Opening Day means a run of the Lo-V trains up the Lexington Ave. IRT. (Photo courtesy of NYC Transit)

Whether it be Passover, Good Friday and Easter, or Opening Day, Transit's weekend work stops for no holiday. Speaking of Opening Day, on Monday at 11:30, you can ride the Nostalgia Train from Grand Central to Yankee Stadium for Masahiro Tanaka and the Bombers' return to the Bronx. I won't be on that train as I'm likely taking a later one, but I know more than a few of you may try to hop on that for the photo op. Meanwhile, the following, as always, come to me from the MTA. Travel accordingly.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, Van Cortlandt Park-242 St bound 1 trains run express from Chambers St to 14 St.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 6:00 a.m. Sunday, April 5, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, April 5 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, Wakefield-241 St bound 2 trains run express from Chambers St to 14 St.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, April 5, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, April 5to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, New Lots Av-bound 4 trains run express from 125 St to Grand Central-42 St.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall bound 6 trains run express from 125 St to Grand Central-42 St.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 4:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, Pelham Bay Park bound 6 trains run express from Parkchester to Pelham Bay Park.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, April 5, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, April 5 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, Brooklyn-bound bound A trains run express from 59 St-Columbus Circle to Canal St.


From 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, April 4 and Sunday, April 5, Euclid Av-bound C trains run express from 59 St-Columbus Circle to Canal St.


From 3:45 a.m. Saturday, April 4 to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, April 5, Norwood-205 St bound D trains are rerouted on the N line from Coney Island-Stillwell Av to 36 St.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, World Trade Center-bound E trains run express from 34 St-Penn St to Canal St.


From 11:00 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, World Trade Center-bound E trains run local Forest Hills-71 Av to Queens Plaza. Jamaica Center-Parsons Archer bound E trains run local from Queens Plaza to Roosevelt Av.


From 10:45 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, Jamaica-179 St bound F trains skip 75 Av, Briarwood-Van Wyck Blvd, and Sutphin Blvd.


From 11:30 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, Coney Island-Stillwell Av bound F trains run local from Forest Hills-71 Av to 21 St-Queensbridge and Forest Hills-71 Av bound F trains run local from 21 St-Queensbridge to Roosevelt Av.


From 6:45 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday April 4, and 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Sunday, April 5, M service is extended to the Chambers St J station. After Essex St, M service is rerouted via the J line to Chambers St, making stops at Bowery and Canal St.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, N trains are rerouted via the R line in both directions between Canal St and 59 St in Brooklyn.


From 11:45 p.m. Friday, April 3 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, N trains are suspended in both directions between Times Sq-42 St and Queensboro Plaza. Take the 7 or Q instead. N trains operate in two sections:

  • Between Coney Island-Stillwell Av and Times Sq-42 St. Trains run local in both directions via the R line between 59 St, Brooklyn and Canal St.
  • Between Queensboro Plaza and Astoria-Ditmars Blvd.
  • For service between Queens and Manhattan, take the 7 and transfer between trains at Times Sq-42 St and/or Queensboro Plaza.
  • For service to/from 49 St and 57 St-7 Av, take the Q.
  • For service to/from 5 Av/59 St and Lexington Av/59 St, use the nearby 59 St 456 station. Transfer with the 7 at Grand Central-42 St or the N at 14 St-Union Sq.


From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, April 4 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, April 6, Q trains run local in both directions between 57 St-7Av and Canal St.


From 6:30 a.m. to 12 midnight, Saturday, April 4 and Sunday, April 5, R trains are rerouted via the D line between DeKalb Av and B’Way-Lafyette St, and via the M between B’Way-Lafyette St and Queens Plaza.

  • N trains will make all R station stops between DeKalb Av and Times Sq-42 St. Q trains make all R station stops between Canal St and 57 St-7 Av. Transfer between NQ and R trains at Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr or 34 St-Herald Sq.
  • Transfer between R and F trains at 34 St-Herald Sq or Roosevelt Av. For R stations along Broadway, use nearby stations along 6 Av instead.
Categories : Service Advisories
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At one point earlier this winter, it seemed as though the perfect storm of MTA funding had appeared on the horizon. The MTA had issued a request for a funding plan for a $15 billion capital budget gap while New York State had a $6 billion windfall in fines from financial institutions. When the dust finally settled on the budget discussions this week, yacht owners earned themselves a tax break while the MTA received a big, fat nothing. Instead, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his staff plan to work toward a resolution on the capital plan while budget watchers and transit advocates are left shaking their heads in dismay as Albany again lets down New York City.

