A few charts, along with some MTA editorializing, courtesy of the May 2018 MTA Board committee briefing book for the Transit Committee. The committee will be meeting in the morning to ostensibly discuss these materials, though it is anticipated that Andy Byford’s long-awaited subway rescue and Transit reorganization plan will take up the bulk of everyone’s attention. As these charts show, he has his work cut out for him.

And now a few brief thoughts: The MTA doesn’t really seem to know what’s driving these ridership declines. A bunch of months ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo claimed bus ridership declines were acceptable since subway ridership was on the rise, but it’s clear that’s not the case right now. Meanwhile, the agency has blamed the weather and higher fares for the declines in subway ridership and bus ridership respectively, but this seems to be a shot in the dark. Weather wasn’t noticeably worse over the past year, and subway ridership has been on a long-term decline as the city’s economy has seen job increases over the past 12 months. In my view, ridership is on the decline because service has been unreliable and unpredictable, and it’s creating a negative feedback loop in which more and more potential subway riders seek alternate means of travel.

Meanwhile, fare revenue for Transit from the start of 2018 through the end of March was around $38.3 million below expectations. If these trends continue throughout the year, the agency could be looking at an unanticipated budget gap of around $150 million. For an agency that operates on razor-thin margins, losing a significant chunk of ridership revenue could be a problem. For now, the MTA is adding subway service on some lines and focusing on ways to save the system. But it’s alarming that ridership is declining, the MTA doesn’t know why and any urgency around stopping the bleeding of paying customers seems nonexistent. Clearly this is a story worth watching as 2018 unfolds.

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In about a week or so, Andy Byford is going to reveal his big NYC Transit subway rescue plan to a public anticipating a Big Idea. Byford was brought in specifically to build this plan and execute on turning around the struggling subway system. It won’t be easy, and one of the major obstacles in Byford’s way is New York City Transit itself. The agency often can’t seem to get out of its way, and many of the current problems with fast and reliable service are self-inflicted.

One of the biggest problems, as I discussed in mid-March, are signal timers slowing down service throughout the city. These timers were a reaction to the 1995 Williamsburg Bridge crash, and in March, Aaron Gordon of the Village Voice explored how the MTA did not understand the effect the timers would have on capacity and service. A study nearly 20 years after the fact betrayed the MTA’s problems. “The 2014 study — the first time the authority had attempted to analyze the impact of any of the revamped signals, using its improved data system — found 2,851 lost total passenger hours per weekday could be attributed to thirteen modified signals alone. That was almost double the predicted impact; for comparison, the modifications of [] thirteen signals alone created 5 percent as much lost time as that experienced by riders of the entire London Underground on its average day,” Gordon reported, based on internal MTA documents.

This past week, The New York Times revised the issue with signal timers in an easy-to-understand graphic explaining how signal terms slow down service and decrease through capacity on the subways. It’s well worth your time to play with the interactive interface, and it’s worth remembering that the capacity of the system cannot exceed throughput at the slowest choke points. The Times piece delves into how the subways no longer have extra capacity because of the intentional choices the MTA has made over the past few decades. Here’s Adam Pearce on the problem:

The M.T.A. projected that the signal changes would not reduce the number of trains that could pass through a section of track each hour. But this assumed the signals would work properly and that trains would operate at the speed limit. In reality, many signals are poorly maintained and misconfigured, triggering emergency braking at speeds below the listed limit. An unpublished 2014 internal M.T.A. analysis, first reported on by The Village Voice, found that the signal changes caused a significant slowdown, more than the M.T.A. expected. Train operators face steep penalties after a number of instances of tripping a signal, like losing vacation days or being forced into early retirement…

The analysis stated that if the M.T.A. had known the signal changes would reduce the number of trains able to run on congested lines, they would not have been made. But the damage was done. After the signal changes, two fewer trains could run on the southbound 4 and 5 lines hourly, forcing the thousands of passengers those trains would have carried to squeeze into already crowded cars. Across the entire system, more than 1,800 signals have been modified since 1995.

To me, this graphic is the biggest indictment of all.

These stations in Lower Manhattan are absurdly close together and largely along straight tracks. A train operator on a downtown 4 or 5 train can see each station from the one before it, and yet, the signal timers add 15 seconds per trip from Fulton St. to Bowling Green. Over the course of a line, this adds up to a significant constraint on capacity, and delays due to “overcrowding,” an excuse the MTA has hidden behind for years.

The success of Byford’s plan will hinge on how he treats and responds to these signal timers. It’s guardedly good news that he has, as Jon Weinstein said to Pearce, “asked for an analysis of the impact of signal modifications on subway schedules.” But it’s not enough to ask; he has to respond and fix the problem (without sacrificing safety). But more on that — and the new flagging rules The Times noted — in a follow-up post.

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The city is investing more in ferries over the next few years. Is this a good use of public funds? (Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

As long time readers of mine know, I am a bit of a skeptic when it comes to ferries. After all, we built a bunch of bridges and a subway system between the boroughs of New York City in part because the ferry system just couldn’t cut it as far as mass transit went. Ferries are, by their nature, a niche mode of travel offering low capacity and high operating costs, and in a city of millions, most of whom are landlocked miles away from the nearest ferry dock, a ferry shouldn’t be a political priority for public investment.

