Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/2517 Sun, 29 Nov 2020 11:31:14 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Byford’s Gone and So's His Job; What's Next? https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9095-byford-leaves-mta-cuomo-so-is-his-job-what-next-subways-buses https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9095-byford-leaves-mta-cuomo-so-is-his-job-what-next-subways-buses mta president byford

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


There will never be another MTA New York City Transit President with the power Andy Byford had when he took the job two years ago. Under Governor Cuomo’s MTA reorganization plan, all future NYCT “Presidents” have been stripped of the power to manage capital projects like replacing signals and switches or buying new rail cars and buses. The next boss of Transit also lost control of a large number of engineering experts and legions of Transit Authority workers who are reimbursed for their time on capital projects.

Going forward, Transit’s capital planning, purchasing, and project management will be done by a centralized, newly-renamed MTA Capital Construction & Development agency. This massive agency is run by MTA Chief Development Officer Janno Lieber,  who has immense powers and approves everything from which kind of new bus to buy to who gets to rent the candy stand in the 103rd Street subway stop.

Byford’s departure got so much attention in part because the MTA is going through a wrenching reorganization ordered by the governor that includes eliminating 800 operations workers and 1,900 administrative staff. Amidst this turmoil, Byford was highly respected by rank-and-file workers and riders for hugely reducing subway delays with a mix of hard-headed pragmatism, sincerity, and optimism.

MTA “Reorganization” Pushed Out Byford
It was Governor Cuomo’s reorganization plan, approved in July 2019, just three months after it was mandated by the state budget, that led inevitably to Byford’s resignation.

In his resignation letter, Byford wrote that the “transformation plan...called for the centralization of projects and an expanded HQ, leaving Agency presidents to focus solely on the day-to-day running of service. I have built an excellent team...who could perform this important, but reduced, service delivery role.”

The central tensions in Byford’s relationship was the governor’s inability to share credit with a talented subordinate, penchant for secrecy, and his preference for surprise “man on horseback riding to the rescue” announcements instead of conventional, fact- and expert-based planning.

Byford’s “I’m a global transit expert” worldview came into a head-on collision with the governor’s insistence that the MTA and Byford could use Ultra Wide Band (UWB) radio technology to vastly speed up resignaling the subway system. New signals are a top priority and the core of Byford’s Fast Forward plan, because signal problems are the main cause of subway delays.

The problem is that UWB has not been widely deployed by any leading subway system and is viewed as a promising, but not mature, technology. Signal modernization is also at the fault line of authority over who will fix the subways: NYC Transit or MTA Capital Construction & Development. Since the departure of Byford and then his top signals deputy, Pete Tomlin, control over signal modernization -- and the decision about which lines get new signals first -- appears to be in MTA Capital Construction & Development’s hands. 

Byford and Cuomo also famously clashed over the L train tunnel and subway speeds initiatives, when the public saw the governor reaching over the MTA board and MTA CEO to make direct decisions about MTA project management.

Reorganization or Disorganization?
Reinvent Albany and transit advocates have repeatedly warned that the reorganization plan could result in the fragmentation of expertise, and the derailment of Byford’s Fast Forward Plan (both before the passage of the state budget that mandated the change and after, when the MTA’s consultant, AlixPartners, was developing the recommendations).

We were concerned that shifting NYC Transit’s talent, like Byford’s signals expert Tomlin, to MTA Capital Construction would result in fragmentation, where the engineering and capital planning staff were separated from operations, creating new silos. One could argue the transformation plan created more than 13 new silos, with many new chief officers -- of operations, engineering, technology, communications, etc. -- all reporting to the CEO/Chair. See the “chief” heavy org chart below.

mta ceo direct

Splitting NYCT into Subway and Bus Operations?
A June 2019 “draft” version of the transformation plan that was scrubbed before final release proposed separating subways from buses, with all MTA buses merged together under one head. That seems more likely now with Byford’s departure, though not without challenges given the separate collective bargaining agreements for bus operators, as express buses are under the MTA Bus Company, while NYC Transit runs local and select buses.

Buses are too often relegated to second-tier status below subways in terms of public officials’ focus, but not under Byford. Byford made a point to own buses equally with subways, as seen through his work on the 14th Street busway and borough-based bus redesigns, which have been long overdue.

Transit advocates at the Bus Turnaround Coalition are working hard to maintain the momentum that Byford helped start, but his departure and the overall reorganization at the MTA leave it unclear who will restore the bus system. Thanks to Bus Rapid Transit, buses have undergone a global renaissance over the last 25 years that has skipped over New York City. With Byford leaving, all eyes will be on Governor Cuomo to ensure that needed improvements are made to both subways and buses.

#CuomosMTA
We hope our concerns are misplaced, and that the governor’s massive reorganization of the MTA will result in big benefits for riders and those who work for the Authority. We hope the governor’s repeated, direct interference in the MTA’s operations will lead to greater organizational focus and effectiveness. We hope that the reported exodus of experienced MTA managers -- some of whom left before Byford -- will allow for new talent and new ideas to rise. We hope the governor lets Janno Lieber do his job, and that Lieber knows what to do with the massive power he’s accumulated with the new MTA Capital Construction & Development agency.

Yes, we hope for a lot of things, so while we’re at it, let’s hope that the governor will take responsibility for the failures, not just the successes of his efforts at the MTA. 

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Rachael Fauss and John Kaehny are, respectively, senior research analyst and executive director of Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @ReinventAlbany.

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

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Byford’s Gone and So's His Job; What's Next? Thu, 30 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
There's Plenty of Money in the MTA Capital Plan, It's Just Not Being Spent https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8505-there-s-plenty-of-money-in-the-mta-capital-plan-it-s-just-not-being-spent https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8505-there-s-plenty-of-money-in-the-mta-capital-plan-it-s-just-not-being-spent Cuomo subway MTA

Gov. Cuomo inspects track work (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


The subway (plan) is delayed again.

While subway service has improved since the nadir that led to the current (and controversial) “state of emergency,” it’s obvious to anyone who rides the system enough or just watches the New York City Transit Twitter feed that there’s still a ways to go before everything is at or near full strength.

But while the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) needs a funding stream that’s sustainable and long-term, the authority has been unable to spend many billions of dollars already appropriated to it by both the city and state, money that’s supposed to be spent on expansion projects, getting the trains to a state of good repair, and more.

In other words, there’s plenty of money in the MTA capital plan, it may just be in the wrong hands.

The MTA’s 2015-2019 plan for capital projects is in its final year, but as the months tick by, it looks increasingly likely that the plan won’t wind up anywhere close to completed, raising questions about what will make it into the next plan and what will happen to billions of dollars allocated to this one.

By the MTA’s own account, only about $11.3 billion of the $32 billion pledged to fund the plan in 2016 has actually been delivered to the agency. It’s a function of the MTA’s inability to efficiently and effectively complete projects as well as poor planning and delays that go into the design of the capital plan, which covers everything from major expansion and repair projects to track replacement and signal upgrades, and deals with the city’s subways and buses, as well as the commuter rails.

While both New York City and State pledged record amounts to the plan when funding was announced -- a joint agreement among the MTA, Governor Andrew Cuomo, who effectively controls the state authority, and Mayor Bill de Blasio -- neither entity has given the agency anything close to the full amount promised over the life of the plan.

And there’s a particularly large shortcoming when it comes to the state’s pledge of $8.3 billion given that among several key provisions of the funding deal, which Cuomo and de Blasio haggled over for months, is one that says the money from the state and city are to be the last dollars spent.

As transit watchers turn their attention to the upcoming 2020-2024 MTA capital plan, it looks increasingly likely that the $7.3 billion New York State hasn’t sent the MTA for the current five-year plan will not be delivered to the agency during the expected time frame, or possibly ever. Complicating the upcoming picture are new MTA revenue measures, including congestion pricing, passed in the new state budget April 1.

When the 2015-2019 capital plan was unveiled, Cuomo and de Blasio put out a press release in which both men hailed the “historic investment” the two levels of government were making in the authority that, among other things, runs the New York City subways and buses. And both men promised big money.

The mayor pledged that New York City would give $2.5 billion to the capital plan, and the governor said that the state’s contribution would be $8.3 billion. But at the moment, the MTA’s own numbers show that as of March 31 the authority has only received $805 million from the state and $668 million from the city. On the other hand, the authority has issued $4.1 billion worth of its own bonds to finance the plan.

This spending pattern was designed like this from the start. In the same press release where de Blasio and Cuomo hailed their respective historic investments, it was noted that the state and city contributions would come proportionally and at the same time. Outside the realm of press release promises, state law made clear that the majority of the money would be the last dollars in to the plan as the 2016 budget language laid out:

“The additional funds provided by the state pursuant to section one of this act shall be scheduled and made available to pay for the costs of the capital program after MTA capital resources planned for the capital program, not including additional city and state funds, have been exhausted, or when MTA capital resources planned for the capital program are not available.”

Where’s the Money
This too was by design, according to a Cuomo administration official, who said that the last-dollar-in formula was to ensure that the authority spent efficiently and quickly on the plan.

“The MTA was in a state of emergency at the time we did these capital funds,” the official told Gotham Gazette during a background call under the condition of anonymity, “and we wanted to make sure that not only were we sending a record capital program, but then those dollars were going to go out the door. But the MTA had a practice of doing was enacting the capital plan funded with its funds and then using a portion of the proceeds that were committed to fund the debt service on the capital plan, but actually for operating,” the official said.

While this 2015-2019 capital plan, like those that came before it, continues to lag, the Cuomo administration official told Gotham Gazette that no part of the plan was being held up due to a lack of funds, and defended the last-dollar-in policy as ensuring the plan gets done.

