Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/553 Sun, 22 Jul 2018 00:46:38 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) 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

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


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

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State Budget Does Help Mass Transit, But MTA Capital Plan Uncertainty Rising Thu, 26 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 II http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7609:the-great-select-bus-service-conspiracy-part-2 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7609:the-great-select-bus-service-conspiracy-part-2 mayor select bus

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


This is part two of a three-part series

Part one 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, and the true costs of SBS.

Denigration of Local Bus Service
In many cases, the introduction of SBS has resulted in a denigration of local bus service -- though this does not apply to Manhattan crosstown routes. Most notably this has occurred on the M15 First and Second Avenue routes in Manhattan and on the B44 and B46 routes in Brooklyn. Many riders who prefer the local are now forced to walk further to an SBS stop after waiting a half-hour for a local and seeing three SBS buses bypass their stop.

After implementation of the B44 SBS, complaints of long waits up to 45-minutes for the local forced the MTA to add additional local service, after three months and a new SBS stop at Avenue L. Although the B44 SBS uses the longer buses with a 50 percent greater capacity while the local uses standard length buses, local buses are more crowded since ridership is equally split between SBS and local. Riders complain of near empty SBS buses passing them by.  

Problems with Enforcement
Passengers and cars are sometimes summonsed unfairly and a kangaroo court system exists where innocent people often are found guilty. Just a few examples: convicted for theft of services, a fine of $150, when it is proven at the hearing that there was a valid transfer on the MetroCard; cameras ticketing cars for crossing the bus lane when pulling out of or entering legal parking spaces; being summonsed during hours that a bus lane is not in effect, or a minute after it goes into effect or one minute before it is no longer in effect. Should someone be penalized with a fine exceeding $100 because his watch is a minute early or late? There should be a grace period of five minutes, as with muni-parking meters. And summonses mailed three months later make it difficult to mount a court defense. 

There was at least one instance in 2014, captured on video, of police shoving, harassing and kicking a passenger for five minutes after getting off the bus, although he produces ID and an SBS receipt as requested.  We do not know what interactions preceded the video but it appears from the video that the individual is doing nothing wrong.

There have been instances where bus operators have told passengers to board the bus because all fare machines at a bus stop were broken and to get off at the next stop to obtain a receipt. However, before they could comply, the Eagle Team boarded the bus and summonsed them. This would not leave a favorable opinion about New York City if it happened to a tourist. The MTA has since clarified its fare payment policy when all machines at a bus stop are inoperable.

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Other SBS Problems
Fare machines on the first route (Bx12) had to be replaced after three years because no one thought of providing weather protection, wasting millions. There are many SBS problems that the city and MTA have not resolved. These are: worn out pavement markings; poor and confusing signage for motorists; broken countdown time clocks and fare machines sometimes not repaired for months; inadequate exclusive bus lane enforcement; and riders who need an additional bus transfer due to SBS and are therefore required to pay extra fares to utilize SBS. (The governor recently vetoed legislation permitting an extra bus transfer for a single fare.)

The picture of the Nostrand Avenue bus lane in Sheepshead Bay was taken a year after implementation in 2014. It still has not been repainted.

Drivers are supposed to know that right turns must be made from the bus lane even on blocks where a “Buses Only” sign is posted on the prior block, although there is no additional signage to indicate that. Actually, right turns must be made from the bus lane about 50 feet after the “Buses Only” sign (pictured). Where signs do indicate right turns
are allowed (pictured) the words “& Right Turns” are too small to be easily read at speeds over 20 MPH. They should be the same size as the words “Buses Only.”

Machines are not always placed where they are easily seen, making them easy to miss if you are running for a bus and are not aware beforehand that the route is SBS. Occasionally, non-SBS wrapped buses are used in SBS service which accept fares subjecting you to a summons if you board not realizing you are on an SBS bus. The signage at bus stops also could be clearer. The print stating "Get Ticket Here" and in much smaller print "Before You Board Bus" could be interpreted as paying before you board is an option. “Get Ticket Here” should be preceded with "YOU MUST" in large capital letters. To make matters worse, bus operators may not inform confused passengers who they see boarding without a receipt that one is necessary. 

The 60-foot buses used on many SBS routes are more difficult to maneuver, do not work well in snow storms, have higher labor and fuel costs, and are more inefficient than 40-footers when the bus is lightly loaded. Yet the MTA does not substitute them with regular-length buses during times of light usage, such as during evening and overnight hours. 

All SBS problems need to be addressed before the system is expanded further.

