Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/18 Tue, 16 Jul 2019 02:50:25 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) A French Lesson in Fare Evasion https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8668-a-french-lesson-in-fare-evasion-mta-cuomo https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8668-a-french-lesson-in-fare-evasion-mta-cuomo govcuomo 96th

(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


I just returned to New York City from a month in Paris, where my husband was doing legal work. A regular public transit user at home, I was the same in Paris, making use of its Metro system. But because I did not inform myself of all the rules, I violated one of them and had to pay a fine. The experience helped me think about the fare evasion challenge we’re dealing with in New York. 

As in our subway system, there is one fare to travel throughout the city on the Paris Metro. I bought discounted “carnets” of 10 tickets at a time at a cost of about 14.90 euros, approximately $18. The tickets are small white cards; you put them in a slot on the way in, and if the ticket is valid it pops up in another slot to be retained; high plastic doors then open to let you through. When you leave the station at your stop, you walk through exits (sorties), which have high doors that open when you press on them with your hand.

Since there is no need to use the tickets to exit (they are needed at stations where you transfer to rail connections) and they are only good for one fare, I was throwing them away after entering a station. Of course this was silly of me; why wouId the entrance machines give you back the tickets if you weren’t supposed to keep them? But I wasn’t thinking it through and didn’t want to get used tickets mixed up with new ones from my carnets.

After a few weeks, while transferring between one train line and another at Gare St. Lazare, a major metro transfer point, I encountered a line of transit employees (they have orange vests like our MTA New York City Transit workers) stopping passengers walking through a tunnel. They asked to see my ticket.

In halting French with English mixed in I explained that I had thrown it away. Non, non madame, said one of the inspectors.  You must retain your ticket. I shrugged, explained that I was a tourist, that I had been using the system for several weeks and no one had stopped me, and said I would go and buy a new ticket to present to the inspection team. Non, non madame, one of them said; you have to pay a fine right now.

She showed me a chart with different fines for different types of violations. I was shocked at how high they were. She ‘settled’ for a payment of 30 euros, about $35, whipped out a handheld charge machine, inserted my credit card and gave me a special receipt. The same thing was happening to people around me, who contended they had lost their tickets or didn’t have them for whatever reason. 

At about the same time this happened to me in Paris, back home in Manhattan Governor Cuomo announced a comprehensive fare evasion deterrence program for the subways and buses, including the assignment of 500 personnel, including New York City and MTA police officers and 70 “Eagle Team” members, as well as a number of structural changes like securing emergency exits at subway stations and installation of video cameras.

Fare evasion has been a growing problem on New York City subways and buses in the last few years, according to the MTA. An MTA report issued in March estimated annual lost revenue due to fare evasion at $225 million in 2018; the projection for 2019 had grown to $260 million by the time of the governor’s June press conference.

The problem is particularly acute on buses where one of every five riders doesn’t pay the fare, the MTA says. It is infuriating to sit on a bus and watch others simply walk on without paying; drivers cannot be expected to take the risk of arguing with these passengers. But it is also a problem on the subways; I am sure everyone reading this column has seen people walking into stations through the emergency exit doors.

Stopping fare evasion should not be about criminalization or persecuting poor people—it’s about the money. Evasion hurts all transit riders by depriving the system of much-needed revenue and making the costs higher for those who do pay. $260 million a year is A LOT of money – enough, for example, to pay for half-fare Metrocards for all low-income riders eligible under the recently adopted “Fair Fares” initiative by the City Council and Mayor de Blasio. The worthy program should be fully implemented as quickly as possible and soon evaluated for possible expansion.

The heightened presence of law enforcement personnel and other initiatives to discourage fare evasion in the new plan are all worth trying, but they must be done carefully. And I suggest that, in addition, the MTA consider doing what the French are doing in the Paris Metro. It is not as big as New York’s system, of course, but does carry more than 4 million people a day and is the second busiest in Europe (after Moscow). It devotes 1,200 staff to fare evasion.

Instead of issuing summonses for non-payment that can be ignored with minimal – and no immediate – consequences, the Paris inspectors assess “penalty fares” that must be paid on the spot; 1 million of these penalties are issued a year in Paris. 

New York City Transit, the MTA’s division that runs the subways and buses, should explore using  the technology that Paris has employed to give members of the Eagle Teams who go onto buses to look for evaders hand-held devices that can check whether someone’s Metrocard (if they have one) has been used for that trip and if not, charge and collect a penalty fare, much higher than the regular fare but lower than the $100 civil fine for fare evasion. Do the same in the transfer tunnels in large subway stations like Penn and Grand Central.

Those who want to challenge the fine or cannot pay on the spot should have the option to pursue administrative appeals, but I strongly suspect this method will have more of a deterrent effect than simply issuing paper summonses to everyone. I certainly was very careful to save my Metro tickets after this happened to me!

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

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A French Lesson in Fare Evasion Mon, 15 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Everyone Agrees City Buses are in Crisis. What's Being Done? https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8664-everyone-agrees-city-buses-are-in-crisis-what-s-being-done https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8664-everyone-agrees-city-buses-are-in-crisis-what-s-being-done bx6 select bus inter ave

Mayor de Blasio rides the bus (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


Elected officials, advocates, and especially riders agree: the city’s bus system is broken.

That consensus was reached in recent years as bus speeds slowed to a crawl and the system hemorrhaged ridership. Various advocacy groups and elected officials have put forth studies and plans, and the entities with actual control -- the state-run Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and the New York City Mayor’s Office -- have taken steps toward improving the situation, though many questions around commitment and implementation remain.

Even as the city boasts 2.5 times more bus riders than any of its counterparts across the country, its buses are the slowest in the United States, according to data from the mayor’s office. In the past four years, city bus ridership has decreased by 13 percent; from an annual total ridership of 677,569,432 in 2013 to 602,620,356 in 2017. Buses average a speed of just 8 miles per hour, with speeds at about the pace of a brisk walk in some of the city’s busiest corridors. The slowest city bus route, the M42, runs across Manhattan’s 42nd Street at an average speed of just 3.9 miles per hour, according to data from the city comptroller’s office.

Fixing the buses is a transit issue and a socioeconomic issue; 75 percent of bus riders are people of color, and 50 percent are immigrants, said Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director for Riders Alliance, an advocacy group.

“Better bus service is really about uplifting the portions of our population that need it the most,” Pearlstein said.

Pearlstein said buses spend 20 percent of their time at bus stops, 20 percent of their time at red lights, and 60 percent in slow traffic.

Both the MTA, which has say over bus routes and personnel, and the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio, which controls the city Department of Transportation and use of the roadways, street designs, and more, have been criticized for doing little to attend to the buses as ridership plummeted. Asleep at the wheel, both have recently reacted to the bus crisis.

To try to fix the bus system and reverse the ridership trend, the MTA and the Mayor’s Office have implemented or announced, at times with partners, a series of plans and laws to improve bus speeds. They’ve recently been aided by legislation passed by the state Legislature to allow for mounted bus cameras that can ticket drivers parked in bus lanes.

According to experts, including advocates and elected and appointed government officials, the keys to speeding up city buses include: improving Select Bus Service, which is a form of express bus; increasing the number of buses with all-door boarding; eliminating inefficient bus stops; implementing transit signal priority (TSP) so buses can move through traffic lights more quickly; creating more bus-only lanes; and enforcing bus lanes. Much of this work has started or been promised, but results are few given that most responses to the crisis are recent.

