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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With the promise of free food, WNBC last night lured over 100 New York City bloggers into Studios 6A and 6B at 30 Rock to discuss the future of blogging and television journalist. Set up by Erin Monteiro, the NYC Blogger Summit made for an interesting evening of MSM/Blogosphere mingling. (How much more cliched could I get?)

Sree Sreenivasan, tech reporter and Columbia Journalism School dean, led the discussion as many executives and staffers from WNBC spoke about their ideas to integrate blogging into their coverage and fielded questions from bloggers. For much of the evening, the discussion was all over the map. WNBC, as with many local TV outlets, isn’t quite sure what it wants to do with blogs.

What is clear from WNBC’s perspective is that they want to form relationships with blogs that give them stories. In turn, WNBC will give these bloggers credit and, in the eyes of some of the bloggers at least, legitimize their writing and reporting efforts. Where the talks broke down last night were over the details.

Some of the WNBC execs, it seems, wanted bloggers to give them exclusives. Others, Sree included, stressed that WNBC simply wants to be on the blogger distribution list each writer has for self-promotion purposes. We would become, in other words, the eyes on the street for WNBC.

Meanwhile, WNBC is struggling with integrating blogs into its own site. How does a TV news organization so used to producing something at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. change its focus to present constantly breaking news without upstaging its own product? Print journalists have adapted to the Internet because they had to. The medium of print was too easily co-opted by bloggers who had an audience clamoring for on-demand breaking news. Only recently have video presentations made enough strides to challenge TV news, and most bloggers don’t watch their local newscasts, I learned last night.

The problem I have with the local newscast, as I discussed at the Channel 4 bar afterwards with Brian Basset of The Jets Blog, is that it’s not relevant. Watching a 30-second story about a fire somewhere that affects 20 people and then another 30-second story about a car accident from seven hours ago has no bearing on my life. Another murder, another crime, it’s all part of any urban life, and to me, that’s not news.

What local TV news should cover and what the blogs can cover are the important stories. Tell me in detail what construction cost overruns on the subway mean to me. Show me the weather; show me politics; show me sports. If a local TV news story wants to cover crime, give it to me in context. Was that murder in a neighborhood typically free from murders? Are murder rates rising? Put some time into it.

Just don’t become a media whore like our Fox 5 newscast.

For another look at the evening, The Wonkers from Gotham Gazette was there and wrote up a summary too.

Other than the summit, the networking aspect of the event was enlightening. We sit here all day typing away at our blogs, but hey, real people are behind those posts. In addition to the folks above, I got to meet Chris from East Village Idiot (a daily favorite), Heather from Gawker, Julie from Trailer Spy, Matt from NYC Convergence and a whole slew of other folk. Good crowd; good times; interesting discussion.

But I think there’s still a long way to go before WNBC and other local TV affiliates determine just how we as bloggers fit in with their news coverage.

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That’s The Times’ fancy way of showing us why radio reception isn’t too good underground.

The news out of the subways last week featured yet another setback for adequate underground communications. According to news reports, a $140-million communication system for the New York City police that is supposed to work underground does not. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has ever tried to use a cell phone in the subway.

The Times reported on the problem last week:

Last October, after spending $140 million, the authority completed the installation of the system citywide.

But it has not been turned on.

That is because the Police Department refuses to use it, saying the new system is hobbled by widespread interference that garbles communication and creates areas where radios cannot receive properly. “What you get is distorted audio,” said Joseph Yurman, a communications engineer for New York City Transit. “You can hear it, but it sounds as if you’re talking through a glass of water.”

Fixing the problem may require replacing new equipment with more advanced components at a cost of up to $20 million more. If all goes well and disputes over which agency will pay for the changes can be resolved, the police say the full system could be turned on next year, some four years behind schedule.

According to engineers offering up an explanation for this interference, the problem basically arises from all of the metal found in our city streets. From ventilation grates to pipes and entrances, metal shields much of the subway, and the radio waves pick up interference as they pass underground. Furthermore, nearly 75 miles worth of cables installed for this project have eroded beyond use.

So once again another technological upgrade by the MTA faces cost overruns and and a delayed timeline. And the NYPD and Fire Department can’t agree on the safety of subways. It’s politics as usual for our underground transportation network.

