Hollywood these days is suffering from reboot fever. Spider-Man, now a part of the all-encompassing Marvel Cinematic Universe, witnessed its third stab at the webbed avenger in 15 years while the all-female Ghostbusters drew headlines last year. By some accounts, there are over 120 reboots in the works. New York, now a city to be left out of the latest trends, wants to join in, and the reboot may just be a traffic pricing plan.

When last we left congestion pricing, so many years ago, the City Council had approved Mayor Bloomberg’s request but it died a closed-door death in the New York State Assembly when the now-disgraced Sheldon Silver killed it. This move was a blow to home rule and a blow to an effort to rationalize East River tolls and reduce the ill effects of congestion pricing. It killed a potential steady stream of income for transit investments and killed the productivity gains that would come with limited single-occupancy vehicle traffic in the busiest parts of Manhattan.

Now, as the mayor and the governor square off over transit funding, some form of a traffic pricing plan seems to be back on the table. It’s a reboot, baby, and this time, our mayor is the villain (or perhaps just playing one).

The story broke last week when Gov. Andrew Cuomo said congestion pricing is “an idea whose time has come.” He didn’t say too much more than that, and in the week since the story first broke, he’s been silent on details despite some back-slapping at the future Moynihan Station a few days ago. The Times had a little bit more on the lack of details and politics:

“Congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come,” Mr. Cuomo said. He declined to provide specifics about how the plan would work and what it would charge, but said that he had been meeting with “interested parties” for months and that the plan would probably be substantially different from Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal.

“We have been going through the problems with the old plan and trying to come up with an updated and frankly better congestion pricing plan,” Mr. Cuomo said. A key priority is making it as palatable as possible to commuters from the suburbs and boroughs outside Manhattan without undercutting the primary goals: providing a dedicated funding stream for the transit system, while reducing traffic squeezing onto some of the country’s most gridlocked streets.

…Unlike a tax on wealthy New Yorkers, which would be limited in scope and affect a relatively small number of people, congestion pricing would have a far broader impact on people inside and outside the city. After Mr. Cuomo’s past skepticism that state lawmakers would support congestion pricing, his willingness now to support the idea may improve its fortunes in Albany.

Without any details of what kind of plan Cuomo is supporting, it’s hard to assess this move, and it’s even tougher to see through the politics of it. Mayor de Blasio, forever willing to give up leading on key transportation issues, has repeatedly said that congestion pricing is dead on arrival in Albany, and although some transit advocates think this is a maneuver to draw Cuomo’s hand in pushing congestion pricing as an opposite reaction to de Blasio, the mayor continued to speak ill of any traffic pricing plan this week. In fact, he and I. Dankee Miller, one of the worst City Council members on progressive transit issues, spoke out against Cuomo’s idea last week. The Times’ editorial board likes it in theory but Staten Island too is skeptical. (Some villains always show up for the reboots after all.)

As we speculate about Cuomo’s ideas for congestion pricing and what comes next, Streetsblog, in response to Mayor de Blasio’s complaints about unfairness and “penalizing” the Outer Boroughs — has written a thoughtful defense of the Move New York plan. This plan would rationalize tolls across all river crossings into Manhattan and provide money for transit upkeep while reducing congestion.

The real wild card here though is Cuomo. We don’t know what he wants to do, and his plans have always been, well, his. He’s proposed half-baked plans for Penn Station, a backwards AirTrain for Laguardia and an overpriced Penn Station Access. He hasn’t shown a willingness to let experts help guide him to the best decisions, and everyone seems to be holding their breaths on congestion pricing. New York has an opportunity to get this right, but we can’t let it slip away. While congestion pricing won’t solve every transportation ill, it’s piece in a larger puzzle of solutions that will. It’s up to Cuomo to lead properly, and so far, he has a very mixed record on that very topic. But stay tuned. This reboot hasn’t played itself out yet, and as the 2018 gubernatorial campaign inches into view, this won’t be the last we hear of it.

Categories : Congestion Fee
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Can Joe Lhota's action plan save the NYC subway from collapse? And how will the city and state work out their arguments over funding?

Can Joe Lhota’s action plan save the NYC subway from collapse? And how will the city and state work out their arguments over funding?

Over the past few weeks, months and even years, as the mayor and governor have engaged in a recent public war over responsibility for subway financing, with Gov. Cuomo using transit lapdogs to attempt to explain, incredibly, that funding the subway is a city rather than a state responsibility, a counter-narrative has emerged in some wonkier corners, and it’s a counter-narrative I have long embraced. The MTA does not actually need more money or more funding. It has an annual operations budget of over $15 billion and a five-year capital plan of nearly $30 billion. But as has been shown time and again, most notably by Alon Levy, the MTA’s spending is exponentially greater than every other subway system’s in the world. Before politicians send even more millions and billions into the black hole of spending that is the MTA, aggressively cost reform should be front and center on the table.