MTA and the Bus Route Redesigns
This year, the MTA began a bus route redesign effort as part of a plan from Andy Byford, president of MTA New York City Transit, called Fast Forward, which aims to modernize New York City’s subways and buses. While the full go-ahead, including funding, for Fast Forward is still in limbo, moving ahead with bus route redesigns is among the lesser expensive overhauls. New bus routes are essential, Byford and many others agree, to react to changing residential, commuter, and traffic patterns.

The effort saw a complete redesign of the Staten Island bus network in 2018 and is now focusing on the Bronx. Following the redesign, bus speeds on Staten Island increased on average by 8.6 percent and trip reliability improved by 20 percent, according to data from Transit Center, a foundation that seeks to improve public transit. The bus routes in the remaining three boroughs will be redesigned over the next three years, according to Byford’s plans.

Upon completion of the Bronx plan, the MTA will have redesigned 27 of the 60 bus routes in the Bronx, and proposed frequency changes on an additional four routes. The plan will also implement 150 audio-capable “next-bus signs,” improving accessibility. Through expanding the use of queue jumps, which let buses bypass other traffic at intersections, and TSP, which holds green lights longer or turns lights green sooner for buses, the MTA aims to improve speeds significantly.

The MTA also expects to expand Select Bus Service, which allows riders to purchase a fare before boarding the bus to encourage all-door boarding and skips “local” stops in express fashion.

By modernizing fare payment, the MTA has committed to fully switching to all-door bus boarding by 2021, “but that process should be expedited to capitalize on the redesigns before congestion pricing comes into place,” Transit Center spokesperson Ashley Pryce said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, referring to the upcoming 2021 institution of new tolls on driving cars and other private vehicles into Manhattan below 61st Street.

In addition to the MTA’s current plans, some buses could become faster by stopping every four or five blocks instead of every two, Pearlstein said.

Whether it’s redesigning bus routes or eliminating bus stops, the MTA will of course have local battles. The Bronx redesign plan has been met with some opposition from those who believe it will be too disruptive. In Co-op City, the redesign plan will eliminate certain routes and stops that have upset residents. The new system will require many of the neighborhood’s residents to transfer two or three times to get where they are going, said City Council Member Andy King, who represents Co-op City, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. King said that Byford and the MTA proposed a redesign without consulting Co-op City residents.

On June 27, King and Co-op City residents met with the MTA.

“Public feedback is a critical part of our efforts to reimagine the borough’s bus network,” an MTA spokesperson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We are currently in the process of reviewing the feedback we received before moving forward with any final decisions about the location of stops or changes to routes.”

The MTA declined to comment further on the number of bus routes that the plan would eliminate or the number of transfers it would require for trips in question.

“The transfer problem causes an issue. People in Co-op City would rather have convenience than timing. If I can get around Co-op City and it takes me 25 minutes, I will make sure I have enough time,” King said.

King and other community leaders met with Byford last week to discuss the problems they say the proposed redesign will cause for the neighborhood. Byford was receptive to King and the residents’ suggestions, King said.

“Any proposed bus plan for Co-op City must include conversation with the residents. If they’re not included in the conversation nothing will ever make sense. It might make sense for the MTA, but it won’t make sense for Co-op City,” King said, expressing fairly universal sentiments applicable around the city.

“If ridership in Co-op City has not dwindled that means you are still getting the same kind of fares in Co-op City. If numbers aren’t down, don’t punish them because you have low numbers somewhere else,” King said, taking issue with a “cookie-cutter” approach to redesigns.

However, some view slight inconvenience as necessary for the bus system to be more efficient.

“It may take time for some riders to adjust to new routes and bus stop patterns, but if the MTA and DOT implement their plans well, riders will get faster overall trips and a better experience waiting for the bus,” Pryce said. “While some riders may be asked to walk further to a stop, those remaining stops should be equipped with amenities like shelters and benches that can improve the experience for riders.”

Better Buses Action Plan
In April, Mayor BIll de Blasio and his Department of Transportation (DOT), which has a lot of control over the streets, bus lanes, and related decisions, released the Better Buses Action Plan. The plan aims to see bus speeds increase by 25 percent citywide by the end of 2020 -- a goal de Blasio first announced in his February State of the City speech.

The plan calls for the improvement (through painting lanes, adding all-door boarding, and other measures) of five miles of existing bus lanes each year, the installation of 10-15 miles of new bus lanes per year, and the piloting of physically separated bus lanes by the end of this year. From 2013 through early this year, the DOT has built 111 miles of bus lanes across the city, according to the Better Buses Action Plan. The plan also includes an additional 300 TSP intersections and the implementation of bus camera enforcement.

“Our buses have some of the highest ridership numbers in the country, yet we see that our buses are limited when it comes to their reliability and frequency,” said City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the Council’s transportation committee, in a statement accompanying announcement of the Better Buses Advisory Group, convened by the mayor's office.

Bus lane cameras are currently limited to 16 of the city’s bus routes. They serve to enforce rules against parking in a bus lane, so as to take pressure off the police for finding violators and issuing tickets with fines for cars that park in or otherwise obstruct the bus lane. The program aims to improve bus speeds by making it clear to drivers not to block bus lanes.

At the end of the legislative session in Albany, lawmakers passed legislation to expand the number of automated cameras enforcing bus lanes. Owners of cars that block bus lanes will be fined $50 for the first offense, $100 for the second, $200 for third, and $250 for any additional offense.

In June, de Blasio announced the creation of the Better Buses Advisory Group, which will help implement the Better Buses Action Plan. The group includes the public advocate, state senators, Assembly members, City Council members, and representatives of advocacy groups.

“We are taking action to get New Yorkers moving and saving them time for the things that matter,” de Blasio said in a press release announcing the formation of the group. “With guidance from riders, our new Better Buses advisory group will come up with innovative solutions to get our bus routes up to speed,” he said.

2017 Stringer Report, De Blasio Announcement
The push to revamp the bus network got a shot in the arm in October 2017, following a report detailing the system’s ineffectiveness by Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer advocated for “major upgrades to our bus system, like better integrated, enforced and designed bus lanes, more bus shelters, all-door boarding, and Transit Signal Priority at traffic lights,” he said in a 2017 press release accompanying the report.

Also in October 2017, de Blasio announced a plan to introduce 21 new Select Bus Service routes across the city. As of that time, according to the city, SBS accounted for 12 percent of the city’s bus ridership, but de Blasio said he expected that number to go up to 30 percent, according to comments during a press conference announcing the plan. Select bus routes average speeds 27 percent higher than local routes.

If the buses are faster, “more and more people will use them. If they are easier to use, more and more people will get out of their cars. But if they’re not moving fast enough, it doesn’t encourage anyone to come and take the bus,” de Blasio said.

From 2013 to 2017, the number of SBS routes increased from six to 13. De Blasio expects increased select buses to improve service to areas that currently do not have regular bus service.

“The bottom line is we have to reach every single neighborhood. No neighborhood should be neglected. No one should have a problem getting around because of the ZIP code they live in. Select Bus Service is a difference maker,” de Blasio said in the announcement.

Car Culture and the Buses
Calls to improve bus service are coming in conjunction with broader efforts to improve pedestrian safety, reduce congestion, and decrease the city’s reliance on and deference to cars. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson recently introduced his “master plan for city streets” legislation, which includes a sweeping set of planks to “break car culture” by adding many more bus and bike lanes, and pedestrian plazas.

“A progressive city must do better for bus drivers and must deliver for bus riders,” Pearlstein said at the June City Council hearing on the bill. “This is powerful legislation to look forward to while we’re still unfortunately stuck on the bus.”

Johnson’s plan goes further than de Blasio’s Better Buses Action Plan, calling for 30 miles of new bus lanes each year along with TSP, compared to 5-10 miles under de Blasio’s plan.

