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DiNapoli: If Cuomo Borrows More for the MTA, Get Ready for Fat Fare Hikes

Without a commitment from the state to close the $15.2 billion gap in the MTA’s capital program, the cost of a MetroCard is likely to spike as the MTA adds to its cumbersome debt load, according to a new report from Comptroller Tom DiNapoli [PDF]. The warning comes as Governor Andrew Cuomo and the legislature begin the very early stages of negotiations over funding the capital plan, which maintains, upgrades, and expands the transit system.

Is he listening? Debt is at record levels. Without new revenue, it will go up even more. Photo: MTA/Flickr

MTA debt has skyrocketed and without new revenue, it will consume even more of the agency’s budget. Does Cuomo care? Photo: MTA/Flickr

By some measures, the MTA is doing well: Ridership is reaching new highs, the authority is making progress on cost savings, and an improving economy has buoyed its finances. But there’s trouble around the corner: Labor and health care expenses are already rising faster than the MTA can pay for them even as new labor deals pile on more costs, federal funding is questionable, debt is at record levels, and the next capital plan is only halfway funded. Without new sources of revenue, issuing more debt to pay for system upkeep and expansion will translate into more fare hikes.

The authority is already planning on issuing $6.2 billion in debt for the next capital plan. Even with that borrowing, there’s still a $15.2 billion gap. Without action in Albany to bring in new revenue, the MTA will likely do what it did last time: Cut the capital program while issuing even more debt. That means fare hikes.

Fares are already scheduled to increase faster than inflation, with back-to-back four percent hikes scheduled for 2015 and 2017. If the MTA has to issue more debt to pay for the capital program, DiNapoli calculates that riders should expect an additional 1 percent hike for every $1 billion borrowed.

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Trottenberg: Federal Cuts Could Make MTA Funding Gap Even Bigger

Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said today that the MTA is making “optimistic assumptions” about federal funding as it plans its next five-year capital program. The agency has identified only half the funds to cover the projected costs of the plan, which maintains, upgrades, and expands the transit system. At a panel with top-level city agency heads this morning, Trottenberg, who sits on the MTA board, warned about a possible cut in federal support, which would further widen the funding gap.

Are the doors closing on federal transit funding? Polly Trottenberg says Andrew Cuomo's MTA is too "optimistic" about the feds paying for the capital plan. Photo: MTA/Flickr

Polly Trottenberg said Andrew Cuomo’s MTA is too “optimistic” about the feds paying for the capital plan. Photo: MTA/Flickr

A drop in federal funds would supposedly increase pressure on Governor Andrew Cuomo, who controls the transit authority, to support new sources of revenue. So far, the governor has opposed any new revenue for the MTA.

This morning’s panel, which kicked off the annual meeting of the American Planning Association’s New York Metro chapter, featured Trottenberg, City Planning Commission Chair Carl Weisbrod, HPD Commissioner Vicki Been, and EDC President Kyle Kimball. It was moderated by Regional Plan Association Executive Director Tom Wright.

Trottenberg, who was a top U.S. DOT official before moving to NYC government, questioned the assumptions the MTA is making about the federal contribution to its capital program. “At the moment, they have half the funds in hand,” she said. “I’m not even quite sure that they have that money in hand, because it does make some optimistic assumptions perhaps about what’s happening at the federal level.”

After the event, I asked Trottenberg why she thought the MTA’s assumptions are optimistic. She took a long pause before answering. “There is a big question mark about what the federal funding picture is going to look like in the next few years, and understandably when you’re doing a capital budget you have to take a guess at a number,” she said. “But I think there’s a chance that the feds are going to be even less supportive on the transit front than they have been in the past.”

Many political analysts expect Republicans to gain control of the Senate in November, which could disrupt the current stasis in federal transportation policy.

While Trottenberg raised the possibility of a decrease in federal support for transit, the MTA expects those funds to remain steady [PDF].

