The wacky font at 63rd St. and Lexington is the first glimpse of the tiling for the Second Ave. Subway. (Via MTA)

The wacky font at 63rd St. and Lexington is the first glimpse of the tiling for the Second Ave. Subway. (Via MTA)

As far as bargaining chips the MTA can use for leverage in discussions over capital funding, the MTA’s options are few and far between. Short of kidnapping a bunch of customers and hiding them in the station shell at South 4th Street, MTA officials can only make noises about potential options. We heard about steep fare hikes yesterday, but those aren’t the only trump cards the agency can play. How about big-ticket capital projects?

During the same press conference at which he promised not to raise fares to delivery capital funding to the cash-strained MTA, agency head Tom Prendergast spoke about what may need to go in the capital plan if funding doesn’t materialize, and of course, the namesake of my site came up. As part of the five-year spending plan, the MTA has requested $1.5 billion for the Second Ave. Subway. This line-item isn’t without controversy as the MTA hasn’t put a dollar figure on Phase 2 in over decade and wants a large sum for initial construction set to begin in the last year of the proposed five-year plan.

Still, the MTA knows the Second Ave. Subway won’t cost less than $1.5 billion, and the agency needs this money to keep momentum going. When Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway opens, the rest of the East Side will clamor for more segments of this line. It’s going to be that much of a game-changer for people that this phased approach is likely to be viewed as a mistake (if it already isn’t).

But as is the MTA’s wont with in-demand projects, the Second Ave. Subway makes for a potential liability and lever. In speaking on the impact of no funding solution earlier this week, Tom Prendergast said, as Capital New York reported, that future phases of the project could be “put on hold.” Isn’t that exactly what Sheldon Silver wanted when he forced the MTA to break one subway line into quarters?

The MTA can’t really afford not to build out more of the Second Ave. Subway. After all, phase two northward to Harlem and 125th St. is the part that will truly alleviate capacity constraints along the Lexington Ave. line. But threatening the future of the Second Ave. Subway is indeed something the MTA can do. Much like Prendergast or his underlings can discuss fare hikes, so too can the MTA boss talk about putting capital projects on hold. The more he discusses this in the context of Albany, the clearer it becomes that someone is responsible for holding up discussions surrounding badly-needed subway extension plans. I don’t love using the Second Ave. Subway as a bargaining chit, but if it forces legislators to the table as the days tick by, that’s better than the alternative.

Meanwhile, to show progress and perhaps to force a reckoning over this capital funding issue, the MTA released a series of photos from inside the Second Ave. Subway construction area. The agency maintains that the new stations will open for revenue service by the end of December of 2016. That gives the agency a full 20 months from today to realize this goal. The clock is ticking, and the delays at 34th St. and 11th Ave. along the 7 line loom large. Click through for some photos and check out the full set in this PDF presentation. Read More→

For all of its troubles, politically and economically, the MTA always has a trump card in its back pocket. If nothing happens with regards to the multi-billion-dollar hole in its capital plan, the agency can always look to fare revenue for a potential source of income. The agency’s leaders know they have a captive audience of New Yorkers who have to come to rely on the subway system now more than ever; they know they can jack up tolls; and they know it gets the attention of those in Albany when the dreaded phrase “fare hikes” comes up in the public discourse.

Earlier this week as yet more time passed with nothing happening with regards to the MTA’s 2015-2019 capital plan, agency officials started talking about fare hikes and boy did it start something in the halls of power. During committee meetings on Monday, MTA CEO Bob Foran confirmed what anyone in the know already knows: The MTA could close its capital funding gap by issuing more debt which would incur higher operating costs in the form of debt service which would be covered by … fare hikes.

“If we do not receive adequate funding to carry us through the next two years, we don’t have sufficient funds to keep the program going. At some point, the board may take action and the action that they really only can turn to would be one that addresses fares and tolls,” Foran said.

He explained that fare hikes to cover the gap could top 15% — a far cry from the current rate of around four percent every two years the MTA has implemented. Meanwhile, Foran wasn’t the only one crying foul. Jeffrey Kay noted similar concerns. “If they don’t do anything in the next two months, we have a freight train coming at us,” he said. “This is a real problem, and it’s not just going to impact the MTA. It’s going to impact the riders, it’s going to impact the workforce, it’s going to impact the construction unions, and it’s going to impact jobs…This is a real serious issue, and I don’t know what we can do in order to tell our partners that this is real.”