“So why the agreement says that they should contribute first? Because we wanted to make sure that they did not not execute the plan,” the official said. And Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the governor’s budget office, insisted that the money is available to the MTA whenever it asks.

“The over $1.4 billion in the FY 2020 Enacted Budget is now available, as is the balance of the over $8.6 billion State contribution,” Klopott told Gotham Gazette by email, while also promising that whatever amount of funding is necessary for the plan beyond 2019 will still be available to the MTA.

But there’s also the question of where the money owed to the MTA in the current capital plan is going to come from. The latest report on the MTA’s finances from Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, released in October 2018, noted that “[t]he State has not yet identified the sources of $7.3 billion of its funding commitment, and the City has not identified the sources of $1.8 billion of its commitment.”

A spokesperson for Mayor de Blasio told Gotham Gazette that the city “will meet our statutory obligation which is explicit about how the monies flow” when asked about the status of the money pledged to the MTA.

The Cuomo official who spoke to Gotham Gazette disputed the comptroller’s report, said that the money is appropriated in the budget, and that it “will come out of the state’s general fund. The state’s general fund is over $100 billion, so it will come out of that, and it will come out as soon as they need the funds.”

Big Budget Questions
While the MTA finds itself in a position of facing down a capital plan costing perhaps $40-$60 billion, in large part to potentially fund MTA New York City Transit President Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan, which involves tremendous amounts of work to get the system to a modern state of good repair, transit experts say it’s difficult to parse whether or not the authority is actually making do without the state money.

“These are not basic questions, they’re actually kind of hard questions, because I'm not really sure how the MTA is making do without this money, or how they get it back from the state,” transit expert Ben Kabak, who writes the Second Avenue Sagas website, told Gotham Gazette.

Kabak said that when the money is slow to arrive, the agency first cuts back on “cosmetic upgrades or things that aren’t important to keep the system running” to focus on signals and tracks and train cars. But over time, he said, as the money continues to not arrive “you end up with this sort of maintenance gap, where something that might have happened a year and a half ago, is delayed because of budget negotiations, and they have two stations that they need to catch up on instead of just one.”

A recent report from watchdog organization Reinvent Albany that focused on a number of MTA reforms backs up Kabak’s point on the maintenance deficit. In a look at the agency’s capital spending, Reinvent Albany found that the agency had only committed to spending $2.3 billion on signal modernization in the most recent capital plan despite the MTA’s most recent 20-year needs assessment determining the authority needed $3 billion. In addition, while the MTA needed almost 6,000 new subway cars in the span of the 2010 to 2019 capital plans, the authority only purchased 863 new cars.

“The fact is, [the MTA] hasn’t spent what they've needed to on things like signals and buying more subway cars and buses,” Rachael Fauss, a senior researcher with Reinvent Albany and author of the massive new MTA report, told Gotham Gazette. “Those are the areas where they’ve really not invested the way they should have.”

One place where the governor’s office and Reinvent Albany agree is on the design of the majority of the state’s appropriation for the MTA. But where the governor’s office suggests it is a good way to make the MTA accountable, Fauss criticized the practice as a driver of extra debt for an agency whose operating budget is 16% debt service.

“The way that that money was set up from the very beginning was problematic, because it was never guaranteed to be given to the MTA until it is finished borrowing money,” Fauss said. “I think it was always set up in a way that it was a false promise of full state funding, and it's been simplified to the level where it's been explained as it is a direct contribution when it's when it was extremely conditional.”

Where the Cuomo administration official told Gotham Gazette that the MTA wasn’t borrowing any more money than the agency had agreed to when the current capital plan was agreed to, Kabak and Fauss criticized the mounting debt as something that contributed to slowing down the agency’s ability to finish the plan close to on time.

“I think the better approach would be for the state to just directly fund all of these projects, and not fund a bond issuance, or something along those lines. If you're building out a new subway, that is going to generate more passengers and more revenue, you can bond that out, that makes sense,” Kabak said. “But if you're just investing in state of good repair service, or state of good repair projects, and then you really just pour more debt into the existing system in the hopes that the ridership will either grow organically or not start declining to boost those revenues you end up in a situation where they're at now where they're just sort of paying out debt to continue to maintain the current system,” he said.

“We're in the fifth year of the plan,” Fauss said. “So is it always meant to be that five-year capital plans drag on for a decade, and that the money from the state comes in at the last minute? Borrowing at the MTA is reaching such an unsustainable level that if the deal all along was to have MTA borrow some money, maybe that deal was bad to begin with.”

She added that “16% of [MTA] operating expenses are eaten up by debt right now. And it's going to go up to even more than that in the future, to a higher percentage. So when you've got debt service eating up the operating budget, that means less crews to do cleaning, that means less maintenance, that means fewer workers trying to do the same work when morale at the agency isn't exactly at an all-time high right now.”

That political leaders and the MTA have just come to accept that the MTA capital plans will now stretch out well past five years is also something that hurts the transparency of the plans when the agency plays catch up to finish them. Per the new Reinvent Albany report, the MTA “provides the total spending on each plan over its entire lifetime at the end of each year” instead of showing how much the authority spends per year per plan.

Having done its own math to determine what spending was each year, Reinvent Albany found that in 2017 the MTA was still spending $212 million on the 2005-2009 capital plan and close to $3 billion on the 2010-2014 capital plan.

And as the current capital plan reaches what’s supposed to be the end of its life, advocates and watchdogs are concerned that the promised state money for the 2015-2019 plan will never actually be delivered.

Maria Doulis of the Citizens Budget Commission explained that the agency could continue with business as usual, dragging out this plan for years. Another scenario is that in Governor Cuomo’s many desired reforms for the agency, the current capital plan could be capped at the projects being worked on at the moment and then rejiggered for the 2020-2024 plan “that will incorporate some of the projects that were previously there, or maybe drop some of them out,” Doulis said. “And in that scenario, the state’s $8 billion doesn't get used, and then the state can sort of rededicate it if it would like, to the new capital plan.”

A rollover like this is also a concern for Fauss. “The real question is going to be what happens to those individual projects, what's going to roll over, and our fear is that that commitment is just going to get shoved over to the next plan. Because they're not fully funded for the 2020-2024 plan,” she told Gotham Gazette.

An analysis from Citizens Budget Commission showed that thanks to recently enacted legislation around congestion pricing, an internet sales tax, and a real estate transfer tax on expensive properties, there will be $25 billion for the MTA to put in a capital plan lockbox.

“But that does not equal the forty to fifty to sixty billion [dollars], depending on who you talk to, that they need. So, if that money rolls over, or if those projects roll over they basically weren't completed in time and we're still going to be behind on them,” said Fauss of Reinvent Albany.

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by Dave Colon, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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There's Plenty of Money in the MTA Capital Plan, It's Just Not Being Spent Tue, 07 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The Threat to Byford’s Fast Forward and Other Major Flaws in Cuomo-De Blasio MTA ‘Reform’ Plan https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8329-the-threat-to-byford-s-fast-forward-and-other-major-flaws-in-cuomo-de-blasio-mta-reform-plan https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8329-the-threat-to-byford-s-fast-forward-and-other-major-flaws-in-cuomo-de-blasio-mta-reform-plan govcuomoearly

(photo: governor's office)


My organization, Reinvent Albany, strongly supports congestion pricing and new revenue for the MTA, but we believe the MTA’s biggest organizational problem is the Governor’s endless political meddling and sidelining of the MTA’s and New York City Transit’s (NYCT) professional staff.

We hope the hastily contrived MTA restructuring recently presented by Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio in their “10-Point Plan to Transform and Fund the MTA” withers under public scrutiny and is rejected by the State Legislature and key county stakeholders in the MTA region. This is not real reform: it is a counter-productive distraction that continues the politicization of the MTA, and even codifies it.

Transit riders and those interested in a functioning system should stay focused on the 2016 pledge of Governor Cuomo and the Legislature to give the MTA 2015-2019 Capital Plan $8.3B, with $1B appropriated upfront. The governor and Legislature still owe $7.3B. Where is this money? To date, the MTA has received only $805 million from the state in cash it can actually spend on the current plan. We are especially concerned Governor Cuomo is about to renege on his $8.3B pledge because new revenue from congestion pricing will go to the next MTA capital plan – the 2020-2024 plan.

Reinvent Albany strongly supports congestion pricing for the Manhattan Central Business District and we thought Sam Schwartz’s Move New York plan was a masterpiece of public policy, but we have numerous concerns about the new 10-point plan from the governor and the mayor. Here are five big ones:

First, highly-respected NYCT President Andy Byford is stripped of power (Item #1). The governor’s proposed reorganization takes away a huge amount of fundamental management authority from New York City Transit President Andy Byford and shifts it to MTA Headquarters (HQ). We wonder what happens with Byford’s Fast Forward Plan if he can’t implement it? The governor proposes shifting engineering, contracting and construction management to MTA HQ. Why? NYCT just hired Pete Tomlin, an internationally respected expert, to lead NYCT in modernizing the subway signals, a cornerstone of Byford’s plan. What happens to this hire? MTA HQ has completely mismanaged the East Side Access project with up to $7B in cost overruns.

Second, the Cuomo plan creates new loopholes in the congestion pricing plan by creating vague exceptions for motorists (Item #2). Given the disastrous experience with state and New York City issued parking placards, the public should be concerned about the potential of these loopholes to be abused by politically powerful groups.

Third, what happens to the MTA if inflation is higher than 2%? (Item #3). A two-percent hard cap on MTA fare and toll hikes makes no sense. More reasonable would be to index to inflation, since inflation has historically regularly exceeded 2%.