But we are instead left with a political game of hot potato, and instead of cost reform, we have an escalating war over money with the city and state each trying to outmaneuver each other in a ploy to get more money for subways. The latest battle in this war started while I was on vacation in Mexico two weeks ago when MTA Chairman Joe Lhota introduced the MTA action plan, a two-pronged approach with a $836 million Phase 1 that will serve as a short-term band aid and a Phase 2 that could cost at least $8 billion and that is designed to address the heart of the subway’s problems: a system-wide replacement of the subway’s signal system.

The Subway Action Plan was put together by the usual gang of NYC transit “experts” – your Wyldes, Doctoroffs, Samuelsens, Kalikos, Russianoffs and Mosses of the city without worldly input – and is available here as a lengthy pdf. In the short-term, they key elements are as follows:

  • Emergency track cleaning and repair initiatives as well as emergency signal repair efforts;
  • Increased subway car maintenance efficiency;
  • Potentially adding cars to certain C line trains;
  • A seatless-car pilot on the Times Square Shuttle and L trains that could add space for up to 25 more people per car (though this is decidedly unfriendly and went nowhere when first proposed in 2010);
  • More frequent station cleaning;
  • Streamlined EMS dispatch procedures and staging areas;
  • and

  • A variety of other management-oriented changes designed to improve subway operations.

These sound modest because they are, and the heavy lifting comes in Phase 2 when the MTA has to get down to the business of modernizing the backbone of the subway system. But the MTA feels these efforts can begin to attack the root of the frequent problems plaguing the system lately. The praise for the plan came in from a variety of corners with the MTA sending out press releases from David Dinkins and a former FRA administrator. But while the state offered to fund half of it, many of the statements — and some aggressive attacks by Cuomo’s friends at the TWU — were not-so-veiled attempts to draw more money out of Bill de Blasio and NYC.

Now on the one hand, this fight is ridiculous. New York City taxpayers are footing this bill whether the dollars are appropriated at the state level or the city level, and we’re the ones suffering through bad service and paying the fares each day. We’re paying no matter what. On the other hand, de Blasio and Cuomo are set to battle this out until one of them wins, whatever victory emerges.

For a week and a half, de Blasio refused to budge and Cuomo dug in…until Sunday when this story hit The Times. The mayor will propose a tax on those earning $500,000 or more that will help fund the subway action plan and the Fair Fares initiative to offer subsidized subway fares to low-income New Yorkers. This is part of a plan that Michael Gianaris, a state senator from Queens, has pushed recently and would affect approximately 32,000 New Yorker taxpayers.

Coincidentally (haha), both Joe Lhota and Andrew Cuomo put out similar statements praising the mayor’s move, but channeling Veruca Salt, they both demanded more now. “After saying the MTA doesn’t need money, we’re glad the Mayor reversed himself,” Joe Lhota said on behalf of the MTA. “However we need short-term emergency financing now. The Mayor should partner with us and match the state funding now so we can turn the trains around. There’s no question we need a long-term funding stream, but emergency train repairs can’t wait on what the state legislature may or may not do next year.”

Cuomo:

“The subway system is in crisis today. We need two things: immediate action, and a long-term modernization plan. One without the other fails the people of the city. “The State is currently evaluating a range of dedicated revenue proposals for the future to be discussed and advanced in January when the legislature returns. There is no doubt that we need a long-term dedicated funding stream. But there is also no doubt that we cannot wait to address the current crisis. Riders suffer every day and delaying repairs for at least a year is neither responsible nor responsive to the immediate problem, or riders’ pain.

“The City should partner with us and match the State funding now so we can begin Chairman Lhota’s overhaul plan immediately and move forward. We cannot ask New Yorkers to wait one year to start repairs.”

But there’s a rub: On Sunday evening, Zach Fink and Emma Fitzsimmons both reported that Cuomo may begin floating various forms of congestion pricing next year in his State of the State speech. As recently as his Friday appearance on “The Brian Lehrer Show,” Bill de Blasio proclaimed congestion pricing a non-starter due to the environment in Albany. The mayor, a motorist, has been loathe to carry the torch for a plan, but it could be, in the parlance of our times, something of a game of multi-dimensional chess. If de Blasio supports it, Cuomo won’t, and if Cuomo comes up with it first so that it’s one of his pet ideas, the governor will find a way to push it through.

So perhaps the endgame of this summer’s (and spring’s and fall’s and winter’s) bad subway service is a fight for and over congestion pricing. There are worse outcomes for the city; that’s for sure. But right now, the subways need Lhota’s action plan and better service before the bottom falls out. Let the politicians duke it out, and someone, for the love of all that’s holy, please pick up the mantle of cost reform.

Categories : MTA Politics
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Gov. Cuomo wants to light up the MTA's bridges, but it seems superfluous in an era of subway decline.

Gov. Cuomo wants to light up the MTA’s bridges, but it seems superfluous in an era of subway decline.

