The Governor's presentation hit the right keywords but can it deliver on its substance?

The Governor’s presentation hit the right keywords but can it deliver on its substance?

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, is our Governor insane or are we, the subway-riding public of New York City, simply being played for a bunch of fools? And how many times can the same governor do the same thing in response to the same problem while being the same cause of the same bottleneck he always is? If I sound a bit cynical, well, I think I have good reason.

On Tuesday, after a week spent claiming the MTA wasn’t his responsibility or his problem, Governor Andrew Cuomo did an about-face and decided that, this week, while the headlines out there are for the gettin’, the MTA is once again his state agency. He took a well-deserved beating from transit advocates, and with the MTA facing mounting problems and a growing sense that the system is collapsing rapidly in on itself, Cuomo, with a rather tongue-in-cheek presentation [pdf] announced that not only will he be dead before the MTA finishes its signal system upgrades but that he may actually try to pretend to nudge the agency toward a faster solution. The whole thing is part of his new “MTA Transit Genius Challenge,” yet another attempt by the Governor to reinvent the New York City transit wheel.

The Challenge is a Cuomo special. It’s a panel that will hear ideas from other people, award someone $1 million in prize money and do nothing with the results. The panel is being billed as part of an “international competition” that will “convene participants from the technology, engineering and business sectors to address the subway’s three most vexing technology and design challenges.” These three areas are: 1) An aging signal system and a replacement plan that’s far too slow; 2) aging cars that are breaking down more often and the slow pace of development and delivery of new rolling stock; and 3) the, uh, lack of cellular and wifi connectivity in subway tunnels. I have no idea how number 3 made that list, but wifi/USB ports/”21st Century Technology” has been a Cuomo fetish for a few years.

(At the same time, Cuomo announced another panel of unqualified experts who are being tasked with solving Penn Station. One of the options they are considering involves turning operations over to the Port Authority. This is somehow going to fix something. I have no idea who thinks of these things, but I digress.)

If Cuomo’s panel idea sounds familiar, well, that’s because it is. Do you remember the 2014 MTA Reinvention Commission? Cuomo convened this panel to advise on the 2015-2019 capital plan and longer-term challenges facing the MTA. It barely met, was stonewalled by Cuomo himself and then released an underwhelming report nearly eight weeks late. The MTA has implemented none of the buzzword-y recommendations that commission suggested and remains very much un-reinvented.

So will this be any different? Early assessments are not optimistic. Max Rivlin-Nalder, writing at the Village Voice, seemed skeptical; Streetsblog wants to see the MTA pay more attention to its internal experts whose voices have increasingly been lost to culture, bureaucracy and brain-drain over the past five years; and Stephen Miller rightly mocked the presentation, which seemed almost to be poking fun at subway commuters and their problems rather than taking these concerns seriously.

I can’t praise Cuomo for taking credit and responsibility for the MTA here because he’s not doing anything to fix it. He’s simply responding to a cavalcade of bad press from The Times opinions pages to the paper’s news coverage to Daily News opinions pages. He’s also not taking on the key obstacles — procurement reform; capital cost reform; and union work rules. Without a holistic approach to MTA reform, we’ll get snarky PowerPoints, a contest that will sputter out, and a promise that maybe the MTA will consider contracting with the person who comes up with the winning idea. Is this a fix or is this just business as usual for a governor constantly talking about reinventing the MTA but not actually doing anything about it?

Categories : MTA Politics
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We have lot of catching up to do, but let’s start with a true statement: Subway service has been abysmal lately. Not a rush hour goes by without signal problems somewhere, delays, rerouting, cramped quarters and unhappy commuters. With no real fixes to the MTA’s problems on the short-term horizon, the agency recently announced a modest plan to improve subway reliability. But without a multi-billion-dollar commitment to quickly overhaul its signal system, the plan — faster dispatching to fix problems — amounts to lipstick on a rapidly aging pig.

While talking about this plan earlier this week, Ronnie Hakim, the MTA’s interim director, told Dana Rubinstein that it “really started with a series of conversations with Governor Cuomo, where he just clearly recognized that from his perspective, subway service is just not meeting the needs of New Yorkers.” Service, Cuomo is reported to have said, is “not satisfactory.”

This sounds very much like something Cuomo, who has recently taken a keen interest in ribbon-cutting and fancy renderings, would want to avoid, and lo and behold, here is the latest via Dana Rubinstein at Politico New York:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, following weeks of service failures in New York City’s subways, told reporters Thursday that his responsibility for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority merely consists of appointing a few people to its board, a responsibility shared by Mayor Bill de Blasio and county executives across the state. The state-run authority, he said, is a “regional transportation system.”

