Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/18 Sun, 19 Aug 2018 10:09:12 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) What's The [Data] Point? $17 billion, the MTA's Preliminary 2019 Budget http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7844:what-s-the-data-point-17-billion-the-mta-s-preliminary-2019-budget http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7844:what-s-the-data-point-17-billion-the-mta-s-preliminary-2019-budget whats the data point


What's The [Data] Point? Episode 49 -- $17 billion with Jamison Dague of CBC on the MTA's preliminary budget for 2019 [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

jamison dague1

The MTA recently released its preliminary budget plan for 2019 (the MTA has a fiscal year that is the calendar year), with continued growth, up to $17 billion, and a variety of other noteworthy aspects. Jamison Dague, CBC's resident MTA and infrastructure expert, joined the podcast to break it all down and connect this budget plan to the larger operations of the MTA, the upcoming MTA capital budget that must be negotiated, the new transit president's plans to rescue the subways and buses, and more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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What's The [Data] Point? $17 billion, the MTA's Preliminary 2019 Budget Tue, 07 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo Faces Another Decision on MTA Funding ‘Lockbox’ http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7794:cuomo-faced-with-another-decision-on-mta-funding-lockbox http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7794:cuomo-faced-with-another-decision-on-mta-funding-lockbox govancuomo mta transit

Gov. Cuomo at an MTA-related event (photo: Don Pollard/Governor's Office)


A bill to create a “transit lockbox” passed both houses of the state Legislature at the end of the session last month, setting up a showdown between the Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has presided over hundreds of millions of dollars in diverted MTA funds and has been hesitant to lose flexibility to use money allocated to MTA operations and improvements for other purposes, such as debt service. Cuomo vetoed an identical bill in 2013.

The legislation would fully prohibit the executive branch from diverting any funds dedicated to public transit, whether operational or capital. If any funds were to be diverted with approval of the Legislature, such as through the budget process or other legislative means, the governor’s administration would be required to provide a full accounting of the diversion to the Legislature, such as its impact on fares, capital needs, or maintenance.

Cuomo, who has taken heat for numerous “transit raids” throughout his tenure, vetoed a lockbox bill five years ago, but faces new pressure amid an ongoing crisis in the New York City subway system, which has seen deteriorated service and reliability and is in need of major repairs and upgrades. The bill passed both the Republican-led state Senate and Democrat-controlled Assembly without any dissenting votes. Its sponsors are counting on that increased pressure forcing Cuomo’s hand.

“Money meant for transit should be spent on transit. And if it doesn’t get spent on transit, then transit users deserve to know exactly why their money is being diverted and how it will impact their fares and their quality of service,” said Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz, a Bronx Democrat and the Assembly’s main sponsor of the bill, in an emailed statement to Gotham Gazette.

In the Senate, the main sponsor was Senator Marty Golden, a Brooklyn Republican. In a statement about passage of the bill, Golden referred to the diversions as “shortsighted measures,” and said that the bill “ensures that we have the funding needed to bring the MTA transportation system up to speed.”

Estimates for the total dollar amount of diverted funds during Cuomo’s tenure reach the hundreds of millions. Mayor Bill de Blasio frequently accuses the governor of having raided the MTA’s budget of $456 million. The mayor’s office elaborated in July of last year, noting $391.5 million in diversions from the operating budget to the state’s general fund, and $65 million in “reduction[s] in state reimbursements to the MTA in 2017.”

During this year’s state budget negotiations, de Blasio repeatedly argued that the $456 million should be returned to the MTA by the state in order to cover the half of the $836 million emergency Subway Action Plan that Cuomo and his appointed MTA board chair, Joe Lhota, were asking the mayor to allocate in city funds. Cuomo refused, and, working with the Legislature, forced the city to pay using a state budget mechanism. With little recourse left, the city acquiesced, apparently content with the plan’s lockbox provisions. Three years ago, the city pledged $2.5 billion in city funds to seal a hole in the MTA’s five-year Capital Plan, in exchange for a promise from the state not to divert the funds. The state also promised additional funding, more than $8 billion, to that plan, which runs through 2019, though, as usual, the MTA has not drawn down very much of the allocated capital plan money as of yet.

The governor disputes the mayor’s numbers on diverted funds, and has noted in the past that the state contributes more to the MTA than the city, which is true but for the fact that much of the state money originates with city taxpayers and commuters. The MTA has countered the mayor’s allegations by noting that “diversion” is a misnomer, given that substantial portions of the moved funds go toward paying down the MTA’s debt, rather than being used to fund completely unrelated projects. The MTA has said that $235 million of the $456 million diversion went toward debt service, with another $169 million diverted to “direct capital aid,” $30 million for operating aid, and $22 million saved.

In Fiscal Year 2018, the MTA’s debt service payments reached $2.5 billion, a total of 16 percent of the Authority’s total operating budget. Ten years ago, in Fiscal Year 2008, the MTA’s debt service payments totaled $997 million. Increased debt service has coincided with growing debt, which has reached $38 billion this year; with the most recent capital plan boost in 2017, the debt is expected to reach $43 billion by 2024.

The “lockbox” is seen as a transparency and accountability measure, and the governor has in the past made his contempt for reporting on the diversions apparent. The governor vetoed the 2013 bill because of its lack of any “emergency” diversion powers, according to his veto statement, but critics charged that requirement of a “diversion impact statement” whenever money was to be diverted from the MTA played a part in his decision. An earlier bill that passed both houses and was signed by the governor in 2011 had been stripped of that requirement and added a provision allowing the governor to divert funds in “emergencies,” which was removed in the 2013 bill.

In his 2013 veto statement, the governor said that the bill would “repudiate” the 2011 compromise, despite his insistence that he had “never declared a fiscal emergency and directed such transfers.” In the end, he called the bill “unnecessary.”

The veto was harshly criticized by both transit advocates and good government groups alike. In Cuomo’s next executive budget, he proposed that $40 million be diverted from the MTA operating budget to finance debt service; the end result was $30 million to service debt. The governor wields enormous power in the state budget process.

This year’s bill again requires that any diversion of funds be accompanied by a diversion impact statement. The governor would have to publicly account for the full dollar amount of a diversion, which funds (operational, capital, or otherwise) will be depleted, the total amount of diverted funds over the preceding five years, and a “detailed estimate of the impact of diversion from dedicated mass transit funds will have on the level of public transportation system service, maintenance, security, and the current capital program.”

In fact, the new bill is identical to the old bill that Cuomo vetoed five years ago. But MTA-related pressure on Cuomo this time is greater than last time, with the governor earning low marks in polls for his handling of the MTA during his tenure and election year critics, including his opponents from the left and the right, making MTA management a key campaign issue.

Advocates want to see the bill signed, among other actions they are pushing Cuomo and state lawmakers to take to drastically improve the transit system. “With NYCT President Andy Byford's Fast Forward plan to modernize the subway on the table, Governor Cuomo and the state legislature must raise the billions of dollars that will be required to make the plan a reality and spend them as intended,” said John Raskin, executive director of Riders Alliance, in a press release upon the bill’s passage.

Dinowitz concurred, noting that the urgency of the measure has been amplified by the subway crisis being acute in a manner not seen five years ago.

“Service quality on our subways and buses has deteriorated, especially in recent years,” Dinowitz told Gotham Gazette in an emailed statement. “As we look at the significant price tag of the MTA’s Fast Forward plan as well as transit needs in the rest of New York State, we must ensure that our public transportation systems actually receive the funding that they are allocated.”

The subway’s demise, and what to do about it, has become a major issue in this year’s gubernatorial election. Cuomo has said he supports the long-term plan put forth by Byford, a relatively recent MTA hire brought in to save the subways and improve bus service, but the governor has said how to pay for it is still the big question. The Daily News reported in May that the subway overhaul plan drawn up by Byford would cost $37 billion over ten years.

Cuomo has promised to continue to push for a congestion pricing plan during the next session in Albany. The second-term Democrat must first be reelected this fall. Cynthia Nixon, his challenger in the Democratic primary, has also backed Byford’s plan, and says she would pay for it through congestion pricing, a new millionaires tax, and a carbon tax. Along with congestion pricing, Cuomo has indicated he will expect New York City to kick in more for the MTA -- a new five-year MTA capital plan will soon be negotiated. Cuomo has not expressed support for a carbon tax or an added millionaires tax, Mayor de Blasio’s favored potential funding stream.

The governor’s office did not give any indication of support or opposition to the lockbox bill when asked by Gotham Gazette. “This appears to be one of 557 bills that passed both houses in the last few weeks of session and will be reviewed by Counsel’s office,” said Cuomo spokesperson Tyrone Stevens.