A day after the meetings — clearly on orders from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office — MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast released a statement backtracking on his colleagues’ assertions. ““Yesterday’s mention of a potential 15 percent fare and toll increase,” Prendergast said on Tuesday, “was a hypothetical answer to a hypothetical question. No one has proposed we pay for our capital needs on the backs of our riders, and no one is considering it.”

He reiterated those sentiments on Wednesday following the MTA’s full board meeting. “We have never, ever closed the capital program on the backs of the fare payers. That’s unconscionable. That’s not our desire. That’s not what we’re going to do,” he promised, again sounding as though the governor’s office had turned the screws on him.

Prendergast doth protest too much as the truth is that few options are even on the table. James Brennan’s proposal hasn’t moved much in the two weeks since it was introduced, and more troubling is recent borough-based opposition to the Move New York plan. A group of Queens Democrats, including the usually transit-friendly Assembly rep Phillip Goldfeder and Borough President Melinda Katz, issued a statement in opposition to Move New York because they claim it is “unfair” to Queens and “lacks any promise of returns.” How they drew this conclusion is beyond me, but their statement is far more damaging to transit in New York City than these politicians realize.

Goldfeder tried to defend his position to me on Twitter. He claims to be concerned that Move New York doesn’t “address transit starved communities,” but without the dedicated revenue, the MTA doesn’t have the money to begin to implement improvements. It’s not even a Catch-22; it’s just common sense — something I usually expect from transit allies such as Goldfeder and Katz.

Overall, without Queens’ Democrats, Cuomo isn’t likely to embrace Move New York, and without Cuomo, Move New York — along the $1 billion that come with it — is dead in the water. Thus, we circle back to the MTA’s fare hikes. They’re a threat and a political cudgel the MTA can use to get attention, but they also shouldn’t be dismissed. Fare hikes are, after all, the only way the MTA can guarantee revenue for itself, and if New Yorkers don’t like the idea of a 15 percent hike, I know a bunch of politicians in Queens who deserve to bear the brunt of any complaints.

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Back in the mid-1990s, when the Port Authority opened the Newark AirTrain, it was widely viewed as a mess of a project. Trying to buy a customized product from a less-successful company, the Port Authority spent $354 million in mid-1990s dollars on the slow and hulking system with tiny cars and generally not enough capacity they have today. What they didn’t say at the time was that the design life of the system was 25 years, and well, wouldn’t you know, but time flies. That 25 years is almost up, and without a planning process that begins now, the PA will shoot past that deadline with no replacement in sight.

So you would think that the Port Authority would take this opportunity to right a wrong. Perhaps they could double down on Gov. Christie’s pet project — perhaps spurred on by corrupt dealings with United Airlines — and extend the PATH not just to the EWR Amtrak/New Jersey Transit stop but all the way to the airport terminals. Perhaps they’ll learn from the 1990s and not sink untold millions into a project that winds up over budget and years delayed. Or perhaps they already want to spend $70 million on design and technical consultants alone.

In materials released in advance of Thursday’s Port Authority board meeting, the agency unveiled its intentions to do just that. The documents contain a planning authorization for the AirTrain replacement, and the initial expenditures are significant. The PA plans to spend $30 million on technical consultants and $40 million on planning consultants. To cover the latter costs, the Port Authority is going to request permission from the FAA to use Passenger Facility Charges. And what, you may wonder, will they get for their $70 million? Straight from the horse’s mouth:

Currently, AirTrain experiences crowding issues, because demand exceeds capacity during peak periods and weather-induced delays. Although substantial investment has been made to maintain current operations, such investment has not extended the 25-year design life of the system, nor has it expanded capacity.

The proposed planning work would support alternative analysis, conceptual layouts, environmental review, cost estimates, scheduling, financing needs and funding alternatives for the replacement of AirTrain and coordination with other short-term and long-term development at EWR, including the replacement of Terminal A. Professional services would be required to support the planning effort via task orders, through the selection of a contractor(s) to replace the system, at an estimated amount of $30 million. The consultant to support the planning effort for the replacement of the AirTrain system would be retained via a publicly advertised Request for Proposals process, with award to the highest-rated proposer. The consultant contract also would include additional tasks to support the oversight and implementation of the replacement of the AirTrain system through project completion, which would be at an additional cost and subject to future authorization.

