Fire up the old DVRs tonight because Channel 13 has some intriguing content on tap. Starting tonight at 8 p.m., New York’s public television station will be airing two hours of transit-related programming.

First, Treasures of New York heads underground for an hour-long look at Arts for Transit’s popular installations. The documentary is available online if you can’t wait until tonight, and it explores 25 years of Arts for Transit, with interviews with artists Faith Ringgold, Tom Otterness, Milton Glaser, Bill Brand (and his popular Masstransiscope), Andrea Dezsö, and Elizabeth Murray.

After that, take a step back in history while reliving one of the most famous gut-punches New York has ever endured. American Experience is debuting The Rise and Fall of Penn Station tonight at 9 p.m. Here’s the blurb:

In 1910, the Pennsylvania Railroad successfully accomplished the enormous engineering feat of building tunnels under New York City’s Hudson and East Rivers, connecting the railroad to New York and New England, knitting together the entire eastern half of the United States. The tunnels terminated in what was one of the greatest architectural achievements of its time, Pennsylvania Station. Penn Station covered nearly eight acres, extended two city blocks, and housed one of the largest public spaces in the world. But just 53 years after the station’s opening, the monumental building that was supposed to last forever, to herald and represent the American Empire, was slated to be destroyed.

We’re still living with the decision to destroy old Penn Station, and architects and transit advocates are forever fighting over the future of the rail station that currently carries the lost structure’s name. Tonight’s show provides a great opportunity to appreciate the grandeur of old Penn Station and mourn what we lost amidst the wrecking ball. If anything, it’s a welcome break from wall-to-wall Olympics broadcasts.

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It has, to say the least, been a rough few years for New Jersey Transit. Over the past year and a half, the current agency leadership has overseen a disastrous response to Hurricane Sandy and, more recently, garnered bad press when football fans had to wait for up to three hours outside of Met Life Stadium when the Super Bowl ended. These were both avoidable problems, but no one seemed to care. It was surprising that no one in the upper echelons of management got the axe following the hurricane, but it seems as though the Super Bowl fallout will cause some heads to roll.

As Karen Rouse of The Record reported this past weekend, it appears as though enough is enough for New Jersey Transit. James Weinstein is ostensibly on the way out as the Executive Director of NJ Transit. As Rouse notes, Weinstein has been a loyal confidant of Gov. Chris Christie’s. He took on the burden of negotiating the cancellation of the ARC Tunnel and negotiated with the feds in coming to terms on a refund for federal funds.

Now, though, the failures have mounted — including one involving canceled NJ Transit trademarks — and amidst other scandals plaguing his administration, Christie is gearing up to cut loose Weinstein. Here’s Rouse’s story:

Weinstein now appears to be on his way out. His faithfulness may not have been enough to overcome a series of high-profile failures that occurred under his watch, most notably, the agency’s ill-fated decision to abandon nearly 400 railcars and locomotives in flood-prone rail yards during Superstorm Sandy and its clumsy handling of Super Bowl transportation. Thousands of football fans were stranded at MetLife Stadium for hours because NJ Transit was unprepared for the 33,000 football fans that overwhelmed the system.

He is expected to be replaced by Veronique “Ronnie” Hakim, a former senior vice president at the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s capital construction program who is currently executive director at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. His pending departure comes amid growing dissatisfaction among NJ Transit employees, who complain of low morale and favoritism in the upper ranks; tensions with Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson, who, as chairman of NJ Transit’s board, is Weinstein’s boss; and a commuter rail and bus system so plagued with breakdowns that some customers have told the board it’s no longer reliable.

Weinstein declined multiple requests to be interviewed, but friends of the director say Christie’s tight control over NJ Transit has prevented Weinstein from effectively managing the agency’s operations. “Larger policy decisions, larger to medium-sized, the governor’s office is integrally involved,” said Martin Robins, a past deputy executive director at NJ Transit who considers Weinstein a friend. “That is a fact of life at NJ Transit.”

