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Just a Reminder: Cuomo Can Take Charge of the MTA Whenever He Wants

At approximately 5 p.m. Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he had ordered the complete closure of New York City’s bus and subway systems in the face of an oncoming snowstorm. If nothing else, it was a stark reminder that the transit system is not a political orphan. The MTA is, in fact, Cuomo’s agency.

Photo: NY Governor's Office/Flickr

When it’s convenient for him, Cuomo takes charge of the MTA. When it’s inconvenient, it’s someone else’s problem. Photo: NY Governor’s Office/Flickr

After the blizzard gave only a glancing blow to the city, Cuomo gathered at a morning press conference with his transportation deputies, including MTA Chair and CEO Tom Prendergast. A reporter asked about the cost of shutting down the transit system. ”These were factored in the budget, and this was not exceptional to that process,” Cuomo said. “I’m sure Tom will say he needs a budget increase because of this, but Tom was going to say he needed a budget increase anyway.” Chuckling, the governor patted Prendergast on the arm while they both smiled at the cameras.

Yes, the governor can turn off the transit system with a word, but a budget increase? That’s for Tom to worry about. And nevermind the hundreds of millions of dollars the governor has raided from the MTA’s operating budget since taking office.

Cuomo also likes to create distance between himself and the MTA when the subject turns to the agency’s five-year capital program, which he recently called “bloated.” It was not the critique of an executive determined to find efficiencies and do more with less at one of the most important agencies under his control. Rather, it was a way to separate himself from the MTA and frame the agency as an insatiable bureaucracy.

The MTA currently has a $15 billion funding gap in the $32 billion capital program. Cuomo talks about this problem as if it’s an abstraction, completely separate from his powers to set the agenda, control costs, and raise revenues. “The first budget from every agency also always calls for $15 billion. That’s part of the dance that we go through. That’s why I say it’s the initial, proposed budget,” he said in October. “We’ll then look at that budget and go through, and we’ll come up with a realistic number.”

Building a great transit system that lasts for generations should be a governor’s legacy, not a pesky agency request. But Cuomo has a different legacy transportation project, something he loves to call his own: the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement.

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Lancman and Simanowitz: Let’s Keep Queens Bus Riders Stuck in Traffic

Rory Lancman and Michael Simanowitz are out to foil faster bus service for tens of thousands of Queens residents.

Rory Lancman and Michael Simanowitz are out to foil faster bus service for tens of thousands of Queens residents.

Tonight, DOT and the MTA will hold an open house to solicit input for proposed Select Bus Service routes linking Flushing and Jamaica. The plan to reduce travel times for tens of thousands of Queens bus riders has broad support from advocates and local electeds, including Assembly Member Nily Rozic. But the Times Ledger reports that Assembly Member Michael Simanowitz and City Council Member Rory Lancman, who purport to be in favor of the project, oppose dedicating new street space to buses.

Bus service could be upgraded along Main Street, Kissena Boulevard, and/or 164th Street, according to a DOT map of proposed SBS routes. The Times Ledger notes that these routes were chosen for SBS after studies found current trips to be “long and slow, affecting roughly 68,000 daily raiders.”

A key component of bus rapid transit is, of course, dedicated bus lanes, but Lancman and Simanowitz would rather keep riders mired in traffic.

They met with the DOT and the MTA last Friday, where the agencies updated them on the proposal. The lawmakers expressed support for ideas such as offboard ticketing, synchronizing lights and reconfiguring left-turn signals.

“The final proposal could include a menu of strategies for improving bus service and we are only opposed to the closing of a travel or parking lane,” Lancman said.

Simanowitz said other parts of the proposal such as on-street fare collection and displays indicating bus times do not necessitate SBS.

“The rest of the aspects of a BRT proposal are all legitimate things, but things they could be doing anyway,” he said.

Lancman opposed congestion pricing and once blasted a DOT proposal to improve a deadly intersection outside a school. That he considers a dedicated transit lane “closed” says something about what Lancman thinks of people who use transit. Beyond that, it seems Lancman and Simanowitz simply don’t want to take the necessary steps to make BRT work well.

But other electeds do. ”BRT is good news for drivers as well,” wrote Rozic in an op-ed for the Daily News. “Dedicated bus lanes reduce interaction between buses and other vehicles. This will reduce traffic jams and minimize the risk for traffic crashes.”