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Cuomo Faces Another Decision on MTA Funding ‘Lockbox’ Tue, 10 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: A New Era at the MTA? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7751:max-murphy-podcast-a-new-era-at-the-mta http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7751:max-murphy-podcast-a-new-era-at-the-mta mxm logo

Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits


June 20, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: A New Era at the MTA? with Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Instituteand and columnist at the New York Post.

Nicole Gelinas

Are we in a new era at the MTA? With Joe Lhota one year on the job as chair and a new transit chief, Andy Byford, in place and out with a plan to modernize the signals, where do things stand? Has the Subway Action Plan had any effect? What needs to be done to really improve the subways and buses, and get New York City moving again? Nicole Gelinas is an expert on the MTA and other transit and infrastructure matters, and she joined the podcast just after checking out the June MTA board meeting to answer these questions and others.

Listen to the full conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax, @JarrettMurphy, and @NicoleGelinas. You can listen to the episode through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: A New Era at the MTA? Wed, 20 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
On Taxes, the MTA and More, Molinaro Discusses Developing Campaign Platform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7740:on-taxes-the-mta-and-more-molinaro-discusses-developing-campaign-platform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7740:on-taxes-the-mta-and-more-molinaro-discusses-developing-campaign-platform marc molinaro launch

Marc Molinaro (photo: Ben Max/Gotham Gazette)


Ask Marc Molinaro about nearly anything, and the Republican nominee for governor will likely bring the conversation back to property taxes and affordability.

“My focus, ultimately, will be to drive down costs on middle class New Yorkers,” he said in a Wednesday interview with Gotham Gazette. “That focus, again, has to be on property taxes because New York, unlike every other state in America, forces more of its state spending on property taxpayers. Property taxpayers -- small tax base; large, acute burden on individuals with no respect to their ability to pay.”

Molinaro, currently Dutchess county executive, has repeatedly sounded the theme since formally launching his bid for governor April 2. While he has largely spoken in sweeping generalities -- promising “bold” proposals to come during his nomination acceptance speech at the May 23 state GOP convention -- details are starting to emerge.

Molinaro said that in addition to making the state’s 2-percent cap on annual property tax increases permanent, he would seek to phase out the so-called “millionaires tax” if elected. The income tax rate for the top bracket -- which includes individuals making $1 million or more and couples earning $2 million or more per year -- went from 6.85 to 8.82 percent in 2009, and has been extended by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo and a Legislature where each house is controlled by one of the two major parties.

“I would seek to have it expire over time,” Molinaro said of the millionaires tax. “I do think that there’s a way to make taxation in the state a bit more respectful of those who can’t afford it.”

He said he will release a detailed tax plan in the coming months. While Molinaro, like many other New York Republicans, has opposed the new, GOP-led federal tax overhaul because of its cap on local deductions, he has said New York must now work even harder to bring down the tax burden on its residents. He has also stressed that the state must reduce its burdens on localities -- often in the form of unfunded mandates -- so that counties, cities, towns, and villages can lower their taxes.

Molinaro, 42, has spent his entire career in politics, including terms as a member of the state Assembly and as mayor of Tivoli, where he became the youngest mayor in the country at age 19. He’s claiming the mantle of a regular New Yorker who gets the working and middle classes, comparing himself favorably to Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon, each of whom has much more wealth and fame. Molinaro’s tendency to talk at length about poor and struggling families in personal terms occasionally makes him sound more like a progressive Democrat than a fiscally conservative Republican.

“As a kid, I grew up on food stamps. I’m very sensitive to how the state treats those who are on the lower end of the income scale, living maybe in poverty or subsidized housing,” he said. During his nomination acceptance speech he raised his voice in declaring the he would “not concede compassion to anyone.”

He has made the state’s struggling dairy industry something of a focus. He allocated $651,781 of Dutchess County’s 2017 budget to protecting two farms there. He has been photographed hanging out in stables and often tweets about dairy. “Dairy day. I love dairy day. I miss dairy day. I should come back to Albany for dairy day,” he posted on Twitter earlier this month, in lighthearted fashion, while he has also tweeted about serious policy to help dairy farmers survive, such as through reducing regulations and taxes.

On the state’s minimum wage law, Molinaro voiced opposition to the recent increases. In 2016, Cuomo and state legislators reached a deal raising New York City’s minimum wage to $15 by the end of this year, with slower hikes in other parts of the state.

The Republican candidate, who also has the Conservative and Reform Party nominations, said he opposed the deal at the time and thinks the minimum wage “should be indexed to ebb and flow with the cost of living.”

“I also don’t necessarily agree that an unelected board of individuals should be able to establish statewide policy,” he added, in reference to the wage board that Cuomo had empaneled to help him craft the policy before he pushed it through the legislative process. “Those are decisions that ought to be made by citizens and their representatives.”

Asked whether he thought the state’s minimum wage should be lowered given broad economic growth, Molinaro replied with a laugh, “I’m not going to go there.”

The MTA is another area where Molinaro said he will roll out detailed proposals.

He said his priorities would be “depoliticizing” the authority’s board by giving members the power to fire the chair, currently Joe Lhota, along with conducting a thorough review of the MTA’s assets and creating a “road map” to improve service.

“Like Joe Lhota or not, the governor has too much influence,” Molinaro said, nodding to the fact that the governor nominates the MTA board chair, as Cuomo did with Lhota. “Far too many decisions are made without input from the MTA board…I would absolutely want to empower the MTA board to be able to fire the head of the MTA.”

Molinaro’s county includes the far reaches of the MTA transit system, and he is one of the executives empowered to jointly appoint an MTA board member. He often says that Dutchess is where “upstate meets downstate” and has joined the chorus of candidates and others criticizing Cuomo’s management of the MTA, especially the New York City subway system.

Molinaro did not comment, when asked, on MTA NYC Transit President Andy Byford’s new plan to fix service. He mostly spoke in broad terms about the MTA’s problems -- decrying its “ineffectiveness and erosion” -- but singled out service for people with disabilities as a priority.

“The fact is that if you are living with a disability or particular challenges -- special needs -- we don’t have adequate access, and that needs to be a priority regardless of where you live,” Molinaro said.

That belief connects to an initiative Molinaro launched in Dutchess -- which he made a point to again emphasize during the interview -- to improve services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The program, called ThinkDIFFERENTLY, has featured events connecting people with disabilities with service providers and aims to help them develop job and life skills.

Molinaro said the program -- which has caught on in dozens of other localities -- would provide a paradigm for how he approaches disabilities as governor. Molinaro, whose daughter is autistic, often cites his experience as a father when discussing the issue.

“Whether it’s making the investments necessary to break down physical barriers -- making subway stops and platforms accessible -- or it’s saying to job creators, you need to do more to encourage employment for those living with disabilities or welcome those with special needs as consumers,” he said, “we need to educate and then we need to ensure that the system is easier to navigate.”

As might be expected for a relatively unknown Republican challenging a two-term Democratic governor in New York, Molinaro has trailed Cuomo in early polls. A Siena College poll released Wednesday, about five-and-a-half months before Election Day, showed Cuomo ahead of Molinaro 56-37, though the numbers showed an improving trend for Molinaro in the hypothetical matchup and the poll was celebrated by his campaign, which noted he is in better position than Republican challenger Rob Astorino was four years ago at the same time.

Like Democratic primary challenger Nixon, who also trails Cuomo in the polls, Molinaro has tried to put a dent in the governor’s numbers by tying him to corruption. Both challengers have pointed to the recent conviction of longtime Cuomo lieutenant Joseph Percoco and the upcoming federal trial of Alain Kaloyeros, the former president of SUNY Polytechnic Institute who oversaw some of Cuomo’s most ambitious development projects.

Those cases center upon proven and alleged abuses within the governor’s multimillion-dollar economic development programs, and the Percoco trial showed the former Cuomo government aide and campaign manager regularly using his executive chamber office while on leave to run the governor’s 2014 reelection campaign. Molinaro has put forth a variety of government ethics and campaign finance reform proposals thus far, some of which Cuomo has professed support for but not passed. The GOP nominee has said he would seek pay-for-play, or doing-business, campaign finance restrictions on entities seeking or holding state contracts, term limits for statewide elected officials and state legislators, and other changes to make government more honest and open.

Molinaro said the trials not only show issues of corruption under Cuomo’s nose, but that the governor’s approach to economic development is fundamentally flawed.

“I don’t believe the government should take taxpayer money and give it to private interests,” he said. “I don’t believe in cutting checks as if New Yorkers are [Cuomo’s] personal ATM. It’s not fair, it’s not appropriate and he doesn’t seem to know the difference between right and wrong.”

Asked how he would encourage statewide economic growth if he ended Cuomo’s development programs, Molinaro again pointed to tax cuts and lowering the cost of living.

“Drive down costs, make it easier for businesses to thrive,” he said. “That’s how you grow an environment that people can achieve greater success -- not by pickpocketing New Yorkers and giving it to political contributors.” Molinaro did not offer specifics.