Negative Effects on Traffic and Local Businesses
There have also been negative effects on traffic caused by exclusive bus lanes that are being ignored or explained away. The Woodhaven Boulevard SBS has helped increase automobile travel times during peak hours by as much as 45 minutes. This is significant because about 80 percent of motor vehicle traffic is not bus riders and SBS is not attractive enough for people to switch to the bus. Bus lanes on Woodhaven Boulevard do not result in faster buses in the off-peak, but are mostly in effect 24/7 anyway. Curbside bus lanes on Saturdays were not necessary and have hurt businesses. The longer bus stops required for 60-foot buses reduce available parking.

DOT is proposing exclusive bus lanes on the wide portion of Kings Highway for the B82 where buses are already traveling near the 25 MPH speed limit except for three hours a day. This will also negatively affect traffic and will not benefit bus passengers. Merchants and elected officials are opposing bus lanes on the narrow portion of the road.

Public Participation is Inadequate
The “democratic process” used to create SBS routes is an illusion. There is no specific outreach to alert motorists; public meetings are not adequately publicized, and there have been complaints of some of them being held at inconvenient hours; SBS information for proposed routes and SBS progress reports are difficult to find on the internet; no public hearings (different from meetings) are held; many community concerns and negatives, such as reduced parking, are ignored; half-truths are presented with many omissions; DOT and the MTA only respond to questions they want to answer.

Community groups are allowed only one representative at Community Advisory Committee meetings. However, DOT stacked at least one of the 2015 Woodhaven Boulevard meetings with three supporters from Transportation Alternatives.

When actual traffic data was questioned, it was substituted with modeling data not presented at that meeting. The presentation was then revised and backdated to make it appear the modeling data was presented at the meeting rather than the actual traffic data. Modeling assumptions were not revealed.

After initially stating to the communities that there was no relation between SBS and Vision Zero, DOT made SBS and Vision Zero part of the Complete Streets Program in order to use funding earmarked for Vision Zero to expand SBS. Underhanded tactics such as these have been a hallmark of the SBS program. 

The process is dragged out to give the illusion of democracy when many meetings are not even necessary. Combined meetings could be held with more than one merchants’ association at a time in a given corridor cutting years off the SBS implementation process.

Instead, the divide and conquer strategy is used to prevent many negative opinions at the same time. It also affords the agencies the opportunity to provide different and conflicting responses to each group. The same strategy was used at the presentations to the general public. Plans are presented in bits and pieces so that communities do not see the complete plan. The promises and positives of SBS were presented as a sales pitch. The public was then divided into workshops of six people each with the discussions led by DOT employees, ensuring that everyone heard all the positives but not the negatives in coherent form. That resulted in no negative being heard by more than five other individuals instead of 30.

At the initial meetings, at least along Woodhaven Boulevard, problems and suggestions from communities were discussed with SBS presented as one possible solution. At subsequent meetings SBS was proposed as the only solution for all bus problems and community support was requested. At one Woodhaven Residents Block Association meeting where DOT was summoned to attend, an informal vote of SBS support was taken in which 100 opposed the SBS plan and only one was in favor. DOT’s response was that SBS would still be implemented. Since SBS was now a given, curbside bus lanes were proposed by the community, but DOT chose center roadway lanes instead, over community fears of decreased safety.

Any suggestion other than SBS is summarily dismissed. Only massive and organized protests can alter the pre-existing SBS solution. It took a major effort to reverse most of DOT’s 26 additional proposed left turn restrictions on Woodhaven Boulevard; DOT admitted to only 19 on the last page of their FAQ document, implementing a northbound restriction at Rockaway Blvd, while proposing a southbound restriction. Still, there are no signs to alert drivers where the next left turn is allowed, while they are only about once a mile, despite DOT promises of advance signage. That causes unfamiliar drivers to go far out of their way since right turns are also not allowed from the center roadway except for a few slip lanes.

Just recently, DOT agreed to eliminate Saturday bus lanes on Cross Bay Boulevard. Repeated suggestions for a B44 SBS stop at Avenue R were ignored prior to implementation. Residents and elected officials have now been fighting for five years for this needed bus stop.

Community involvement is far from adequate.

This is part two of a three-part series. Read part one here. The final part discusses why SBS is not a cure all, if it can work, and whether it is worth it.

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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 II Mon, 16 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
What's The [Data] Point? $418 million, with Dana Rubinstein http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7477:whats-the-data-point-418-million-with-dana-rubinstein http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7477:whats-the-data-point-418-million-with-dana-rubinstein whats the data point


What's The [Data] Point? Episode 31 -- $418 million, with Dana Rubinstein [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

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$418 million is the amount that MTA Chair Joe Lhota and Governor Andrew Cuomo want Mayor Bill de Blasio to commit to the Subway Action Plan, the emergency plan to address essential subway repairs and -- in their own words -- stop failing customers. De Blasio has refused.