“We need much better bus and commuter rail service,” Nicole Gelinas, a Manhattan Institute fellow, told Gotham Gazette. “We need a better bus network to take pressure off the subway as we decrease reliance on cars.”

Other major global cities have bus networks that are bigger and faster than New York’s. In 2010, London boasted a higher bus ridership than New York’s subway ridership.

If New York does not improve its bus system and regain riders, bus service will have to be cut, Pearlstein said, reflecting MTA Board discussions. “If we allow bus service to further deteriorate ridership will continue to fall and service will be cut. There is no leaving it the same,” Pearlstein said. “If you leave it the same it will get worse.”

“There do need to be faster trips, and more service, and they need to meet those lofty goals,” Pearlstein said of the MTA’s redesign efforts. “Otherwise it looks like a service cut.”

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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Everyone Agrees City Buses are in Crisis. What's Being Done? Wed, 10 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Corey Johnson Wants to ‘Break the Car Culture’ in New York City. What Does That Mean? https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8626-corey-johnson-want-to-break-the-car-culture-in-new-york-city-subway https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8626-corey-johnson-want-to-break-the-car-culture-in-new-york-city-subway city council cojo work train

Speaker Johnson on the train (photo: City Council's office)


Imagine a New York where cars no longer rule the road, and pedestrians and cyclists reclaim dominance of the city’s public space. While a New York where cars don’t dominate the streets may seem like a fantasy, to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, it is the future.

In recent months, Johnson -- a Manhattan Democrat in his second year leading the 51-member City Council -- has gone full bore touting the idea of “breaking car culture,” or prioritizing pedestrians, cyclists, and mass transit in public policy rather than private automobiles. But what, exactly, would that look like?

Johnson, who says he’s never owned a car and rides the subway all the time, has become a darling of transit advocates and experts, from his focus on the health of the subway system (and call for municipal control of it) to his pushes for congestion pricing and the “Fair Fares” Metrocard program to help low-income New Yorkers.

He’s been seen as a polar opposite to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has shown much more of a “windshield perspective” as a former everyday driver who now gets chauffeured around the city, opposed Fair Fares until Johnson prevailed in city budget negotiations, and has had reluctant overall interest in the subways and buses, not to mention biking.

Mainly, de Blasio’s vision for changing the city streetscape has been aspects of his Vision Zero program to redesign intersections, reduce speed limits, and protect people from traffic crashes. While the program has been successful, helping to continue a reduction in fatalities, the mayor has not shown an interest in creative uses of the city’s public space or the type of more radical thinking Johnson has professed.

Breaking the car culture is at the center of Johnson’s proposed “master plan for city streets,” new legislation that would require the city Department of Transportation (DOT) to improve pedestrian and cyclist access and safety by establishing benchmarks and, in five-year increments, aggressively building out a network of bike lanes, bus lanes, and pedestrian plazas that transform the city.

By 2024, the master plan would institute a connected bike network across the city, install many miles of protected bus lanes, install accessible pedestrian signals at all intersections with a pedestrian signal, redesign all intersections with a pedestrian signal according to a checklist of street design elements designed to enhance safety, and complete all these improvements within the standards for accessible design held by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The CIty Council held a hearing on the bill recently, its fate is unknown at this time.

But beyond the elements in Johnson’s legislation and the policy-making lens it represents, the speaker and others looking to break the car culture in the city also point to changing the decision-making process to give DOT authority over community boards when it comes to specifics of implementation, like getting rid of parking spots and installing bike lanes.

Others advocate for expanding the subway, bus and bicycle networks, building more pedestrian plazas and parks, pedestrianizing certain streets and neighborhoods, rethinking car-focused bridges, aggressively fighting parking placard abuse, and more.

Johnson’s bill comes as the city has seen an increase in traffic fatalities this year over last, despite Vision Zero and its progress over several years. During the first five months of the year, fatalities of pedestrians, bikers, and those in cars were up 21 percent over the first five months of last year.

The number of cyclist fatalities is up 66 percent over the same period, and this year has already surpassed last year’s 12-month total in terms of the number of cyclists killed.

Since its launch in 2014, Vision Zero has helped decrease the number of traffic deaths in every subsequent year, but this year is on pace for an alarming regression, adding to the calls for a much more ambitious approach to street safety and undoing deference to cars.

De Blasio and his administration have been reluctant to support Johnson’s “master plan,” citing the improvements already made and in the works, and what it would require in terms of DOT workload and budget. But Johnson is not satisfied with the pace or scope of the city’s efforts. He wants to prioritize pedestrians, cyclists, and bus riders, ultimately reducing a reliance on cars in the city -- in large part by making the alternatives more attractive.

From 2005 to 2017, the number of cars in the city increased by 15%, or 250,283 cars, to a total of 1,923,041, according to the summary of Johnson’s bill.

Meanwhile, in 2017 the subways had an average weekday ridership of 5,580,845 people a day, while average weekday bus ridership that year was 1,923,993, according to MTA statistics. Bus ridership has declined every year since 2012 and subway ridership hit a four-year low in 2017, as both public transportation systems have been mired in failure. However, there have been recent attempts to reinvent the bus system and fix the subways, and the work on both is ongoing.

“Breaking the car culture means not prioritizing public policy as it relates to private automobile use and doing what we can to reprioritize pedestrians and cyclists and buses and mass transit users,” Johnson told Gotham Gazette just after the Council’s first hearing on his master plan legislation, held on June 12.

The City Council hearing featured testimony from DOT and advocacy groups. Johnson again touted the importance of breaking “car culture,” and questioned DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg for nearly an hour on what the DOT could do to better manage the city’s streets. Johnson lauded the DOT for the improvements it has made, but said that it could do more, especially on bike lanes, improved bus service, and accessibility.

“What this bill is about is shifting away from car culture, breaking the car culture, prioritizing people not in cars, prioritizing pedestrians, cyclists, and mass transit,” Johnson said at the hearing.

He was critical of DOT for not putting enough effort into doing the same.

However, Trottenberg maintained that DOT has been prioritizing those not in cars and is moving ahead on bike lanes and bus improvements at a solid rate.

“In our designs we have tried to change that priority,” Trottenberg said at the hearing. Through increasing the amount of resources dedicated to public transport, bicycles, and other alternatives, “we absolutely could accommodate people by getting rid of cars.”

According to Rosalie Singerman Ray, a PhD student at Columbia University studying institutions in transportation planning, breaking car culture has two components. First, politicians and activists must name cars as the problem and come up with feasible solutions to make people less dependent on cars. Second is increasing the capacity of local agencies to enforce the new solutions, such as improving public transport and getting rid of parking spaces, among other proposals.

“That's where we're struggling,” Ray said in an email to Gotham Gazette. “Unenforced, unplanned streets don't work well for anyone,” she said.

Breaking the car culture in the city would not be an easy task even if it was the stated goal. Johnson’s bill outlines concrete steps to make people less reliant on cars, and he tasks DOT with many of the improvements necessary to do so. While DOT is eager to continue to make improvements, it does not currently have the resources to accomplish all the initiatives in the bill, Trottenberg said. DOT is “aggressively growing,” but it would need to “aggressively grow some more” to make all the changes in the bill, she said.

“I think we are a piece of it, but I don’t think it's fair to say that DOT is the sole entity that is going to break the car culture in New York. To break the car culture in New York you need an incredibly robust functioning and expanding mass transit system, you need to build political consensus with players above and beyond this agency,” Trottenberg said.

In an interview earlier this year on the What’s The [Data] Point? podcast from Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget Commission, Trottenberg said that the MTA, a state-run authority that controls the subways and buses with city representatives on its board, should be in the subway-building game, expanding the network like other cities are doing around the globe.

