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Hints About Woodhaven BRT at MTA Reinvention Commission Panel

No room for BRT here, Assembly Member Phil Goldfeder said yesterday to the commission charged with thinking big about the future of transit. Photo: Google Maps

No room for BRT here, Assembly Member Phil Goldfeder said yesterday to the commission charged with thinking big about the future of transit. Photo: Google Maps

The “transportation reinvention commission” convened at the request of Governor Andrew Cuomo kicked off its public hearings yesterday with a panel of experts at MTA headquarters. Appointees, still trying to figure out the commission’s exact role, chewed over some of the region’s big transportation issues in a discussion that mostly lacked specifics. Still, there were a few notable comments, including new information about Bus Rapid Transit on Woodhaven Boulevard from NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg.

BRT featured prominently yesterday, as panelists highlighted the need for closer collaboration between the MTA, NYC DOT, and other government agencies to bring robust transit improvements to low-income workers with long commutes in the outer boroughs.

“It seems that the less that you make, the further you have to travel,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, told the commission. ”My union agrees with the BRT for NYC coalition that we can improve the situation.”

“We are going to look at going to a more full-blown BRT model, let’s say for Woodhaven Boulevard,” said Trottenberg, who also serves as an MTA board member. After the meeting, she said the budget for the project is close to $200 million, higher than the $100 million she put forward at the end of May and suggesting a more ambitious allocation of space for surface transit. Previous Select Bus Service projects, with painted bus lanes, signal improvements, and sidewalk extensions at bus stops, have cost between $7 million and $27 million to build [PDF]. (The full Woodhaven project corridor is about 14 miles — longer than other SBS routes but not dramatically so.)

It’s too early to say what the Woodhaven BRT project will look like — DOT Director of Transit Development Eric Beaton said the agency does not yet have a design for Woodhaven and is continuing to meet with local communities. But in another indication that the city is serious about pursuing a robust configuration for transit lanes on Woodhaven, Beaton said costs for Woodhaven should be compared with projects like Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, or Geary Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. Those projects feature center-running lanes (the SF busways have yet to be built).

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The Case for Center-Running Bus Lanes on Woodhaven Boulevard

We can rebuild Woodhaven Boulevard as a great transit street. We have the space.

We can rebuild Woodhaven Boulevard as a great transit street. We have the space.

The proposal to improve bus service on Woodhaven Boulevard and Cross Bay Boulevard in Queens is the most exciting street redesign in the works in New York City right now, with the potential to break new ground for bus riders and dramatically improve safety. With as many as five lanes in each direction, Woodhaven Boulevard has plenty of space that can be devoted to exclusive transitways and concrete pedestrian safety measures.

NYC DOT and the MTA are holding a series of public workshops to inform the project, with initial improvements scheduled for this year and more permanent changes coming later. This is a chance for the city and the MTA to build center-running transit lanes that will speed bus trips more than previous Select Bus Service routes, where buses often have to navigate around illegally-parked cars. Critical design decisions could be made this summer.

Kathi Ko at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign has filed dispatches from the first round of public meetings, and she reports that participants ranged from change-averse to eager for “big and bold ideas.”

Of course, it’s the change-averse who sit on the community boards and are getting most of the local press attention. Queens Community Board 9 transportation committee chair Kenichi Wilson told DOT that “the only way I would support” the project is if it doesn’t affect curbside parking, according to the Queens Chronicle. At an earlier meeting, the first vice chair of Queens CB 10, John Calcagnile, predicted that the elimination of parking to make way for interim bus lanes “will have a real negative effect on businesses in the area.”

Experience with Select Bus Service suggests otherwise. Along Fordham Avenue in the Bronx, parking was eliminated and meters were added to side streets in order to run curbside buses for the city’s first SBS route. Merchants objected at first, but three years later, retail sales had improved 71 percent — triple the borough-wide average.

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MTA Announces Public Hearings for Reinvention Commission Next Week

As promised, the MTA has put out a schedule for the public to weigh in on the transportation “reinvention commission” convened by Governor Cuomo as the authority formulates its next five-year capital plan.

The MTA says it is seeking input on different aspects of the capital plan, such as resiliency, demographic and ridership changes, jurisdictional barriers, implementing new technology, and energy efficiency. It’s also looking for ideas about how to better finance and implement these investments.