Dana Rubinstein, who covers the MTA and transit for Politico New York, joined the podcast to discuss the city-state disputes over the MTA, as well as other related topics, including congestion pricing, de Blasio's transit agenda, and more. Rubinstein recently wrote about Lhota's leadership of the authority and about his possible conflicts of interest given his work for Madison Square Garden and discussed those stories as well.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis) and guest Dana Rubinstein (@danarubinstein). 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? $418 million, with Dana Rubinstein Thu, 15 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Where Mayor De Blasio Must Take Vision Zero Next http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7285:where-mayor-de-blasio-must-take-vision-zero-next http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7285:where-mayor-de-blasio-must-take-vision-zero-next 33915193543 dc4353da65 z

Mayor de Blasio and Vision Zero (photo via DOT)


Vision Zero is a singularly successful legacy project for Mayor Bill de Blasio. It would be more successful if his safety projects were decoupled from parochial interests.

In 2011, Transportation Alternatives and the Drum Major Institute published Vision Zero: How Safer Streets in New York City Can Save More Than 100 Lives a Year, the first Vision Zero report in the United States. In 2013, thanks to that report and assiduous follow-up advocacy by the victims’ group Families for Safe Streets, candidate de Blasio adopted Vision Zero as a key campaign promise, pledging to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2024. Many saw this as an impossible goal, especially after the impressive safety strides made during Mayor Bloomberg’s three terms in office. How much further could traffic fatalities really decline?

Mayor de Blasio officially launched Vision Zero at PS 54 in Woodside Queens on January 15, 2014, just two weeks into his term. Since then, traffic fatalities in New York City have declined 23%.

Whereas 290 used to die annually in New York City traffic crashes, today that number is about 240. It is difficult to overstate the significance of this success. If the pre-Vision Zero average annual traffic death rate had continued over the past four years, 122 more New Yorkers would be dead today and many thousands more would have been seriously injured. Considering that nationwide traffic deaths are up 17% over this same four-year period, the mayor’s effort is even more impressive. If New York City’s Vision Zero program were a vaccine, it would be heralded as a miracle drug.

What is more remarkable is how little the streets have changed to achieve this massive reduction. While the Mayor has championed transformative redesigns of many notoriously dangerous streets, the vast majority of known dangerous streets have yet to be affected by the DOT’s modern menu of traffic safety fixes such as pedestrian friendly traffic signal timing and protected bike lanes.

Queens Boulevard, the former “Boulevard of Death,” which used to kill a dozen New Yorkers every year, has not seen a single fatality in the past two years since being redesigned. Yet there is a backlog of more than 150 dangerously-designed streets and nearly 300 intersections that still need fixing. This long list of dangerous streets, outlined in the DOT’s own Vision Zero Pedestrian Safety Action Plans, represents an opportunity to save hundreds more lives. If Mayor de Blasio is re-elected, clearing this backlog of known-dangerous streets should be his first priority.  

To help clear this backlog, the mayor recently increased the Department of Transportation’s budget by $1.6 billion. The problem is this: while the agency shows remarkable results at calming traffic and reducing crashes on any given street, it is moving at a snail’s pace to complete those projects. Now that his agency has the money, Mayor de Blasio must empower the DOT to deliver safety projects much more quickly and insist that it happens.

Today it takes a minimum of three years for the DOT to turn a dangerous highway-like city street into one that is designed for safe walking, cycling, and driving. Actually redesigning and repaving a street can happen in as little as a few months. Most of that three years is taken up walking on eggshells; the DOT attempts to anticipate and placate every parochial concern, as though safety infrastructure were a hot-button issue, and not a life-or-death public health concern. We’ve seen simple safety projects take years longer than they should, like the protected bike lane on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, which the community first requested in 2013, or get watered down to be less safe, like with Woodhaven Blvd., or get tied into petty power-brokering, like on 111th Street in Queens.

Before Vision Zero safety projects were proven life-savers, Mayor de Blasio could be forgiven for his timidity. Now, with the data strong and getting stronger (see Manhattan Institute’s recent report Vision Zero and Traffic Safety) it is time for the administration to elevate these projects to the urgent public health imperatives that they are. This means giving DOT freer reign to complete safety projects more quickly and break a few eggs, or rather break the hearts of a few petty power-brokers who care more about parking than people.  

To further reduce preventable death on our streets, the mayor should also reconsider his opposition to congestion pricing.

More than just a way to fund transit and thin traffic so buses can move, congestion pricing is an effective safety tool. With fewer traffic jams,  there can be more space for expanded safe pedestrian space and bike lanes. After congestion pricing was implemented in London, traffic crashes declined by 40%. A similar reduction in the proposed pricing zone in Manhattan would save dozens of lives per year.

And, as Mayor de Blasio doubles down on data-driven traffic-safety policies that work, he should cease those that do not. Every officer tasked with outfitting senior citizens’ canes with reflective tape or writing tickets to cyclists is one less officer assigned to rein in reckless drivers, who kill pedestrians hundreds of times more often than reckless cyclists do. (In fact, a cyclist has not killed a pedestrian since 2014.)

