Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1055 Thu, 02 Jul 2020 12:41:09 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Cuomo Hasn't Submitted De Blasio's MTA Board Nominees to State Senate, Which Left Albany Indefinitely https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9285-cuomo-hasnt-submitted-de-blasio-mta-board-nominees-to-state-senate https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9285-cuomo-hasnt-submitted-de-blasio-mta-board-nominees-to-state-senate 1 mbd rides cityhall

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Two months after Mayor Bill de Blasio made his nominations for two empty seats on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Board, Governor Andrew Cuomo has yet to send those nominations to the State Senate for its approval. The inaction continues to leave half of de Blasio’s four seats empty as the Board makes major decisions impacting virtually everyone who lives or works in New York City.

The MTA Board is composed of 17 voting members, whose decisions have broad impacts on the millions of New Yorkers who rely on the metro region’s subway and bus systems, commuter railways, and tolled bridges and tunnels under the MTA’s authority. They vote on fare prices, the agency’s massive capital construction budget, and general operational policies. 

The governor nominates six of those board members and names the Board chair and CEO of the MTA, and maintains effective overall control over the authority. The mayor of New York City nominates four, while one each is selected by the county executives from Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Dutchess, Orange, Rockland, and Putnam counties. The last four counties get one collective vote.  

Since December, however, de Blasio has had only two representatives on the board, after the resignation of Veronica Vanterpool that month and with Carl Weisbrod stepping down earlier in March. After Weisbrod’s departure from the board, the mayor nominated Dan Zarilli, his chief climate advisor, to replace him. But Zarilli’s nomination was, according to Governor Cuomo, not sent in time to be vetted and therefore could not be advanced to the Senate for a vote before the Legislature ended its work for the year in June 2019. 

In February, after facing criticism from transit advocates and good government groups for dragging his heels, the mayor finally made two new nominations. Zarilli was apparently out of consideration and instead the mayor put forward Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez, commissioner for the city’s Department for the Aging. To replace Vanterpool, he nominated Victor Calise, commissioner of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities.

The nominations are sent for evaluation including background checks to the governor, who then must send them to the Senate for a vote. “We have not received the nominations yet,” said Mike Murphy, a spokesperson for the Senate Majority Democrats, who are led by Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, in an email. 

Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a spokesperson for de Blasio, said the administration has had no word on the nominations from the governor’s office. “These are incredibly important positions, and we conducted a thorough search to find the best possible candidates. We urge the State to take up these nominations as soon as possible,” she said in an email. 

The governor’s office did not provide an explanation for why the nominations have not been sent to the Senate. Cuomo and lawmakers recently agreed upon a new state budget and members of the Legislature left Albany indefinitely.

Meanwhile, the MTA has continued to conduct essential and far-reaching business in its recent Board meetings, with de Blasio’s sway diminished. Those decisions now take a new turn amid the coronavirus crisis that has devastated MTA finances.

The delays in appointments have frustrated transit advocates, who already criticize the Board, and its structure, for serving as a rubber-stamp for the governor, who has often prioritized flashy, attention-grabbing projects over the maintenance and upgrade work that better serves the many systems under the MTA’s authority. At the same time, throughout his tenure the mayor has taken a backseat to influencing the MTA’s actions despite being critical of its efforts to claw more funding out of the city’s coffers. Case in point, de Blasio failed to make his appointment to the Capital Program Review Board, which would have had veto power over the MTA’s hastily approved $51 billion five-year capital plan.

The plan was approved unanimously in September 2019 when the mayor had three representatives on the Board. In December, when the Board approved the agency’s $17 billion operating budget for 2020, all three city members voted against it. Vanterpool officially stepped down two days after that vote.

The newly-passed state budget again makes a hefty requirement of New York City to fund the MTA, this time $3 billion for the new capital plan and up to $212 million for Access-a-Ride.

The MTA is also facing an unprecedented crisis as the coronavirus has led to plummeting ridership, which accounts for a substantial portion of its annual operating revenue. After the coronavirus outbreak hit, the board moved to virtual meetings in March. It is set to hold its next virtual meeting on April 22, again without the city’s seats filled.

With many of its own employees falling ill and dead to the virus, the agency has cut subway and bus service by 25%, paused a “Transformation Plan” that would have cut 2,700 jobs, and has stopped ongoing construction. According to MTA estimates, the authority is losing as much as $125 million in revenue each week. The MTA was seeking about $4 billion in emergency funds from the federal government to weather the storm (though those costs will likely rise); it ultimately received $3.8 billion from the recent $2 trillion stimulus package approved by Congress and the president. 

Additional cost-saving measures will likely have to be taken, though it is unclear what the fate of more federal money might be. The Board’s April meeting agenda is not yet set.

As de Blasio’s two seats remain vacant, it is noteworthy that the Board continues to skew white, suburban, and wealthy, a stark contrast with the majority of commuters that are served by the MTA. Before coronavirus hit, more than 5.4 million people rode the subway on a typical weekday, while another 1.8 million rode the bus. An analysis last year by Reinvent Albany, a government reform group, found that 89% of MTA riders were New York City residents, compared to 36% of the Board’s voting members as of July 2019. About 55% of MTA riders were non-white, compared to 29% of the Board. MTA riders had a median household income of $58,000, while a Board member’s median household income was $292,080.

The mayor’s latest nominees represent important constituencies. Calise, who is in a wheelchair, would be the first MTA board member with a disability, and the MTA has long been critiqued and even sued in court for failing to provide accessibility across its system.

"Victor's relentless pursuit to make New York City the most accessible place in the world is exactly the type of ardent leadership we need on the MTA Board," de Blasio said in announcing his nomination. Cortés-Vázquez would likely extend her advocacy for seniors, who also struggle with the lack of accessibility. “Lorraine’s vast experience in government, the private and non-profit sectors, partnered with her clear dedication to our city, will make her a great addition to this Board,” the mayor said when nominating her.

Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director for Riders Alliance, a commuter advocacy group, did note that the MTA Board is not as significant as people sometimes believe since day-to-day operations of the MTA are controlled mainly by senior staff who are appointed by and report to the CEO and Governor Cuomo. The governor has over time has also expanded his influence over the authority, including by appointing state budget director Robert Mujica to its board, which required a change to state law that Cuomo pushed through the Legislature.

But, as Pearlstein noted, the mayor’s appointees act as important countervailing forces representing the city’s interests and have in the past raised important questions about the way the MTA spends its money. Vanterpool and Weisbrod were considered particularly effective members. “They are in many respects an advisory board and not actually a governing board. But they have a bully pulpit, each of them,” he said.

The mayor’s current appointees on the board are David Jones, president and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York, and former New York City Office of Labor Relations Commissioner Bob Linn, who worked closely with the mayor for hist first term and beyond.