Eleven Queens lawmakers signed on to a letter this month in support of the plan, the Times Ledger reported.

“The evidence shows that these improvements make the streets safer for pedestrians, help bus riders get to their destination faster and it doesn’t have a negative impact on traffic flow for everybody else,” said John Raskin of Riders Alliance.

Tonight’s open house is scheduled for 6:30 to 8:00 at the Townsend Harris High School Library at 149-11 Melbourne Avenue.

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Ex-MTA Chiefs: Fund the Capital Plan, Don’t Gamble With the Transit System

With the election over and Albany in session, the time for tiptoeing around the $15.2 billion gap in the MTA’s next five-year capital program is over. Today, three former MTA chiefs lined up to say that, one way or another, the plan must be fully funded.

Former MTA Chairman (and current Alta Bicycle Share CEO) Jay Walder speaks at Grand Central Terminal today. Photo: Stephen Miller

Former MTA Chairman (and current Alta Bicycle Share CEO) Jay Walder at Grand Central Terminal today. Photo: Stephen Miller

“The governor, the legislature, and the mayor must do the heavy political lifting to find new revenue sources,” said former MTA chief Elliot Sander, joined by fellow ex-MTA leaders Peter Stangl and Jay Walder this morning in Grand Central Terminal. A roster of NYC civic groups and private sector interests, from environmental advocates to big business to the construction industry, stood behind them in support.

“The message today, in case you haven’t heard it, is ‘mind the gap,’” said Regional Plan Association Senior Advisor Bob Yaro. “Everybody’s gonna have to belly up for a piece of it.”

A variety of solutions have been floated to fill the funding gap, from a gas tax increase to a regressive sales tax hike. The best one from a transportation, environmental, and economic development perspective would involve reforming the region’s dysfunctional toll system. While no one speaking today would come out in favor of one fix over the others — “this is not the time for that,” Sander told a scrum of reporters after his remarks — with Albany in session, the clock is now ticking.

Ultimately, closing the capital program gap is up to Governor Andrew Cuomo and the legislature.

The governor is set to combine his State of the State speech and budget address in one event on January 21. I asked Sander if he is looking for Cuomo to say anything about the MTA during the speech. “Whatever works for the governor and the legislature and the city in terms of how to deal with it,” he said. “We don’t — you know, no.”

Sander was less circumspect about City Hall’s role. “I think there’s a recognition by the mayor’s senior staff that the city may need to contribute more. There’s no greater beneficiary than the City of New York,” he said. “I am optimistic that the mayor will be there.”

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Bus Lanes Worked Wonders on East 125th. Now What About the West Side?

On the section of 125th Street with new bus lanes, bus trips are now a third faster than before. Image: DOT/MTA [PDF]

On the section of 125th Street with new bus lanes, transit speeds increased by a third. Image: DOT/MTA [PDF]

Since debuting last year, Select Bus Service on 125th Street has dramatically improved transit speeds, especially on the section with dedicated bus lanes east of Lenox Avenue, according to NYC DOT and the MTA. The results strengthen the case for adding bus lanes west of Lenox, which DOT had scuttled in 2013 in response to resistance from local electeds. With more favorable politics prevailing today, the agency could revive bus lanes for West Harlem and greatly extend the impact of 125th Street SBS.

The improvement in bus service thanks to camera-enforced transit lanes, off-board fare collection, and other SBS features is impressive [PDF]. From end to end, the M60 bus from 110th Street to LaGuardia Airport now travels 11 to 14 percent faster than it did before. On 125th Street between Second and Lenox Avenues, the only part of 125th to receive dedicated bus lanes, the M60 is now 32 to 34 percent faster, an improvement that MTA bus planner Evan Bialostozky called ”shocking, to even me.”

The M60 isn’t the only route to benefit from the new bus lanes: Local bus trips on the M100 and Bx15 are 7 to 20 percent faster between Second and Lenox.

“That’s helping a lot of people,” Bialostozky told the Community Board 9 transportation committee last Thursday. Crosstown buses on 125th Street serve more than more than 32,000 riders every day. Before the dedicated transit lanes debuted last year, these routes had been among the city’s slowest buses, crawling through traffic and around double-parked cars.

