Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/18 Sat, 06 Jun 2020 09:03:30 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) De Blasio Offers No Transit Plans as City Heads Toward 'Reopening' https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9456-de-blasio-no-transit-plans-as-new-york-city-heads-toward-reopening-coronavirus https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9456-de-blasio-no-transit-plans-as-new-york-city-heads-toward-reopening-coronavirus intervale ave bx

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


New York City is set to begin a phased “reopening” on Monday, June 8, as indicators show significant progress in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. But as many New Yorkers start heading back to work, Mayor Bill de Blasio has offered no solutions to balance city residents’ need for transportation, maintaining public health by preventing new coronavirus infections, and preventing all-out gridlock if too many New Yorkers turn to cars.

About 5.4 million people rode the New York City subway on an average weekday in 2018 and another 1.8 million rode city buses, according to MTA data. But the pandemic led to a precipitous drop in ridership as the city went into lockdown, and the MTA -- a state authority that runs the subways and buses -- eventually instituted overnight system closures of the subways for thorough cleanings of trains and stations and the removal of homeless people from the system.

With the long-awaited first phase of “reopening” almost upon the city, transit advocates and commuters have been largely left in the dark about how government will ensure that people can safely use mass transit without the fear of contracting the coronavirus and what measures will be put in place to expand mass and other transit offerings. In order to maintain adequate social distancing, trains cannot be packed to the brim as they were during rush hour before the pandemic. Many people, including transit advocates and some elected officials, worry about a major increase in vehicle traffic, further clogging the city’s infamously congested streets and polluting its air. 

For weeks, de Blasio was largely dismissive of calls for a transit plan, insisting that the city was nowhere close to seeing a crush of people commuting and that it was up to the MTA to lead the subway process, which he said the city would participate in. The mayor appeared at ease with the idea of an increase in car use and to have thought little about creative solutions to offer additional or new options to people.

De Blasio estimated that the first phase of reopening – which will allow construction, manufacturing, wholesale, and commercial retail, by pickup only, to resume operation – will involve between 200,000-400,000 people going back to work.

“There’s not always a chance to help people all the time in terms of their transportation needs,” de Blasio said at his daily coronavirus briefing on May 29, when asked about transit plans. “People are going to have to improvise and I believe they will.”

In an interview on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show later that day, de Blasio defended his comments. “I think we're nowhere near the number of people on the road or the number of people in the subways that we normally would have,” he said, noting that more than a million people have lost their jobs while others are working remotely. “Even if everyone uses their car, it's not in the next few months going to create the kind of congestion we're used to by any stretch. So, I want people to feel comfortable with mass transit, but I know a certain number of people are going to use their car. For the next few months, we're going to get by with that. Going forward though, the future is mass transit. In fact, the future has to be a doubling down on mass transit once we get out of this crisis.”

The mayor’s words were further confirmation for his critics that he has never been particularly focused on the woes of commuters, and that his defense of car drivers can override transit policy. Advocates and experts note that though de Blasio does not control the MTA, which is in practice run by the governor, he has authority over the streets and can use his power to expand transit alternatives, expand and build new bike lanes and facilitate a broad expansion of the bus network to handle commuters returning to work while a pandemic is still significantly impacting behavior.

“I think it's fair enough to say that he's passing the buck,” said Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “The city should be doing a lot to reconfigure the streets to take pressure off of the subway system, including just putting out much better protected bike lanes so that as many people as possible can ride a bike to work.”

Gelinas said the city could rent out open air tour buses so that commuters can safely travel to work without worrying that they may get infected in a closed-air environment where virus transmission is more likely. “I don't think they’re being very creative at the city level,” she said.

Compounding the issue has been the apparent lack of coordination, at least on public messaging, between the mayor and the MTA. “Optimally...any type of major announcement, you would have the mayor and the MTA chiefs make it together so that everybody knows everyone is saying the same thing,” Gelinas said. But the mayor and interim MTA New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg have disagreed publicly, with the mayor saying on Friday that he has received little clarity from the MTA. Feinberg responded on Twitter, “With all due respect. We have no idea what the mayor is talking about. The MTA has briefed City Hall multiple times on reopening, including another productive meeting held just yesterday. If the Mayor has questions, he can pick up the phone and call us at any time.”

As Gelinas noted, “It's not a hallmark of a government that's functioning well during an emergency.”

On Tuesday the mayor called on the MTA to take seven specific steps to meet imminent increased ridership demand, including by increasing service during peak hours, limiting capacity on buses and trains to maintain social distancing, limiting crowding at subway stations, providing face masks, and installing hand sanitizing stations, among others. In his request, de Blasio said the city would provide 1 million masks and called on the MTA to do the same.

Barely two hours later, the MTA put out its own letter to the de Blasio administration outlining the steps it will take to ensure a smooth reopening. In a clear indicator that the two parties did not coordinate their releases, the MTA said the state would provide 1 million masks and called on the city to do the same, after the mayor had already said he would.

The MTA estimated it would need the city to provide it with 3,000 volunteers to help implement the reopening plan as well as to deploy additional NYPD officers in the transit system. And though the plan states that subways and buses will return to “full, regular service” by day one of phase one, an MTA spokesperson told Gotham Gazette that 24-hour subway service will not resume; the 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. nightly overnight cleaning shutdown will continue.