Yet, on Thursday, for what was at least the eighth time since the beginning of 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio was behind a lectern hosting a press conference about ferries. This time, he was in Bay Ridge to announce that, due to ridership projections that exceeded expectations, the city would be investing an additional $300 million in ferries over the next few years for bigger boats, better docks and a new maintenance facility. Total capital expenditures are now in the realm of around $500 million, and the city continues to expect to maintain a $6.60 per ride subsidy for all ferry riders.

On the one hand, this news about ferries could be interpreted as a positive development. The ferries are popular! People who ride them — whoever they are — love them! What could be better than a nice day on the water in New York harbor?

But let’s temper our enthusiasm a bit. The popularity is a function of expectations. Here’s a glimpse at the numbers, per the city’s press release. The New York City Economic Development Corporation, the agency in charge of the NYC Ferry system, hasn’t released ridership data publicly so we’ll just have to take the city’s word for it:

NYC Ferry launched on May 1, 2017. Original projections predicted 4.6 million riders once all six routes are operational and fully rolled-out. However, NYC Ferry carried 3.7 million passengers in its first year, with only four routes operating—and only two of them running for the entire 12 months. Updated projections based on the first year of service now show that demand could reach as high as 9 million riders per year by 2023.

As a comparison, Citi Bike carries the same ridership as the ferry system over the span of around four or 4.5 months depending on the time of year, and a random bus line with 4.6 million riders annually is good for around the 38th or 39th busiest in the city. Bill de Blasio has held no press conferences on the B9 lately and notably isn’t investing an additional $300 million in buses even if the opportunity is right there for him.

And even with this new investment, the 350-passenger ferries are still expected to operate only every 25-35 minutes. As the mayor said, “On a really crazy beautiful day in the summer when it seems like everyone in the city wants to go to the beach at the exact same time, there’s still going to be lines but we are going to be serving a lot more people and we’re going to be getting them where they want to go faster.” This seems problematic to say the least for something de Blasio has trumpeted as recently as this week as “the key to a future of New Yorkers being able to get around more easily.” More on this shortly.

Lately, as ferry fatigue has set in, de Blasio has faced some skeptical questions from the city press corps as the transcript from Thursday’s event shows. When asked about the lack of subsidy for Citi Bike, a significantly more popular mode of transit, de Blasio showed his hand and lack of holistic thinking on transportation. “I would argue that each element of our mass transit planning has to be seen individually,” he said. “I felt very strongly that the Citi Bike model could work without subsidy and I’m supposed to be the steward of the tax payer’s money. And if it could keep achieving its goals without it, of course that was the optimum reality and I still believe that.”

Toward the end of this question, de Blasio rambled his way to an interesting observation about the ferry system. “Private sector was out there for quite a while with ferries,” he said, “and some impact was seen. But nowhere near the potential, and we knew there had to be a public investment to actually achieve what was possible in one of the greatest coastal cities in the world.”

And here is where I want to pick up the thread. The mayor is correct that the ferry system worked good enough but has been far more popular with public investment, but that’s because we the taxpayers of New York city are subsidizing each and every ferry ride to the tune of around $6.60 per ride. We’re not subsidizing buses or subways to this degree, and Citi Bike pays for its space on the street.

Perhaps this is a good use of public money, but I’m skeptical. I’m not opposed to the idea of a ferry system that serves New York’s waterfront, but let’s take a deep dive into the people who may be taking the ferry. We don’t know for sure who these folks are because, again, NYCEDC hasn’t released a lick of ridership data. But I pulled some census data last week, and if you look at all of the census tracts that have a least one address within 0.5 miles of a ferry terminal in Queens and Brooklyn, median household income is around $18,000 more than city average, and if you exclude Astoria, the only dock truly amidst low-income housing, that median bumps even more.

Already, then, this generous subsidy is going toward wealthier-than-average New Yorkers, and since the ferries operate on a separate fare system, my quasi-educated guess is that ferry ridership skews even wealthier than census tract medians. After all, those riders who need to transfer to a bus or subway after their ferry rides would have to pay a second fare, and lower income workers are less likely to be able to do so. So as buses struggle and the mayor resists the Fair Fares initiative, does it make sense to subsidize rich New Yorkers who live in waterfront condos and work close to Pier 11 near Wall Street? This is a conversation we should be having about ferries but have not, as the mayor likes to pat himself on the back over boats without understanding how transit planning should be seen in totality rather than individually.

Ultimately, we may decide that having a robust ferry network is a net positive. Maybe we should subsidize these 9 million rides per year. Maybe we should do so while also investing similarly in buses and subways. After all, transit planning should be holistic. But for now, we should be aware that we are subsidizing a niche, low capacity transit mode with a ridership that skews rich. That is not a particularly good use of taxpayer money. Someone should tell the self-proclaimed steward.

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The city and state have spent months sparring over the subway action plan. With the money in place, can the MTA deliver?

I haven’t burned too many pixels writing about the politics behind the funding for the subway action plan because it is frankly an embarrassing distraction from the real issues at hand. The $1 billion will not, as Aaron Gordon recently wrote for The Village Voice, actually fix the subway problems, and the Mayor and Governor have both come across as childish and petty leaders who can’t set aside superficial differences to attack a problem affecting both of their constituencies. The MTA needs real reform and leadership, not money for arrows that urge people to move into the middle of a subway car.