Let’s talk for a few minutes about the Governor, New York City bridges and another Cuomo-inspired idea to turn those bridges into a coordinated light show in part in order to attract tourists to the city. This has been an ongoing plan of the Governor’s for a while, and similar to the backward AirTrain, it’s a top-down plan that does nothing to address fundamental issues of mobility plaguing New York while showing Cuomo’s misplaced priorities. And someone has to pay for it.

Enter Dana Rubinstein and her piece in Politico:

Before a spring meltdown turned into a full-on “summer of hell” for the city’s subways, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was proudly promoting a project to outfit the region’s bridges with pulsating, multi-colored LED lights that could provide choreographed light shows in concert with the city’s skyscrapers. “So, literally, you’ll have bridges all across the New York City area that are choreographed — nothing like this has been done on the planet,” Cuomo told reporters in January.

Now, amid daily reports of infrastructure failures and the governor’s sliding poll numbers, the Cuomo administration will not even say how much the lighting scheme will cost — except to dispute early, internal estimates it could cost more than $350 million — or where that money will come from. “This is definitively NOT being paid for by the MTA,” emailed Cuomo spokesman Jon Weinstein.

The project, part of a broader plan called “New York Crossings,” would outfit the MTA’s seven bridges and two tunnels — and the Port Authority’s George Washington Bridge — with pulsating, multicolored LED lights that can be choreographed with each other, with the Empire State Building and with One World Trade. But if not the MTA, who will be paying for it? “We are considering options,” Weinstein said, “but as it is a project to generate tourism and economic development, and uses technology for energy efficiency, it will be financed by [the New York Power Authority] and parts of the project could likely be funded by [Empire State Development].”

That may come as a surprise to board members of the New York Power Authority, who discussed an MTA lighting project at their meeting in January. They were told the project would be paid for by the MTA, which, like the Power Authority, is effectively controlled by the governor. In March, the NYPA board was presented with unaudited financial reports showing an LED lighting project for the MTA was slated to cost $216 million. That the MTA would foot the bill was also the understanding within the agency, according to two knowledgeable sources. Those sources also said the MTA has been working to mitigate costs in order to make the project more politically palatable.

Later in the day, the mayor finally took a stand supporting subway riders (who also happen to be his constituents).”I can tell you that people who ride the subway are not interested in a light show,” Bill de Blasio said to reporters. In response, toward the end of the day, the Governor’s press team issued a legally incorrect statement claiming all capital funding relating to the subway is the responsibility of the city, and this debate seemed destined to become another battle in the war between Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio. The only casualties, besides the two politicians’ reputations as adults, are their overlapping constituents.

Politically in-fighting aside, the dust-up over the lights and Cuomo’s continued support for this show misplaced priorities and bad incentives. First, while I believe it’s ridiculous for Cuomo to tout the tourism benefits — who wants to stand near the Newtown Creek a mile from a subway stop watching traffic on the city’s most congested highway passes through the Kosciuszko Bridge? — bridge lights can and do drive visitors elsewhere. It’s not patently absurd on its face; it’s just the wrong transit priority and will incentivize bad behavior as it will lead to more cars on the road as people drive around looking at bridges. (See for instance this amusing exchange between SI Advance’s Anna Sanders and her parents.)

But it also highlights Cuomo’s fundamental misunderstanding of what’s important right now. The subway system is falling apart, and millions of New Yorkers — and visitors — can’t get around as easily and as reliably as they used to. This will have a much more negative impact on the city’s economy than the LED light show Cuomo wants to install on MTA bridges around the city. That no one knows who will pay for this or how much it will cost at a time when Cuomo’s pet projects are already draining other transit resources that should be available to address the subway crisis is icing on the cake. For now, the focus should be on shoring up mass transit. The light shows can wait.

Categories : MTA Politics
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I’ve been thinking about some ways to keep this site moving in light of the time I have to spend on it these days. As you all know, new posts have been infrequent and without warning. The site isn’t dead, but I’m going to try a new format around these pages. My goal is a weekly post on Sunday nights/Monday morning with some key links at the end. I may try to do one or two posts during the week that are links to articles worth reading. You can also keep up on with my on Twitter as well. There’s a lot going on in transit these days — both noise and otherwise — and I don’t want to stay silent.

To that end, let’s dive into the news of last month: Shortly before the first end of the New York legislative session — in fact, with only a few hours to spare, Gov. Andrew Cuomo finally nominated a permanent MTA Chair. The move was a surprise as supposedly a committee was to be engaged in a big search for a replacement, but when the dust settled, Cuomo appointed Joe Lhota, the former MTA head, to resume his spot. Lhota agreed and was confirmed with hardly any hearing, a part of Albany’s continued failure to exercise its MTA oversight obligations. He’ll be the Chair but will keep his job at NYU Langone while delegating executive director duties to someone else. For now, that “someone else” is still Ronnie Hakim.