Rouse’s full story is well worth the read. She charts familiar ground in rehashing the problems surrounding the agency’s preparation and response to Sandy, but she delves into the internal state politics of New Jersey Transit as well. The battles between Simpson and Weinstein seem to have been a deciding factor as well.

From Rouse’s story, it doesn’t sound as though Weinstein’s ouster will change much at New Jersey Transit. It may improve morale on a day-to-day basis, but if Trenton is going to insert itself into every major decision, the person heading up the agency doesn’t have nearly enough autonomy to affect real change. Still, such a move shows that someone is watching, albeit symbolically. New Jersey Transit needed a change, and this may be a good first step. I’m not holding my breath for the improvements the railroad needs though.

Categories : New Jersey Transit
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A snowy Brooklyn Museum looms over the IRT's Eastern Parkway station. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

A snowy Brooklyn Museum looms over the IRT’s Eastern Parkway station. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

As I write this early Saturday evening, it’s once again snowing in New York City. It’s been a trying winter weather-wise with polar vortexes and seemingly endless snow storms, one after another, barreling down on the city. The subway system seems like it’s suffering a bit under the weight of the weather with problems more constant than usual and stations dirtier than usual. Just yesterday, in the Grand Army Plaza, stop, I watched a waterfall develop underground.

Meanwhile, the snow leads to other issues for the MTA. For the second or third time this year alone, the agency had to cancel a planned FASTRACK treatment due to weather, and instead of the regular slate of weekend work, crews are clearing snow from subway tracks and station platforms. With that in mind, you’ll see this weekend’s service changes are minimal. Everything else was canceled. Trains operate on a Saturday schedule for Presidents Day, and I’ll be back with a new post on Monday night.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, February 14 to 4:00 a.m. Tuesday, February 18, 7 trains are suspended between Flushing Main St and Mets-Willets Point due to CBTC construction related work. Free shuttle buses provide alternate service.

Categories : Service Advisories
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When the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects announced their AIANY Emerging New York Architects design competition last summer, I knew we were in trouble. AIANY focused around designs for the QueensWay, but instead of encouraging emerging architects to think about any use, including rail, for the right of way, the organization urged designers to think only about an elevated park. And crazy renderings for an elevated park are what we have received.

AIANY released the results earlier this week, and New York seems awfully under-represented in the Emerging New York Architects competition. The big winners came from France, Switzerland and Canada while the student prize winner came out of New Mexico and only one Queens designer received an honorable mention. That’s not to say that outsiders can’t design architecture for New York City, but when we’re thinking about turning over a valuable and irreplaceable right-of-way to a rails-to-trails project, New Yorkers should probably be heard above all others.

While none of the proposal captures my attention quite like the underground swimming pool I discussed last night, they seem to underscore, in their disconnect from the surrounding neighborhood, just how unlikely any conversion of this rail right of way will be. In all likelihood, the Rockaway Beach Branch will remain as it has been for decades — the subject of numerous proposals to reactivate rail, the subject of conversion talks, and the subject of NIMBY opposition to anything happening at all.

Still, let’s marvel at the designs. All were designed at the abandoned Ozone Park station, one of the sites of the QueensWay that doesn’t back up onto residential properties and contains some wide open sight lines. It isn’t the norm for this right of way.

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Here, we have the winner. From Carrie Wibert of Paris, France, the QueensWay steps took home the $5000 prize. This is the grand entry to the QueensWay park. These steps are located between 100th and 99th Streets, and 101st and 103rd Avenues in Ozone Park, Queens, and while not far from the A train, it’s in a spot that could use better rail service rather than a park. But we’ve been over that before.

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The second place finisher is from Nikolay Martynov of Basel, Switzerland. It is called the Queens Billboard and appears to be a roller coaster for people without handrails. Your guess is as good as mine.