The idea that New York City commuters have long drawn the short straw in budget talks isn’t a new one. Cap’n Transit explored the issue in an April 2012 post that’s still sadly relevant today. This year, though, the disparity grew worse as Cuomo used the $6 billion windfall for upstate projects and potential toll relief for drivers who will eventually use the New New York Bridge. Unless the governor is going to make a big push for the Move New York fair tolling plan — and even if he does — this is a disappointing turn of events.

The coverage of the budget shenanigans has now turned its focus to the MTA. In a headline that is as much an understatement as anything the Daily News will ever run, a Glenn Blain story trumpets: “MTA not allocated enough money from state’s new budget, advocates charge.” In fact, “not enough” would be a welcome amount; rather, the MTA received $250 million earmarked for one of Cuomo’s own pet projects.

At City Journal, E.J. McMahon of the Manhattan Institute wrote a scathing piece on the Governor’s failures. He writes:

Incredibly, however, the only piece of the windfall Cuomo and the legislature aimed anywhere near the MTA is a $250 million appropriation to begin construction of a new Metro North commuter rail line from southeastern Westchester to Penn Station. The Penn Station access project is an odd one to be singled out for preferential funding. As the Citizens Budget Commission noted, “its total cost has not been reported, its benefits have not been quantified, and it is not clear why it is preferred” over other priorities in the MTA plan. The new line can’t become operational until the MTA completes its massive East Side Access project linking Long Island to Grand Central Terminal, which will free platform space at crowded Penn Station. The latest completion date for that chronically behind-schedule, over-budget project is 2023. For now, the MTA will have to settle for a token $750 million that Cuomo agreed to provide in bonded support for the transit capital program.

Ignoring the MTA’s needs made it possible for Cuomo to spend upward of $1 billion in remaining windfall cash on other purposes…Late in the recent budget negotiations, Senate Republicans tried to persuade Cuomo to set aside more of the windfall cash for transportation infrastructure, as well for municipal water and sewer projects. When the governor wouldn’t budge, they countered by authorizing more borrowing to supplement a separate bonded appropriation Cuomo had already proposed for highways and bridges. (In true Albany fashion, the legislative additions also included a pork-like $400 million “transformative investment” fund just for Long Island.)

…It’s all too common for crumbling infrastructure to be ignored until it poses an imminent threat to health or the smooth running of the local economy…The manner in which Cuomo and the Legislature have chosen to divvy up the windfall pie is sure to win them plenty of thank-yous over the next few years from politically wired developers, corporate executives, and unions around the state. But future generations of New Yorkers probably won’t feel as grateful.

Disappointing and expected. Now we head into a spring of uncertainty. The MTA can’t keep megaproject costs under control, and now they’ll continue to rely on a pay-as-you-go funding approach to a capital plan that needs support. I sound like a broken record, but trains are more crowded that ever. The MTA can ill afford to wait, but the last best chance just passed by. What comes next is a political blank slate with no easy solution in sight.

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At $1.4 billion, the Fulton St. Transit Center cost far more than it should have. Can the MTA find a way to control its costs? (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

At $1.4 billion, the Fulton St. Transit Center cost far more than it should have. Can the MTA find a way to control its costs? (Photo: Benjamin Kabak)

In addition to a lack of political support from Albany, the highest barrier to MTA expansion efforts concerns costs. The one-stop 7 line extension clocked in at $2.3 billion, and the only subway expansion effort in the world that’s more costly is the first phase of the Second Ave. Subway. The MTA is spending nearly as much to rebuild the South Ferry station as it did to construct it, and the East Side Access price tag is comically high and ever increasing.

In a vacuum, the probably isn’t just the costs alone. We know everything costs so much, but we do not know why. Over the years, observers and experts have blamed everything from stringent federal regulations regarding emergency access, a costly and litigious environmental review process, corruption in the construction industry and the uncertainties of digging up old New York City streets. To me, this reeks again of New York City exceptionalism as these are issues facing most developed nations. Somehow, some way, other countries aren’t spending $2.7 billion per new subway mile.

