Home Capital Program 2010-2014 A look at the MTA’s political problem

A look at the MTA’s political problem

by Benjamin Kabak

Everyday, New York City Transit moves over seven million people around New York City, and the MTA’s commuter railroads bring 550,000 commuters into the city. It’s not stretch to say that, without the MTA’s transportation offerings, New York City would not exist as an economic force in the region, state or country. Yet, according to a panel of transit officials who spoke last night, politicians at all levels have no idea how to best appreciate or fund the MTA, and most have little sense of long-term transportation policy planning.

That message — one concerning politics and transportation — was on full display at the Museum of the City of New York last night. In a panel discussion led by Times transit reporter Michael Grynbaum, four transportation experts — Jeff Zupan of the RPA, Michael Horodniceanu of MTA Capital Construction, Denise Richardson of the General Contractors Association and Joan Byron from the Pratt Center — spoke about the challenges facing long-term transportation planning in the area. While the panelists disagreed on certain topics, they all agreed that politicians do not understand how transportations fits into the economic structure of New York City.

Zupan, who spoke at length about changes in transportation’s political climate over the last twenty years, spoke vehemently about the ways in which politicians approach transit. “We expect something for nothing,” he said, “and it doesn’t work that way.”

Grynbaum opened the discussion with a somber. “Where were you heard the ARC Tunnel was canceled?” he asked. “And what was your reaction?” To a group of panelists who each have a stake in seeing improved transportation in the region, it was a loaded question, and it elicited a strong reaction across the board.

At the RPA, Jeffrey Zupan has spent decades working with officials in New Jersey to realize the ARC Tunnel, and he was particularly dismayed to see the project cut. Calling it “the kind of short-sighted thinking” that has plagued the region’s transportation planning for decades, he worried about the future. “We’ve lost the opportunity,” he said, “and I don’t expect it to come back any time soon.”

Richardson, who represents the contractors, used the ARC to draw a comparison to private investment. The tunnel, she said, would have created 6000 construction jobs and 10,000 ancillary support jobs. If a private company announced plans to bring that level of economic activity to New Jersey, officials would be beside themselves with glee. “The governor would turn cartwheels to make sure this business would locate in New Jersey,” she said, citing potential tax breaks and real estate deals.

But Horodniceanu was willing to take this criticism to the next step. He called the move to cancel ARC a “totally political decision,” and he discussed how Gov. Chris Christie did not conceive of the project and would not be around to participate in the ribbon-cutting. Even though now is the best time to build, Christie had to show his fiscal conservativism, and the ARC Tunnel had to play the role of the victim.

Of course, it’s easy for people in New York to lob stones at Christie, and we’ve certainly debated the death of ARC over the last five months. But the panelists equated New Jersey’s sins to New York. Politicians aren’t willing to take that extra step to fund transit become it involves long-term thinking and planning with few short-term rewards for fickle constituents. As the panelists explained, what motivates a politician to fund a ten-year project that might not wrap until they’re long out of office? The chance to get a name or photo in the paper at a ribbon-cutting ceremony is too remote, and the rewards too slim.

We’re living through this problem right now as the MTA’s five-year capital plan has been funded for only two years. At the end of 2011, if the money isn’t there, Horodniceanu said the authority would have to prepare for a slow-down. Megaprojects would continue at a slower rate until the funds pick up, and regular maintenance may get deferred. Noting that he is “absolutely” concerned about the fate of big projects, he urged politicians to act. “We do need a concerted effort to push for this,” he said of a fully funded plan.

What transit planners and much-maligned bureaucrats can see are the pieces. We know how the 7 line extension will spur development at Hudson Yards and how the Second Ave. Subway will lead to an East Side renaissance. Politicians see complaints about construction disruption and money being spent far off into the future. Without the political commitment today, the city will suffer into the future. It will suffer without increased access, and it will suffer as construction costs begin to climb with a recovering economy.

Ultimately, as Joan Byron noted, the problem is one of media perception. “We,” she said of the transit community, “talk in an echo chamber and we talk amongst ourselves.” It is incumbent upon those setting the policies that require political support to explain how the benefits are broadly distributed to others, and in that sense, transit experts aren’t ready for a media campaign promoting their cause. Still, the area’s transit infrastructure grows not at all and suffers under the weight of age because politicians can’t see beyond their own self-interest. When foresight is en vogue, perhaps funding commitments and growth will follow.