Ultimately, the MTA is Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s responsibility. The state controls MTA appointees and the makeup of the MTA Board, and that message has started to sink in more and more these days. Still, after months of politicking and disputes over dollars that stretched back to last summer, Bill de Blasio agreed to add nearly half a billion dollars to the subway action plan. With a new City Council more sympathetic to Cuomo and keen to move beyond this debate, the mayor granted Cuomo his wish, and the full plan will be funded. We’ll see how quickly this improves commutes; so far, the subway action plan hasn’t resulted in any noticeable improvements in subway reliability.

The move to fund the plan came in late March, and in late April, after alarming headlines on the bottomless money pit that is the East Side Access, the mayor and new City Council speaker Corey Johnson realized they had just handed a massive check to an unaccountable organization. And so the two dashed off a letter to the MTA asking for accountability. Here’s their reasoning:

As elected leaders of the City of New York who are responsible for its fiscal health, we must ensure that precious taxpayer dollars are not diverted away from the subway crisis to other MTA priorities. The City pressed aggressively for a “Lock Box” as a condition of providing $418 million towards the SAP. Now that the Lock Box has been made explicit in State law, it must be put into practice by the MTA.

It is important that the MTA provide detailed information about each of the plan elements, including the scope of work being performed, how success is defined, and how progress is measured. Unfortunately, although the MTA began implementing the SAP last July, it has provided scant details to the public on its progress and the MTA’s own “major incidents” metric shows little improvement in service. City taxpayers deserve to know that they are getting a good return on their investment. The public is skeptical when it comes to work performed by the MTA, especially given recent public reports about prolonged delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns on MTA projects. For example, the East Side Access Project, which started with a budget of $4.3 billion and a completion date in 2009, will now require an additional billion dollars with a completion date in 2022 and an estimated price tag of $11 billion. The Enhanced Station Initiative, which started with a budget of $936 million to renovate 33 subway stations, will now require $846 million to renovate only 20 stations.

It is incumbent upon the MTA to prove that it can be an effective steward of this short-term emergency plan and that the revenues with which it has been entrusted are prudently invested to deliver results. To that end, we must have certainty that the Lock Box will be implemented and that the City’s contribution will actually be spent on projects that will improve subway service.

On its surface, the letter is fairly ordinary. It asks for monthly status reports on accountability and service improvement and a keen attention on signal upgrades. But it has details that shows the author of the letter has been paying attention. In parts, the city officials ask the MTA to restore all service that has been cut over the years and urge the agency to reassess signal timers, another recent headline. “While the safety of the system needs to remain paramount,” the letter says, “it has become clear that the balance between safety and service when it comes to the signal timers installed since the 1990s needs to be reevaluated. In light of that fact that in most parts of the system construction of new lines is unrealistic in the near term, we must do all we can to maximize the capacity of the system we have.”

I’m somewhat skeptical this letter will do much to move the needle. After all, the city has already ponied up the money, and the letter doesn’t attach actionable conditions to the dollars. The city similarly dropped the ball a few years when the mayor walked into Cuomo’s trap on capital plan funding and failed to ensure its contributions would go toward identifiable city improvements. But the MTA has expressed a willingness to adhere to the city’s requests. Joe Lhota, last week, in fact said the MTA embraced the call for transparency but didn’t respond to each of de Blasio and Johnson’s requests.

We’ll see what comes of it, but I think the closing paragraph of the letter hit the mark: “Failure is not an option and we firmly believe that a more transparent process can lead to better, more effective implementation. We are eager for everyone to put politics aside and support the important work of improving the commutes of millions of New Yorkers. Beyond the SAP, fixing the subway will require fundamentally changing the way the authority does business, including identifying non-City-tax-levy dollars to assist with funding improvements.”

Categories : MTA Politics
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The following post is my longer analysis of New York City Transit’s bus action plan. I originally wrote this up for Gotham Gazette, and you can read it here. I’ve expanded it for this post with some additional deep-dives into the plan itself.

In the Big Apple’s transit circles, Andy Byford has quickly become the hottest U.K. import since the Beatles. New York City Transit’s new president, brought in this winter from his job as the head of the Toronto Transit Commission, faces the unenviable task of fixing the city’s ailing subway system and restoring faith in its vital transit network. Just three months into the job, Byford is moving at a breakneck pace, and on Monday, he unveiled an ambitious plan to speed up New York City’s snail-like local buses and fight the tide of declining ridership.

The plan sets the bus system on the right road toward improvement but will require city and state cooperation and a change in NYPD culture, two elements in short supply these days that could torpedo Byford’s best efforts. It is also likely to require more money, which is also in short supply.

The New York City bus system is a curious thing. It is notorious unreliable with buses that crawl through city streets stopping every two or three blocks and with average speeds that barely exceed eight miles an hour. With infrequent and unreliable service, ridership has declined by nearly 10 percent since 2012 and 15 percent since 2002. Still, over 2 million riders a day rely on the city’s buses, and the bus system needs to be fixed.

Byford’s Bus Plan comes after nearly two years of heavy lobbying from the Bus Turnaround Coalition, a joint effort by the Transit Center, Riders Alliance, Straphangers Campaign and Tri-State Transportation Campaign. In 2016, this group called for an overhaul of the way buses work in New York City, and in 2018, Byford acknowledged their work in unveiling his plan. “We’ve listened to our riders’ concerns,” he said, “and are working tirelessly to create a world-class bus system that New Yorkers deserve.”

