Home View from Underground Previewing 2016: Capital plan funding, SAS openings, and a TWU contract

Previewing 2016: Capital plan funding, SAS openings, and a TWU contract

by Benjamin Kabak

Early 2016 transit developments have included the retirement of Dr. Zizmor.

As far as 2016 goes for the MTA, this year may promise to be something of a quiet one. The MTA has no fare hikes planned, and its recently approved budget is fairly rosy by agency standards. In fact, in a piece on Gotham Gazette published Monday, Ben Max posted 40 questions for New York politics in the new year, and none of them concerned the MTA. The biggest pressing transit issue seems to concern the fate of Uber in New York City and New York State.

But that doesn’t mean big stories are afoot. There’s plenty happening this year that could echo well into the city’s future. Allow me then to preview a few stories worth watching in 2016.

1. Will the Second Ave. Subway open by the end of the year? The MTA is under the gun to wrap up Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway before 2016 ends. For years, the agency has promised to deliver this long-delayed project on time (according, at least, to the latest estimates); for years, the feds have claimed the MTA will miss its 2016 deadline; and meanwhile, the clock is racing toward December. Most recently, an outside consultant warned of a moderate risk of delay, and we’ll learn more in March and again in June as the MTA issues its quarterly updates. If I were a betting man, I’d take the over and look for an opening in early 2017. But the agency is under a lot of political pressure to deliver on time.

2. Whither the MTA’s capital plan? In October (though it now seems like years ago), Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a funding agreement that would guarantee nearly $9 billion in state funding for the MTA capital plan and an additional $2.5 billion from the city. It was supposed to be a hallmark deal designed to bolster the MTA’s five-year $28 billion capital plan, but any movement on approvals has all but sputtered to a stop. The state’s Capital Program Review Board hasn’t blessed the MTA’s most recent proposal, and upstate politicians want “parity” on infrastructure (that is, road) spending in some of New York’s less populous areas that certainly shouldn’t be investing billions in roads right now. This is what happens when the governor has no comprehensive approach to transit funding.

On a more granular level, thanks to the delays, the MTA had to push back plans to start Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, and local New York politicians aren’t happy with the way money has or hasn’t been allocated to what they view as city needs. It is, in other words, a mess, and it’s not clear when this mess will be resolved or approved. The MTA is working with city stakeholders to address the Second Ave. Subway issues and accelerate Phase 2, but it’s not clear when state approval will arrive or what affect this long delay will have on projects that need to get started. This logjam should clear up in the early part of 2016, but we’re now in month 13 of this 60-month plan with funding not yet guaranteed.

3. Spinning wheels or moving forward on the Metrocard replacement. The MTA’s efforts to replace the Metrocard is one of those agency initiatives that, like B Division countdown clocks, are constantly three-to-five years away from reality, and as we sit at the start of 2016, the picture is worse for the Metrocard’s eventual successor. Thanks to the delays in the capital funding approval process, the MTA has held back the RFP for the next-gen fare payment project, and the Metrocard replacement may be delayed until at least 2023. When will the MTA release its RFP for the project and what will the parameters be? We should find out soon, if the MTA can get out of its own way with regards to this key technology project.

4. Yet another contract for the TWU. I’m sort of cheating with this one as it won’t become a real story until the first month of 2017, but 2016 marks the final year of the five-contract the TWU agreed to back in mid-2014. That’s what happens when you go over two years without a deal. How this will play out is anyone’s guess. Last time, Gov. Cuomo had to step in, and he failed to take advantage of any leverage the MTA had to reform work rules or streamline operations. TWU President John Samuelsen recently won reelection, and as expected, he has never embraced modernization, which would lead to reductions in staffing levels. This won’t develop into a story until the second half of the year, but it’s one worth watching.

5. The crowds keep growing. Last year, the subways reached ridership levels not seen since the end of World War II, and trains are constantly crowded at every hour of the day. Modest service increases aren’t set to go into effect until the summer, and by then, at the current pace of ridership growth, the increases won’t be adequate enough to reduce overcrowding. Is there a tipping point? Will we reach it sooner rather than later? What can the MTA do to improve service and meet spiking demand?

6. Who will be the next Dr. Zizmor? As 2016 dawned, we learned today that famed (though, at times, troubled) dermatologist Dr. Zizmor has retired from medical practice to spend his time, in part, studying the Talmud. Though his ads haven’t graced subway cars since 2013, he remains a symbol of 1990s New York, a time when the city was turning from bad to whatever it is today. Michael Grynbaum and Marc Santora penned an excellent paean to the doctor in today’s Times, and I wonder which subway advertisement will become New York’s next great icon. Dr. Zizmor, like Julio and Marisol before him, will join subway advertising history while a red manspreader may be just as emblematic of the mid-2010s as Zizmor was to the mid-1990s.

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Nathanael January 5, 2016 - 1:11 am

OK, which upstate politicians are yammering about “parity”? I’ll write to them and tell ’em that ‘parity’ means better train service for upstate. 🙂

Most of the upstate districts have passenger train service which was faster in 1940 than it is now.

Rob January 5, 2016 - 11:27 am

@Nathanael: Please don’t forget about the upstate city bus systems, which are starved for funds. These cities, with their traditional grids and dense centers, could become transit villages served by 24/7 bus networks. Sadly, those upstate pols generally care most about sprawl roads.