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al February 23, 2011 - 1:21 am

Maybe we need a regional transportation czar, with the visibility and access to senior politicos on the level of Robert Moses, the current Mayor or Governor. This person should be part advocate and part outreach. This person should have the vision of a long term planner. He or she should constantly communicate to all the stakeholders that America’s leading city got to its current status as a tier 1 global city in no small part to infrastructure investment. That, to maintain this position, the Metro area must have capital investment to replace or rebuild facilities past their service lives. And that it needs to expand capacity to meet current demand and future growth.

And maybe we can name pieces of new projects after politicos to salve their name stamp ambitions.

Andrew February 23, 2011 - 7:05 am

The problem is that most capital projects are not expansion. If you were a politician, would you want an interlocking modernization or a fan plant or a bus depot named after you?

Already, highly visible projects, like station rehabs and new subway cars, get an automatic priority boost, while much of the IND is still using their original signals from the 30’s.

The creation of MTA Capital Construction to manage a small number of highly visible megaprojects only made this worse. If we weren’t building all of these megaprojects, what could we be doing instead with the money? They are all worthwhile, but perhaps one or two of them should have been deferred to bring the signal system just a little bit closer to a state of good repair.

BrooklynBus February 23, 2011 - 11:20 am

David Gunn agreed with you. He always emphasized keeping the system in good working order over system expansion. That’s what got him in trouble in DC. All the politicians wanted to do was to keep expanding, rather than maintaining because as you’ve said, there is no glamour in a new fan plant. History proved him correct, because when Washington’s system started suffering because of neglect, they called him back as a consultant for two weeks to advise them how to fix the system.

al February 24, 2011 - 2:45 am

One, the East Side Access. The 7 extension is largely paid by NYC govt. If they had ordered the M7s with 3 or 4 sets of doors per side, LIRR and MetroNorth train boardings and offloads at Penn and Grand Central would be faster. Penn could have used some of the ESA money for upgrades, like more stairs to the concourse level and a consolidated less confusing layout to move more people quickly. Grand Central could have used some money for more access points for the station and platforms too. Trains would get in and move out in a shorter time frame. All this would cut down on delays and increase capacity. But no, they went with 2 doors per side and ESA.

Having 2 projects instead of 3 going would have reduced specialized labor, technical, managerial, equipment and material demands. That would have created a situation of greater competition and more supply. Just think, 2 TBMs going on the 2nd Ave line Phase 1, with Phase 2 and 3 in the wings.

The TA could also have spent some of the billions on:
New lighter train designs with:
-better acceleration (3-3.5 MPHPS)
-better braking (3.5-4.5 MPHPS)
-self steering axle trucks for higher curve runs and reduced flange and rail wear
-more doorways on each side (4:IRT, 5:BMT)
-doorway/car camera to cab interlinks for off peak OPTO and security
-higher total passenger capacity per car/train

This would have reduced trip times and increased peak train frequency and line capacity.

John Paul N. February 24, 2011 - 3:19 am

3-door cars on commuter railroads would be nice for boarding/alighting, but passengers likely want more seats due to the long distances. But you do have a point: the additional transfers with ESA may prove to be time-consuming due to the restricted doors.

Interesting thing about ESA that came up in the discussion: someone in the panel remarked that like 10% of all Long Islanders are aware of ESA. If that isn’t ignorance, I don’t know what is.

al February 25, 2011 - 3:16 am

True, but I think that by the time a commuter train pulls into Main St, Jamaica, Bronx County line, Secaucus, or Newark Penn, most or all the seats are taken. Standing for 15 min won’t kill you, and I think most passengers would like to save some time getting on and off at the city terminals and major transfer station too.

The bilevels are tricky. They take a lot of time to unload. We need capacity, but we need to save time too. Unless you want something like the bi-levels on the RER, adding more doors means at least platform modification.

John Paul N. February 25, 2011 - 2:34 pm

There is a constituency that will lament the loss of seats, not realizing that their dwell time in stations has decreased. For those passengers, a savings of 0.5-2 minutes per stop doesn’t matter to them, especially in the express trains that skip Jamaica. And I bet the media that will report about new rolling stock will not make the connection between the two.

There is a blog by an LIRR commuter. I haven’t read it in a while and I don’t know if it is still online, but boy, does he value his seat commuting between Ronkonkoma and Atlantic Terminal.

Alon Levy February 25, 2011 - 3:52 pm

The LIRR and Metro-North could adopt the Japanese practice of having different trains for long-distance commuting and for short- and medium-distance.