Targeting cyclists and pedestrians in the name of Vision Zero may placate some vocal complainers but it does nothing to make streets safer. In fact, evidence shows the opposite: the more walkers and bikers are harassed the less safe we all are -- bikers bike less, for example. It’s the opposite of the “safety in numbers” effect, well-documented by researchers, showing that the more people there are on the streets, the more motorists habitually exercise caution and care, even if they are a little bit annoyed. The only way to improve bicyclist and pedestrian behavior that has been proven to work is to build better, safer infrastructure.

Vision Zero is not “traffic safety as usual.” Rather, Vision Zero says that protecting human life is more important than preserving parking spaces or speeding drivers. It’s time for Mayor de Blasio to make this principle the rule, not the exception, and empower his agencies to manage traffic and deliver safety projects accordingly.  

If Mayor de Blasio is re-elected, and launches his second term by doing what I’ve laid out here, he will save at least 100 more lives per year. He will be a hero. Nothing else that Mayor de Blasio did in his first term has gained him as much national recognition as Vision Zero, as dozens of cities are following in New York’s footsteps. It’s time for him to show the city, and the nation, the way forward again.   

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Paul Steely White is executive director of Transportation Alternatives. On Twitter @PSteely & @TransAlt.

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

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Where Mayor De Blasio Must Take Vision Zero Next Mon, 30 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Congestion Pricing Won't Solve New York's Transportation Woes http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7175:congestion-pricing-won-t-solve-new-york-s-transportation-woes http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7175:congestion-pricing-won-t-solve-new-york-s-transportation-woes Cuomo MTA bus

Gov. Cuomo and a bus (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent vague interest in congestion pricing as a solution to problems at the MTA may give new life to one of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s key policy goals, but absent transportation improvements officials could be making now, pricing will not save our subways. We cannot let them off the hook in search of the perceived silver bullet of congestion pricing.

The transportation community has been salivating over Cuomo’s statement that “congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come,” hoping that the governor will be able to convince the state to put a cordon toll around Manhattan south of 60th Street. Such a cordon toll, which would charge drivers entering the area on a daily or per trip basis, is reflective of similar policies elsewhere, particularly London, which implemented a congestion charge in the central city district in February 2003. Yet commenters and policy nerds this side of the Atlantic have missed the real substance of London’s improvements, and in doing so, they are giving our elected officials a pass on work they should be doing right now, regardless of the status of the pricing proposal.

What today’s transportation advocates are missing is that the key ingredient to London’s success was not its charge but its buses.

Beginning in 1993, ridership on London’s double-deckers increased annually, and was up 37% by the time the charge was implemented in 2003. In 2004, London’s buses carried more passengers than the New York City subway. While those ridership numbers are impressive on their own, what they signify is an overall shift away from cars to buses, bikes, and walking. London’s congestion charge was envisioned as a specifically anti-car policy, designed to make it easier for buses and taxis to traverse the city center.

When New York City congestion pricing advocates see London’s roads covered in bus lanes, they may imagine that the charge enabled such a shift, freeing up road space to then be taken over by buses and bikes. In fact, nearly all of London’s 180 miles of bus lanes were implemented before the congestion charge, in that era of increasing ridership between 1993 and 2003. The lanes and other improvements insulated London’s buses from congestion enough, even before the charge, to improve rider experience and reduce excess waiting time at stops. Combined with a lower fare on buses compared to the tube, the operational improvements led to increased ridership and declining car use before the charge policy was even developed.

New York’s bus system pales in comparison.

The city currently has just over 50 miles of bus lanes. While buses have priority at most intersections in London, such priority only exists in New York on four Select Bus Service routes. As congestion has risen, bus ridership has fallen as bus speeds have slowed to a level barely faster than walking.

Nowhere is the lack of bus priority more egregious than on the East River bridges, the very place tolls would be implemented. When Mayor Bloomberg signed the initial contract with the USDOT for his congestion pricing proposal, East River bus lanes were the only specific bus improvement named. When the deal fell through, the East River bus lanes plan mostly died.

There are high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, used by both buses and cars with two or more occupants, in the tunnels and in the mornings on the Queensborough and Manhattan Bridges. The tunnel HOV lanes serve the express buses, the second-most heavily subsidized way to travel in the city after the commuter rail. Currently, the Queensborough bridge carries three local routes and 18 express routes. There are no buses that cross the Manhattan Bridge and benefit from the HOV lane.

For New York’s system to match London’s status before the charge was implemented, we need not only priority for buses on the roads but also more local buses into Manhattan. Based on London’s experience, getting drivers out of their cars requires a double shift.