Fourth, the proposed Regional Transit Committee duplicates and subtracts from the MTA Board’s authority and will create even more confusion (Item #7). If the Legislature wants representation on the MTA board or changes to the board, it should make them instead of creating a confusing mess that further reduces accountability. Moody’s – one of the MTA’s credit raters, which typically issues muted statements – even said that the this plan “will not necessarily reduce the management complexity that has complicated fare increases and capital program approval.” The MTA board should determine fares, tolls, and budgets, etc. If it does it poorly, reform it.

Fifth, the MTA, like other state authorities and agencies, should be run by professionals, not overseen by arbitrarily selected academics hand-picked by the governor (Item #8). There are many people in the world with more far more expertise in transit engineering and technology than the deans of Columbia and Cornell engineering schools – including within the MTA, like NYCT’s new hire, Pete Tomlin. Why should these informal advisors to the governor determine what kind of signals technology the MTA uses?

This is not the time to make major changes to redistribute power over the MTA’s governance structure, as there are too many stakeholders at risk. Changes to the governance of the MTA should be made independently of the budget after full and thorough discussion by MTA stakeholders and the public - something that we can truly call reform.

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Rachael Fauss is Senior Policy Analyst at Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @RachaelFauss & @ReinventAlbany.

 

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

 

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The Threat to Byford’s Fast Forward and Other Major Flaws in Cuomo-De Blasio MTA ‘Reform’ Plan Wed, 06 Mar 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Stabilizing the MTA’s Rocky Finances in 2019 and Beyond https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8179-stabilizing-the-mta-s-finances-in-2019-and-beyond https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8179-stabilizing-the-mta-s-finances-in-2019-and-beyond MTA modernization

(photo: Marc A. Hermann/MTA)


New York’s colossal and crumbling mass transit system is headed toward another cliff -- this one financial. The MTA’s just-adopted budget says it will have a $500 million deficit in 2020 and the deficit will rise to about $1 billion a year by 2022, even with two fare and toll hikes, in 2019 and 2021. The authority’s summary of its situation actually says it is running deficits right now (2018 and 2019), which are being addressed by using all of its reserve funds, drawing down its inventory, and other methods of scraping cash together. Its expenses already exceed its revenues.

This is not actually a revelation. In February 2018 the MTA publicly reported these problems and its bond rating was dropped by Standard & Poor’s. Information about the problem has been public for several years. MTA budgets passed in July 2016 and November 2017, both public documents, presented the gloomy outlooks, as quoted in these MTA Board excerpts:

Presentation to the Board, July 27, 2016: “FINANCIAL PLAN IS BALANCED THROUGH 2019 WITH A 2020 DEFICIT OF $ 371 MILLION”
Highlights of the 2018-2021 November FInancial Plan - November 2017: “BUDGET CONTINUES TO BE BALANCED THROUGH 2019: 2020 and 2021 GAPS HAVE INCREASED TO $352 MILLION AND $643 MILLION RESPECTIVELY”

The ability of the MTA to sustain its operations is contingent on securing recurring revenue sources beginning in 2020 and beyond. The budget adopted in December 2018 forecasts through 2022 and reports the MTA will issue $12 billion in bonds to pay for asset replacements, like tracks, signals, trains, and buses, and continue the Expansion Projects, like East Side Access and Second Avenue Subway. Paying the interest on these bonds will cost the MTA an extra $500 million a year by the end of 2022. The MTA also projects that by the end of 2022 its labor costs will rise by 10%, from $10 billion a year, to $11 billion a year, including pension and health care for retirees.

Although the Governor and the Legislature added a tax on certain rides in for-hire vehicles, including traditional taxis, in the 2018 budget, to take effect on January 1, 2019, these funds will be going directly into the Subway Action Plan to sustain maintenance improvements to reverse the deterioration of basic service (and that congestion charge has been at least temporarily blocked by a judge). The separate long-term financial deterioration of the MTA was not addressed in either 2017 or 2018 by the Governor nor the Legislature.

At the time of state budget adoption in April 2018, the MTA Sustainability Advisory Workgroup was created, consisting of appointees of the Governor, the Mayor, the Assembly, and the Senate, and others. The mission of the group was to advise the state’s political leadership on critical choices and offer policy guidance. The group, chaired by the Partnership for New York City President & CEO Kathryn Wylde, an appointee of the Governor, issued its report on December 17, 2018.

The Workgroup report had many thoughtful recommendations, including supporting congestion pricing as the immediate revenue priority. Governor Cuomo’s support for congestion pricing is now well-known, but neither the Assembly nor the Senate have ever taken a vote, not even a vote in a committee, on congestion pricing, and the recommendation were not binding on the members of those institutions.

The Workgroup report confirmed that the MTA still has not fully costed out, or provided a detailed plan, for its Advanced Technology Fast Forward Plan, or the next phase of capital construction, the 2020-2024 Capital Plan, estimated to cost somewhere between $40 and $60 billion. The sums of money involved still have no clear overlap between MTA New York City Transit President Andy Byford’s Fast Forward Plan and the new MTA Capital Plan.

At the end of the legislative session in 2018, the State Assembly passed a bill to require the MTA to advance the release of the 2020-2024 Capital Plan, due under current law in October 2019, to January 2019, in an effort to have the Capital Plan become contemporaneous with the state budget, but the then Republican-controlled Senate did not pass it. It is now possible the Capital Plan and the Fast Forward Plan will not be available to act on during the 2019 Albany legislative session.

The Workgroup suggested that the state should proceed with congestion pricing despite the lack of information about future costs, because of the obvious need for immediate revenue; the Workgroup also said the capital planning process might be better aligned if it moved to a ten-year plan like the Port Authority --- a useful idea for the future while the existing plan’s shortfalls get addressed.

The MTA’s current 2015-2019 Capital Plan is seriously incomplete. To date, the MTA has received only $7 billion of the $33 billion cost of the plan, and the huge deficits reveal new revenue is needed to continue. Providing the MTA a revenue source for its 2022 deficit -- an extra $1 billion a year-- will provide the money for the $12 billion borrowing and address the operating deficits. Federal funds and bridge and tunnel bonds are still available sources that can feed into the pipeline for the current plan, leaving it about two-thirds funded through 2022, if the agency gets that extra $1 billion a year in a timely fashion -- meaning now.

The projected October 2019 MTA submission of its 2020-2024 Capital Plan, which presumably will incorporate the Fast Forward Plan, at least some version of it, presents an even more severe political test for the state’s governing authorities than congestion pricing itself. That is because MTA investments that cost $40- $60 billion will require revenue sources that bring several additional billion dollars a year to the agency beyond congestion pricing.

Moving to a ten-year capital planning cycle could allow the Governor and the Legislature to separate the additional billions in revenue needed to pay for such mammoth expenses into two five-year phases to avoid excessive tax hikes for the unpopular agency. But the difficulty of finding such a new level of revenue could bring about the return of the divisive regional conflict between funding the New York City Transit Authority and the suburban commuter rail systems.

This conflict was presaged by Governor Cuomo demanding that New York City and the state split the MTA’s shortfalls 50/50 in both 2017 and 2018. He followed up on that demand during his campaign this fall, when the Governor co-signed a pledge with Long Island Democratic State Senate candidates that they would force New York City to bear the cost of the New York City Transit system’s new capital needs. Mayor de Blasio and Assembly Democrats had resisted the Governor’s demand on this point in the legislative session in 2018.

These Long Island political newcomers may not realize that the Long Island Rail Road’s (LIRR) operating costs are the most heavily subsidized, on a proportional basis, of the three MTA transit systems, far more so than New York City Transit or Metro North. The MTA’s poster child for cost overruns is East Side Access, the giant construction program to link LIRR commuters to Grand Central Station at a final cost of $11 billion -- by far the largest drain on the capital budget. A pushback demand from New York City and Metro North legislators to force Long Island residents to pay their true share of LIRR costs could become an unpleasant regional counterpoint to add more political stalemate, not less, in the legislative process, enabling each constituent piece of the MTA system to drown separately, rather than keep everybody in the lifeboat and make progress.

Let me offer a few suggestions to provide a disciplined approach to this total mess:

1. Stabilize the MTA’s immediate funding crisis with the adoption of a $1 billion-per-year plan for congestion pricing, which will keep the capital and operations budgets in balance through 2022. This is the most logical and efficient way to address the immediate crisis and offers some relief for Manhattan’s horrible traffic, too. If the Legislature could do this by budget time, April 2019, the system could be in operation hopefully within a year. To avoid disruption to the construction program from implementation delays, the state and the city could provide the MTA cash from reserves or short-term borrowings, and even get repaid.

A component of congestion pricing could serve as the source for the state’s unfunded $7 billion obligation to the current 2015-2019 Capital Plan, triggering New York City’s $2.5 billion matching obligation, and bring the current plan to about three-quarters funded.

2. Do a Capital Program Ten-Year Restart: Require the MTA to integrate Fast Forward, the unfunded balances of the current plan, the Expansion Projects, and other essential investments into a 10-year Plan, 2020-2030, with two five-year cycles. The first five-year cycle would have a linkage to the revenue requirement necessary to proceed. The 2015-2019 plan elements funded from congestion pricing would be recognized in the cycle. This was a concept advanced by the Workgroup.

3. Use the Cash Windfall to Businesses from the 2018 40% Federal Corporate Income Tax Cut: A divisive regional confrontation is unwise and potentially politically catastrophic for all involved. The most efficacious revenue on the horizon is a restructuring of the state’s corporate income tax in the metropolitan region to capture a portion of the multi-billion cash windfall to corporate New York from a 40% cut in their federal corporate income taxes. The Legislature could exempt smaller businesses and still find $1 billion a year as a recurring source of revenue from the windfall. (I wrote more about this idea in a prior column.)

