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MTA-TWU Agreement: What’s the Plan Now, Governor?

The MTA’s financial situation became much murkier yesterday as Governor Cuomo announced that retroactive raises will be part of a labor agreement between the transit authority and the Transport Workers Union.

Photo: TWU

Senior Cuomo aide Howard Glaser, MTA Chair Tom Prendergast, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen at yesterday’s announcement. Photo: TWU

Up until yesterday’s announcement, MTA leadership had insisted that the authority’s financial health depended on “three years of net-zero wage growth.” Keeping labor costs flat was the key assumption behind the MTA’s financial plan.

Now the validity of the MTA’s financial plan is in doubt.

TWU members will receive raises of one percent for the first two years and 2 percent in each of the final three years. Since employees had been working without a contract for two years, the first two years represent retroactive raises.

MTA chairman Tom Prendergast insisted that the wage deal was “within the financial plan,” and that no fare hikes or service cuts would be necessary. But it is difficult to reconcile Prendergast’s claim with the MTA’s publicly available financial information.

The wage increases will likely cost the MTA between $200 million and $300 million a year, an amount that exceeds the agency’s projected cash balance for 2014 and beyond. The MTA financial plan projected a $64 million surplus by the end of 2014, falling to $6 million by 2015 and a $255 million deficit by 2017 [PDF].

So how will the MTA balance its budget without fare hikes or service cuts? Should we assume that the MTA leadership and Governor Cuomo have a plan?

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No, the MTA Can’t Afford Cuomo’s Transit Raids

I think most transit riders would laugh — cynically — at the idea that the MTA has more than enough funds to meet its needs. But this is exactly what the MTA’s chairman Tom Prendergast said when he learned that the state would be diverting $30 million from the MTA’s funding stream to balance the state budget.

Crowding on the 7 train platform. Photo: @lreynolds21363 via Gothamist

“Our needs are being met,” Prendergast said, apparently unwilling to speak out against his boss, Governor Cuomo.

Mayor de Blasio was equally sanguine about this raid on MTA funds. “We have to make sure the MTA has the resources they need. But from what I’m hearing at this point, they’re doing well,” de Blasio said.

Is this the same MTA that is regularly described in the press as “cash-strapped,” that made deep service cuts in 2009, leaving hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers with longer waits, more crowded platforms, or no local bus route at all?

When asked about the $30 million diversion, an MTA spokesperson noted that the MTA was actually receiving more state funds this year.

Technically he is correct. The state collects a number of taxes and fees that are then sent into a fund that is “dedicated” for transit. The economy is recovering, more tax revenue is coming in, and as a result the pot of transit-dedicated funds is larger than it has been in recent years.

And it’s true that the $30 million diversion represents a small percentage of the MTA’s $13 billion annual budget. One has to appreciate the amount of public funds that do support transit, either from special taxes or state and local general funds. Last year, $5.1 billion in subsidies helped the MTA run the largest transit system in the nation, which is slightly more than it took in at the farebox.

But there are several reasons why the state’s raid on transit funds is bad policy and is fiscally irresponsible.

First, this year’s raid is not an isolated incident but rather comes on top of $280 million in diversions since 2009. Worse, Cuomo intends to take at least $20 million from the state’s transit fund every year until 2031, adding up to another $350 million.

Second, the tax revenue that the MTA relies on is volatile and subject to the ups and downs of the economy. Tax revenue is up this year, but could just as easily drop in the event of the next recession. The MTA should be able to take advantage of the “good times” to prepare for the next recession.

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Klein Backs Off Bill to Restore Flashing Lights on Select Bus Service

Flashing lights on Select Bus Service vehicles are designed to help riders distinguish between pay-before-boarding SBS and pay-onboard local service. After years of operation without issue, Staten Island lawmakers exploited a minor state law to have the MTA turn off the lights 16 months ago. Bills in Albany to find a solution are stuck in committee, and now the bill’s most powerful sponsor is backing away.

