In a surprising blow to the City’s plans to develop the Far West Side, MTA CEO Elliot “Lee” Sander has put the plan to extend the 7 line on hold until cost overruns and other financial concerns can be addressed. Sander’s announcement has City Hall on the defensive as the Mayor’s Office won’t promise to fund cost overruns, and Sander won’t jeopardize other MTA construction projects.

The Times reports:

The new leadership of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority signaled yesterday that it had deep concerns over a deal with the city to build a $2.1 billion extension of the No. 7 subway line, saying the authority did not have the money to pay for possible cost overruns or other additional expenses.

“It is M.T.A.’s position that we are under no legal obligation to absorb any additional costs or overruns,” Elliot G. Sander, the new chief executive, wrote in a letter to Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky, a Westchester Democrat. He was responding to a letter from Mr. Brodsky expressing concerns that the project could exceed its budget. Mr. Brodsky made Mr. Sander’s letter public yesterday.

The conflict stems from the original agreement concerning the 7 line. Mayor Bloomberg, in an effort to promote his Hudson Yards project, hammered out a deal with the MTA where the city would pay for construction costs and the MTA would handle the project’s design and implementation. But this deal came with one caveat: The city’s contributions were to be set at $2.1 billion.

Well, as reported in November, the project’s budget was on the rise due in part to a weak dollar and the need to purchase new subway cars from Japan. Now, Sander says the MTA, focusing on the Grand Central Terminal-LIRR railink and the Second Ave. subway, can’t assume the cost overruns, and City Hall ain’t budging.

Deputy Mayor Daniel L. Doctoroff had some firm words for The Times. “Our view is that we certainly had an understanding and that the city would be responsible for all costs up to $2.1 billion and that the M.T.A. would bear the responsibility for costs above that. We’re going to sit down and talk, but our view is, the deal is the deal,” he said.

Also involved in this brouhaha is Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky who oversees the Transit Authority. “If we keep to the basic principle, which is the city will pay and the M.T.A. will build, we’ll be O.K.,” Mr. Brodsky said to The Times. “But right now there are hundreds of millions to almost a billion dollars of costs that the M.T.A. would probably have to absorb that would endanger the Second Avenue line, the East Side link and other parts of the capital program, and that is simply unacceptable.”

So now what?

Well, someone has to blink in this game of New York politics, and hopefully, it will be the City. Right now, it’s clear that those on the MTA’s side are sticking up for this project. Sander has stressed the need for a Second Ave. subway and will not sacrifice these aims for the sake of the Hudson Yards development, a pet project seen as Bloomberg’s baby.

Meanwhile, the City should take responsibility for the funding promises it has made. Already, plans for the 7 line extension may be cut to build to build a station only at 34th and 10th Ave. and a shell at 41st and 11th Ave. that could be renovated into a full station in the future. For the sake of the subway, the City should be willing to kick in money for any projected cost overruns and both stations. A completed projected now will be much cheaper in the long run than the need to complete another station in the indeterminate future.

But for now, our Second Ave. subway is safe. It’s the silver lining in this dark and ugly cloud as two political powers face off over dollar signs.

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A view of the old MetroCard prices. (Courtesy of O-R-G.com and Photoshop)

“Free” is today’s subway word of the day.

The free frenzy started last week when Streetsblog reported on a talk by Theodore W. Kheel. Kheel, an environmentalist who just gave $100,000 to the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility to study his pet project, issued an interesting proclamation: The subways should be free, and drivers should foot the bill for the MTA’s upkeep.

Well, today, this news escaped from the world of Streetsblog as The Post and The Sun covered it this morning. The blogs chimed in during the day with SUBWAYblogger voicing support for the project and Brooklyn Record posing a few questions about Kheel’s ideas.

Let’s dig a little deeper here, and see what Kheel is proposing. For info, we go to The Sun:

If New Yorkers don’t pay a fee to use the police and fire departments, they should not have to pay to use the city’s mass transit system.

That’s part of the thinking of Theodore Kheel, who last Thursday donated $100,000 to the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility to study how a free mass transit system could save money for the city. Mr. Kheel, a 92-year-old philanthropist, environmentalist, and labor relations lawyer, says charging a fee to drive on the city’s most crowded streets would create an incentive for drivers to switch to mass transit. The revenue earned on the streets could be used to subsidize free subways and buses.