Pearlstein stressed the importance of the representation that the mayor’s two nominees would bring to the Board. “The MTA has difficulty adequately serving New Yorkers who use wheelchairs or have other disabilities and as somebody who is a leader in the disability community, [Calise’s] voice would be very important,” he said. “And I think the same is true of  Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez, for a couple of reasons. One, you know, as somebody who deals with older New Yorkers who also face many challenges in transit, somebody from the Bronx which is the poorest part of New York and also the most transit dependent part of New York, and as a woman of color who significantly would really stand out on the MTA board which is so white and so male.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Cuomo Hasn't Submitted De Blasio's MTA Board Nominees to State Senate, Which Left Albany Indefinitely Tue, 07 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Shut Down the Subway – and Fix It https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9254-shut-down-new-york-city-subway-and-fix-it-cuomo-coronavirus https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9254-shut-down-new-york-city-subway-and-fix-it-cuomo-coronavirus cuomo train tunnel MTA subway shutdown

Gov. Cuomo should close the subways, the author writes (photo: Governor's Office)


New York City is the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis in the United States. State and city authorities are pleading with residents to stay home, shelter in place, and maintain distance from fellow New Yorkers to slow the wave of cases crashing into the city’s healthcare facilities.

Yet, public transportation was running on the standard weekday schedule as of Monday morning. With subway ridership down ridership down 87%, the response on Tuesday was to cut trains by a quarter.

Such quarter-measures will not serve the city well. A full closure of the subway is needed, along with steps to dedicate buses and other transportation services to the essential workers who are saving lives and keeping the city running. As drastic and disruptive as shutting down the subway sounds, doing so can slow the spread of the virus. Apart from the exigency of the public health crisis, the unprecedented fall in ridership also offers an opportunity to undertake repairs and fixes that would be disruptive in normal times -- and help set the stage for the system’s recovery.

There is an irreconcilable tension between running public transport essentially as normal while authorities order folks to stay at home. Public transportation accounts for most trips within the city, and the virus travels alongside passengers in the confined spaces of trains and buses. Public transit was suspended on the first day of the lockdown in Wuhan, China in order to slow the circulation of people and the virus they may carry, and Chinese public health officials have urged cities to suspend service in other affected countries. MTA workers -- not to mention CEO Patrick Foye -- are falling ill themselves and the decision to run fewer trains has increased crowding, and thus transmission risks.

The MTA needs to immediately cease providing fully “public” public transportation. Addressing this crisis requires taking seriously the real economic, social, and health costs of continuing to provide service, and beginning to think about how the system can recover after the crisis.

The MTA should shut down all subway lines and use the time for several weeks’ worth of dedicated repairs, accomplishing fixes that would in normal times have to be stretched over months or years. Typically, major disruptions to train operations for necessary repairs are impossible or at least extremely difficult due to rider pushback, even when closures allow for faster and cheaper progress.

The subway is the circulatory system of New York City. In drastic open-heart surgeries, the heart is stopped and damage repaired to help the patient come back healthier. Taking advantage of a time when circulation needs to halt to ensure the health of the subway when it restarts is prudent and will allow New York to come back from this crisis stronger than before.

This would be an effective use of money set aside for public transportation in the new federal stimulus bill, and closure will also help strengthen existing shelter-in-place orders to slow the spread of the virus throughout the city. With ridership already at historically low levels, coupled with an imperative to minimize travel, the typical disruptions from repairs are minimized. Making progress on the extensive backlog of much-needed repairs to dilapidated stations, outdated power systems, and other priorities while advancing progress on essential signals upgrades will help the subway emerge more reliable and faster for New Yorkers after the crisis, which will help the system more quickly recover ridership.

There are, of course, major logistical challenges that must be overcome to make such a plan workable. For one, healthcare providers and other critical workers need to get to their jobs. MTA buses should be dedicated to the transport of essential workers only, maintaining existing routes on streets cleared of competing traffic. For essential workers unable to commute by bus, the city should draw on its taxi fleet to provide alternative transportation or partner with app-based services.

Care will also need to be taken to ensure the health of workers undertaking repairs. Workers will need to be screened (at least for their temperatures, if coronavirus testing delays persist), worksites will need to be consistently monitored for transmission risks, and workers must be provided guaranteed care in the case that transmission does occur on the job. Practices and procedures will have to be adapted to match the needs of these unusual times.

Slowing the spread of the coronavirus in New York requires dramatic actions, and halting public transportation to reinforce existing orders is just one needed step. Stopping the trains now and using the time to make necessary repairs can also lay the foundations for New York’s recovery by creating the opportunity for the city, and its public transportation, to bounce back better than before.

***
Patrick Farrell is a Master in Public Affairs student concentrating in economics and public policy at Princeton University with prior experience as a researcher focused on urban economics at New York University. He is a co-author of the article Social Connectedness in Urban Areas, which explores the distribution of social networks in New York City and the role of public transit in shaping them.

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

]]>
Shut Down the Subway – and Fix It Sun, 29 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New York Mass Transit System on Verge of Going Broke, Needs Bailout Quickly https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9229-new-york-mass-transit-system-on-verge-of-going-broke-needs-bailout-quickly https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9229-new-york-mass-transit-system-on-verge-of-going-broke-needs-bailout-quickly mta subway vintage

Subway ridership has plunged during the coronavirus outbreak (photo: Marc A. Hermann/MTA NYCT)


Patrick Foye, the chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and therefore the leader of the city’s subway and bus systems, sent a letter to the local Congressional delegation on March 17 stating that the MTA faced financial calamity and seeking $4 billion in federal aid.

The MTA’s cash reserves are small, meaning it will go broke very quickly because of massive revenue losses (in this case resulting from the impact of the coronavirus outbreak). By going broke I mean unable to meet payroll and pay bills. More than 60% of the MTA’s expenses are for labor, nearly all of it under contract, and those workers need to keep getting paid.

In Foye’s letter to Congress, he reported the authority has drops of 60% in subway ridership, 49% in bus ridership, 90% in Metro-North ridership, and 67% ridership on the Long Island Railroad.

On March 19, MTA New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg reported on WPIX-11 that subway ridership had dropped 71% from the same date a year prior. For the city subway and bus systems, that means MTA NYC Transit is still carrying 3 million daily rides, instead of the normal 7 million rides per weekday. Three million rides is still a lot of people and the system has to keep operating to bring health care workers, first responders, and others essential for society’s basic services, including in the utility industry, supermarkets and grocery stores, banking, some retail, and essential government functions.

Foye’s letter also cited a potential collapse of the $6 billion in taxes and fees directly dedicated to the authority that derive from economic activity in the metropolitan area. The prospect of rapid revenue losses puts the MTA in an impossible situation — it must keep paying its employees to operate the trains and buses, but its cash flow may be insufficient to meet payroll in the near future. Payroll, pension, and health and welfare also don’t include paying the fuel and electric bills, buying supplies, or the $250 million a month needed to pay interest on the borrowed funds that sustain the capital program and assets already put in place.

The MTA has only about $560 million in general reserves, about three-quarters of which is set-asides for retiree health and welfare, which the MTA is obligated to pay but, unlike the pension system, are unfunded. The MTA makes these payments for the retirees in cash out of the operating budget but they rise every year, though it has tried to accumulate some reserves for this purpose.

An analysis of the overall MTA budget shows, however, that the combined ridership and tax revenue financial losses by the end of April would bring a shortfall for the MTA of around $500 million from the $1.4 billion sum needed to pay one month’s MTA expenses. The monthly ridership revenue is about $500 million, and it is nearly six weeks to the end of April. A 50% drop would mean a loss of at least $375 million over that period. Foye’s reports indicate the ridership losses exceed 50%.

The dedicated taxes and fees also run about $500 million a month, and even a 20% drop over the next six weeks would result in a loss of $150 million. With a revenue shortfall by the end of April of $500 million, the authority would need all of its reserves to meet payroll and the rest of its bills and would start coming up short in May. The table below, taken from Volume I of the MTA December budget, p. 14, provides the data to make the calculations.