State Senate Co-Leader Jeff Klein is not interested in reviving his bill to bring back flashing lights to SBS buses. Photo: NY Senate

State Senate Co-Leader Jeff Klein doesn’t plan to revive his bill to bring back flashing lights to SBS buses. Photo: NY Senate

State law restricts flashing blue lights to the vehicles of volunteer firefighters. Bills from State Senate Co-Leader Jeff Klein and Assembly Member Micah Kellner would allow purple lights, designated for use on buses by the DMV, only on routes that require riders to pay before boarding.

This would exempt the S79, the sole SBS line on Staten Island. But it failed to appease State Senator Andrew Lanza, an SBS critic who opposed the lights with Council Member Vincent Ignizio. The bills failed in Albany last year and remain stuck in committee.

Klein’s office indicated that the SBS bill isn’t on his agenda at this time. “Senator Klein wants to see Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero plan come to fruition this year and that will be his transportation focus this session,” said spokesperson Anna Durrett. (Streetsblog asked if that means Klein will amend his speed camera bill to allow more cameras and fewer restrictions. We’ll let you know if we hear anything back.)

Meanwhile, Kellner said he would push hard this session to pass the bill in the Assembly and put pressure on the Senate. “I’m going to sit down and talk to Senator Klein, I’m going to talk to Senator Lanza, and see if we can come to an agreement,” Kellner said. “The nice thing about both Senator Klein and Senator Lanza is that they are very reasonable people…If not, we’ll seek another Senate sponsor.”

Kellner added that he has filed a “Form 99″ to push the Assembly’s transportation committee chair to act on the bill during this legislative session, which ends this year. An NYU review of Albany procedure called this tactic “ineffective” because it does not force the bill to be reported out of committee.

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When Will Select Bus Service Get Its Flashing Lights Back?

When Select Bus Service launched in 2008, the program included blue flashing lights on the front of each bus to help riders distinguish the service from local buses. This is particularly important for Select Bus Service, since most SBS routes require riders to pay their fare at a machine before boarding. The flashing lights help riders know whether they’re boarding an SBS bus, with its special payment system, or a local bus.

The lights have been turned off since last January, thanks to Staten Island legislators. This year, bills to restore the lights have been stuck in committee in Albany, though Manhattan Community Board 6 is trying to generate some momentum with a resolution in support of the lights.

A bus at the 2008 launch event for the city’s first Select Bus Service line, with flashing blue lights. Photo: Brad Aaron

When SBS expanded to Staten Island’s Hylan Boulevard in 2012, Council Member Vincent Ignizio, who badgered the city into watering down the Hylan route until it no longer included median bus lanes, began complaining about the lights, claiming that drivers could get confused between a bus and an emergency vehicle. Citing a state law that reserves the use of flashing blue lights for emergency vehicles, Ignizio and State Senator Andrew Lanza got the MTA to shut the lights off in January 2013.

Seeking a solution, legislators in Albany drafted a bill to bring the lights back after the DMV designated purple as the only option for the buses. Senate Co-Leader Jeff Klein and Assembly Member Micah Kellner even crafted their bills to exclude the Hylan SBS route, the only one in the city without pay-before-boarding fare machines.

Lanza and Ignizio scoffed. “At first I thought they were joking,” Lanza told the Times. “This is the best you come back with? Flashing purple?” The bill failed to clear committees in either chamber last year. “You don’t need a flashing light,” Lanza told MTA chairman Tom Prendergast at his confirmation hearing last June.

Representatives of other areas with Select Bus Service think otherwise. Last year, Council Members Dan Garodnick and Melissa Mark-Viverito sent a letter to the MTA urging for the lights to return. Manhattan Community Board 6 passed a resolution asking the state legislature to bring back the blue lights.

On Monday, CB 6′s transportation committee advanced another resolution asking the legislature to pass a bill allowing purple lights. The resolution passed the full board yesterday [PDF]. The Klein and Kellner bills were reintroduced in January, but haven’t advanced passed committee. Will Albany take this small, painless step to make life less stressful for bus riders?

This post has been modified to correctly characterize the resolutions passed by CB 6.

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Will de Blasio Make Good on His Pledge to Build Great Bus Rapid Transit?