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The third place prize went to Song Deng and René Biberstein of Toronto, Canada. Their entry called Make It! Grow It! seemed to capture the essence of what QueensWay organizers want. Underneath the structure is a market and above is a High Line-style park. Again, I’m not sure where all these people, or the yellow cab, would come from, but the general idea here seems to stem from Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come.

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The student prize comes from Jessica Shoemaker of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It is underwhelming.

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The honorable mention went to Hyuntek Yoon of Queens. In a Daily News article, Yoon explained that his design allows for a seamless integration from street level to the park. It’s an alluring concept and a pleasant design.

* * *

Over the years, I’ve been highly skeptical of the QueensWay. It’s a long shot to believe that the Rockaway Beach Branch line will be reactivated, but as Joe Raskin’s book revealed, it’s not a new idea. The subway operators have long wishes to incorporate the Rockaway Beach Branch into the subway, and the only thing stopping integration in the 1950s was money (and Robert Moses). Today, there’s a clear need and a clear plan, but political, and more importantly, economic, support isn’t there. Residents will object; the MTA doesn’t have plans for funding. Same as it ever was.

If anything comes of the QueensWay, it ultimately won’t look like these renderings. Most proponents want a utilitarian park with a focus on a bike path that can help bypass the dangerous and crowded Woodhaven Boulevard. These plans, instead, bring the High Line sensibilities to an area that isn’t dense or popular enough to support another High Line. AIANY will host some panels on these designs, and I’m curious to hear what the architects and project proponents have to say. But if I were a betting man, I’d bet against movement, rail or otherwise. The city just isn’t ready for it, and that’s a commentary on the state of transit affairs.

Categories : Queens
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Earlier this week, State Assemblyman Paul Goldfeder’s office sent out what I thought was an oddly-phrased press release along with a letter the Queens representative sent to MTA head Tom Prendergast. In the letter, Goldfeder called upon the MTA to include Queens in its plans for BusTime.

“Waiting for a bus in Queens should not be a guessing game,” he said. “I applaud the MTA for using technology to better their services for customers and I strongly urge them to include all New Yorkers in their latest advances and implement the real-time bus locator app for Queens residents as soon as possible.”

What struck me as odd was the fact that the MTA had always said BusTime would be a city-wide effort and that the rest of the city would receive real-time bus tracking info by the middle of this year. Everything I had heard from MTA sources indicated that the rollout was on time, and I asked Goldfeder’s office if they had heard otherwise. His press rep clarified that Goldfeder “sent a letter to the Chairman to make sure the app does come to Queens and there’s no second thoughts.” An app without one borough would be no app indeed.

In response to Goldfeder’s inquiry, the MTA has stressed its commitment to Brooklyn and Queens. If you look closely enough at the MTA’s bus fleet — and know what to look for — you’ll see that the equipment for BusTime is already in place, and the MTA has said that it should be live soon. “We have completed boroughwide installations in Queens and Brooklyn and are currently fine-tuning software,” MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said in response to various inquiries. “We are on schedule to go online in the next several weeks.”

So there you have it: Ask for an update, and ye shall receive. A citywide implementation of BusTime should do wonders for bus ridership and the overall convenience of New York’s otherwise unreliable local buses. If only now we could do something about the clunky fare payment system.

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What’s a swimming pool doing in an abandoned Paris Metro station? (Via Oxo Architects)

Throughout New York City, ghost subway stations serve as a reminder of the past. We spy fleeting glimpses of 91st St. underneath Broadway between 86th and 96th, and eagle-eyed riders of the 6 train know where to look to see the forgotten columns of the 18th Street station. Bill Brand’s Masstransiscope is a vivid reminder of the Myrtle Ave. subway station, but the MTA won’t even officially acknowledge the existence of the South 4th St. shell above the G train’s Broadway stop.