 On Wednesday, June 3, the mayor said he would release plans to expand bus service in the coming days. “We’ve got to get back to the process of creating faster bus service. I'll have more to say on that as we can get through these next days, obviously. But we do want to absolutely deepen that effort,” he said at his daily briefing in response to a reporter’s question. “I think people do feel more safety right now in health terms in the buses than they do in the subways. I want to see people feel healthy and safe about both. But we do need to double down on buses. And we'll certainly have more to say on the specifics of that soon.”

Transit advocates and urban experts believe the mayor is wasting precious time, and was doing so well before the incidents of the last few days with widespread protests against police brutality and significant looting in some pockets of the city. His delays now appear likely to be compounded given he’s now been dealing with a situation that led him to institute a curfew.

“The mayor is being very complacent and that complacency can end up being very dangerous,” said Ben Fried, communications director for TransitCenter, a think tank and advocacy group. “He really does have a lot of power to make transit work for people, even in challenging circumstances, because he controls the streets and if he doesn't act on the power he has, then most riders are going to get stuck in traffic and there will be cascading effects that are no good for anyone.”

Last week, TransitCenter and other transit advocacy groups including Riders Alliance, Tri-State Transportation Campaign, NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign, and Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition wrote to the mayor calling for a network of emergency bus lanes to ensure that essential workers can continue commuting to work smoothly and to prevent additional vehicular traffic on the streets. “Time is of the essence. To lead an equitable recovery for the New Yorkers who have been most affected by the pandemic, City Hall must get out in front of rising car congestion,” the letter reads.

The groups called for 20 miles of busways (where most car traffic is prohibited) and bus lanes for medical facilities and essential workplaces by the end of this month and 20 more miles over the summer, particularly in Queens and the Bronx where the Department of Transportation has already looked at bus priority projects.

“Today, implementing an emergency bus lane network is an urgent matter of racial justice, public health, and economic necessity,” the letter reads. “Nearly half of regular NYC bus commuters are classified as essential workers. The vast majority are black and brown New Yorkers. They are tending to the sick and vulnerable, ensuring the city doesn’t go hungry, and keeping the lights on.”

Fried gave the mayor some credit for ramping up the expansion of bus lanes and pledging to increase bus speeds by 25% by 2020, which he promised in his State of the City speech last year but has made slow progress on. “He risks squandering that progress if he doesn't act now,” Fried said. More bus lanes would mean buses can run more frequently leading to less crowding, Fried noted. “That is the path toward a more successful reopening,” he said.

During his most recent Friday morning Brian Lehrer Show appearance, a caller implored de Blasio to restore millions in planned cuts to his bus lane program. “I'm going to go back and look at this again because I think you're right,” de Blasio told the caller, Beth. The mayor said buses could be somewhat safer than trains and pledged to take a careful look.

“But I think what Beth is saying is ringing a real bell with me that if buses are where people are going to feel more comfortable, then we should lean into buses more and work with the MTA to figure out what's going to help us maximize usage of buses,” de Blasio continued.

Later in the appearance he reiterated he is working with the MTA but also awaiting a plan from the authority. “People have to know that there is a plan to limit the number of people on a subway car or a bus,” de Blasio said. “What that looks like, what that number should be, how it's going to be enforced, how we're going to educate people – and we're ready to partner with the MTA on it.”

As the experts noted, mass transit isn’t an end in itself. It is crucial to the very reopening that de Blasio is trying to undertake. For businesses to get back on their feet, they will need workers and customers, and short of creating safe ways for people to get around, only those within walking distance will be able to shop at stores or dine at restaurants, Gelinas said.

Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director at the Center for an Urban Future, a think tank, said, “I see this as a real test of our ability to be prepared to reopen. Without trust in public transit, we're literally going to grind to a standstill.”

“There is a long-term risk of a general breakdown of the transportation system that the city's economy relies on and that is causing people who have the option to leave the city to go somewhere else,” Fried said.

The contrast with other cities has been stark. Early on during the pandemic, de Blasio repeatedly claimed that New York City was uniquely unsuited to instituting widespread open streets, like Seattle had done, for instance. He eventually caved to demands from the City Council and the public and announced a plan to create 100 miles of open streets, where most car traffic is disallowed indefinitely.

“San Francisco and Boston are taking steps to ensure that people can get around without cars,” Fried said. “They're not waiting months to formulate a plan. They are getting stuff done in a matter of weeks and New York really has to be thinking on the same timetable.”

De Blasio has slowly announced more bike lanes, albeit temporary ones that are less effective than alternatives in keeping bicyclists safe, while also cutting funds for permanent bike lanes that were originally proposed in his budget for the next fiscal year.

“He's never really put himself in the pedals of a bicyclist,” Gelinas said. “It's very striking that in Paris, in London, you have the mayors just building out a huge network of bike lanes almost overnight...In Paris, you have the mayor riding a bike and setting a good example.”

She also noted that in cities like Tokyo and Seoul, transit systems have been adapted to ensure that people can travel back and forth safely. “But we don't really have either of those things at the city level,” she said.