     

A FINANCIAL SNAPSHOT OF THE MTA

     
 

                    REVENUE SOURCE (millions)

 

EXPENSE CATEGORY (millions)

Farebox

   

$6,486.00 

   

Payroll

   

$5,525 

Tolls

   

$2118

   

Overtime

   

$896

Taxes

   

$6182

   

Health & Welfare

 

$2171

State & Local

 

$613

   

Pension

   

$1467

Other Revenue

 

$682

   

Other Labor

 

$509

Funding Agreements

$718

   

Non-Labor

 

$4156

Other

   

$203

   

Debt Service

 

$2843

Total

   

$17,003 

   

Total*

   

$16,991 

                   

(*includes adjustments of ($577 million) from use of reserves, etc.)

Getting bailed out by City and State government won’t work. The City and State are anticipating the major downturn in the economy severely affecting their own budgets. A new report by the State Comptroller’s office shows the State’s tax revenue could drop $4-7 billion below predictions from when the governor’s executive budget was released in mid-January.

Both governments have $6 billion or more in reserves and short-term borrowing powers, but will need these funds to sustain other government employment, the health care system, and public assistance, and will likely soon need to be bailed out by the federal government themselves. At best the City and State could squeeze out about $250 million each in the month of May for the MTA, but after that the federal government has to step in. Only the Feds have the unlimited borrowing power to stem the tide. The MTA will need large government cash infusions within the next several months.

The Capital Plan and Congestion Pricing
Both Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio recently recognized the Trump administration was likely stalling the approval of congestion pricing, the $15 billion centerpiece of the long-term funding of the next MTA capital plan, which includes many important projects like re-signaling several subway lines. The Federal Highway Administration has to approve the State’s plan because our roads affect the Interstate Highway System.

Perhaps the national impulse to drop partisan rancor might diffuse hostility on this point. Maybe. New York might still need to await a Democratic victory this fall to assure that, sooner or later, congestion pricing will be approved by the presidential administration. But between Donald Trump and the new coronavirus, some parts of the MTA capital plan will likely be delayed until 2022 or beyond. The MTA’s capacity to operate needs help right now.

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

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

]]>
New York Mass Transit System on Verge of Going Broke, Needs Bailout Quickly Sat, 21 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
What's The [DATA] Point? 275, with MTA Board Member Veronica Vanterpool https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8944-whats-the-data-point-275-mta-board-veronica-vanterpool https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8944-whats-the-data-point-275-mta-board-veronica-vanterpool whats the data point


What's The [Data] Point? Episode 85 -- 275, with MTA Board Member Veronica Vanterpool [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

veronica vanterpool 150Veronica Vanterpool, an outgoing MTA Board member appointed by Mayor de Blasio, joined the podcast to discuss her work in transit advocacy and on the MTA Board, key MTA-related issues, and more.

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

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
What's The [DATA] Point? 275, with MTA Board Member Veronica Vanterpool Thu, 21 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
MTA May Have Halted Subway Ridership Decline, But Gains Very Fragile https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8914-mta-halted-subway-ridership-decline-but-gains-fragile https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8914-mta-halted-subway-ridership-decline-but-gains-fragile mta phase 14

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


The New York City Transit and Bus Committee of the MTA Board reported at its October 2019 meeting that weekday ridership of the subway grew 1.4% in September of this year compared to last, and that there have been four straight months of subway ridership gains. The MTA put out a gushing October press release that subway weekday ridership this September was up 4.5% over September 2018, and bus weekday ridership was up 1.5% over September 2018.* Revenue was up over forecasts as well.

The MTA attributed the improvement to the Subway Action Plan and a restoration of on-time performance to 82.7% in September 2019, compared to 69% a year prior. The Subway Action Plan invested heavily in operations and maintenance improvements like eliminating track fires, deploying emergency personnel, fixing signals and track, more rapid repairs, as well as other measures like increasing speeds on subway lines where speed limits had been imposed starting in the 1990s.

This is obviously good news since subway ridership peaked in 2015, stayed flat in 2016, and declined in 2017 and 2018. State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office has estimated that the ridership decline is costing the MTA $250 million a year. Any revenue gains are welcome, especially to the extent that they reflect improved public confidence in the mass transit system.

Despite the recent improvement, MTA documents still acknowledged that average weekday ridership for all of New York City Transit (subways and buses) was still down 0.6% from the prior year-over-year (September 2017-September 2018, verus. September 2018-September 2019), so a recovery is actually just beginning.

But the subway ridership gain is especially fragile because the MTA is projecting deficits of $1.9 billion by 2023 before fare and toll hikes and its budget reduction and “transformation” plans are implemented, after which there is still a projected deficit in 2023 of $433 million.

Unfortunately these plans to address deficits include staff reductions of 3,000-4,000 jobs, including reductions of 2,300 jobs in operations and maintenance personnel at New York City Transit from the 2019 staffing peak related to the Subway Action Plan.

Below is a table taken from the Comptroller’s report using the MTA’s projections.

mta staffing levels

It is uncertain how the MTA will preserve the on-time performance and ridership gains while cutting 2,300 operations and maintenance personnel. 

Projecting the revenue gains from the September ridership increases would yield another $100 million for the MTA in 2020, perhaps higher by 2023. This is just back-of-the-envelope math, but the potential of retaining, regaining, or gaining more riders is there and that’s why personnel cuts of such magnitude are problematic.

The MTA is also hiring 500 more police officers, at an estimated cost of $50 million a year, for various public safety and fare evasion deterrence purposes, without booking any more revenue from the fare evasion deterrence. The agency says fare evasion now costs it $260 million a year. The MTA has yet to provide any metrics or a clear plan for how the extra cops will be worth the cost, but I would still give the extra cops the benefit of the doubt at a minimum at deterring crime. The MTA owes the public a better explanation for what benefits the new officers will offer.

Even a revenue gain of $100-$200 million a year from improved ridership won’t be a miracle for the MTA when it faces deficits of $1.9 billion a year, with $433 million still left after implementing current plans by 2023.

When the Legislature provided funding for the Subway Action Plan and the new congestion pricing and various tax hikes for the 2020-2024 MTA Capital Plan, it left the MTA little extra room to address its deficits. The Action Plan funded staff-ups for service improvement, most of which need to be sustained (and the money spent). Congestion pricing and the other new revenue is prohibited from being used for operating deficits. Essentially Governor Cuomo and the Legislature left the MTA stranded and needing to find a way internally to cope with its deficits, which involve a mismatch between revenue, including its farebox and dedicated taxes, growing at 1% a year, and its costs, growing at 3% a year, mostly debt service costs and health insurance.

With the Legislature up for election next year, tax increases are unlikely. But there are still large sums of money unspent in the Dedicated Infrastructure Reserves set up from the Financial Settlements over the past years. Just giving the MTA $150 million from the reserves next year to preserve operations and maintenance services (and the ridership gains), to New York City Transit and commuter rail, would give the MTA more time to continue the gains of the past year and find efficiencies without harming service.

In 2021, the Legislature could look at some modest new sources of revenue, like the for-hire-vehicle surcharges, or substituting some sources of revenue for the MTA with others that more closely correlate with economic growth.