He said that if elected, he would take a selective approach to Cuomo’s legacy, though he shied away from detailing what he would seek to undo. “My perspective is everything gets evaluated -- everything,” he said.

Molinaro did not answer a question about Cuomo’s gun control measures, including an expanded ban of assault weapons, known as the SAFE Act. While the governor has frequently touted the legislation as one of his main achievements, and New York City residents largely support it, it is considered highly unpopular upstate.

In a January interview, more than a month before the school massacre in Parkland, Florida and the movement it spurred, Molinaro had told Gotham Gazette, “Frankly, I do have concerns with how aggressive this governor has been. I think in some ways irresponsibly ignoring those that do support, as I do, the Second Amendment and forcing legislation without having the kind of local robust conversation necessary. I believe the constitution is as it’s written.”

The Cuomo campaign has seized on some of Molinaro’s more conservative positions, like on gun rights and his 2011 vote against marriage equality as a member of the Assembly, the passage of which is a top Cuomo resume item. Molinaro has said he has evolved on the issue. The governor’s campaign has branded him a Trump mini-me, though Molinaro has said he did not vote for the Republican president in the 2016 election.

In the Wednesday interview with Gotham Gazette, Molinaro did not list any other issue areas where he plans to roll out policy plans, though during his convention speech he appeared to promise a series.

Asked how, if elected governor, he would work with the state Legislature -- this fall, Democrats are likely to maintain their Assembly majority and Republicans are fighting against losing the Senate -- Molinaro said he would try to make the lawmaking process more inclusive.

He promised to end Albany’s “three men in a room” culture in which the governor and legislative leaders decide the budget and other important issues behind closed doors.

“I think the government can reach into the legislature and local communities to identify great thinkers, people who are engaged in trying to solve problems irrespective of party, and engage them,” Molinaro said. “That breaks down the power structure that has paralyzed state government.”

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by Shant Shahrigianh, Gotham Gazette
      

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On Taxes, the MTA and More, Molinaro Discusses Developing Campaign Platform Thu, 14 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
The Byford Plan and the MTA Information Deficit http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7713:the-byford-plan-and-the-mta-information-deficit http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7713:the-byford-plan-and-the-mta-information-deficit m train mta

Andy Byford (photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)


New York City Transit’s new president, Andy Byford, recently presented a major plan to fix the subways, called “Fast Forward,” which involves a massive sustained investment in upgrading and modernizing the subway system, combined with a spending speed-up by closing more subway lines on nights and weekends to get the work done more rapidly. Other major priorities are also in the plan, like improved bus speeds, providing access for disabled people at more stations, strengthening construction management, and improving relationships with employees.

The keystone, however, is implementing a modern, computer-based train control system to improve the frequency and reliability of the subway trains with billions of dollars in investments in advanced signal systems. The ambitious goal -- a vastly improved transit system -- is what the riders and the people and businesses of the city and the metropolitan area want and need.

The MTA did not publish official figures on the costs, causing the press to seek unofficial figures, which were reported anywhere from $17 to $19 to $37 billion for different time frames. The MTA claims it is costing things out. The public is also being subjected to ongoing political theater as public figures use each other as punching bags about the MTA, with Cuomo versus de Blasio and Cuomo versus Nixon as the main events.

While the MTA has given the public a stated goal of a better system and a bare outline of a plan to get there, it has left the public in the lurch in relation to other key information beyond cost. This includes information to see how the plan matches up with the rest of the system’s needs that have to be paid for, everything from the expansion projects like East Side Access and Second Avenue Subway, to basics like replacing track and the legacy signal system that must be done continuously, to buying new subway cars and buses, to keeping the suburban rail lines running.

Additionally, assuming the MTA has to borrow a lot more money, the public deserves to know how much new revenue will be needed to cover a lot more debt, and when. There is also precious little on exactly how the MTA might gain control of the unending cost overruns on the multi-billion dollar expansion projects. Let’s put the punching bags in the corner and start looking at what kind of information deficit the MTA has provided the public.

Still in construction are actually two capital plans. An April 2018 report to the MTA Board Capital Program Oversight Committee shows that the 2010-14 Capital Plan is still not finished -- more than $5 billion of the $32 billion plan, which included Federal Hurricane Sandy recovery funds, has yet to be received. The current $33 billion 2015-2019 plan has only received $3.5 billion and is still 90% incomplete!

The report also says in 2018 the MTA plans to commit $7 billion to capital construction -- a pace that would result in most of the current plan rolling over unfinished into 2020 and beyond. The New York City government had actually given more funds to the two plans than the State government -- $879 million versus $465 million, by March of this year. The 2015-2019 Plan is running five years behind schedule, and the MTA is going to exhaust its available resources far short of completion. When this is going to happen is one of the main information deficits.

The current plan has at least one dry hole: a $7 billion IOU from the State written in law that gets provided when the MTA exhausts its current resources, or by 2025. The MTA needs an extra $600 million a year in a new revenue to pay debt service on what I estimate to be $7 billion in bonds to fill that hole.

The agency has a second dry hole: it projected a $600 million deficit by 2021 in February (even after two fare hikes), which resulted in Standard & Poor downgrading the agency’s bond rating. Agency officials also told a senior state legislator before the state budget adoption that the MTA could not afford the $11 billion commitment to the capital plan that is supposed to be funded by the MTA itself. These two problems will likely come together around 2021 but the MTA is now not giving a date to the public for when new revenue sources will be needed.

These shortfalls don’t include the new Byford plan.

Information deficit one, therefore, is how much money the MTA really needs in new revenue to pay for the current plan, before you even put the Byford “Fast Forward” plan on top of it. The answer is probably more than $1 billion a year before Byford. Information deficit two is how much money the Byford plan will cost on top of the current capital plan and its successor (the 2020-2024 plan), and how much new revenue will be needed for that.

The Byford plan has two five-year phases to get the new signal system constructed. If these investments and the money needed start moving soon, the first phase would overlap with the completion of the 2015-2019 capital plan, out to 2025. The second phase would overlap with the 2020-24 plan still in development by the MTA, with negotiations over funding between the State and the City to come. That 2020-2024 capital plan is scheduled to be provided to the MTA Capital Program Review Board (CPRB) in the fall of 2019. The current 2015-19 plan can be amended at any time with approval by the CPRB.

Governor Cuomo reaffirmed his support for congestion pricing shortly after the Byford plan was released; Mayor de Blasio did the same for the added millionaires tax he’s long-pursued, and Cynthia Nixon endorsed both plus a pollution tax as well. In truth the sum of revenue from a congestion pricing plan and added millionaires tax are probably both needed to get to 2025, complete the current capital plan, and overlay it with phase one of “Fast Forward.” New sources of revenue will also be needed for phase two of “Fast Forward”  plus the regular needs of the system, but those requirements are seven years off or more, so while long-term funding streams are needed, we don’t need to give everybody headaches about those numbers right now.

The Legislature created a Metropolitan Transportation Sustainability Advisory Workgroup in the budget, consisting of a group of appointees by the Governor, the Mayor, the Assembly, and the Senate, to report back to the Legislature at the end of 2018 on the host of complex issues associated with mass transit. Reporting was also required on the MTA’s Subway Action Plan, which the State forced the City to pay half of after Mayor de Blasio refused.

The Legislature should follow this up before the session concludes with a requirement that the MTA submit its 2020-24 plan earlier than fall 2019, to address the information deficit. The requirement should include an integration with the Byford plan and details of how costs can be controlled and contained in the capital construction budgets.

The MTA needs to cost out the ambitious goals and let the public know how much money is needed soon -- the political theater probably won’t stop for a long time but it would help if we could all work with the right numbers.

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Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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The Byford Plan and the MTA Information Deficit Tue, 05 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
State Budget Does Help Mass Transit, But MTA Capital Plan Uncertainty Rising http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7642:state-budget-did-help-mass-transit-but-mta-capital-plan-uncertainty-rising http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7642:state-budget-did-help-mass-transit-but-mta-capital-plan-uncertainty-rising subway train repairs

(photo: Don Pollard/Governor's Office)


The MTA received two significant infusions of new money in the state budget effective April 1. The first is the full $836 million, to be provided to the MTA by December 31, to fund phase one of the Subway Action Plan developed last July by Chair Joseph Lhota and MTA management. The second is through a new tax, starting January 1, on for-hire vehicle trips by taxis, Ubers, Lyfts, and others for trips in Manhattan south of 96th street. The tax revenue will put an estimated $400 million a year into the MTA budget to provide regular, ongoing support for the increases in maintenance related to the Subway Action Plan.

The new money is very welcome for the beleaguered transit system, but major policy and funding questions like the MTA’s long-term capital construction program and whether a congestion pricing program will become integral to future sources of funds remain unanswered.