Many of the initiatives in Johnson’s bill must be implemented by DOT in conjunction with the MTA and community boards, creating bureaucratic speed bumps in the bill’s feasibility.

To implement a bike corral, or curbside bike storage, a private business or individual must petition DOT, which in turn must file an application before the community board, before the corral is voted on. Often these bike corrals will take the place of a parking spot.

“My feeling is that DOT regulates the curb and they should have the ability to say that parking spot for one car is going to be changed now,” activist Doug Gordon said in an interview with Gotham Gazette. Gordon is a co-host of The War on Cars podcast, examining transit issues. Eliminating the process by which the city litigates every single parking spot could make the DOT more efficient and encourage biking, Gordon said.

Gordon, like many transit advocates, including Speaker Johnson, is active on Twitter and posts a lot about mobility around the city. He recently celebrated a new protected bike lane painted along 4th Avenue in Brooklyn. However, building protected bike lanes can be difficult, because they require the approval of a community board, which often boosts the voices of local residents who drive, Gordon said.

Last year, DOT constructed 21.9 miles of new protected bike lanes, falling short of its goal of 30. Johnson’s plan would require the construction of 50 miles of new protected bike lanes a year. The DOT defines protected bike lanes as a lane separated from traffic by vertical delineations or a physical barrier, including parked cars.

Increasing the number of protected bike lanes can have the potential to increase ridership. According to a 2014 report by City Lab, protected bike lanes increase ridership 21 to 171 percent, with about ten percent of new rides drawn from other modes of transportation.

To build so many miles of protected bike lanes, many of the city’s free public parking spots would have to be removed. For example, in its resolution to build a protected bike lane on the east side of Central Park West, Manhattan’s community board 7 eliminated parking on the east side of the avenue, and with it 400 parking spots. The community pushed for the protected bike lane following the death of a 23-year-old cyclist in the current bike lane, which is unprotected.

The DOT estimates that there are 3 million free public parking spots in the city. “We have too much free parking in New York City,” Trottenberg said at the Council hearing. She also agreed with Johnson that there are “too many” cars in the city.

Three million free parking spots is “an astronomical number,” Johnson said. “If you tried to calculate the amount of cubic square footage that is and the amount of people and bike lanes and bus lanes that could fit in that area, you could potentially have a transformative effect on New York City if you started prioritizing breaking the car culture,” he said.

De Blasio has demonstrated a reluctance to remove parking spaces, though he has backed the expansion of CitiBike bike-share, the docks for which often take away a few spots.

“There is a little bit of fear that pervades the development of these plans because there is the sense that if parking is taken there will be community pushback,” Gordon said.

“We all as New Yorkers understand how to maximize the least amount of space for the most amount of good,” Gordon said. “I think we need to extend that very New York point of view to the curbside,” he said.

When the city repurposes parking spots, DOT considers the parking needs of the neighborhood and tries to redesign streets in a way that works for everyone, DOT official Sean Quinn said at the hearing.

Gordon and others want not only parking spaces turned over to other public uses, but also some of the land currently used for driving, such as a lane on the Brooklyn Bridge, which could be given to cyclists, thus alleviating some of the at-times dangerous overcrowding that happens on the pedestrian and bike pathway across the bridge. Gordon and others have also called for pedestrianizing Broadway from Union Square to Times Square, if not beyond, as well as much of downtown Manhattan.

“Making provisions for individuals to be allowed to drive and park wherever and whenever they want makes pretty much everything harder in New York,” Ray of Columbia said in an email to Gotham Gazette.

In London and Paris, both cities that have been cited by Johnson as examples of how to break car culture, the push against car dominance began with parking and public transit investment. Both cities cleared street parking off of major avenues.

London instituted congestion pricing in February 2003, built bus lanes and invested in its bus network, and its bus system boasted a higher ridership than New York’s subway system in 2010. Paris built tramways and bus lanes, putting them on the street to take the place of cars. Paris has since raised the cost of parking on the street, with parking fees higher outside of one’s home neighborhood.

At the same time, both London and Paris kept costs relatively low while they implemented alternatives.

New Yorkers “don't actually know what it looks like to break car culture wallet-first,” Ray said, meaning that New York’s infrastructure costs are often astronomical, and the state is set to institute congestion pricing while investments in the subway and bus systems have not been clearly planned and funded, much less implemented -- though some investments have been made through the emergency Subway Action Plan and initial re-signaling of the 7-line. Still, the MTA must soon perform an authority reorganization while also designing a new five-year capital plan to outline roughly $30-60 billion in planned investments.

Part of Johnson’s master plan includes getting people to rely on cars less by improving the mass transit system, especially buses.

“If the subways and buses are more reliable, if the buses are faster, if there are dedicated bus lanes, if there are more pedestrian spaces, I’m going to rely on something that is cheaper, that is more reliable, that is better for the environment, that is more affordable,” Johnson told Gotham Gazette just after the hearing. There are indeed elements of public transit and space that the city has a great deal of control over, including establishment and enforcement of bus and bike lanes.

Johnson’s plan calls for 30 miles of new bus lanes each year and the implementation of transit signal priority, a method used to coordinate vehicles and traffic signals to reduce the time buses are stopped at traffic lights along a corridor and therefore improve bus travel times, according to DOT.

“We need much better bus and commuter rail service,” Nicole Gelinas, a Manhattan Institute fellow, said in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “We need a better bus network to take pressure off the subway as we decrease reliance on cars.”

Improvements to the bus system would come at a time of decreasing ridership, as more and more New Yorkers get around in for-hire vehicle services, like Uber and Lyft. In January 2016, taxis and for-hire vehicles combined to provide 680,000 rides, according to statistics released by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission and DOT. Today, they combine to provide over one million daily rides. From 2012 to 2017, bus ridership decreased by 12.75 percent.

To break car culture, the city would have to address the increasing number of New Yorkers who are reliant on taxis and app-based for-hire vehicles. The city recently announced a plan to extend the existing cap on fire-hire vehicle licenses another year and introduced another regulation to limit the amount of time drivers cruise, or drive without a passenger. The state also recently passed a congestion pricing program, which will begin in 2021 and charge a fee for entering Manhattan’s central business district, which will add a cost on top of the other new fee recently assessed to for-hire vehicles.

Johnson said that congestion pricing is another part of breaking the car culture. Congestion pricing “will at least below 60th street reduce the number of cars that come in every day,” he said.

Congestion pricing may also eliminate some effects of pollution, which could have environmental and public health benefits. Breaking the car culture could be beneficial to the health of New Yorkers and the globe. High density of cars has been linked to noise and air pollution problems, so creating an environment with fewer cars would make the area less polluted, Ray said.

“Congestion pricing in NYC can do more than address congestion—it can open the city’s streets to better transportation choices and new economic prospects,” former DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan wrote on Twitter. “Cities need people-friendly mobility options that reclaim streets from the damage caused by cars. Sadik-Khan spearheaded the Times Square pedestrian plaza, and under her leadership in the Bloomberg administration, the city began implementing CitiBike terminals and the transformation of approximately 180 acres of road space into pedestrian and cyclist zones.

Some advocates have called for even more pedestrian plazas and spaces in the city, such as the idea of turning Broadway into a pedestrian-only park between the Times Square pedestrian plaza and Union Square.

Breaking car culture will also require the city to become more accessible, Johnson said. The plan calls for the introduction of accessible pedestrian signals (APS), or devices fixed to pedestrian signal poles to assist the blind or low vision pedestrians crossing the street. The devices emit a sound that tells the pedestrian when to cross.