“I have representation on the board,” the governor said. “The City of New York has representation on the board, so does Nassau, Suffolk, Dutchess, Putnam, Rockland, other counties, okay?”

…When asked about that [six-point] plan on Thursday, Cuomo had this to say: “First, I didn’t propose short-term fixes. The MTA did.”

This is not, you may remember, the first time the Governor has tried to distance himself from the MTA’s problems. He tried to claim in 2015, unbelievable, that the MTA wasn’t a state agency because its services are provided downstate. But submitted for your consideration is a screenshot of my inbox:


Cuomo clearly wants to own all the good news produced by the MTA, but when it comes to the bad, he cuts and runs. It’s his MTA when he wants to host a party to celebrate the opening of the Second Ave. Subway. It’s his MTA when the city’s bridges begin to light up. It’s his MTA when it comes to building the Backwards AirTrain or overhauling the aesthetics of Penn Station. But he doesn’t want the MTA that can’t provide adequate and reliable rush hour service and would need to reconsider 24/7 citywide service to truly address its problems. He doesn’t want the MTA we all hate. He just wants the photo ops.

That’s now how this works; that’s not how any of this works. If Cuomo wants to be the man with the plan for New York state, let alone a national leader (Hah. I know.), this mess belongs to him, and he has to own it and fix it. It’s your MTA, Governor Cuomo, whether you announce it or not.

Categories : MTA Politics
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A 14th Street PeopleWay could be a model for other major crosstown thoroughfares in Manhattan. (14ST.OPS)

A 14th Street PeopleWay could be a model for other major crosstown thoroughfares in Manhattan. (14ST.OPS)

When the MTA Board met last week in an unscheduled session to approve a handful of procurement contracts, some good news emerged from the meeting: The looming L train shutdown has been shortened from 18 months to 15. The work will begin in earnest in April of 2019, two years from now, and will wrap before the summer of 2020, if all goes according to plan.

I call this good news, but it’s hardly a great development. For 15 months, over 200,000 daily commuters who rely on the L train to ferry them between Brooklyn and Manhattan will have to find alternate routes. Commutes will be markedly longer, and other train lines will bear the weight of increased crowding and capacity crunches. Streets will be jammed with people trying to find another way to travel, and neighborhoods will feel the effects, in all regards from increased automobile traffic to drastically reduced foot traffic.

I’ve written over the past few years about how the MTA and New York City’s Department of Transportation can weather this looming storm. By expanding subway service on connecting lines, prioritizing bus traffic on key corridors, expanding the bike network and ensuring frequent ferry service on the East Service, a holistic approach to demand management can ease, but not alleviate, the pain. Yet, the institutional silence from the key decision-makers has been deafening as public-facing planning sessions have been few and far between with little in the way of concrete proposals to show for it.

A redesigned 14th St. for people, buses and bikes could help solve the problems posed by the L train shutdown. (14ST.OPS)

A redesigned 14th St. for people, buses and bikes could help solve the problems posed by the L train shutdown. (14ST.OPS)

No one in power seems to be treating this with the urgency it warrants, but that’s not for lack of voices. Earlier this year, Streetsblog focused on the need for a car-free 14th Street and a car-free Grand Street during the 15-month shutdown. Similarly, two RPA officials, in a February piece in Crain’s New York, discussed how the city needs to think big on transportation to solve this problem with approaches that can alleviate the impact of the shutdown and then be exported elsewhere throughout the city to upgrade our transit infrastructure. This is, of course, a no-brainer approach but one DOT and the MTA have yet to embrace publicly.

Meanwhile, at the end of March, Transportation Alternatives unveiled the winner of its own contest to redesign 14th Street. The victors were a group of friends — Christopher Robbins of The Village Voice, architect Cricket Day, Becca Groban and Kellen Parker. They call the plan 14ST.OPS, and it would involve redesigning the corridor as a transitway/peopleway dedicated to only buses, pedestrians and cyclists. Their plan includes five pedestrian malls and numerous other SBS connectors on perpendicular avenues that will allow commuters to and from Brooklyn to access transit services that have priority over private automobiles. Loading zones on the avenues can compensate for the loss of direct access for deliveries, and wider sidewalks will accommodate the increased flow of people.