Categories : MTA Absurdity
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The current remains of earlier work in the 2nd Ave. subway tunnel. (NYTimes.com)

My dad, 57, has spent his entire life in New York. He is one of millions of people skeptical that a Second Ave. subway line would be operational in their lifetimes. Can you blame them?

This subway line has transcended history. Originally proposed in 1929, the line has become a symbol of the rise and fall of American urban society in the Twentieth Century. It was the victim of short-sighted policies and poor financial planning by the ancestors of today’s MTA, the government of New York City and the old IRT and BMT corporations. When automobiles and Robert Moses took over New York City, the Second Ave. subway died for the second time in the 1940s.

It was revived in the 1970s, only to mee its end at a broke city. We had no money; we had no presidential support (“Ford to City: Drop Dead”). But we do still have a remnant from that area: some completed parts of that infamous Second Ave. line. Don’t believe me? Just look at the top of this post.

Now, if the news is to be believed, the Second Ave. subway will soon exist. The City, as NY1 reported today, is one month away from construction on this ill-faited and much-needed subway expansion. Allow me to quote, at length:

MTA officials say that in a few weeks, they will award a $333 million contract to build what they call Phase One. “This is real now, and it is happening,” said Mysore Nagaraja of the MTA Capital Construction Corporation. “And we are excited about it.” …

A consortium of three American companies submitted the winning bid for construction work: Skanska USA Civil, Schiavone Construction, and J.F. Shea Construction. They will be formally awarded the contract after a two-to-four-week vetting process.

Then construction work will begin between 96th and 92nd Streets, where a tunnel boring machine will begin drilling the new tunnels.

So this is actually happening. In a few years, the Q will go beyond 57th Street up into areas of the Upper East Side that desperate need subway service. Then, we’ll get the turquoise T. But what does this mean for the folks living along that Second Ave. corridor?

Well, at first, there will be disruptions. But the MTA isn’t exactly using the cut-and-cover method to construct this subway line. Here’s how Nagaraja explained it to NY1. “We are going to be taking two to three lanes for construction,” he said. “And we have to relocate all the utilities there first. And once the utilities are relocated, then we have to make this hole, which is about 60 – 70 feet deep. That is when the machine can be dropped in there and [we can] start assembling the machine.”

Construction trailers and heavy machinery will soon dot the landscape of Second Ave. But then the boring machine will be dropped far underground and the real work will begin as the city finally starts to connect the tunnel sections. We’ll have a new subway line soon enough. My dad won’t believe it until he sets foot in one of the new stations, and I’m sure millions of New Yorkers share his skepticism. But sooner, rather than later, we’ll have to find another ill-fated project to hope for aimlessly. How about a new river crossing?

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When last we checked in on the 7 line extension plans, amNY had just announced, to little fanfare, the MTA’s seemingly under-the-table plan to construt one of the two planned stops. While I was, at first, skeptical of the reality of these cuts, it seems that I was wrong.

Ten days ago, The Daily News noted some rumblings and grumblings about the plan. But the story came to a head today when amNY reported on the planned efforts of transit advocates to bring attention to these plans.

[Nonvoting rider MTA board representative Andrew] Albert and the New York City Transit Riders Council are scheduled to hold a news conference Monday morning along with elected officials to demand the creation of the 41st Street station.

“Thousands of people live in the area. They deserve a station,” Albert said. “Its an insult to watch the trains whiz by your neighborhood.”

Even worse Albert said, the MTA’s own bean counters estimate, that if they build the 41st Street station now it would cost $200 million, but to wait several years to build it the cost could easily top $400 million.

As details have emerged about the scaled-back plan, we can put together a clearer picture of the planned extension. The MTA will construct a new tunnel that follows 41st St. to 11th Ave. and then heads south down 11th Ave. to a turnaround point at 23rd St. and 11th Ave. Original plans called for a station at 41st and 10th and a terminal at 34th and 11th.

But now, to keep the project under budget, the city will build a shell station at 41st and 10th and only one operating station at 34th and 11th. This so-called shell station could then be converted into an operating station at “some point in the future.”

As rider advocates work to deliver a true extension that could serve Hell’s Kitchen – a vibrant residential area in need of a subway stop – Lee Sander, the proactive new CEO of the MTA, said he would take a look at building the station at 41st and 10th now rather than later.

For more on the 7 line extension, check out all of the technical documents at the MTA’s Capital Construction Web site. This track image comes from the Scoping Document.

Categories : 7 Line Extension
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