So what exactly is the plan? For now, it is an aspirational approach to better bus service with a 28-point agenda. The images embedded are from the plan, and I have added commentary as appropriate.

Byford wants to redesign the network by optimizing routes based on ridership needs while eliminating some stops to speed up service and expand off-peak bus frequency. Notably, he wants to expand off-peak service on what he calls “strategic routes” to better provide the last-mile connections a reliable bus network can provide. These types of redesigns require MTA action (though DOT will have to be a partner in improving street design).

Here, NYC DOT takes on a more important role. Byford wants to implement infrastructure upgrades that prioritize buses over other vehicles, including dedicated lanes and a signal prioritization system that allows buses to hold green lights or shorten reds. He wants exclusive busways — proposals that have more or less died in the face of driver opposition in recent years — and he will need DOT’s help. He calls for NYPD cooperation and effective traffic enforcement to keep buses moving through dedicated lanes.

Importantly, he proposes a faster boarding process, currently a main source of delays. To reduce bus dwell time — the minutes a bus spends sitting at a stop while riders dip their Metrocards or scrounge around for $2.75 in nickles, quarters, and dimes — Byford suggests all-door border, similar to London’s bus system; a tap fare payment card; and cashless bus fares. The final parts of the plan involve customer-focused improvements including more real-time bus countdown clocks, redesigned system maps, and more bus shelters along with some clean-tech buses to replace New York’s current gas-guzzlers.

On its surface, the plan is exactly what New York needs. Byford has shown that he understands the problems and drawbacks with the current bus network and is willing to propose a multi-part solution that involves every stakeholder and seemingly transcends the dysfunctional politics of the relationship between the city and state. But unfortunately with such an aggressive plan in play, each of these stakeholders are going to have to work together for this bus revitalization effort to succeed.

And to that end, except with respect to the all-door boarding and other technological upgrades to the buses themselves, Byford is now almost a bystander as he has shifted the onus to the city Department of Transportation, the NYPD, and Albany lawmakers to work together to realize his vision of a better bus network. But it’s his plan, and he will have to be a forceful advocate for it. Still, let’s look at the other players involved.

Let’s start with the city’s Department of Transportation. Since DOT controls the city’s streets, any changes to the way street space is allocated will have to start with DOT. Thus, additional bus lanes, dedicated bus corridors and the queue-jumping benefits of signal prioritization require DOT buy-in and support, and so will reducing the number of bus stops and changing street design to better support bus infrastructure. NYC DOT Commissioner and MTA Board member Polly Trottenberg voiced support for the plan during Monday’s meetings, but her boss, the mayor, a reluctant and infrequent transit rider who virtually never takes the bus, will have to be a forceful ally supporting these changes.

And then we have the NYPD. Currently, the NYPD seems to view the city’s bus lanes as, well, parking spots. Take a ride down the East Side’s avenues, and bus lanes will inevitably be filled with cops who have decided to park in curbside bus lanes, thus negating their intended purposes. The MTA, on the other hand, expects cops to be willing partners in enforcing bus lane restrictions and generally helping to ensure that other vehicles are not in the way of buses, impeding speeds and progress through congested city streets. (During a Twitter chat on buses on Thursday, Byford acknowledged that cops should not park in bus lanes. He seems willing to challenge the NYPD more than recent city leaders have.)

But cops alone are a poor and inadequate enforcement method, and NYPD culture is tough, if not impossible, to change. Thus, Albany takes center stage as bus lane enforcement should be automated and camera-based. Until now, the state Legislature has resisted giving the MTA carte blanche ability to install cameras that can assist in automated bus lane enforcement, but to truly tackle the problem of cars in bus lanes, Albany will have to act, and forcefully.

Finally, the elephant in the room is the cost. We do not yet know how much the bus plan will cost. It relies in part on moving pieces that are partially funded (such as a new fare payment system) and others that are not, and it will again be up to the governor to champion transit improvements in New York City so that they receive adequate funding. Facing the pressures and, more importantly, the headlines of a primary challenge, Andrew Cuomo has lately embraced certain positions he has rejected in the past, and mass transit support should be one of them. Perhaps, then, the time is right for the city and state to prioritize bus travel over car traffic.

Ultimately, the buses need fixing, but more importantly, the bus system needs to work efficiently so that New Yorkers have faith in it again. Buses can solve access problems in transit deserts and can be a part of the transit upgrades that a true congestion pricing plan would require. Byford has a vision that will improve bus service, but that is the easy part. Now he just has to convince everyone else to join him as well.

Categories : Buses
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Reducing dwell time and modernizing the boarding process, as Andy Byford’s bus plan proposes, will lead to markedly faster bus service.

It has been a two-year battle for transit advocates fighting for better bus service, but a coalition of bus champions secured a major victory on Monday as New York City Transit President Andy Byford unveiled a comprehensive 28-point plan to turnaround the city’s declining bus service. The plan is an impressive first step for Byford as he looks to manage the MTA out of various transit crises, and it involves implementing many international best practices — including all-door boarding and signal prioritization — to improve bus operations and combat steadily declining service. And it can’t come soon enough as average bus ridership in 2017 declined by over 5% against 2016 numbers.