The Brooklyn Shuttle could connect to the 14th St. corridor via a turnaround on the east side of Union Square. (14ST.OPS)

The Brooklyn Shuttle could connect to the 14th St. corridor via a turnaround on the east side of Union Square. (14ST.OPS)

For transit access to and from Brooklyn, the 14ST.OPS plan includes a new route called the Brooklyn Shuttle that will get dedicated lanes and a turnaround point on the east side of Union Square. Here’s how the team described the Shuttle:

While the west side of the Union Square triangle will be converted into a pedestrian mall, the east side will act as a vital stop for L train riders connecting to the subway station. These riders will have traveled on our Brooklyn Shuttle via a dedicated bus lane over the Williamsburg Bridge to Delancey Street. After a stop at the Delancey/Essex subway station, the bus will continue west on Delancey to Lafayette Street, which will host two-way dedicated bus lanes that extend up 4th Avenue to Union Square. Another stop at Houston Street for riders to connect to the BDFM and 6 trains, and L train riders will arrive at Union Square, where they can transfer to one of the seven subway lines, or our 14th Street Shuttle, or jump on a Citi Bike.

You can read more about 14ST.OPS – and the runners-up in the contest – at TransAlt’s L-ternatives Vision website. These Peopleway proposals are the types of plans though that DOT should be embracing, both as a solution to the L train shutdown and a long-term approach to redesigning streets in Manhattan so that people and transit are appropriately prioritized. With two years to go, time will fly.

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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The L train shutdown is now scheduled for 15 months, down from the original estimate of 18.

The MTA Board is gathering for something of an unusual meeting on Monday. Since a few Board members couldn’t make the last meeting in mid-March, the Board did not have a quorum to approve procurement contracts. So they’re getting the gang back together again for an early-April gathering, and the headline is the L train shutdown.

The news is good for New Yorkers. After extensive negotiations with a variety of firms, the L train shutdown will be 15 months rather than 18 months, and work will begin in April of 2019 rather than in January. The news first came to light a few weeks ago, and the Board will vote to make it official in the morning when they approve a $477 million contract with a Judlau/TC Electric joint venture. Judlau has taken some flak for its failure to adhere to deadlines, but it has delivered Sandy repair projects on time or ahead of schedule so far.

The details of the shutdown remain substantially the same. The MTA will close the Canarsie Tube between Brooklyn and Manhattan for 15 months and will piggyback some ADA work and a new station entrances at Ave. A to the closure. The MTA does not appear to be using this shutdown to perform any other work on the L train’s Manhattan stations — which could include renovations or even an extension of the tail tracks west of 8th Ave. to allow for increase route capacity. Additionally, the MTA and New York City Department of Transportation have not yet released their traffic-mitigation plans, and the slow pace of discussions regarding alternate routing for a few hundred thousand riders a day has raised some concerned eyebrows. Transportation Alternatives recently held a design contest to solicit ideas for the so-called L-pocalypse, and I’ll profile the winning ideas later in the week. Whether 15 months or 18, though, the shutdown looms large, and the next two years will pass in a hurry.

MTA ends trash can-free pilot program

One of the MTA’s on-again, off-again pilots ended for good recently, and it died a death by neglect. With little fanfare, the MTA will soon restore trash cans to a handful of stations that had been part of the controversial trash can-free pilot program that begin in late 2011 and expanded throughout 2012, 2013 and 2014. As recently as 2015, the agency had claimed the program was working as trash collection costs were down and so, they said, were track fires.

But it’s over and done with. As NBC New York reported last week, the agency determined to pull the plug on this project late last year. An MTA spokesperson said, the project ultimately “wasn’t the most efficient way to clean the stations,” and critics of the effort celebrated. “It took the MTA five years, but we are gratified that it recognized the need to end this controversial experiment that showed little to no improvements in riders’ experience,” New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said.

I maintain this project could have been successful, but it would have required a system-wide commitment to removing trash cans and aggressive anti-litter enforcement. Ultimately, though, this isn’t a customer-friendly initiative, and antagonizing customers is something the MTA can ill-afford to do. So the trash cans, and trash collection, will return as another MTA pilot program that never had a path to success dies by the wayside.

MTA Official: Buses aren’t popular because subway service is too good

Even as advocacy groups continue to push for better bus service, the MTA keeps denying that bus service is bad or that steadily declining bus ridership is a concern. Anyone who has ridden a bus lately knows that they stop very frequently, are slow to board and are subject to the whims of New York’s congested streets. Still, MTA CFO Michael Chubak thinks that bus ridership is declining is because the subways are great again. During a recent City Council hearing, he let slip this missive: “One of the major reasons, we believe, is competition. Essentially the subway has improved over the last 20 or so years” and so riders are using subways instead of buses.

There may be some truth to this claim, but Chubak also said BusTime could spur on bus ridership. His seemed to be particularly half-hearted answers that showed a lack of familiarity with the city’s bus network. The problems would be evident if MTA officials spent a few weeks riding buses, but it seems for now they’re flailing about for answers as a key transit mode suffers through a steady decline in ridership.