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It’s Cuomo vs. Transit Experts on MTA Funding

Yesterday, Governor Andrew Cuomo called the region’s transit investment plan “bloated” and rejected calls for new revenue. Today, MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast, speaking at a forum on best practices in regional transit governance, hammered home the need for elected officials to find new money to fill the half-funded capital plan’s $15 billion gap.

The MTA's boss isn't terribly interested in funding transit. Actually, he called the capital plan "bloated." Photo: MTA/Flickr

The MTA’s boss isn’t terribly interested in transit investments. Actually, he called the capital plan “bloated.” Photo: MTA/Flickr

“This is the start of a process. This is the start of a dialogue,” Prendergast told reporters when asked about the governor’s comments. He refused to agree with the governor’s assertion that the capital plan should be trimmed, and indicated that without new funding, the MTA would resort to increasing its debt load above already record levels. “I don’t like greater debt finance, but I’ll tell you what,” he said during the panel, “I’ll treat that finance as a bridge to another day.”

Today, debt service eats up an ever-greater share of the authority’s budget, with the MTA spending almost as much in debt service as it does to operate Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road service combined. During his comments yesterday, Cuomo also repeated his rejection of toll reform or other new sources of revenue to help fill the capital program’s gap and reduce the MTA’s reliance on debt.

“At some point the interest payments on MTA debt are going to completely implode any capacity to do anything for the MTA going forward,” said Chris Ward, Dragados USA executive vice president and former Port Authority executive director. “The toll structure has reached [the end of] its useful life,” he said. “Public transit is going to have to face, fundamentally, a question of funding, and what the mechanisms are going to be.”

The panel this morning, hosted by the Eno Center for Transportation, TransitCenter, and the Regional Plan Association, marked the release of a new report examining the governance of regional transit systems in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, and the Minneapolis-St. Paul area [PDF].

While panelists noted that New York often serves as a model for other systems, the MTA came in for serious criticism on the way it is governed by its board members and the governor who appoints them.

New York’s governor calls the shots with state authorities, noted Robert “Buzz” Paaswell, director of the University Transportation Research Center at City College. During a training for board members of state authorities, Paaswell asked them if they would disagree with the governor if his wishes contradicted the best interests of the authority. ”Ninety percent of the board members would say, ‘I would do what the governor says; he appointed me,’” he said. “Even if that goes against the interest of the authority.’”

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Vision Zero Hasn’t Changed NYPD Practice of Blaming Deceased Crash Victims

Based on press leaks it seems NYPD still presumes the victim is at fault in most serious crashes. Image: News 12

Based on press leaks it seems NYPD still presumes the victim is at fault in most serious crashes. Image: News 12

Last week an MTA bus driver crushed a pedestrian to death in Mott Haven. By all accounts the victim, walking with a cane, was in the crosswalk at Willis Avenue and E. 147th Street when the driver ran him over while turning left.

If reports are correct the bus driver should be subject to charges under Section 19-190, the new city law that makes it a misdemeanor for drivers to hurt or kill pedestrians who have the right of way. Yet before police cleared the crash scene, NYPD exculpated the driver in the press.

“At this point, they don’t believe there was anything criminal involved,” said ABC 7 reporter Lisa Colagrossi, “just that it was a tragic accident.”

It’s possible police may eventually file charges for the Bronx crash — the one time NYPD is reported to have applied Section 19-190 so far, in the case of the cab driver who killed Silvia Gallo on the Upper East Side, charges didn’t come until weeks later. But 10 months into Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative it’s still standard operating procedure for NYPD to declare “no criminality suspected” before investigators have taken down the barricade tape.

NYPD also continues to blame victims for their own deaths. On Monday at around 7:19 p.m., the driver of a Ford SUV fatally struck pedestrian Cristina Alonso in Dyker Heights. Other than the basics like the victim’s name, the driver’s age and vehicle make, and the time and location of the crash, the only information released by police was that Alonso was not in the crosswalk.