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

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

*The MTA notes its ridership numbers may be subject to future revision.

]]>
MTA May Have Halted Subway Ridership Decline, But Gains Very Fragile Sun, 10 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: The MTA's New $52 Billion Plan to Save the Subways & More https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8813-max-murphy-podcast-the-mta-s-new-55-billion-plan-to-save-the-subways-more https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8813-max-murphy-podcast-the-mta-s-new-55-billion-plan-to-save-the-subways-more 23 mta 600

(photo: Patrick J. Cashin/Metropolitan Transportation Authority)


September 25, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The MTA's New $52 Billion Plan to Save the Subways & More

nicole gelinas wbaiThe MTA Board just passed a new five-year, $51.5 billion capital plan largely aimed at upgrading the New York City subways. Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute joined the show to discuss the new capital plan and share her thoughts on its structure, its positives and negatives, and what comes next.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

]]>
Max & Murphy Podcast: The MTA's New $52 Billion Plan to Save the Subways & More Wed, 25 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The MTA Needs a Real Capital Plan, Not Unrealistic Promises https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8799-the-mta-needs-a-real-capital-plan-not-unrealistic-promises https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8799-the-mta-needs-a-real-capital-plan-not-unrealistic-promises gov mta transit

(photo: Don Pollard/Governor's Office)


On Monday, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) released an 11-page slideshow “overview” partially summarizing the details of its nearly $55 billion 2020-2024 capital plan. The unveiling seemed like Christmas morning - according to MTA CEO/Chair Pat Foye, the plan will sell itself. Everyone will get the pony that they asked for. NYCT President Andy Byford was “ecstatically happy” and elected officials and advocates were told they’d get their top priorities, ranging from costly expansion projects to new subway and commuter rail cars, buses, signals, and elevators. 

Who wouldn’t want a huge infusion of funds into a century old, workworn transit system? We too want to believe! Unfortunately, the numbers just do not add up.

We question both the availability of the funding coming in and the ability of the MTA to spend this massive outlay. Historically, transit advocacy has centered on finding funds, but last year we started looking at actual expenses -- not “commitments” or authorizations to spend, as the MTA does. We found that the real constraint on MTA capital plans has become the ability to spend, not finding funding. (A related problem is keeping costs down so that what can be spent is done so efficiently.)

This plan is really Governor Cuomo’s. He controls the MTA, as described in great detail in our OpenMTA report. There are a few reasons we think his $55 billion “five-year” plan is not tethered to reality. While the Governor’s plan shows that he wants the MTA to spend  70% more on its 2020-2024, the MTA’s capacity to spend that much will not grow nearly as quickly.

In 2018, the MTA spent a record $6.6 billion on capital projects. However, only $4 billion of that was for current projects -- the other $2.6 billion was to complete projects from previous plans.

For about two decades the MTA has gotten further and further behind spending its capital funding. As a result, there is a growing hangover of past-year projects that must be completed every year. We estimate there will be at least $20 billion worth of 2015-2019 projects for the MTA to finish during the 2020-2024 plan.

Let’s assume the MTA can keep capital spending at the record pace of $6.6 billion a year. If it finishes the 2015-2019 plan in five more years, spending an average of $4 billion of the $20 billion per year, it leaves only $2.6 billion a year for 2020-2024 projects. And wait, the MTA still hasn’t finished the 2005-2009 or 2010-2014 plans. Clearly, something is off here. 

We believe that projects that will not be built for at least a decade are more aspirational than real. By promising everything to everyone, the Governor is actually making it impossible to know which projects are real and which are not.

Given what was released this week is still technically a draft (and we’ve still only seen an outline, not a full plan) that must be approved by the MTA Board and Capital Program Review Board (CPRB), there is still time for the MTA to release a real implementation plan showing how it intends to finish this new plan along with all its current projects.

How Much Can the MTA Really Spend On a Five-Year Plan During the Plan?
Bluntly, we think it will be difficult for the MTA to spend even half of the $55 billion proposed for the 2020-2024 plan during that five-year period. MTA capital plans often taking more than 10 years to be completed. While this is not a new challenge, a capital program of nearly $55 billion is unprecedented and presents a good opportunity to figure out how to fix this ongoing structural MTA problem.

The MTA’s ability to spend capital dollars during plan years has decreased, not increased. In 2018, the MTA spent $6.6 billion on capital projects, but only $4 billion was for 2015-2019 projects. The MTA’s best-ever year for spending on projects from the current capital plan was in 2009, when it spent nearly $4.5 billion (see chart below). 

reinvent albany ex

With the 2015-2019 plan’s late start in 2016, there is a lot of work still left to do on that plan. The 2015-2019 plan has $33 billion worth of projects, but the MTA has only received $12 billion in funds as of June 31 of this year, and as of the end of 2018, only $20 billion worth of projects were committed. (A commitment is not the same as actually spending the money, it is the intent to use employees to complete a project or execution of a contract). 

Can the MTA effectively manage more than $6.6 billion a year total in capital spending?

Given the MTA’s limited spending capacity, questions about the credibility of delivering a nearly $55 billion capital plan are warranted. With the recently-approved MTA reorganization, consolidating capital construction staff to headquarters will mean that the MTA will have to do even more with even less. Whether centralization will indeed lead to meaningful efficiencies will take time to determine.

Even if we give the MTA the benefit of the doubt and it does as well as it has in the past, getting $4.5 billion out the door every year, it will take 12 years to finish the 2020-2024 plan. This is all while it has a lot more to do on the current, 2015-2019 plan.

Given the limited ability to manage projects, what will the MTA prioritize?

The slideshow proposes what would be the largest investment in signals for MTA New York City Transit ever, at $7.1 billion. This comes with other large investments for elevators and subway cars, all while large expansion projects are continuing, such as East Side Access and LIRR Third Track.

With limited spending and staff capacity, the MTA will have to choose which projects come first and which come last. Janno Lieber, the MTA’s head of capital construction, has said that signals will come in the five-year window, but as of now, the MTA has not released an implementation plan or detailed project list with schedules of when it will commit to projects, as it has shown in prior plans.

Revenue Dependent on New Federal, State and City Fundings
The nearly $55 billion plan outline makes a number of big assumptions about funding that has not yet been secured. New funding is supposed to come from the federal government ($10.7 billion), the state government ($3 billion), and city government ($3 billion), totalling nearly $17 billion. These numbers are not real until the cash actually arrives from all parties involved.

Is it realistic to expect $10 billion in federal aid?

Under a Democratic president, the federal government contributed $7 billion to the last capital plan. This plan assumes even more federal dollars will come in, including a large contribution for Second Avenue Subway Phase 2: $2.9 billion alone. The feds provided $1.3 billion for Phase 1, so this would double that contribution to this project. While the President indicated support for the project via Twitter, a tweet is not a funding commitment of $2.9 billion.

Is it realistic to expect the state to provide $3 billion in direct aid?

While Governor Cuomo has said the state will provide $3 billion to the new plan, this is subject to legislative approval. The proposal of the Mayor’s match of $3 billion is also under review. Meanwhile, the state still owes $7.3 billion to the MTA for the 2015-2019 plan: it had pledged $8.3 billion in 2016 and only $1 billion has come in so far. 