Categories : Buses, L Train Shutdown
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Subway ridership showed a slight dip in 2016 with the weekends accounting for the decline.

Subway ridership showed a slight dip in 2016 with the weekends accounting for the decline.

After years and years of massive growth, something a little bit funny and a little bit predictable happened to New York City’s weekend subway ridership last year: It declined. This is the first year since the Great Recession in late 2008 led to a subsequent dip in ridership in 2009 that weekend trips have gone down, and although many have pointed to Uber as a likely culprit and convenient scapegoat, it is a symptom, rather than a cause, of the downtown.

The MTA released its preliminary ridership figures at its board meetings at the end of February. Overall ridership was 1.7568 billion for the year, off the budgeted amount by around 2.5 percent and slightly off the 2015 pace. Nearly all of the losses came on the weekends.

During the week, the subways are still very crowded. Average weekday ridership is now 5.656 million, up by around one-tenth of a percent over 2015’s figure, and on 39 weekdays (down from 45 in 2015), ridership was over 6 million. But with a few extra weekend days in 2016, ridership sagged. Weekend subway ridership averages dropped from 5.943 million in 2015 to 5.758 million in 2016, a decline of around 3.1 percent.

As frequently happens in transit and rail circles, Uber took the blame. A Times piece called out Uber in a headline, and the interim MTA Chair Fernando Ferrar suggested that the increasing popularity in cab hailing apps in New York City is putting pressure on the MTA’s ridership numbers. When you consider that Uber’s VC money is going toward artificially deflating fares and a trip from disjointed neighborhoods miles away can cost under $15 as they did this past weekend, it’s easy to see why Uber is to blame.

But are nearly 200,000 New Yorkers each weekend giving up their subway rides because of Uber or is Uber (and other city improvements such as Citi Bike) replacing these subway rides for other reasons? I’m inclined to believe the latter. Now, it’s certainly possible that Uber has led to a decline in subway ridership; you can chart the ups and downs of taxi usage in NYC right here. But to believe Uber is the driving force behind subway ridership drops requires you to believe that nearly every single new daily taxi ride in NYC in 2016 replaced a subway ride. That seems like a stretch to me.

So what’s the problem? To me, this chicken-and-egg problem starts with the MTA and the simple truth that weekend subway service is abysmal, unpredictable and unreliable on a week-to-week basis. These three factors alone would be enough in any other city to torpedo transit ridership entirely. That the MTA’s hasn’t cratered on weekends yet shows how resilient the subway is to relatively poor service and how necessary it is for New Yorkers to get around.

Getting around the city on a weekend is a total crap shoot. Between necessary work and the MTA’s lack of transparency regarding changes, weekend service can be slow and frustrating to decipher. Press releases on weekend GOs are often not released until Friday afternoon, just a few hours before changes go into effect, and signs at stations are an indecipherable mess of F trains running on the Q line but only southbound in Manhattan while shutting buses run in Brooklyn and G trains replace F trains to Coney Island, whatever that all means to the uninitiated. This weekend’s changes aren’t likely to be in effect next weekend when an entirely new set of service patterns are briefly established with the same few hours of warning for most people. The Weekender is a graphical mess, and it’s often easier just to walk, bike or, you know, open up Uber, hail a Lyft or flag a cab. T

hat there are viable replacements shows that people aren’t wedded to the subway if it’s not convenient; they’re not, on the other hand, eating into subway service simply by existing. It’s still cheaper and usually faster to take a subway. That said, if your peer group is a bunch of upper middle class yuppies, Uber will be the easy and relatively inexpensive replacement for subway service, especially on the weekends. It’s up to the MTA to combat this decline by offering either better weekend service or a clearer picture of how weekend changes will effect our rides.

Of course, in the end, even as the MTA budget relies on ridership projections, we’re a long way from the bad old days. Total ridership in 2016 was up 77.6 percent since ridership was at its nadir in 1982. That’s impressive growth, but with a system aging and struggling to expand, it’s not impossible to believe that the only way to go from here is down.

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The Utica Ave. subway extension, a proposal from New York City's history, has reappeared in the OneNY document.

The Utica Ave. subway extension has once again disappeared into the ether of New York City politics.

Half a political lifetime ago, Bill de Blasio seemed interested in extending transit to under-served neighborhoods on his own. He didn’t require a giant push from real estate interests looking to boost property values in already-gentrified neighborhoods, and he seemed on the verge of following through on Mayor Bloomberg’s realization that the city could bypass Albany by funding its own subway expansion plans. That moment involved the OneNYC proposal and the Mayor’s call for a study to assess a Utica Ave. subway.