“Cities that have broken their car culture have more public space to talk and play and eat and breathe, and paradoxically, roads that work better for more people,” Ray said.

Johnson noted that there are some parts of New York City that are “transit deserts,” and people who live in those areas will not give up their cars unless the city provides them with an alternative. Eastern Queens and South Brooklyn both lack significant transit options, for example.

“You’re never going to eradicate cars in New York City. That’s just not possible. But it’s about reprioritizing, giving people better options, making significant investments in things that don’t relate to private automobile use,” Johnson said.

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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Corey Johnson Wants to ‘Break the Car Culture’ in New York City. What Does That Mean? Sun, 30 Jun 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.

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

 

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Governor Gets What He Wants at the MTA; Now It's Time to Deliver Mon, 24 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The MTA is Fiscally Exhausted https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8600-the-mta-is-fiscally-exhausted https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8600-the-mta-is-fiscally-exhausted MTA Cuomo finances

(photo: MTA/Patrick Cashin)


We call it the distraction circus. Donald Trump’s advisor, Steve Bannon, called it “flooding the zone with sh*t” to befuddle the news media and critics. Whatever you call it, the endless kerfuffle Governor Cuomo is stirring around the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is obscuring what we think are the MTA’s potentially catastrophic money problems.

Yes, even after new revenue from congestion pricing is factored in, the MTA is still in big financial trouble.

Five very big things jump out in terms of the MTA’s fiscal health. First, Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders are sending strong signals they are going to renege on the remaining $7.3 billion they promised the MTA in direct state aid in the 2016 state budget for the 2015-2019 MTA capital plan. Second, the governor says state monies will generate only about $30 billion of the $40 billion to $60 billion his own workgroup estimated the MTA needs for its 2020-2024 capital plan.

Third, the governor is strongly suggesting the MTA will have to borrow roughly $10 billion to $30 billion on top of its already soaring debt load. Fourth, even with massive cost cutting, the MTA’s debt payments are rising to alarming levels, with 19% of operating income possibly going to debt by 2022, raising the harbinger of a “death spiral.”

Fifth, these are not the MTA issues the Board, Legislature, or transit reporters are talking about nearly enough.

Importantly, the MTA is facing these dire fiscal pressures while New York City’s economy is in the midst of a decade-long boom and state and city tax revenues are at record levels. What happens when there is the inevitable downturn?

The MTA is Fiscally Exhausted, so Where is the $7.3B?
With much fanfare, the Governor and State Legislature included in the 2016 state budget a “historic” commitment of $8.3 billion in direct state aid to the MTA’s 2015-2019 capital plan. More than three years later, the state still owes the MTA $7.3 billion.

The devil is truly in the details for state budget promises. The much touted 2016 state bailout of the MTA allowed $1 billion to be given to the MTA without condition, but an additional $7.3 billion will only be available after the MTA borrows until it can borrow no more -- in other words, when the MTA is fiscally “exhausted.” (See Part NN of the 2016 budget.)

As of May 2019, the MTA has gotten only $1 billion of the state bailout money promised in 2016, and $11 billion from all sources for the $33 billion it planned to spend on the 2015-2019 capital plan.mta1

The Subway Action Plan: A Distraction from the $7.3B owed by the State?
As of December 2017, the MTA had received only $65 million of the state capital dollars promised in the April 2016 state budget for its 2015-2019 capital plan. In July 2017, the governor announced the Subway Action Plan, which included $328 million for capital projects (which is less than 5% of the $7.3 billion of the promised state capital funds). Yet, the Subway Action Plan has become a proxy for effort by the state. The governor’s office has repeatedly emphasized the millions the state was contributing to the Subway Action Plan while glossing over the $7.3 billion it owes the MTA.

[READ: There's Plenty of Money in the MTA Capital Plan, It's Just Not Being Spent]

MTA Tens of Billions Short of Funding Needed for Capital Plan Starting in 2020
To recap, the state still owes the MTA $7.3 billion for the current, 2015-2019 capital plan. Now, the governor says the MTA won’t get new state funding for the next capital plan.

Last week, Governor Cuomo doubled down on his rhetoric that the MTA must “reform” or it won’t get more funding from the state for the MTA’s 2020-2024 capital plan. Speaking on The Brian Lehrer Show, the governor said that the MTA will get only $30 billion from the state for the MTA 2020-2024 capital plan, including congestion pricing and state dedicated taxes, saying it needs to do better with the billions it has. This is much less than the $40 billion to $60 billion Cuomo’s own MTA Sustainability Workgroup concluded in December 2018 would be needed for the 2020-2024 plan.

The biggest problem with this statement is that the MTA is already fiscally exhausted, and “reform” -- including possible consolidations from a forthcoming reorganization plan (more on that here) -- will not possibly make up the additional $10 to $30 billion that the MTA is missing to meet its needs for the next capital plan. 

Skyrocketing Debt Payments: 19 Cents of Every Fare Dollar
While the MTA has been borrowing itself into a state of “fiscal exhaustion” to meet the terms of the 2016 state budget for its promised $7.3B, debt service payments have soared to record levels.

In 2017, debt payments cost 17% of the MTA’s operating budget. By 2o22, debt payments will consume 19% of the operating budget, as projected in its February 2019 financial plan. (All charts in this piece are sourced from data in this plan.)

In total, debt payments will be $3.22 billion in 2022 -- an increase of 27% since 2017.

mta3

And with a threat from the governor of no more state funding, the MTA seems to be on the path toward even more borrowing if it is to even attempt to meet its capital needs for 2020-2024.

Blunt Cuts Won’t Save the MTA
With debt service on the rise and ridership declining, the MTA is facing a large operating deficit. The operating budget pays for everyday subway, bus, and rail service, and money borrowed to pay for capital expenses. Every dollar paying back borrowed money is a dollar that cannot be spent on subway or bus service.

As debt costs soar, so does the ongoing gap between the MTA’s income and expenses. The MTA’s deficit for 2020 has now reached $467 million, with even larger gaps in the years to come. (To be sure, the MTA is also struggling with costs including health care for current and retired workers -- a problem for many big employers in the U.S.)

mta2

If the MTA can’t reduce its debt payments, how can it make up future operating losses? The biggest likelihood is through workforce reductions, which could increase the risk of entering a “death spiral” of less service, fewer riders, and less farebox revenue. Labor makes up 60% of operating costs and the MTA’s labor contracts are up for renewal this year. The MTA has 75,000 employees and is by far the largest unit of state government. 

There are rumors of big layoffs circulating within the MTA. The obvious concern for riders is how layoffs affect customer service. A smart reorganization of the MTA could make sensible consolidations, but there is tremendous pressure to close the MTA’s operating deficit and chop out dead wood. The risk is the reorganization could decimate the MTA’s workforce at a time when working for the MTA is not likely at the top of job seekers’ lists, all while the governor continues to harshly criticize the MTA professional staff for lack of innovation and execution.

Exhausted and in Danger
In the 2016 budget, the governor and Legislature committed $8.3 billion to the MTA. They have given it $1 billion. Will the MTA get the remaining $7.3 billion? Will the governor and Legislative Leaders finally level with the public? Where the heck is the MTA supposed to find the roughly $50 billion it needs for the 2020-2024 rebuilding plan? How much money does the MTA really need? What is the debt redline? Some states keep debt payments at 5% to 7% of their operating budgets, while the MTA is edging towards an astronomical 19%. The danger signs for the MTA are mounting, and we need an honest discussion of how to fix this problem before it’s too late.