During his campaign for mayor, Bill de Blasio called for the creation of a citywide, “world-class” Bus Rapid Transit network consisting of at least 20 routes. These new routes would provide a crucial link for communities beyond the reach of subways and speed trips that are poorly served by the city’s Manhattan-centric rail system.

Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/61135621@N03/10930906743/in/photolist-hDVKKn-hDVKQ2-hDVKJR-hDV4r7-hDVL2K-hDV4d1-hDUmsp-hDV4HE-hDVL3r-hDVKwX-f1oBUU-f1oBKY-byEi8c-bDQkXm-bDQm73-deteve-detdRd-7C9G1Q-dwvtyZ-dwvtG2-aZLEg6-8BGt6h-fsrcaf-bzRdWF-br2R68-ga79rs-ga72Uv-ga76tL-im8tYQ-9cWWhF-842X7k-dbhDNz-iAhMCg-dR7Fb5-f19hpM-f1oBSA-f1oBQf-f19hkg-f19haD-f19hkz-8EYxLP-detcU5-bSK3sg-bDQmdW-fC42nb-fBNERP-9KE38J-daxWUc-9UJNum-br2KDF-br2PpP##MTA/Flickr##

Photo: MTA/Flickr

Now that he is mayor, de Blasio will have to build out new routes much more rapidly than his predecessor if he is to keep his campaign promise.

While de Blasio has not offered a timetable for completing the rapid bus network, it took the Bloomberg administration approximately six years to build the city’s first six Select Bus Service routes.

“It’s possible to pick up the pace,” said Joan Byron of the Pratt Center for Community Development. “The constraint is staffing.”

The Department of Transportation will likely need more planners and community liaisons in order to work on multiple projects at the same time.

“If you have one team working on planning for SBS, you can get one route done per year. If you have two teams you can get two routes done, and so on,” says Byron.

One key challenge for de Blasio and Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg will be to accelerate the public engagement process while following through on his campaign language about “extending [outreach] beyond the community board.” As public advocate, de Blasio criticized Bloomberg and transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan for moving too fast on major street redesigns. Now that he’s mayor, he will likely have to contend with the opposition that has met previous SBS projects.

It’s not impossible to imagine that future Select Bus Service routes will encounter less friction than before. SBS is now up and running successfully in several neighborhoods, and the concept is no longer new and alien to residents and community boards. There is a clear record of success.

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Cuomo Gets His Way, and Transit Riders Get the Shaft

Straphangers pack a subway platform in Queens this morning. The $30 million Governor Cuomo diverted from the MTA budget could have been used to address subway overcrowding. Photo: ##https://twitter.com/lreynolds21363/status/450610751632588800##@lreynolds21363## via ##http://gothamist.com/2014/03/31/mta_is_trying_to_break_your_heart.php##Gothamist##

Straphangers pack a train platform in Queens this morning. The $30 million Governor Cuomo diverted from the MTA budget could have been used to address subway overcrowding. Photo: @lreynolds21363 via Gothamist

Governor Andrew Cuomo won’t be denied. Overriding proposals from the Assembly and State Senate, the governor continues to pick the pocket of New York City’s transit system, diverting $30 million from the MTA in the state budget.

Cuomo had originally proposed a $40 million raid, so it could have been worse. But because this diversion will be used to pay off bonds that don’t mature until 2031, it sets a troubling precedent — Cuomo envisions yanking $20 million from the MTA every year to cover borrowing costs the state had previously promised to take care of.

Albany transit raids have become an annual rite in recent years, as the state government tries to make up for a structural budget deficit by treating the MTA like a piggy bank. While today’s raids aren’t as big as five years ago (advocates have significantly raised public awareness of them), Cuomo still managed to reach a new low this year. By keeping a $30 million diversion in the final budget, the governor overrode both houses of the state legislature, which had rejected any theft from the MTA in their budget proposals.

This time around, Cuomo also got a last-minute assist from MTA Chair Tom Prendergast, who said the agency never asked the governor to let it keep the money because its “needs are being met.” But what about the needs of transit riders?