First, some subway riders shift to buses for shorter trips; then drivers, who generally take longer trips, switch to the newly opened subway space. New York’s bus system largely lacks bus routes to accommodate people switching from the subway to bus. Currently, only a single local bus goes from Brooklyn to Manhattan, the B39, which runs only between the Williamsburg Bridge Terminal and Delancey Street, and comes every half hour. Unsurprisingly, it has the lowest ridership in the bus system. Without more direct bus connections to Manhattan, New York severely limits the bus system’s ability to provide a subway relief valve.

To be clear, there are activists calling for New York to focus on its bus network, but the centrality of the bus network to the functioning of the whole system is not fully depicted. The Bus Turnaround Campaign, comprised of the Riders Alliance, TransitCenter, TriState Transportation Campaign, and the Straphangers Campaign, have called for bus improvements for the sake of riders, but not as a way of improving transportation in the city as a whole, though their recommendations are based in part on London’s improvements, including increased bus priority, less circuitous routing, and improved fare payment.

What is frustrating is that many advocates believe that they have to support the pricing proposal in order to achieve bus system improvements, and that others feel as though they don’t need to advocate as hard for buses because the charging regime will magically improve the buses. The reality is that absent good alternatives to switch to, any charge that is politically feasible (maybe no more than the cost of a subway fare, well short of what is proposed in the most thorough proposal to-date, the Move New York plan) will be ineffective at reducing congestion and thus at improving the buses. London’s temporary drop in congestion following the charge was made possible by the bevy of available bus seats. While New York has available bus seats, they are not yet good alternatives. If they were, we would have seen bus ridership increase during this especially difficult subway summer congestion pricing is supposed to fix, and we didn’t.

If New York wants to seriously improve the transportation system, it needs an all-out campaign on the buses, one with the same level of media attention given to a single Cuomo quote on congestion pricing. Because so much of the bus system is about how we prioritize our roads, this is a goal that a city mayor can actually make a significant dent in without the governor, the kind of transportation improvement our mayor enjoys. So rather than wait for Governor Cuomo to save us via a pricing system that won’t work in our current system, let’s appoint a congestion czar and get serious about a transportation system that provides affordable access for all.

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Rosalie Ray is a PhD student in Urban Planning at Columbia University. Her research focuses on London's bus improvements in the 1990s and early 2000s.

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

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Congestion Pricing Won't Solve New York's Transportation Woes Tue, 05 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000
BQX: An Innovative Solution to a Growing Problem http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7101:bqx-an-innovative-solution-to-a-growing-problem http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7101:bqx-an-innovative-solution-to-a-growing-problem bqx corridor rendering

(image: BQX rendering via NYC EDC)


Near daily failures in New York City’s transit system this summer have accomplished the seemingly impossible: they’ve sparked a wide-ranging conversation among New Yorkers of all stripes about overdue investments in our existing transit infrastructure, while also highlighting the limited alternatives to our century old subway system.

So how can we improve both with a limited budget? The proposed Brooklyn Queens Connector (BQX) provides a good example of how we can fix today’s transportation problems while planning for the future. A vibrant, sustainable and equitable city must do both.

The Manhattan-centric pattern of our subways was laid over 100 years ago when economic development was largely concentrated in the city’s core. This hub and spoke system is no longer reflective of how New Yorkers live, work, and play in 2017. The Brooklyn-Queens waterfront is one of the fastest growing corridors in New York City, yet there has been no significant investment in its transportation infrastructure, leaving some neighborhoods behind and limiting access to jobs and opportunity.

The proposed BQX is an emissions-free light rail system that will unify the currently fragmented transportation corridor along 14 miles between Astoria and Sunset Park, connecting to various subway lines, bus routes, ferry landings, and Citi Bike stations. It will be able to serve at least 50,000 riders a day, greatly easing the burden on existing transportation infrastructure in the area. The demand for more transportation options along the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront is clear, evidenced by the large crowds lining up to take the newly launched ferry system.

People living on the waterfront who have long faced limited transportation – including over 40,000 residents of the New York City Housing Authority – will have more employment opportunities and easier access to schools and healthcare facilities with the BQX. Local small businesses in these neighborhoods that are currently isolated from the rest of the city will be more accessible, and a new transit line will help attract even more businesses and employers to the waterfront.

But the direct benefits of the BQX to New Yorkers is just one aspect of this smart infrastructure investment. It also provides a model for how we can both fix today’s problems and plan for the future.  