In the latest issue of Capital New York’s monthly magazine, Dana Rubinstein went in depth on the cost issue. For long-time readers of my site (or infrequent and new readers), Rubinstein’s piece is a succinct look at an issue that New York City must solve if it is to meet the demands of its population. Without a handle on costs, the money to expand nets fewer and fewer improvements.

Rubinstein frames her piece around the idea that transit agencies have a rich history of low-balling costs to get money to start a project only to return, cap in hand, for more to finish. Robert Moses deployed this strategy to great effect throughout the city, and the MTA and Port Authority have essentially done the same with their recent construction binges. Think, after all, on how Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway should have cost $3.5 billion or how the Port Authority WTC station was originally budgeted at under $2 billion. Once shovels are in the ground, it’s hard to stop, especially if federal grants are involved, and local politicians are forced to fork over the dollars.

What I found even more intriguing though was this excerpt that shows how few people are engaged in this issue:

How New York City’s megaprojects compare in cost to those in similarly developed countries around the world is a question that is, somehow, very rarely studied. Stringer’s spokesman said the comptroller relied for his numbers, in part, on a mathematician named Alon Levy, who’s now completing his post-doc at the Royal Institute of Technology, and who notes, in his blog Pedestrian Observations, that, mass transit is a “side interest” for him and “entirely unrelated to my work.”

The experts at the Regional Plan Association, who are looking into the problem of megaproject cost overruns as part of their latest survey of regional infrastructure, directed Capital to a blog post by Levy, too. The post, from 2011, reported that the Toei Oedo Line in Japan cost $560 million per mile. The Berlin U55 cost $400 million per mile. The Paris Metro Line 14 cost $368 million per mile. New York’s construction costs blew all of that away, the study found. The Second Avenue Subway is coming in at $2.7 billion per mile. The 7 train extension to the far West Side? $2.1 billion per mile.

David Schleicher, an associate professor at George Mason University School of Law, has analyzed Levy’s numbers and says that his analysis basically confirms Levy’s. Barone, of Regional Plan Association, said, “The question is always why, why, why is it so expensive?” said Barone. The answer always seems to come back to a limited universe of issues, in varying combination: labor costs, work rules, managerial incompetence, the spaghetti of infrastructure tangled beneath Manhattan’s streets, a political firmament without incentive to tackle hard issues.

I’ve never met anyone who’s had reason to doubt Alon’s numbers (and you can read the post in question right here on his site). What’s surprising is how few comparative studies have been done to highlight these cost disparities. For its part, the MTA talks about a design-build process that’s supposed to mitigate costs, but working hand-in-hand with the parties responsible for the high costs (that is, the contractors) won’t lead to meaningful reform.

Meanwhile, it’s Chris Ward, a former head of the Port Authority, who has seized on this issue. “It is time to recognize that the delivery model for big projects is broken and fiddling on the margins will not build the kind of projects the region needs,” he said to Rubinstein. Without a better handle on costs, the MTA’s request for $15 billion in capital funding is a tough one to stomach, and future megaprojects are doomed to an expensive limbo at a time when the city and its current and future residents need them the most.

Categories : MTA Economics
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The Grand Central subway's mezzanine level will see more space as columns are narrowed. (Via KPF)

The Grand Central subway’s mezzanine level will see more space as columns are narrowed. (Via KPF)

When last we checked in with plans to rezone Midtown East and build up a new tower across the street from Grand Central, we delved into the fancy renderings of the transit improvements. The carrot of $200 million in badly needed upgrades to the Lexington Ave. IRT stop at Grand Central is a hard one to resist, and I’ve been supporting this project from the get-go. As my office is now a few blocks away, I’ve seen the Modell’s empty out, and the building be prepared to be replaced.

Now, the effort is one step closer to reality as the city’s planning commission has approved the necessary rezoning. The whole project isn’t out of the woods yet as it heads to the full City Council, and the Council is sure to push for changes. But it seems more likely than not that we’ll get a tall building across from Grand Central and a far more pleasant subway experience thanks to it. More platform space, better passenger flow and easier access from street level all funded through developer contributions are all part of the deal.

Ryan Hutchins had more:

The biggest obstacle for the so-called Vanderbilt Corridor remains: Passage by the City Council, which is likely to push developer SL Green Realty Corp. to alter its plans for a 1,400-foot-tall commercial skyscraper…While de Blasio’s [rezoning] pitch has not met fierce resistance from community board members and local elected officials, it has been repeatedly attacked by the relatively unknown owner of Grand Central Terminal, Andrew Penson.