“We’ve listened to our riders’ concerns and are working tirelessly to create a world-class bus system that New Yorkers deserve,” Byford said in a statement. “We’re targeting challenges like traffic congestion and enforcement, undertaking bold initiatives like redesigning the entire route network, and pursuing advancements such as the latest computer-aided management, double-decker and electric buses, all-door boarding, and improved customer service with more real-time data. Our customers will start to see changes this year and we will never stop improving this critical component of New York City’s transportation landscape.”

The plan — available here as a PDF — aims to tackle bus reliability, dwell time due to a slow fare payment process, real-time information regarding bus arrival times and overall service patterns. It will require cooperation from DOT and a new mentality from the NYPD on both enforcing bus lanes and not using them as parking spots for police cars and cops’ personal vehicles. And after years of MTA foot-dragging, the agency committed to all-door boarding as part of the new fare payment system. This ain’t, in other words, cosmetic; it’s the real deal.

This initiative is the culmination of nearly two years of advocacy work that began with a report issued in 2016 and tireless work by Transit Center, Riders Alliance, Straphangers Campaign and Tri-State Transportation Campaign. In fact. Byford credited these activists’ work in an interview with amNew York on Monday morning. Someone is listening.

The report though is a first step. Many of the improvements — a streamlined bus map, more real-time information signs — will arrive this year, but others — including the all-door boarding via the new fare payment systems — won’t be in place for a few years. The bus network redesigned to improve connections and usefulness may not be ready until 2021. So patience will still be key, and small improvements should lead to bigger ones.

I’ll have a full post with my analysis and thoughts tomorrow night, but as Byford’s first major operations announcement goes, this is a very promising one.

Categories : Buses
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This week’s MTA Board materials feature a glimpse inside the East Side Access project.

East Side Access, the long-awaiting plan to bring LIRR trains to the East Side, is one of New York City’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind public works that just keeps on going, seemingly without end but also without disruption. To that end, it comes and goes as part of the public conversation around transit priorities and any attempts at reassessing the project over the years via normal metrics has gone nowhere. Now, East Side Access is back in the news as costs have ballooned by another $1 billion, and the project which was originally expected to serve around 162,000 people per day, is going to cost at least $11.1 billion. Why exactly are we doing this?

The story first broke about a week and a half ago, and Alfonso Castillo had a deep-dive into the cost increases in Newsday, the Long Island-based paper that has been on top of the troubles with this complex for over a decade. In short, and as this week’s MTA Board materials make clear, the MTA wants to blame Amtrak for these latest cost increases, but finger-pointing doesn’t mean anyone else will cover this latest $1 billion uptick in a project that the MTA once estimated would cost $3 billion. Here’s Castillo:

The MTA is blaming much of the latest $955 million budget increase on Amtrak, saying that its failure to provide needed help at a critical work site in Queens has resulted in lengthy delays and ballooning costs. Despite the latest setback, MTA officials say the project — called the largest public works effort underway in the United States — will remain on schedule to be completed by the end of 2022, thanks in part to new management strategies that will speed up the pace of the work.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority chief development officer Janno Lieber, who last year took over management of East Side Access, acknowledged that MTA mismanagement of the project was also a factor in the latest cost overrun. Among the agency’s mistakes, Lieber said: setting unrealistic budget and timeline estimates “without really knowing the complexity” of the project; unnecessarily splitting the project into 50 different contracts that have frequently conflicted with each other; making discretionary design changes after the project was well underway; overpaying for some contracts that were not competitively bid and even at one point ordering steel beams that were the wrong size.

“We bear some of the responsibility. But the principal change impact to the cost is the extension of the time of the construction. And that is mostly attributable to Amtrak,” said Lieber, referencing what the MTA has said is Amtrak’s inadequate cooperation at the Harold Interlocking in Queens, where all work involving Amtrak’s overhead catenary wire system must be overseen by the federally funded intercity passenger railroad.

In a letter to new Amtrak president and chief executive officer Richard Anderson sent Friday, [April 13,] Lieber said Amtrak had ”ignored” the MTA’s repeated pleas for cooperation and caused $340 million in cost overruns just since 2014. “Going forward we need Amtrak to give the East Side Access project a very different level of effort,” Lieber wrote in the letter.

Lieber’s letter is available here, but it does not make clear exactly why Amtrak’s lack of cooperation has cost the MTA so much or why the MTA couldn’t simply pay Amtrak to staff up to ensure crews had proper access and oversight to the Harold Interlocking. This week’s Capital Project Oversight Committee materials that the MTA Board will be discussing tomorrow morning sheds some light on the dollar amounts involved. Take a look:

The bulk of the cost increases in the “force account” bucket are assigned to Amtrak, and this aligns with the letter blaming the national rail agency. But the larger increases are around third-party and soft costs. The soft cost increases, in particular, this late in a project’s timeline are alarming as it seems the MTA cannot project and manage costs that should have been anticipated at the outset (or at least during the 2014 re-baselining exercise). On the bright side, the MTA still anticipates a December 2022 opening date, and so at the least project timeline has not slipped over the past few years.

The exact details this time around are almost besides the point as we as a city have become inured to the utter absurdity of this project. Take a look at this timeline of delays and dollar spikes from Newsday for a project that is expected to serve fewer people than the total ridership for just the current phase of the Second Ave. Subway.

Via Newsday.

It seems almost too late at this point to ask why this project is continuing; it is after all far too late to go back and most of the money has already been spent. We seemingly have no choice but to keep going because the alternative is a costly infill of a massive cavern and a refund to the feds of billions of dollars spent years ago. But why wasn’t this a question years ago when costs started creeping up and timelines started falling by the wayside?