First, because of an innovative financing tool known as “value capture,” the BQX isn’t in competition with laudable transit initiatives like Fair Fares or Bus Rapid Transit. Value capture works like this: based on the fact that access to transportation typically increases property value, funding for the BQX would be derived from the additional value it generates in properties surrounding the transit line over 30 or 40 years. While details of how this value capture mechanism would work are still being studied by city government, the concept is that the largest commercial and residential landlords who will see the greatest increase in their property value as a result of increased access to mass transit would pay additional property taxes on new value that is attributable to the BQX —  a more progressive form of taxation than a sales tax, which many other cities have used to finance public transit. This expectation of new value could be bonded and sold to investors, similar to how the city funded the extension of the 7 train to Hudson Yards.

This is why calls for BQX funding to be used elsewhere are misguided – money used for this project are not being drawn from already existing dollars in the city’s general fund or its critical annual contribution to the MTA because the money does not yet exist and will never exist unless the BQX is built and operates effectively.

Second, much like recent ferry and bikeshare expansion efforts, the BQX is a city-led, owned and controlled transportation project, providing an alternative to the confounding structure of the MTA that has led to quarrels over who is legally responsible for paying for upgrades and repairs of our transit system. And if the BQX is successful, the model could be expanded to other parts of the city.    

The positive impact this project will have on transportation in New York City – as well as its creative funding mechanism – is why the BQX has received strong support from some of our city’s most experienced transit leaders, along with local business leaders and community groups. MTA Chair Joe Lhota sits on the board of directors of the group that I run, Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector, as does Jay Walder, who has held roles as CEO of the MTA and Managing Director of Finance and Planning at Transport for London.

Leaders of the Resident Associations from five different NYCHA developments that will benefit from the BQX also sit on our board, and our coalition includes the Regional Plan Association, tech advocacy group Tech:NYC, the Transport Workers Union, and a long list of local small businesses and community groups.

When it comes to transit investment in New York City we need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We can and should find ways to fix our current system while also expanding transit options where they are needed most. The BQX and its proposed funding model does just that.  

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Ya-Ting Liu is the Executive Director of the advocacy group Friends of the Brooklyn Queens Connector. On Twitter @yating_liu and @BQXNYC.

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BQX: An Innovative Solution to a Growing Problem Wed, 02 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Simple, Big Solutions for Penn’s Problems http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7100:simple-big-solutions-for-penn-s-problems http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7100:simple-big-solutions-for-penn-s-problems

The original Penn Station was an architectural masterpiece. The most ironic part about removing it in a “monumental act of vandalism,” though, is that as a transit facility the original Penn Station had serious flaws. In fact, the platforms and tracks haven’t been significantly altered in more than a century.

Unfortunately, those flaws are growing more obvious by the day. Narrow, crowded platforms and grossly inadequate stairs and escalators are a constant source of delays, dangerous overcrowding and frustration for commuters. But most importantly, Penn Station is not actually a station for most passengers – it’s a terminal. The difference is not merely semantic; in a terminal, trains must cross each other as they enter and leave, making it far less efficient than a through-running station. Even when this doesn’t cause delays, it severely limits capacity and ensures every train has to travel more slowly in Penn.

Twenty-five years ago, we could tolerate these inefficiencies, but passenger counts from Long Island and New Jersey have skyrocketed. Any major investment plan for Penn Station must be focused on solving the cause of commuters’ misery. Amtrak’s Gateway Program and the new Moynihan Station, if optimized, could do so.

Phase 1 of Gateway would add two new critically-needed tracks between Newark and Penn Station. Phase 2 of Gateway, though, includes a new terminal station—Penn Station South. This would require the demolition of an entire city block at a price tag of $8 billion to build another inefficient terminal, and do nothing to alleviate conditions in the existing station. Those funds are better spent on improving Penn and regional connectivity.

This alternate plan would remove the need for Penn Station South, provide additional economic opportunity for the entire region and the opportunity to invest in projects that create smoother and smarter commutes. Through-running is the key to unlocking the ReThinkNYC vision.   Highlights of that vision include: 

  • First, build new facilities in the Bronx and New Jersey so it is possible to operate Penn Station as a through station. NJ Transit trains could be extended to Queens, the Bronx, and then along existing Long Island Railroad and Metro-North Lines; similarly, Metro-North and LIRR could be extended to New Jersey.
  • Next, widen and lengthen Penn’s existing platforms – and use the 31st Street side of the station for eastbound trains and the 33rd Street side for westbound ones, regardless of final destination. Universal “smart” ticketing between the systems can help erase arbitrary distinctions.
  • This would allow nearly 50% more trains to use the station.        
  • NJ Transit would no longer need to use Sunnyside Yards, making it possible to instead build a major station across the East River that would have access to all of the region’s 26 commuter rail lines, Amtrak, both Penn Station and Grand Central, and seven subway lines. Sunnyside could be the new East Midtown.
  • In Port Morris, the light industrial neighborhood east of the Bruckner Expressway and south of Hunts Point, commuters could catch NJ Transit and Metro-North – and an extended Second Avenue Subway serving the Bronx.
  • An AirTrain under the East River to an expanded LaGuardia Airport would provide a quick, convenient single seat ride for millions.  