Perhaps we — the general transit-lovin’ community of New Yorkers who pay close attention to this kind of stuff — got too excited by it. After all, when I went back tonight to re-read my post from April of 2015, it seems clear that de Blasio wasn’t asking for much. He wanted a study of Utica Ave. and committed the bare minimum of dollars to the project. But as we sit here in 2017, the year in which the MTA was expected to spend the dollars for the study, nothing has happened.

As a refresher, the Utica Ave. request was open-ended. The mayor’s proposal called for “a study to explore the expansion of the subway system south along Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, one of the densest areas of the city without direct access to the subway. ” The MTA’s 2015-2019 capital plan took up the call and morphed this request into a study of an “extension of the Eastern Parkway line to provide service on the 3 and 4 lines along Utica Avenue in Brooklyn. The study will be coordinated with the City of New York and may examine extension options, supporting land use changes, and financing strategies.” The MTA allocated the $5 million as a 2017 line item, but nothing has happened.

Recently, two pieces explored just what is going on with the Utica Ave. study. In November, writing for The Village Voice, Stephen Miller found a bunch of nothing happening, and a few weeks ago, writing for Gotham Gazette, Elena Burger found a bunch of nothing happening. I’m sensing a theme. The relevant pieces seem to tell the same story. From Miller:

The MTA told the Voice that before work gets going, it is talking with the city to get a better idea of what the de Blasio administration is looking to get out of the study, before hiring a consultant to prepare the report next year. “DOT is actively working with the MTA and the Department of City Planning on a study of the extension of the Utica Avenue subway line,” a transportation department spokesperson said.

The city might claim it’s “actively working,” but elected officials along the route have yet to hear anything. “It’s really been quiet,” said Assembly Member N. Nick Perry. “Our office hasn’t been included in any of the planning meetings for the Utica Avenue subway, if there have been any,” said a spokesperson for State Senator Kevin S. Parker. “As of yet, there has not been outreach by the MTA or DOT to my office regarding the Utica Avenue subway extension study,” State Senator Jesse Hamilton said in a statement.

Councilmember Jumaane Williams said his office checked in with the MTA after the Voice started asking questions. “We haven’t had much conversation,” he said. “There’s money there for a study. We do want to find out when it’s going to start and get more information about it.”

Three months later, the same people had much the same to say to Burger:

But elected officials and residents have heard little about the planned study — which was scheduled to be conducted in the current fiscal year ending June 30 — and are beginning to voice their complaints about a lack of communication from the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the New York City Department of Transportation.

“I definitely wasn’t consulted, I do know about the study, but I wasn’t told about it.” said Council Member Jumaane Williams, who represents the East Flatbush district where the line would be built. Williams said he had to contact the DOT directly after he learned about the study in 2015, and ask for an update himself. “My hope is that maybe with this new study, they’re trying to get us more involved…but the reality is I don’t think many of us are aware,” he said.

…State Assemblymember N. Nick Perry, whose district includes Williams’ constituency, said he has been given scant information on the proposed study. “I know there’s been a little noise about this, but I haven’t heard anything more,” Perry said. “So far it’s still something in the pipeline and it may be quite a long pipeline.”

An MTA spokesperson told Berger that the agency, along with NYC DOT “launched the study process last year.” It’s not entirely clear what that means as no one really wants to talk about it and politicians have not been involved in the process. We’ll see if anything comes of it.

But just because nothing is happening doesn’t mean there isn’t a lesson here. Setting aside the question as to whether a Utica Ave. subway extension is a better use of dollars than, say, the BQX (spoiler alert: it is), this type of transit planning limbo is what happens when dollars and a champion don’t materialize. Bill de Blasio never really cared about the Utica Ave. subway. Likely, some staffer inserted a paragraph into the OneNYC report and billed as a way to draw attention to increased mobility in a middle income area without particularly robust transit options. The mayor didn’t object, but he allocated the bare minimum of dollars for the project. It seems you can’t even buy a study for $5 million, let alone plans for a subway line.

For a project of this nature — or really any transit project in 2017 — to become a reality, it needs a champion. It needs someone who will make the case for the project start to finish, and more important, it needs someone who deliver all of the dollars for the project and not just a token amount of pocket change to burnish those bona fides. Even more than the BQX, the Utica Ave. subway was a nice bit of vaporware. At some point, there may be a study, but don’t hold your breath for a subway. No one in power seems to care enough.

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

The Willets Point AirTrain is inching closer to reality.