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New MTA Victim-Blaming Campaign Is the Opposite of Vision Zero


The MTA has released an amazingly tone-deaf series of public service announcements blaming pedestrians and cyclists for being run over by bus drivers.

“The new PSAs, which will air on local broadcast television stations in both English and Spanish, bring the print campaign to life by demonstrating the dangers of walking or cycling while distracted near a bus,” says an MTA press release. “They remind users of electronic devices that it only takes a second of inattention for a pedestrian or cyclist to come in contact with a bus.”

MTA bus drivers have killed at least seven pedestrians and one cyclist this year, according to crash data compiled by Streetsblog. Only one case reportedly involved an electronic device — a woman who was run over when she reached under a bus to retrieve a cell phone.

Of the other six pedestrians, all were hit by bus drivers making right or left turns, and in five cases media and police accounts confirmed or suggested the victim had the right of way. There is no evidence that any of the remaining seven victims were distracted by electronic devices when they were struck.

Meanwhile, after a prolonged legal battle, the MTA recently settled a lawsuit with the family of Seth Kahn, a student who was run over by a speeding bus driver with a history of texting behind the wheel.

We asked chief spokesperson Adam Lisberg if the MTA keeps data on how many pedestrians and cyclists who were injured and killed by MTA bus drivers were distracted by electronic devices, or if the agency tracks how many victims had the right of way. Here was his response:

I don’t know exactly how we slice it, but we do a detailed analysis of every collision (with auto, bike, ped, building, etc.) and what factors went into it. Ultimate concern for our enforcement side is whether it was preventable — could our operator have done anything to prevent it? — not whether cops write a ticket. Then our safety people look for trends, rising factors, etc., and we also get feedback from the thousands of operators out driving every day. They consistently say texting pedestrians and unpredictable cyclists are a rising hazard. I don’t know if we specifically ask whether cyclists are wearing headphones.

On Twitter, Lisberg said these spots are based on driver anecdotes rather than empirical data. And the tone of the PSAs is snarky, with the bike ad likening a bus collision to a comedian’s pratfall.

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It’s His Commission: Blame Cuomo for MTA’s Underwhelming “Reinvention”

The MTA Reinvention Commission report, the product of months of work from a panel of experts, was unceremoniously dumped to the press by the governor’s office at 5:30 p.m. yesterday, shortly before Thanksgiving. While the document [PDF] includes a number of worthwhile suggestions, it fails to seriously grapple with the biggest challenges facing New York’s transit system. The MTA’s astronomical construction costs and the substantial systemwide benefits of funding transit with road pricing get only cursory mentions. This is disappointing, but not surprising, since the report is a reflection of the man who created and controlled the commission: Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Photo: MTA/Flickr

Photo: MTA/Flickr

Cuomo’s disinterest in transit goes back to the start of his administration. After a campaign where he cast doubts on the Payroll Mobility Tax that stabilized the MTA’s finances in 2009, Cuomo followed through in first year in office by cutting the PMT.

Cuomo has dipped into the MTA budget multiple times by diverting dedicated transit funding to the state’s general fund. When the legislature passed bills to require more disclosure of raids, Cuomo blew open a loophole and vetoed an effort to close it, all while denying that his financial maneuvers amounted to transit raids at all.

In an election-year stunt this February, Cuomo gave Staten Island voters drivers a 50 cent toll cut in February — a political ploy that came at transit riders’ expense.

When Cuomo worked out a labor agreement to avoid a Long Island Rail Road strike earlier this year, he hosted a press conference where smiles were in abundance but details about how much the deal would cost were not. Months later, it was revealed that new labor deals would cost the MTA at least $1.28 billion through 2017, paid for by cuts to retiree fund contributions and the authority’s own capital budget. Absent from the new labor agreements: Work rule reforms to ensure that, in addition to compensating employees well, operating funds are spent efficiently.

All the while, costs and delays continue to spiral upwards on the authority’s big-ticket projects, leading MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast to admit that large-scale capital construction might not be one of the authority’s “core competencies.”

Why does it takes so much time and so much money for the MTA to do things compared to its peer systems? The report acknowledged these problems but failed to offer much in the way of critical analysis or specific solutions, similar to how it failed to zero in on road pricing as an ideal revenue stream that can both lower the agency’s debt load and dramatically improve systemwide bus performance. (For some more food for thought about what’s missing from the report, read Alon Levy’s post at Pedestrian Observations.)

