Is there light at the end of the dispute over the fate of the Canarsie Tube? (Photo: MTA New York City Transit / Marc A. Hermann)

The MTA’s looming L train shutdown is the bad P.R. problem that won’t go away. It doesn’t really have to be like that, as I wrote in January, but the MTA and neighborhood activists along the L train are engaged in a giant game of transit chicken. So far, it seems, the MTA is losing, and as the agency stalls and stonewalls on calls to release more details regarding the state of the Canarise Tubes, it will only get worse for an agency facing the reality of a shutdown for one of its most popular routes.

As we learned back in early 2015, the extent of the L train work is massive. The MTA has to reconstruct all of the systems inside the Canarise Tube and replace the track bad following a flood that saw 7 million gallons flood the tunnel from Ave. D to the North 7th St. fan plant. The tunnel itself isn’t at risk of collapse, and the agency was able to make temporary repairs to enable train service to run between Brooklyn and Manhattan for some indeterminate length of time. But sooner or later, the tunnel will need repairs.

What the MTA hasn’t done is release a report on the status of the tunnel, and emotions in Williamsburg and eastward are running the gamut from worry to flat-out distrust. Over at Gothamist, Miranda Katz wrote a comprehensive story on the dispute between the MTA and its riders along the L train. She writes of the frustration community members are experiencing. “To date we have sent first requests, second requests, and we’re about to send a third request,” Gerald Esposito, CB 1’s district manager explained this week. “We’ve gotten no answer at all from the MTA, and we’ve CC-ed every single elected official that represents this district…Do you think the courtesy of a reply is out of order here?”

Katz had more from the Community Board:

What the community would really like to know is what plans the MTA is seriously considering to make the Canarsie Tube repairs, and whether those plans will suspend L service between the boroughs for several years. The MTA has said that it is not ready to make that announcement. It has committed to holding public hearings with community stakeholders on the matter, but no dates for those hearings have yet been set.

“We’re not even asking [them] to give us a plan at this point, we just want to know what the problem is,” said CB1 member Martin Needelman. “If there weren’t any problems, they wouldn’t have to do it. So the question is, what information do they have that shows what the problems are?”

…Asked whether such reports or studies exist, and if so, why they haven’t been released to CB1, MTA spokesperson Adam Lisberg said, “The MTA has committed to a public meeting with the affected communities, and we’ll have robust communications with all the elected officials, community groups and others that we want to hear from as we develop our plans.”

CB 1 wants the ability to conduct its own studies or at least evaluate the MTA’s assessments, but those assessments haven’t been forthcoming. Meanwhile, considering the extent of Sandy damage, I have no reason to doubt the MTA’s view of the L train, but the MTA still has to make the case to its constituents that any prolonged shutdown is necessary and unavoidable. The agency hasn’t done that yet, and as L train riders worry that the tunnel will, at of the blue, become unusable, riders are in the dark as to the extent and impact of the damage.

The complaints from CB 1 extend beyond what we’ve seen from the so-called L Train Coalition to date. This isn’t about kicking out an unresponsive MTA rep or proposing building a new tunnel first; this is about open communications between an agency that holds the fate of a few hundred thousand daily commuters in its hands. Right now, they’re failing the neighborhood, and as long as the MTA goes without divulging more details, the less credibility they have.

Categories : Brooklyn
Comments (69)

I know I promised an update on the potential New Jersey Transit strike, but I’m still not convinced service will shut down this weekend. It’s been decades since the last strike, and with region warning of crippling traffic and daily losses of millions of dollars, these things have a way of working themselves out at the last minute. I’ll post an update with the service advisories tomorrow night if the negotiations are not resolved by then. In the meantime, we’ll stay in New York City for today’s post.

A day after Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the MTA touted their new wifi-enabled buses as a possible cure-all for the city’s declining bus ridership, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast spoke at a breakfast hosted by the Associate for a Better New York. ABNY is a relatively expansive non-profit that connects New Yorkers from all areas of business, and an MTA breakfast is something of an annual tradition. Usually, the MTA chief gives his version of a stump speech, and that is basically what Prendergast did yesterday. Some of his statements, however, gave me cause for concern. Let’s review the Tweets:

So this is a fairly non-controversial take on the MTA, but it betrays a lot of problems. New York City has planned and is still planning for growth without a proper transit reckoning. The city is trying to rezone for a good number of new units as part of the mayor’s affordable housing plan, but transit considerations are superficial. Developers will be encouraged to fund the equivalent of station rehabilitation efforts to beautify nearby subway stops. Service expansion — which, as any L train rider can tell you, is badly needed — isn’t part of the conversation, and even the One Vanderbilt contributions which are hailed as the paragon of private investment in transit are delivering wider platforms and a new entrances rather than additional service on the Lexington Ave. IRT.