The $836 million to be delivered in 2018 is a combination of about $500 million in operating funds to cover the expense of several thousand new maintenance positions in subway car overhauls, replacing track and signals, deploying emergency personnel, and other staffing, with the rest investments in related physical assets. Half the money for the 2018 infusion was initially put into the proposed executive budget submitted by Governor Cuomo to the Legislature from state funds. The State Legislature agreed to that and also to compel the City of New York to come up with the other half of the funds, $418 million, despite Mayor de Blasio’s objections to the city being required to provide the money when proposed last year after Governor Cuomo declared a transit emergency. The ongoing deterioration of subway service that led to the emergency declaration impelled the Legislature to agree that both the State and the City must provide additional support to the MTA.

Two other proposals in the budget by the governor to force New York City to pay even more money to the MTA were rejected by the Legislature, with the Assembly specifically denying the approvals in both its one-house budget and later in its summary of the enacted budget. These proposals were viewed as far more onerous than the Subway Action Plan mandate. One required the city to pay the full cost of the New York City Transit Capital Plan, which is supposed to be $17 billion over the five years of the current 2015-19 MTA plan. Right now the city’s scheduled contribution is $2.5 billion.

The second proposal would give the MTA the authority to determine how much property tax revenue in New York City it could take from “value capture.” This budget bill would allow the MTA to decide how much property tax value is added due to transit improvements it makes in certain zones around the city, and then direct the incremental property tax revenue to itself without the city having a right to approve it, or even have a say in how much money is involved. The Citizens Budget Commission called this proposal “confiscatory.“ Although rejected, versions of these proposals are likely to resurface in the future as the Cuomo administration tries to find ways to shift financial responsibility from the state to the city to fund the MTA.

The State Assembly deserves thanks from the public for the $400 million for-hire vehicle trip surcharge for mass transit. Governor Cuomo never put legislation to create a congestion pricing plan into his proposed budget, despite endorsing the concept last summer and creating the Fix NYC Advisory Panel, which offered a congestion pricing framework in a report that was released at the time of the budget. However, in early March the State Assembly, in its one-house budget, proposed the surcharge to fund the recurring maintenance program. A similar surcharge had been a lesser part of the Fix NYC report, which called for a three-year, three-phase program, the main element of which is a charge to enter Manhattan south of 60th Street for most vehicles, designed to yield up to $1 billion a year. But Governor Cuomo put none of it into his budget plan.

Governor Cuomo had the good sense to rapidly endorse the Assembly’s trip surcharge, and it was approved by the Senate after the tax was limited solely to Manhattan, with no new charges in the outer boroughs or the suburbs. But there is no other element of a congestion pricing set-up. There is no funding for any infrastructure to electronically record entries into the Manhattan business district, which is phase two of the Fix NYC plan. Existing technology in the taxi and for-hire vehicle industry will pinpoint when those vehicles traverse Manhattan south of 96th Street.

Congestion pricing remains in limbo, even as the MTA’s long-term capital construction budget may unravel. In March of this year Standard & Poor downgraded the MTA’s bond rating one notch after an MTA report showed the agency would have a $400 million operating deficit in 2020 and a $600 million operating deficit by 2021, even after two fare and toll hikes. The primary cause of the deficit was reported to be a drop in real estate transaction revenues like the mortgage recording tax, which in part are dedicated to mass transit.

The $32 billion 2015-19 MTA Capital Plan, to which the MTA is now committing significant funds as it finally wraps up the prior plan, includes $11 billion from the MTA itself, primarily from money it will borrow. The forecasted deficits, however, are very likely to constrain the ability of the agency to actually borrow that much money. Not only that, but state government’s share of the 2015-19 Capital Plan, $8.5 billion, included $7 billion for which there was only an I.O.U. with no stream of revenue to back it up. Shortfalls in the 2015-19 Plan could materialize soon, just as discussions about the next five-year capital plan are moving forward.

The MTA has to propose its 2020-2024 Capital Plan in October 2019. The recent five-year plans have cost about $30 billion each - but if the current plan begins to unravel the 2020 plan will be in trouble. A fall 2017 State Comptroller report expressed concern that the 2020 plan might have shortfalls (meaning lack of sources of funding to pay for projects) similar to the $15 billion shortfalls that plagued decision-makers for both the 2010 and 2015 plans before funding schemes were patched together.

The public and the State Legislature need critical information from the MTA very soon to determine the agency’s ability to sustain a meaningful capital program. In 2007 the Legislature made the MTA accelerate submission of its capital plan at that time, earlier than the law had provided, and it could do so again, scheduling a submission for early 2019, rather than the end of the year, to get a better handle on what the problems really are.

Congestion pricing involves rational policy proposals to deter vehicles from entering Manhattan to reduce pollution and congestion, and provide a long-term funding stream for the MTA. But this is the second time in ten years a push for congestion pricing has not been successful in the State Legislature. If congestion pricing won’t fly there is no shortage of possibilities for taxes to fund the mass transit system. There are payroll taxes, personal income taxes, corporate income taxes, sales taxes, millionaires’ taxes, mansion taxes, you name it. The issue is the political will. A consensus on funding this most vital of services remains frustratingly elusive, along with the leadership to forge that consensus.

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Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

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State Budget Does Help Mass Transit, But MTA Capital Plan Uncertainty Rising Thu, 26 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Byford's Big Bus Plan Relies on City, State Cooperation http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7636:byford-s-big-bus-plan-relies-on-city-state-cooperation http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7636:byford-s-big-bus-plan-relies-on-city-state-cooperation mta double decker

(Credit: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)


In the Big Apple's transit circles, Andy Byford has quickly become the hottest London import since the Beatles. New York City Transit's new president, brought in this winter from his job as the head of the Toronto Transit Commission, faces the unenviable task of fixing the city's ailing subway system and restoring faith in its vital transit network. Just three months into the job, Byford is moving at a breakneck pace, and on Monday, he unveiled an ambitious plan to speed up New York City's snail-like local buses and fight the tide of declining ridership.

The plan sets the bus system on the right road toward improvement but will require city and state cooperation and a change in NYPD culture, two elements in short supply these days that could torpedo Byford’s best efforts. It is also likely to require more money, which is also in short supply.

The New York City bus system is a curious thing. It is notorious unreliable with buses that crawl through city streets stopping every two or three blocks and with average speeds that barely exceed eight miles an hour. With infrequent and unreliable service, ridership has declined by nearly 10 percent since 2012 and 15 percent since 2002. Still, over 2 million riders a day rely on the city's buses, and the bus system needs to be fixed.

Byford's bus plan comes after nearly two years of heavy lobbying from the Bus Turnaround Coalition, a joint effort by the Transit Center, Riders Alliance, Straphangers Campaign, and Tri-State Transportation Campaign. In 2016, this group called for an overhaul of the way buses work in New York City, and in 2018, Byford acknowledged its work in unveiling his plan. "We’ve listened to our riders’ concerns," he said, "and are working tirelessly to create a world-class bus system that New Yorkers deserve."

So what exactly is the plan? For now, it is an aspirational approach to better bus service with a 28-point agenda.

Byford wants to redesign the network by optimizing routes based on ridership needs while eliminating some stops to speed up service and expand off-peak bus frequency. He wants to implement infrastructure upgrades that prioritize buses over other vehicles, including dedicated lanes and a signal prioritization system that allows buses to hold green lights or shorten reds. He calls for NYPD cooperation and effective traffic enforcement, and he proposes a faster boarding process, currently a main source of delays.

To reduce bus dwell time -- the minutes a bus spends sitting at a stop while riders dip their Metrocards or scrounge around for $2.75 in nickles, quarters, and dimes -- Byford suggests all-door border, similar to London's bus system; a tap fare payment card; and cashless bus fares. The final parts of the plan involve customer-focused improvements including more real-time bus countdown clocks, redesigned system maps, and more bus shelters along with some clean-tech buses to replace New York's current gas-guzzlers.

On its surface, the plan is exactly what New York needs. Byford has shown that he understands the problems and drawbacks with the current bus network and is willing to propose a multi-part solution that involves every stakeholder and seemingly transcends the dysfunctional politics of the relationship between the city and state. But unfortunately with such an aggressive plan in play, each of these stakeholders are going to have to work together for this bus revitalization effort to succeed.

And to that end, except with respect to the all-door boarding and other technological upgrades to the buses themselves, Byford is now almost a bystander as he has shifted the onus to the city Department of Transportation, the NYPD, and Albany lawmakers to work together to realize his vision of a better bus network.

Let's start with the city's Department of Transportation. Since DOT controls the city's streets, any changes to the way street space is allocated will have to start with DOT. Thus, additional bus lanes, dedicated bus corridors and the queue-jumping benefits of signal prioritization require DOT buy-in and support, and so will reducing the number of bus stops and changing street design to better support bus infrastructure. NYC DOT Commissioner and MTA Board member Polly Trottenberg voiced support for the plan during Monday's meetings, but her boss, the mayor, a reluctant and infrequent transit rider who virtually never takes the bus, will have to be a forceful ally supporting these changes.