New Yorkers once dreamed of, and then built, big projects. Now, in this post-Robert Moses, post-urban renewal era, planners are taught to think “politically” smaller. This approach has prevented us from addressing transportation systemically and holistically. It’s time to think big…again.  

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Jim Venturi is Principal and Founder of ReThink Studio. On Twitter @jimventuri and @RethinkNYCplan.

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Simple, Big Solutions for Penn’s Problems Tue, 01 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio’s Progressivism Doesn’t Include Right to Public Transit http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7063:de-blasio-s-progressivism-doesn-t-include-right-to-public-transit http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7063:de-blasio-s-progressivism-doesn-t-include-right-to-public-transit de Blasio subway

Mayor de Blasio & First Lady McCray (photo: Edwin J Torres/Mayor's Office)


In his three-and-a-half years as mayor of the nation’s largest city, Bill de Blasio has focused his administration on bridging gaps between the haves and the have-nots, expanding opportunity for those left behind during the city’s recent boom years. He’s instituting universal pre-kindergarten, funded record levels of affordable housing, provided legal help to immigrants facing deportation and tenants facing eviction.

De Blasio has espoused a progressivism centered on equity and heavy on ensuring equal rights and opportunities to all, no matter one’s socioeconomic status or income. One area that this expansive view of equalizing entitlements doesn’t encompass, however, appears to be transportation. As much of the recent public dialogue around the city’s transit system centers on mounting delays and decrepit infrastructure, many low-income New Yorkers remain unable to access the system at all. Many in de Blasio’s New York can’t afford the freedom that comes with the opportunity to ride the public buses and subways.

A 2016 report by the Community Service Society (CSS), an anti-poverty nonprofit, based in part on a survey of over 1,700 New Yorkers, found that among working-age, low-income individuals, cost was the biggest problem with the city’s subways, putting it ahead of delays, crowding, and lack of service. The report also called for fare subsidization for the poor, a proposal that has seen various iterations known collectively as the “Fair Fares” plan.

Mayor de Blasio, who has hitched his legacy to ending the “tale of two cities” he decried during his 2013 campaign, has repeatedly refused to dedicate city funding to subsidizing low-income New Yorkers’ MetroCards, instead calling on the state to do so. De Blasio’s reticence on transit assistance is bewildering to activists. “We expected this would be something that this mayor in particular would embrace,” said Nancy Rankin, VP of policy, research, and advocacy for CSS, adding that the group was “puzzled because the arguments or excuses he’s put forward really don’t hold water.”

These arguments mainly center around the claim that contributing to low-income constituents’ fares is the responsibility of the state-run Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), which controls the subway and bus systems. Asked about transit aid proposals at a press conference last month, the mayor said that “the State of New York should make that a priority. I think that’s a commendable priority. We can’t afford that right now.”

During recent budget negotiations, the City Council made Fair Fares a priority, but de Blasio refused to budge, even declining to fund a pilot program to test the subsidized waters.

The CSS report mentions several program specifications, and ultimately suggests that the city offer half-off fares to the roughly 800,000 New Yorkers who make 100% or less of the federal poverty rate, currently about $24,000 for a family of four. Factoring in estimates for take-up and the higher rates of ridership for people newly able to afford it, CSS expects the program would cost $115 million the first year and $194 million the second. Earlier this year, the Council requested $50 million for a pilot program, an idea that was axed by the mayor before a budget deal was reached in June.

The trouble with the expense explanation is that the plan is backed by Comptroller Scott Stringer, the city’s top fiscal officer, as well as prominent non-partisan budget watchdog Citizens Budget Commission (CBC). Maria Doulis, vice president at CBC, addressed the cost argument bluntly: “If it was a priority for the mayor, it would be accommodated in the budget,” she said.

The question itself of state versus city funding isn’t relevant to constituents, said Rankin. “As a taxpayer, I pay city taxes and state taxes. So do you take it out of my left pocket or my right pocket?”

In an emailed statement, Stringer said the Fair Fares proposal “isn’t just the right thing to do morally – it makes economic sense,” and lamented that low-income New Yorkers had to “choose putting food on the table and traveling our city.” Access to transportation often provides individuals more opportunity to participate in job interviews and to get to and from work.

A key question for de Blasio and others around the transportation affordability dilemma is whether other planks of the mayor’s progressive agenda, and the New Yorkers that would participate in them, are suffering as a result of inaccessibility.

“Trains and buses are how you connect to your job, how you connect to services in other neighborhoods, it’s how people avail themselves of the benefits of being in the largest city in the United States,” said Doulis. In relation to the city’s poverty-reduction efforts, she said “a natural way to bolster those outcomes is to facilitate access to transportation.”