While this transit raid won’t set off a round of service cuts, it also deprives the MTA of funds that could be used to expand service or defray future fare hikes. Significant service cuts enacted in 2010 have yet to be restored, and Cuomo’s budgetary monkey business makes it a lot harder to bring those trains and buses back. As the Straphangers Campaign and the Riders Alliance pointed out earlier this month, if not for this raid, the MTA would have funds to improve frequency and reduce crowding on several subway lines while expanding bus service on more than a dozen routes.

Cuomo has repeatedly refused to enact legislation that would make the impact of these raids more transparent to the public. This weekend New Yorkers got another reminder why.

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What Transit Riders Could Get If Cuomo’s Transit Raid Doesn’t Go Through

How much transit service could the MTA add if Governor Cuomo’s proposed $40 million transit raid doesn’t make Albany’s final budget? Here’s a taste, courtesy of the Straphangers Campaign and the Riders Alliance.

Photo: Wikipedia

Service that was cut from seven subway lines in 2010, serving 300,000 weekday riders, could be restored. More than a dozen weekday bus routes could be added across the five boroughs, plus weekend service for more than a dozen other routes. The LIRR could run more trains and MetroNorth could add cars.

It would all add up to quicker commutes, less crowding, and more freedom for New Yorkers to get around without a car.

Straphangers and the Riders Alliance based the potential service restorations and additions on the MTA’s estimates of cost savings achieved with the 2010 service cuts.

In their budget proposals, both the Assembly and the State Senate rejected the $40 million transit raid in the governor’s executive budget. The issue is expected to be decided during final negotiations this week between the legislature and Cuomo.

The Cuomo camp has tried to diminish the significance of the raid, which would compel the MTA to pay off bonds for capital projects that the state had previously promised to cover. The advocates’ list of foregone service helps bring home the point that there is in fact a very real cost whenever Albany decides to divert revenue from transit.

Here’s the full list of service that $40 million could buy, according to Straphangers and the Riders Alliance:

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Senate Joins Assembly in Rejecting Cuomo’s $40 Million Transit Raid

This week kicked off with news that Speaker Sheldon Silver would remove Governor Andrew Cuomo’s $40 million transit raid from the Assembly’s budget plan. Today comes word [PDF] that the State Senate has followed suit, rejecting the transit raid in its own budget resolution.

Photo: Matt Wade via Wikipedia

Photo: Matt Wade via Wikipedia

A united front from the Senate and Assembly provides a boost to advocates as the legislature begins two weeks of negotiations with Cuomo over the final budget, which covers a fiscal year beginning April 1.

It’s also a step up from last year, when a $20 million raid was rejected by the Senate but remained in the Assembly’s resolution and was included in the final budget. “We have a much stronger hand going into the negotiations [this year],” said Nadine Lemmon of Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

The governor’s office has claimed that this budget maneuver does not count as a raid because it’s taking taxes dedicated to MTA operations and diverting it to service debt that funds MTA capital needs. But Comptroller Tom DiNapoli calls it a transit raid, and advocates point out that it reneges on a commitment the state made over a decade ago and shifts funds away from the MTA to effectively create new money on the state’s balance sheet.

Even if the $40 million transit raid is removed from this year’s budget, Cuomo is likely to attempt similar moves in the future to pay off the state bond with MTA funds. His financial plan includes annual raids of $20 million, which would total nearly $350 million by 2031.

“Three hundred and fifty million dollars is a big chunk of change. You can’t bleed the authority in that manner and expect them to perform,” Lemmon said.

Another one of the governor’s hits to MTA revenues is also having ripple effects in the Senate. Cuomo’s plan to deepen Verrazano-Narrows Bridge toll discounts for truckers and Staten Island residents would cost $14 million annually, with the MTA and the state splitting the cost evenly. That kicked off a flurry of press releases and events by Brooklyn legislators angling for a discount for their constituents, too.

Now, they’re using the Senate budget plan to call on the MTA to study and recommend VNB toll discounts for non-Staten Island residents who drive over the bridge. Wholesale reform of New York’s broken toll system, as the state begins to figure out how to fund the MTA’s next multi-billion dollar capital plan, is not on Albany’s agenda.