[READ: There's Plenty of Money in the MTA Capital Plan, It's Just Not Being Spent]

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Rachael Fauss is Senior Research Analyst and John Kaehny is Executive Director at Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @ReinventAlbany.

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The MTA is Fiscally Exhausted Thu, 13 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Reorganizing the MTA with a Transparent, Public Process https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8539-reorganizing-the-mta-with-a-transparent-public-process https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8539-reorganizing-the-mta-with-a-transparent-public-process reopeningmta

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


In advance of the MTA Board meeting taking place today (Wednesday, May 22), Reinvent Albany and ten other groups including Riders Alliance, TransitCenter, Regional Plan Association, and others sent a letter asking the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to make sure that the process for developing its reorganization plan -- as required by this year’s state budget -- is public, transparent and consultative.

At a time when the MTA has been seeking to restore the public’s trust, it is as important as ever that a reorganization is not disruptive to riders, who are counting on a reorganization to provide better, not worse, service. Ensuring the discussions over the pending reorganization are open and consultative will help put the MTA’s best foot forward to show it is acting in the public interest -- something highlighted as a major need in Reinvent Albany’s recently-released Open MTA report.

So far, the process has not been public or transparent, and MTA Board members have raised important questions about their role. In March, before the state budget legislation was passed creating the mandate for reorganization, the Board was asked by MTA management to approve a contract with consultants AlixPartners. Once the budget was finalized and passed, at the April Board meeting, a $4 million contract was approved for AlixPartners to develop the reorganization plan.

While the law sets up milestones for the process to unfold, there is no detail on how the public is to be engaged in the process, and little detail on how the plan is to be presented to the public. The state budget requires the MTA’s consultant, now AlixPartners, to give its plan to the MTA Board by June 30 of this year. Our view is that the plan should be made public at that date, including any accompanying analyses.

AlixPartners is also conducting a “review” of waste, fraud, abuse, conflicts of interest, duplications of functions, etc., which is due to the MTA by July 31. Under law, the “review” is to be made public within 30 days of receipt by the MTA.

Best would be to make the AlixPartners “review” public as soon as it is received by the MTA Board, since there is a narrow window of time for adopting the reorganization plan. Within 90 days of receipt of this “review,” the reorganization plan is to be “updated” by the authority to incorporate its findings.

It is our understanding that the MTA Board, acting as the authority, will vote on a final reorganization plan sometime before the end of October of this year. Well before a final plan is voted on, the MTA Board and staff should reach out to public stakeholders, including riders groups, unions, advocates, and elected representatives, and publicly consult with them about potential recommendations. This would be best done outside of the MTA Board meeting process, which limits public engagement to 2-minute presentations and does not allow a dialogue to occur.

Beyond ensuring that the reorganization plan process is open and consultative, as supported by our partners, Reinvent Albany has a number of questions about the ramifications of the plan itself that we would like the MTA to answer:

  1. The MTA’s efforts to consolidate invoice payments, human resources, and IT functions under the Business Services Center (BSC) have not been independently evaluated, though general consensus is that the effort was rocky at first, though appears to be moving in the right direction. What has the MTA learned from this past consolidation that should apply to the current reorganization process? Reports on the BSC from MTA show that its current mandate is considerable.
  1. How will the plan ensure that the MTA’s professional staff are allowed to have independence, and be free from the past politicization that has plagued the MTA?
  1. What will be the role of agency presidents going forward? Andy Byford has hired considerable talent, including, for example, Sarah Meyer (Chief Customer Officer), and Pete Tomlin (signals technology expert). How will this staff talent be retained and used in the future?
  1. How will the plan ensure that there is not further brain drain, and work to boost MTA staff morale? The hiring freeze has put considerable strain on current MTA staff to already do more with fewer resources (in some cases necessitating overtime), and morale appears to be at an all time low.
  1. How will the state budget provision that enables sharing of employees facilitate reorganization? How will any sharing of employees be reported to the MTA Board and public? How will collective bargaining agreements affect the proposed reorganization/employee sharing?
  1. How will the plan address transparency and accountability? MTA CEO/Chair Pat Foye has promised to overhaul the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) process and Open Data at MTA, yet the Information Technology (IT) department has already been consolidated, resulting in the elimination of 187 positions, in addition to the current hiring freeze.

Reinvent Albany also has concerns that this IT consolidation is creating an outsourcing trap for the MTA that results in dependency on outside, costly consultants. Transparent efficiency efforts rely on IT staff having the people, resources, and political will to make changes. Will they?

The MTA should seek to answer these questions -- and those of other stakeholders -- in a public, consultative process. MTA riders and taxpayers deserve nothing less.

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

 

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Reorganizing the MTA with a Transparent, Public Process Tue, 21 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
'Blow Up the MTA'? Not Yet https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8532-blow-up-the-mta-not-yet https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8532-blow-up-the-mta-not-yet state otc ad spk co jo del

Council Speaker Corey Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


With subway and bus riders so frustrated with poor service, it is understandable that city leaders are talking about changing the governance of the MTA and its New York City Transit (NYCT) division as a solution.

Most notably, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has come up with a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided plan to break NYCT off from the MTA and vest full responsibility for its funding and operation in a mayor-controlled structure he’s named Big Apple Transit, or BAT. BAT would run the city transit used by millions of New Yorkers every day.

The speaker and I, along with MTA Board member Veronica Vanterpool and moderator Charles Komanoff, appeared Wednesday evening on a panel to discuss his plan, part of the Theodore Kheel Fellowship Program at Roosevelt House at Hunter College.

The appeal of the speaker’s plan has been enhanced by Governor Cuomo’s pre-election (and continuing, although to a lesser extent) protestations that neither he nor anyone, really, controls the MTA and is responsible for improving how it operates.

But shifting from MTA to city government control would only substitute New York City-centric political challenges for regional ones, and could well make some of the system’s problems worse. Attention and effort would more usefully be focused on reminding the current MTA Board of its fiduciary responsibility to the agency, not to the Governor, demanding more transparency and requiring serious oversight by the State Legislature.

It is far easier to argue for city control of subways and buses than to get into the weeds of how to reform MTA procurement, why and how to install a new signal system, or the need for work rule changes in union contracts. But these are the dynamics that need change the most.

There are several reasons why a shift in control of subways and buses from a regional to a city authority would be problematic.

First, the separation of city buses and subways from the rest of the MTA’s assets runs counter to the long-term goal of creating a more integrated regional transit system. More than 1.1 million people commute into New York City to work. They swipe their metrocards half-a-million times a day. We need these workers to contribute to the city’s economy, shop, and pay sales taxes in addition to bridge tolls and fares that help support the buses and subways. We need to be thinking about how to better connect Westchester and Long Island transit systems (and yes, New Jersey and Connecticut as well) to the city’s, not allow them to exist in siloes.

Second, even if it were desirable, a new Big Apple Transit would not be financially viable. We have a Metropolitan Transit Authority because it serves, and derives revenue from, seven suburban counties in addition to the five boroughs of New York City.

The Payroll Mobility Tax and the dedicated regional sales tax are levied on businesses and activities in the region with suburban counties as well as residents and businesses paying a significant share. In particular, the PMT generates more than $1 billion per year for NYCT. This tax was vehemently opposed by suburban legislators when it was adopted in 2009 and it has repeatedly been subjected to various exceptions. The state Legislature agreed to make up some of the lost revenue from the exemptions.

Can there be any doubt that if NYCT were separated from the regional MTA the state Legislature would quickly and gleefully cease providing the lost revenue from the exemption from the PMT and might well suspend or redirect other regional taxes designated for the MTA exclusively to the LIRR and Metro North?