At the time, in June, Lhota’s appointment seemed to me to be a bit of a “Hail Mary” move by a beleaguered governor. Lately, the subway’s performance decline has been notable, and a growing drumbeat has emerged out of New York City ensuring that Cuomo is named as the source of the problem, as he in charge of the MTA, and calling for him to do something. Right now, Cuomo needs someone to project competency, and Lhota projects competency. After all, he was in charge of the MTA during the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and was credited with getting so much of the system up and running again relatively quickly after such a catastrophic storm. So Lhota, a member of the search committee, winds up with the job.

In the aftermath of Lhota’s appointment, Gov. Cuomo has declared a state of emergency for the MTA. It’s not quite clear if that has legal force, but it allowed Cuomo to garner headlines for promising an additional $1 billion in MTA funding. (It’s not quite clear where that $1 billion will go or if Cuomo understands how laughably small that amount is considering the cost of overhauling the signal system.) Lhota too in some of his first public comments, promised to overhaul the MTA too.

“Millions of New Yorkers depend on the MTA every day, and we must rebuild confidence in the authority with a complete overhaul of the system, he said during the Genius contest a few weeks ago, “identifying the root causes of our problems and taking immediate and decisive action to fix them. It is our responsibility to transport people as safely, quickly and efficiently as possible, and the current state of the subway system is unacceptable. In tandem with the Genius competition proposals, we will deploy a multi-faceted plan to restore confidence to the MTA and prove that we can deliver for our customers.”

Ultimately, though, the words are meaningless without actions, and actions haven’t come yet. To truly overhaul the MTA, as many have been saying for a while, requires a commitment to change at all levels. The MTA has to be able to deliver projects at a reasonable cost and in a reasonable timeframe. We need MTA projects to be competitive with European spending levels and not ten or even 100 times more expensive, and we need delivery timetables to be rapidly accelerated. The signal system project, for instance, is supposedly going to take decades, but the MTA should have a plan to shut down lines, one a time, and blitz the signal system. Could work be completed in 10 years instead of 40 with adequate attention, investment and mitigation? We the public do not know because the MTA itself, by all accounts, doesn’t know.

In Saturday’s New York Times, Joe Lhota responded to be an editorial calling for more MTA investment with a letter to the editor pushing the fiscal issue onto the shoulders of the legislature. He wants some attention on operations as well as capital. “The day-to-day operations of the subway desperately need an infusion of additional financial support from every level of government, including the city. Today, our customers pay a larger portion of the system’s operations from their daily fare than the customers of almost every other mass transit network in the country do,” Lhota wrote. “The burden of operations should not fall primarily on subway and bus riders; it’s time for all elected officials to use their budgets to support the transit system, which drives the region’s economy and makes New York possible.”

The MTA needs money, but funneling more money into a black hole won’t solve the problem. It needs to rethink who it is paying to do what, how much is being paid and how much productivity the money is generating. These aren’t easy questions, and they’ll face resistance from an entrenched bureaucracy and various special interests who don’t want the MTA’s monetary flood to slow to a trickle. These reforms — deep, structural reforms — are what Lhota must deliver to be successful. Otherwise, the state of emergency will deepen.

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It’s not controversial to state that the Governor of New York State controls the MTA. Our state’s executive directly appoints a plurality of MTA Board members, including the MTA Board Chair and all the bureaucrats tasked with leading the day-to-day operations of the transportation authority. The governor controls funding mechanisms and sets policy agendas, and this current governor has been particularly heavy-handed with pushing preferred projects and installing party loyalists in key positions.

But Governor Andrew Cuomo, faced with a daily crisis over subway service reliability, has, instead of fixing the subways, decided to draw the transit world into a different fight entirely. He wants full majority control of the MTA Board, and he wants it now. In a last-minute push as the Albany legislative session winds down, Cuomo announced via press release a move to expand his control over an agency he already controls. Cuomo’s proposal would allow him to appoint two more members to the vote and give his Board chair a second vote, thus granting the state eight appointees and nine Board votes, for a full majority of nine votes out of a proposed 17-vote structure.

Cuomo’s press release was mostly just an essay from the governor distorting the reality of MTA control. Make no mistakes about it: The governor controls the MTA, but he would have you believe otherwise. Said the guv:

“The MTA Board structure assumed regional participation in the metropolitan area’s transportation systems but left no one in charge. While New York State has six of the 14 voting seats – that is not control. There is no transformative plan that will require major change and possibly more investment that will be agreed upon by the various separate political bodies with competing needs. Complex projects don’t get effectively managed by unanimous agreement of large political bureaucracies. We don’t have 10 years to do this. The state will dedicate itself to the task and assume responsibility, but the state needs the authority.

…On the Second Avenue Subway project, for example, the MTA was floundering. The state took control of the projects using state personnel. The other members of the MTA Board did not oppose the state’s role as it was either not in their region or because they had no desire to participate in what appeared to be a doomed project. The Second Avenue Subway had been delayed for years and was projected to miss the deadline again. With the state’s intervention, we completed the task on deadline.

Some people assume the state’s six voting seats are the majority and say the state has control. Obviously, six is not a majority of the 14 voting seats, and many issues generate controversy that can cause the other jurisdictions to defeat the six votes. We have seen it already on questions of increasing local government’s operating expense contributions, but if their position is the state has control than actually providing that control should not be an issue. They can’t logically assert state control and oppose it at the same time.