State Comptroller  Tom DiNapoli, in his recent report on the MTA’s finances, noted that the remaining $7.3 billion will not start to come in until next fiscal year (beginning April 2020). The state also may not provide this as direct aid. It could authorize the MTA to issue its own bonds based on existing or new revenue, meaning that the impact on the MTA and taxpayers is still unknown.

Debt Service and the Operating Budget Crisis
Beyond the MTA’s huge capital needs, it already doesn’t have enough money to pay for the costs of running the system everyday. This is due in large part to debt service payments on previous capital plans. Debt service payments eat up 17% of the MTA’s operating budget now, and the MTA faces even larger out-year deficits. 

Even without new borrowing, the MTA forecasts that its debt will increase 31% by 2023 and will cost more than $3.5 billion a year. A hiring freeze and cuts to staff such as subway car cleaners have meant that MTA workforce morale is low, while customers are increasingly unhappy with the quality of service. And “service guideline” cuts are on the horizon for this fall. 

Will riders endure even more cuts as a result of this plan?

The operating deficit is already significant, and the MTA’s 2020-2024 capital plan outline assumes the MTA will pay for part of the plan with $10 billion in new debt. How much this debt will increase the MTA’s debt service payments, and therefore its operating deficit has not yet been explained to the public. This information is needed to understand exactly what impact the capital plan will have on the MTA’s ability to actually deliver service for its riders, its primary objective.

Real Transparency is Honesty
Reinvent Albany and our colleagues last week announced the Build Trust campaign, asking the MTA to release an implementation plan to show exactly how it will deliver on its promises, and provided a blueprint for better transparency and cost control.  To us, transparency is not merely about putting more data online, but presenting real, honest information to the public.

To comply with state law, the MTA will have to hold a vote on the complete draft capital plan at its September 25 board meeting. As soon as the MTA Board receives the actual capital plan, it is required to be put it online where the public can see it. Yet with less than a week remaining before a Board vote on the $55 billion spending plan, the MTA has not released two important things: (1) the “20 Years Needs Assessment” with a detailed analysis of how much money is needed to repair the system and (2) the full, detailed list of capital projects in the proposed capital plan, with a detailed implementation plan.  

When will the MTA release its 20-year needs assessment and federal TAM plan?

In theory, the MTA is supposed to follow a logical process to determine how much it needs to spend restoring the transit system.

First, the MTA is supposed to compile an inventory of its equipment and infrastructure, including the condition of its assets, and then it is supposed to compile its needs assessment of how much it will cost to repair the system so it can provide good service.

The inventory of its equipment is part of a new federal requirement called the Transit Asset Management or “TAM” plan. The needs assessment has taken the form of a 20-year needs assessment, last released in October 2013 for the last plan. Neither of these documents is publicly available for the next plan.

Without a 20-year needs assessment, or the underlying data about its assets, the public cannot know how much the MTA should be spending to replace very old, but crucial, subway and rail components, like decades old mechanical switches, electrical systems, pumps and fans. (See Reinvent Albany’s report on the MTA capital plan process.)

Decisions on capital spending don’t have to be political - they should be based on real data that takes the subjectivity out of the process. 

When will the MTA release its full capital plan, with an implementation plan?

The MTA’s 11-page slideshow does not differentiate between “core” repairs versus expansion projects, lumps together costs over multiple plans, omits large capital projects, and provides no implementation schedules. This is troublesome and again raises questions about the MTA’s commitment to public transparency. 

Project lists from prior capital plans have tallied more than 60 pages, itemized and coded by type of project. This allows the public to see exactly how the plan breaks out, such as how many fixes to broken equipment there are versus spending that may be more cosmetic, like the last plan’s Enhanced Station Initiative.

Expansion projects are usually expensive, representing an opportunity cost for fixes that don’t involve ribbon cuttings but are crucial like new power stations needed to run additional trains.

These lists have also included project commitment schedules, showing when the MTA intends to commit to projects (again, not spend) during the five-year window. This is the basis for developing a real implementation plan, and should be expanded upon by the MTA as recommended by the Build Trust campaign.

Before the new MTA capital plan is final, the public and stakeholders like the State Legislature -- which should hold hearings this fall before the plan is approved by the CPRB -- need a lot more detail than 11 pages to fully buy in. It is the public’s money after all, and members of the public deserve to be treated like investors who have been given a real, honest plan before staking their own money on the MTA’s future.

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

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

]]>
The MTA Needs a Real Capital Plan, Not Unrealistic Promises Wed, 18 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The State’s $7 Billion MTA IOU Comes Due https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8766-the-state-s-7-billion-mta-iou-comes-due https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8766-the-state-s-7-billion-mta-iou-comes-due govcuomoprogre

(photo: the governor's office)


MTA officials acknowledged at their June 2019 board meetings that the agency is borrowing money to be repaid through a New York State law that promised to have the State of New York provide the MTA $7.3 billion once the authority had exhausted its own funds on spending for the current five-year capital program.

The 2016 state law was merely an “IOU," there had been no specific source of funds identified for how the state would pay the money, nor has there been any plan developed since enactment in the state budget that year.

The state's total commitment was $8.6 billion, including some new capital funds it added as part of the newer Subway Action Plan and other promises, which to date have provided about $1 billion in actual funds. It is the $7.3 billion IOU that is still outstanding. New York City was also required to provide $2.7 billion to the agency as part of a mutual obligation with the state. The city has provided about $800 million to date.

These commitments refer to the current 2015-2019 Capital Construction Program, not the 2020-2024 Program to be released in a few weeks by the MTA. That new program, not yet adopted, will have its main funding coming from the congestion pricing system passed earlier this year, with revenue from the tolls scheduled to begin in 2021.

The elements of the 2015-2019 MTA Capital Program were patched together in the 2016-2017 state budget (a year late), my final year in the State Assembly while I was still chair of the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions. The full 2016 package that became the Capital Program was about $30 billion; some $3 billion has been added since I retired. The MTA Capital Program Review Board adopted the plan in 2016 shortly after the budget was enacted.

The question of the state’s outstanding commitment to the MTA capital program, written into the law as the last dollars to be spent in the overall plan, has been the source of limited scrutiny, but is now in the spotlight as the IOU comes due and the next capital program is designed.

At the June 26 public meeting of the MTA Board Finance Committee, finance chair Larry Schwartz and board member Veronica Vanterpool expressed concerns about an agenda item authorizing the MTA to borrow an extra $2 billion to fund the capital program.

Per the minutes of that MTA Finance Committee meeting (page 12):

"Ms. Vanterpool voiced her reservations about increasing the amount, noting that there is that $7.3 billion commitment from the State that has not been received, as well as the commitment from the City. Mr. Foran [the MTA's Chief Financial Officer]... noted that the commitment from the State is predicated on MTA to spend MTA dollars first and that MTA is already beginning to commit against the State's portion (about $2 billion commitment, with some expenditures already incurred) and the State has agreed to that.”

The discussion continued (page 13), "Mr. McCoy [MTA Finance Director] commented that regarding the State funding, the $1.2 billion in BANs [bond anticipation notes] were issued in two components; $1 billion for MTA funded projects, and $200 million is designated for the projects under the State Commitment. Mr. McCoy stated that it was clearly communicated with the State that, when the notes are due, the State will need to provide the funding."