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Fair Tolls: Fixing NYC’s Gridlock and Transit Shortfall in One Fell Swoop

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The Move NY Fair Plan sets tolls at all East River crossings and 60th Street at the same amount, while lowering tolls on four outlying MTA bridges. Graphic: Christina Roman, Sam Schwartz Engineering

When Governor Nelson Rockefeller merged New York’s commuter rail lines, the NYC Transit Authority, and Robert Moses’s Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority to form the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 1968, he had several motives. The new agency consolidated political power, made more efficient use of regional infrastructure, and devoted surplus bridge and tunnel toll revenues to rescue a faltering transit system.

That last idea, making drivers pay for transit, had a powerful logic, since drivers themselves benefit from viable transit that prevents stifling traffic jams. But the original set-up had a built-in flaw: New York’s tolled crossings compete with free bridges.

Today, almost half a century later, this formula is broken. “Toll shopping” is exacerbating gridlock in communities on both sides of the free East River bridges and throughout the Manhattan central business district while eroding MTA revenues. Meanwhile, the MTA needs a new revenue stream to fund its next capital plan, but current users of its crossings are balking at soaring tolls while adjacent bridges remain free.

Excluding the Port Authority-controlled Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, an estimated 1,733,000 car and truck trips are made into or out of the CBD or on a major MTA bridge each weekday. Each trip that crosses the CBD boundary imposes, on average, two hours of aggregate delay on all other drivers (more during rush hours, less during off-peak hours). Yet only 604,000 — 35 percent — of those 1.7 million-plus trips are tolled: 458,000 on the MTA bridges plus 146,000 through the MTA’s Queens Midtown Tunnel and Brooklyn Battery Tunnel (see graphic).

The remaining 1,129,000 trips — of which 445,000 enter or exit the CBD via an East River bridge while 684,000 cross 60th Street — pay nothing. (These and other figures in this post are derived in my Balanced Transportation Analyzer Spreadsheet [PDF].)

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MTA: We’re Not Counting on Albany to Help Pay for Capital Program

The City Council transportation committee today passed bills to lower the city’s speed limit and give hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers a transit-related tax benefit. But most of this afternoon’s hearing was dedicated to the next MTA capital plan.

Here are the highlights.

  • In a joint vote, the committee unanimously approved a bill to set the city’s default speed limit at 25 miles per hour, and another bill to require companies with a full-time staff of 20 or more to make the federal transit tax benefit available to employees. The latter measure would extend the tax break to 450,000 people whose employers currently don’t participate in the program, according to Council Member Dan Garodnick, the bill’s primary sponsor. Companies would also save because the benefit would reduce payroll taxes, Garodnick said. If passed by the full council, the law would take effect in 2016, to give businesses time to prepare. A Riders Alliance report issued earlier this year said the tax losses to the city and state would be offset by injecting the money into the economy elsewhere.
  • Council Member Mark Weprin reiterated some of what he said last week about lowering the city speed limit, arguing again that sections of Northern Boulevard and Union Turnpike should not be set at 25 mph because there are no businesses or homes around and higher speeds would be safe. Weprin said today that Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg was amenable to his suggestions.
  • MTA representatives rattled off a long list of projects slated for funding in the 2015-2019 Capital Program, with big ticket items including East Side Access (to be completed), phase two of the Second Avenue Subway (no completion date), and Penn Station Access (beginning work). Also in the program is the implementation of a new fare box system, which reps said would allow for payments online and via phone, as well as hundreds of new subway cars, over 1,000 buses, and track and signal upgrades.
  • There is currently a $15 billion gap between the capital program price tag and available revenues. Biennial fare increases figure into the capital plan’s revenue projections, and MTA expects to receive $125 million a year from the city — a princely sum compared to the anticipated contribution from the state, which at this point, reps said, is zero.
  • Council members had lists of their own, with asks including rail service to LaGuardia, Select Bus Service on Staten Island, subway countdown clocks on lettered lines, and improved access for the disabled. On the revenue side, congestion pricing foe Weprin asked if the MTA had considered the Sam Schwartz Move New York bridge toll reform plan. MTA reps said they’ve seen the proposal but have not spoken to Schwartz about it. Committee chair Ydanis Rodriguez said the council wants to help MTA raise money, and asked that council members be included in early discussions on “creative” revenue sources. ”We’ll take ideas from just about anyone,” was the reply.
  • There is some question as to whether — or how — old Second Avenue Subway tunnels, bored during the project’s previous false starts, will be used. MTA reps said they could be used for something, but maybe not running trains.
  • Rodriguez said omitting rail to LaGuardia from the capital plan was “not a good move,” and asked that MTA reconsider. New express bus service to the airport is an improvement, Rodriguez said, but no substitute for rail links like those found in other world cities, namely London.
  • Passing on a question from Twitter, Rodriguez asked about wheel guards for buses. Repeating what she said last March, MTA spokesperson Lois Tendler said wheel guards like the ones used in other cities were considered, but the agency decided against them because, Tendler said, “We didn’t think it was effective.” MTA bus drivers have killed at least four pedestrians and one cyclist this year, with an average of at least one fatality every six weeks since January 2013.
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Eyes on the Street: DOT Breaks Out the Terracotta for Third Ave Bus Lane