In sum, let’s fix the fundamental and initial mistake – ‘put someone in charge.’ The state is the obvious entity to manage a regional network, and the state contributes a multiple of any other jurisdiction’s funding. The simple fact is if no one has the responsibility and the authority, fundamental, rapid change of any culture or system is impossible.”

This is classic Cuomo strawman. Despite his claims that many issues “can cause the other jurisdictions to defeat the six votes” the Governor controls, in practice, this doesn’t happen. Recent city appointees to the Board — most notably Veronica Vanterpool — have probed MTA dealings with a level of attention and detail not seen in recent years, but a voting bloc designed to combat Cuomo’s proposals simply hasn’t emerged. Cuomo gets his way because he has power over the MTA Board and controls the day-to-day operations of the agency.

This announcement came as a big surprise, especially at a time when the MTA has no permanent head. (As an amusing exchange between Dana Rubinstein and Fernando Ferrar laid bare, the current acting MTA chair isn’t too keen on this temporary arrangement lasting much longer.) On Monday night, the State Senate approved a Cuomo ally Scott Rechler to the MTA Board, seemingly out of nowhere, but Cuomo hasn’t named a permanent CEO/Chair or further explored his desire to split the position into two. Is he trying to distract from a leaderless MTA suffering through a crisis of reliability? Is he trying to shore up power ahead of securing point-of-no-return funding for his Moynihan Station mall or Backwards AirTrain or LIRR summer discount program (for which the MTA is already offering tickets even without Board approval)? This is speculation for now without concrete answers as Cuomo appears to be anticipating a hypothetical that does not currently exist and never has.

Jon Weinstein, the governor’s transportation spokesman, offered more clarity via Twitter but refused to respond to many reporters asking if the Board had ever overruled a governor. His statement bolstered the Governor’s claims but did little to shed light on the origins of this surprising move.

Meanwhile, advocates weren’t impressed. The Riders Alliance issued a strident statement on Tuesday afternoon. “Governor Cuomo’s MTA board proposal obscures the very real fact that the Governor already controls the MTA. The Governor appoints the MTA chair, the Governor appoints the most board members, the Governor dictates MTA spending priorities and the Governor dominates the State budget and legislative negotiations that determine how the MTA does its job. In practice, can the Governor point to any situation in which other MTA board members have teamed up to block his initiatives?” the group queried. “The problem is not MTA board structure; the problem is the absence of leadership and the lack of a credible plan from Governor Cuomo for how he will fix the subway. Riders don’t have the luxury of quibbling over MTA board governance when we know it’s not the real issue. We need a plan from the Governor and a reliable source of funding that can fix our disastrous commutes.”

Yet, on its surface, clear gubernatorial control isn’t an inherently negative idea. It would give the public a clear whipping boy for all things wrong with the MTA, and it would not allow Cuomo to take credit for the good while claiming the MTA isn’t under his control when constant bad news fills the headlines. It’s strange he would make a power grab at a time when tabloids are hammering bad subway service on a daily basis, but I’m having trouble sussing out how this move dilutes the MTA structure, unless Cuomo decided to use the power for bad intentions. He could appoint sycophants, but he’d still own the problem of bad subway service.

Interestingly, in fact, this isn’t the first time a Governor Cuomo has proposed such a move. Back in 1983, when I was but a wee lad of 2.5 months old, Mario Cuomo, who campaigned on abolishing the MTA, proposed the exact same thing. He wanted the MTA Chair to serve a term of indeterminate length at “the pleasure of the governor” and hoped to add three Board seats to cement the Albany-empowered majority. A few months later, Cuomo the elder backed down, and the largely toothless position of MTA Inspector General arose out of the brouhaha.

Will this year’s proposal meet the same fate? It’s clearly a late power-grab by Cuomo as Albany’s lawmaking clock ticks toward zoer, but Politco New York’s man in Albany Jimmy Vielkind found indifference and opposition to the proposal a few minutes after it was announced publicly. Either way, Cuomo seems to playing a game with the still-leaderless MTA that he already controls at a time when the agency, and the transportation systems it runs, need a champion, not a governor masquerading as a chessmaster.

Categories : MTA Politics
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While I haven’t had an opportunity to post here in a few weeks, the transit news has been rolling non-stop. From Penn Station to the subway’s aging signal system, we’re witnessing the acceleration of the slow-motion collapse of New York City’s transit infrastructure, and Gov. Cuomo is taking responsibility for his MTA only in fits and starts. There are no plans to ramp up the pace of work required to ensure the system doesn’t backslide any further, and that is a topic I hope to explore more in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, as train service starts to sag and reliability declines, everyone is wondering how much can New York City, an economic center of the country, withstand before the problem becomes a national one. I believe we may already be there even if our leaders won’t, don’t or can’t take responsibility for any of their actions. It’s a lazy cliche to say only time will tell, but for now, only time will tell.