On WNYC, de Blasio appeared to acknowledge the need for the plans he has not presented. The subways and buses need to be handled well, the mayor said. “We also know, honestly, a lot of people are just going to refuse to take the bus and subway in the short-term and they're going to try and find other alternatives,” he continued. “We’ve got to navigate all of this. This is so unlike anything we're used to in New York City.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with the mayor's comments from his June 3 press briefing. 

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De Blasio Offers No Transit Plans as City Heads Toward 'Reopening' Tue, 02 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Keep Subways Closed Overnight to Expedite System Modernization https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9421-new-york-mta-keep-subways-closed-overnight-expedite-system-modernization https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9421-new-york-mta-keep-subways-closed-overnight-expedite-system-modernization gov tours cars

Governor Cuomo discusses subways during coronavirus (photo: governor's office)


The MTA’s recent institution of overnight closure of the subways has attracted a tremendous amount of attention and criticism from advocates for homeless people and many transit advocates. MTA Chair Pat Foye has sought to reassure critics by emphasizing that it is a temporary measure that will end when the pandemic emergency is over. The closure seems to be an attempt to assure transit workers that the MTA is taking their safety seriously and the public that the trains are safe and will not become de facto homeless shelters. But it can be turned into a long-long term initiative with important benefits.

Instead of bemoaning the loss of a symbol of the ‘city that never sleeps,’ public transit supporters should be welcoming the closure policy and giving serious thought and discussion to whether to make it permanent, at least in some form.

The subway system urgently needs more regular maintenance and capital improvements, especially the installation of computer based train control (CBTC). CBTC will allow trains to safely run more closely together, enabling more frequent service and hence, less crowding. The L and the 7 lines are the only ones now equipped with CBTC, while work on the E, F, M, and R lines is in progress. Faster installation would require that lines go out of service so the tunnels can be accessed for longer windows of time than is possible during 24/7 service. That is one of the reasons MTA estimates for system-wide completion of CBTC have run into multiple decades.

That is crazy. Despite being the biggest transit system in North America, we still rely primarily on WWII-era fixed-block signals, which are safe but limit the system's capacity on the majority of its lines.

Of course, the lack of subway service at any time of day is a serious problem for those who depend on it to get to work, school, and other important activities. But the problem is less acute now. In pre-pandemic times, of the more than 5 million subway riders each weekday, only 150,000 daily riders (less than 2%), used the trains between midnight and 5 a.m.

The MTA has expanded bus service for the approximately 11,000 essential workers who need public transportation overnight during the pandemic. This effort can be ramped up and improved when the city reopens and more riders return. Indeed, it is expected that it will be quite a while until the prior levels of ridership return so there will be time for the level of alternative overnight bus service to fully ramp up.

The Regional Plan Association, one of the leading supporters of the metropolitan area’s public transit systems, argued for overnight subway closure in its Fourth Regional Plan, released in 2017:

Only a handful of cities aside from New York run 24/7 service and in most of these cities it’s not the entire system, just one or two lines. If New York City decides to use overnight closures to accelerate modernization efforts they would be taking advantage of the fact that only 1.5 percent of weekday riders use the system between 12:30 am and 5 am. However, the MTA must provide robust alternative service for these riders, many of whom depend on subways to get to and from work and other late night activities. For these riders, the MTA should offer frequent high-speed bus service. This may even provide superior service for most riders given that late night service subway service is already infrequent and unreliable, and that buses could run frequently on largely uncongested streets overnight.

Closures to improve construction productivity were recommended, albeit in a less emphatic way, in the report of Governor Cuomo’s Metropolitan Transportation Sustainability Advisory Workgroup, released at the end of 2018. Andy Byford’s Fast Forward Plan provided for some temporary weekend and line segment closures to install CBCT and do high-priority maintenance. That plan, however, estimated it would take 10 years to install fully computerized signal control on all lines.

As pandemic restrictions ease, there is a real concern that many will shy away from public transportation and resort to driving cars to get into and around New York City. To attract riders back, subway cars and stations need to be clean, with public health measures in place to make riders feel safe. This is no small task, to be sure. But it will also encourage riders to return if they know that service has improved, that there are more trains and hence, less overcrowding, that trains do not go out of service because of “signal problems” or for other maintenance reasons. 

Keeping the system closed for four hours overnight, even if for only a few lines at a time, while CBTC and other capital and repair projects are completed will dramatically improve service without impacting the vast majority of riders, and will have relatively little impact on fare revenue.

In response to a question after his talk before the Association for a Better New York (ABNY) two weeks ago, Chair Foye acknowledged that the temporary overnight closures present an opportunity to make more rapid progress on repairs and system enhancements. He and the governor should go further and open a serious conversation about the relative costs and benefits of reverting to all night service versus keeping the system closed in those overnight hours and/or closing certain lines to get all the needed work done. There are probably operating cost savings that could be achieved through long-term closures as well as service benefits. 

This could be one of the few chances to make lemons out of lemonade from a terrible catastrophe; we just need to abandon the 24/7 orthodoxy and think seriously about how to dramatically and quickly improve subway service. New Yorkers can still be part of a thriving 24-hour city while the subway is being cleaned, modernized, and enhanced for a few hours each night.