Being unable to access public services due to the cost of transportation was a reality for Robert Rush, now a member of the transit advocacy group Riders Alliance, as he was growing up in the Bronx. “I went to four different elementary schools in my first five years of education,” he said, in part because his mother couldn’t afford to get to some ofca the schools he attended.

“My mom had to enlist her co-workers, other people to come pick me up because she wasn’t able to. Sometimes I would be like the last person getting picked up at 6 p.m.,” said Rush, who nonetheless managed to do well enough in school to win a scholarship to Phillips Academy and begin studying at Harvard. He also raised the issue of access to city decision-makers, saying that “if you want to go down to city hall, raise some complaint, but you can’t afford the train there because you can’t even afford your bills, what does that say?”

At a time when the mayor has seemed frustrated by his lack of influence over the city’s vast transit system, a transit subsidy is an action the city could take unilaterally and with relative ease. “This is something he can do without Albany, without begging the state for funding, or permission. He was the power to help 800,000 New Yorkers,” said Rebecca Bailin, campaign manager for the Riders Alliance.

In fact, de Blasio has a larger goal of lifting 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty by 2025, and several programs to accomplish it. Broader transit access could help accelerate those efforts and work in tandem with them. “The success of big, bold investments from the city – be it for job training, legal services, or otherwise – hinges on New Yorkers having the ability to get around,” said Stringer.

Doulis brought up the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (CUNY ASAP) system, which among other things provides participating students with free MetroCards, something she called “one of the key benefits” of the program. “People that enroll in these programs have far higher graduation rates than other community college students,” she said, in large part because they can get around.

Yet the mayor has seemed unwilling to acknowledge the necessities of New Yorkers who need to get around, lashing out at those who jump turnstiles to avoid paying fares they can’t afford. “There’s no way in hell anyone should be evading the fare, that would create chaos,” he said at a recent press conference, adding, “Everyone has to pay their fare.” He has not put forward any comprehensive proposal to address the inaccessibility of public transit.

Asked by Gotham Gazette what he would say to New Yorkers who can’t afford public transit but need to get around, de Blasio pointed to his larger efforts to create opportunity and lift New Yorkers out of poverty. He reiterated that no one should be evading the fare.

In an email, Ben Sarle, a spokesperson for the mayor, said “New Yorkers have a right to a transit system that works, obviously.” In an apparent reference to the recent attention on needed subway repairs, Sarle’s limited response was a reply to several questions from Gotham Gazette, including whether Mayor de Blasio believes in a right to public transportation for all New Yorkers. Sarle also did not respond to questions asking what the administration’s transit affordability plans are and did not elaborate on how the “right” he cited would be guaranteed.

The city already funds various MetroCard subsidy programs, including reduced-fare cards for seniors and people with disabilities and half-fare or free limited-use cards for students based on their distance from school. As part of the mayor’s recent deal to have his control over city schools extended for two years, the city will provide MetroCards to charter school students whose classes begin before school busing starts for the year.

It also wouldn’t be the first large city to develop a program that helps its poorer citizens get on the available public transit. King County in Washington state, which includes Seattle, was one of the first and largest areas to launch a discounted transit program, in early 2015. The ORCA (one regional card for all, the name of the system’s transit card) Lift program provides subsidized fares to residents under 200 percent of the federal poverty level. A survey conducted by the county executive one year into the program’s operations found that 42 percent of users had taken the bus and light rail more frequently since they’d received the cards. Other cities with transit affordability programs include San Francisco and London.

An obstacle may be the mayor’s focus on a separate transportation agenda. “The two big transportation proposals from the de Blasio administration have been ferries and BQX, and it’s not clear how much those programs will benefit low-income NYers,” said Doulis, referring to newly opened city ferries and the planned Brooklyn-Queens Connector, a streetcar that would run between Astoria and Sunset Park.

The BQX, which would charge the same amount as an MTA bus or subway fare, is estimated to cost $2.5 billion to develop, or about 13 times what it would cost to run the Fair Fares subsidy program for a year at full take-up. The BQX’s daily ridership by 2035 is projected to be 48,900. While the proponents of that project insist that it’ll pay for itself with increases in area productivity and taxes – an idea critics have disputed – proponents of Fair Fares say the program will also spur the economy.

“I think that the city should be looking at funding at least a part of it, because it directly helps city residents, but then will indirectly help the city's economy by keeping more money in the pockets of riders,” said Brooklyn City Council Member Stephen Levin of Fair Fares.

For low-income New Yorkers like Rush’s family, the advantage is much more clear and immediate. “It’s hard to even go outside, because there’s nowhere to go except around your block. You can’t go anywhere else,” he said.

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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De Blasio’s Progressivism Doesn’t Include Right to Public Transit Sun, 16 Jul 2017 23:39:26 +0000