This could mean that city residents and businesses would be required to make up the loss of some of the $2 billion in annual revenue from sales taxes, ride-hail surcharges, mortgage transfer fees, etc. now devoted to the NYCT. Even if replacement of these revenues with local taxes were acceptable to the public(!), there is no guarantee that the state Legislature would grant New Yor City authority to impose them.

And the subsidy from general state revenue would be at risk as well. The governor has made his view on this clear: “If New York City took [transit] over, they take it over. They don’t get the state funding.”

Speaker Johnson’s proposal assumes that all regional and state subsidies to NYCT would remain in place and even then, he projects the city would need to come up with an additional $1-1.5 billion in revenue a year. The loss of any or all state and regional support, totaling almost $3 billion a year, could make the shortfall overwhelming and would require significant increases in fares and other taxes. And the shortfall would be even worse if there is a recession.Will city taxpayers and riders put up with absorbing all of that?

It is of course undeniable that the MTA Board structure obscures accountability. But it is necessary and appropriate for a regional transit system to have representation of all the impacted counties on its board.

Nonetheless, the Mayor has more appointees than anyone besides the Governor, who also appoints the CEO/Chair. After all the drama of the last year over service disruptions, the declaration of a state of emergency to expedite repair work, the announcement of the Fast Forward Plan, and the governor’s last-minute intervention and rejection of the planned shutdown of the L line for a modified plan, it is now abundantly clear that the buck stops with the Governor.

Yes, the Board needs to fulfill its fiduciary responsibilities, be more transparent and exercise better oversight, but merely switching ultimate responsibility from one elected official to another will not change the fact that, so long as public transit is a public responsibility, it will have political leadership that shies away from making tough decisions.

To properly maintain and improve 24-hour bus and subway service, fares need to be regularly and steadily raised. Service needs to be suspended on some lines for periods of time so they can be properly maintained and repaired. A Board appointed by the Mayor will not find these decisions any easier than one controlled by the Governor, especially if it has to generate even more revenue because of the absence of state and regional tax support.

It is clear that one of the main drivers of NYCT cost growth is personnel. Why will the Mayor be any more likely than the Governor to resist the power of the Transportation Workers Union (TWU) and other labor unions? Notwithstanding Governor Cuomo’s intervention in 2014 to forge a contract settlement with transit unions – with no productivity initiatives or fringe benefit savings to offset wage increases – TWU head John Samuelson is already threatening a strike in response to recent exposés on overtime abuses and related criticism. A Mayor would be even more susceptible to these kinds of threats.

Disjointed regional transit planning and administration, possible loss of substantial state and regional funding, a fraught environment in which to implement fare increases, raise taxes, and negotiate labor contracts – these are the likely results of “blowing up the MTA.” Better to focus on practical, feasible steps to make the MTA work better right now. Reinvent Albany recently published a report with 50 Actions New York Can Take To Renew Public Trust in the Metropolitan  Transportation Authority that contains many worthwhile proposals. Among the most significant:

-The MTA Board should vote on policy decisions, not adopt them de facto though contract approvals.

-The Senate and Assembly should create committees dedicated specifically to oversight of the MTA, not treat it as part of the general Transportation or Authorities Committee jurisdiction where the MTA region are not well-enough represented.

-MTA Board members should be subject to a real, thorough vetting and confirmation process.

-There should be much more open data on contracts, project progress, budget and capital planning.

-The MTA fiscal year should be moved to begin in July instead of January, so state budget actions can be taken into account in financial planning.

-Procurement should be streamlined so there are fewer incentives for change orders and cost overruns.

Instead of devoting time and attention to the idea of putting different people in the seats on the deck of the Titanic, let’s work on getting the ship into stable waters and smooth sailing by insisting on competence and accountability from the crew we have.

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

 

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

 

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'Blow Up the MTA'? Not Yet Thu, 16 May 2019 04:00:00 +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
     

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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
18 Steps to Increase Transparency at the MTA and Help Restore Public Trust https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8489-18-steps-to-increase-transparency-at-the-mta-and-help-restore-public-trust https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8489-18-steps-to-increase-transparency-at-the-mta-and-help-restore-public-trust mta chairman foye

MTA Chair Pat Foye (photo: Marc A. Hermann/MTA)


In recent weeks, Pat Foye, the new CEO/Chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has twice publicly committed to improving the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) and open data processes at the MTA. This is welcome news and an essential step forward for a government authority that has lost a great deal of public trust and is widely perceived as being politicized by the governor’s office. Our organization, Reinvent Albany, will strongly support this push by Foye and we hope it is a small down payment on a new culture of openness.

The MTA is widely seen as having a serious credibility problem with the public and state Legislature. This loss of trust has been aggravated by the tendency of the authority’s top management to treat routine matters as emergencies that must be addressed suddenly, in secret, and outside of existing rules and normal processes. Some days, the MTA seems to operate more like the CIA than a public transit agency. This hurts public confidence in the agency and reduces the political support it needs to make tough decisions about spending and service disruptions.

For its own good, the MTA needs to act like a public transit agency, not the CIA. The core of New York’s Freedom of Information Law is that “a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public.”

In the fight for congestion pricing, which Reinvent Albany strongly supports, members of the New York State Legislature expressed frustration at the MTA’s secrecy, and constantly questioned the credibility of information provided by the authority. Some of this was political theatrics by opponents of congestion pricing. But even allies of the MTA were critical, highlighting the gap between the public’s expectations that the MTA be open and honest, and the agency’s habit of shading statistics, telling partial truths, and making it difficult for the public to see underlying data -- including on high-profile issues like Con Edison-caused service disruptions and fare evasion.

We believe the MTA’s lack of candor and transparency is hugely self-defeating and has led directly to the Legislature imposing more and more reporting requirements, including a host of new ones in this year’s state budget.

Fortunately for the MTA, there is a clear path forward on transparency. In early April, Reinvent Albany released Steps Forward for MTA FOIL and Open Data, a comprehensive report on transparency at the MTA, with 18 specific recommendations about how it can improve transparency. We urge the MTA to examine these recommendations, summarized below, and move toward “open by default.” Here are18 Steps Forward for MTA FOIL, Open Data and Transparency:

Open FOIL
1. The MTA should adopt an Open FOIL platform using best practices from other jurisdictions such as LA Metro, the Port Authority of NY/NJ, and within New York State such as NYC Open Records. FOIL requests should be used to prioritize proactive release of information via a “Reading Room.”

2.The MTA should create an in-house MTA Police incident reports portal, allowing the public to privately request incident reports online (incident reports currently make up two-thirds of all MTA FOIL requests). The MTA should work with the NYS DMV to develop their own portal, like the state’s crash reports portal. Other user-friendly models include the State of Pennsylvania crash reports site.

Open Data
The MTA should publish all tables, charts and other tabular data from their performance reports, capital plans, budget documents, Board materials, and other reports as open data. This should include:

3. Full compliance with Executive Order 95, requiring the publishing of all public MTA data on the New York State Open Data portal. Legislation should be considered in this area if compliance cannot be achieved administratively.

4. Release of all underlying datasets that are used to create MTA performance metrics, with full release of methodologies and API access (allowing apps to interface the data automatically).

5. Creating a contracts database that provides full and complete information about projects and vendors.

6. Providing all data from current MTA Board and Budget materials well in advance of meetings in machine-readable, CSV spreadsheet form.

7. Creating an MTA “Open Budget” website for the MTA’s budget information, similar to the state Open Budget NY site.

Budget and Capital Plan Transparency
8. Capital Planning Oversight Committee Materials should be improved through releasing all data in machine-readable, CSV spreadsheet form. Data should always include original project schedules and budgets. All current projects should be listed in the “Traffic Light” report, including those in the CPOC’s Risk-Based Monitoring Program.