His worry? That the rezoning, which will allow developers to fund public improvements in exchange for permission to construct bigger buildings, would devalue the air rights above the landmarked terminal. For example, SL Green would receive additional floor area for its tower, One Vanderbilt, by making about $210 million in improvements in and around Grand Central.

…Specifically at issue, [Council member Dan Garodnick] said, will be whether the $210 million in work SL Green has committed to is enough to warrant the bonus the company will receive. “We just have to throw that onto the scale against a 30 F.A.R. building,” Garodnick said.

To me, this is a potential model for future transit improvements, and the City Council shouldn’t ignore this reality. For the MTA, it’s a new model that encourages public-private partnerships and allows the MTA to fund work it wouldn’t otherwise have the money to perform. Especially at Grand Central — the second busiest station in the system — the dollars will have an immediate impact on a problematic customer experience.

We’ll know soon enough what the future holds for this project, but after Community Board approval and a planning commission okay, it’s likely to pass the City Council in some form or another. The station improvements alone will be a welcome element.

Categories : Manhattan
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Even a school bus parking lot wouldn’t be a real barrier to Rockaway Beach Branch reactivation.

In the circle of transit life, popular local buses lead to bus rapid transit which leads to light rail which leads to subway lines. It’s not the most cost-effective or efficient way of building a transit network, but it’s the flow of demand. Ideally, if a corridor is popular enough, we wouldn’t be watching politicians falling all over themselves to talk up a bus lane and instead we would go straight to the highest-capacity, highest-speed transit option. Could this play out along the Woodhaven Boulevard corridor?

For transit in New York, the biggest obstacles to growth are speed and cost. The MTA can’t get a handle on costs, and projects come with price tags significantly higher than they are in similarly situated countries around the world. Furthermore, the MTA can’t nail down timelines, and projects that should have been finished years ago are still inching toward revised finish lines. These are operational and political barriers, but if enough forces line up behind a project, it can become a reality.

Lately, deep into Queens, an unused rail right-of-way has emerged at the center of a storm pitting advocates who are usually on the same side against each other. One group wants to turn this valuable rail right-of-way into a linear park akin to the High Line. Their plan isn’t clear on funding and includes numerous contradictions — such as promoting the idea with a dedicated bike lane that parallels Woodhaven Boulevard while assuring neighbors the park would close early at night. Another group wants to do nothing, and a third group — also not so clear on funding — wants to reactivate the right-of-way as part of the subway network.

I’ve covered this debate for years and am a voice for subway reactivation to an extent. After Gov. Andre Cuomo threw taxpayer money behind a biased study conducted by a pro-parks group, I’ve called for similar funding for a true alternatives analysis. We can’t dismiss the rail reactivation idea knowing now what we know about New York’s need for a resilient rail network in the face of increasing storm threats, but no official study has been released in nearly two decades.

Recently, though, a new voice has emerged for rail reactivation. Last month in a piece I admittedly overlooked at the time, TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen penned a piece for the Queens Chronicle advocating for rail. With BRT-esque plans for Woodhaven Boulevard back in the picture, it’s worth examining the union leader’s thought-provoking points:

On the surface, both parks and public transportation are similarly associated with safer streets, greater mobility, more walking, lower emissions and increased business activity. But the most meaningful, and often overlooked, difference between the two plans is the potential for increasing access to jobs. Reactivation of the Rockaway Beach Line, which was owned and operated by the Long Island Rail Road until 1962, would be far more economically advantageous for the 250,000 people residing within a half-mile of the existing right-of-way…

I would not be so quick to dismiss the reactivation of the Rockaway Beach rail line as too expensive and unrealistic. Notwithstanding the project’s necessity, phase I of the Second Avenue subway has a $4.45 billion price tag. In comparison, rehabilitating the rail’s existing infrastructure will cost about $800 million. This modest investment will significantly raise the quality of life in the far reaches of Queens. Furthermore, as suggested by a recent Queens College study done at the request of Assemblyman Phillip Goldfeder, up to 500,000 daily rides may be generated by the reconstructed rail line, and I completely expect ridership to grow over time.