The MTA Board proceeded to add the $2 billion in new borrowing at its main June 26 board meeting two days after this finance committee discussion. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, in an August 7 report on New York City's financial condition, stated (on page 34), "According to the MTA, it has committed all of its capital resources and has begun to commit up to $3 billion against the State's obligation. Consequently, the MTA will require funding from the State beginning next State fiscal year (2020-21) to cover the cash cost of these capital commitments"

Where Will The Money Come From?
The question now is: How will the state meet this new commitment in the coming budget?

The state has the option of itself providing the MTA the money directly, or creating a stream of funding for the MTA to enable the agency to secure the borrowing of the funds, or some combination thereof. But there are serious challenges, the first of which is that 2020 is an election year for the state Legislature.

To enable the MTA to borrow $7.3 billion, a revenue source, i.e. another tax, would need to provide the authority about another $400 million a year. Does the Legislature want to do another tax increase in an election year? Maybe 2021, not 2020. Seven of the eight new Democratic State Senators that won the Democratic party the majority come from the New York City suburbs. Four of these seven suburban races were super-close, with the Democrats winning by just 2-3 percentage points, or even less.

Several other races were won by less than ten points. Many of these newly-minted legislators could be uncomfortable voting for another tax increase for the unpopular MTA, after voting this year for congestion pricing, a real estate transfer tax surcharge, and internet sales taxes. They are already likely to face Republican attacks in the election for these votes.

The state's ability to borrow the funds directly (the MTA does not need all $7.3 billion next year, but over several years) is also severely constrained by limits on the state government established by the Debt Reform Act of 2000. This law limits state-supported debt to 4% of the state's total personal income from the preceding calendar year. The following chart from a July 2 state comptroller report on the 2019-2020 budget shows how the state's capacity to borrow is dwindling.

divisionbudget chart

Next year the state's ability to borrow funds in support of the entire state budget and the entire capital program will be limited to about $1.36 billion and by 2023-24 will be nonexistent. Borrowing for the MTA would be competing with roads and bridges, water and sewer, the state and city public university systems, mental hygiene, and the environment. Little could be anticipated from this source given the constraints.

Another possibility would be for the state to provide the MTA money from the financial industry settlement windfall. Some $2.6 billion is available in 2020-21 from this source, but, once again, the MTA would be competing with upstate economic development commitments, Javits Center and transportation commitments, and general budget relief. But Governor Cuomo and the Legislature could make several hundred million dollars available from this source -- once again, very limited, given the competition for other funds.

Of course, the Legislature could do a tax/fee hike in 2021, even something as simple as extending the for-hire vehicle surcharge on Uber and Lyft to trips with outer borough destinations or adding to the Manhattan business district price. But it is a tax increase of sorts.

Late in the 2015 legislative session, as we struggled to deal with funding the 2015-2019 MTA Capital Program, I worked with MTA senior officials to introduce legislation to provide the MTA a new source of money without a tax increase. The bill provided for a staggered diversion of existing personal income tax revenue from the MTA region over a four-year period to enable the MTA to borrow what was viewed then as $6-7 billion, providing about $400 million a year in revenue to which the agency would be entitled at the end of four years.

Growth in the state's personal income tax revenue would now bring in about $500 million a year under the formula in the bill (A. 8227-a from the 2015-2016 session), so the percentage amount in the old bill could be shaved.

The critical concept of the bill was that it statutorily entitled the MTA to the revenue, enabling it to borrow the money itself and not be a debt of the state subject to the Debt Reform Act and the limits on the state’s capacity to borrow. As written, it would start in the first year with a small three-tenths of one-percent diversion of PIT revenue in the region to the MTA , reaching 1.2% in the fourth year. Each year's revenue piece was separated in a schedule pursuant to law, so if a recession hit, the state could suspend the following year's diversion and preserve revenue in the general fund.

The governor and the Legislature should continue to examine this concept, which was believed to be workable by MTA officials at the time, though viewed by senior Assembly Ways and Means staff as just not needed. But the $7 billion IOU has come due.

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

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

]]>
The State’s $7 Billion MTA IOU Comes Due Thu, 29 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
‘Breaking Car Culture’ in New York City Likely Dependent on Expanded Mass Transit https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8732-breaking-car-culture-in-new-york-city-likely-dependent-on-expanded-mass-transit https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8732-breaking-car-culture-in-new-york-city-likely-dependent-on-expanded-mass-transit subway construction

(photo: City Council)


If City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, like-minded lawmakers, and a chorus of transit advocates get their way, New York City will become far less dominated by cars over the next few years.

Talk of “breaking car culture” by increasing options and protections for bikes, buses, and pedestrians while reducing how use of public space and rules of the road favor cars has increased, spurred largely by well-organized activists and Johnson. The speaker has championed the phrase, credited to Council Member Antonio Reynoso, that now symbolizes a growing movement, and introduced legislation to create a “master plan for city streets” with many more bike lanes, bus lanes, and pedestrian plazas required.

But as Johnson has pushed a public transit agenda and breaking the car culture that he and others say unfairly and dangerously dominates New York City, they’ve been met with a few refrains, one of which is that you can only push so many New Yorkers out of their cars without significantly expanding public transit options across the five boroughs, especially in areas currently unserved by the subway. (That thinking also extends to areas without good bike lane networking and access to Citi Bike bike-sharing or to speedy and reliable bus service.) More than one-third of New York City's 8.5 million residents live more than one-third of a mile from a subway stop, according to the Regional Plan Association. 

People will not leave their cars, or abandon the use of for-hire vehicles like Uber and Lyft, without a more robust public transit ecosystem. That challenge is on top of that of making sure that the subways and buses perform well where they already provide extensive options, and installing more bike lanes and pedestrian options in those areas, not to mention the coming influx of electric scooters, recently legalized in New York State.

Despite ongoing, launched, or expected improvements to the subways and buses, many of which are included in the up-in-the-air MTA "Fast Forward" plan to modernize public transit over 10 years, many of the city’s neighborhoods will still be inaccessible by public transportation.

The notion of adding to the city’s current mass transit system has been around a long time, of course, with recent manifestations in the opening of the first phase of the Upper East Side's Second Avenue Subway, the extension of the 7 line to the far west side of Manhattan, and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Ferry NYC system and planned Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX) streetcar along the two boroughs’ waterfront.

There have also been a variety of ideas put on the table for additional subway stops, new rail lines, and other enhancements to the grid -- including light-rail reinvigorating abandoned train tracks in Brooklyn and Queens, a train shuttle from a central point in Manhattan to each of the city’s airports, a revamped tristate commuter rail, and more.

“We know our transportation infrastructure is woefully inadequate for our current needs, let alone for future population growth and the challenges that will come with climate change,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, when asked about the relationship between breaking the car culture and building out the transit network.

Defending the large subsidies involved in his signature ferry system, de Blasio in March said that the prospering and growing city needs more mass transit.

“8.6 million people today,” he said on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. “We’ve added half a million people over the last 15-20 years. We’re going to add another half million people over the next 15 to 20 years ahead. Anyone who thinks our existing transit system can handle all of that is someone who thinks marijuana is already been legalized in New York State and is smoking some. The fact is it is impossible to do what we have to do with the city if we don’t expand mass transit options.”

He continued: “So we have had a four-pronged attack. More bike options; more select bus service, which is those faster dedicated bus routes; more light rail, that’s going to be the BQX, Brooklyn and Queens; and for the first time ever, a citywide ferry system.”