When first proposed in 1999, the project was billed at around $18,000 per rider. At current expectations and with the same ridership projects, East Side Access will now run to nearly $70,000 per rider. Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway came in at around $22,000 per rider, and ESA’s per-KM costs are now at around $5.5 billion. By any measure, this is an absurdly expensive project that wouldn’t stand up to a fresh cost-benefit analysis. Furthermore, with only around 8000 New York City residents expected to shift from the subway to the LIRR when East Side Access is complete, it’s a massive expenditure by the state in a project that benefits suburban commuters by an extreme amount as the city’s transit needs founder. It is practically antagonistic to a smart investment in transit capacity expansion.

These aren’t easy questions, and they pit New Yorkers against New Yorkers and suburban residents visit urban dwellers in fights that have unfolded for decades. It is also a thought experiment in futility as the MTA isn’t going to stop building the East Side Access project simply because the price has gone up again. But the MTA has gotten away with capital construction larceny here, and no one in Albany has raised a hand to question the worth of this project at any point in the last decade. It is a failure in construction management and a failure in politics as scarce transit dollars flushed into the deep-bore cavern below Grand Central time and time again.

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NYC Transit President Andy Byford last week urged the NYPD to prioritize moving trains.

A disputed seat becomes a fight between passengers becomes a crime scene becomes a 90-minute rush-hour delay to police activity. It all happens in the blink of an eye as it did last Thursday morning when a fight on an A train at High St. snarled rush hour service on both the 6th and 8th Avenue lines for 90 minutes. And now it’s touched off a bit of a war of words between new NYC Transit President Andy Byford and the NYPD over the right way for the cops to respond to subway disruptions so as not to snarl service for hundreds of thousands of riders.

The details regarding the incident on the A train at around 8:15 on Thursday morning are nearly inconsequential. Two people got into a fight over a seat on a crowded train, and a fight ensued which involved mace and reportedly some blood. The new combatants left the train and kept fighting on the platform at High Street, but cops held the Manhattan-bound A train in the station for 90 minutes. This led to MTA-acknowledged delays on the A, C, E and F trains and more crowded trains reported by riders along 6th Ave.

In the aftermath of the delay, Andy Byford diplomatically suggested that perhaps delaying service for 90 minutes isn’t quite the best way to handle it. Here is his full answer, via Dan Rivoli, in response to questions regarding whether the cops handled the situation appropriately:

“I need to look into it a bit more. The fact that it lasted so long would suggest to me – no. I very much appreciate what the police do. But we shouldn’t have been at a stand for that long so I’d say actually it’s between us and the police.

It should have been escalated certainly to my Chief Operating Officer’s level and ultimately to mine because I would have been all over that saying you have the train but you’re not having it there. We’ll give it to you, you could take it somewhere else but you cannot stop the service for 90 minutes for a fight.”

The cops of course responded graciously and with an acknowledgement that they would do better in the future. Oh wait no they didn’t. In anonymous comments to The Post, one law enforcement source was dismissive of Byford’s statement. “Where are you gonna move a train to if a police investigation is being conducted? Maybe Mr. Byford has a suggestion,” the source said. In milquetoast on-the-record comments to The Times on Friday, an assistant NYPD commissioner said the crime was “spread over a large area and needed to be handled with care” and that “safety of our subway system is a top priority.”

It’s indisputable that Byford is correct. The first priority, especially in a non-fatal situation, should be to get rush hour (or any-hour) trains moving as soon as possible, and a 90-minute delay in service for an investigation that led to one arrest on reckless endangerment charges is unacceptable. It’s also correct for Byford to engage in a dialogue with the NYPD on this approach to subway policing, as various MTA officials and spokespeople may clear on Thursday and Friday.

But it’s also notable and laudable that Byford even started to broach the topic in public and so directly, and it’s a good sign that he’s willing to advocate for keeping trains moving even in the face of an immovable object such as the NYPD. Keeping trains running smoothly at rush hour must be a top priority of both the MTA and NYPD, and I can’t recall an NYC Transit president willing to tackle this subject head-on. If that means addressing how police respond to incidents in the subway so that policing is more efficient and investigations conducted with an intent to move trains as soon as possible, that’s a good outcome for every straphanger and a good sign as Byford goes to bat for riders who have not often had a forceful, vocal ally leading the TA.

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New York City has a bit of a tortured history with its commuter rail lines. Although some LIRR stops in Queens are among the system’s busiest, unlike in many other cities (I’m looking at you, Paris), the commuter rail lines do not act as a rail option for a significant portion of New York City commuters. This is largely a function of two factors — cost and frequency — but more on that shortly.

Now, in an attempt to take pressure off the subway, NYC is studying ways to get more New York City commuters on these commuter rail services, according to a report in Crains New York. Joe Anuta writes:

The department has tapped engineering firm AECOM to look at potential changes that would boost ridership on Long Island Rail Road and Metro North lines running within the five boroughs. Reducing fares within city limits, for example, would entice more residents to use commuter rails like the subway system and connect more neighborhoods to transit hubs like Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station in Manhattan, Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn and Jamaica and Woodside stations in Queens.