And then we have the NYPD. Currently, the NYPD seems to view the city's bus lanes as, well, parking spots. Take a ride down the East Side's avenues, and bus lanes will inevitably be filled with cops who have decided to park in curbside bus lanes, thus negating their intended purposes. The MTA, on the other hand, expects cops to be willing partners in enforcing bus lane restrictions and generally helping to ensure that other vehicles are not in the way of buses, impeding speeds and progress through congested city streets.

But cops alone are a poor and inadequate enforcement method, and NYPD culture is tough, if not impossible, to change. Thus, Albany takes center stage as bus lane enforcement should be automated and camera-based. Until now, the state Legislature has resisted giving the MTA carte blanche ability to install cameras that can assist in automated bus lane enforcement, but to truly tackle the problem of cars in bus lanes, Albany will have to act, and forcefully.

Finally, the elephant in the room is the cost. We do not yet know how much the bus plan will cost. It relies in part on moving pieces that are funded (such as a new fare payment system) and others that are not, and it will again be up to the governor to champion transit improvements in New York City so that they receive adequate funding. Facing the pressures and, more importantly, the headlines of a primary challenge, Andrew Cuomo has lately embraced certain positions he has rejected in the past, and mass transit support should be one of them. Perhaps, then, the time is right for the city and state to prioritize bus travel over car traffic.

Ultimately, the buses need fixing, but more importantly, the bus system needs to work efficiently so that New Yorkers have faith in it again. Buses can solve access problems in transit deserts and can be a part of the transit upgrades that a true congestion pricing plan would require. Byford has a vision that will improve bus service, but that is the easy part. Now he just has to convince everyone else to join him as well.

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Benjamin Kabak is the editor of Second Ave. Sagas, on Twitter @2AvSagas.

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Byford's Big Bus Plan Relies on City, State Cooperation Wed, 25 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
The Great Select Bus Service Conspiracy: Part III http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7629:the-great-select-bus-service-conspiracy-part-iii http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7629:the-great-select-bus-service-conspiracy-part-iii mta select bus service route

(photo: MTA/Patrick Cashin)


This is part three of a three-part series

Previously discussed: the promises and the reality, the difference between bus travel time and passenger travel time, who benefits and who is hurt by SBS, how the mayor, MTA and DOT mislead, the true costs of SBS (part one); the denigration of local bus service, problems with enforcement, other SBS problems, negative effects on traffic and local businesses and how public participation is inadequate (part two).

Not a Cure-All
SBS is not the cure-all for local bus service problems as purported to be. Some SBS routes do not even make sense. In one case, there is a nearby unused rail line that could be reactivated at a fraction of the cost of constructing a new subway line without disrupting traffic and local businesses as SBS does. Yet it was never considered as an alternative to the Woodhaven Boulevard SBS.

The MTA and DOT want to spend $2 billion on SBS over the next ten years, but will not alter, add or extend existing bus routes to fill transit deserts. Some have been indirect or outdated for over 70 years. The MTA claims it would cost too much to increase service because they refuse to consider the resulting additional ridership from better service. They have rejected route improvements with increased annual operating costs of only $50,000.

Instead, they make foolhardy proposals to eliminate bus stops, such as on the Q22 where there is a high elderly population. The MTA suggested those riders use Access-A-Ride instead. Each one of those trips costs the MTA over $50. New bus routes are scheduled only at 30-minute intervals, which the MTA insists is sufficient. The actual wait for a bus is often longer. Is it any wonder that these routes are among the most lightly-utilized routes in the system?

Important transfer points are missing from SBS routes. For example, there is no way to transfer between the Q52/53 and the B15 Kennedy Airport route, which is also slated for the SBS treatment. “Dollar vans” continue to illegally compete with MTA buses, draining revenue from the MTA.

There is no desire by the MTA to connect new neighborhoods, thereby really improving mass transit. In most cases, SBS is merely replacing existing Limited Stop routes. The Southern Brooklyn SBS needs to connect Bay Ridge with Gateway Mall and Kennedy Airport, not just replace the B82. Potential economic benefits of such new routings are ignored. SBS construction costs (if applicable), operating costs, and ridership are the only variables considered.

How does the mayor know that 21 additional routes will be needed in the next ten years even before any SBS meetings are held? Why aren’t other solutions being discussed or analyzed? Perhaps routes need to be altered or added, more short services need to be provided or a zone express would make more sense than SBS. A short service does not operate for the entire length of the route. A zone express is a bus that picks up passengers bound for a single destination such as a major subway stop until it is full and then operates non-stop the rest of the way.

Can SBS Work?
Yes, if it is done correctly.

By imposing a deadline on DOT for 20 routes by the end of 2017, the mayor rushed the planning process so that some routes were not properly designed. It is now difficult or impossible for trucks to turn onto the Woodhaven Boulevard service roads, necessitating lengthy detours. SBS is most beneficial on very long routes where the average trip length is much greater than 2.3 miles. On the S79, for example, many riders travel a considerable portion of the route, at least five miles, and some travel ten or more, so many do save time. However, the S79 only includes three SBS features (two is the minimum number required to qualify as an SBS route), exclusive bus lanes (rush hours only), and longer distances between some stops than Limiteds; and more recently, TSM. There is no off-board fare collection, hence no additional enforcement costs, and standard 40-foot buses are used so there are no extra labor or fuel costs.

The effect on other traffic resulting from the bus lanes must also be considered to determine if the benefits afforded bus riders are greater than the harm done to motorists. The S79 Progress Report showed that traffic volumes declined on both Hylan Boulevard and parallel roadways. That is understandable when traffic congestion increases, which it did. That does not indicate a lower demand, but a lengthening of the peak period. We know congestion increased because in one instance the time it took to travel between two points increased by 50 percent from 10 to 15 minutes, but declined to a lesser extent in other instances. DOT explained away the time increase by attributing it to “daily roadway fluctuations.”

Responsible traffic studies do not draw conclusions from just two days, and Mondays and Fridays usually are not studied because they are atypical of weekday travel. If DOT averaged three midweek days before and after implementation and allowed at least a month for drivers to become accustomed to the elimination of traffic lanes, perhaps then it would be clear if the increased travel times were really a result of daily fluctuations or not.  DOT, however, is really only interested in the effects on bus riders, not on other traffic.

Other routes may also work fairly well like the Bx6, the Bx12, and the Q70. The M15 works well in the late evenings, providing a quicker alternative than the subway from the southern tip of Manhattan to the Upper East Side.

Proposed routes such as the B82 could work if they connect new neighborhoods. The B44 could have been designed better so that Kingsborough College students were better served and employees of Kings County and Downstate Medical Centers were not so inconvenienced. That, however, would have involved creating or rerouting other bus routes in the area to fill a needed service gap, something the MTA is hesitant to do. It also would have required public hearings. The MTA usually prefers the easy way over the correct way.

B44 SBS ridership south of Avenue X would greatly increase to at least a seated load per bus if a branch to serve Kingsborough Community College were instituted as was first proposed in 2013. No increase in service would be necessary because new riders would ride in the off-peak direction. Presently the 60-foot buses south of Avenue X only carry six or fewer passengers even during rush hours, except for a handful of trips when health care workers are changing shifts.   

Both proposals were made to the MTA or DOT and have been dismissed or ignored.

Is SBS worth it?
Consider that a simple state law requiring all non-emergency motor vehicles to give the right of way to buses pulling out of bus stops would save bus passengers more time than SBS because it would apply to all 326 bus routes, not only 17 or 38 SBS routes. It would also save the MTA money by shortening bus travel times. Best of all, it would cost virtually nothing, and would disrupt traffic less than exclusive bus lanes.  

The first SBS route began in 2008. Using 2011 as a base year and adding up the riders in the 12 SBS corridors we get 101,455,632 passengers. For 2016, the number is 98,800,534 passengers, or a 2.6% decline, while all local routes (NYCT and MTA Bus) declined by 3.3%. (It should be noted that the Q70 became an SBS route in 2015.)

Ridership on SBS routes declined by 0.86% from 2015 to 2016 while the system in general declined by 1.5%. SBS routes performed slightly better than all local/limited routes but did not reverse the declining trend in bus patronage, one of its goals. The M15 First and Second Avenue route alone lost over 3 million annual passengers between 2012 and 2016, more than the total bus ridership in many cities, and that does not consider the opening of the Second Avenue subway. Many local riders could have just decided that walking is now quicker with less frequent service.  