Don’t blame the commission for these shortcomings though. Blame Andrew Cuomo. He created the commission, so it’s no coincidence that it produced a document that skirts the most politically sensitive issues. The report is another sign that Cuomo’s interest in transit doesn’t extend deeper than press releases and photo-ops. The governor has no intention of confronting contractors, unions, or motorists to make a transit system that works better for all New Yorkers.

Streetsblog will not be publishing on Thursday or Friday. Happy Thanksgiving, and we’ll see you on Monday. 

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Cuomo’s MTA Commission Declines to Endorse New Funding Source

If you were hoping the release of the MTA Reinvention Commission report would be the moment when Governor Andrew Cuomo comes to his senses and makes an aggressive push to fund the region’s transit system by fixing its dysfunctional tolling structure, don’t hold your breath.

It's in Cuomo's hands now: The MTA Reinvention Commission is set to release its final report soon. Photo: MTA/Flickr

It’s in his hands now: The MTA Reinvention Commission is set to release its final report soon. A draft didn’t tackle many specific funding questions. Photo: MTA/Flickr

Yesterday, Dana Rubinstein at Capital New York published a draft copy of the report [PDF 1, 2, 3]. While the MTA won’t say when the commission plans on releasing the final version, it should be coming soon. A commission member tells Streetsblog that the panel met today to go over the document before its publication.

The report examines the current state of MTA funding and operations, using case studies from cities around the world to offer examples of how its recommendations could be put into practice. It covers a wide breadth of issues, including the management of large capital projects, how to improve customer service, and better regional planning and coordination with other agencies.

The recommendations are grouped into seven “strategies,” leaving funding for last. The report emphasizes the need to keep the Payroll Mobility Tax in place, and suggests revenue enhancements like requiring all-cash real estate transactions to pay a version of the mortgage recording tax, increasing the use of value capture throughout the region, and squeezing more revenue from advertising, which is already on the rise.

When it comes to larger revenue sources, the report is more circumspect. It raises the possibility of congestion pricing, parking fees, and even distance-based subway fares, which Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign called “the mother of all non-starters.” In the end, the draft report refuses to pick sides, suggesting “a comprehensive study that re-examines the MTA’s approach to fares and tolls.”

“It was beyond the scope of this Commission to recommend a specific set of revenue-raisers,” reads the report. “[But] existing sources fall short of what will be needed for sustaining a truly great regional transportation system in the years ahead.” In short: Albany will have to make a decision, so stay tuned.

There’s a lot more to the report than the funding section. The first strategy deals with how the MTA could reform its procurement and project delivery methods. It suggests greater use of public-private partnerships and design-build contracts in a bid to encourage “risk sharing with the private sector” and to reduce the costs and timelines of MTA projects.

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Prendergast: $15 Billion Gap in MTA Capital Program “Unconscionable”

Post-election, the political discussion about transit funding in New York has entered a new phase. Albany can now turn its attention to the most pressing transportation issue in the state: closing the $15.2 billion gap in the MTA’s next capital program. Yesterday, MTA Chair and CEO Tom Prendergast made his first public comments since the election. He said elected officials must be educated on the need for transit investment and repeated his call for new revenue sources to keep the region’s trains and buses running smoothly.

Tom Prendergast says elected officials must learn Photo: Kevin Harber/Flickr

A $15 billion gap in the MTA capital program threatens to saddle straphangers with the burden of even more debt. Photo: Kevin Harber/Flickr

Prendergast’s remarks came at an event hosted by a construction industry group — the General Contractors Association of New York. Also participating in a panel on the MTA capital program and transit funding were Citizens Budget Commission President Carol Kellermann, NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Director Mitchell Moss, former NYC Economic Development Corporation chief Seth Pinsky (now with RXR Realty), and CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance Chair Marc Shaw.

Debt levels at the MTA have skyrocketed as capital programs have grown while state and city funding has shrunk. Borrowing costs consume an ever-greater share of the agency’s operating budget, contributing to higher fares and less service for riders. “Continuing to the load the MTA up with debt is dangerous,” Pinsky said. “We do need to talk about new sources of revenue.”