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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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Keep Subways Closed Overnight to Expedite System Modernization Mon, 25 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo Hasn't Submitted De Blasio's MTA Board Nominees to State Senate, Which Left Albany Indefinitely https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9285-cuomo-hasnt-submitted-de-blasio-mta-board-nominees-to-state-senate https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9285-cuomo-hasnt-submitted-de-blasio-mta-board-nominees-to-state-senate 1 mbd rides cityhall

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

A FINANCIAL SNAPSHOT OF THE MTA

     
 

                    REVENUE SOURCE (millions)

 

EXPENSE CATEGORY (millions)

Farebox

   

$6,486.00 

   

Payroll

   

$5,525 

Tolls

   

$2118

   

Overtime

   

$896

Taxes

   

$6182

   

Health & Welfare

 

$2171

State & Local

 

$613

   

Pension

   

$1467

Other Revenue

 

$682

   

Other Labor

 

$509

Funding Agreements

$718

   

Non-Labor

 

$4156

Other

   

$203

   

Debt Service

 

$2843

Total

   

$17,003 

   

Total*

   

$16,991 

                   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New York Mass Transit System on Verge of Going Broke, Needs Bailout Quickly Sat, 21 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Will the MTA Really Turn Its Back on Disabled New Yorkers Yet Again? https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9130-will-mta-turn-its-back-on-disabled-new-yorkers-again-subway-access-a-ride https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9130-will-mta-turn-its-back-on-disabled-new-yorkers-again-subway-access-a-ride mta purchased access

(photo: Patrick Cashin/Metropolitan Transportation Authority)


Although accessibility is a hot topic of late, is government truly willing to partner in the multifaceted effort required to increase positive outcomes and general quality of life for our city’s residents and visitors with disabilities?

People seem to enjoy theorizing about its necessity and how long overdue universal design has been, but once the discussion reaches implementation, the ideals suddenly are not as indispensable as they once were.

I am a Brooklyn-based blind New Yorker who has been using Access-A-Ride since 2003. In 2017 I applied for and was selected to participate in the On-Demand E-Hail Pilot Program with Access-A-Ride and the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission. In total, there are 1,200 users in the program who were all selected from a waiting list.

As the pilot program is now set to be severely restricted in the coming months, I am concerned with the future of Access-A-Ride service and the rights of our city’s residents with disabilities who cannot ride the subways and/or buses.

This program has greatly enhanced my level of independence and productivity as a professional person who is blind and juggles two jobs. Putting a cap on the number of rides I can utilize with on-demand service is the equivalent of putting a cap on my potential success as a blind person.

Traditional Access-A-Ride service does not give an individual with a disability the same level of autonomy and access to opportunity that straphangers typically enjoy. Having to schedule trips before 5 p.m. a day or two in advance, enduring the number of late pickups and the often-circuitous rides of the five boroughs made it very frustrating to use at best.

Traditional carriers have been making an exorbitant amount of money at over $80 per trip. In comparison, the on-demand e-hail trips average $36 per trip for a superior service at less than half the cost, allowing disabled citizens to live our lives with some autonomy and dignity. Despite multiple audits, exposed inefficiencies, and ties to unsavory crime elements over the years, the MTA still thinks it viable to utilize traditional Access-A-Ride carriers who are more than willing to overcharge to provide horrendous service for people with no other means of transport.

Although all of these issues were solved in one fell swoop with the inception of the e-hail program, the MTA has announced that due to the increased ridership (based on a biased user sample) use of on-demand service will be restricted to 16 rides per month with a subsidized cap of $15 per ride. I wonder if MTA Board members, Access-A-Ride management, and Governor Cuomo, who effectively runs the MTA, understand that disabled folks are not porcelain dolls, just living our lives on a glass shelf somewhere. Paratransit costs are projected to surpass $600 million this year; is that massive sum being invested wisely? Is there any awareness as to why this amount of taxpayer dollars is being invested in a necessary resource that is supposed to level the playing field? Or to some at the MTA, might the paratransit discussion be analogous to an unpleasant mundane task such as figuring out trash removal?

Plans for more elevators, improved wayfinding, and tactile navigation strips in the subway are all welcomed enhancements when they do arrive, but Access-A-Ride service must evolve as well.

We must all better understand a difficult and frustrating situation and identify and pursue the steps to fix it. We need to raise awareness, arrive at equitable solutions, and hold the MTA accountable. If we are properly enabled, those of us with blindness and other disabilities can and will contribute so much more to our city.

Access-A-Ride must be a key piece of the equation. The MTA claims increasing ridership makes the on-demand pilot unsustainable, but that is a sign of success and we should embrace the fact that this service is needed, and that it allows New Yorkers with disabilities to live fuller lives and contribute to our city’s fabric in so many ways. Not only do individuals with disabilities contribute socially, helping to raise awareness and promoting tolerant and inclusive attitudes, we are making economic contributions as viable workers and consumers.