Corporate taxes, unlike income taxes, remain fully deductible as a business expense, and avoid more damage to New York from the inability of our taxpayers to deduct most of their New York personal income taxes from their federal taxes after the new federal cap on those deductions (a matter of litigation itself). Further revenue sources would probably still be needed, but the vehicle-for-hire surcharges could be enhanced for the app-based services like Uber and Lyft and further differentiated from the traditional taxis. Charges for for-hire vehicles in the outer boroughs and suburbs, which were excluded from the first round of this tax, could be brought into the vehicle-for-hire fee system, and be linked to transit improvement.

4. A full overhaul of the MTA’s Capital Construction Program, with a plan to cut its costs 20-25%, remains a challenge that can be taken up with a Capital Plan realignment into a ten-year cycle. A separate new construction agency with aggressive powers to cut costs and innovate may be necessary.

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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

Note: this article has been updated to remove an incorrect statement about how legislatively-appointed members of the MTA Workgroup were acting -- they were voting as representatives of their legislative body, not as individuals as originally stated.

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Stabilizing the MTA’s Rocky Finances in 2019 and Beyond Mon, 07 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Agenda 2019: Long List of Transit Questions Starts with Saving the Subways https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8094-agenda-2019-long-list-of-transit-questions-starts-with-saving-the-subways https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8094-agenda-2019-long-list-of-transit-questions-starts-with-saving-the-subways gov an cuomo littering

Gov. Cuomo on the tracks (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

2019 will be a pivotal year for New York City transportation, unlike any this city has seen in decades. Not only is there near-universal agreement that the city’s transportation landscape, from the subways to the buses to the traffic and everything in between, is fundamentally broken, there is also a growing consensus on many of the steps needed to fix it, starting with—but by no means limited to—congestion pricing.

The problems start, of course, with the subways. For the first time in a generation, there is a leader at the MTA, New York City Transit President Andy Byford, that activists, politicians, and the riding public believe in. And he’s getting results, at least enough of them to instill confidence in new-found competence. On-time subway performance has been steadily rising since a low of 58.1 percent in January to 70.3 percent in October. Overall delays are also trending in the right direction. The $836 million Subway Action Plan work has mostly been done, which also seems to have had an effect in reducing the number of “Major Incidents” that snarl commutes.

Byford and his management team are always quick to admit there’s still much more work to do, but his efforts to improve “the basics” by reducing train dwell times, making sure all of the safety equipment in the system works properly so trains can go as fast as safely possible, and other “safe seconds” initiatives appear to be paying off.

On top of that, the state Legislature, which has final say on many of the key issues facing the city’s transportation landscape, turned solidly Democratic in November, opening the door to changes that may otherwise have been off the table. Some legislators at least appear eager to tackle the transportation issue head-on. Plus, Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, has made transportation a key tentpole issue of his early tenure by passing a temporary Uber/Lyft cap and the Fair Fares program for discounted MetroCards. In many ways, the stars are very much aligned.

But the challenges are just as monumental as the opportunities. The MTA has a precarious financial situation, ridership is declining, and some miscalculations now such as cutting service or raising fares too high could have dire consequences. Congestion pricing still has its detractors, particularly in the outer boroughs who, reasonably, want commitments to better bus service in exchange. They need to be convinced. The city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, is still curiously indifferent to all things transit with the exception of his beloved ferries, a tiny, heavily-subsidized slice of the overall pie, and his still-far-off BQX streetcar.

And the single most important person in this conversation, Governor Andrew Cuomo, has been too selective regarding what MTA issues he’s interested in and when, resulting in a revolving door of MTA leaders, whom Cuomo appoints. The agency needs a consistent, dedicated head who can team with Byford for long-term fixes. Cuomo will soon nominate someone for the position after Joe Lhota’s departure.

A year from now, we’ll probably have a pretty good idea of what the future of the city’s transportation will look like. Perhaps decades from now, New Yorkers will look back on 2019 as the year the tide finally turned towards real fixes for the beleaguered transit picture, with a reliable subway system, buses that move, and other essentials. Or, despite the crises and challenges New York faces, maybe it will be perceived as a missed opportunity.

The L Train Shutdown
Believe it or not, the L train shutdown, that dark specter of fear and misery looming in the distance for years, is finally upon us. Starting on April 27, the L train will run at a reduced frequency and only in Brooklyn, diverting almost 300,000 riders per day. The MTA and NYC DOT have created an elaborate mitigation plan they claim can accommodate every rider. The agencies anticipate four out of every five displaced L riders will use other subway routes (most notably the J, M, Z, G, 7, E, A, and C) and the rest will use some combination of special bus services across the Williamsburg Bridge, ferries, or bikes; 14th Street will become a busway for most of each day and the Williamsburg Bridge will be HOV-3 to accommodate all those buses.

But there is simply no way to have hundreds of thousands of commuters change their habits all at once in an orderly fashion. The big question, then, is how the MTA and DOT adapt.

“We'll be watching closely to see whether the MTA and DOT can work together to adapt to real-world transportation needs on the ground,” said Hayley Richardson of TransitCenter. Some of the adjustments they’ll keep an eye on: will the HOV-3 window on the bridge, from 5 AM to 10 PM, be sufficient? Will HOV-3 in general be restrictive enough, given that their modeling largely uses assumptions from crises before Uber and Lyft had shared-ride options and thus could easily meet the HOV-3 restriction? Perhaps they’ll need to institute pop-up bus lanes created with standard issue road cones.

Another looming question is whether the HOV-3 restriction and bus lanes will be properly enforced. Given the volume of buses the MTA expects to run across the bridge and 14th Street—one or two buses per minute in some cases—even one blocked bus lane could be catastrophic during peak hours. It’s up to the NYPD to enforce it, and there has been little indication that the department prioritizes such work.

Whatever the case, riders—whether former L commuters or those on the lines that will be swamped with more passengers—are going to be dealing with a lot of changes. Will the MTA be able to communicate effectively? It, too, has left a lot to be desired in that department.

There’s a lot riding on the MTA and the city to get this right. Aside from the obvious need to get people where they need to go, it is a huge opportunity for the MTA to show riders it is improving, deserves more taxpayer and rider money, and will use it wisely because it is a competent, efficient organization. Because, well, the MTA is going to be asking for a lot of money.

Sorting Out the MTA’s Budget Mess
Earlier this month, MTA Chief Financial Officer Bob Foran presented a sobering financial picture to the MTA Board. In short, the MTA projects a $991 million deficit by 2022 even with biennial fare and toll increases. Foran argued the MTA needs a new, recurring revenue stream in order to balance the budget beyond 2020. And this is just the MTA’s costs of providing day-to-day service; the next five-year capital plan—which would include Byford’s Fast Forward Plan to revitalize New York City Transit, plus the needs of LIRR and Metro-North—is estimated to cost around $60 billion, or nearly double the current capital plan. Who will pay for it and how is the single biggest question facing New York City transportation this year.

For his part, Cuomo has been consistent on one MTA issue: he wants the city to pay more. He wanted the city to pay more in 2015 towards the current capital plan, he forced the city's hand into paying half of the Subway Action Plan, and he regularly pledges—and had suburban state Senators sign on—to make the city pay its “fair share” going forward.

Before Lhota resigned as MTA chair earlier this month, he stated the Board would not take a position regarding preferred revenue streams until the MTA Sustainability Advisory Working Group, created by this year’s state budget, issues its report on this topic, which is expected by the end of the year. That report will likely set the tone for discussions in Albany once the new legislative session begins in January, which is largely dictated by the governor’s State of the State address and Executive Budget presentation.

In the meantime, Governor Cuomo declared on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show on Monday that “the MTA is going to be a top priority for me this year” and that he favors congestion pricing as the additional revenue stream in need.

Congestion pricing, which would charge drivers who enter Manhattan’s Central Business District, will accomplish far more than give the MTA additional money (perhaps more than $1 billion per year depending on what the exact model looks like). It will also address one of New York’s other major transportation issues: traffic. According to the FixNYC panel convened by the governor last year to study congestion pricing, vehicles in the Central Business District moved at a mere 6.8 miles per hour in 2016, and only 4.7 miles per hour—a brisk walking pace—in the “Midtown Core.” By reducing the number of vehicles in Manhattan, congestion pricing would help speed things up.

Because of the MTA’s dire financial outlook and Manhattan’s desperate need for traffic relief, congestion pricing is a two-birds-one-stone type deal. Combined with a revamped state Legislature more amenable to congestion pricing, there’s a growing consensus it will pass this coming session.

“We certainly expect to see congestion pricing done this year in the budget process,” Tri-State Transportation Campaign executive director Nick Sifuentes predicted, before adding “and we also know additional resources of funding will be necessary if we’re going to see Fast Forward fully funded.” What those additional revenue sources might be is a question the MTA Sustainability Advisory Working Group will presumably address.

MTA Cost Control
But that’s just the revenue side of the equation. The MTA also has a highly-publicized cost control issue, spending orders of magnitude more on big projects than comparable cities. It’s a problem Cuomo has finally vowed to tackle. “There is inefficiency that goes on at the MTA that has to end,” he told Lehrer. Easier said than done, especially for a governor who has been extremely tight with the Transportation Workers Union and taken little apparent interest in how MTA contracting is managed.

While the MTA has said that tackling high capital costs is a key goal for almost a year now, there has so far been very little payoff. Presentations by the MTA Board’s procurement and cost containment task forces in June have been the only public-facing initiatives within the authority to keep the ball moving forward. Nor has there been any transparency on why, exactly, the Fast Forward Plan will cost $40 billion, how that number was arrived at, or whether the cost can be lowered by prioritizing some initiatives over others.

The MTA will also be re-negotiating its biggest labor contract with TWU Local 100 and its more than 40,000 members, whose contract expires in May. Payroll, health care, and pensions account for more than half of the MTA’s $16.7 billion 2019 budget.