As bad transit ideas go, New York City has had its fair share in recent years. While it shouldn’t have been canceled, the ARC Tunnel featured a dead-end terminal half a mile beneath Macy’s, and it was topped by only the ongoing money pit that is East Side Access, a dead-end terminal half a mile beneath Grand Central. The BQX, likely the city’s greatest bit of vaporware ever, still hasn’t been canceled, and then we have the Laguardia AirTrain in a class all of its own.

The Laguardia AirTrain is the stubborn bad idea that just won’t die. It came out of nowhere in early 2015, and while it could have been a good idea pushed by a strong state leader, Cuomo’s plan sent the AirTrain in the wrong direction. The system would connect LaGuardia with the 7 train and LIRR at Willets Point. So while most LaGuardia travelers just want to get to Manhattan, this thing will take them further away from where they want to go. When the plan first came out, I discovered how, in a true alternatives analysis, the no-build option would be best.

The idea fell by the wayside for a while, but now it’s back. Cuomo, who could have tried to push through an N train extension to the airport, seems intent on realizing this cockamamie transit plan. “The millions of passengers who travel through LaGuardia each year deserve a convenient and reliable mass transit option that connects this key transportation hub to the heart of Manhattan,” he said in a statement a few weeks ago. “We are transforming LaGuardia into a world-class transportation gateway, and an essential piece of the puzzle is ensuring rail mass transit access to the airport. With this action, we’re taking the next major step toward making this a reality.”

The latest announcement concerned the RFP for the entire project. It will eventually involve significant work on the current Willets Point station and construction of the AirTrain over the Grand Central Parkway. Cuomo’s release claims this new AirTrain will provide a ride of less than 30 minutes to Midtown, but that relies on a significant increase in LIRR service along the Port Washington line or an impossible two-way express service on the 7.

The costs meanwhile have, not shockingly, creeped ever upward. What was once billed as a $400 million project is now budgeted for over $1 billion in the latest Port Authority capital plan, but it’s not clear exactly how much the LaGuardia project itself will cost. The budget includes money for AirTrain improvements at both LaGuardia and Kennedy, but the LaGuardia proposal will cost at least $1 billion.

So why is this plan proceeding? Over at The Village Voice, Max Rivlin-Nader offered up his view. He writes, “Cuomo is insisting on the Willets Point connection because it’s the most expedient. By building above a train depot and having the train zip alongside the Grand Central parkway, he’ll avoid any community complaints. And, he’ll finally have a train.”

The problem, of course, is that once this train is built, we’re stuck with it. The N train will never go to Laguardia; a potential routing from Jackson Heights will fall by the wayside. Cuomo won’t be the governor forever, but New Yorkers will have to live with a Laguardia AirTrain routing that makes sense for umpires tasked with games at Citi Field, U.S. Open fans, and the Braves trying to get back to Atlanta. It will, in every sense of the word, become a transit boondoggle, used by few and scorned by many, another arrow in the quiver of the argument that we can’t build useful transit projects at reasonable costs.

It doesn’t have to be like that. Cuomo could use his political capital to push back on whoever remains from the late 1990s Astoria NIMBYs who fought against an N train extension. He could promote something useful and direct, that would benefit workers and travelers. He could leave a positive legacy on Laguardia and its accessibility. Instead, the AirTrain to nowhere inches closer to reality. It just won’t die.

Categories : Queens
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MTA Chairman & CEO Tom Prendergast and Gov. Andrew Cuomo post after the inaugural New Year's Eve ride of the Second Ave. Subway. (Photo via Gov. Andrew Cuomo on flickr)

MTA Chairman & CEO Tom Prendergast stepped down last Tuesday following a 25-year career with the MTA. (Photo via Gov. Andrew Cuomo on flickr)

In the hullabaloo over the opening of the Second Ave. subway, the revolving door that is the MTA Chair/CEO position started to turn again as Tom Prendergast announced that he planned to retire at the end of January, and as January came to an end last week, Prendergast did just that. After 25 years heading up the LIRR, New York City Transit and the entirety of the MTA, Prendergast worked his last day on January 31. He will be replaced by current New York City Transit President Ronnie Hakim on an interim basis with Fernando Ferrer overseeing the MTA Board.

“Ronnie Hakim is ready to embrace the challenge of running the nation’s largest transportation network during this transition. She is a true transportation professional who has dedicated her life to improving the commute for millions of New Yorkers and I am confident that in this new role she will continue doing that as we reimagine and modernize the MTA for the 21st century,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement announcing the interim succession plan.