Even as the allure of the past draws us to these abandoned or never-used subway stations, over the years, various groups have proposed more practical uses. The old Court St. subway station in Brooklyn, for instance, hosts the Transit Museum, and on-again, off-again efforts to turn City Hall into a Transit Museum annex died at the hands of security concerns even before the 9/11 attacks. Today, it is home to regular Transit Museum tours and serves as an attraction for those who ride the 6 train through the loop south of the current Brooklyn Bridge station.

Every now and then, some plans emerge to make use of abandon subway stops, and those plans generally consist of fanciful renderings that go nowhere. We can talk about underground theater space and art galleries or restaurants, but throughout the world, abandoned subway stations continue to be just that. They remain forever abandoned.

The latest attempt comes from a Paris mayoral hopeful. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, currently polling second in her campaign, recently garnered worldwide headlines with her fanciful proposals to turn the Paris Metro’s ghost stations into something a little more lively. In conjunction with OXO Architects, her ideas range from implausible to impractical, but it’s hard not to find them alluring. OXO’s renderings all use the Arsenal Metro stop — a particularly tough station to reclaim since it is on an active Metro line — but the renderings include an underground swimming pool, an art gallery and an auditorium. At the least, it has people talking.

An underground garden inspired by the Lowline. (Via OXO Architects)

Amusingly enough, OXO’s appeal to such romantically Parisian uses of the Metro rests on an analogy with New York. On their website, they write, “At a time when New-York is talking about the ‘Lowline’, why couldn’t Paris profit from its underground potential and invent new functions for these abandoned places?” The Lowline, of course, remains an idea, unfunded and unsupported by the transit agency that owns its planned space. Still, though, as OXO notes, “More than a century after the opening of Paris’ underground network, these places could show they’re still able to offer new urban experiments.”

So just what does NKM and the architects have in mind? They summarize: “To swim in the metro seems like a crazy dream, but it could soon come true! Turning a former metro station into a swimming-pool or a gymnasium could be a way to compensate for the lack of sports and leisure facilities in some areas. A theatre on a disused platform could be an amazing venue for artists, choregraphers or dancers to perform, in an outstanding yet familiar setting. Why not open a night club in the Arsenal station? Close to La Bastille, a vibrant neighboorhod, it is the perfect location to party in the heart of Paris without the risk of disturbing the neighbors.”

The Paris Metro nightclub. (Via OXO Architects)

NKM has explained her thinking on the proposals. For those of you, like me, who cannot read French, she has said she wants to convert seven of the 11 Paris Metro ghost stations into community spots. She herself went exploring two decades ago because “it was too tempting,” and she notes that “magical” atmosphere underground. I understand her sentiments entirely.

It’s hard not to find these ideas appealing even if the odds of them becoming a reality are slim. We dream of past station we never saw in service, and we dream of ways to bring back what was once built for productive uses. The City Hall station in New York remains something amazing to see while others flash by in the blink of an eye. Maybe one day, the public can appreciate abandoned infrastructure; today, we’ll just enjoy these renderings instead.

NextStopis After a week off due to some scheduling conflicts, the one and only Second Ave. Sagas’ podcast “The Next Stop Is…” returns with some island-hopping. Unfortunately, as yet another snow storm bears down on the New York City area, we’re not enjoying some tropical islands; instead, we visit the isles of Manhattan, Staten and Long.

In our chat this week, Eric Brasure and I discuss first the ints and outs of the Verrazano toll relief. Needless to say, it wasn’t my favorite political move of the year. Then, we delve into the bad news out of the East Side Access project. What does it mean for transit expansion if the MTA keeps delivery projects years late and billions over budget? Finally, we can a journey to the light-hearted side of subway travel. A new group is trying to make subway travel easier, but the MTA has other ideas.

This week’s recording is a little shorter than usually, topping out at just over 19 minutes, but that just makes it even more appropriate for your subway ride home this evening. You can grab the podcast right here on iTunes or pull the raw MP3 file. If you enjoy what you hear, subscribe to updates on iTunes as well and consider leaving us a review. If you have any questions you’d like us to tackle, leave ‘em in the comments below.