The Access-A-Ride pilot program has been life-changing for many of us who contend with a disability. It has enabled me to accept a promotion as an itinerant supervisor of teachers of the blind/visually impaired. My main office is in Manhattan, while I supervise teachers in Staten Island, Queens, and Brooklyn. Without the autonomy and flexibility that on-demand Access-A-Ride service facilitates, I would not be able to competently perform my job at the highly proficient and efficient level that allows me to professionally compete with my non-disabled colleagues, as traditional Access-A-Ride service makes it impossible to move around in a reasonably efficient and timely manner.

Governor Cuomo and MTA Chair/CEO Foye, I ask you to consider how you would compensate if you had newly found autonomy and mobility and then they were going to be restricted; how would you deal with all the issues that I am now confronted with?

My fellow taxpayers, this is a civil rights issue, as our governor and the MTA have clearly decided that disabled citizens who need to utilize Access-A-Ride are not entitled to the same rights, autonomy, and access to opportunity as non-disabled citizens. And the reason? Because they’ve deemed e-hail is too expensive after it showed success? Is it equitable or ethical that a person who needs to use Access-A-Ride has to live their life in such a predetermined and scheduled fashion, allowing for no spontaneity or flexibility? This does not sound like a level playing field to me, nor is it the right investment of over 600 million of our tax dollars.

Governor Cuomo, you should never mistake disability for inability. Disabled or not, it’s about time that all people are treated fairly. Let’s invest in true equal access, improving outcomes for all. Let’s enable disabled New Yorkers, helping people to live the lives they want and deserve, facilitating more contributing taxpayers and thriving New Yorkers throughout our great city.

***
Gian Carlo Pedulla is a member of the MTA’s Advisory Committee for Transit Accessibility and a supervisor for Educational Vision Services at the New York City Department of Education (all opinions here are his own and do not represent the ACTA or DOE).

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

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Will the MTA Really Turn Its Back on Disabled New Yorkers Yet Again? Tue, 11 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Byford’s Gone and So's His Job; What's Next? https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9095-byford-leaves-mta-cuomo-so-is-his-job-what-next-subways-buses https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9095-byford-leaves-mta-cuomo-so-is-his-job-what-next-subways-buses mta president byford

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mta ceo direct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Byford’s Gone and So's His Job; What's Next? Thu, 30 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Is the MTA’s Plan to Redesign the Queens Bus System an Improvement? https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9074-is-mta-plan-redesign-queens-bus-system-improvement https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9074-is-mta-plan-redesign-queens-bus-system-improvement mta cuomo arrival

(photo: Patrick Cashin/Metropolitan Transportation Authority)


Is the MTA’s plan to redesign the Queens bus network an improvement, or will it further destroy the bus system? 

The MTA released its Draft Queens Bus Network Redesign on December 30. Queens voices have protested the plan from Woodside to Bayside and Whitestone,  from Jackson Heights to the Rockaways. There also has been concern from Maspeth, Glendale, and Middle Village, from the bus drivers’ union, and reaction from Rep. Tom Suozzi.

Assemblymember Brian Barnwell from Maspeth wrote a letter to then-MTA New York City Transit President Andy Byford, strongly objecting to the plan to eliminate bus routes and asking for discussions to take place in additional neighborhoods such as Astoria and Elmhurst. Legislators also met for one hour with Byford in Albany to express concern. 

Any massive changes will meet with some opposition but why all this resistance from so many neighborhoods? It is because all these neighborhoods will lose service so that other neighborhoods can be better served. That is unnecessary. It also is unavoidable when you are insisting the changes be cost-neutral without making strategic investments. Congestion pricing funds, set to start rolling in early next year, will be allocated only for capital improvements.  

Cost neutrality also means that some worthwhile ideas will most likely be removed to pay for service additions requested by communities. That way, the MTA can claim the public participation process worked. Bus ridership will only increase if you provide more service, not less.

Why does the MTA propose to cut service provided by the MTA Bus Company, such as discontinuing Sunday express bus service, when these services are fully subsidized by the city? One theory that has been floated is that the city is exerting pressure on the MTA to reduce their bus subsidies so the funds can be freed up to provide additional ferry service, which requires even greater subsidies.

Before the release of the Queens draft bus report, I previously discussed why the MTA is not correctly performing these borough redesign studies. 

The MTA repeatedly stated that these are only draft proposals. The question is whether the MTA is willing to go back to the drawing board to make major modifications, or will only make a few minor adjustments where the outcry is the greatest and then declare that the public participation process worked.

Several years ago, the MTA proposed to eliminate bus service on Newport Avenue in the Rockaways. The proposal was withdrawn after protests by Community Board 14, but is being proposed again. How can Byford’s claim that the effort is “customer driven” be true when the MTA is blatantly ignoring communities’ wishes? 

Over 300,000 people a day depend on Queens buses. Only about 3 percent of them are aware of the Queens Bus Network Redesign. Each workshop, the primary form of publicity, attracts a few dozen participants because they are ineffectively publicized. The final plan will be presented to the full Community Boards only for informational purposes. Requests for presentations to Community Boards will be made to the Transportation Committee of about ten people, not the full boards where the public attends. The vast majority of bus riders will only learn of the changes a few days before they take effect, or as the routes change.