Meanwhile, how many times can we attempt to reinvent the MTA before someone actually has to step in and do it? Just 15 months ago, the MTA Reinvention Commission released its report that didn’t actually reinvent the MTA, and now officials are talking about reinvention again. Any attempt at reinvention should focus around three questions: 1. Why does everything cost so much? 2. How can the MTA lower costs to build at prices competition with international peers? 3. How can the MTA speed up construction and implementation of projects designed to increase current service levels (i.e., signal or automation upgrades rather than megaproject construction)? If those aren’t the primary questions, reinvention is just code for shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.

To be clear, this is essentially saying that ridership growth is happening all the time. Ridership may not be growing at rush hour because, for the most part, it can’t. Sure, we could fit additional passengers in some trains at certain points, but the MTA is closing in on tapping out of rush hour service. The issue now is that subways during off-peak service are nearly as crowded as rush hour trains because the MTA isn’t running trains frequently enough. That’s a more solvable problem than rush hour but one the MTA manipulates away through the load guidelines the agency sets for itself.

That’s a doozy of statement to make in public, and it’s certainly one at which I cringed yesterday. Much like a new paint job and USB charging ports, a nice station with cell service but a long wait for a train is putting lipstick on a pig, and it’s certainly not the approach officials should be promoting in public, even if in jest. But this seems to be where the MTA has settled these days. They can’t adequately address the service constraints without billions of dollars and years of disruptive construction so we get modern amenities designed to distract us from a system that can’t keep pace with ridership. That’s a big, big red flag. Where do we go next?

Comments (31)
Two Millennials tout the advantages of USB ports and wifi on local buses. (Photo via Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office)

Two Millennials tout the advantages of USB ports and wifi on local buses. (Photo via Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office)

Over the past few years, the phrase “lipstick on a pig” has been bandied about so many times that it’s nearly lost all meaning, but now and then, it’s still an appropriate way to describe a laughably feeble attempt to do something. Today, that something is Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s push to improve bus service or make New York City buses more attractive to Millennials or all riders or someone by slapping some new colors on the outside of the bus and adding wifi service and USB charging ports on the inside. Without a commitment to improving bus service, whether through more frequent service, better routing, pre-board fare payments or dedicated lanes, this is the very definition of putting lipstick on an exceedingly slow and unreliable pig.

The MTA’s bus ridership issues have been pronounced over the past few years. Even as subway ridership has shown historic growth, bus ridership — spurred in part by deep service cuts in 2010 that were never reversed — has declined for much of the past decade. Even last year, as the subways saw rush hour expand and ridership hit 6 million on over 40 weekdays, local bus ridership declined by 2.5 percent, and if this trend continues through 2016, ridership on the MTA’s local bus routes could dip below 2 million per weekday.

Over the years, the MTA has wondered internally and publicly why this trend is a downward one. When BusTime, the MTA’s real-time bus tracking application launched, the agency hoped access to information would drive ridership up. After all, an informed ridership should be one that better exploits the system. Rather, ridership has decreased. Maybe informed riders who realize the next bus is 20 minutes away simply choose to walk or take a cab instead of waiting as they used to.

Gov. Cuomo praised the MTA's new three-door articulated buses for their "European flair" and "Ferrari-like" design. The New Flyer-produced vehicles will hit city streets beginning next month.

Gov. Cuomo praised the MTA’s new three-door articulated buses for their “European flair” and “Ferrari-like” design. The New Flyer-produced vehicles will hit city streets beginning next month.

Now the latest efforts at making buses a sexy and attractive option involve elements that do nothing to get at the core of the problem. Following his State of the State tour that involved a mention of state-of-the-art buses, Cuomo, with MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast at his side, unveiled the details. The 2042 new buses, some of which will begin arriving next month, include a new look and feel and feature USB charging ports and on-board wifi. In describing these new buses, the governor said they have “European flair” with an “almost Ferrari-like look,” which led many to wonder if Cuomo has ever set eyes on a Ferrari.

In discussing these upgrades, Prendergast stressed how the MTA is trying to appeal to Millennial riders who, he claims, expect these amenities from buses. “As more and more millennials enter the system and use it daily, these are expectations, not desires on their part,” he said. “Many of the young people using our system today grew up with a smartphone in one hand and a tablet in the other.”