One potential source is the city’s own capital budget. Under Ed Koch, the city chipped in $200 million annually. Under Giuliani, the city cut its contribution down to $100 million. The number has stayed steady ever since. The MTA’s new capital plan assumes the city’s annual contribution will increase to $125 million, and Shaw, a former Giuliani budget director, was bullish that the city would commit to it. If it does, an extra $25 million in cash per year is still just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the capital plan’s budget gap.

Pinsky, the former NYC EDC president, sees potential in the real estate sector. Local governments could levy special taxes on development near transit — a strategy known as value capture — both in the city and around suburban rail stations, which he said are too often surrounded by a “sea of parking” in areas that could serve as vibrant downtowns.

Investing in transit by tapping the increased value of real estate has promise, but the devil is in the details, and it hasn’t always worked well in New York. Kellermann pointed out that development at Hudson Yards, which was supposed to pay for the 7 train extension, has been lackluster, leaving city taxpayers to pick up the tab. And even if the value capture mechanism is calibrated perfectly, she said, it can’t bridge a $15.2 billion gap.

Kellermann suggested the cost of a MetroCard should go up to help fill the gap, on top of back-to-back four percent fare hikes already scheduled for 2015 and 2017. She also thinks drivers should pony up. “There needs to be a lot more money contributed by auto users,” she said. “I wouldn’t give up on the East River tolls. The Move New York plan is a good start.”

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First Look: Woodhaven BRT Could Set New Standard for NYC Busways

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In one option, “Concept 2,” buses would run in dedicated lanes next to through traffic, keeping local traffic, drop-offs, and deliveries to service lanes and out of the way of buses. Image: NYC DOT

NYC DOT and the MTA have developed three design concepts for Select Bus Service on Woodhaven Boulevard and Cross Bay Boulevard in southeast Queens, and two of them go further than previous SBS routes to keep cars from slowing down buses [PDF]. All of the options include some measures to shorten crossing distances for pedestrians on one of the city’s widest and most dangerous streets.

The Woodhaven SBS project, which covers a 14.4-mile corridor running from the Rockaways to Woodside, is the biggest street redesign effort in NYC right now. All the City Council members along the route have said they want big changes, and the concepts on display last night indicate that DOT and the MTA can deliver.

Agency representatives showed the three designs at an open house in Ozone Park where residents could leave written comments on posterboards. City Council Member Eric Ulrich told me he liked what he saw, and bus riders and transit advocates were especially keen on “Concept 2″ and “Concept 3,” which would create clearer paths for buses. Here’s a rundown of how each option would work.

Image: NYC DOT

Image: NYC DOT

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Highlights From Today’s City Council Transportation Infrastructure Hearing

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Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, center, with NYC DOT deputy commissioners Bob Collyer, left, and Joseph Jarrin, right.

Today, the City Council transportation and economic development committees held a marathon joint hearing on New York’s transportation investment needs. Top staff from the MTA and NYC DOT, including Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, fielded questions from council members for the better part of the day.

Here are some highlights:

  • Council members Jimmy Van Bramer and Julissa Ferreras both asked for more bike lanes in their Queens districts. “We are striving to build out the bike infrastructure in all five boroughs,” Trottenberg said, ”and we have a couple of really big projects planned in Queens.”
  • Van Bramer also pushed for more details on when the delayed Pulaski Bridge protected bike lane would open. Deputy Commissioner Bob Collyer said the project’s contractor received final sign-off from DOT two weeks ago and will release a construction timeline soon. Collyer expected the bikeway to be complete sometime this spring.
  • Bus Rapid Transit also came up during today’s hearing. Responding to a question from Council Member Donovan Richards, a vocal proponent of BRT on Woodhaven Boulevard, Trottenberg said the city is speaking with U.S. DOT about securing funds for street redesigns that feature full-fledged BRT.
  • Not all council members were as enthusiastic about BRT. I. Daneek Miller questioned the wisdom of Select Bus Service between Flushing and Jamaica, which led Trottenberg to say the project is “not written in stone.”
  • Trottenberg said the mayor’s housing plan demands coordination between new housing and transportation infrastructure, and that BRT on the North Shore of Staten Island should be accompanied by zoning changes near stations to maximize ridership.

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