Despite a 2011 report that indicated the AirTrain represented a challenge for Newark Airport’s crowds, the Port Authority didn’t include replacement requests in its current $27-billion, 10-year capital plan. Rather, they’re going to spend at least $1-$1.5 billion on a PATH extension and, I’d imagine, at least another half a billion on the AirTrain replacement. At a time when the region is in bad need of a trans-Hudson tunnel and when New York’s Gov. Cuomo wants to spend another billion dollars on a LaGuardia AirTrain, it may be time to step back and consider exactly what we’re getting for our dollars. Does anyone really trust the Port Authority to invest wisely — besides, that is, the consultants who see dollar signs on the horizon?

Categories : PANYNJ
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The stairs and the platforms are ready, but the rest of the 7 line station at 34th St. and 11th Ave. isn't. (Via MTA)

The stairs and the platforms are ready, but the rest of the 7 line station at 34th St. and 11th Ave. isn’t. (Via MTA)

At this point in our saga, the monthly release of the MTA Board books presents another opportunity to find out that the 7 line extension opening has been delayed. In March, the Board saw a fancy presentation with photos from the completed but unopened station while MTA Capital Construction officials noted that opening may not be until the start of the third quarter. In this month’s Transit committee meetings, we learn that the project is now officially delayed until the third quarter of 2015. The MTA hasn’t said if July 1 or September 30 will be the opening, but they expect the great unveiling to be some time in that time period.

This month’s materials don’t go into the same detail as previous updates. After all, the MTA’s Capital Program Oversight Committee has a variety of projects that require oversight, and they can’t all be as comically delayed as the 7 line extension. But we know that the vent fans, some alarm systems, escalators and inclined elevators have been at the root of the delay. Some of these are systems the MTA opted not to purchase off the shelf due to a combination of low bid requirements, Made in America obligations and sheer stubbornness.

Meanwhile, the one-stop extension — without, of course, the station at 41st St. and 10th Ave. that would have dramatically improved this project’s overall value — will now open more than 16 months before outgoing Mayor Bloomberg basically forced the MTA to conduct a ceremonial ride as part of his valedictory lap around the city. Because the area is still under development and considered Manhattan’s final frontier, few residents are up in arms over the delay. The project simply wasn’t disruptive to a densely-populated area.

The Second Ave. Subway, the MTA says, is still scheduled to open in December of 2016, but if similar delays happen on the Upper East Side — and remember, the feds have never revised their own estimate of an early 2018 opening for Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway — a powerful and vocal group of Manhattanites will not go quietly into the night. The 7 line opening date is a farce; the Second Ave. Subway could be much, much worse.

Categories : 7 Line Extension
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In its latest Board committee materials, the MTA let slip some news. The 7 line extension, that Moby Dick of subway expansion projects, won’t be ready for revenue service officially until the third quarter of this year. That means it could open as early as July and as late as September 30. We’ll find out soon enough when that date will be.

That’s the bad news, but the good news is that Transit is adding service to a few subway lines this fall. The 2, 7, L and M lines will all see new service while the D will lose a round trip due to the MTA’s self-established load guidelines. Here’s how the agency put it in a press release on Friday:

The most significant increase will be seven new weekday round trips between 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. on the L line, which experienced the greatest ridership growth at all hours in 2014. The new service will reduce the average time between trains to 5 minutes for the entire period between the morning and evening rush hours. NYC Transit last added service on the L line in fall 2014 with 56 more weekend round trips and an increase in weekday evening service.

The 7 line will see two additional new round trips on weeknights between 8 p.m. and 10:20 p.m., reducing the average time between trains to under 4½ minutes. The 2 line will also add two new weeknight round trips between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., reducing the average time between trains to 7½ minutes The M line will add one round trip on weekdays, reducing the average time between trains to 7½ minutes between 9:00 a.m. and 9:30 a.m…

Following [the loading] guidelines, weekday service on the D line will decrease by one round trip split between the morning and evening rush hours. This will increase the average time to 10 minutes between 7:30 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. for Brooklyn-bound D trains and between 5:30 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. for Bronx-bound D trains.