According to MTA estimates, adding USB ports and Wifi service to new buses will cost around $5000 per bus or around $10.2 million overall. For an agency currently working through a $28 billion capital plan, $10 million is pocket change, but $10 million is also enough to restore or expand a significant number of bus lines. And therein lies the rub.

It’s true that these upgrades, by themselves, are not totally useless. In particular, new buses will also have information screens (at an even higher cost of $15,000 per bus) that will show next-stop information, available transfers, weather and, I assume, some advertising. Plus, for those who have long bus rides, wifi and charging stations may be useful features.

But they cannot be the only improvements made to the bus network if the MTA is serious about making buses better. Millennials, just like the septuagenarians who ride the buses, simply want better service first and amenities second. They want buses that are faster than walking and reliable enough to show up regularly and on time. They want buses that move smoother through congested streets and a stop a little less often than ever other block. That’s how the MTA could build a bus network to attract more riders. Wifi, to a certain degree, and USB charging ports are simply elements of window dressing for a redesigned decal stuck on the outside of city buses, none of which all that European or Ferrari-like. It is the quintessential lipstick for a rather slow pig, and that pesky funding question hovers above all of Cuomo’s hollow initiatives.

Categories : Buses
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“How does this make sense?” That is the question Assembly Member Jim Brennan, the chair of the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, asked when faced with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s smoke-and-mirrors approach to MTA funding during a recent hearing. His has hardly been the only incredulous voice throwing all levels of shade toward Cuomo’s proposal, and as we sit in Month 15 of a stand-off over funding for the MTA’s capital plans, planning for work to be performed under the current five-year program has slowed to a crawl.

The problem began back in October when Cuomo announced a funding agreement covering the MTA’s capital funding gap. Along with coercing the city to give $2.5 billion to the plan, Cuomo promised around $8 billion of additional state funding, but he was ambiguously vague about the source of the money. A noted motorist, Cuomo has never tried to use his political capital to push through any congestion pricing plan or Sam Schwartz’s tolling plan, and transit advocates and economists were concerned Cuomo would force the MTA to fund the capital plan through debt. The $8 billion, in other words, wasn’t really there at all, and the state would simply enable more MTA borrowing.

That is essentially what’s happened but worse. In his budget release [pdf], The state’s additional contributions beyond an initial grant of $1 billion would, as Cuomo noted, be available to the MTA only “after MTA capital resources planned for the capital program…have been exhausted,” and the state anticipated fulfilling its funding pledges for the 2015-2019 capital program by 2025-2026. For those keeping score at home, 2025 is supposed to be the launch year for the MTA’s second five-year program after the one currently under endless review.

With the measure also increasing the MTA’s debt ceiling to $55 billion for capital expenditures from 1992-2019, it’s clear that the governor wasn’t too interested in ponying up the billions in a way that would prevent future pressure on the MTA’s operating costs in the form of ever-increasing debt service obligations. Thus, his October promise was anything but a promise and simply consisted of debt, debt, and more debt. The capital program, meanwhile, still hasn’t been approved, and the MTA can’t spend money on needed projects yet.

No one watching the watchers is too happy about Cuomo’s proposal. Brennan pushed MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast a few weeks ago on sources for the money, but Prendergast’s lack of concrete answers pushed the legislators toward pointed criticism. “At some point,” Brennan said, “it would be nice to see a proposal from this person who’s the elected leader of the state.”

Senator Marty Golden was similar skeptical. “I have no idea how we can actually do a capital program and actually approve a capital program with language that it’ll be there when you need it. Corporate America would laugh at this. Any country would be surprised with this type of approach in funding.”

Advocates have written pleading op-eds urging the Governor to right this wrong, and the New York City Independent Budget Office has thrown up some serious red flags as well [pdf]. In a report released late last week, the IBO warned that both the city and state are likely to delay their actual contributions until the MTA exhausts its borrowing capabilities and then delays repayment until 2025-2026. This, in turn, could affect access to federal funding, delay budgetary considerations until after the next rounds of state and city elections and jeopardize actual contributions to the 2020-2024 plan, if not that plan in its entirety (which, by the way, is when I would expect to see the bulk of Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway receiving funding).

The state and city have continued to push back on this narrative by claiming their budgetary contributions are “iron clad,” but it’s hard to take Cuomo or Mayor Bill de Blasio as their words. They have hardly been transit boosters before, and the budgetary shenanigans are just another way to stick it to New York City’s transit riders without tackling the larger issues of mobility and capital funding. It’s the same old song and dance, and 15 months after the capital program was due to start, we are still no closer to a real solution.