9. Budget Documents should be made open and more complete, and released in machine-readable, CSV spreadsheet form. Budget Documents should also provide detailed breakdowns of past yearly expenditures and revenues, going back at least 10 years for both the capital and expense budget, comparing them with past projections.

10. MTA Capital Dashboard should be updated and improved, with improved timeliness of data updates, ensuring that all click-through data can be downloaded in bulk, more data such as contract numbers. The MTA should hold a user-group feedback session to identify additional improvement areas, and expand the “FAQs” Section.

Better Understanding Itself and Its Riders
11. The MTA should conduct and publicly release in an open data format an updated demographic analysis of its riders that looks at age, median individual and family income, race, ethnicity, gender, profession, disability, geographic locations, travel times, and other metrics.

12. The MTA should release more detailed methodology and tabular data about its fare evasion statistics, such as data broken out by borough, subway line, etc.

13. The MTA should release publicly, in an open data format, all data from its customer service portal and all staff analyses of the portal, polls and surveys.

14. The MTA should publicly release, in an open data format, its submission to the FTA of its Transit Asset Management (TAM) plan and the update to its 20-Year Needs Assessment.

15. MTA staff should conduct and release an in-depth “lessons learned” report about installation of Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) on the 7 Line.

Open Meetings Law
16. The Capital Program Review Board (CPRB) should comply with the Open Meetings Law to ensure that all of its deliberations are conducted in public meetings, in particular its votes to approve capital plans and their amendments.

17. A website should be created for the CPRB where it publishes its mission, activities, members, calendar of meetings, meeting minutes and materials, and contact information.

18. All future commissions, advisory workgroups, and other public bodies formed by law to provide recommendations regarding the MTA should fully abide by the Open Meetings Law.

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Rachael Fauss is Senior Research Analyst and John Kaehny is Executive Director at Reinvent Albany. On Twitter @ReinventAlbany.

Read more from Rachael Fauss

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

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18 Steps to Increase Transparency at the MTA and Help Restore Public Trust Wed, 01 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Battles Over the MTA’s Long-Term Planning are About to Really Heat Up https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8409-battles-over-the-mta-s-long-term-planning-are-about-to-really-heat-up https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8409-battles-over-the-mta-s-long-term-planning-are-about-to-really-heat-up govandrewcuomo canarsie engineer

(photo: governor's office)


For those of us who want the MTA to finish a favorite project before our grandchildren are retired, now is the absolute best time to let Governor Cuomo know how you feel. The MTA is finalizing a document that will shape the New York region’s public transportation system for decades. Construction firms, unions, suppliers, and real estate interests are all lobbying the MTA to protect and further their own interests.

Every five years, the MTA issues a report of its capital needs for the next 20 years. This document identifies projects designed to improve travel for subway, bus, and railroad riders as well as for the drivers who cross the MTA’s seven bridges and two tunnels. The upcoming report will identify the transportation system’s critical needs and more than $100 billion worth of projects that the MTA deems essential. This is an extraordinary amount of money considering that the federal government ’s contribution to the MTA’s capital program has been less than $1.5 billion per year (and its contribution to all 6,800 public transportation systems across the country totals only about $13 billion per year).

The MTA’s 20-year needs assessment will set the stage in the fall for yet another document, a five-year capital program. The proposed program will identify which projects in the 20-year needs assessment should begin between 2020 and 2024. Aside from the state’s budget, the MTA’s five-year capital program is one of the most important and controversial items that the Legislature deals with on a regular basis.

In 1999, the MTA released a 20-year needs document that reflected the priorities of Governor George Pataki and Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The MTA saw the need to relieve crowding on the Lexington Avenue line and provide subway service to the Jacob Javits Convention Center. The MTA subsequently built three new subway stations on Second Avenue and extended the No. 7 train to the far West Side. Some of the initiatives identified in 1999 have not panned out though, such as extending subway service to LaGuardia Airport.

The current five-year capital program, which ends this year, has allocated approximately $33 billion to upgrade the transportation network, including purchasing new rail cars, modernizing signals and stations, and building new maintenance facilities. Nearly one-quarter of the program has been devoted to major expansion projects. These initiatives are the ones that are the most debated and anticipated, and include bringing the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal, preliminary construction for the second phase of the Second Avenue Subway, and engineering for work that will allow Metro-North to access Penn Station and build four new Bronx stations.

The MTA will propose to spend even more over the next 20 years than it has in the previous two decades. New York City’s population and train ridership have grown more than planners expected 20 years ago. Moreover, New Yorkers want the MTA to provide modern and safe services, and the bar that defines such a system is continuously raised. The new subway stations on Second Avenue have become today's minimum standard: spacious and quiet stations with numerous escalators, elevators, and electronic signs, along with platforms that are cooled on hot summer days.

One thing is very different about this year’s preparation for the 20-year needs assessment and capital program. Five years ago, Governor Cuomo paid little attention to the MTA. Now, the governor is intimately involved with the MTA’s planning and operations. The MTA’s 20-years assessment will be, in effect, the governor’s 20-year vision for the future of transportation in New York City, Long Island, and the Hudson Valley.

Undoubtedly, the MTA’s 20-year needs assessment will state that the authority will connect Metro-North to Penn Station and Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal. The second and third phases of the Second Avenue subway are also likely to be considered essential. This would extend the subway north from 96th Street to 125th Street and south from 63rd Street to Houston Street. Future phases of the Second Avenue subway, including extending it to Wall Street, may not be in the 20-year needs assessment, indicating that construction will not begin until after 2040.

The document will probably also indicate that the MTA needs at least $6 billion per year to maintain and upgrade its equipment and facilities. There will be a huge gap between the amount of money available and the MTA’s needs. Hopefully, the state does not burden future generations with excessive debt. In recent years, the MTA has been unable to appreciably improve service because it is spending more than $2.5 billion annually on principal and interest to pay back the money it borrowed to finance its previous capital programs.

The 20-year needs document will reveal the governor’s thinking about how he wants to allocate funds between suburban and city projects, as well between new expansion projects and basic infrastructure projects. When it comes to the most expensive projects, he will have to choose between those that would help spur new growth (like the extension of the 7 train has done in Hudson Yards) or ones that alleviate existing subway congestion (like continuing the Second Avenue Subway). The 20-year assessment and 5-year capital program will also indicate how the governor plans on accommodating the preferences of key players in the funding debate including Mayor de Blasio and the leaders of the State Senate and State Assembly.

One caveat about the assessment report and how it will be indicative of the MTA’s level of transparency and accountability. Officials might not want to release the document for many reasons. For example, despite the passage of a congestion pricing program, it is likely to show the need to raise future taxes, tolls, and fares. Likewise, the report will reveal how the MTA is slipping behind certain goals that it had set to upgrade its sprawling network. Just because the MTA has issued these reports every five years does not mean it will release one this year. That would be a shame because the public and elected officials should be aware of the progress that the MTA has been making, and to better understand its ongoing and enormous needs.

For the rest of the year, elected officials will argue vociferously, in public and behind the scenes, about funding levels and specific projects. Although the media and public opinion will shape the final outcome, savvy interest groups know that the best time to push for their favorite projects is now.

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Philip Plotch is a political science professor at Saint Peter’s University and the author of Politics Across the Hudson: The Tappan Zee Megaproject. His book about the Second Avenue subway (The Last Subway) will be published by Cornell University Press in the first quarter of 2020. On Twitter @profplotch.

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

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Battles Over the MTA’s Long-Term Planning are About to Really Heat Up Wed, 17 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000