Photos: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

Photos: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

Work is underway on updates to the Third Avenue bus lane. Streetfilms’ Clarence Eckerson and reader David Dartley tweeted these shots of what will eventually be an offset lane from 36th to 55th Street, a configuration designed to speed bus travel by shifting parking and loading to the curb [PDF].

The Third Avenue bus lane dates to 1982. Local bus routes on the street accommodate 59,000 riders a day, and 12 express routes also have stops on Third. Endorsed by Community Board 6 earlier this year, the DOT revamp also includes a center-boarding island between 56th and 57th Streets. The island will shorten crossing distances at Third and 57th, where DOT says drivers killed one pedestrian and injured 39 from 2008 to 2012. The plan does not include bus bulbs for other stops along the new offset lane.

Photo: David Dartley

Photo: David Dartley

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No Charges for Bus Driver Who Killed Pedestrian Jennifer White-Estick

Police filed no charges against the MTA bus driver who killed a pedestrian in Bedford-Stuyvesant two weeks ago. Instead, NYPD and the tabloids put the victim on trial.

At around 1:30 in the afternoon on Wednesday, September 17, Jennifer White-Estick was run over while trying to retrieve her cell phone from underneath a B44 bus she had just exited at Bedford Avenue and Fulton Street.

Jennifer White-Estick. Photo via Facebook

Jennifer White-Estick. Photo via Facebook

By the time the Post published its extremely graphic report on the crash at around 4 p.m., police had declared “no criminality suspected.” Reporters from the Post and the Daily News focused on the actions of the victim, but abetted by NYPD, the Daily News took its reportage to new depths.

White-Estick had no ID on her, but the day after the crash, the Daily News reported that police found a crack pipe in her bra. Along with her identity, the Daily News announced last Wednesday that, according to unnamed sources, White-Estick had “a prior criminal record.” The paper also reminded readers about the crack pipe.

MTA bus drivers have killed at least four pedestrians and one cyclist this year; last year’s death toll was seven pedestrians and one man on a skateboard. Over half of those 13 crashes occurred as the bus driver was making a turn.

While the tabloids focused on the more salacious aspects of White-Estick’s personal life, and the gory details of her death, less attention was given to factors that might prevent the next MTA-involved pedestrian fatality.

“The bus driver, James Maxwell, told cops he didn’t see the woman,” the Daily News reported. Maxwell’s safety record was not mentioned, and there was only a passing reference to the role vehicle design may have played in the crash.

The front of the bus was equipped with a driver-assisting video camera, but a transit investigator who saw the video said it could not have provided a warning.

“You can’t see nothing,” the investigator said.

Earlier this month, Melania Ward was struck by the driver of the Q47 she’d been riding as she crossed Astoria Boulevard in Elmhurst. NYPD did not reveal who had the right of way, and no charges were filed.