Categories : The Next Stop Is
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9780823253692 The Routes Not Taken, Joseph Raskin’s thoroughly detailed an illuminating look at the various unbuilt subway routes that litter New York City history, begins with a simple premise: It is amazing that our subway system, in its present form, flaws and all, exists in the first place. We spend a lot of time imagining fantasy maps, pouring over details from lost and forgotten extensions and trying to catch a glimpse of the past’s future provisions. We never think about how we got to where we are today.

After Raskin’s first chapter though, reality sets in. While the subway system somehow encompasses 468 stations and 722 track miles, the more tantalizing elements are those lines and extensions that never saw the light of day. The D train, for instance, ends at a stub tunnel at 205th St. that was supposed to be the Burke Ave. subway. Meanwhile, in Queens, the mystery of 76th St. runs deep on the Internet, and plans to send trains to College Point or even the Nassau County line remain a relic of the past.

I’d urge any student of New York City history to read Raskin’s book. At times, it gets lost in the details as the author charts yet another community group meeting or business association that fights for a subway line. But those details are what makes this book so vital. New Yorkers fought for subway lines everywhere. They fought for subway lines down Utica and Nostrand Avenues; they fought for subway lines up and down the East Side. Raskin tracks each and every one of these fights, meetings, politicians’ positions and the myriad plans released by the Board of Transportation, the Board of Estimate and everyone else with a stake in the fight.

What’s most telling to me about Raskin’s book are how so many of the themes resonant today. The biggest recurring problem is, of course, NIMBYism. We know and hate NIMBYism today, and the last 100 years of New York City history were no different. NIMBYs fought long and hard against elevated lines that, even 80 years ago, were a much cheaper way to extend the subway system. NIMBYs are why the East Side has been a near-transit desert since the 2nd and 3rd Avenue Els were torn down.

But then some NIMBYs fought against underground lines too. Some groups wanted stations and routing shifted one or two avenues north, south, east or west. Others feared a few years of construction would disrupt street-level business. It was the ultimate in short-sightedness as today, and for decades, neighborhoods with subway lines are far better off than neighborhoods that successfully fought against them.

Beyond the NIMBYs though were the deep-seated institutional problems that affected transit expansion. I found Raskin giving Robert Moses to many excuses toward the end of the book, but the man both threw up barriers to transit and took money away from it. He knew how to get his projects funded while both the BOE and BOT couldn’t deliver money for that Burke Ave. subway in the Bronx. Meanwhile, whenever a new subway extension would inch closer to reality, an interborough warfare would break out. The Queens Borough President would bemoan expenditures in the Bronx while the Staten Island delegation wanted its cross-Narrows subway before a Utica Ave. line would see the light of day. Ultimately, this fighting is why it took years for the old New York, Westchester and Boston Railway to become the 5 train’s Dyre Ave. line and why only a segment of the LIRR’s Rockaway Beach Branch is part of the subway.

Finally, Raskin analyzes the financial realities that plagued the city as well. He dives into the controversy surrounding the 1951 bond issue. Hundreds of millions of dollars that were supposed fund a Second Ave. Subway went instead of modernizing an aging system. But the real problem was the fare. Since subway fares were so politicized, no one could stomach the blowback of raising the fares. By the time the city discarded the nickel, the subways were operating at a crushing loss, and the hope of using proceeds to fund any subsequent system extension were dashed. We dreamed big but never with any money behind it.

So we return to the idea of our system today. It’s a marvel that it exists as it does and works as it does. But we need to move forward. If New York is going to grow, the subway must grow with it, and we know, from Raskin’s work, that the plans are out there if we dare to dream big enough.