Another possibility is that patronage didn't actually decline on SBS routes but fare evasion on those routes is higher than on routes where you pay on board. The MTA insisted for a long time that a fare-evasion rate of three percent was acceptable and within industry standards. After a newspaper expose, it finally admitted fare evasion on local bus routes was 14 percent and took temporary mitigating actions to reduce it. 

Fare evasion rates for SBS are unavailable. The MTA admits that each SBS inspector costs $100,000 per year in salaries and accounts for the biggest ongoing cost. But how much enforcement is there? One daily SBS rider claimed to have seen the Eagle team on the bus only once in the past year. We need to know if fare evasion rates for SBS are higher than on traditional bus routes.

What will happen to all the fare machines, which cost $50,000 each, when they become obsolete in a few years as the MetroCard is replaced with a tap and go system? Is additional investment in these machines worthwhile or should we place a moratorium on creating new SBS routes at least until MetroCard is replaced?

Mayor Bloomberg had suggested that Manhattan’s crosstown routes be free due to the high percentage of those transferring from other buses and subways who have already paid their fare. This would allow all-door entry without the expense of SBS machines and enforcement. The Riders Alliance questioned if it was worth the cost to convert and operate the Q70 (LaGuardia Airport route) to SBS since 80 percent of riders are already paying their fare on the subway and recommended the route be free. A cost-benefit analysis should have been performed in both cases regarding how high the percentage of passengers paying for their trip elsewhere needs to be before it becomes more cost effective to run SBS rather than operate the route for free. Those analyses were not done.

SBS costs are not transparent; benefits are marginal. Passenger travel-time savings, which should be the key metric of SBS improvement, are unavailable. Yet we are asked to embrace SBS without adequate proof it is a success and ignore all negative effects.

What is the driving force behind SBS for state and local officials? Is it that the federal government is paying a portion of the costs and this is regarded as “free money”? And that if New York City doesn’t apply for these funds, another city will? If so, that source may soon dry up. Is the mayor more interested in raising revenue from levying heavy fines while the MTA shoulders most of the enforcement costs? Is the real goal to improve transit or is it just the perception of improved transit?

Summary and Conclusions
SBS is not low-cost and has not been a massive improvement. Don't let the unconditional support by so many groups and officials fool you. SBS may be an appropriate solution in some cases. It is not the solution in every case. Don’t believe the SBS hype. Concentrate on results and actual numbers, not promises and percentages. Look for data other than what is easily accessible from DOT and the MTA. Ask questions and arrive at your own conclusions. Don’t believe 95 percent of bus riders are satisfied with SBS. If that is true, why is ridership on SBS routes generally down? There are reasons why so many are unhappy with SBS and why so many communities vigorously opposed SBS and are opposing planned routes.

According to reliable sources, the proposed B82 SBS was in danger of being scrapped altogether due to heavy opposition and Flatbush Avenue merchants are prepared to lay down in the street when the proposed B41 SBS becomes a serious threat.

To date only the proposed Merrick Boulevard SBS was dropped, and that was early on in the process. It is not as if communities do not want better transit. They just want transit done right without wasting funds unnecessarily and causing unnecessary inconvenience, economic hardship or decreasing safety. 

Is it worth spending $2 billion over the next ten years just to save an average SBS passenger only three or four minutes of bus travel time, despite DOT claims of travel time savings up to 20 or 30 percent? True passenger travel-time savings are unknown because of inadequate data. The negatives of SBS must not be ignored. We must insist on adequate public input and data. SBS problems must be corrected; other solutions must be considered. Poorly planned SBS routes are increasing the cost of bus operations without much benefit to the public. There needs to be a moratorium on new SBS routes now.

This is part three of a three-part series. Read part one here and read part two here.

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Allan Rosen received his Master’s in Urban Planning from Columbia University (with a transportation concentration), planned the massive southwest Brooklyn bus route changes in 1978, was a Director of Bus Planning for MTA New York City Transit, now retired, and wrote a weekly column on transit issues for five years for the blog now called Bklyner.com. 

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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The Great Select Bus Service Conspiracy: Part III Mon, 23 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
The Great Select Bus Service Conspiracy: Part I http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7599:the-great-select-bus-service-conspiracy-part-i http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7599:the-great-select-bus-service-conspiracy-part-i department of transportation

(photo via DOT)


This is part one of a three-part series

Select Bus Service (SBS), New York City's version of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), has been embraced by the media as well as by many organizations. This is in addition to the city Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) -- SBS is a joint project of the two agencies with DOT being the lead agency. Supporters include: Bus Turnaround Coalition, Move NY, NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign, Pratt Center for Community Development, New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, Riders Alliance, Rockefeller Foundation, Streetsblog, Transit Center, Transportation Alternatives, Tristate Transportation Campaign, Mayor de Blasio, Governor Cuomo, and the entire New York City Council.

Could they all possibly be wrong? Yes.

The Promises and The Reality
Supporters consider SBS to be a panacea for many of New York City’s bus problems. Whenever asked how the city is improving bus service, the response most often is that more SBS routes are being created. Yet SBS has not solved the problems that it promised to solve, such as stemming the loss of ridership, making buses more reliable, or significantly shortening passenger trip times.

A report from city Comptroller Scott Stringer, “The Other Transit Crisis: How to Improve the NYC Bus System,” highlights dozens of problems with local buses that SBS does not address or does not significantly reduce. Some of the problems mentioned are: buses are slow, ridership is declining, and service is unreliable. Yet SBS does not significantly improve bus speeds or reliability. Nor has it increased ridership in many cases.

The comptroller states, “Of the nine SBS routes introduced prior to 2016, five have experienced a ridership decline...SBS routes travel at an average speed of 8.7 miles per hour, or just slightly better than the seven miles per hour achieved by local buses...City-wide, SBS routes fail to maintain steady, evenly spaced service 19 percent of the time, while local buses fail 22 percent of the time.”

Transit Signal Priority (TSP) for buses, promised a decade ago, extends a green light for buses approaching an intersection or shortens a red light to speed buses. It is a promised feature for SBS, but according to the comptroller it is in effect on only five of the 326 bus routes and at only 260 intersections. (The routes are the B46, BX41, the S79, and the southern portions of the M15 and B44.)

SBS was originally proposed in New York City in 2004 with the first five corridors promised by 2009. However, only one corridor was implemented by then. Instead it took until 2013 for the first five corridors, which were the Bx12, M15, M34/M34A, S79, and Bx41. By 2016, there were 12 SBS corridors, with the addition of the B44, M60, M86, Q44, B46, Q70, and M23. The program was then about five years behind schedule. Last year the M79, Bx6, and Q52/Q53 were also converted to SBS routes, bringing the total number of SBS corridors to 15 (or 17 routes). Mayor de Blasio promised 20 routes by the end of 2017.

The unproven premise by DOT and the MTA is that SBS is a major improvement. The comptroller shows with data that the improvements have been marginal at best.

The Difference Between Bus Travel Time and Passenger Travel Time
SBS supporters confuse bus travel time with passenger travel time. They are different. SBS buses save time primarily because of fewer bus stops and exclusive lanes, if honored. In some cases, it is not because passengers pay their fares before boarding. The 86th Street bus saves only about two minutes, as shown in Figure 2 of the progress report for the entire crosstown trip because of passengers pre-paying their fares. The passenger saves even less time. 

The need to pre-pay your fare increases the likelihood of missing a bus and waiting up to an additional 20 minutes for one. That could double your travel time. Conversion of many SBS routes to the longer 60-foot articulated buses further increases wait times. Typically, four articulated buses replace five standard 40-foot buses. Articulated buses seat 60 passengers each, 50 percent more than standard buses. However, when compared to buses of the 1950s that seated 53 and PCC trolleys that also seated about 60, are they that much of an improvement?

The Eagle Team is in charge of fare enforcement on SBS routes. If the Eagle Team enters the bus to check SBS receipts, the bus is held for five minutes rather than proceeding with the check while the bus is in motion, delaying the bus five minutes. This could easily wipe out the time you saved using SBS. Also, completing your trip on a subway or another bus(es) is a component of passenger travel time but not included in the SBS bus travel time statistic. A savings in passenger travel time, the time it takes to complete your entire journey, is the real indicator of SBS improvement for passengers. No statistics for this are available.

Who Benefits from and Who is Hurt by SBS?
Passengers making bus trips exceeding five miles do save significant time, perhaps up to 20 minutes. However, the average local/limited/SBS trip is only 2.3 miles. Therefore, for the vast majority of bus passengers the three to five minutes they save on the bus is spent walking extra to and from the wider spaced bus stops which could be considered as a service cutback. Is that an improvement, especially during bad weather when someone would prefer to ride than walk?

Additional walking is especially inconvenient for the elderly, handicapped, infirm, and those lugging gear. Separate SBS and local bus stops are also inconvenient. This requires passengers to cross the street if they just want to take the first bus that comes.