Categories : MTA Economics
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The MTA is working to “fast-track” Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, the norther extension shown here in blue.

With Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway set to wrap later this year, in an ideal world, Phase 2 would be well under way now. The original proposal for the line contemplated a far more compressed construction schedule with work on multiple phases at the same time. There is no reason, for instance, other than money, why Phases 2 and 3 can’t begin concurrently. Yet, here we are, near the end of Phase 1, and the most exciting news is word that the MTA is going to follow through with its promises to “fast track” Phase 2.

The latest development came on Friday, but first let’s recap. When the MTA unveiled the 2015-2019 capital plan, the proposal included $1.5 billion for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway with the promise that actual construction would begin toward the end of the five years. Then, late last year, thanks to delays in approval, the MTA chopped $1 billion from the SAS proposal, and New Yorkers were upset. The MTA later promised to accelerate Phase 2 if possible.

Meanwhile, the MTA’s five-year capital plan still remains unfunded thanks in large part to smoke-and-mirrors accounting on the part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (more on that issue later this week), but the MTA is forging ahead with Phase 2 acceleration efforts. On Friday, the agency released two procurement documents that will usher in design and engineering work for Phase 2 [pdf] as well as operations for a community center for Harlem segment of this new subway line [pdf]. Much of the work will involve refreshing the environmental impact statement and planning and finalizing design options for subsequent bids. It’s all fairly modest as work goes but a very necessary first step in moving forward.

In announcing this new work, the MTA reiterated its commitment to Phase 2 and projected awarding these contracts over the summer. “Our goal is to fast-track Phase 2 to every extent possible, and if these efforts to speed up the project timetable are successful, the MTA will amend our Capital Program and seek additional funds to begin heavy construction sooner,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast, echoing comments he made earlier in the week in Albany. “With the opening of first phase of the Second Avenue Subway planned for the end of this year, we are taking steps to ensure a seamless transition to the next phase of work ahead.”

I’m glad to see the MTA’s commitment to this important section of the plan survive. The plan calls for new stations at East 106th and 116th Sts. and 2nd Ave. along with a curve west to a connection with the Lexington Ave. IRT at 125th St. and tail tracks to 129th St. that could one day serve the Bronx. It’s perhaps the most vital part of the Second Ave. Subway, but it’s still a long way off.

The MTA doesn’t, as I mentioned, have an approved capital plan yet, and the agency doesn’t have the money to spend on these awards yet. They’re also still the same agency that has trouble meeting deadlines and builds projects that are exponentially more expensive than similar work the world over. If this phase is going to cost $5.5-$6 billion, as MTA Capital Construction President Michael Horodniceanu predicted in November, we have bigger problems to worry about than whether construction will begin in early 2019 or early 2020.

But either way, this project will lumber forward, and perhaps, we’ll have half of the Second Ave. Subway before the 100th anniversary of the original proposal to build a subway underneath that part of the East Side.

Comments (151)

As an administrative note, the system I’ve used for years to send out emails of new Second Ave. Sagas posts at around 7 a.m. Eastern time every morning stopped working about a week ago, and I can’t figure out why. It’s an old Google product that isn’t supported these days, and the time has come from me to migrate to something more reliable. I’ll tackle that project over the weekend, and everyone wondering where my emails have gone should see a familiar sight in their inbox on Monday morning. For those who don’t get the emails, I’ll provide a link when the new system is ready to go.

Meanwhile, the weekend service advisories…

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, March 4 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 7, 1 service is suspended in both directions between 14 St and South Ferry. Free shuttle buses provide alternate service between Chambers St and South Ferry. 23 trains run local between 34 St-Penn Station and Chambers St.

From 9:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Saturday, March 5 and Sunday, March 6, the last stop for some 1 trains headed towards Van Cortlandt Park-242 St is 137 St. To continue you trip, transfer at 137 St.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, March 4 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 7, Downtown 1 trains run express from Van Cortlandt Park-242 St to 215 St.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, March 4 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 7, 2 trains run local in both directions between Chambers St and 34 St-Penn Station.

From 3:45 a.m. Saturday, March 5 to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, March 6, 2 service operates in two sections:

  • Between Flatbush Av-Brooklyn College and E 180 St, and via the 5 to/from Eastchester-Dyre Av
  • Between E 180 St and Wakefield-241 St. To continue your trip, transfer at E 180 St.