When Prendergast first announced his retirement in early January, it did not come as a surprise to Cuomo as the two had been taking about it for a few months. Transit advocates and politicians had hoped that the governor would be ready to name a permanent replacement at the time, but instead, Cuomo has opted to engage in a search committee — which includes Prendergast and Ferrer — to find a suitable candidate for the top spot at the nation’s largest transit agency. Joining this committee will be one-time MTA head Joe Lhota, Kathryn Wylde of the Partnership for NYC, RPA Chair Scott Rechler, TWU President John Samuelsen, and former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater.

At one point, Lhota had been mentioned as a potential replacement, but he put this speculation to rest via his Twitter feed:

So who is, then, on the short list? Hakim is under consideration for the job, but according to The Times, Cuomo, who has taken a heavier hand of late with the MTA, could opt for one of his loyalists. Lawrence Schwartz, an MTA Board member, and Rick Cotton are on the list along with NYSDOT Commissioner Matthew Driscoll, Port Authority head Patrick Foye (who desperately wants to leave the PA), Anthony Foxx and John Porcari (though Porcari has told confidants he’s not interested in the job). If chosen, Hakim would be the first woman tabbed for the job.

Prendergast’s ultimate successor though has his or her work cut out for him or her. The L train shutdown is looming large with little public-facing urgency from MTA and NYC DOT to resolve what will be a disruptive situation, and the next board head will have to confront steep declines in subway performance and spiking capital costs while navigating the transit politics of Cuomo which may be well-intentioned but wrongly focused.

So it is again another time of transition atop the MTA. Prendergast leaves with his legacy more or less on the positive side. System-wide subway ridership is up, but he never solved the problems with buses. On-time performance has slipped precipitously, but the MTA opened four new stations under his watch. And he oversaw a period of labor peace (though without enacting any badly-needed work rule reforms). It’s a pivotal time for the MTA (though when isn’t it?), and we’ll have to see how long this executive search can drag on as time ticks toward the L train shutdown.

Categories : MTA
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The new fares  shown in the table here go into effect on March 19, 2017.

The new fares shown in the table here go into effect on March 19, 2017.

At the last board meeting of his almost four-year tenure atop the MTA, outgoing Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast had the unfortunate opportunity to oversee yet another vote to approve a fare hike. For Prendergast, this was the agency’s second fare increase during his tenure, and he missed a third by a matter of days as Joe Lhota resigned from the MTA nearly moments after voting for the 2013 fare hike. These increases have become a way of life for New York, part of the MTA’s fiscally responsible plan to catch up with inflation by raising rates every two years, but this economic reality doesn’t make them any easier to swallow.

For the MTA, last week’s fare hike vote came wrapped in intrigue. The MTA had proposed a $3 base fare with a substantial 16 percent bonus for pay-per-ride card purchases above $6 which effectively made the fare $2.59. But the public could not stomach a $3 per-swipe deduction, and the agency ultimately approved a deal worse for all but ocassional riders and those who cannot afford to buy fares in bulk. The per-swipe cost will still be $2.75, but the bulk discount bonus will drop to 5 percent for purchases of $5.50 and above. The actual cost of a ride, then, will be $2.62 or three cents more than it would have under the $3 proposal. It is perhaps a psychological victory for riders but not exactly an economic win.

For those who pay time-based passes, the increases were a fait accompli as both fare hike proposals included the same increases for unlimited ride cards. A 30-day card will now cost $121, up $4.50 for its current rate, and 7-day cards will see a $1 bump to $32. For those who ride at least 47 times a month and can afford an initial $121 outlay, the 30-day card is the best deal while the 7-day card requires 13 rides. Express bus fares jumped 50 cents, and Metro-North and LIRR riders will see increases of around four percent, all of which are tracked in this pdf.

The new fares will go into effect on March 19, and I’ll have any details on grace periods for 30-day cards and other sunsetting windows as the MTA announces them. The agency, meanwhile, tried to spin this with good news as this year’s biennial increase is a lower-than-expected hike. “The MTA is focused on keeping our fares affordable for low-income riders and frequent riders, and on how we can keep necessary scheduled increases as small and as predictable as possible,” Prendergast said in a statement. “Keeping fares and tolls down was possible because of the continued operational efficiencies and ways we have reduced costs while adding service and capacity along our busiest corridors, most recently with the opening of the new Second Avenue subway.”