The MTA says these changes will cost $1.6 million per year — a pittance compared to the agency’s overall budget — and the service increases show that Transit is “making the most of its resources to deliver service that accurately reflects ridership in growing areas.” I’m not so keen on decreasing service on the D, even by only a train, but by and large, this is all good news.

Meanwhile, after the jump, this weekend’s service changes. Read More→

Categories : Service Advisories
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  • Cuomo: Prendergast to be renominated as MTA head · Due to the fact that the MTA has burned through leaders at a rate of nearly one per year over the last six years, Tom Prendergast, on the job only for two years, was nearing the end of the current six-year term when news broke this morning that Gov. Andrew Cuomo plans to reappoint him. The Governor let the word drop this morning during a breakfast speech in front of the Association for a Better New York, and in comments Prendergast made to the press later in the day, the MTA chief received the word the same way the rest of us did — through breaking news straight from Cuomo’s mouth at the breakfast. Now, the MTA may get some much-needed stability at a time when it’s searching for an even more badly-needed $15 billion in capital funding.

    Thanks to politicking and such, Prendergast’s current term is actually the end of Jay Walder’s six-year appointment. That term began in 2009 when Lee Sander and Dale Hemmerdinger were forced out, and the bifurcated MTA Executive Director and MTA Board Chair positions were merged. Walder gave way to Joe Lhota, and City Hall ambitions led Lhota to step down. Now, Prendergast, 62, will get his own six-year term and the opportunity to leave a lasting mark on the MTA. Advocated had endorsed this move in March, and I think it’s a good one. I’ll have more once Cuomo puts out the official word; the Governor’s full speech is available on YouTube. · (5)
The Utica Ave. subway extension, a proposal from New York City's history, has reappeared in the OneNY document.

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

A bunch of years ago, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg released his comprehensive plan for New York City’s immediate future. Awkwardly called PlaNYC, it introduced the city to the idea of a congestion pricing charge for Manhattan’s Central Business District and tied in the revenue from this fee to transit upgrades designed to secure the city’s environmental future while cutting down on crippling congestion. The centerpiece failed, but the overall master plan concept has stuck around. It was refreshed four years ago and overhauled this year as Mayor Bill de Blasio released OneNYC on Wednesday.

The idea behind OneNYC is similar to PlaNYC but with de Blasio’s imprint. It is concerned with raising New Yorkers out of poverty while paying nod to growth, sustainability and resilience. While politicians sometimes hate to admit it, all four of these goals are focused around mobility, and transit necessarily has to grab the spotlight. In his OneNYC report [pdf], de Blasio doesn’t mention congestion pricing or the Move New York plan. In fact, he later claimed, perhaps to save political capital in the face of a recalcitrant governor, that he’s never read the Move New York proposal. But de Blasio did turn his attention to transit.

“Reliable and convenient transit access to employment and other activities remains stubbornly out of reach for too many New Yorkers. This problem is particularly acute for low- and moderate-income residents in areas poorly served by the subway or buses. For seniors and those with disabilities, this can affect their ability to simply get groceries, or see family and friends,” the report notes.

To correct these problems, the Mayor’s Office offers up some familiar solutions. The report discusses the new citywide ferry network that won’t actually correct the problems, and it again reiterates plans to bring 20 new Select Bus Service routes to the city within the next three years. Where things get interesting though is with the MTA’s unfunded capital plan. The OneNYC report says the city will “support full funding of the MTA capital plan.” The report dances around direct fiscal support though and states that “the City will also work closely with the MTA to identify significant savings and improve operational coordination in areas of common interest, such as bus rapid transit, other bus services, and Access-a-Ride. Any savings we achieve together can be leveraged to create new capital support for the MTA.”

In exchange for this support, the city wants something. They always do. In this instance, the city proposes the bombshell: a study of a subway down Utica Ave. in Brooklyn. The report calls for faster CBTC adoption, new or reopened entrances that are ADA-compliant, randomly a free transfer between the Livonia Ave./Junius St. L and 3 stations, and subway-fication of the LIRR between Jamaica and Atlantic Ave. after East Side Access opens. But the Utica Ave. line is the centerpiece.