Categories : Subway History
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The MTA frowns upon these signs EPP NYC has begun to place throughout the subway system. (Photo via @EPPNYC on Twitter)

For veteran riders of the subway system, there is no better feeling of transit satisfaction than getting to the right spot to wait for a train based on where you want to go. I know, for instance, which set of doors on the Coney Island-bound Q train I need to be among the first people up the stairs at 7th Ave., and I know where to stand to optimize the transfer between the BMT and IRT at Union Square.

Over the years, various tools have allowed New Yorkers more access to this information. The MTA’s neighborhood maps, accessible if you know where to look, help and so too does the Exit Strategy App. Now, though, a new effort by a group calling itself the Efficient Passenger Project is raising some eyebrows both in support and opposition to the effort.

The idea is simple: Signs on subway platforms will guide riders to the best place to stand if they’re trying to transfer. Not surprisingly, the photo making the rounds shows a sign at the L train’s Bedford Ave. station highlight the switch to the 4/5/6 at Union Square. As the photo atop this post indicates, there are many more to come.

WNYC’s Kate Hinds profiled the EPP today, and while the Straphangers voiced their support, the MTA did not. Hinds reports:

“It’s a public, civic service,” an EPP founder told WNYC. The founder asked to remain anonymous because the signs are not sanctioned by the MTA. The subways can be “a labyrinth of tunnels and transfers and stairways. The project is an attempt to kind of rationalize some of that environment, and just make a more enjoyable, faster commute.”

Gene Russianoff, staff attorney of the Straphangers Campaign, was firmly in the ‘pro’ column. “I am all for sharing subway smarts,” he said, adding presciently: “The EPP activists better have many replacement copies of the poster.”

MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz confirmed that the transit agency was, indeed, planning on removing them. “These signs have the potential to cause crowding conditions in certain platform areas and will create uneven loading in that some train cars will be overcrowded while others will be under-utilized.” Besides, he said, “regular customers already know which car they want to get into.”

Those reactions basically run the gamut from friendly to, well, expected. I appreciated the WNYC colleague who objected to the signs because “posting [the information] so flagrantly etches away at the quiet pleasure” of knowing just where to stand. Make of it all what you will.

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While heading from Manhattan to the Double Windsor to enjoy the New York City debut of Bell’s Brewery’s delicious beers, I hopped off the A at Jay St. to catch an arriving Coney Island-bound F train. Lo and behold, it was the rare Jaguar-branded F. I had heard much about this rare creature, and my transit-loving heart skipped a beat as this wrapped train arrived.

Upon alighting at 15th Street-Prospect Park, I snapped a few pictures of the train. It’s a silly bit of advertising, designed to make the MTA some money while appealing to our cultural prejudice against public transit. Even in New York City, the ads proclaim, the Jaguar F type is faster than the Transit Authority’s F train. It’s a silly conceit in New York City where congestion rules the day, and the F, generally, can get a straphanger to his or her destination just as fast as a car at peak hours.

Not everyone is enamored with this ad. When it hit the rails a few weeks ago, Streetsblog accused the MTA of undermining its mission with an ad that insults riders. “One costs around $2 per trip while the other starts at $69,000 — plus taxes, license fees, insurance, parking, gas, and maintenance,” Brad Aaron wrote, “Seriously, who sees this ad and thinks, ‘I believe I’ll trade my MetroCard for a $1,500 a month debt load’? The F train doesn’t have a top speed of whatever, but it can get from 14th Street to Prospect Park with just 12 stops in between. And there’s no battling the horn-honking morass at the toll-free East River bridges.”

I wouldn’t take it that far, and from the inside, I had no idea the train was wrapped in a Jaguar ad. Still, it was something new and different, and it generates some revenue from the cash-starved authority. It won’t cover the cost of providing toll relief across the Verrazano Bridge, and it may be too reminiscent of full-car graffiti bombings in the 1980s. But it’s just an ad. It is but a balm for hurt minds even as car culture and transit culture collide spectacularly.

Categories : Subway Advertising
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