This will directly produce the fares needed to sustain its ongoing operations and maintenance. As MTA and state officials work to figure out how to fund the MTA’s $32 billion five-year capital plan, they should consider prioritizing investment in the rail line. Residents’ overwhelming demand for public transportation in southern Queens will yield significant farebox revenues, minimizing the strain on the state budget. While it is tempting to choose parkland as the cheaper alternative, I doubt that the proposed park will see reliable income year after year…

Lastly, as a trackworker, I know firsthand that reconstructing the Rockaway Beach right-of-way is much more feasible than opponents claim. Following Hurricane Sandy, TWU Local 100 members rebuilt 3.7 miles of the A line (almost the same length as the Rockaway Beach segment) “from the ground up” within seven months. Restoring the damaged track, signal and electrical infrastructure with in-house labor cost the Metropolitan Transportation Authority only $75 million.

I’ve always been skeptical of the Goldfeder-funded study that claimed 500,000 trips per day. That would make it among the most crowded subways in the system, and the population of that area simply doesn’t support that kind of demand. Still, the ridership wouldn’t be insignificant.

To me, though, the intriguing aspect of Samuelson’s claim that construction wouldn’t be nearly as costly as opponents of rail reactivation claim. As New York State does not allow private entities to adversely possess government land, the acquisition costs even for land that isn’t currently physically reserved as the right of way would be slim to non-existent. Shoring up the structure for 21st Century rail operations and meeting federal safety guidelines would be more troublesome, but the A line to the Rockaways was part of the same ROW. Recent history may be instructive.

It’s ultimately an uphill battle for anyone to see anything happen here. The park plan is well over $100 million away from becoming a reality, and real reactivation would be, optimistically, ten times that amount. But without clarity, we’ll never know the costs, the benefits and the right way forward. At the least, people whose voices deserve to be heard are thinking about it. Considering the city’s needs, that’s a step in the right direction.

Categories : Queens
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NYC DOT and city officials have called the Woodhaven/Cross Bay Boulevard SBS plans ambitious, but there's much to learn from the hype. (Source: [block]0[/block])

NYC DOT and city officials have called the Woodhaven/Cross Bay Boulevard SBS plans ambitious, but there’s much to learn from the hype. (Source: NYC DOT/MTA)

As cocky as New Yorkers are, this exceptionalism sometimes leaves us missing out on good ideas implemented elsewhere, especially in the transit planning space. There is this tendency to think that just because something works elsewhere doesn’t mean it will work in New York, and opponents or skeptics find ways to argue around importing good ideas proven to be efficient because New York City is somehow different than Paris, London or countless other places that aren’t New York. Exploiting buses is just one area where we lag.

Lately, in fits and starts, at the pace of, well, a local bus inching its way up 3rd Ave at rush hour, the city has tried to overhaul the bus routes. In January 2008, the MTA and NYC DOT introduced Select Bus Service, a glorified express bus with pre-board fare payment and half-hearted lane enforcement. At some point, signal prioritization will arrive as well. Over eight years later, we have a grand total of eight SBS routes, and a mayor who promised to bring 20 more online in five years. It has essentially taken as long to build 79 percent of the Second Ave. Subway has it has to offer marginal upgrades on a handful of bus routes, but I digress. So far, Bill de Blasio’s administration has introduced zero SBS routes, but that’s about to change.

Last week, DOT finally unveiled their preferred design for the long-awaited Woodhaven Boulevard Select Bus Service/Bus Rapid Transit line. Call you what you want, but at parts, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. As the designs show [pdf], the city is finally thinking about something closer to physically-separated, center-running lanes, and they believe the design plans could improve bus travel times by 25-30 percent. For a congested corridor that has some of the highest bus ridership in the city, an improvement of this magnitude could benefit tens of thousands of people per day.

If you’d like to read more about the design, head on over to Streetsblog where Stephen Miller summarized the proposals in two posts last week. I’d like to discuss the messaging from city leaders instead. Along with the plans, DOT released a lengthy press release with the requisite back-slapping and sufficient amounts of New York exceptionalism.

They key word was “ambitious.” This, said Mayor de Blasio, “is the kind of ambitious overhaul New York City’s bus riders deserve.” Polly Trottenberg called it “an innovative design for Bus Rapid Transit” and summarized the proposal as “the biggest, boldest, and most ambitious design concept the City has attempted for Select Bus Service.” Senator Schumer called the plan “innovative” and “exciting.” (Meanwhile, State Senator Joe Addabbo Jr. had a windshield freakout over it, but whatever.)