The primary purpose of multi-door trains is to provide good local service. They’re less useful for trains that go to Ronkonkoma, unless those run limited stops with easy transfers to and from the local trains.

With this arrangement, the people who would lose seats would be people living just beyond today’s SRO point. But those would gain from a more comfortable standing arrangement than is available on today’s commuter trains. They’d trade a 50% chance of shitty standing for a 100% chance of more comfortable standing, plus higher speeds and better connections to Queens.

John Paul N. February 25, 2011 - 4:39 pm

Would I trust the MTA to keep its fleet separated for short-length or long-length service? I wouldn’t count on it. The general practice, on LIRR at least, is that short-distance trains to/from Brooklyn connect with long-distance trains to/from Penn. Throw in Hunterspoint/LIC and soon ESA, and you get a mess.

Alon Levy February 25, 2011 - 7:23 pm

ESA can be dealt with quite easily, using Metro-North. It should be done as follows:

1. The MTA should open a transfer station in Sunnyside, between the Penn/ESA and Hell Gate/LIRR splits.

2. Many of the New Haven Line trains should use the NEC mainline to Penn, some running express and some making local stops in the Bronx.

3. A mix of local and express LIRR trains should alternate between ESA and Penn, so that in total about half the trains through Sunnyside serve Penn.

4. Penn and ESA trains should arrive at Sunnyside simultaneously, with a timed cross-platform transfer. This is in addition to existing timed transfers at Jamaica.

5. The local stations in the Bronx should have passing tracks, to allow for timed overtakes by Amtrak.

I wouldn’t trust the MTA to keep to schedule very well, but it’s better than the alternative, in which commuter rail is useless as intra-urban transit.

AK February 23, 2011 - 9:29 am

Thank you, Ben, for letting us know about the discussion (and for the half-price tickets). Much appreciated.

John Paul N. February 24, 2011 - 3:26 am

Same here. And I didn’t take the discount because I wanted to support the museum as I’m not a member. But don’t discontinue it for others!

A centralized place to view listings of lectures and programs regarding public transportation would be great to have.

Is the city’s transit too Manhattan-centric? :: Second Ave. Sagas February 23, 2011 - 11:34 am

[…] « A look at the MTA’s political problem Feb […]

Larry Littlefield February 23, 2011 - 3:07 pm

“According to a panel of transit officials who spoke last night, politicians at all levels have no idea how to best appreciate or fund the MTA, and most have little sense of long-term transportation policy planning.”

And what do the transit officials have no idea of? Where the money that isn’t going to transportation is going.

At the federal level it is going to health care for senior citizens and past debts. At the state and local level it is going to pensions, retiree health care, and past debts.

All of these are expected to grow and grow and grow.

John Paul N. February 24, 2011 - 3:46 am

Michael Horodniceanu said something to the effect that he learned the totem pole the hard way, when he was starting out in transportation. He even said he was last in line, behind the Parks Department.

Another panelist (Joan Byron?) commented that the use of roads is not free, contrary to popular and political belief, since it is not a public good as increased consumption will reduce the availability of roads. I have no reason not to believe that, especially after this discussion.

John Paul N. February 24, 2011 - 3:49 am

The funding totem pole I mean, not the order of importance of transportation in the city’s government.

tom murphy February 23, 2011 - 3:50 pm

We need a ‘czar’, a ‘tsar’, hah! You mean a ‘Moses’, don’t you? To lead us into The Promised Lane.

al February 24, 2011 - 1:56 am

Visible, but accountable. Not as much power as Robert Moses did when he was at his peak. Kind of like a comptroller or public advocate. We don’t need money spent on mass transit white elephants or monstrosities. We have way too many existing facilities to fix or upgrade to do that. I frequently use the 7 line. They keep doing little patches here and there at various stations that fail in 4-6 months. Until recently, I could see the street below through rusted out and bent stair risers at an elevated station. I kept skipping steps because it noticeably flexed when I stepped on the ones with rusted separated risers. They also just repaved Roosevelt Ave a few years ago, but the pavement is showing defects.

There needs to be someone on the ball to ensure we bring in as many projects (as humanly possible) in on time, within scope and budget, and keep to the stakeholders engaged. That also mean proactively engaging the media and stakeholders on smaller projects on existing facilities. It might not be sexy like a new 10 mile subway line or a new Tappan Zee bridge, but it is necessary. The public at large needs to be aware of where the money is going, why, and reminders that regular maintenance, repair and periodic replacement is absolutely necessary and expensive.


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