The main question is to what degree lawmakers will push the cost control issue when determining new revenue streams in the upcoming state budget. Will they insist on rigid cost containment guards to make sure the money is spent wisely? Or will they throw a bunch of money at the MTA and hope the problem doesn’t present its ugly head again until they’re long gone from office?

The latter approach may be the more cynical one, but it’s also the historically preferred one in Albany. Nevertheless, Assemblywoman Amy Paulin has already vowed to break form and “conduct [a] rigorous, public oversight during the legislative session” on the MTA. Danny Pearlstein of the Riders Alliance expects lawmakers this time around to take a more active approach in ensuring the MTA is doing something about outsized construction costs. “Lawmakers and fare, toll, and taxpayers want to know that the money they raise and set aside for transit will be used efficiently and responsibly,’ Pearlstein said. “Ramping up toward the next MTA capital plan, look for the authority to articulate and implement new cost control measures.”

Get Buses Moving Again
For all the talk of fixing the subway for tens of billions of dollars, fixing the city’s bus service—which serves almost two million riders a day but has seen ridership plummet by almost 10 percent since 2012—is a relatively cheap and easy proposition by comparison. Instead of a matter of dollars, it’s largely a matter of will.

Congestion pricing would likely help speed up bus service in some parts of Manhattan, but more needs to be done to make bus service throughout the five boroughs an attractive option, say both Sifuentes and Pearlstein, whose organizations have partnered with other advocacy groups to form the Bus Turnaround Coalition. The coalition calls for, among other measures, redesigning the city’s bus routes, which in many cases have not been touched in decades. The MTA just finished redesigning Staten Island’s express bus network and plans to tackle the Bronx next.

But it’s not just an MTA problem. The roads and traffic signals are controlled by the city DOT and monitored by the NYPD, and thus far Mayor de Blasio has not made speeding up bus service a priority—or even a topic—of his administration’s efforts. “The city (DOT) really needs to step up its commitment on buses,” Sifuentes urged, which he says ought to include more bus lanes and more robust and expanded transit signal priority, which gives buses as many green lights as possible.

There is something Albany can do, which is probably the most important thing to speed up buses. Both Pearlstein and Sifuentes plan to pressure the state Legislature to drastically expand the use of camera enforcement for bus lanes rather than relying on the NYPD to write tickets. For his part, Byford wants those cameras mounted on the front of buses, ensuring anyone who blocks a bus lane gets a ticket regardless of whether or not there’s a cop nearby.

agenda19v2 aNew Fare Payment System
The Bus Turnaround Coalition also calls for all-door boarding to speed up loading times, which can only be done with a new fare payment system. Luckily, the MTA is mere months from introducing this.

Starting in May, riders will be able to use contactless payment such as Apple Pay, Google Pay, or contactless-enabled credit cards that Chase and Visa will be rolling out in the coming months, to pay their fare on the 4/5 subway line between Grand Central and Atlantic Ave/Barclays as well as Staten Island express buses. The MTA plans to roll out contactless payments to every other bus and subway station by October 2020. By the time MetroCards are no longer accepted in 2023, riders who don’t have credit cards or smartphones will be able to purchase NFC-enabled transit cards like the ones in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, London, and pretty much every other major city from new station vending machines and local stores.

This new payment system will not only make bus boarding faster if implemented properly, it can also accommodate a more sensible fare structure that eliminates the need to face the existential question of adding value or adding time. This model, known as fare-capping, means people pay per-ride until they hit a pre-determined maximum for a period of time, perhaps a day, week, or month, at which point each additional ride is free for that time period. This ensures nobody pays more than the “unlimited” amount and further incentivizes folks to use public transportation no matter how many trips they plan to make.

Although fare-capping can’t happen until every subway station and bus has the new fare payment system in 2020, the 4/5 line rollout will be something to watch next year, particularly in concert with the city’s Fair Fares program that gives half-priced MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers. Going forward, contactless payments would make implementing that system simpler and cheaper. Although it’s not getting nearly as much attention, the New Fare Payment System may well be the most transformative change for the city’s transportation next year.

Other Important Transportation Issues on the Table, But with Less for 2019
-With the House flipping Democratic, there is slightly more reason for optimism that something—anything—might develop in securing funding for the $30 billion Gateway project, although President Trump would have to renege on his vow to veto any federal funding for the project. It would be nice if they also found ways to reduce that price tag, too.

-2019 will likely see a series of “announcements” by Cuomo about progress on Penn Station’s redevelopment, but none of the major renovation projects such as the Moynihan extension are scheduled to be completed until 2020.

-Placard abuse continues to run rampant throughout the city, with little attention from Mayor de Blasio, who has repeatedly vowed to crack down on the widespread practice and repeatedly failed to do so. Reining in this overtly corrupt practice would do wonders for city streets, but there’s no reason at this point to believe 2019 will be any different than previous years.

-Returning to Fair Fares, which is designed to provide half-price MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers, the program is set to begin in 2019. It’s widely seen as a major step forward for the city, but some questions linger, such as how smoothly the implementation will go and whether there will be an option for single-ride Fair Fares down the road, since the initial program will be limited to seven-day and 30-day passes, an issue advocates and some elected officials have said needs to be solved.

-For Long Island commuters, two massive improvements are on the distant horizon—East Side Access and Third Track—but both are still years away, with scheduled completion dates of December 2022. Again, progress worth monitoring along with and aside from inevitable Cuomo “announcements.”

-That point also applies to LaGuardia Airport, which will still be a lot of trouble in 2019 and probably for much beyond, too. Terminal B, the center of the new design, won’t open until 2020 and Concourse A won’t be done until 2022, but work is ongoing the governor will be there.

-And the city’s much-maligned streetcar project, the BQX, is still technically alive despite needing $1 billion in federal funding to become a reality, according to city officials who have changed their tune on funding since de Blasio announced the BQX in 2016. Don’t expect much if anything to change in 2019, as the Friends of the BQX’s own timeline says the city won’t complete its Environmental Impact Statement process until September 2020.

This is part of AGENDA 2019, a joint Gotham Gazette-City Limits project
Find the rest of the series here

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Aaron Gordon is a freelance journalist and founder of Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter about the subway. On Twitter @A_W_Gordon

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Agenda 2019: Long List of Transit Questions Starts with Saving the Subways Tue, 20 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Designing Bus Routes to Attract Passengers and Reverse Declining Ridership (Part 1) https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8090-designing-bus-routes-to-attract-passengers-and-reverse-the-decline-in-ridership-part-one https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8090-designing-bus-routes-to-attract-passengers-and-reverse-the-decline-in-ridership-part-one mta double decker electric bus

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


Bus Ridership in New York City is on the decline despite innovations such as Select Bus Service (SBS). Newly appointed New York City Transit (NYCT) President Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan will not reverse this trend unless its focus is changed to make it more passenger friendly.

The plan states (page 34) that the bus route network will be redesigned within three years “based on customer needs through a process of customer consultation and analysis of travel patterns.” NYCT will also “Rationalize bus stops in consultation with local communities and the NYC Department of Transportation to reduce travel times, including eliminating under-utilized stops and consolidating closely-spaced bus stops” (there is no definition of “closely spaced”).

There are several priorities NYCT must have in undertaking this work, and lessons that can be learned from past planning.

Warning Signs and Inclusive Planning
If the recent elimination of 25 Q22 bus stops in the Rockaways is any indication, walking distances to bus stops will be a half-mile or more in some cases. Also, those changes were opposed by the community, but implemented anyway (and there was massive confusion afterward due to inadequate notice). So, what does Byford mean that changes will involve community consultation?

Bus stop removal does not necessarily speed buses. The Q22 averaged 15 mph west of Beach 116 Street.  There was no need for these buses to travel faster. Further, since the eliminated stops were very lightly used, most of them were usually skipped anyway, so no meaningful time was saved by eliminating them, but total travel time for travelers was increased due to extra walking and a greater likelihood of missing the bus. Saving a few minutes on the bus due to fewer stops is not an improvement when those minutes are instead spent walking extra to and from the bus, and it may even increase trip time. 

Longer walking distances disproportionately harm the elderly, handicapped, those with temporary injuries, e.g. those on crutches, or have health issues such as sciatica which makes walking exceedingly painful. Fewer bus stops can also be categorized as a cut in service.

People carrying packages, women accompanied by small children, or lugging shopping carts, pushing baby carriages, or pulling suitcases are also not willing to walk long distances. Weather is also a factor.  Most would not want to walk half a mile in a snowstorm or pouring rain to get to a bus stop. When there is a choice between the bus and train, many choose the bus because they cannot walk stairs.

Bottom line: Planning should not be done by only considering able-bodied riders on good weather days.

Why is Bus Ridership Declining?
There are many reasons. The city Comptroller says its due in part to a fractured management system. Buses are often late, slow, and otherwise unreliable and sometimes overcrowded, and some routes do not take passengers where they want to go. They often involve indirect travel and one or more transfers requiring long waits. Alternatives do exist besides driving, and bus riders are increasingly switching to them. There is walking and cycling, taxis, car services and app-based services like Uber, indirect subways, and of course the decision not to make discretionary trips. 

Riders want as much direct service as possible and are willing to tolerate one bus transfer except when service is very infrequent. Two transfers usually involve an extra fare for those without unlimited passes, another system deterrent. Passes do not make sense for those who cannot afford them and those who use the system less than five days a week, such as many college students. Approximately half the passengers do not have unlimited passes. Total trip time, personal safety, and cost are the primary factors determining mode of travel. Yet the MTA does not measure total trip time. It is more concerned with time spent on the bus and increasing average bus speed. Any plan which necessitates additional transfers will fail.