Perhaps the Woodhaven Boulevard design is all of these things. It’s something the riders deserve, and it’s a first-of-its-kind-in-New York City proposal, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is somehow ambitious for anywhere other than right here in our backyards. It’s involves tried and true technologies and features that are in place in real Bus Rapid Transit networks throughout the world, and to make matters worse, DOT is still planning on hosting “block by block design workshops” which will do wonders for a speedy rollout of this $200 million project.

Ultimately — and I say this lovingly because I care — New York City is going to have to get over itself if it wants to get anywhere with transit planning. Our rollout rate for SBS lines shouldn’t be barely pushing one per year, and we shouldn’t be head-over-heels impressed with ourselves when someone finally has the political guts and gumption to propose elements of real BRT through a wide street in Queens. We have a capacity crisis, and it’s going to take leadership to solve it. Praising a plan that’s barely ambitious as though it’s the most innovative idea to come out of DOT in a decade has me more than a little worried for the future.

Categories : Buses
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The MTA has made it easy to zero your pay-per-ride card. (Via I Quant NY)

We start tonight, begrudgingly but admirably, with I Quant New York. Last year, this website made a huge deal about the amount of money you could put on a MetroCard for an even amount with the bonus. It was something blown completely out of proportion as the ability to refill a MetroCard essentially ad nauseam prevents monetary loss by anyone paying attention. Cards that expire with money left can be transferred to an active card by any station agent no matter how begrudgingly accepting they are of this aspect of their job.

But the drum was beaten nearly to death, and in a victory for transparency, the MTA has added a new option to the MetroCard Vending Machine that allows you to buy a card that will leave $0.00 left over. Once the MTA started instituting bonuses of varying percentages at odd dollar amounts, the math became too complex to perform on a whim in front of a machine, but the agency — whether to capture dollars via unused fare media or otherwise — hadn’t introduced the concept of an even-amount purchase. Now, you can spend $27.25, get a $3 bonus and have 11 rides (so long as you don’t use the AirTrain). Voila. It’s magic.

In other news, there are a lot of service changes this weekend. In fact, the only weekend lines without some sort of advisory are the L and the G trains — a reality that probably fits Alanis Morisette’s weird definition of irony. But while the number of advisories seems steep, these aren’t terrible. Except for certain changes to the 7, J/M and 1 trains, the changes don’t touch most subway riders. It will be OK. And even though a bunch of North Brooklyn businesses are raising a stink about upcoming L train work, there’s no better time to take trains out of service than on the weekends. That the weekends are becoming more and more popular is an issue in and of itself, but for now, this is the solution. After the jump are this week’s changes. Read More→

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The new South Ferry station, seen here in January of 2013, will reopen in two years after a complete rebuild. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

One of the many challenges currently facing the MTA involves the lingering damage from Superstorm Sandy. Although it’s been nearly 2.5 years since the storm and its surge swept through New York, the MTA has repaired only two of the damaged subway tunnels, and the rest are seemingly on borrowed time. The agency simply can’t spend the money fast enough and can’t take multiple tunnels out of service at the same time. So long as the infrastructure holds up enough, the MTA can make the repairs over the next few years, but it’s a battle against the corrosive effects of saltwater and time.

In addition to the tunnels, the new South Ferry station remains out of service. Although the MTA is officially hoping to reopen South Ferry in 2016, in all likelihood, as we’ve heard rumored, the station will remain closed into 2017. It needs a full rebuild and more as the MTA is working to solve some problems with the original construction and fortify and harden the station and surrounding tunnels. It’s a project nearly as expensive as the original new-build station was nearly a decade ago.

But the money is on the way. Not that funding was in doubt, but in a statement released earlier this week, Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand along with Congressman Jerry Nadler announced $343 million for South Ferry, a new federal grant in addition to the nearly $200 million in federal dollars they had delivered last winter. This isn’t new money; the MTA had been expecting it as part of the Sandy recovery package. Still, it’s always a plus to have the cash in hand.

“After Superstorm Sandy devastated New York and damaged critical infrastructure throughout the city, we need to make sure we aren’t just building back, but that we are building back stronger so we can be prepared when the next storm hits,” Senator Gillibrand said. “I’m pleased to announce this federal funding for the South Ferry station and will continue to fight for resources to strengthen and build back the critical transportation infrastructure New Yorkers rely on to get to work every day.”