From 3:45 a.m. Saturday, March 5 to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, March 6, E 180 St-bound 2 trains run express from Wakefield-241 St to E 180 St.

From 6:30 a.m. to 12 Midnight, Saturday, March 5 and Sunday March 6, 3 trains run local in both directions between Chambers St and 34 St-Penn Station.

From 3:45 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. Saturday, March 5, and from 9:45 p.m. Saturday, March 5 to 9:30 a.m. Sunday, March 6, 5 Shuttle service is replaced by 2 trains between Eastchester-Dyre Ave and E 180 St.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, March 5 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 7, Pelham Bay Park-bound 6 trains run express from 3 Av-138 St to Hunters Point Av.

From 5:45 a.m. to 12 Noon Saturday, March 5, and Sunday, March 6, Flushing-Main St bound 7 trains run express from 74 St-Broadway to Mets-Willets Point.

From 12:01 p.m. to 11:59 p.m. Saturday, March 5, and Sunday, March 6, Flushing-Main St-bound 7 trains run express from Queensboro Plaza to Mets-Willets Point.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, March 5 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 7, A trains are rerouted via the F line in both directions between W 4 St-Wash Sq and Jay St-MetroTech.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, March 5 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 7, A trains run local in both directions between W 4 St-Wash Sq and 59 St-Columbus Circle.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, March 4 to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, March 6, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, March 6 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 7, Brooklyn-bound A trains run express from 125 St to 59 St-Columbus Circle.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, March 4 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 7, Manhattan-bound A trains skip 104 St.

From 6:30 a.m. to 11:45 p.m. Saturday, March 5 to Sunday March 6, Brooklyn-bound C trains Brooklyn-bound C trains run express from 125 St to 59 St-Columbus Circle.

From 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, March 5 to Sunday March 6, C trains are rerouted via the F line in both directions between W 4 St-Wash Sq and Jay St-MetroTech.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, March 5 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 7, Norwood-205 St bound D trains skip 14 St and 23 St.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, March 4 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 7, E trains are rerouted via the F line in both directions between 21 St-Queensbridge and W 4 St-Wash Sq. Free shuttle buses run between Court Sq-23 St and 21 St-Queensbridge, stopping at Queens Plaza.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, March 5 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 7, E trains run local in both directions between Forest Hills-71 Av and 21 St-Queensbridge.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, March 5 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 7, F trains run local in both directions between Forest Hills-71 Av and 21 St-Queensbridge.

Categories : Service Advisories
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An American flag hangs over the half of the PATH Hub still closed to people. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

An American flag hangs over the half of the PATH Hub still closed to people. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

I have a series of posts on a few topics that I have in the works, including an important one on the smoke and mirrors behind Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s phony pledge to support the MTA’s capital budget, another on the potential for a looming New Jersey Transit strike, a third on the faulty logic behind the latest effort to revive the F express in Brooklyn, and a fourth on the MTA’s victory in a First Amendment case over transit advertising. But — and you knew there was a “but” coming — I’ve been busy with work and fighting a cold all week. Instead, I’ll leave this list up as a reminder to myself to tackle them soon and a tease for you to come back next week.

So tonight, let me offer a few thoughts on the new World Trade Center PATH Transportation Hub/Oculus/Calatravesty/whatever you want to call it. After the part of the building opened on Thursday at 3 p.m., I swung by on the way home from work today. As it stands now, it’s quite a structure. It’s blindingly white, even at night, with long hallways, high ceilings, and a profound sense of emptiness. The columnless structure of the Oculus with its ribs reaching for the stars feels endlessly vast and cathedral-like. All of the people were who were milling about, either to take photos or get to their PATH train, were doing so in a hushed tone usually reserved for religious buildings.

The inside of the Oculus is an overpowering empty space. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

The inside of the Oculus is an overpowering empty space. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

As it stands now, half-finished and half-opened, it’s also noticeably vacant. The main hall, which isn’t so much a waiting room as it is a vast and expensive passageway, is ringed with what will eventually be storefronts, but the commercial space isn’t ready. It is nearly impossible to judge the building and its form and function until the mall opens because it is a mall first and a transit center second. Since the Downtown Hudson tubes, well over 100 years old, weren’t shifted eastward, the Oculus isn’t above the platforms but rather serves as the main attraction on an underground walk that will eventually span from Brookfield Plaza to the Fulton St. Transit Center. It’s not quite a train station; it’s not quite a subway stop; and it’s not quite a mall. But it’s more the third than the first two.