How Do We Reverse the Trend 0f Declining Ridership?
We can look at what has already worked for clues. 

November 12, 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of the southwest Brooklyn bus re-routings, which I designed at the Department of City Planning (DCP). We studied eight interlinked bus routes and redesigned them to improve their effectiveness.

Most notably, we proposed a new 86th Street bus route (designated as the B86) replacing four separate routes that covered different portions of the street. The old routings caused unnecessary complexity making the bus system difficult to use. Three transfers and multiple fares were required to travel between Bay Ridge to Manhattan Beach. Four or five buses were required from Bay Ridge to Brighton Beach. 

Rather than using such a cumbersome bus system, mass transit travel between those neighborhoods usually involved three indirect subways via downtown Brooklyn. That was replaced by making many more one and two-bus trips possible. A portion of that proposal was accepted and the new route was designated the B1. Today, the B1 has good frequencies and is the seventh most-heavily utilized route in the borough. The routes it replaced were all moderately or lightly used with poor frequencies. Service gaps were filled and connections were vastly improved. 

Redesigning the City’s Bus Routes
The Fast Forward plan to redesign the city's bus routes within three years is a necessary and monumental task. Will this redesign result in increased ridership? It is difficult to tell because few details have been released.

We know routes will be straighter, with fewer bus stops. There also will probably be fewer routes since one of the goals is to eliminate what is considered duplicative route segments. What is really duplicative? Are two routes operating on the same street serving different destinations duplicative? Is a bus on the same street as a subway duplicative or do they serve different purposes? Will eliminating one of them increase the number of transfers that are necessary to complete a trip? These questions need answers.

Successful route planning that increases ridership cannot merely be accomplished by studying a bus map and eliminating turns making routes simpler and easier to understand. Certainly, simple routes are desirable, but making them simpler can also make them less useful by increasing walking distances.  

Operating costs appear to be the prime factor in determining the MTA's decision for how to restructure bus routes and bus stops. The single goal appears to be to have buses operate faster to reduce operating costs. In that regard, during the past decade, the MTA has converted many revenue miles into non-revenue miles for partial trips to and from depots because they regard non-revenue miles as more productive and efficient than miles where passengers are carried. Some buses even make entire trips not in service.

Bottom line: If the needs of the passenger are not the primary focus, the bus route redesign will fail to increase ridership and most likely will result greater ridership declines. 

That is not to say that every bus stop is needed and no portions of routes can be eliminated successfully. Operating costs must of course be a consideration, but not the primary one. Improving reliability, reducing crowding, passenger total trip times, and transferring must be prime areas of focus.

Increased reliability can be accomplished by maintaining long routes but scheduling more service appropriate to the demand. This can in part be done by having many buses not operating end to end, but serving only the areas of the route with the highest ridership, more closely matching service to demand.

Shorter trips increase reliability because a delay at one end of the route will not affect all buses throughout the entire route. Merely splitting very long routes in half, as the MTA has done, greatly increases the need to transfer and reduces the amount of direct travel. It is better to split very long routes so that there is some overlap.

The personnel in charge of reliability should be adequate and dispatchers need to be properly trained. Bus schedules should also reflect realistic road conditions. Some bus operators have complained that some trips can routinely take them nearly twice the allotted schedule which means that all scheduled trips are not provided.

Creating exclusive bus lanes with little enforcement has not significantly improved bus reliability according to city Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office. These lanes have slowed down other traffic in many cases, increasing trip times for those not in buses, a factor the MTA and the Department of Transportation (DOT) have been ignoring. 

The MTA must realize that increased service results in increased ridership and not believe the two are unrelated. The 2010 massive service cuts assumed there are alternatives for every eliminated route and route segment, and that ridership will not decrease. Ridership, of course, did decrease.

Bottom line: The MTA must be willing to invest in service enhancements to reverse the trend of declining bus ridership and not continue to insist that all changes to bus routes be cost neutral with no examination of latent demand.

Service is not planned with latent demand in mind but only for existing riders. The assumption is that increased service will not improve ridership. Operating costs and current patronage should not be the only variables in the decision whether or not to increase service.

Service gaps must be filled with an emphasis on reducing the need for transferring. In order to understand how to do this, in part 2 of this series, I examine the southwest Brooklyn changes more closely and compare them to past MTA studies that have not achieved their desired results. And part 3 of 3 will discuss routing changes that are still needed for Brooklyn and discuss measures to reverse the decline in bus ridership.

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Allan Rosen is former Director of Bus Planning, MTA NYC 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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Designing Bus Routes to Attract Passengers and Reverse Declining Ridership (Part 1) Mon, 19 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
8 Steps to Fix New York Transit and Get New Yorkers Moving Again https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8008-8-steps-to-fix-new-york-transit-and-get-new-yorkers-moving-again https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8008-8-steps-to-fix-new-york-transit-and-get-new-yorkers-moving-again Cuomo subway repairs

Gov. Cuomo underground (photo: The Governor's Office)


With the transit system in New York City in constant crisis over a sustained period of time, from delayed trains underground to ever-dropping bus speeds on the streets, the question of how exactly to fix mass transit has been on the minds of elected and appointed officials, advocates and analysts, and, of course, frustrated commuters. In the aftermath of the short-term Subway Action Plan, the effectiveness of which was somewhat difficult to quantify and apparently underwhelming, officials are trying to focus on how to provide more long-term physical and fiscal stability for the beleaguered Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

While the ambitious plan to upgrade train signals, bus routes, and MTA spending practices that MTA New York City Transit president Andy Byford has called Fast Forward seems to be a universally agreed-on blueprint to improve city transit, how the plan gets funded and implemented is somewhat more muddled thanks to political disagreements between state and city leaders.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has embraced congestion pricing, a plan that would fund the MTA through tolls on vehicles entering Manhattan south of 60th Street, what the Fix NYC panel has determined should be the border of Manhattan’s central business district. Cuomo called the scheme -- which is aimed at both funding the MTA and reducing Manhattan roadway congestion -- an “idea whose time has come” last year, but the only part of the proposal that was agreed upon by state leaders this year was new fees on taxis and app-basd for-hire vehicles ($0.75 added to for-hire-vehicle carpool rides, $2.50 on taxi trips and $2.75 on FHV trips that go into Manhattan south of 96th Street), leaving the more difficult matter of adding a toll cordon in Manhattan to be dealt with later -- perhaps in the 2019 state budget, as Cuomo has indicated.

Cuomo is also demanding the New York City “pay its fair share” for any subway upgrades, an ask that observers have called dubious and one that seems wrapped up in his running feud with Mayor Bill de Blasio.

For his part, de Blasio has resisted embracing congestion pricing, calling it “regressive” even in the face of data showing car owners are wealthier than regular city transit riders, and has instead pushed a millionaires tax as a way of providing the MTA a new revenue stream. The mayor’s resistance to congestion pricing has drawn criticism from subway advocates, who have put together an advocacy coalition made up of anti-poverty and transit groups to push for the toll, and the millionaires tax is an idea Cuomo and even Democratic state Senators have dismissed as not having much support in Albany. In recent months de Blasio has appeared warmer to congestion pricing, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall as it gains support and appears to be a top Cuomo priority for the new year, pending his own reelection.

There’s also a coalition of elected officials who feel like the answer is to institute congestion pricing and the millionaires tax, in addition to reinstituting the commuter tax and getting the federal government to end the carried interest loophole. With the expected price for Fast Forward coming to close to $40 billion, these officials argue that neither congestion pricing nor a millionaires tax would provide the needed revenue for the MTA even when combined with contributions by the city and state.

Along with the policy-makers themselves, New York’s other top transit minds, who often influence policy outcomes, continue to assess ways to improve the subway and bus systems. Asked by Gotham Gazette how city, state, and MTA leaders can make real improvements, experts outlined roughly eight key steps, ranging from instituting the much-discussed congestion pricing and Fast Forward plans to more ambitious proposals that would encourage the city and state to look at mass transit as an all-encompassing ecosystem instead of separate pieces that happen to operate under a single public authority.

1. Fast Forward
The transit experts who spokes to Gotham Gazette pegged moving ahead with Fast Forward as an important next step in the life of the MTA. “The Regional Plan Association has long advocated for modernizing the signaling system in the subways, improving bus service, and making all stations ADA accessible, these are fundamental parts of Fast Forward,” said Kate Slevin, the senior vice president of programs and advocacy at RPA.

Not only does the Fast Forward plan include the physical improvements that Slevin noted, but it signals to riders and employees at the agency that there could be a new way of doing things going forward. “The MTA finally has a big picture vision, which is important for aligning the priorities of the many projects and fixes that have to be done,” Liam Blank, the advocacy manager at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign told Gotham Gazette. “They've lacked that for a number of years, and as a result we've gotten hodgepodge improvements that don't really show benefits to a majority of commuters.”

It’s the signal system upgrade at the heart of the plan, though, that Byford has suggested can be done on 11 line segments in 10 years, that could make the biggest difference according to Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute with a focus on transit. “The single-biggest thing we need to do is get more people onto the trains more reliably, and you can't really do that with the signal system the way it is,” she said. “Even if [the signal upgrades] aren’t on the exact schedule the Fast Forward plan laid out, it's a high-priority, I think it's important,” Gelinas said, noting that the communications-based train control-equipped L train has on-time performances over 90 percent compared to averages of 60 percent performance across the rest of the system, which Gelinas, Byford, and everyone else paying attention wants upgraded to CBTC as quickly as possible.

2. Congestion Pricing
Of course, implementing Fast Forward will require a large infusion of money for the MTA in order to get this work done. For revenue, and other reasons, transit experts peg congestion pricing as a necessary step to improve city mobility and livability. “There should be costs to bringing a large metal vehicle into the city,” Gelinas said, noting the effect that car traffic has on pedestrians walking around cars in crosswalks and cyclists having to dodge cars in bike lanes.