What I find most interesting about the press release though aren’t the mundane statements or announcement of the money. Rather, it’s a three-sentence description of the rehab work. “This project,” the release notes, “will rehabilitate the South Ferry Terminal Station to a State of Good Repair and protect the restored infrastructure from future flooding. The rehabilitation work will include leak remediation and repairs to the station, rail tracks, line equipment, signals and power equipment. Flood protection measures will include hardening of station entrances, vents, manholes, hatches conduits and ducts.”

Take a close look at that second sentence. The rehab work includes leak mitigation. This is essentially a tacit admission that the MTA’s contractors royally screwed up the job the first time around. Due to Sandy, the MTA has a do-over, but it’s not one they ever wanted. At least now, though, they can correct one mistake of the past, and as the federal recovery dollars continue to flow, I can’t help but wonder where this money is for the MTA’s capital plans needed for the future and not just those to rebuild after a storm.

Categories : Superstorm Sandy
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Sometimes, when I ride the subways during supposed off-peak hours, I’m reminded of a twist on a phrase Yogi Berra coined. Of a popular spot, the Yankee great once said, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” In a way, it makes perfect sense and no sense at all, but applied to the subways, the inverse is seemingly true. Unfortunately, it’s too crowded, and everybody keeps going there.

My personal anecdote spans the course of this week. Hot on the heels of the MTA announcing that they recognize they have a crowded problem came some of the more crowded rides I’ve taken in months. I had to let some early-morning Q trains pass me by at 7th Ave. because it was impossible to board. Then, on Tuesday night, while coming back to Brooklyn from the Upper West Side, I had to stand all the way from 96th to Grand Army Plaza, and on Wednesday, journeying at 9 p.m. from Union Sq. back to 7th Ave., there were no seats to be had on my Q trains.

Traveling companions who boarded at Canal St. were shocked to find the train so crowded at a relatively late weeknight hour. “It never used to be this crowded,” one said to the other, and I nodded to myself. As recently as a five, let alone ten, years ago, the subways just weren’t this crowded. We’re living through an historically unprecedented explosion in ridership, and the MTA can’t catch up.

Right now, the problems facing the MTA are those of the present and those of the future. In the short term, the MTA, still years away from fully recovering from the effects of Sandy, has a backlog of repairs that need to be initiative. In the long term, to meet demands of today’s ridership, the MTA needed to start planning a decade ago, but right now, they’re stuck in a neutral planning for demands of the next decade without a fully funded five-year capital plan. There’s no easy way out of this conundrum.

The news isn’t exactly getting better for the financially beleaguered transit agency. In a comprehensive report issued this week [pdf], the Citizens Budget Commission examined the MTA’s finances and determined that the agency may face a funding gap greater than $15 billion. In a nutshell, the non-partisan group doesn’t believe the MTA has the cash on hand to make certain contributions to the budget, and thus, the funding gap is closer to $20 billion. On the one hand, this is all accounting sleight of hand, but on the other, someone — future New Yorkers and subway riders — will pay for more debt financing through steeper and more frequent fare hikes or worse service.

As part of the report, the CBC examined numerous funding options, and while no one around here went for their plan to cap unlimited ride MetroCards, the CBC has largely examined driving as a potential source of revenue. The new report discusses the Move New York tolling plan and a variety of fees and taxes on driving to fund transit expansion. These are ideas the MTA tentatively endorsed yesterday, and promisingly, the Board’s Staten Island rep seems to be on board. (For more on the CBC’s ideas, check out this video.)

But I keep coming back to the crowds. The MTA’s system in 2015 can’t handle increasing volumes, and nothing indicates ridership is going to decline. The MTA needs to start planning now for a future with even more straphangers, and they need the money to do so. Every day we wait is another day with trains too crowded for rush hour passengers, delays due to signal problems, and every transit woe in between.

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The Citizens Budget Commission believes a high cap on unlimited MetroCards could alleviate some of the MTA’s budgetary woes. (Source: CBC)

I love my Unlimited MetroCard. I’ve been using one for years, and it makes using the subway essentially free. I pay once per month — in my case, on a pre-tax basis — and get a card that simply tells me to “Go.” I can swipe in at Grand Army Plaza and take a 2 or 3 to Franklin Ave. without thinking about the cost or a subsequent card purchase. I can hop on a bus without a thought, and in fact, the more I ride, the better a deal I get from my unlimited card.