Some passengers even have longer trip times due to SBS because some former limited riders have switched to the local rather than walk up to three-quarters of a mile to reach an SBS bus stop. Others would have to pay an extra fare for SBS where it or the local does not cover the entire route if a third bus is required. The B44 and B46 are examples. 

It was the city’s policy for over 50 years that no new service or service cutback should result in additional fares. This policy has not been strictly adhered to since MetroCard was instituted and the MTA eliminated numerous multiple-bus transfers that were instituted as a result of trolley and elevated cutbacks. When additional free transfers are created, they are not publicized anywhere, so you just have to know where they exist.

The MTA benefits with shortened bus trip times, but it still costs more to operate SBS routes because of the enforcement element, and if 60-foot buses are used, labor and fuel costs are higher. The current labor agreement provides premium pay for operators of articulated buses.

The negative effects of SBS on other traffic are ignored, dismissed, or attributed to other factors in the MTA SBS progress reports, which are only released to the public once for each route. Traffic on avenues parallel to Nostrand Avenue were shown to have increased when exclusive lanes were installed there (see pages 32 and 33 of the Progress Report.)

On Woodhaven Boulevard, the traffic increases were most apparent after exclusive bus lanes were introduced. A DOT report showed that traffic increased by 38 percent on one portion of the roadway if one did the arithmetic. The data was removed from DOT’s website after it was made aware of that.

Increased traffic means more congestion, generating greater air pollution with long-term health consequences and costs, slower trips for non-bus users, increases in trucking costs, which are passed on to the consumer, as well as other negative effects, such as impeding emergency services. None of this has been estimated or measured because there have been no environmental impact statements.

A transit improvement means that more benefit from a change than are harmed by it. Proper traffic analyses conducted by licensed professional traffic engineers should be undertaken and the economic impacts on businesses need to be studied. But according to the MTA’s SBS FAQ’s, everyone benefits.

How the Mayor, MTA and DOT Mislead
Let's review the claims made by Mayor de Blasio late last year when he announced 21 new routes over the next ten years. He touted reduced travel time and increased bus reliability with SBS, but confused bus travel time savings with passenger travel time savings. The comptroller’s data showed only marginal improvements to bus travel times and bus speeds, as already explained.

SBS buses, even with exclusive bus lanes, still bunch up to three buses at a time with long waits for the next bus, which the comptroller attributes to inadequate enforcement of exclusive bus lanes.

The mayor stated local buses are notoriously slow and unreliable. True, but examine the average speeds on some of the SBS crosstown routes: M34/34A: 4.6/4.4 MPH; M86: 5.0 MPH. Even the M15 with its exclusive bus lanes has an average speed of only 6.5 MPH, not exactly fast, when you consider bikes average about 9 MPH.

The MTA and DOT are using BRT successes in other cities and countries to justify SBS here, which really isn’t true BRT. They confuse and oversell by using the terms interchangeably. They selectively use data and manipulate statistics to give false and misleading impressions.

They claim SBS has increased ridership by 10 percent. Where ridership rose during the first year of SBS, that statistic is used and future year ridership declines are ignored as they did with the M15. Where ridership declined during the first year of operation, they cite second year increases as they did with the B44. Where SBS ridership rose, but local ridership declined, they cite only the SBS ridership numbers.

A 20 or 30 percent reduction in travel time is claimed but that is bus travel time, not passenger travel time. A bus travel time savings of 15 minutes for a ten-mile long route does not mean passengers save anywhere near that amount of time because, generally, no one rides an entire route. The average bus travel time savings is usually only three or four minutes.

Faulty methodology is used to claim about a 95 percent satisfaction for SBS passengers. Survey results for local riders who are dissatisfied with SBS are hidden. DOT claimed that B44 local passengers were never surveyed after SBS was instituted. A first year B46 SBS Progress Report was not issued although service began in July 2016. Ridership declined on that route by 400,000 annual riders in 2016, the year it was implemented. Statistics for 2017 are not yet available.

In the MTA's world, a rating of six out of ten, or 60 percent, from all passengers would translate into a 100 percent customer satisfaction rating.

DOT and the MTA are also very careful with language using statements such as all buses are equipped for TSP and it will be in effect, omitting it is in effect only at a miniscule percentage of intersections where bus routes operate and has been promised for a decade, as Comptroller Stringer stated.

They use percentages to their advantage rather than actual numbers. For example, they promise “up to a 30 percent travel time savings.” That may translate into an actual savings of only three or four minutes for an average passenger making a typical 45-minute trip.

Potential is stressed over reality in discussing SBS advantages. They state that a bus can carry 80 passengers while a car often carries one, or mention motorists potentially switching from cars to buses. They do not state how many actually did switch or how often the bus is nearly empty.

The True Costs of SBS
SBS is heralded as a low-cost alternative to rail. It is not low-cost, nor does it have similar benefits to rail. It is not "subway on the surface" as advocates claim. It might be if it were true BRT.

The mayor spoke only about DOT's annual SBS budget of $9.4 million. He conveniently neglected to mention the MTA and federal contributions. Each SBS route costs the MTA between $2 million and $5 million per year extra to operate according to MTA Staff Summary requests. That's $40 million per year the mayor is omitting.

Fifty million dollars per year over ten years is $500 million. Twenty-one promised new routes add another $500 million for the MTA and $130 million for DOT. That's $1.13 billion over ten years just for increased operating costs, if all routes were operating on day one. Then there are the initial construction costs where the numbers conflict. Sometimes the cost of acquiring new buses is included and other times it is not or the federal portion is omitted. Costs for a short crosstown route are cited for as little as $6 million, with longer routes costing as much as $40 million. If we assume an average construction cost of only $25 million, 36 corridors would cost $920 million.  

DOT estimated that the construction cost alone for the BRT full treatment for Woodhaven Boulevard would cost between $200 and $300 million. If $40 million was already spent, what could possibly be accomplished by spending more than an additional $200 million? That was never explained.

Constructing and operating 36 SBS bus corridors over a ten-year period would cost over $2 billion, without accounting for inflation. That is not “low cost.”

This is part one of a three-part series. Part two discusses the denigration of local bus service, problems with enforcement, other SBS problems, negative effects on traffic and local businesses, inadequate public participation, and why SBS is not a cure all.

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Allan Rosen is a former director of Bus Planning for MTA New York City Transit. On Twitter @BrooklynBus.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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The Great Select Bus Service Conspiracy: Part I Thu, 12 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
After Forcing City to Fund Subway Plan, Cuomo Forecasts Next MTA Budget Battle http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7607:after-forcing-city-to-fund-subway-plan-cuomo-forecasts-next-mta-budget-battle http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7607:after-forcing-city-to-fund-subway-plan-cuomo-forecasts-next-mta-budget-battle govcuomobreakfast

(Don Pollard/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


Following completion of the fiscal year 2019 state budget late last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio was forced into a decision whereby the city will pay half the $836 million MTA Subway Action Plan. De Blasio had for months refused to match the state’s $418 million pledge, put forth immediately by Governor Andrew Cuomo upon MTA Chair Joe Lhota’s release of the plan.

Now, the mayor says, the ball is even more clearly in Cuomo’s court to get the subways running reliably. But just a week after the budget passed, Cuomo said that the Subway Action Plan could move ahead given the city money and that it was time to also start at the long-term plans to improve the subways.

With a modernization plan due soon from the new head of the MTA’s New York City Transit division and another five-year MTA capital plan looming, all signs point to the governor asking the city to yet again allocate additional funds toward the state-controlled MTA. Any funds put forth from city coffers are in addition to the significant portion of MTA revenue that comes from city residents who pay fares and tolls.

But just how much will Cuomo try to get the city to pay? After de Blasio increased the city’s contribution to the current MTA capital plan to record levels last time around, how many billions will the governor ask of the city for the full-scale modernization plan being readied by Andy Byford of NYC Transit?

In an interview on NY1 on April 2, de Blasio insisted the governor must now work with the money he has. “I was willing to put in the money,” he said of the Subway Action Plan funds, which he either had to put up or the state would have taken from city funding. “But let’s be clear: That’s one-time only. Now, the governor’s got everything that he’s asked for. Great. Take responsibility. Fix the subways. There’s no more excuses. There’s no more delays. Just go do it.”

This came before the governor appeared on April 5 at an event hosted by the Association for a Better New York (ABNY). After detailing highlights of the new state budget for the crowd of business and political elite, including the city funding for the Action Plan, Cuomo said that while there are various ways to raise the funds needed for a long-term MTA plan -- such as congestion pricing -- simply asking the city and state to directly allocate funds is the fastest and easiest way of doing so.

“We have to put in a new system, new signals and new cars and make up for the 50, 60 years that we have ignored this system. Where does the money come from? You can either raise fares and tolls and expand congestion pricing -- but that could take three years, if you expedite it,” he said. “Or government is going to have to ante up and put more money in the pot, which is the simplest and cleanest option.”  