On the surface, it’s an interesting premise. The city over services — such as the police and the fire departments — that we as citizens use for free. Or for “free.” The police, the fire department and various other civil organizations are all funded through taxpayer money. Think we’re not paying for that? Think again.

The subways too are funded through some taxpayer money (local, state and federal) and some fare money (but, as SUBWAYBlogger pointed out, not all fare money goes back to the system). So Kheel wants to charge people more for driving on the crowded city streets, and this money would go toward the subway.

At the event last week, Kheel, as reported on Streetsblog, said that the free subway would save the city some money. The how here is up for debate. Aaron Donovan at Streetsblog speculated, “that savings would come in terms of reduced costs for road maintenance, fewer vehicle accidents and hence emergency services, reduced asthma cases, etc” would save money. I’ve also heard some people claim that fare collection is costly to the MTA, but I find it hard to believe that even an organization as inefficient as the MTA and New York City Transit would spend more money to collect fares than they would draw in through these fares.

As the cost of driving goes up, Kheel’s solution would bring more people into the subway. The subway would then become insanely overcrowded, in my opinion, as many who drive out of luxury would stop doing so and turn to the now-free mass transit options. And here is where I see Kheel’s solution breaking down. If fewer people were driving, the revenues drawn in from the increased tolls and new congestions fee would have to off-set a dramatic surge in ridership in the subway. The MTA would need more cars, more maintenance crews, more cleaners and more subway lines. I don’t see how a feasible congestion fee can achieve these monetary goals.

Meanwhile, the local media is already reporting this story incorrectly. At the event last week, Kheel noted that the one-day ridership record set in 1946 stood at 8.8 million. We’ve come close, but we’ve yet to eclipse this number. The Sun, reporting on the event, claimed, “In 1943, when the fare was five cents, average weekday ridership was more than 8 million, almost double what it is today.”

But the most accurate ridership information I could find (in this PDF presentation) showed an annual ridership of slightly more than 2 billion in 1946, largely considered the busiest year in subway history. That amounts to an average daily ridership of around 5.5 million people. Recently, in September of 2006, just over 5 million people a day rode the subways. We’re not that far off from those records.

So for now, this is just a study, but it’s a complicated issue. I’ll pay attention to it, but I’m skeptical. I’m skeptical of the media coverage of this proposal, and I’m skeptical of its feasibility. I am all for a congestion fee; I’m all for free subways. But the numbers just don’t add up.

Categories : MTA Economics
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Long before he took office, New York’s new governor, Eliot Spitzer, had championed capital construction projects aimed toward improving the state’s transportation infrastructure. High on that list of priorities was the Second Ave. subway.

Even at such an early stage, the funding for Spitzer’s goals was far from assured. Upstate representatives to Albany were concerned about funneling so much into a city-centric agency such as the MTA, and the billions of dollars needed to complete the first stage of the Second Ave. subway and the Grand Central-LIRR link were never going to be easy to find.

Now, just a few weeks into Spitzer’s term as governor, the financial outlook for these projects does not look too rosy. In fact, to survive the cutting board, Spitzer may need to step in and deliver the big bucks for the MTA because the MTA’s debt problem may mean yet another postponement for these much-needed projects. The Times Ledger reports:

The problem is that the MTA’s capital program, which runs through 2009 is running over budget by at least $1.4 billion, according to a report first published by the New York Times. As result of heavy borrowing, the MTA faces years of enormous debt starting next year.

The $21 billion program is supposed to provide for not only what the MTA calls its mega projects Ð the Second Avenue Subway, East Side Access to bring Long Island Rail Road trains into Grand Central Terminal but also the purchase of hundreds of new rail cars and the improvement of signal systems and other subway equipment.

Accordingly, Elliott Sander, the new executive director and CEO of the MTA, will do what heads of bureaucracies do best: appoint a committee. After last week’s The Times’ report, Sander decided to investigate the claims made concerning the MTA’s financials. While he and MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow are skeptical of the alleged $1.4 billion overrun, Sander did note that some of the bigger projects could be put on the back burner while routine maintenance demands are met.

For those in New York who have been waiting decades for the Second Ave. subway, it would come as no surprise if this project is delayed yet again. But with the federal government kicking in some money for the Second Ave. subway, I would be surprised to see this new subway delayed yet again. Optimism may reign supreme in hoping for the arrival of a subway line 70 years in the planning.

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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