On the new MTA website, you must click under “System Modernization” to learn about the redesign studies rather than a more obvious designation like “Bus Network Redesign Studies.” The other alternative is to search for “Queens Bus Network Redesign” or go to the exact webpage for information. That assumes you already know about the study before you search. You will not learn about the study or the workshops If you search “Planned Service Changes” or “Public Notices” from the MTA.

The workshop format is also under attack because unlike town halls requested by elected officials, it doesn’t allow reactions to be shared in an open forum for all to hear, and it doesn’t create a record of the plan’s deficiencies so that suggestions for changes can be evaluated. Oral comments can easily be overlooked. It epitomizes the premise that service planners know best and the citizenry does not understand what is best for them. Workshop means no consensus among participants so the MTA can still carry out its intended plan. The required public hearings come far too late in the process for meaningful changes to be made and are mere legal formalities.

The plan also features new zone express services in Southeastern Queens, some new routes, some routes that are discontinued or shortened, as well as the elimination of many bus stops, which the MTA disguises as “bus stop balancing.” In effect, most local routes will become Limiteds. It does not serve the public to have a local bus route stopping every five blocks and an SBS on the same street. This will be a hardship for anyone who has difficulty walking. Some streets have buses stopping over a mile apart, such as the QT5 on 101st Ave. There is an on-line petition opposing removing so many bus stops.  

The MTA’s primary goal is to reduce operating costs. Many one-bus trips become two- and three-bus trips which does not accommodate the greater good. In Eastern Queens, in some cases, two buses will be required to access the subway instead of one, or a long walk of three-quarters of a mile. This will be especially inconvenient in bad weather and is certain to discourage ridership, necessitating further service cuts. Direct north-south service is desirable, but direct subway access needs to be maintained during peak hours. 

There are many opportunities for the MTA to become more efficient, such as through better scheduling where buses do not travel halfway across the borough while not in service, and the merging of NYCT Bus and MTA Bus Company depots. Saving money should not be at the expense of the passengers. 

Bus speeds can be increased with a state law requiring non-emergency traffic to yield the right of way to buses pulling out of bus stops, not by eliminating most bus stops or spending $6 million a mile on unnecessary exclusive bus lanes as proposed that will further increase traffic congestion without significantly helping bus riders.

The MTA will never admit failure. Ridership losses will be attributed to the next fare increase. The MTA will insist the losses would have been greater if the network were not redesigned. The lack of predetermined criteria to measure success or failure is a chief shortcoming. Faster bus speeds are to be expected when you space bus stops every quarter or half mile apart, rather than every two or three city blocks, forcing some riders to walk a half mile or more to a bus stop when the traditional planning standard is a maximum of a quarter mile walk to a local bus. This is in no way an indication of success. The major criterium should be “can more trips be made in less time from origin to destination?” 

The MTA promised a 30 percent quicker commute with the Woodhaven SBS. It only delivered a three-minute savings for trips greater than three miles, but still declared success. Now it is proposing to eliminate the Q53 SBS by curtailing service to Woodside and Jackson Heights where the ridership is very heavy, ignoring the data, discontinuing a route it called a success, and turning a one-bus trip into a three-bus trip. How can the MTA be trusted to provide a system that better meets the needs of the passengers? The public must vehemently voice their objections to prevent all negative outcomes.

***
Allan Rosen is former Director of Bus Planning, MTA NYC Transit. On Twitter @BrooklynBus.

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Is the MTA’s Plan to Redesign the Queens Bus System an Improvement? Thu, 23 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
It’s Time to Bring MTA’s Paratransit Into the 21st Century https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9003-time-to-bring-mta-paratransit-into-21st-century-access-a-ride https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9003-time-to-bring-mta-paratransit-into-21st-century-access-a-ride mta aar residents

(photo: MTA)


There is a reason why Access-A-Ride is better known as “Stress-A-Ride” for the approximately 170,000 New Yorkers who depend on it. 

The bill for Access-A-Ride will hit $616 million this year and the MTA is seeking additional funding from the City of New York. It’s mind-boggling to think this service can cost the cash-strapped agency so much for such low-quality service. That’s why before anyone kicks in additional funding, the MTA must fundamentally transform the way it runs its paratransit program and bring it into the 21st century.

New York City Transit (NYCT), which is part of the MTA, administers paratransit service, which provides 24/7 shared-ride, door-to-door transportation through the five boroughs and in parts of Westchester and Long Island. The scale and scope of this service is unmatched by any other transit system in the nation. However, disability advocates and budget watchdog groups alike have observed for years that the MTA’s byzantine approach to paratransit services leads to inefficiencies and a lack of transparency and accountability, culminating in the highest cost-per-trip ($68.71) in the country. The second most expensive (Chicago) is half the MTA’s at $38. Why? 

Fundamentally, the way the MTA contracts its paratransit services is both cumbersome and inefficient. Right now, the MTA provides Access-A-Ride through a constellation of for-profit and not-for-profit contractors, including 13 Dedicated Carriers, which use specially-equipped buses and cars owned by NYCT, and two Broker Car Service Providers, which provide transportation services to ambulatory passengers through a network of subcontracted livery and black car service providers.