One element of the building stuck out at me, and it’s something I’m sure Santiago Calatrava must hate as well. As the silence fills the Oculus, the only sounds are the constantly repeating and far-too-loud instructions emanating from speakers in the numerous escalators that ring the structure. Stand forward; walk lively; don’t run; hold the handrail; keep children in your sight: don’t use the escalators for oversized luggage; and on and on and on and on through the night. I don’t know if these stem from fear of a negligence lawsuit or ADA requirements, but they could not be more disruptive or annoying to ethos of the building. If they’re not mandated message, turn them off. We all managed to use escalators just fine yesterday; we’ll do great without hand-holding announcements tomorrow.

At mezzanine level, the vacant commercial space looms above the Oculus' main floor. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

At mezzanine level, the vacant commercial space looms above the Oculus’ main floor. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

Finally, there is still the matter of this structure as a train station, and so far, the early concerns about narrow staircases leading to platforms that cannot handle peak-hour crowds remain a glaringly obvious problem with something that was supposed to be a selling point. How did the Port Authority fail to construct enough staircases that also wide enough to handle people flow? Why did the train station elements of the building come last?

Needless to say, my thoughts don’t touch upon the leaks that have plagued parts of the building still not open to the public, the constant need to clean and buff the slippery floors, or the cost. That’s the $4 billion white marble and steel elephant in the room. But even though the building hasn’t yet fully grown into itself, I’d urge you to check it out. It is certainly a sight to see. Plus, you can take some fun selfies.

No trip to the PATH Hub is complete without an obligatory selfie.

No trip to the PATH Hub is complete without an obligatory selfie.

Categories : PANYNJ
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The public will get its first view of the Calatrava train station when the Port Authority opens its Oculus at 3 p.m. today. (Photo via @WTCProgress)

Later today, at around 3 p.m., some of the World Trade Center PATH Hub’s Oculus building will open to the public. It’s a $4 billion project that has been delayed for years, and its opening is almost a sigh of relief rather than a celebratory moment. What’s clear is that the Port Authority is overstating the building’s importance and using ridership figures from the soon-to-be connecting Fulton St. subway station to bolster the projections of the number of people who may pass through the Hub’s free passageways. What’s also clear is that I’ve used the Hub as a whipping boy, fairly or not, for the region’s inability to prioritize and spend properly.

Over the past few years, I’ve been accused of being unable to see the forest for the trees. As some commenters have stated, they feel I wouldn’t be happy unless we build utilitarian boxes a la grungy Penn Station and spend the billions on capacity and capacity alone. To defend myself, I don’t believe that’s true. We should be able to build great public spaces while also expanding transit capacity at the same time, but I don’t have a magic formula in mind. Can we spend $1 billion — an absurd amount by itself — on architecture to every $3 billion we spend on expansion? That seems reasonable, but for $4 billion, we’re getting great architecture with no expansion. That’s where I draw the line.

Today is essentially the last day for us to really take stock of the PATH Hub. Once it opens and becomes a part of the fabric of New York City rather than a construction site, we forget about the problems, the delays, the costs. Still, as future generations of New Yorkers look to expand our transportation footprint and even as a few miles up north, Gov. Andrew Cuomo prepares for a $3 billion overhaul of Penn Station that may or may not accompany an increase in capacity, we can draw lessons from the Calatrava Hub. As soon-to-depart PA head Patrick Foye has noted, with transit dollars so scarce, it’s important not to waste them.

I’m not going to link to every review, good or bad, that comes out about the PATH Hub over the next few days, and eventually, I’ll make my way over there to be dazzled by the blinding brightness of a $4 billion building made out of steel fabricated in Italy. I do think that Paul Goldberger’s review in Vanity Fair is worth the read, but a few paragraphs in particular stood out to me. Architecturally, Goldberger compares its impact to the Saarinen TWA terminal and writes of the space:

The Oculus…is the exhilarating nave of a genuine people’s cathedral. It is a room that soars; under a great arc of glass, Calatrava has put together curving ribs of steel to make a space that is uplifting, full of light and movement, and capable of inspiring something that has been in particularly short supply at Ground Zero, which is hope.