The document doesn’t go too far here. The mayor wants simply “a study to explore the expansion of the subway system south along Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, one of the densest areas of the city without direct access to the subway,” and on its face, it’s exciting that someone in City Hall is talking about this idea in an official document. It is so far unclear how a Utica Ave. subway would take shape. It could involve an extension of the 4 train from the Eastern Parkway line. It could call back to Second System plans to run trains from 2nd Ave. through South 4th St. and, eventually, down Utica Ave. But there you have it.

As The Times noted, this is far from the first time this idea has arisen. A Utica Ave. subway was part of the early 1900s plans for the subway and were included in expansion plans in the 1920s, 1930s and 1960s. Another study today seems like overkill, but it’s the first step toward securing funding. It’s a very preliminary first step though.

In discussing this idea, the transit cognoscenti were surprised. “No one expected this,” the Rudin Center’s Mitchell Moss said to The Times. “It’s refreshing to see a proposal to extend mass transit into areas of Brooklyn that are transit-deprived. It’s obviously an idea that will take more than a decade to be carried out, but you have to start with an idea.”

The challenges being right there. One of the reasons why politicians are so hesitant to embrace these ambitious plans concerns timing. If it’s going to take a decade or more from start to finish, those who appear at the ribbon cutting won’t be those who did the heavy lifting and secured the dollars. There is no political incentive to push through infrastructure projects if the only photo op will be a staged event 18 months before the real opening date (cough cough 7 line extension cough cough).

But there are other challenges too. The next concerns money. Who’s funding this subway extension? How? The last concerns priorities. The MTA has its own capital program wishlist and a 20-year needs assessment. The Utica Ave. subway featured on none of those documents, and adding it to the capital plan means more money would be required and more demands made. The MTA has identified the Second Ave. Subway as a need; the Mayor wants Outer Borough support and has plans for Utica Ave. It’s a push and pull that gets resolved through money.

So that’s the plan for One New York. A Utica Ave. subway would be intriguing, but without a new and dedicated East River tunnel, it would create more a capacity problem on whichever line the extension would be a part of. It faces many, many challenges, but it’s a start. At least someone’s talking about it.

Categories : Brooklyn
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While drilling down on the 2014 ridership numbers earlier this week, I couldn’t get past the sheer volume of people using the subway each day. It’s hard to conceptualize 5.6 million every day, let alone the 29 weekdays last year with over 6 million riders, and that makes it very hard to figure out a solution for the MTA’s capacity woes that doesn’t involve multi-billion-dollar, decades-long construction efforts.

The easiest thing to do is for me to reel off a bunch of numbers. Times Square saw a whopping 7000 more riders per day last year than over 2013 and over 25,000 more per day in 2014 than in 2009. Grand Central saw a bump of 4000 entrances per day; the new Fulton St. saw nearly 5000 new swipes. Court Square saw nearly 2000 more entrances, and Bedford Ave. on the L, already beyond crowded, witnessed 1300 new swipes. What the Domino Sugar Factory development will mean for L train ridership is up for debate.

But numbers tend to lose their meanings after a while. New Yorkers know the subways are crowded because we’re down there every day. We know that the time to get space on the Manhattan-bound Q from Brooklyn is even earlier or later than it used to be, and we know we can forget about that seat. We know that trying to take a train up or down Lexington Ave. at 6 p.m. is a fool’s errand. We see trains on the weekend that are packed, and we remember when late-night meant empty cars instead of crowded platforms.

While discussing these ridership numbers on Twitter on Monday, a few people were surprised to hear the subway’s popularity were going up in light of the introduction of cab-hail apps such of Uber and Lyft and the raise in popularity of Citi Bike. It’s true that these services serve a purpose and an important one, but to get back to the numbers, they don’t do much for subway ridership. The car-hailing apps have cut into the supremacy of medallioned yellow cabs, but the price point for these services places them well beyond the reach of New Yorkers who rely on the subways day in and day out.

If anything, CitiBike may be able to solve some of the MTA’s capacity problems, others have argued, but the scales don’t line up. The overall subway network has an average ridership of 5.6 million with peaks of over 6 million. On its most popular day — which aligned with a day that saw subway ridership peak as well — New Yorkers took 39,000 rides on Citi Bike. That means Citi Bike accounted for barely six-tenths of one percent of subway ridership, and on average, that figure is closer to three-tenths of one percent.