And there are separate contracts that govern Access-A-Ride’s eligibility determination unit, the command center which receives trip requests and designs schedules and routes, and the carriers that complete those trips. Is your head spinning yet?

In addition, more than half of Access-A-Ride trips are “ambulatory” for people who are able to walk to, enter, and exit vehicles without assistance. Vehicles with special equipment are not necessary for these trips. Putting people in taxis or other for-hire vehicles is cheaper. A single trip under the e-hail program costs the authority $35.91. The same Access-A-Ride trip costs the MTA $68.71. 

So how could we turn things around for Access-A-Ride?

Instead of over a dozen contractors and vendors to provide paratransit services, the MTA should unify the entire system with a single, full-service technology platform to handle all relationships with vehicle providers. The MTA could streamline management of Access-A-Ride and ambulatory services, encourage more competitive bidding, and lower administrative costs.

In the last five years, reports by experts at the Citizens Budget Commission, NYU Rudin Transportation Center, and Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office all point to the burdensome administrative and coordination layers that are the direct result of multiple types of contracts and vendors at every step of the service: verification, booking, dispatching, routing, vehicle operations, customer service, etc.  

While they’re at it, the MTA should require that this platform enable on-demand rides in real-time so that people are no longer forced to call to reserve a trip one to two days in advance and wait to be given an unpredictable and often inaccurate pickup time.

We should have a system to match paratransit customers to right-sized vehicles from a variety of modes; increase efficient sharing and routing of vehicles; and create more transparency and accountability for quality-of-service and customer complaints. The technology for this solution is well-established and the MTA should begin the work immediately to transition to such a system.

In the meantime, it should build on the success of the e-hail program – the MTA’s one innovation in this space in recent memory – instead of curtailing it. The pilot provided the city’s paratransit customers with rides in yellow or green taxis through an e-hail app, Curb or Arro, but was only made available to 1,200 users, less than 1% of the service’s customers. The MTA is now looking to severely limit the one bright spot in its paratransit program by capping rides and having customers pay more. It should instead improve the program.

Most of the rides currently booked through the e-hail pilot are single-passenger rides, but where appropriate we should use ride-matching technology to have more multi-passenger ambulatory trips as a way to lower cost-per-trip.

The MTA recently held a conference inviting technology companies to share ideas for slashing time and cost of modernizing the antiquated signal system in the subway. Mark Dowd, the new Chief Innovation Officer at the MTA, declared, “We are looking for cutting-edge technologies, technologies that may have not been designed for this purpose, but can be applied to this purpose.” The MTA needs to apply this type of thinking to transform the costly and antiquated paratransit program. Now.

***
City Council Member Justin Brannan represents parts of Brooklyn; City Council Member Diana Ayala represents parts of Manhattan and the Bronx. On Twitter @JustinBrannan and @DianaAyalaNYC.

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It’s Time to Bring MTA’s Paratransit Into the 21st Century Wed, 18 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Is the MTA Correctly Performing its Bus Network Redesigns? https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8989-is-the-mta-correctly-performing-its-bus-network-redesigns https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8989-is-the-mta-correctly-performing-its-bus-network-redesigns mta priority bus

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


In the year since I wrote “Designing Bus Routes to Attract Passengers and Reverse Declining Ridership,” the MTA announced the results for the Staten Island Express Bus Redesign, completed a Bronx study, and began studies of the bus networks in Queens and Brooklyn.  

These studies make incorrect generalizations resulting in formulas attempting to correct problems. It is not true that simple direct bus routes always better serve the public; or that underperforming bus routes should readily be eliminated; or that exclusive bus lanes are needed on every wide street with bus operation.

Formulas lead to poor decisions resulting in unexpected consequences. Problems need to be studied and decisions to correct them made on a case-by-case basis. 

There is currently too much emphasis on: improving bus speeds, while ignoring passenger trip times; increasing frequency on heavy-demand routes at the expense of reducing network coverage; using articulated buses to reduce service; and expanding Select Bus Service (SBS) and exclusive bus lanes. 

Improving bus speeds and improving passenger trip times are different. The latter results from better reliability, more frequent service, reduced walking time, and the need for fewer connections, as well as from improving bus speeds. Fewer bus stops and more direct routes could improve bus speeds, but could also increase passenger trip time. Some underperforming routes might be necessary to provide adequate coverage in low density areas. Exclusive bus lanes may not be a cost-effective way to improve reliability.

Routes cannot always be simple and direct because of grid system irregularities; major destinations may not be accessible with a straight route without a long or inconvenient walk for many riders. The positives of an indirect route may outweigh the negatives.

Several years ago, the B36 route was made more direct by no longer stopping in front of the Sheepshead Bay Station. My experience showed minimal change in bus travel time, while that station has the sixth highest bus/subway transfers in Brooklyn. The savings from straightening the route added two additional minutes of walking for those making bus/subway transfers and significantly increased the chance of a missed connection, which could add 10 or even more minutes to passenger trip time.

About 40 years ago in Denver, simple and direct routes failed miserably. Riders complained of longer trips due to increased walking and switched to cars. Bus ridership plummeted; many old routes were restored. 