“AECOM is under contract to … investigate service and policy strategies for the city zone of the commuter rail network to connect residents to more frequent and affordable regional rail service, and potentially reduce crowding on nearby subway lines,” a spokesman for the department said in a statement.

In particular, the de Blasio administration has floated the idea of running trains more frequently between Atlantic Terminal and Jamaica Station so Queens commuters could then transfer to a number of subway lines at the Brooklyn hub.

The study will cost DOT $787,000, but I’ll do it for half that. Any changes, of course, would have to be implemented by the state-run MTA.

Now, it’s all well and good to explore ways to get more New Yorkers to use rail lines that stop in the city and serve Midtown, but the equation is a simple one. Run trains more frequently; rationalize the fares; stop treating commuter rail lines like some plush luxury service for suburban commuters; and for the love of all that’s holy, figure out how to connect Grand Central and Penn Station and develop a plan for through-running.

In essence, use pre-existing infrastructure and some new build to create an RER-style network. Sure, suburban riders more throw a fit over Those City People riding their trains for less, but a rational distance-based fare would encourage city riders. Plus, Penn Station Access is designed to do just that anyway when and if it sees the light of day. In fact, this very plan was recently suggested by Alon Levy as an April Fools joke which tells you everything you need to know about transit planning in NYC.

And yet, as noted in Anuta’s piece, the scope of the city’s imagination seems to be limited to a frequent Jamaica-Atlantic Terminal shuttle that simply moves commuters from one subway station to another. A rationalized fare with frequent service could help move Queens residents to Lower Manhattan and open up Downtown Brooklyn, but that seems far too limited in scope and potential. Think big; think network. Someone around this city should.

Meanwhile, the MTA’s own internal effort at building NYC-based commuter rail ridership is running into political problems as city pols think the MTA’s Freedom Ticket pilot is going to fail by design. The pilot may permit city riders to access only Atlantic Terminal and not Penn Station, and thus, riders would not save time or money. Who needs best practices and an integrated rail network when you have…New York City practices?

Categories : LIRR, Metro-North
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To my readers: For 12 years, I’ve run this site through minimal ad revenue and as a labor of love. Lately, ads started interfering with the site, and I’ve decided to try to move this site via a reader-supported model. Raising money will also allow me to do more with this site (including relaunching a podcast). To that end, I have started a Patreon for Second Ave. Sagas. If you like what you read and want more of it, please consider a monthly donation so I keep this site running. Thank you.

A group of West Village residents has sued DOT and the MTA over the L train shutdown mitigation plans. Vehicle restrictions and a busway on 14th Street seem to be a central focus of their legal ire.

With just under a year to go until the much-heralded L train shutdown, Manhattanites are growing restless. They’re not, however, concerned with the transit apocalypse that may be headed 14th Street’s way, and they don’t seem to believe, as many transit advocates do, that DOT and the MTA’s mitigation plan isn’t robust enough. Rather, with a combination of trumped-up NIMBY-esque concerns over traffic, bike lanes and bus lanes and some last-minute seemingly bad-faith arguments over ADA compliance, a group of West Village residents has sued DOT, the MTA and the Federal Transit Administration over the shutdown.

Over the past few months, as DOT and the MTA increased the pace of public presentations regarding the looming 2019 L Train shutdown, it seemed clear that a lawsuit was in the offering. Led by attorney Arthur Schwartz, who has variously put himself out there as (and seeming blurred the lines among being) a lawyer for a group of block associations, a resident, a homeowner and even the Democratic District Leader for some of the areas affected by the L train shutdown, various residents started making your typical NIMBY noises against the two-way bike lane planned for 13th St. and the temporary busway planned for 14th St. They raised concerns, not backed by numbers, of increased traffic on side streets and business Armageddon brought on by delivery vehicles being restricted to avenues. It’s been the typical litany of complaints safe streets and bus lane advocates have heard for years, and it seemed practically provincial coming from a wealthy group of self-proclaimed progressives living in the uber-gentrified transit-rich West Village.

Last week, the controversy boiled over when Schwartz filed his suit. It’s a lengthy complaint that relies on the argument that the various parties are in violation of state and federal environmental review laws. Schwartz alleges that the scope of the planned mitigation — a shutdown of the tunnel coupled with vehicles restrictions, pedestrianized streets and a two-way bike lane — along with its geographic proximity to a landmarked neighborhood requires at least an environmental assessment and perhaps a full Environmental Impact Statement. In light of recent bad press the MTA has received over its alleged flouting of ADA requirements, the plaintiffs tacked on allegations that the shutdown work itself is in violation of the ADA. (The complaint is available here as a PDF if you wish to read it.)

The ADA concerns are seemingly the easiest to address. In fact, the L train mitigation plan includes significant ADA accessibility upgrades with both the 1st and Bedford Avenue stations set to become fully accessible with the addition of new elevators and with Union Square set for an escalator to the station mezzanine. (Access to the L at Union Square is already accessible except for the transfer between the L and 4/5/6, but that is a function of the track layout and IRT platform positioning.) No ADA work is scheduled for 6th Ave. or 3rd Ave., but 3rd Ave. will receive platform edge doors as part of a pilot. The complaint alleges that stairway renovations without accessibility upgrades violate the ADA, but even amidst what many feel are rampant MTA ADA violations, that is a tenuous argument at best and one made in bad faith to stack claims at worst. Refurbishing stairways by itself isn’t generally enough to trigger an ADA violation.