Cuomo was looking ahead to the next MTA capital plan, which will include tens of billions of dollars over 2020 through 2024, and be adopted in 2019. Notably, the presentation slide displayed behind him read “NYC must step up,” implying the governor plans to request the city pays additional funds on top of its $2.5 billion committed contribution to the current capital plan, for 2015-2019, which also includes $8.6 billion from the state, much of which comes from the city, and other MTA revenue.

In addition, the flush city has more money to spare than the state, making it a more ideal source of funds than Albany, the governor and Lhota, a Cuomo appointee, have argued, despite the reality of where most MTA funding already comes from. And, they say, the city technically owns the subways.

“I know people don’t like it when I say this, but New York City does own the subway system. They lease it to us and we operate it,” Lhota said at the ABNY event, giving a presentation after Cuomo’s remarks. “The reality is it’s a commitment, they owe it, and they should be paying their fare share when it comes to the capital program.”  

Cuomo also ascribed blame to the city for the MTA’s lack of progress given de Blasio’s initial refusal to fund the emergency subway investment. “The state pledged 50 percent of the funding as soon it was announced by Chairman Lhota last year. The city refused to fund half the plan, we lost eight months before the plan could become fully operational, which was a terrible loss and waste of time,” he said.

Following the ABNY event, Lhota told reporters that if the MTA had had all of the $836 million pledged right away, it could have paid for more workers and repairs, performing its triage to the buckling system more quickly.

Last week’s back and forth is the latest episode in an ongoing dispute between the mayor and the governor over MTA funding. For the governor, if de Blasio would like to see improvements to the beleaguered MTA, the city needs to pay its fare share, which means more than it currently does. Its unwillingness to do so has thwarted progress on improving the subway, Cuomo maintains, and could stand in the way of long-term fixes.

For the mayor, the governor controls the MTA and the city already pays more than it should, and Cuomo is likely to only squander additional funds on initiatives that do not improve subway service. He doesn’t want the governor wasting city money on frills like WiFi and shiny new stations without investing in the subway’s outdated signal systems, for example. De Blasio wants a dedicated MTA funding stream through an added tax on top earners--the millionaires tax-- a call Cuomo has resisted, and has been open to some form of congestion pricing to produce revenue, though the governor only pushed through a first phase in the recently-adopted budget.

“The City of New York committed a record $2.5 billion to the last MTA capital plan, and just last week pledged to help fund a state effort to fix subways the state runs,” said de Blasio spokesperson Eric Phillips in a statement. “Instead of constantly asking New Yorkers for more money, the state and MTA should learn to do their jobs within their budget and finally seek a sustainable revenue source so riders aren’t continually victimized by their blame game.”

And regarding Cuomo’s argument that progress in recent months has been stalled by the city’s reticence to oblige Cuomo’s request for city money, Phillips said the funds would have “gone into the same hole of mismanagement that caused the subway crisis.”

“The Mayor’s advocacy ensured that riders' money couldn’t be diverted and would actually go toward a real plan for their subways rather than station facelifts and light shows,” he continued, of an apparent budget provision clarifying where the money must go. “We wish the Governor were even half as obsessed with fixing his subways as he is with Mayor de Blasio.”

In the debate over funding the Subway Action Plan, de Blasio repeatedly pointed to $456 million he said the state had diverted from MTA funds over the last several years. He said the state should put that money back into the MTA to fully fund the rescue plan.

An MTA spokesperson argued that the city’s criticism misrepresents the facts. “Of the $456M cited by the City, $235M went to pay debt service on MTA bonds, $169M was allocated for direct Capital Aid to the MTA (which freed up MTA operating resources), and $30M went to the MTA in additional operating aid. The final $22M was savings to the MTA by eliminating capital projects dictated by the legislature but paid for anyway in MTA State funding,” said Jon Weinstein, the MTA spokesperson, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

In response, Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokesperson for the mayor, said in a statement prior to the adoption of the state budget, “The State can try fudging the numbers all they want,” but to achieve “true progress,” the investment “must coincide with the Governor putting the $456 million the State has previously diverted toward upgrades that get trains moving on time.”

“And he can support a tax on millionaires rather than send his MTA bill to working class riders,” she added, echoing de Blasio’s repeated calls for a millionaire’s tax to fund the subway, a proposal that neither Cuomo nor the Republican-led state Senate has supported, though the Democrat-led Assembly is in favor of it.

While the dispute over the “diverted” funds gets into especially complicated territory of budget buckets and funding streams, there is a clear difference of opinion over whether paying off debt is a wise use of those MTA funds given the immediacy and severity of subway woes.

“Paying off debt with any extra money is certainly unobjectionable, but practically speaking, the MTA has such capital needs, and the federal government’s contribution is so uncertain, that I don’t think that will be a realistic option anytime soon,” Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said in an email on Friday.

Regional Planning Association (RPA) senior fellow Julia Vitullo-Martin said the MTA paying off its debts is a good use of its money. “If you borrow money you have to pay it back, and the MTA has borrowed big: $38 billion. It isn’t really a question of paying off debt versus making repairs. The MTA can pay back now or pay back later,” she said in an email. “But there are good reasons not to defer debt repayment, which has its own set of high costs. And even though investors basically know the MTA will repay the bonds, the combination of huge debt and huge ongoing operating deficits has been making Wall Street uneasy.”

“One result,” she explained, “has been the downgrade in bond ratings.”

On the conflict between the governor and mayor overall, Gelinas casted doubt on the idea the emergency plan was in fact what Cuomo portrayed it to be. “This is not so much a temporary emergency plan, but an open-ended effort for the MTA to do what it should have been doing all along: properly maintain the subways,” Gelinas said. “If it does not have adequate resources to do that, then the state and the city need to work together on a rational cost-control and revenue plan.”

The argument that New York City residents already provide a large portion of the MTA budget has been a favorite of transit experts and local officials as a way of refuting Cuomo’s insistence that the city should pay up. In an August 2017 Gotham Gazette op-ed, for example, former Assemblymember Jim Brennan argued the city already pays the lion’s share of the MTA capital plan, and the mayor should make that better known.

“Even when the State finally comes up with the money, it will likely come from the MTA region, either through some form of congestion pricing or a diversion of some current tax receipts from the region,” he wrote, while also outlining how the next MTA capital plan will need a major influx of funds. “If the Mayor wants the public to understand why the City won’t contribute further funds to the MTA, he needs to clearly explain that the City’s residents and businesses already cover the costs.” 

Richard Barone, RPA’s vice president for transportation, said Cuomo and de Blasio should find common ground wherein the city believes resources are used in a way that meets its interests. “The city is in better fiscal health. The city should probably try to bring some more [funding],” he said. “The state needs to understand what the city’s priorities are as well. And there needs to be some compromise there. It’s been a power struggle and neither side is willing to give.”

Barone cited the state’s emergency action plan as an area where the state would have been wise to seek the city’s consultation and cooperation rather than the MTA crafting it on its own.  

“Do I think the mayor should be willing to spend more on something that’s critical to the functioning of the city? Yes,” he said. “Do I think the state needs to learn the city’s priorities more and give it a seat at the table when it comes to determining the MTA’s priorities? Totally. There needs to be a better dialogue between the two. Right now that’s not the case, unfortunately.”

But according to Gelinas, it is understandable that de Blasio is instinctually reticent to comply with Cuomo’s calls for the city to pay more money to fund his initiatives. “These were deficiencies in the MTA just doing its job,” Gelinas said in an interview on Friday. “There was no exogenous disaster to cause this to happen. This is just the MTA missing obvious things -- that ridership was going up, and they were not able to handle a record number of riders because they were not invested in the system well enough. So I don’t know why this is the city’s job to fix.”

The governor not only appoints the MTA chair, but also a plurality of the agency’s board members, while a handful are mayoral appointees. The recent de Blasio-Cuomo dispute also comes on the heels of reports in The New York Times detailing the sky-high costs for MTA projects as well as rampant waste and corruption at the agency.  

However, since “the city is a creature of the state,” resisting bad spending practices in Albany would prove a difficult task, Gelinas said.

Still, she said, the MTA would be wise to improve its spending practices before asking others for more money. “The MTA needs to look at its costs and what it spends its money on before it starts hitting anybody up for more revenue,” Gelinas said, echoing her calls in a recent City & State op-ed to reduce the high construction costs in the city. “But when it does need more revenue, it should be on a rational, permanent basis, not just, ‘It’s an emergency, we need money. Let’s ask the city for more money. And let’s ask them for more money later.’”

“It’s like If someone is extorting you,” Gelinas explained. “You pay once and they’re going to come back and extort you again.”

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After Forcing City to Fund Subway Plan, Cuomo Forecasts Next MTA Budget Battle Wed, 11 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000