I’m not saying that to suggest that the Hub is a monument to the noblest ambitions of humankind. It is, after all, a train station bred to a shopping mall, and unlike Grand Central Terminal, where most of the shopping and restaurants are tucked into secondary spaces, at the World Trade Center the stores ring the monumental space. This place cost billions of dollars of public money, and it’s still a shrine to the commercial marketplace. I wish it were otherwise. But that doesn’t destroy the impact of the architecture, or negate the fact that this is the first time in a half a century that New York City has built a truly sumptuous interior space for the benefit of the public…

Back when the 9/11 memorial opened a few years ago, I recall Michael Bloomberg saying something to the effect that people only complain about cost and delays when a project is underway; that once it is done, if it is any good, they forget all of that and pay attention to the thing itself. The Transportation Hub and its Oculus will put the Bloomberg Doctrine to a test, but I suspect it will pass, and that a couple of years from now, we will be hearing not about what this thing cost or about how long it took to build, but about how much people like walking through it. I certainly hope so, since nothing would be worse than to have it provoke a backlash against spending money on infrastructure. At a time when this country spends far less on public works than it should, the Hub is a rare exception to the trend. Its best legacy would be to encourage us to take more chances, and to recognize that investing in the public realm isn’t throwing away money. It is investing in the future, a gift from our generation to the ones that follow.

I appreciate Goldberger’s words, and as I chewed them over throughout the day on Wednesday, I worried that we might forget the transportation element of this project. We certainly do need to spend on public works and integrate them into our transportation infrastructure. After all, a nicer train station is one that draws people to the services it offers, but at the same time, we cannot invest all of the public money in form over function. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, that’s what happened at the World Trade Center site. Let’s build great public spaces without sacrificing all of the dollars to the need for beauty as without expansion we will go and grow nowhere.

Categories : PANYNJ
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Ads in a closed entrance along the G train illuminate just when the entrances closed. (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

For the past few years, as subway ridership has exploded, entrances that were closed during the bad old days have come under scrutiny. Neighborhood groups have called upon the MTA to reopen these entrances — many of which are along the suddenly popular G, J/M/Z and L lines — and I’ve looked at these entrances numerous times over the past few years (take a look at my posts from November and January of 2015 for recent coverage). Now, one tireless advocate wants to use the L train shutdown as the impetus to open these new entrances, and his is a plan the L Train Coalition and MTA should adopt.

Alan Minor, a board member with Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, a community group focusing on Williamsburg and Greenpoint, has long pushed the MTA reopen entrances. The closed access points, often long blocks away from main entrances, would shorten commutes and better distribute riders along crowded platforms. But for various reasons, the MTA has resisted these calls. Now Minor feels the looming L train shutdown would give the agency the perfect excuse to reopen these entrances.

DNA Info reported on Minor’s work earlier this week. Gwynne Hogan had more on the ten closed entrances and 27 shuttered staircases throughout the small pocket of Northern Brooklyn:

While advocates have been working with local politicians to push the MTA to reopen the defunct staircases and entrances for years citing surging ridership, news that L train service will be disrupted between Manhattan and Brooklyn for between 18 months and three years has given them a renewed sense of urgency, they said.

“This is an opportunity for MTA to do something now that will help out when the L train shut down happens,” said Alan Minor… “More people will be taking the J, M, Z. More people will be taking the G. These lines have just a shockingly high number of closed entrances and staircases.”

…Take the Metropolitan and Lorimer G and L stop, a transfer station that could see a huge bump in riders switching to the G train if the L doesn’t run into Manhattan. That Williamsburg station has six closed staircases and one closed entrance, according to the MTA. On either side of Union Avenue where Hope and Powers streets intersect it, there are two yellow grates emblazoned with the words “Subway Keep Clear.” On the corner of Grand Street and Union Avenue, there’s another metallic grate with the same words, and across Union from that, Minor suspects, is one staircase that’s been sealed with concrete.

In response to the article, the MTA reiterated its noncommittal position on closed entrances. “As part of our efforts to accommodate growing ridership, we are studying and evaluating closed access points throughout the subway system and we’re looking at every idea for how to provide alternate service to L customers during any potential shutdown,” the agency said in a statement to DNA Info.

As I understand there are two major barriers to reopening these entrances. First, as I’ve explored in the past, the MTA is worried that ADA requirements trigger full accessibility if these entrances are opened, and the agency cannot afford full accessibility build-outs for these stations. Whether any group with standing is capitalized enough right now to take the MTA to court over ADA violations remains an open question, but with the government breathing down the MTA’s neck, the agency may be hesitant to so blatantly flaunt ADA requirements.

Second, from what I’ve been told, the MTA may not have enough equipment on hand to reopen entrances that have been closed for a long time. Due to the opening of the 7 line extension and the impending-ish debut of the Second Ave. Subway, all MetroCard turnstiles are spoken for, and the agency doesn’t have a bunch of HEETs in a closet somewhere. Consider the institutional desire to move beyond the MetroCard and not spend much money on an obsolete technology, the MTA doesn’t want to open entrances closed before the advent of the MetroCard without fare payment equipment on hand, and they don’t want to pony up big bucks for turnstile technology with a five-year expected life span. So these entrances remain in limbo.