“We’re investing in the future,” de Blasio said. It is worth noting that the ferry system is projected to carry about 9 million annual riders, according to the mayor in May, which is less than two days of typical weekday subway ridership.

For her part, de Blasio’s Department of Transportation Commissioner, Polly Trottenberg, also spoke earlier this year about the need to improve transit options to account for the city’s success and growth.

“Given the growth and economic dynamism of New York City, we should be opening three subway stops every year...if not faster,” she said in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “The biggest transportation challenge the city faces right now is we have stopped building out our subway network. That gets into a bigger discussion of the MTA, of the governance, of the funding challenges there.”

“Nothing carries people like subways,” Trottenberg said.

The MTA doesn’t “have the funds right now to be in the subway line-building game -- and we should get them back in that game” like big cities in other countries, she said.

Proposals and Plans to Expand Public Transit
In its enormous “Fourth Regional Plan” for the tri-state region released in 2017, the Regional Plan association calls for a massive extension of the subway and rail system in and around New York City. This includes bridging unconnected or underconnected areas of the city to each other, adding new subway stops in "high density and low income neighborhoods," and expanding rail options into areas of the city that are "transit deserts."

"Building new subway lines or line extensions in the South Bronx, southeast Brooklyn. and eastern Queens would reduce travel times and fully connect these communities to the city’s transit system—and thereby job opportunities," the RPA plan reads. Too many New Yorkers simply don't have access to the subway system, the association says, particularly "in Queens, where fewer than four in 10 residents can walk to the subway," meaning a distance of one-third of a mile or less from home.

Hiding behind trees and below street level are 24 miles of abandoned railway tracks stretching from Sunset Park in Brooklyn to Co-op City in the Bronx. A proposal by the RPA would see the conversion of those tracks to a functioning commuter rail, covering 80 square miles and intersecting with 17 subway lines.

RPA estimates the line would serve upwards of 100,000 people a day, and cost under $2 billion to make usable. (Phase one of the Second Avenue subway extension, completed in January 2017, was estimated to cost nearly $4.5 billion.)

The so-called “triboro line” that would include Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx could be implemented at a lower cost because the right of way and tracks are already in place, RPA Senior Vice President for State Programs & Advocacy Kate Slevin said in an interview with Gotham Gazette. The line would bring benefits to the outer boroughs, where 50 percent of the city’s job growth has occurred in the last 15 years, according to the RPA proposal. Transit advocates, business owners and employees, elected officials and others regularly point out that the city’s recent economic and residential patterns do not match well with its Manhattan-centric public transit network.

Along with new rail options where they don't exist, the RPA also calls for things like extending the 7 line from the new far west side 34th Street stop down the west side into "underserved areas of Chelsea and Meatpacking."

The RPA plan notes that nearly 60 percent of residents of the Bronx and Brooklyn, and 36 percent of residents of Queens, do not own a car.

“I don’t think cars will be going away anytime soon but if you’re a growing city you only have a certain amount of street space to work with,” Slevin said. “New York needs to be moving at a faster clip to prioritize high efficiency transportation options.”

RPA also envisions a re-worked commuter rail system, with a united NJ Transit, Metro North, and LIRR, entitled Trans-Regional Express (T-REX). Rather than having each entity individually operate to and from Manhattan, T-REX would see the introduction of new freight-rail corridors directly connecting each of the regions currently serviced by commuter rail, Slevin said. The plan aims to increase ridership by 1 million by 2040.

“This is not just a system to bring people from the suburbs to Manhattan,” Slevin said. The plan would bring “paramount benefits in the city and smaller cities outside the five boroughs that have not benefited the same way Manhattan has,” she said.

A revamped commuter rail system has the potential to influence “car culture” not only in the city, but also in the suburbs, said Sarah Kaufman, Associate Director of NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation.

“Additional tracks that would provide more frequent service and that would include allowing people in the farther reaches of the city to use commuter rail as an alternative to the subway” would have an impact, Kaufman said.

“A well-functioning public transportation system is key to reducing reliance on cars,” said Julie Tighe, President of the New York League of Conservation Voters, at a recent Riders Alliance rally to call on the MTA to ensure that its next five-year capital plan focuses on fixing the subways.

Perhaps as a harbinger of RPA’s vision, in 2023 the MTA will begin construction on East Side Access, an eight track terminal and concourse for LIRR trains at Grand Central Station. Penn Station is currently the only Manhattan stop on the LIRR. Another plan, entitled Penn Station Access, would bring Metro North trains to Penn Station in addition to Grand Central, where they currently stop.

“I’m hopeful that East Side Access and Metro North access to Penn Station will help influence people who may otherwise feel like they don’t have a choice but to drive,” Kaufman said.

Many of these plans are just and only that - without support from elected officials.

Another factor in upcoming decisions is the imminent implementation of congestion pricing, which will charge drivers a fee for entering Manhattan below 61st Street. Like with calls to “break the car culture,” congestion pricing led to pushback from some saying that better mass transit is needed in conjunction.

De Blasio announced a plan for the BQX streetcar during his 2016 State of the City speech, but the proposal has been criticized from the start for mostly replicating the G subway line and existing bus routes, especially given de Blasio’s minimal attention to the subways and buses for most of his time as mayor (he’s recently paid more mind to the buses, which he has more control over based on city control of the streets).

It has also been seen as more of a boon to real estate interests than the riding public, though some potential riders have expressed excitement about a new way to move between certain neighborhoods, especially as residential and commercial growth in Queens and Brooklyn have grown.

Unlike when it was first announced, the BQX plan is now said to require significant federal funding in order to move toward completion, though interim steps are being taken by the city. Its fate is unclear.

“Speaker Johnson is open to creative ideas on how to improve our transportation network,” said Jennifer Fermino, Speaker Johnson’s communications director, in a statement to Gotham Gazette following a Council hearing on the proposed BQX earlier this year. Sentiment among Council members appears mixed, and Johnson appears to be holding out on giving an opinion.

MTA Efforts
This fall the MTA will put out its new five-year capital plan, which will set the organization’s construction and major upgrade project agenda for 2020 through 2024. It is unlikely to include any new expansion plans for the subway system, but is expected to focus heavily on upgrading the existing tracks, signals, cars, and stations -- including by increasingly accessibility for those living with disabilities -- all of which should help to encourage more people to take public mass transit over cars.

The MTA did announce in April a new phase of the stalled study of transportation along the Utica Avenue corridor in Brooklyn. While the study, performed jointly by the MTA and city DOT, will examine a variety of transit aspects, including bus service, it will also look at “extending the existing subway on Eastern Parkway or Fulton Street south along Utica Avenue. The extension could be either underground or as an elevated rail line.”

It’s unclear where the second phase of the Second Avenue Subway will factor into the new MTA capital plan.

Advocates are encouraging the MTA to adopt accessibility as a key issue, which could reduce some reliance on cars. According to the Elevator Action Group at Rise and Resist, the MTA counts 118 of its 472, or 25 percent, of its subway stations as accessible, while the MTA counts 118 of its 472 stations as accessible. “The lack of elevator accessibility continues to deny access to disabled New Yorkers and elderly,” Assemblymember Deborah Glick said at the Riders Alliance rally.

The MTA already has a bus route redesign process underway, having completed Staten Island and working on the Bronx, to be followed by other boroughs. Modernizing bus routes, along with other efforts like installing more dedicated bus lanes (which is more under the purview of New York City government), is aimed at improving the city’s terribly slow bus speeds and reversing the trend of dipping bus ridership.