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Without Action From Cuomo, Subways Doomed to Endless State of Disrepair

Governor Andrew Cuomo is pushing for $2 billion in tax cuts in his next budget, citing growing surpluses. But a new report on New York City’s infrastructure from the Center for an Urban Future makes it clear that there is no surplus — the state is responsible for billions in unfunded infrastructure repairs to city subways.

Like his toll cuts, Cuomo’s planned tax cuts will hurt New Yorkers who depend on transit. Photo: AP/SI Advance

All told, the city faces a $34 billion gap between basic repairs and maintenance and the amount of money available over the next five years. Surprisingly, a large chunk of this funding gap is attributable to New York’s subway system, which has a $10.5 billion backlog of needed maintenance and repair.

Thirty-seven percent of subway signals have exceeded their 50-year useful life, and 26 percent are over 70 years old. Signal upgrades are essential because modern signals dramatically increase the number of trains that can run in an hour. When the L train’s system was upgraded, the MTA increased the number of rush hour trains from 15 to 26.

Subway stations have gotten to such a state of disrepair, says the report, that a former MTA spokesman confesses, “The MTA has basically conceded that you will never get to a state of good repair… It’s simply not possible.” Under current funding levels, at least.

Funding the subways isn’t the city’s responsibility. The MTA is under the control of the governor, who appoints the authority’s president and nominates its board members. But the governor has largely ignored the MTA’s needs. Instead, Cuomo threatens to take $40 million in dedicated revenues from the MTA in the next budget.

He also pushed the MTA board to cut tolls on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (again, less money for the MTA), a move so fiscally irresponsible that it led former Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch to testify that it may be illegal.

The MTA’s shortfall isn’t entirely Cuomo’s fault. In 1975 the federal government contributed 78 percent of the MTA’s capital budget, “but only 25 percent of the MTA budget for 2010-11,” the report notes.

But that certainly doesn’t excuse the governor for actually taking money from transit. Cuomo should assume leadership of the issue and make the case for more transit funds to Congress and the president.

Instead, Cuomo focuses on cutting taxes for corporations and property owners. The governor argues that cutting taxes will make New York more “business friendly.” But to underfund critical infrastructure is to harm the state’s business climate. Until we fund basic repairs and maintenance, there simply is no surplus.

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Eyes on the Street: Real-Time Bus Arrival Display on Nostrand Ave [Updated]

bus_stop

New York finally has real-time bus arrival information and excellent route maps posted at bus stops. Or rather, at least one bus stop has this info, and it looks like the kind of thing that should spread to a lot more bus stops.

NYC DOT policy director Jon Orcutt posted this photo on Twitter over the weekend, when Bus Time went live in Brooklyn and Queens, bringing real-time arrival information to every borough. This display is at the Church Avenue stop for southbound Nostrand Avenue B44 Select Bus Service.

The bus arrival screen is integrated into one of NYC DOT’s WalkNYC wayfinding boards, which has also been customized with B44 route maps. The display shows how many stops away the next four arrivals are — both local and SBS buses. After years of looking jealously at other cities’ real-time bus stop displays, NYC seems to be on the verge of catching up.

It’s unclear how rapidly the displays will be rolled out. The WalkNYC maps are currently in four neighborhoods. We have a request in with DOT about whether the Bus Time-enabled displays will be coming to more bus stops.

Update: DOT says this is a prototype installed last fall for the launch of B44 SBS, with the arrival info switched on when Bus Time went live this weekend. The prototype is still being tested so there’s no timetable yet for a full rollout, but the plan is to eventually bring these displays to all SBS routes, starting with the B44, M34, and M60.

I went over to Church and Nostrand this afternoon and got a few more up-close shots of the display. (Sidenote: The parking situation on this stretch of Nostrand and Rogers is literally a free-for-all. No meters, double-parking everywhere, drivers bypassing the stopped vehicles by violating the bus lane. To make SBS work as well as it should here, there needs to be a price on the curb.)

Take a look:

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