For more insight into the current state of things, I spoke with Slate’s Isaac Chotiner last week, and his Q-and-A with yours truly ran today in the online mag. We discussed the issues writ large of declining service reliability; we pointed some fingers at Albany; and we pondered whether the feds, not particularly sympathetic to urban life these days, could be depended upon for a rescue as they have been in the past.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt and my thought for one politically challenging but perhaps necessary approach to the S-L-O-W pace of signal upgrades. Mosey on over to Slate for a full read, and I promise I’ll have more here soon.

If you were governor, what could you do right now to make the situation better?

Say to people, “We know your subway system is bad, we know your train system is bad. To really fix it we have to take lines out of service for extended periods of time.” We don’t know what those periods of time are because no one at the MTA has really explored the issue yet. But if you can accomplish a signal replacement in a year without a train service, it might be better to do that than to knock out service over seven or eight years and have this uncertainty.

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The Governor's presentation hit the right keywords but can it deliver on its substance?

The Governor’s presentation hit the right keywords but can it deliver on its substance?

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, is our Governor insane or are we, the subway-riding public of New York City, simply being played for a bunch of fools? And how many times can the same governor do the same thing in response to the same problem while being the same cause of the same bottleneck he always is? If I sound a bit cynical, well, I think I have good reason.

On Tuesday, after a week spent claiming the MTA wasn’t his responsibility or his problem, Governor Andrew Cuomo did an about-face and decided that, this week, while the headlines out there are for the gettin’, the MTA is once again his state agency. He took a well-deserved beating from transit advocates, and with the MTA facing mounting problems and a growing sense that the system is collapsing rapidly in on itself, Cuomo, with a rather tongue-in-cheek presentation [pdf] announced that not only will he be dead before the MTA finishes its signal system upgrades but that he may actually try to pretend to nudge the agency toward a faster solution. The whole thing is part of his new “MTA Transit Genius Challenge,” yet another attempt by the Governor to reinvent the New York City transit wheel.

The Challenge is a Cuomo special. It’s a panel that will hear ideas from other people, award someone $1 million in prize money and do nothing with the results. The panel is being billed as part of an “international competition” that will “convene participants from the technology, engineering and business sectors to address the subway’s three most vexing technology and design challenges.” These three areas are: 1) An aging signal system and a replacement plan that’s far too slow; 2) aging cars that are breaking down more often and the slow pace of development and delivery of new rolling stock; and 3) the, uh, lack of cellular and wifi connectivity in subway tunnels. I have no idea how number 3 made that list, but wifi/USB ports/”21st Century Technology” has been a Cuomo fetish for a few years.

(At the same time, Cuomo announced another panel of unqualified experts who are being tasked with solving Penn Station. One of the options they are considering involves turning operations over to the Port Authority. This is somehow going to fix something. I have no idea who thinks of these things, but I digress.)

If Cuomo’s panel idea sounds familiar, well, that’s because it is. Do you remember the 2014 MTA Reinvention Commission? Cuomo convened this panel to advise on the 2015-2019 capital plan and longer-term challenges facing the MTA. It barely met, was stonewalled by Cuomo himself and then released an underwhelming report nearly eight weeks late. The MTA has implemented none of the buzzword-y recommendations that commission suggested and remains very much un-reinvented.

So will this be any different? Early assessments are not optimistic. Max Rivlin-Nalder, writing at the Village Voice, seemed skeptical; Streetsblog wants to see the MTA pay more attention to its internal experts whose voices have increasingly been lost to culture, bureaucracy and brain-drain over the past five years; and Stephen Miller rightly mocked the presentation, which seemed almost to be poking fun at subway commuters and their problems rather than taking these concerns seriously.

I can’t praise Cuomo for taking credit and responsibility for the MTA here because he’s not doing anything to fix it. He’s simply responding to a cavalcade of bad press from The Times opinions pages to the paper’s news coverage to Daily News opinions pages. He’s also not taking on the key obstacles — procurement reform; capital cost reform; and union work rules. Without a holistic approach to MTA reform, we’ll get snarky PowerPoints, a contest that will sputter out, and a promise that maybe the MTA will consider contracting with the person who comes up with the winning idea. Is this a fix or is this just business as usual for a governor constantly talking about reinventing the MTA but not actually doing anything about it?

Categories : MTA Politics
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We have lot of catching up to do, but let’s start with a true statement: Subway service has been abysmal lately. Not a rush hour goes by without signal problems somewhere, delays, rerouting, cramped quarters and unhappy commuters. With no real fixes to the MTA’s problems on the short-term horizon, the agency recently announced a modest plan to improve subway reliability. But without a multi-billion-dollar commitment to quickly overhaul its signal system, the plan — faster dispatching to fix problems — amounts to lipstick on a rapidly aging pig.

While talking about this plan earlier this week, Ronnie Hakim, the MTA’s interim director, told Dana Rubinstein that it “really started with a series of conversations with Governor Cuomo, where he just clearly recognized that from his perspective, subway service is just not meeting the needs of New Yorkers.” Service, Cuomo is reported to have said, is “not satisfactory.”