Bronx riders were asked to choose between frequency or coverage. This assumes the MTA cannot provide both, when both are crucial to a well-functioning system. It is like asking a prisoner who hasn't had anything to eat or drink for the past 24 hours if he wants food or water. A survey showed more passengers preferred frequency to coverage; routes that have fewer bus stops to ones with more bus stops; simpler and direct routes to indirect routes; and SBS or LTD service to local service. Those results are being cited so the MTA can claim the effort is customer-driven. Data should not be used to support predetermined conclusions. It is curious that no MTA recommendation was also made to permit riding three buses for one fare, which riders also suggested.

The MTA could do a far better job in advertising its bus design workshops and encouraging meaningful participation by those who do attend.

One goal of the Queens Bus Redesign is to eliminate bus routes that are redundant with or compete with the subway. Whenever there is a subway blockage, it can often take hours for replacement bus service that is usually inadequate for the demand. These redundant routes are necessary.

These studies emphasize SBS and articulated buses because they are perceived to be more efficient. Articulated buses are also more difficult to maneuver, have less traction during snow storms, and have higher labor costs. Though more efficient when ridership is heavy, they are less efficient when ridership is light, such as overnight.

According to the Bronx Bus Existing Conditions Report (p. 98) five routes are profitable, with the Bx12 SBS leading the pack. However, when considering the cost for fare enforcement and fare machine maintenance, all SBS routes are financial losers. After I explained why SBS is not a panacea, the MTA placed a moratorium on new routes for three years.

The MTA declares success by analyzing data and finding something positive to say, ignoring negatives. After one year, Staten Island express bus service is 1.3 mph faster, and the average dwell time is down 23 seconds. However, complaints about reduced service spans on some routes, adding precious time to many commutes, or that more passengers must now stand, are dismissed. Rather than first considering a lower off-peak fare to encourage ridership during those times, the MTA chose to eliminate trips.

A good plan requires minimal fine-tuning. The Staten Island Express bus redesign continues to undergo revisions for over one year with many passengers still dissatisfied. 

Clear criteria should be established to measure the effectiveness of a network redesign. To what extent: Has reliability improved? Have passenger trip times decreased? Has ridership increased?

Is the MTA’s real purpose to save operating costs? Bus routes with fewer bus stops and buses cost less to operate. Straight routes cost less than ones that divert to better serve major traffic-generators. Is a minor bus speed improvement with no regard to passenger trip time the best use of funds?  

The Fall 2019 schedule revisions saved $7 million. Reducing service was chosen over reallocating it. Service cuts were recently announced for the B38 and severe cuts to the B46 Utica Avenue route, while instituting articulated service. Articulated buses originally were purchased to reduce crowding, not to enable service reductions. 

B46 paid ridership declined since the introduction of SBS three years ago. How much was due to increased fare evasion? No SBS progress report was ever issued, though they were with all other SBS routes after the first or, for the B44, second year.

In 1975, B46 service during rush hours was cut in half although the buses were already severely overcrowded. The result was private for-hire cars started picking up passengers, followed by “gypsy cabs” that morphed into dollar vans following future cuts. The MTA is now repeating its past mistake; at the same time, it is spending $5 million to study a new Utica Avenue subway line it will never build. 

Fare evasion on buses has reportedly been high and on the rise, with the MTA just starting to really address it. Is cutting service wise when patronage may not have really declined? And is cutting service the way to win back riders who may have abandoned bus?

These bus redesign are also myopic in their approach, focusing only on paid customers, and ignoring latent demand. Simplistic solutions have resulted in today’s transit and traffic problems. 

In April, the city proposed spending $280 million to add 30 miles per year of exclusive bus lanes that will increase average bus speeds by only 1-2 mph! That plan has since been expanded to 150 miles of exclusive bus lanes over three years at a cost of $1.7 billion, which will also pay for many miles of new bike lanes and other streetscape changes. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s Let’s Go Transit plan (p. 9) proposes each redesigned bus route feature an exclusive bus lane. That is expensive and unnecessary when bus service is infrequent, risking avoidable increased traffic congestion. 

My Brooklyn Bus Network Redesign improves accessibility and reliability. Increased operating costs would be offset by increased revenue. My 1972 master’s thesis correctly predicted the addition of free transfers would greatly increase bus ridership. It rose to its highest level since World War II after they were instituted. Better routes and reliability would have the same effect. 

Passenger trip time must not be ignored. Criteria for evaluating bus network redesigns must be established; minor improvements do not indicate success. A broader approach that considers latent demand, a time-based fare, and express bus fare discounts is also needed. 

Congestion pricing monies should offset operating cost increases needed for service improvements, rather than used solely for capital improvements such as unnecessary bus lanes to improve average bus speeds by 1-2 mph. A state law requiring vehicles to give the right of way to buses pulling out of bus stops would speed buses more than SBS.

A bus network redesign should seek to improve travel accessibility between neighborhoods with strategic investments, not to lower gross operating costs.

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Allan Rosen is former Director of Bus Planning, MTA NYC Transit. On Twitter @BrooklynBus.

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Is the MTA Correctly Performing its Bus Network Redesigns? Mon, 16 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000