The meat of the complaint revolves around the contention, as I mentioned, that DOT and the MTA are in violation of local and federal environmental review laws and additionally that the FTA is in violation of federal law if it has not required the proper environmental assessments. Here, the suit strays onto slightly firmer ground, but only slightly and only very narrowly. The bike lanes are easy; they are specifically exempted from federal environmental review requirements. In subsequent comments, Schwartz tried to claim the bike lane is one piece in an overall mitigation plan, the totality of which is subject to environmental review requirements, but the complaint on its face makes no such allegation. (Considering how easy it is to dismiss the complaint over the bike lane, you would think Schwartz would be careful here, but he fell back on the tired anti-bike trope of calling the pro-bike planners at NYC DOT zealots” during his comments earlier this week. Been there; done that.)

So the key legal question is a narrow one: Is a prohibition on most vehicles in favor of bus lane on a non-24/7 basis that is designed to be a part of a comprehensive mitigation plan for a temporary shutdown of the L train subject to environmental review laws? The FTA’s website on the topic provides some guidance but no definitive answer. DOT and the MTA’s planned bus way is a reallocation of existing space and not what the FTA generally considers to be new construction. Furthermore, the FTA itself has indicated that an EA or an EIS isn’t required, and courts often give significant leeway to agencies in interpreting their own regulations.

Schwartz’s complaint restates significant portions of the city, state and federal laws at play, and he details the dialogue to date over the shutdown plans. He doesn’t convincingly argue why the FTA doesn’t deserve deference or why the temporary non-24/7 bus lane requires these environmental assessments. Instead, the complaint draws conclusions — “closing 14th Street to vehicular traffic will cause horrific traffic jams” on nearby side streets — that likely wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny in litigation, but it’s not clear DOT and the MTA can win on an outright motion to dismiss. Even though we know the busway is a watered down plan and even though we all know a mitigation plan that doesn’t further limit vehicular access to the affected area will be far far worse for Schwartz and his plaintiffs, the law may still require some level of environmental review. I’m still working on reaching out to environmental law lawyers I know in the hopes of a more definitive answer.

But legal considerations aren’t the only elements at play here. Schwartz’s law firm is called Advocates for Justice, but it’s not clearly whose justice he’s interested in. One element is, as always, who gets to make decisions on streets and transit that impact everyone. Schwartz claims he’s suing on behalf of “residents of Williamsburg and west-central Brooklyn” but none of them are named plaintiffs. They also have the most to lose when the L train is shut down, but as we saw years ago with the demise of the 34th St. Transitway, those constituents aren’t often asked to the table in high-stakes legal discussions over a project fate.

Furthermore, Schwartz’s comments last week betrayed certain prejudices. He claimed that the MTA and DOT should have chosen the longer shutdown options on the table. Completely ignoring the MTA’s concerns that dust from the construction would make train operations through the Canarsie Tunnel unsafe for passengers during a piecemeal shutdown, a five-year plan that knocks out service on nights and weekends would be far more disruptive to a line that sees heavy ridership late at night and during the weekends and is a key conduit for lower income workers who need to commute in off hours. A total shutdown will be bad enough for 15 months, but five years of these disruptions would hurt those who can least afford it (and need transit justice more than the West Village does).

My biggest fear, however, with this lawsuit isn’t its potential success but rather the potential for settlement. To make this go away before the project timeline is in jeopardy, DOT and the MTA could agree to drop certain elements of the plan. The residents made clear they want the bike lane to disappear and want mixed-use traffic on 14th St. I’m sure either of those would be enough of a carrot to get them to drop the suit, but eliminating any part of a plan that’s already been watered down based on the trumped-up concerns from the very same residents who are now suing would be extremely harmful to hundreds of thousands of transit riders who don’t have the luxury of living in one of Manhattan’s most exclusive ZIP codes.

For its part, DOT says the suit is without merit. The MTA, however, issued a more guarded statement. “We do not comment on pending litigation,” Jon Weinstein, agency spokesman, said to me. “The repairs to the Sandy-damaged Canarsie Tunnel are desperately needed to ensure the tunnel’s structural integrity so we can continue to provide safe and reliable subway service to hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who depend on the L train every day. We are working with our partners at NYC DOT to craft a thorough and robust mitigation plan.”

Meanwhile, over at Streetsblog, Ben Fried urges the agency and the MTA to fight hard on the transit elements of the plan and perhaps agree to additional ADA upgrades. Despite the protestations from residents that DOT has ignored their concerns, the plans aren’t as robust as transit advocates wanted, and any further movement in response to this lawsuit would set a bad precedent for future transit projects the city should implement. No retreat, baby, no surrender.

As I browsed the case file this weekend, though, pondering over how much this whole thing stinks, one filing from Schwartz caught my eye. In a subsequent letter to the court late last week when Schwartz and his clients erroneously believed that planned repaving of 13th St. meant that work on the bike lane was set to begin, Schwartz requested a conference in advance of potentially filing an injunction. The letter is impressive audacious as Schwartz seems to recognize the problems his suit may cause. “There is,” the lawyer writes, “clearly a need for expedited discovery in this case; although the shutdown is planned for April 2019, lengthy litigation, which could lead to a broad injunction and delays, is not in the public interest.” So I pose these questions: Who is in the “public” Schwartz refers to and what are their interests? Exactly what part of this suit is in the public interest after all?

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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