A sampling of the Citi Bike travel logs suggests, anecdotally at least, that most riders aren’t duplicating subway rides. Even though more than half say their rides are replacing a subway fare, most are crosstown or otherwise replaces buses or walking routes. Furthermore, the crowding issues, particularly on the Lexington Ave. line, begin and end well outside of the current (or any planned) Citi Bike region. The scales just don’t line up.

The truth is that CitiBike can help around the margins. If 2 people out of 1000 opt against taking the 6 train from Grand Central to Union Square, then a few people may be able to get on a train rather than letting it pass. But CitiBike is a solution for the last-mile problem, not the MTA’s current first-mile problem.

To solve the capacity problems requires cost cutting and an infusion of capital dollars. It requires faster construction timelines and a more aggressive plan to bring real bus rapid transit — and not some souped-up express bus service with pre-board fare payment — to New York City. It will require taking an actual stand on political issues that resonant with subway riders, a constituency with great numbers but less access and money than those who aren’t regular subway riders. It’s not easy but it’s necessary. Otherwise, the subways will suffer from the Yogi Berra problem: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

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I’ve used this line before, but here we go: If the subways seem more crowded than ever, that’s because they are. Transit released its final 2014 ridership figures on Monday, and the increase in ridership hasn’t slowed. Overall, ridership jumped by 2.6 percent over 2013, and 1.751 billion people rode the subways, a level not seen in 65 years. It’s amazing then that politicians like to act as though the subways don’t exist — or should be used only as a prop — when they power New York City.

On a daily basis, the crush is obvious. The subways average 5.6 million riders per weekday and around 6 million on Saturday and Sunday combined. Ridership is up by nearly 500,000 people per day since the depths of the recession in 2009 and by over 2 million riders per day over the past 30 years. That’s insane growth considering the system hasn’t added any significant new service since then.

“The renaissance of the New York City subway is a miracle for those who remember the decrepit system of the 1970s and the 1980s, but moving more than 6 million customers a day means even minor disruptions now can create major delays,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said in a statement accompanying the ridership figures. “We are aggressively working to combat delays and improve maintenance, but the ultimate solution requires investing in infrastructure upgrades such as Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) signaling systems to accommodate every one of our growing number of customers.”

On a granular level, the change in ridership mirrors long-standing patterns. Areas with massive population growth and development — Long Island City, Williamsburg, Bushwick — have driven ridership gains on nearby subway lines. Overall, Brooklyn led the charge with an increase of 31,000 riders per day while Manhattan entrances jumped by 2.5%, Bronx by 2.1% and Queens by 1.9%. Every single L train station saw ridership gains with Bushwick stations seeing double-digit percentage growth. The MTA attributed the jump, in part, to the CBTC installation which has allowed for more frequent service.

Meanwhile, the M line — rerouted in 2010 to cover for the dearly departed V train — saw ridership jump by around six percent at stations between Marcy and Metropolitan Avenues. The M in fact has led to a growth in ridership by nearly 25 percent throughout its corridor though it’s tough to separate that jump from the overall ridership increase brought on by an improving economy. Meanwhile, ridership in Long Island City grew by 12 percent as well, and the 7 line will see more new riders when the extension to Hudson Yards finally opens sometime ever. In the Bronx, the 2 and 5 led the way with 3.7 percent growth, and in Manhattan, the 2 and 3 set the pace with similar numbers.

Meanwhile, indirectly through Prendergast’s statement and directly from the mouth’s of the city’s transit advocates, the ridership numbers gave those fighting for dollars another platform to call for funding. The Tri-State Transportation Campaign:

The New York City subway system is one of the region’s most valuable assets, but with the delays and crowds that characterize the commutes of millions of daily riders, it is easy to underappreciate. Today’s news that subway ridership increased by 2.6 percent in 2014 is both a significant milestone celebrating the progress and popularity of the system over the decades, but potentially a harbinger of bad news if more investment is not made in the system.

The plan that outlines such investments, the 2015-2019 MTA capital program, has a $14 billion gap. The improvements that reduce delays and crowds are on the chopping block as a result.

As legislators return to session in Albany this week, addressing this gap must be one of their top priorities. This plan outlines the train, track, signal, technology, bus, and station projects that will mitigate delays, crowds and deteriorating service across the entire MTA system.