Last March, an MTA bus driver turned into a crosswalk occupied by three people, striking and killing 21-year-old Marisol Martinez. After Martinez’s death, City Council Member Steve Levin called for changes to bus design, including guards that keep pedestrians away from the rear wheels. An MTA rep later said the agency had decided against installing such guards.

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Where Is Andrew Cuomo’s Climate Plan?

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Andrew Cuomo could be a national leader on climate policy through his stewardship of New York’s transit system. Other than the occasional photo op, he hasn’t shown much interest. Photo: Governor’s office

Mayor Bill de Blasio was one of the estimated 400,000 people marching in Manhattan Sunday to urge world leaders to avert catastrophic climate change before it’s too late. And he backed it up by having his administration commit to reducing New York City’s carbon emissions 80 percent from 2005 levels by 2050. Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found at the People’s Climate March, and for good reason. The governor’s climate plan consists mainly of a single strategy: Brace for impact.

The de Blasio climate plan is all about buildings, augmenting efforts begun by the Bloomberg administration to make the city’s building stock less polluting and more efficient. This makes sense since buildings account for such a large share of New York’s carbon emissions, and the city has considerable power to regulate them. While it would be great to see more about transportation in the de Blasio climate plan, City Hall has already set goals to make city streets more walkable, bikeable, and transit-friendly. The administration is doing these things in the name of safety and expanding economic opportunity, not sustainability, but the end result will still be more sustainable streets.

Meanwhile, the transportation infrastructure that undergirds New York’s light carbon footprint — the fundamental reason New Yorkers emit a fraction of the CO2 an average American does — is not the mayor’s to control. The transit system is Governor Cuomo’s responsibility, and he’s been flaking on it since the first time he robbed from the MTA to pay for the state’s general obligations.

On Monday the governor signed a law that will help cities and towns prepare for the effects of climate change. Noticeably absent from the message was the urgency of preventing climate disaster in the first place.

The same day, the MTA posted documents laying out the $15 billion gap in its upcoming five-year, $32 billion capital program. The capital program is how the MTA will keep the transit system in reliable working condition, modernize ancient signals and other equipment, and expand rail and busways.

Governor Cuomo, however, is nowhere to be found as the MTA board takes up the matter of the capital program and how to pay for it.

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On Webster Avenue SBS, Buses Run 20% Faster and More People Are Riding

Bus lanes and off-board fare collection have resulted in big speed increases for Bx41 SBS riders on Webster Avenue compared to the old limited-stop service. Image: DOT/MTA [PDF]

Last June, DOT and the MTA cut the ribbon for Select Bus Service along Webster Avenue in the Bronx. Now the agencies have released a status report showing the impact of the 5.4-mile, $9 million project [PDF].

The bottom line for bus riders is that, as on other SBS lines, trips are faster and more predictable. The previous Bx41 Limited, with no bus lanes or off-board fare collection, averaged seven miles per hour and was unreliable, with trip times fluctuating by up to 20 minutes.

Trips on the Bx41 SBS are 19 to 23 percent shorter. Northbound evening trips now take 40 minutes instead of 52 minutes. Local service on the route has benefitted from the bus lanes, too, with trip times dropping by 11 to 17 percent. The share of total trip time that SBS buses spend immobile at stops and red lights is down from 49 percent to 39 percent

Opening up bottlenecks with new bus lanes helped eliminate many of the old delays. Northbound riders saved an average of nearly two minutes on each morning trip between 187th and 195th Streets, while southbound riders saved nearly four minutes on evening trips between 179th and 173rd Streets.

Bus lanes and off-board fare collection are responsible for the lion’s share of the speed improvements. These gains are all the more impressive considering that, unlike other SBS routes, Webster Avenue’s bus lanes are not camera-enforced. (Albany restricts the number of bus lanes that NYC can enforce with cameras; a change in state law would lift that restriction.) Trips are likely to get faster after DOT and the MTA install concrete “bus bulb” curb extensions and signal technology that gives buses priority at traffic lights, beginning next year.

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