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The Looming Transit Breakdown That Threatens America’s Economy


Categories of maintenance needs, in billions of dollars, for America’s large transit agencies. Graph: RPA

While federal transit funding stagnates, the nation’s largest rail and bus systems have been delaying critical maintenance projects. Without sustained efforts to fix infrastructure and vehicles, the effects of deteriorating service in big American cities could ripple across the national economy, according to a new report from the Regional Plan Association [PDF].

RPA focuses on ten of the nation’s largest transit agencies — in Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Between them, these agencies face about $102 billion in deferred maintenance costs. To bring the systems into a state of good repair will require about $13 billion in maintenance spending per year — more than twice the current rate of investment.

These regions house about one-fifth of the country’s population and produce about 27 percent of the nation’s economic output. They also carry about 60 percent of the nation’s total transit ridership, up from 55 percent 20 years ago. That’s a reflection of how transit has become increasingly important in these regions, with passenger trips growing 54 percent over the same period.

That level of ridership growth can’t be sustained if the transit systems aren’t maintained properly. RPA cites a 2012 report from San Francisco’s BART that says if the system is allowed to deteriorate…

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Will Council Members Who Want Transit Improvements Back Toll Reform?

At yesterday’s City Council transportation committee hearing, chair Ydanis Rodriguez hoped to engage the MTA and DOT concerning areas of the city that need more transit options. But despite being invited, according to Rodriguez, the MTA refused to send anyone.

Instead, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg promised to pressure the MTA to invest in transportation projects to improve commuter times between Manhattan and the edges of the city.

A bill introduced by Rodriguez and Daneek Miller would require DOT and the MTA to assess transportation availability in neighborhoods identified as “transit deserts.” Another bill would mandate that the two agencies study the feasibility of a new light rail system. Trottenberg requested that those proposals be folded into a study already underway, commissioned by the council earlier this year, on options for improved bus rapid transit.

Since Mayor de Blasio has upped the city’s MTA contribution, the administration is in a position to “exert pressure” on the MTA “to see that they are equitably serving the parts of the city that have traditionally been so under-served,” Trottenberg said. “That is very high on our agenda.”

Council members expressed skepticism that the MTA would pull through on outer-borough transit projects. Miller said that new Hudson Yards subway service, a capital project funded by the city, serves far fewer passengers per day than proposed projects in eastern Queens. “We want to make sure the services are being provided equitably, and I think right now they are not,” he said.

Bronx rep Jimmy Vacca urged Trottenberg to act urgently on improving express buses. “People in my district, and people in the Bronx, are asking for relief,” he told Trottenberg. “Now that we’re having this discussion, we can’t wait for long-term plans. We have to do what we can do now.”

Among the specific projects discussed was expansion of the MTA CityTicket program, which makes commuter rail tickets cheaper for city residents. The council is currently considering a resolution calling on the MTA to equalize the cost of commuter train travel within city limits with the cost of a subway ride.

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Let This RPA Vid Explain Why We Need More Rail Tubes Under the Hudson

The Regional Plan Association produced a nice explainer video on why the region needs to build more rail capacity under the Hudson River, the risks facing the existing train tubes, and what will happen if one of them has to be taken offline for repairs before another tunnel gets built.

The situation with the tunnels has heightened urgency because New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed the ARC rail tunnel project so he could pay for roads. Not that New York’s Andrew Cuomo has been much help either: When pressed by reporters last summer, Cuomo abdicated responsibility for the century-old rail tubes.

Eventually, Christie and Cuomo said their states would foot half the bill if the feds picked up the rest, but no one really knows how much the project will cost.

The video is part of RPA’s campaign to prod state and federal leaders to action on expanding Hudson River rail capacity. Senator Cory Booker will participate in a related roundtable tomorrow.


NYC Toll Reform Makes Too Much Sense to Fade Away

Don’t count out Move New York just yet.

Cuomo’s budget promises become much easier to keep if he also adopts the Move New York plan.

When Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio hashed out their deal to fill the gap in the MTA capital program, it seemed like a window of opportunity was closing on the plan to cut congestion and fund transit by reforming the city’s dysfunctional toll system. The governor would borrow $8.3 billion and pay it back with general fund revenues to cover the state’s end, and that would be that (at least for the next five years).

As it happens, the window might still be open.

Cuomo has repeatedly rejected Move NY as a political non-starter, but the number of elected officials signing on to the plan — which would put a price on driving in the most gridlocked parts of town while lowering tolls on outlying crossings — keeps growing. The latest endorser is City Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer, who reps western Queens and came out for the plan yesterday.