In a very real sense, as I wrote half a decade ago, the Unlimited MetroCards ushered in a revolution in New York City transit history. As then-Gov. George Pataki noted in the late 1990s, ”The goal” with these MetroCards “was very simply to empower the rider. Empower the person who takes the subway and the person who takes the bus by giving them the broadest possible range of options as to how they want to choose to use the mass transit system.”

And it worked. The average cost per ride a subway rider must pay declined precipitously, and only recently, through aggressive fare hikes, has the MTA clawed back revenue it lost to these unlimited cards. Still, the MTA drew in more in inflation-adjusted dollars in 1996 before unlimited ride cards were introduced than it does today. Furthermore, ridership has spiked — to over 6 million per day at times during peak ridership seasons last fall — and the MTA’s fare discounts push ridership.

But has the unlimited ride card outlived its useful life? That’s the question New York City’s Citizens Budget Commission posed recently. The independent group argues that, with ridership up and demand greater than subway supply, the MTA could incrementally rollback the incentives from the unlimited ride cards. After all, in the 1990s, the agency had to incentivize riders to return to a restored system, but today, the system sells itself. By capping unlimited ride cards at levels beyond the reach of all but the power users, the MTA could, they argue, draw in an additional $93 million a year.

Here’s their take:

The need for increased fare revenue need not be met exclusively through current practices of raising base fares and adjusting discounted prices. The MTA can generate revenue by capping the number of rides permitted on the 7-day and 30-day passes. Unlike recent fare increases hitting nearly every straphanger, the caps would provide needed revenue while affecting fewer riders, many who now enjoy very deep discounts, and would still retain heavily discounted fares.

Based on data provided by the MTA for October 2013, riders used 7-day passes for 45 million rides per month and 30-day passes for 66 million rides per month. These rides can be attributed to an estimated 2.8 million 7-day passes and 1.1 million 30-day passes. At a price of $30 the break-even number of rides for a 7-day pass was 13; for a 30-day pass at $112 the number was 48 rides. (Both calculations use the $2.38 fare available with a volume discount.) Rides above these numbers are effectively “free” for the pass holder.

Each “free” ride represented $2.38 in foregone revenue assuming the unlimited passes were eliminated and passengers purchased volume discount rides instead. The monthly number of “free” rides on the unlimited passes is estimated at 28.4 million. This equals about $67 million in foregone revenue monthly, or $807 million annually. Since a significant share of unlimited pass purchasers does not actually use the cards enough to reach the break-even point, these “unused” rides are extra revenue for the MTA. If this extra revenue was also foregone, the net gain from eliminating the unlimited passes would be $619 million annually. But eliminating unlimited passes would be a radical change, causing hardship for many straphangers and undermining the sense of convenient mobility the passes are intended to promote. A fairer strategy is to cap the number of rides on these passes at a number above the break-even point.

The CBC acknowledges that the MTA hasn’t made enough information available to assess the proper cut-off for unlimited ride cards, but they assume a hair over three swipes per day, an exceedingly high volume of rides. Limiting pay-per-rides to 22 swipes per 7 days or 92 per 30 days could lead to eliminating nearly 4 million rides that are free — that is, they are taken after the breakeven point on MetroCards. The unlimited ride cards would still be a great deal, but the MTA would capitalize on very high volume users (and those who try to defraud the system by selling swipes) to the tune of $7.8 million a month.

Part of me hates this idea. The psychological benefits of a true unlimited ride card encourage transit use at a time when New York City’s transit advocates should do all they can to keep residents out of private automobiles. It cuts against the grain of environmental advocacy, congestion pricing proponents and Vision Zero efforts to add any new psychological barrier, albeit a small one, to transit use.

But on the other hand, it’s hard to deny that revenue is revenue. The CBC estimates that only 60,000 30-day card users and around 415,000 7-day card users would exceed their lofty cap, and those figures are only 15 percent of all 7-day card users and 5 percent of 30-day users, relatively small percentages overall. It’s an idea that warrants some debate and discussion. As the CBC says, “Unlike general fare increases affecting nearly every straphanger, the caps would provide financial benefits while affecting only the relatively few riders who use their 7-day and 30-day passes most heavily and would still benefit from discounted fares.”

Categories : MetroCard, MTA Economics
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