This sounds very much like something Cuomo, who has recently taken a keen interest in ribbon-cutting and fancy renderings, would want to avoid, and lo and behold, here is the latest via Dana Rubinstein at Politico New York:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, following weeks of service failures in New York City’s subways, told reporters Thursday that his responsibility for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority merely consists of appointing a few people to its board, a responsibility shared by Mayor Bill de Blasio and county executives across the state. The state-run authority, he said, is a “regional transportation system.”

“I have representation on the board,” the governor said. “The City of New York has representation on the board, so does Nassau, Suffolk, Dutchess, Putnam, Rockland, other counties, okay?”

…When asked about that [six-point] plan on Thursday, Cuomo had this to say: “First, I didn’t propose short-term fixes. The MTA did.”

This is not, you may remember, the first time the Governor has tried to distance himself from the MTA’s problems. He tried to claim in 2015, unbelievable, that the MTA wasn’t a state agency because its services are provided downstate. But submitted for your consideration is a screenshot of my inbox:

GovCuomoAnnounces

Cuomo clearly wants to own all the good news produced by the MTA, but when it comes to the bad, he cuts and runs. It’s his MTA when he wants to host a party to celebrate the opening of the Second Ave. Subway. It’s his MTA when the city’s bridges begin to light up. It’s his MTA when it comes to building the Backwards AirTrain or overhauling the aesthetics of Penn Station. But he doesn’t want the MTA that can’t provide adequate and reliable rush hour service and would need to reconsider 24/7 citywide service to truly address its problems. He doesn’t want the MTA we all hate. He just wants the photo ops.

That’s now how this works; that’s not how any of this works. If Cuomo wants to be the man with the plan for New York state, let alone a national leader (Hah. I know.), this mess belongs to him, and he has to own it and fix it. It’s your MTA, Governor Cuomo, whether you announce it or not.

Categories : MTA Politics
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A 14th Street PeopleWay could be a model for other major crosstown thoroughfares in Manhattan. (14ST.OPS)

A 14th Street PeopleWay could be a model for other major crosstown thoroughfares in Manhattan. (14ST.OPS)

When the MTA Board met last week in an unscheduled session to approve a handful of procurement contracts, some good news emerged from the meeting: The looming L train shutdown has been shortened from 18 months to 15. The work will begin in earnest in April of 2019, two years from now, and will wrap before the summer of 2020, if all goes according to plan.

I call this good news, but it’s hardly a great development. For 15 months, over 200,000 daily commuters who rely on the L train to ferry them between Brooklyn and Manhattan will have to find alternate routes. Commutes will be markedly longer, and other train lines will bear the weight of increased crowding and capacity crunches. Streets will be jammed with people trying to find another way to travel, and neighborhoods will feel the effects, in all regards from increased automobile traffic to drastically reduced foot traffic.

I’ve written over the past few years about how the MTA and New York City’s Department of Transportation can weather this looming storm. By expanding subway service on connecting lines, prioritizing bus traffic on key corridors, expanding the bike network and ensuring frequent ferry service on the East Service, a holistic approach to demand management can ease, but not alleviate, the pain. Yet, the institutional silence from the key decision-makers has been deafening as public-facing planning sessions have been few and far between with little in the way of concrete proposals to show for it.

A redesigned 14th St. for people, buses and bikes could help solve the problems posed by the L train shutdown. (14ST.OPS)

A redesigned 14th St. for people, buses and bikes could help solve the problems posed by the L train shutdown. (14ST.OPS)

No one in power seems to be treating this with the urgency it warrants, but that’s not for lack of voices. Earlier this year, Streetsblog focused on the need for a car-free 14th Street and a car-free Grand Street during the 15-month shutdown. Similarly, two RPA officials, in a February piece in Crain’s New York, discussed how the city needs to think big on transportation to solve this problem with approaches that can alleviate the impact of the shutdown and then be exported elsewhere throughout the city to upgrade our transit infrastructure. This is, of course, a no-brainer approach but one DOT and the MTA have yet to embrace publicly.

Meanwhile, at the end of March, Transportation Alternatives unveiled the winner of its own contest to redesign 14th Street. The victors were a group of friends — Christopher Robbins of The Village Voice, architect Cricket Day, Becca Groban and Kellen Parker. They call the plan 14ST.OPS, and it would involve redesigning the corridor as a transitway/peopleway dedicated to only buses, pedestrians and cyclists. Their plan includes five pedestrian malls and numerous other SBS connectors on perpendicular avenues that will allow commuters to and from Brooklyn to access transit services that have priority over private automobiles. Loading zones on the avenues can compensate for the loss of direct access for deliveries, and wider sidewalks will accommodate the increased flow of people.