Van Bramer’s district includes the approaches to the Queensboro Bridge. With no price on that crossing, local streets jam up with drivers hunting for a bargain. For western Queens and similar districts, like northwest Brooklyn or Lower Manhattan, a big part of the appeal of Move New York is its promise of relief from the road-clogging, horn-honking mess. For electeds like James Vacca, whose district includes the Throggs Neck and Whitestone bridges, it’s the discounts on less-traveled crossings that sweeten the deal.

So what would be the appeal for Cuomo, who’s given no indication that he cares about fixing New York City’s pestilential traffic? In a thrilling twist, it might come down to the imperatives of budget math.

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If Cuomo Wants City Funding for the MTA, He’ll Need to Compromise

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s months-long attempt to squeeze money out of City Hall for the MTA appears to be reaching its end game.

Cuomo and his people at the MTA — which, despite what the governor says, is a state entity under his control — have been asking Mayor de Blasio for ever-increasing amounts of money to fill the gap in its capital program. Earlier today, Cuomo went on WNYC to bash the mayor for not handing over the dough.

The governor says the city should pony up because it relies on the MTA more than any other jurisdiction. But the city has good reason not to hand over significant sums to a state-controlled agency, no strings attached. Transit riders will be better off if de Blasio negotiates a good deal with Cuomo instead of capitulating.

First, there’s the lockbox question. Cuomo has a history of siphoning funds out of the MTA to paper over gaps on the state budget. City Hall likes to note, for example, that Cuomo has raided $270 million from the MTA since taking office in 2011. That same year, the state legislature passed a lockbox bill that would sound an alarm whenever the governor attempts to sneak his hand into the MTA’s cookie jar, but Cuomo neutered the bill. The legislature tried again two years later. Cuomo vetoed the bill and denied he’d ever raided the MTA’s budget.

Now de Blasio seems to be seeking a lockbox-type guarantee as part of the deal. “I’m not comfortable with paying — you know, paying out of the New York City budget, New York City taxpayer money, only to see it taken out of the MTA and into the state budget. So, you know, there’s real discussions that have to be held about how to reform that situation,” de Blasio told Brian Lehrer on Friday. “We’ve got to see those issues resolved upfront.”

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Bronx High Schoolers Explain How MTA Funding Works

Who’s in charge of how much a MetroCard swipe costs? To most New York City teenagers, it’s a mystery. But not to a group of 16 Bronx high school students.

Monday night, the students presented a 12-minute video they made during a summer course with the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP). It explains everything from who appoints the MTA board to the size of the gap in the capital budget.

Students interviewed everyday commuters, elected officials, and policy experts, including Assembly Member Jim Brennan, MTA spokesperson Adam Lisberg, and Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Veronica Vanterpool.

The video was a project of CUP’s Urban Investigations program, which works with public high school students to illuminate public policy. “Really, what we try to do is choose topics that allow them to see how the city works,” said Christy Herbes, youth education program director at CUP. “We were trying to choose an issue that all the students in the Bronx could relate to.”

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Don’t Believe Team Cuomo’s Spin on the MTA “Lockbox”

This is rich. When Mayor Bill de Blasio told the Daily News he’s wary of upping the city’s contribution to the MTA capital program because Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly raided dedicated transit funds, MTA Chair Tom Prendergast said don’t worry, you can trust the governor:

“This is nothing more than rhetoric from a mayor who refuses to support mass transit. The state has stepped up and committed to fund $8.3 billion toward our capital program in a ‘lockbox’ that will only be used for capital expenses. There are no more excuses,” said MTA President Thomas Prendergast.

Don’t buy the spin. Prendergast’s boss, Andrew Cuomo, has refused to enact “lockbox” legislation that would require the state to disclose when it raids transit funds to cover other needs in the state budget. The governor remains free to divert revenue from the MTA without explaining the impact or even alerting the public.

The only way to seal off transit funding from Albany interference is through bonding. So maybe that’s what Prendergast means by “lockbox” — the Cuomo administration intends to borrow the $8.3 billion for the capital program, by issuing debt backed either by the state or by revenue from MTA fares. Fare-backed borrowing is the scenario that transit advocates most want to avoid, since it will create pressure for future fare hikes.

In either case, de Blasio’s objections are legit. The governor hasn’t explained where the $8.3 billion he’s promised for the MTA will come from. And if City Hall does contribute money to the capital program, there’s nothing to stop Cuomo from taking advantage by shuffling funds around and padding the state budget thanks to the city’s largesse.


Governors Want Feds to Pay for Half of Hudson Tunnel; They’ll Split the Rest

Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo of New York sent a letter to President Barack Obama today with an offer: If the federal government picks up half the tab of building a new $20 billion Hudson River rail tunnel, the two states will split the rest [PDF].