Not only would congestion pricing compel drivers to pay what Blank called “their fare share” for using public infrastructure, it would also free up street space in Manhattan which helps improve bus speeds there. “Fewer cars on the road means that the buses can start to move at speeds comparable to other cities. Right now they're stuck in the same traffic as the rest of the cars, so we have a transit system that's ineffective down below and on the surface,” Blank said.

And the need for it, according to Slevin of RPA, is almost impossible to overstate. “I can't stress enough how the key is congestion pricing to help us fix the subway, fix the buses, and provide the revenue for Fast Forward. And we have to get it done in 2019, we have to,” she said.

3. Control Costs
Whether or not a new revenue source for the MTA comes to fruition, the authority must look at how it actually spends the money it has at its disposal, according to transit watchers. The good news, on that front, is that members of the MTA board have spoken up about cost-controls recently, including a well-received report by Scott Rechler that laid out how the MTA could cut costs by reforming the agency’s bidding and project management processes.

“I think the board has laid out some common sense changes to how the MTA does business that will make things more cost effective and done in a more timely manner,” Slevin said, about proposals like simplifying contracts and making it easier to change projects on the fly. “But the leadership of the MTA and the whole agency has to be on board with implementing those changes and explain to the public how they're going about that.”

Like with many governmental agencies and authorities, personnel costs loom large. A coming jump in employee healthcare costs to $2.6 billion in 2022, according to Gelinas, means the authority should take a look at those and other costs as a preparation to make a bigger ask. “I would like to see a full audit of every single cost. Not even start with cutting health benefits, but are there better ways to deliver this healthcare, look at the labor rules, really justify spending every dollar before you do congestion pricing and say, ‘Oh by the way we need more money too.’"

There’s also an upcoming opportunity for the MTA and the Transportation Workers Union to find savings in staffing rules when they negotiate a contract in 2019, according to Jamison Dague, the director of infrastructure studies at the Citizens Budget Commission.

“What you'd like to see is some coordination between management and labor to improve productivity,” Dague said. “Whether looking at some of the work rules and the staffing as far as how flexibly you can deploy certain workers for different types of tasks, or even when it comes to hiring, can you can be less specific in the types of job requirements.”

Public-facing introspection could help make the case for more funding. “Byford could use a set of talking points on how the MTA is changing inside,” said Jon Orcutt, director of communications and advocacy at TransitCenter. “The line station managers are achieving X, we brought this project to a close under budget, we have our procurement process under review and will be instituting reforms by X month and so forth.”

Part of the spending fix can be as simple as the MTA taking a more active role in buying work materials. “Contractors and subcontractors buy the materials like cement and steel,” Gelinas said. “You'd think it would make sense for the MTA to buy those because it's a much bigger purchaser on the world market, and then give them to the contractors. Materials procurement is very opaque and there's a lot of room for corruption and middle men and padding and all kinds of things there,” she said, but the process still flies under the radar and delays projects that are as simple as repairing some stairs.

4. Use Current Projects as Proof Points
It’s also important for the MTA to prove they can actually improve the lives of New Yorkers, in order to build political support for the authority’s larger plans. The upcoming completion of the 7 train’s much-delayed CBTC signaling system is another opportunity for the MTA to show off what service improvements actually look like, while also explaining how other lines will be upgraded more efficiently, per Fast Forward.

“[Andy Byford] needs to deliver on that, and he needs a huge communications push to show why it's gotten better,” Orcutt said. “It would be great for everyone in Queens and also the whole city to see, ‘We re-signaled a line and it's great. And if you want more of that on your subway you have to fund Fast Forward. Delivering something tangible is really key for them.”

“The more the MTA can do to build its credibility in the near term will help with some of these longer term funding discussions,” said Slevin of RPA. “The L train shutdown is an opportunity to show you can get a big project done faster and cheaper by ripping off the Band-Aid and having a shorter period of time when there's more pain for riders,” she said, an especially salient point as Fast Forward fixes will most likely come with massive service disruptions.

5. Remember the Buses
There is one area where New York City government can exert more control on its own, advocates say, which is the bus system. “The city has [bus lane enforcement] cameras,” Orcutt said. “They can move them around, they can broadcast the fact that the cameras are out there more vigorously,” he said, and can also ask the NYPD to actually enforce the rules against driving and parking in bus lanes, a subject that Orcutt said the mayor “has been completely obtuse about.”

And as budget season starts in 2019, Blank of Tri-State Transportation said the city and MTA should lobby state lawmakers for even more bus lane cameras, an improvement that advocates called for in a recent “Fast Bus, Fair City” report. Blank also said the city should follow another one of the report’s recommendations and add 100 miles of bus lanes in the next five years, on top of the city’s existing 120 miles of lanes.

Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute suggested a more radical redesign of the city’s streets if human-based enforcement didn’t speed the buses up. “The city can do more with the physical infrastructure itself, something like building out a curb so the traffic can't easily get into a bus lane. They do that in Paris, with reverse bus thoroughfares, so buses come in the opposite direction of traffic. So you'd have to be very stupid to go into that lane and be hit by a bus. When human enforcement of things like speeds and double parking doesn't work, use the physical environment to nudge people in the right direction,” she said.

6. Don’t Silo; See an Ecosystem
Taking care of the bus system is part of an overall attitude shift that needs to happen, one that sees transit as one interconnected system instead of competing ways of getting around. “I think that for far too long transit has been seen in silos, and as a result it's created a disjointed transportation network that we have today, mainly in terms of how it functions,” Blank said. “Things don't have proper transfers, the investments are clearly unequal between the systems and especially between different neighborhoods. So we need to start seeing these things as complementary and operating like an ecosystem.”

Taking care of the buses, in an example Slevin laid out, would make it that much easier to work on the subways during Fast Forward. “You have to make the bus system faster so you have a reliable alternative when you're fixing the subway,” Slevin said. “So if you have a bus system that functions better you can have longer term windows to work on the subway.” Slevin also gave an endorsement to Scott Stringer’s new proposal to provide a single-ride ticket for use among the subway, bus, and LIRR and Metro-North stations located in the city.

A vision of interconnected transit can even extend to pieces of it outside of the MTA’s purview, according to Associate Director of NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Sarah Kaufman. “I imagine an app like Citymapper, which already integrates multiple modes seamlessly into its direction platform, also providing a payment option through pre-loaded funds. Perhaps 10 Citi Bike rides would lead to a free ride, or 20 subway trips earns the user a discount. During gridlock alert days, prices could surge on Ubers while remaining low on transit in order to modify New Yorkers' behavior,” she said.

While New York isn’t set to completely phase out the MetroCard in favor of a contactless fare payment until 2023, the city can look to places like Chicago where transit users can connect to the subway, buses, and bike share system with a single app..

7. Expansion’s Also a Must
While the MTA has to make sure the trains and buses they actually have now are running effectively, there’s still a need to grow the transit system according to some experts.

“I don't think we can afford to wait another 20 years to add three stops to the Second Avenue subway. We have to be doing [Crossrail-type] of things here too if we want people to have a good quality of life. I don't think it's too ambitious,” Gelinas said in response to the question of whether the MTA should have to choose between bringing the subway system up to good repair or expanding it.

Slevin at the RPA made the case that the MTA should study expansion now, since it typically takes so long to get a huge new project off the ground. “It takes many years to build new transit lines so the MTA could start studying the Triboro now, and then be ready to build once resources become available,” she said, making the case for the Brooklyn/Queens/Bronx line that the RPA has endorsed and which would largely run on existing  little-used, above-ground railroad tracks, thus requiring significantly less construction than another new subway line, while also providing much needed access between boroughs that doesn’t rely on trips into Manhattan.

“Part of the reason we are in the transit mess we are in now is because we failed to invest in the system, modernize it, and build new lines to meet growing demand. We can’t make that mistake again,” said Slevin, also arguing for expansions like the Utica Avenue line in Brooklyn, building the Q into the Bronx, and a Jewel Avenue line in central Queens, all subway extensions into dense, transit-starved neighborhoods.

Gelinas echoed Slevin’s argument that a current lack of real planning could doom the city down the road. “We should be able to do two things at once, and if we can't, we're really harming the future of the city.

8. Communication is Key
As any perusal of Twitter will show you during a morning commute meltdown, transit riders are almost as annoyed by a lack of information about delays and trains getting rerouted as they are by travel disruptions themselves. Beyond confusing and irritating commuters, a lack of communication saps enthusiasm for proposals that would improve the system. “People understand when there's a real problem, but what they hate is not getting straight talk about it,” said Orcutt of TransitCenter. “If people don't feel like the MTA is levelling with them, it's much harder to get them to rally around more funding,” he explained.

“Multiple studies have shown that passengers mostly trust the transit agency when they are provided real-time information -- even when it's bad news,” Kaufman told Gotham Gazette. “The information gives the perception of control over the system, whereas only sharing the word ‘delay’ does not.” Kaufman recommended the agency lean on specifics when telling riders why their train is delayed, especially since clearly communicating something like a signal failure could encourage riders to lean on elected officials to focus more on the issue of signal replacement.

“[Communication] should just be a management thing. You don't need new anything for that, you just run it well and have somebody in charge,” Orcutt said. It’s a step the agency has made some movement on, hiring Sarah Meyer as the agency’s chief customer officer, but the effort at clear, timely, and focused communication is obviously still dogging the MTA with the occasional management failure and inaccurate countdown clock and website information.

While improving the way the MTA shares real-time problems plaguing the subway system won’t actually fix those problems the way other solutions can, it will at least help with the perception of screaming, or tweeting, into a bureaucratic void when something goes wrong.