The Straphangers:

The New York Ci†y’s subways are giving us a degree of mobility unparalleled in America, with access to jobs, family and what makes New York City so appealing. So whether it’s a hipster going clubbing along the L line or tourists from Texas trying a new budget hotel in Queens, we welcome you – and demand that transit officials take action to make our commuting lives bearable.

The Riders Alliance:

People are taking the subway at levels we haven’t seen for generations. Our elected officials should be falling over each other to invest in better subway and bus service, to serve the eight million people who take the subway and bus every day. Instead, there’s a debate about whether to invest even the basic funds required to prevent the subways from deteriorating further. New Yorkers are voting with their Metrocards and relying on public transit more each year. It’s time for Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers to listen to the crowd and increase transit funding to match riders’ needs. If they don’t, riders are in for a future of more delays, dangerous crowding and higher fares. With more people than ever relying on public transit, that shouldn’t be Governor Cuomo’s vision for public transit in New York.

As voters do indeed vote with their Metrocards, is anyone listening? Even as alternatives bloom — CitiBike, Uber, Lyft — six million people per day can’t really be wrong.

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A glimpse into One Vanderbilt's Transit Hall. (Via KPF)

A Transit Hall and other improvements are a part of One Vanderbilt’s $210 million package. (Via KPF)

Since my office is now across the street from Grand Central, I’ve had a front-row view of the work at 1 Vanderbilt. In a way, it’s a peek into the potential future of MTA financing. As the old building goes down and a new skyscraper takes its place, we should ask if this model of value-capture is sufficient and sustainable. The new developers of the new building will guarantee at least $210 million in upgrades for the Grand Central subway stop, but is this truly a model that the city can replicate on a grand scale while addressing the needs of growing demand for transit?

The idea behind the funding for the transit improvements at 1 Vanderbilt is simple: In exchange for permission to construct the 68-story tower, SL Green will contribute a few hundred million to fancy up the Grand Central subway station. The dank Lexington Ave. line will see improved street level access, more platform space and a larger mezzanine. Ideally, these changes will help the station better handle both current passenger loads and anticipated increases in ridership brought about by the new building, the East Side rezoning and the eventual opening of the East Side Access project.

Transit advocates seem to like the idea. On Friday, Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers and John Raskin of the Riders Alliance published an Op-Ed in the Daily News calling upon the city to pursue this type of funding on a wider scale. They write:

Over time, especially with systematic disinvestment from the federal government, we’ll need more funds to fill the gap. One promising source is sitting right there in underdeveloped land near the subway. Think of it as a kind of “value capture”: Landowners seek permission for large-scale bonuses to how big they can build. In return, they must offer transit improvements. In the past, many of the changes have been modest, as anyone stuck at the bottom of a non-working private escalator in the subways can tell you. We must be more demanding…

If we extend it to far more projects, the One Vanderbilt model could eventually bring in hundreds of millions of dollars as the city considers a new generation of super skyscrapers. (It’s true that real estate does pay citywide taxes that fund transit. But these are like the broad-based transit taxes on drivers, corporations and consumers — not tied to specific improvements.)

Many communities around New York City owe their existence to our number one capital asset — our subways. How fitting that desperately-needed subway aid should come from our number one home town industry, real estate.

In theory, it’s hard to oppose this deal. Mega-towers will likely tax the subways around them, and the MTA shouldn’t be left holding the bag as developers walk away with millions of dollars from these new towers. But in practice, I’m not yet convinced it’s a sustainable model for MTA funding.

The problem concerns, as Raskin and Russianoff put it, “underdeveloped land near the subway.” Is there enough underdeveloped land to generate enough revenue for the MTA to build multi-billion-dollar subway extensions? The land, for instance, around the Triboro RX line isn’t zoned for developments big enough to help offset anything more than a token amount of the costs, and asking developers in corridors with lower value than Midtown Manhattan may not be a fruitful exercise. This may work in Manhattan — and could help parts of additional phases of the Second Ave. Subway — but beyond that, I’m skeptical.

The MTA’s problems regard cost and sustainability. Can the MTA get a handle on its absurd capital costs? And is there a geographically neutral way to fund transit that doesn’t simply lead to more money for Manhattan and less for growing Outer Borough areas equally as overburdened? The 1 Vanderbilt model is a component to a capital funding plan, but it’s unlikely to be a panacea without significant other pieces.

Categories : MTA Economics
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