Nathanael January 5, 2016 - 1:59 pm

Yeah, I won’t forget about them. The city bus systems are actually doing relatively well compared to the rural bus systems.

The rural bus systems were trashed when Andrew Cuomo decided to switch to a *much more expensive and inefficient* approach to Medicaid transportation, because Cuomo is an idiot. This has cost millions for the counties, because the state forces the counties to pay for Medicaid transportation, but doesn’t allow the counties to decide how to provide it.

Cuomo is a destructive, stupid man who should never have a position of authority over anything.

adirondacker12800 January 5, 2016 - 3:27 pm

No they won’t because congestion means you have the passing thought that you might have to wait two cycles to get through the light then don’t and backups on the highway mean slowing down to 45.

adirondacker12800 January 5, 2016 - 3:29 pm

Upstate politicians love to spew sound bites about parity. They never want anyone to look at it. Everybody would see that upstate sucks money out of downstate and if there was parity upstate would get even less.

Phillip Roncoroni January 5, 2016 - 7:47 am

2016 marks the final year of the five-contract the TWU agreed to back in mid-2014. That’s what happens when you go over two years without a deal.

Meanwhile, PSC-CUNY is still working under a contract that expired back in 2010.

Anyway, as mentioned in the bus recent article, us being stuck with the Metrocard until at least 2023 is absolutely ridiculous, if, for no other reason, the dwell time it causes on our decaying bus system.

Marsha January 5, 2016 - 8:30 am

Forget 1-5. #6 is the issue for 2016! And I appreciate the shout-out to Julio and Marisol. Ah, memories of subway ads past.

JEG January 5, 2016 - 10:51 am

To point 5, I’m always wonder how it is that today’s subway system is unable to handle the crowds of yesteryear, but then I remember that certain elevated lines were decommissioned, but just how much capacity was taken from the system at that time?

Stephen Bauman January 5, 2016 - 11:37 am

Today’s ridership numbers reflect decreases in peak hour use that are more than offset by increases in off peak hours. This trend is confirmed by Table 2 in NYMTC’s 2014 Hub Bound Report. Peak hour (8-9am) and peak period (7-10am) inbound public transit use was 32.2% and 59.4% of the total 24 hour total in 1960. These figures have declined to 19.1% and 43.5% in 2014. The MTA established loading guidelines (sq.ft/passenger) based on the pre-1960 rush hour loading. They have reduced peak hour service to compensate for the reduced demand.

Only additional trains and operating personnel would be required to increase peak hour service should peak hour demand increase or peak period loading guidelines be revised to allow more space per passenger. Peak period service increase would probably not require additional trains.

Larry Littlefield January 5, 2016 - 5:42 pm

Either the loading guidelines are being fudged, or someone is missing something. Because peak hour crush loading is extending outward.

And it’s even worse at 7 pm than 5 pm.

Stephen Bauman January 5, 2016 - 6:05 pm

That’s the point. The evening peak hours are 5-6pm and 4-7pm. Trains are less crowded between 5 and 5:30 than between 6:30 and 7. That’s because they are running fewer trains between 6:30 and 7 than are needed. That’s a management problem. It’s not a structural problem. New lines, signal systems and cars are not required to address the shoulder periods.

Larry Littlefield January 5, 2016 - 6:15 pm

It’s a money problem.

Remember, two parties will be negotiating from the same side of the table. Both Cuomo and the TWU think the people on the trains have it too good. The legislature agrees with them, only more so.

Nathanael January 5, 2016 - 2:00 pm

The East Side used to have els on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd avenues. All that traffic is shoved into the Lex now.

Stephen Bauman January 5, 2016 - 6:09 pm

There were only 2 East Side els: 3rd Ave and 2nd Ave. The 2nd Ave el switched from 2nd to 1st Ave at 23rd St.

Brooklynite January 5, 2016 - 7:13 pm

Here’s part of the reason: frequencies are much lower than 60 years ago, for example. Here’s a map of scheduled, and maximum possible, frequencies on the network in 1954. Note how much higher the numbers are than today.


Michael January 5, 2016 - 11:01 am

Thanks for the trips down memory lane with the Julio and Marisol comics, the Doctor Zizmor ads, etc. When the subway cars were filled with dozens of different ads and posters – it was an interesting time.


Chris C January 5, 2016 - 6:24 pm

I remember seeing the ads for Dr Ziz on my first trip to NYC in 1999 and thought he can’t be a very good doctor if he has to advertise on the subway!!. It was also usual to see because we don’t have that sort of advertising in the uk.

And here I am back in NYC this week and it’s on the news that he’s retired. End of an era indeed.

Chris A January 5, 2016 - 8:15 pm

Chris C –

I remember Dr. Z’s ads. To me, advertising doesn’t indicate that he was a bad doctor. Just one who wasn’t getting enough referrals. The best way to find out about him would be to find people who used his services. Remember – some doctors don’t get paid well by insurance companies, and have to drum up business not covered by insurance plans…..


Hercules January 6, 2016 - 4:09 pm

Could someone enlighten me as to why subway ridership fell so dramatically after WWII despite population growth? I’ve been looking at this for a while, but most research of ridership skips right over to 1980 and onward. Thank you.


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