The Brooklyn Shuttle could connect to the 14th St. corridor via a turnaround on the east side of Union Square. (14ST.OPS)

The Brooklyn Shuttle could connect to the 14th St. corridor via a turnaround on the east side of Union Square. (14ST.OPS)

For transit access to and from Brooklyn, the 14ST.OPS plan includes a new route called the Brooklyn Shuttle that will get dedicated lanes and a turnaround point on the east side of Union Square. Here’s how the team described the Shuttle:

While the west side of the Union Square triangle will be converted into a pedestrian mall, the east side will act as a vital stop for L train riders connecting to the subway station. These riders will have traveled on our Brooklyn Shuttle via a dedicated bus lane over the Williamsburg Bridge to Delancey Street. After a stop at the Delancey/Essex subway station, the bus will continue west on Delancey to Lafayette Street, which will host two-way dedicated bus lanes that extend up 4th Avenue to Union Square. Another stop at Houston Street for riders to connect to the BDFM and 6 trains, and L train riders will arrive at Union Square, where they can transfer to one of the seven subway lines, or our 14th Street Shuttle, or jump on a Citi Bike.

You can read more about 14ST.OPS – and the runners-up in the contest – at TransAlt’s L-ternatives Vision website. These Peopleway proposals are the types of plans though that DOT should be embracing, both as a solution to the L train shutdown and a long-term approach to redesigning streets in Manhattan so that people and transit are appropriately prioritized. With two years to go, time will fly.

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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The L train shutdown is now scheduled for 15 months, down from the original estimate of 18.

The MTA Board is gathering for something of an unusual meeting on Monday. Since a few Board members couldn’t make the last meeting in mid-March, the Board did not have a quorum to approve procurement contracts. So they’re getting the gang back together again for an early-April gathering, and the headline is the L train shutdown.

The news is good for New Yorkers. After extensive negotiations with a variety of firms, the L train shutdown will be 15 months rather than 18 months, and work will begin in April of 2019 rather than in January. The news first came to light a few weeks ago, and the Board will vote to make it official in the morning when they approve a $477 million contract with a Judlau/TC Electric joint venture. Judlau has taken some flak for its failure to adhere to deadlines, but it has delivered Sandy repair projects on time or ahead of schedule so far.

The details of the shutdown remain substantially the same. The MTA will close the Canarsie Tube between Brooklyn and Manhattan for 15 months and will piggyback some ADA work and a new station entrances at Ave. A to the closure. The MTA does not appear to be using this shutdown to perform any other work on the L train’s Manhattan stations — which could include renovations or even an extension of the tail tracks west of 8th Ave. to allow for increase route capacity. Additionally, the MTA and New York City Department of Transportation have not yet released their traffic-mitigation plans, and the slow pace of discussions regarding alternate routing for a few hundred thousand riders a day has raised some concerned eyebrows. Transportation Alternatives recently held a design contest to solicit ideas for the so-called L-pocalypse, and I’ll profile the winning ideas later in the week. Whether 15 months or 18, though, the shutdown looms large, and the next two years will pass in a hurry.

MTA ends trash can-free pilot program

One of the MTA’s on-again, off-again pilots ended for good recently, and it died a death by neglect. With little fanfare, the MTA will soon restore trash cans to a handful of stations that had been part of the controversial trash can-free pilot program that begin in late 2011 and expanded throughout 2012, 2013 and 2014. As recently as 2015, the agency had claimed the program was working as trash collection costs were down and so, they said, were track fires.

But it’s over and done with. As NBC New York reported last week, the agency determined to pull the plug on this project late last year. An MTA spokesperson said, the project ultimately “wasn’t the most efficient way to clean the stations,” and critics of the effort celebrated. “It took the MTA five years, but we are gratified that it recognized the need to end this controversial experiment that showed little to no improvements in riders’ experience,” New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said.

I maintain this project could have been successful, but it would have required a system-wide commitment to removing trash cans and aggressive anti-litter enforcement. Ultimately, though, this isn’t a customer-friendly initiative, and antagonizing customers is something the MTA can ill-afford to do. So the trash cans, and trash collection, will return as another MTA pilot program that never had a path to success dies by the wayside.

MTA Official: Buses aren’t popular because subway service is too good

Even as advocacy groups continue to push for better bus service, the MTA keeps denying that bus service is bad or that steadily declining bus ridership is a concern. Anyone who has ridden a bus lately knows that they stop very frequently, are slow to board and are subject to the whims of New York’s congested streets. Still, MTA CFO Michael Chubak thinks that bus ridership is declining is because the subways are great again. During a recent City Council hearing, he let slip this missive: “One of the major reasons, we believe, is competition. Essentially the subway has improved over the last 20 or so years” and so riders are using subways instead of buses.

There may be some truth to this claim, but Chubak also said BusTime could spur on bus ridership. His seemed to be particularly half-hearted answers that showed a lack of familiarity with the city’s bus network. The problems would be evident if MTA officials spent a few weeks riding buses, but it seems for now they’re flailing about for answers as a key transit mode suffers through a steady decline in ridership.

Categories : Buses, L Train Shutdown
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