Yet, what was notable about the debate of the fare hike wasn’t really around the details of the MTA’s fifth fare hike since 2009 but rather what it didn’t include: any relief for low-income riders. For months, a coalition of activist groups has been pushing the city, state and MTA on implementing a subsidized fare program for low-income riders who are challenged to find the money for transit fares. Depending upon the income cut-off, such a program would likely cost around $174 million per year, in line with the total amount the MTA spends on subsidized student fares. Groups have targeted both the mayor and the governor, but in the grand tradition of the de Blasio-Cuomo feud, the mayor has pointed to the governor as responsible for transit funding decisions and the governor has done nothing. It’s possible to make a case that either the city or state should fund this initiative, and I’m not sure there’s a wrong answer. But right now, no one is funding this fair fare proposal.

And so our rides will get a little bit more expensive in March. It’s becoming the cost of doing business in an era without congestion pricing or cost controls.

Categories : Fare Hikes
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It’s been a few days, and the news hasn’t stopped on the transit front. As the MTA Board prepares to vote for a fare hike on Wednesday — Plan B appears to be in the lead — let’s look at one of the more recent developments: a new labor deal. The fare hike I’ll cover this week once the Board officially votes on that looming $3 base fare.

In the afterglow of the opening of the Second Ave. Subway, the MTA’s peaceful resolution of labor negotiations with the TWU slipped under the radar for many, but after nearly a decade of rancorous back-and-forth, stemming in part from fallout over 2005 and in part with poor relationships between TWU presidents and the revolving door of MTA heads, the two sides have reached something of a detente. By many accounts, this is due to the heavy-handed style of Gov. Andrew Cuomo; he wants to run a smooth ship in New York to position himself for a national run. Whatever the reason, the TWU and MTA came to terms on a deal the day the old one expired.

For the union, the deal guarantees wage increases slightly above the recent pace of inflation, and the TWU has trumpeted the new agreement featuring “No Concessions!” That means no work-rule reform, no reduction in staff and, on the MTA’s side of the ledger, no labor cost reform. TWU workers get 2.5 percent wage increases this year, and another 2.5% on February 16, 2018. A pension cash bonus of $500 comes due in early 2019, and night and weekend workers get a bump in salary. A slate of other benefits, ranging from better shoes to uniform cleaning allowances to commutation passes, were included in the deal.

It’s a fine one for the workers, but some are concerned with how it will impact the MTA’s books. The Citizens Budget Commission released a statement:

“New Yorkers should welcome the news of 28 months of labor peace on the subways and buses, but it comes at a price. The settlement is more generous than the MTA’s financial plan provides and may require higher fare increases than planned or more borrowing to support the capital program. It also means another 28 months are lost before productivity gains from work rule and benefit changes can be achieved.”

Similarly, Nicole Gelinas, writing in The Post, flagged a few areas of concern, the “me-too” clause. She writes:

If the separate unions at the Long Island Rail Road get raises that are higher than what the subway and bus workers just got, the MTA has to “reopen” its agreement with the subway and bus workers, presumably to offer the higher raises. TWU workers want this provision because they make less than LIRR workers. The Empire Center notes that in 2014, the average New York City transit worker made $76,230, while the LIRR worker made $106,103.

But LIRR workers make good money for a bad reason: Federal railroad law governs them, and allows them to go on strike, just like airline workers. That means they can, as they did three years ago, threaten to hold the region hostage so they can wring higher pay. Subway and bus workers, by contrast, are forbidden by state law from striking.

Railway insiders have long wanted the feds to reform the laws that help push LIRR pay so high, so the MTA would have more control over its own labor negotiations. It makes no sense to attack the problem from the other direction: the MTA voluntarily replicating its weaker commuter-rail negotiating position when it comes to subway workers. Plus, as a practical matter, the LIRR only employs about 7,000 people. The subways and buses employ nearly 50,000. It makes even less sense for union leaders who represent a relatively small workforce to set the wages for the much larger workforce. Finally, now that the TWU workers have this provision, it will stay there and govern future contracts, too — unless the MTA “pays” something in the future to take it out.

On top of this new seemingly innocuous clause, the MTA hasn’t released any information on the actual costs of the new TWU deal, and the Board is voting on Wednesday to raise fares. We don’t know how much the new deal will cost the MTA; we don’t know what impact that will have on the MTA’s outright deficit projections; and we don’t know how much this will increase the next fare hike in 2019. (No matter the numbers, it won’t be Tom Prendergast’s responsibility as he’s leaving next Tuesday.)

For the TWU, the wage increases are deserved and well-earned. No one should begrudge a modest wage increase for the men and women who run our subways. But the MTA continues to give away the farm without any concessions on work rule reform; for instance, it’s been years since OPTO was even on the negotiating table. And the people who continue to pay for this are the riders, through higher fares for the same service. It’s an unsustainable model no one is willing to change.

Categories : TWU
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