While the L train coalition has busied itself with pie-in-the-sky proposals for a new East River subway tunnel, this is the kind of improvement the group should be focusing on. If the MTA can help disperse some customers, making up for the lost capacity of the L train tunnel gets incrementally easier. It’s a baby step but a step nonetheless, and it will take many steps to overcome the dreaded L train shutdown.

Categories : Brooklyn
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Some Staten Islanders hope to bring light rail to the borough via the West Shore ROW. (Source: SIEDC)

When Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his Brooklyn-Queens light rail proposal earlier this month, various commentators latched onto the selection of the route. It may not necessarily be a bad routing for a light rail line, but as the city’s first and as the city’s transit deserts go, the waterfront from Sunset Park to Astoria is hardly the most wanting corridor. The proposal came about more because it had deep-pocketed champions willing to fight for it. Whether that’s reason enough to build a new transit route with a new-to-New York transit mode has been a topic of constant debate over the past few weeks, but one thing is for sure: Other transit-starved areas aren’t too happy with this approach.

Enter the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation. For years, the SIEDC has been shouting into the void of New York politics. For years, the group has been urging someone in power to take up their calls for a West Shore light rail line. The group has asked for $5 million to perform the alternatives analysis for a proposed 13.1-mile route that could connect to North Shore transit corridor and over the Bayonne Bridge to the Hudson Bergen Light Rail Line. As now, it’s nothing more than a line on paper, and the group is growing frustrated.

They are so frustrated, in fact, that they are threatening to give up. I’m not sure who this threat is directed toward other than the few people at the SIEDC who keep fighting this good fight, but they’re going to give up if no one continues to listen to them. The group sent a letter to a bunch of city officials involved in the Brooklyn-Queens Connector initiative, and as you can see from the excerpts, they are not a happy group right now. Anna Sanders of the Staten Island Advance put together some of the letter:

“A decade of struggle in a world where state and city agencies and transportation groups don’t care about a population center of nearly half a million is just too much to bear,” board directors Ralph Branca, Stanley Friedman and Robert Moore recently wrote to a slew of transportation officials and regional planning organizations…

“Our disappointment is not in the fact that Brooklyn is getting a light rail and that Staten Island is not even getting study money. It’s that all of the excuses used by City, State and Federal agencies and authorities to shoot down the West Shore Light Rail were ignored when proposing the Brooklyn system…”

“We have heard for years that there was ‘No money to fund the West Shore Light Rail.’ Obviously, someone in City Hall found a creative way to make it happen. We have been told that ‘The route is too long, maybe you should phase it in.’ The Brooklyn proposal is the exact same distance as the West Shore Light Rail. We have been instructed time and time again that ‘No agency wants to sponsor, nor do they understand how to build light rail.’ Well, someone must be interested and have the knowledge … when Brooklyn and Queens ask for it.”

Oddly, the letter ends with a threat to abandoned the light rail efforts if no money materializes by the end of September, but that threat hurts only the people who are advocating for a West Shore light rail alternative in the first place. SI politicians who have expressed similar frustration haven’t thrown quite the same temper tantrum. Meanwhile, the Staten Island Advance, while also questioning the SIEDC’s threat, wrote a long editorial accusing the city of double standards and inequity. They’re not wrong, and the piece is well worth a read.

But ultimately, this issue is basic politics. First, Staten Island isn’t exactly a de Blasio stronghold, and certain borough politicians have spent as much time obstructing transit improvements (such as Select Bus Service) as others have spent fighting for more options. Additionally, a light rail line through Staten Island should spur a massive upzoning along its route, and that’s not really part of the conversation Staten Island has had yet. Finally, the reality is that there are no interests behind the a West Shore light rail line. Major players in New York’s development and transportation scene haven’t voiced support, and so it goes nowhere.

Rather than being discouraged by the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, the SIEDC should look to emulate that model and line up monied interests who would support a Staten Island light rail. That’s the political reality of New York’s transportation world where the MTA is controlled by Albany and the mayor isn’t an independently wealthy billionaire beholden only to the limit of his own bank accounts. Again, whether that’s a sound way to engage in transportation planning is a question open debate (and one where the answer is most likely a resounding no), but that’s where we are. Rather than threatening to give up, double down.

Categories : Staten Island
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