Before each meeting, the commission will hear testimony from invited experts and organizations.

The public meetings will all take place in the fifth floor board room of the MTA’s Midtown headquarters, 347 Madison Avenue. They are scheduled for:

  • Tuesday, July 15 from 5:30 to 8 p.m.
  • Wednesday, July 16 from 5:30 to 8 p.m.
  • Thursday, July 17 from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m.

Members of the public wishing to testify must register in advance, and a government-issued photo ID is required to enter the building. The commission is also accepting online comments and will webcast all three events. Update: The MTA says these three meetings are the only public input sessions the commission will be hosting.

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What We Know So Far About Cuomo’s MTA Reinvention Commission

In early May, Governor Andrew Cuomo directed the MTA to create a “transportation reinvention” panel as the authority prepared its next five-year capital plan. Members were appointed late last month, and the commission has launched Facebook and Twitter accounts. But details about its agenda and how open it will be to the public are scant. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking: The MTA capital plan has to be finalized by October 1.

Think big, act fast: Details are still murky on Andrew Cuomo's MTA reinvention commission. Photo: joiseyshowaa/Flickr

Think big, act fast: Andrew Cuomo’s MTA reinvention commission doesn’t have much time to come up with its recommendations. joiseyshowaa/Flickr

The MTA says it will announce public meetings by the end of this week, and commission members say those sessions are likely to happen next week, just days after being announced. Beyond that, things are hazy: There is no agenda for future commission meetings and no schedule for reporting the commission’s recommendations.

The 24-member panel, chaired by former US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey, is being advised by MTA staff as well as mega-consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff, which is already working on the Fulton Street Transit Center, East Side Access, Second Avenue Subway, and 7 train extension to Hudson Yards — all of which are in various states of budget overrun or delay.

Advocates on the commission say it’s off to a good start, however, and they’re optimistic about what will emerge from the process.

The panel met for the first time late last month and members have been broken into five subcommittees:

  • Operating and Maintaining the Existing System
  • Meeting and Exceeding Customer Needs
  • Spurring the Continued Growth of New York’s Economy
  • Financing Investments into the Future
  • Expediting Processes, Procedures and Project Delivery of Capital Infrastructure

The subcommittees, which have weighty issues to consider, have each met at least once, sometimes via conference call. Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, says members haven’t been afraid to think big. ”Many of us are taking it to heart that this is a reinvention commission, and that things that have not been discussed before really should be on the table going forward, even if they’re just ideas,” she said. ”It’s sort of rethinking our transportation network in this region.”

“The whole thing feels like it has more energy than the typical fare or service hearing,” said commission member Gene Russianoff of NYPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign. “I’m hoping the commission finds a serious way to get people to think along with it about how we improve on transit.”

How that will happen remains to be seen, even to commission members. “It’s hard to talk specifics,” Vanterpool said. ”I’m assuming this is going to be due this summer, but I don’t have any firm dates.”

“The commission hasn’t yet established a specific date by which it expects to conclude and/or report its work,” said MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan. There is one final deadline: The MTA will submit its five-year capital plan to the governor and the legislature by October 1.

The MTA reinvention commission isn’t the first transit panel created in New York state, but the three most recent examples all had more time to deliberate publicly and come up with recommendations than the MTA reinvention commission.

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Four Tough Problems the MTA Reinvention Commission Needs to Tackle

Governor Cuomo’s MTA Reinvention Commission met for the first time last week at the agency’s midtown headquarters. Cuomo has charged the 22-member commission with developing a plan “to make our subways and our entire transit system ready for the challenges of the next century.” The commission’s recommendations are expected to shape the MTA’s next capital program — its five-year plan for maintenance and expansion — as well as the authority’s long-term planning and vision.

Governor Cuomo’s MTA Reinvention Commission will have to address the high cost of construction for mega-projects like the Second Avenue Subway. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/mtaphotos/12780228293/in/set-72157641529209245##MTA/Flickr##

Governor Cuomo’s MTA Reinvention Commission will have to address the high cost of construction for mega-projects like the Second Avenue Subway. Photo: MTA/Flickr

How effective the commission will be is unclear. Governor Cuomo has stymied other high profile commissions when they’ve gone against his inclinations, like when the McCall/Solomon tax commission suggested that the state scale back its film and TV tax credit, or when he disbanded the Moreland Commission.