When earlier this year he announced a crackdown on illegal parking in bus lanes in order to get the city’s buses moving more quickly, de Blasio got at the heart of the matter with regard to the current system that does exist, but needs to perform better.

“So for drivers – help your fellow New Yorkers by not parking in the bus lanes, and with this effort to speed up the buses, more and more New Yorkers will be able to choose mass transit and they can get out of their cars and that's going to take cars off the road and reduce congestion also,” the mayor said in January. “So we could have a virtuous circle here if we get it right. That's what we intend to do.”

Some city officials want to figure out ways to work with the MTA to expand the subway system to add new stops and lines. The MTA recently adopted a “transformation plan” with goals including to improve service across the different branches of the authority and to bring construction costs down. For now, de Blasio has announced several new bus-related plans, a large Citi Bike expansion, and additional planned stops for the ferry program, though he does not seem particularly interested in a major cultural shift or pursuing an expansion of railway possibilities; and he has done little about parking placard abuse by public employees despite multiple announcements saying the city is cracking down on the practice. Parking in general has become a key issue within the street-use reform converation, and whether the city devotes too much public space allowing people to store their cars, and to do so free of charge in many places throughout the five boroughs. Johnson and Trottenberg are among those who've said there are too many parking spots in New York City.

Speaker Johnson is looking to move ahead with his "master plan" legislation that would attempt to shift the balance of power on city streets by devoting more space to bus riders, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

Johnson and others have pushed for municipal control of the MTA, in part as a way to get those astronomical construction costs under control. Until then, no major additions will be possible, Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

“Adding a single mile of subway track in New York City costs the same as sending a rover to Mars,” Johnson said in the statement. “Meaningful mass transit expansion is not happening until we get in line with rest of the world and bring down costs. That won’t happen without real accountability and it’s clear it certainly won’t happen with the subway until we have municipal control.”

[Read: Corey Johnson Wants to 'Break the Car Culture' in New York City. What Does That Mean?]

***
by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

]]>
‘Breaking Car Culture’ in New York City Likely Dependent on Expanded Mass Transit Sun, 11 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Governor Gets What He Wants at the MTA; Now It's Time to Deliver https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8637-governor-gets-what-he-wants-at-the-mta-now-it-s-time-to-deliver https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8637-governor-gets-what-he-wants-at-the-mta-now-it-s-time-to-deliver oped gov cuomo

Gov. Cuomo on the subway (photo: the governor's office)


At the end of the state legislative session that just finished several steps were taken to consolidate Governor Cuomo’s power over the MTA. First, he swapped out two of his ‘independent’ appointees to the MTA Board for two members of his state cabinet, Robert Mujica, his budget director, and Linda Lacewell, commissioner of the Department of Financial Services.

Second, in order to legitimize the board appointment of someone who is not a resident of the MTA region, the law was changed to provide that the state budget director, regardless of residence, may serve on the board ex-officio.

Finally, a new law was passed requiring the appointment within six weeks of a “transformation director” to report directly to the MTA Board to implement the reorganization plan that was required by the budget bills passed in early April and is expected to be prepared and submitted by June 30.

These actions have been criticized by respected transit analysts, (see here and here), largely on the grounds that the governor is creating conflicts of interest by placing his own full-time employees on a board that is supposed to be independent and that he is undermining the governance of the MTA by creating new positions outside the existing chain of command.

These are valid concerns; however, for those who have bemoaned Governor Cuomo’s past ambivalence about his responsibility for the transit system, the actions have a significant upside: they establish clearly and beyond any doubt that the Governor of the State is the ultimate authority and decision-maker with regard to the MTA. And this governor has now taken ownership of it in a clear and unequivocal way.

I know Rob Mujica; he is one of the most competent people I have worked with in government. I have no reason to think that Linda Lacewell is any less capable.

They both bring a great deal of management experience and knowledge of public finance to their new roles as MTA board members. Yes, they will have to navigate their loyalty to Governor Cuomo and their fiduciary duty to the MTA; there may be issues on which one or both of them will need to recuse themselves. But for the most part, their other roles should complement and enhance their value as board members.

In fact, it may be a good idea to designate the state budget director as an ex-officio member of the MTA Board – and the city budget director as well, for that matter. Both governments have significant control over resources that are and/or should be devoted to the MTA, particularly with regard to its capital spending.

On the other hand, it is certainly unusual and probably not optimal to specify that a particular staff line at the MTA, i.e. a new Transformation Director, report directly to the Board and not to the CEO.
Consolidation of services has long been a favorite topic of Governor Cuomo and it makes sense that redundant departments among MTA divisions (NYCT, LIRR, MetroNorth, and TBTA) be combined. But reorganization of those agencies will not fundamentally change the MTA’s financial picture; more concerning than the new hire is raising unrealistic expectations about what “transformation” will accomplish.

In any event, Governor Cuomo, with the assistance of the state Legislature, has solidified his control, and it is long past time for him to move on from bashing the organization to creating and supporting useful change. He should take responsibility for:

1. Release of a new 20-year needs assessment that shows the full cost of getting every single piece of MTA infrastructure to a state of good repair. The last assessment was issued in 2013 and another is required by law in 2020. We cannot pay for everything at once, and there may be some items on the wish list we can never pursue, but we must see what all the needs are so that the public can provide input and the MTA Board can decide what needs to be prioritized.

2. Release of a five-year capital plan. The current plan covers 2014-19 and another is expected by October, for 2020-2024. Estimates of the cost of a complete plan for the MTA’s next five years range from $40-60 billion. Let’s see what the authority has decided to prioritize and how it is going to be paid for. Of course, money should not be wasted; but don’t skimp on this, the most important infrastructure in the state. In the past, the governor and his representatives have pressured the MTA to reduce its “bloated” capital plan, only to later agree to increases because of the urgency of the needs. Will Mujica and Lacewell support the full amount the MTA needs or try to protect the Governor from having to come up with more revenue by arguing for less?

3. Making it clear that the commitment to contribute $8 billion in state dollars to the current five-year capital plan will be honored, and specify what projects it will fund. All the projects in the current plan have not been completed; large projects are almost never fully achieved within a single five-year capital plan because construction commitments take time. But this money should not be allowed to disappear or be rolled over to fund the next five-year plan.

4. Focusing most of the money, time, and attention on getting the current transit system to operate effectively and safely, not on shiny new projects that lend themselves to ribbon cuttings but don’t improve travel times and experiences for most commuters.

5. Negotiating tough new contracts with the TWU and other unions that do not add any costs for the MTA and its riders. Curbing overtime abuse is of course important (another hands-on tactic of the governor was to hand-pick a new MTA Inspector General) but it is labor costs that are the primary driver of MTA spending, accounting for 60% of the MTA’s annual operating budget. The next round of contracts MUST contain work-rule changes that make workers more productive and contribute to cost savings, not increases. (Bob Linn is an excellent new appointment to the MTA Board who should be able to assist in this effort.)

OK, Governor Cuomo, you have been given everything you wanted in terms of control, more than many think is appropriate. Use your power wisely and effectively because there is no longer any question the subway buck stops with you.

***
Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.

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

 

]]>
Governor Gets What He Wants at the MTA; Now It's Time to Deliver Mon, 24 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000