It’s a step forward in negotiations as the governors try to secure grants from the federal government, which so far has only offered low-interest loans for the project. Ultimately, the Republican-controlled Congress must sign off on any federal funds for the rail tunnel.

The governors are also asking for expedited planning and environmental approvals, similar to how the Obama administration fast-tracked the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement.

In the letter, Christie and Cuomo peg the total cost of a rail tunnel at $20 billion. Numbers thrown around by agencies and officials have ranged from $14 billion to $25 billion, depending on the source and whether it includes related projects, like adding additional tracks from the tunnel to Newark.

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Uber Should Pay an MTA Fee Like Yellow Cabs, But the Fee Should Be Smarter

One of the points of debate over Uber’s operations in New York is whether its trips should contribute the same 50-cent surcharge to the MTA that yellow and green taxis do. It’s an easy question to answer in some ways: It doesn’t matter whether a car is yellow, green, or black — if some for-hire vehicles have to pay an MTA fee, they all should. But as long as this taxi surcharge is in the public eye, there’s also an opportunity to rethink the fee itself and make it smarter.

It shouldn't matter what color your taxi is -- but it should matter where the trip goes. Photo: Shuggy/Flickr

It shouldn’t matter what color your taxi is — but it should matter where the trip goes. Photo: Shuggy/Flickr

Ideally, the surcharge paid by yellow taxis, Uber, and other for-hire services would be higher in the congested Manhattan core than in outer-borough neighborhoods lacking decent transit service. While that wouldn’t be a substitute for real congestion pricing of all motor vehicle trips, it could set a precedent and demonstrate the impact of congestion-based fees on a substantial portion of Manhattan traffic.

Here’s the way things are set up today: A 50-cent surcharge on all green and yellow taxi trips will generate an estimated $87 million for the MTA this year, according to the Citizens Budget Commission. Black cars, including Uber and Lyft, are subject to a sales tax that isn’t paid by metered taxis. A sliver of that — slightly more than one-third of one percent — will generate an estimated $7 million for the MTA this year.

Because of this imbalance, Uber’s growth is poised to eat into MTA funding. CBC projects the MTA will actually lose revenue as Uber trips grow and taxi trips continue to decline.

Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke about the problem on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show last week. “We also have to support the MTA, which is in the interest of all of us, and that happens right now through a certain number of taxis, but it doesn’t happen through Uber, for example,” he said.

The fee could also be restructured in a way that addresses problems beyond the MTA’s coffers.

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Trottenberg: DOT Will Soon Propose Amsterdam Avenue Bike Lane

DOT will release a long-awaited proposal for a bike lane and other traffic calming measures on Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side this September or October, Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show this morning.

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg says her agency will propose a bike lane on Amsterdam Avenue in the next couple months. Photo: NYC DOT/Flickr

Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg says DOT will propose a bike lane on Amsterdam Avenue in the next couple months. Photo: NYC DOT/Flickr

The announcement comes after years of requests from local advocates and Manhattan Community Board 7 for a northbound pair to the southbound protected bike lane on Columbus Avenue. Council members Helen Rosenthal and Mark Levine, who represent the area, have also backed a protected bike lane on Amsterdam, which was recently repaved. Citi Bike will expand to the Upper West Side this fall.

“Amsterdam Avenue is challenging… Just the way the traffic moves and the configuration of the roadway do make it a more challenging road to redesign [than Columbus],” Trottenberg said. “But we’re going to come up with some plans and we’re going to lay them out for the community board and for everyone who’s interested.”

The wide-ranging interview also discussed a proposal from Assembly Member Aravella Simotas for a car-free Shore Boulevard in Astoria Park (“We are taking a look at it,” Trottenberg said) and the redesign of Queens Boulevard, which she called one of DOT’s “marquee” projects. Noting the new bike lanes on Queens Boulevard, Lehrer said callers are often “more afraid of the bicycles, because they seem to go every which way, than they are of the cars.”

Much of the interview was driven by Lehrer’s focus on congestion and bikes.

“Is there an upside to congestion?” he asked Trottenberg. “Like, is traffic congestion good for Vision Zero, because you want cars to go slower in general?”

“They’re really two separate issues, and I understand why people put them together,” Trottenberg said, before explaining the difference between making sure free-flowing traffic moves at a safe speed and combatting gridlock in the Central Business District, which is attracting fewer cars each day even as congestion has worsened.

Cruising by Uber drivers and other growing for-hire services is a likely cause of the additional congestion, Trottenberg said, and she acknowledged other factors, such as deliveries. The city will study CBD congestion after backing away from legislation to cap the number of cars operated by Uber.

“How about the bikes as a factor?” Lehrer asked.

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