Still, the commission provides a good opportunity to address some of the key challenges and questions facing the MTA.

The issue of resilience immediately comes to mind. Hurricane Sandy made it clear that future storms and rising seas are an immediate threat to the system. This is an issue that is well understood and is likely to enjoy strong political support. Government tends to act effectively in the aftermath of disasters because the effects are immediate and observable. They rise above politics.

However, there are other, more difficult problems that will require taking political risk to solve.

The authority has racked up $32 billion in debt, up from $16.6 billion in 2003. It shelled out $2.3 billion for debt service payments last year — nearly a fifth of the operating budget — and debt service is projected to rise to $2.8 billion by 2017. The growing share of the budget that goes toward debt payments creates pressure for fare hikes and eats into what the agency can spend on delivering service.

A more stable and reliable source of revenue must be established. The best plan out there right now is the Gridlock Sam/Move NY “Fair Plan” — raising tolls to enter the Manhattan CBD while lowering them on MTA crossings in the outer boroughs. This would have the added benefit of relieving congestion where it is most intense, speeding up surface transit for hundreds of thousands of riders. A key indicator of the commission’s independence will be whether it takes on an issue as vital and contentious as toll reform.

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Every Bus Should Get Priority at NYC Traffic Signals

Some inexpensive technology could bring some substantial time savings to NYC bus riders. Image: DOT

Some inexpensive technology could bring substantial time savings to NYC bus riders. Image: DOT

New York City buses serve more than two million trips on an average weekday — more than twice the ridership as Los Angeles, which has the nation’s second-largest bus system.

And yet the city’s buses are also notoriously slow and unreliable. Gridlocked traffic, long boarding queues, and the succession of traffic lights bog down surface transit in NYC and keep many New Yorkers from riding the bus. This may be part of the reason why bus ridership has dipped seven percent since 2007, even as subway ridership is up 9 percent.

NYC DOT and the MTA have rolled out seven Select Bus Service lines that bypass congestion with dedicated lanes and tame boarding delays with pre-paid fare collection. The de Blasio administration plans to build out at least 13 more SBS lines — an important effort — but some of these gains in bus speeds can be realized without being tied to an SBS project.

Specifically, DOT could quickly improve bus speeds across the city by making a relatively small investment in traffic signal priority.

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Will Cuomo Help the MTA Make “Every Dollar Count”?

cuomo_prendergast

Governor Andrew Cuomo and MTA Chair Tom Prendergast. Photo: Marc A. Hermann/MTA New York City Transit via Flickr CC license 2.0

The MTA has made big strides in recent years to streamline its operations, but without political leadership from Governor Cuomo, the agency won’t be able to tackle the high costs and inefficiencies that continue to hamper the city’s transit system.

In 2010, after an acute budget crisis, the MTA began a program to cut costs called Making Every Dollar Count [PDF]. Four years later, the MTA is on target to save $3.8 billion since the effort began. By 2017, the agency predicts that annual recurring savings will top $1.5 billion.

MTA leadership felt the cost-cutting program was necessary not only to balance the agency’s budget, but also to counter the authority’s reputation for being wasteful and inefficient. Jay Walder, MTA chair at that time, said the program was “the only way we can restore the MTA’s credibility and continue improving service in difficult times.”

As the full effects of the Great Recession took hold, the bottom fell out of transit authority’s budget in 2008 and 2009. It was the drop in real estate tax revenue that stung the most, with the MTA’s share of these taxes falling from $1.6 billion in 2007 to $389 million in 2009 [PDF]. By April 2009, the transit authority was facing a two-year budget deficit of $5 billion.

The fix that the state legislature enacted — a new tax on payrolls — lacked the bridge tolls recommended by a gubernatorial commission headed by former MTA chair Richard Ravitch. Albany lawmakers repeatedly cited the MTA’s reputation for bloat and waste to justify their refusal to enact tolls, much as they had during the congestion pricing debate the previous year.