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by Dave Colon, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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8 Steps to Fix New York Transit and Get New Yorkers Moving Again Mon, 22 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
To Save the MTA, Push ‘Fast Forward’ Ahead Quickly and Responsibly https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7938-to-save-the-mta-push-fast-forward-ahead-quickly-and-responsibly https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7938-to-save-the-mta-push-fast-forward-ahead-quickly-and-responsibly mta subway action

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


The fight to fix our ailing transit system took a significant step forward in May when New York City Transit President Andy Byford released his “Fast Forward” plan to dramatically accelerate comprehensive fixes to our city’s subways and buses. We, along with many other legislators and advocates, praised the plan and Byford’s work to create it. Fast Forward isn’t just a clear roadmap to a modern subway system; it’s also a very necessary roadmap to MTA reform.

Now it’s time for the MTA to take the next step toward transparency as the governor and Legislature begin the difficult work of finding sources for the billions of dollars necessary to pay for Fast Forward -- as well as the authority’s expected capital needs. While Byford estimates the cost of Fast Forward to be $40 billion, it is essential that the MTA provide a budget detailing the plan’s costs as well as its 20-Year Capital Needs Assessment. If state government is to do its job, we need to know what fixing our subways and buses will really cost. Without a detailed budget, the necessary revenue that must be provided to save our transit system will be unlikely to materialize and millions of riders will suffer the consequences every day.

The collapse of our subway and bus systems isn’t Byford’s fault. It is, in fact, ours. Decades of indifference, neglect, and underfunding from Albany has hamstrung our public transit and now threatens to irrevocably damage the fabric of our city. Make no mistake, without public transit; New York City ceases to be. So it is our duty to fix it.

Historically, Albany’s inaction has stemmed in part from the lack of a clear vision of how to fix public transit. Now that we have that framework in place, the final step still remains. The MTA must show us exactly how it plans to implement the plan and how much it will cost.

There have been many ideas for how to provide additional revenue to the MTA—congestion pricing, value capture, a millionaires’ tax, new corporate taxes—but not a single one of these proposals will ever gain enough support in the Legislature if lawmakers are in the dark as to the exact costs of the agency’s capital needs.

Time is of the essence. The governor will deliver the next State of the State on January 9 and the next preliminary budget a week later. The MTA cannot wait until then to submit to the Legislature its capital needs and a budget for the Fast Forward proposal. The costs of Fast Forward need to be factored into the governor’s executive budget long before its release, and the scope and importance of the Fast Forward plan requires that the Legislature is given ample time to review and hold hearings on the authority’s proposed costs well before budget negotiations begin in January.

Once the MTA shows us the numbers, then it becomes Albany’s task to make sure we raise the necessary revenues without unduly burdening already-frustrated straphangers. Unfortunately, Albany doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to securing real funds for the MTA.  The authority’s current capital budget, the 2015-2019 Capital Program, was only approved in 2016—sixteen months late—and of the $32 billion that was approved, the source of most of the state’s $8.3 billion share has yet to be identified. This type of delay and the lack of a clear identified revenue source cannot happen if we expect the Fast Forward plan to be successful.

Beyond submitting its Fast Forward and 20-Year Capital Needs Assessment budgets this fall, the MTA should submit future Capital Program budgets earlier, in order to demonstrate the need for dedicated, long-term revenue streams, the Capital Program should have a longer timeline than its current five years.

This year Assemblymember Carroll drafted and passed in the Assembly a bill, A.11094, which would have required the MTA to submit its capital budgets earlier than currently mandated—but the bill never came to a vote in the Senate. To facilitate long-term planning, the MTA should share the full cost of the 15-year Fast Forward plan rather than breaking it up into the five-year chunks.

The current system of temporary fixes is unsustainable and cannot continue. Without a budget and time for the Legislature to review it, the state will again fail to act on a concrete plan to finally fix and modernize our subway system. There might be some serious sticker shock in Albany, but it’s time for us to roll up our sleeves and get the job done. If we don’t, then Fast Forward will remain Byford’s dream, while millions of riders suffer the daily nightmare that our subways have become.

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New York State Assemblymember Robert Carroll represents the 44th Assembly District which is comprised of the neighborhoods of Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Kensington, Victorian Flatbush and Boro Park. Nick Sifuentes is the executive director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a transportation advocacy organization. On Twitter @Bobby4Brooklyn & @Nick_Sifu of @Tri_State.

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

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To Save the MTA, Push ‘Fast Forward’ Ahead Quickly and Responsibly Mon, 17 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Promising Efficiency and Performance, Molinaro Releases MTA Turnaround Plan https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7893-promising-efficiency-and-performance-molinaro-release-mta-turnaround-plan https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7893-promising-efficiency-and-performance-molinaro-release-mta-turnaround-plan marc molinaro mta

Marc Molinaro on the subway (photo: @marcmolinaro)


Republican gubernatorial candidate Marc Molinaro said that his plan to fix the state’s ailing subway system is “not sexy,” but argued Tuesday that he will fix the MTA by doing away with what he said is Governor Andrew Cuomo’s approach, marked by uncontrolled spending, prioritizing “vanity projects” over key improvements and frequent fighting with Mayor Bill de Blasio.

For Molinaro, the chief problem facing the subway system is not lack of funding, but out-of-control costs allowed by bad management. His “Back on Track” plan, released late Monday, diagnoses the problems and puts forward solutions, emphasizing reducing costs and putting an end to what the campaign says are inefficient work rules that slow repairs.

“The MTA is falling victim to waste, fraud and abuse, and we as a state must confront the high cost of labor,” he said at a Tuesday news conference outside City Hall, citing among others the Manhattan Institute and the Regional Plan Association as sources for ideas in the 30-page plan, which also supports the recently-released “Fast Forward” plan put forth by New York City Transit Authority President Andy Byford. “If spending more money on the MTA was the answer, we'd have the best transit system in the world,” Molinaro said.

To cut costs, Molinaro is proposing lengthening work windows, which would mean longer subway service closures, with the aim of allowing for more efficient, less costly repairs.

And should Molinaro, a former New York Assembly member and currently the Dutchess county executive, be elected governor in November, the days of the state’s governor and its largest city’s mayor fighting over funding would be over, he said.

“I'm not going to argue with the mayor of New York, because the state's responsible for the MTA,” said Molinaro, adding that he would work “hand-in-hand” with de Blasio to do what it takes to fix the subway.

Asked by Gotham Gazette to break down how his plan would fill the over $30 billion in funding needs for subway system repairs, Molinaro declined to discuss specifics, instead pointing to the written plan. In it, Molinaro calls for using value capture — a mechanism that captures the increased tax revenue from rising property prices as a result of new government investment, such as a new nearby subway station.

Molinaro’s plan vaguely suggests improving the state’s economic development programs to raise revenue with “pro-growth” initiatives. Underscoring his attention to driving down costs, one of the planks under “potential revenue streams” is cutting costs of what he labels Cuomo’s “vanity projects.” At the news conference, as in his plan, Molinaro said he supports congestion pricing, though “certain boroughs need consideration” on costs of driving into the city, he said. In the plan, Molinaro says that while a version of congestion pricing, which would add a fee to cars entering the core of Manhattan, is “part of the future of the MTA,” it would need to be coupled with “major reform efforts to decrease operations and construction costs.”

Among those cost-cutting reforms are reining in health care costs, overtime pay and pensions for construction workers on MTA projects. On construction costs, Molinaro said he would welcome new technology and crack down on overstaffing on projects.

While he focused his attention during the news conference on what he views as mismanagement of MTA-related matters by Cuomo, he also embraced the fundamentals of the city’s newly passed effort to give discounted Metrocards to low-income New Yorkers. Specifically, Molinaro proposed using state funds to expand the city’s new “Fair Fares” policy to make eligible for the program individuals who earn incomes of less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line. The current policy will give half-price metrocards to the 800,000 New Yorkers below the federal poverty line — which is roughly $25,000 for a family of four.

He also proposed assessing transit desserts and expanding subway lines to underserved areas, though he did not specify which areas are most in need of service.

Molinaro on Tuesday took several shots at the governor, likening him to “some sort of deranged Wizard of Oz” due to what he said is the governor’s habit of misdirection from the core issues at hand facing the beleaguered subway system. The governor has continued to claim that the city is responsible for the MTA, even though he appoints most of the members on the MTA board — six of 14 — and its top leadership. And though the state typically contributes billions of dollars toward MTA capital plans, most of the funding that goes to the MTA comes from city residents who use its railways, subways and buses.

Abbey Collins, a spokesperson for Cuomo’s campaign, in a statement called Molinaro’s campaign a “joke,” said he lacked credibility, and conflated Molinaro’s criticism of the governor’s MTA management with attacks on its employees.

“While Trump mini-me Molinaro has been busy copying and pasting the MTA’s own plan into his policy book, it is Governor Cuomo who has appointed world-class senior leadership, secured a dedicated revenue stream, enacted the first phase of congestion pricing and charged the MTA to undertake the Fast Forward plan,” she said. “It’s clear Molinaro has exactly zero ideas of his own and instead is resorting to Trumpian assaults on the hardworking men and women who make the subways run.” The president of the state AFL-CIO, which has endorsed Cuomo for re-election, sent out a statement also criticizing Molinaro for “vilify[ing] working people and their unions.”

“He would rather blame workers for subway repair costs than recognize New York's highly trained and skilled workforce is the only thing that keeps our state moving forward,” said New York AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento of Molinaro.

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Promising Efficiency and Performance, Molinaro Releases MTA Turnaround Plan Tue, 28 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
The Byford Plan and the MTA Information Deficit https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7713-the-byford-plan-and-the-mta-information-deficit https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/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