTA, with the blessing of Vornado Realty Trust, constructed a new entrance for the uber-busy stop at 59th Street-Lexington Avenue.

Serving the 4, 5, 6, N, R and W trains as well as a crowd of workers in midtown and shoppers at Bloomingdales, this stop on the East Side is one of the busiest in the system. So another entrance seemed reasonable.

But for two years, this entrance has sat shuttered with the turnstiles rarin’ to go. Why? Because Vornado Realty, the owners for the entrance’s building, refused to construct a canopy to protect customers from ice falling off the eaves of the 54-story building.

Well, the dispute has been resolved, and this two-year-old “new” entrance will open this weekend. Phew.

Categories : MTA Absurdity
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The BMT’s Chambers Street is one of many stations badly in need of renovation. (Photo courtesy of NYCsubway.org)

With money tight and an aging system in disrepair, it has been a rough week for the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

The bad news started Wednesday with a report in The Times. Never known for its efficiency in repairs, the MTA is already $1.4 billion over budget on a five-year, $21 billion improvement plan, and they are not even halfway through the renovations yet. Here’s what the venerable paper had to say:

Among the projects in that program are renovations to subway and commuter train stations, maintenance of antiquated signal systems, and the purchase of hundreds of buses and subway cars, and many of the projects may be affected, officials indicated.

Much of the problem has been caused by a rapid increase in the cost of construction in New York City, as a result of rising prices for materials and the large number of new projects, which gives contractors the leverage to charge more. In many cases, fewer companies are bidding on projects and offers are coming in much higher than expected.

Another problem is the weak dollar, which appears likely to raise the cost of a contract for subway cars with French and Japanese companies.

While these problems extend beyond the buses and subways, we’ll ignore those pesky commuter rails for now. They’ll take the blame in a little while.

So what’s happening here? Well, most notable are the bids the MTA is receiving. If the MTA estimates a project to cost $200 million but the only bid is for $300 million, the Authority can either reject this bid and re-open the bidding or pay more than they expected. In many cases, the latter has happened.

In the article, Lee Sander, the MTA’s new CEO, has promised to “look at the issue” of rising construction costs, but I doubt he could do anything. But the juicy bit from Wednesday comes from Gene Russianoff, a lawyer with the influential Straphangers Campaign.

Mr. Russianoff said he was concerned that officials might push ahead with such high-profile undertakings while sacrificing some of the smaller projects needed to keep the transit system in good shape, like buying new subway and rail cars and making station repairs.

With the article laying the blame at the high costs of the Second Ave. Subway, the 7 Extension and the (as yet undiscussed here) plan to link the LIRR with Grand Central, Russianoff’s statement is full of contradictions. As the Straphangers have pushed for the additions as well as the necessary maintenance of the existing lines, the position seems irreconcilable.

But not so fast. Maybe Russianoff has a point as the Straphangers attempt to prioritize spending. They aren’t the only ones clamoring for proper funding. The City Comptroller William Thompson has joined the fray nothing that the MTA needs the funds for routine upgrades or riders could face massive service disruptions in the coming years.

He raised the specter of similar disruptions when he released an investigation of the ways MTA investment continues to ignore the antiquated subway system.

“NYC Transit is simply not getting its fair share of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s core capital funding,” he said, noting the city’s system carries nearly 94 percent of all MTA riders but receives just 75.5 percent of funds in the agency’s 2005-09 capital plan. And that “historical” shortchanging has worsened, he complained. Back in the 1992-’96 capital plan, NYC Transit got 77.5 percent.

Remember how I said we would come back to those pesky commuters? Well, um, yeah. It’s your fault our subway system is in disrepair just like it’s your fault that our subways fell into such disrepair as the suburbs became such an important part of the New York Metropolitan Area and the city became the neglected eye sore.

Thompson was a bit upset tonight. He noted that necessary upgrades have been delayed for 15 years and many won’t be completed until 2028. He focused on problems of security and, more simply, on-time train functions. One of the biggest areas of concern is the subway’s antiquated signal system. A fire in 2005 shed some light onto this problem, but as Thompson pointed out, the majority of signals are over 70 years old. The system is antique, and the technology is long outdated. And let’s not even start on the public address system.

So it’s been a rough week for the MTA. But the truth is that it’s been a rough existence for the MTA. These funding problems are nothing new, and next week, I’ll explore an issue that I believe to be at the root for these problems: The history of the 5¢ fare. For too long though New Yorkers have dealt with poor finances in the subway. We need the upgrades Thompson pushes and we need that Second Avenue Subway and 7 Extension. This ride will get interesting this year no matter what.

Categories : MTA Economics
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