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Select Bus Service Launches on 125th Street

Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg speaks at today's event marking the launch of Select Bus Service on 125th Street. Photo: Stephen Miller

Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg speaks at today’s event marking the launch of Select Bus Service on 125th Street. Behind the podium are City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Council Member Mark Levine, Carmen Bianco of New York City Transit, State Senator Adriano Espaillat, and City Council Transportation Chair Ydanis Rodriguez. Photo: Stephen Miller

On Sunday, Select Bus Service launched on a route that stretches from 125th Street in Harlem to LaGuardia Airport. Public officials marked the occasion — the first SBS route to debut during the de Blasio era — at a Harlem press conference today. With off-board fare collection and dedicated bus lanes (on part of the route), the upgrades will speed cross-town trips for 33,000 bus riders daily, on both the M60 SBS route and local routes that will benefit from the bus lanes only.

Not that long ago, it seemed like SBS on 125th Street might never happen. The bus lanes were originally planned to extend between Second and Morningside Avenues, but after State Senator Bill Perkins led objections to the planning process, the plan was scaled back, calling for bus lanes between Second Avenue and Lenox. The entire project appeared dead soon after, then was revived in October after closed-door meetings with Perkins and other erstwhile opponents.

At today’s press conference, elected officials made the case for extending the bus lanes west to Morningside.

“While it’s a fabulous day for East Harlem, it’s a slightly less wonderful day for Central and West Harlem, because a key feature of this route, which is the bus-only lane you see right here, stops — comes to an abrupt halt — at Lenox Avenue,” said Council Member Mark Levine. ”That’s simply not fair to residents in the western part of this wonderful street.”

Levine, whose call for extending the bus lane was echoed by State Senator Adriano Espaillat, said he hoped that it could be implemented as soon as this fall.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito thinks success on the initial segment will lead to westward expansion. “Once people start using this and really seeing the benefits, you’re going to start getting the support of people asking and clamoring for more,” she said. ”Some of us, we thought this wouldn’t move forward.”

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Eyes on the Street: Select Bus Lanes Appear on 125th Street

Following the installation of off-board fare payment machines last month, Select Bus Service lanes are going in on 125th Street. Joseph Cutrufo of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign posted this pic on Twitter yesterday.

SBS lanes were originally intended to be installed between Morningside and Second Avenues, but DOT chopped off the bus lanes west of Lenox Avenue in response to protests from State Senator Bill Perkins and other electeds. After SBS goes live on 125th, the rest of the bus lane could be added, thanks to pressure from State Senator Adriano Espaillat and City Council Member Mark Levine.

The tens of thousands of people who ride buses on 125th Street each day will see travel times improve, but not as much as they would without interference from Albany. State law restricts SBS camera enforcement to six routes, not including 125th Street, so it will be up to NYPD to keep drivers out of the new bus lanes.

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Are the Subways Getting Worse? Depends on How You Measure It

Yesterday the Straphangers Campaign released a report that shows the number of subway incidents that result in a significant delay in 2013 rose 35 percent from 2011. ”The increase in alerts is a troubling sign that subway service is deteriorating,” said Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign.

The MTA responded that despite the report’s findings, the reliability of service has remained steady over recent years. “Since 2011, the amount of time customers have had to wait for a train throughout the system has remained flat,” the authority said in a statement.

Why the discrepancy, and who is right? They both are, but they each used a different metric to reach their conclusions.

The Straphangers report used a novel metric to come to its conclusions: It tracked the number of alerts the MTA sent out via text message and email warning customers of delays.

According to the MTA, “Email alerts are issued for any incidents reported… that will result in a significant service impact expected to last 8 to 10 minutes or more.”

The Straphangers Campaign documented each actual incident of delay over eight minutes that was caused by events such as signal or mechanical problems. The report distinguished between “uncontrollable” delays, those involving a sick passenger or police activity, and “controllable” delays.

The MTA, on the other hand, uses “wait assessments” to track the level of service. Wait assessments measure headways, or the time between trains, and track whether the next train arrives within a certain time period after the previous train departed — in this case the delay cannot be more than 25 percent longer than the scheduled headway. In other words, a train with an expected headway of eight minutes is considered on time if it arrives within ten minutes.

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