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


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

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

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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

(photo: Don Pollard/Governor's Office)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

reinvent albany ex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(photo: the governor's office)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

divisionbudget chart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

(photo: City Council)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing carries people like subways,” Trottenberg said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

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‘Breaking Car Culture’ in New York City Likely Dependent on Expanded Mass Transit Sun, 11 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Slowing Down 14th Street Bus Plan is Anything But Progress, or Progressive https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8721-slowing-down-14-street-bus-not-progressive https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8721-slowing-down-14-street-bus-not-progressive mta bus electric

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


One of the most frustrating things about local New York City politics is that many people who believe in progressive ideas on the national stage do an about-face when it comes to progressive change on the local level, often when that change might actually touch their day-to-day lives in some way.

This phenomenon has been captured perfectly by the current debate around the 14th Street busway -- a pilot program approved by the mayor, which would prioritize public transit and trucks over private cars on one of the city’s busiest corridors -- and the troubling last-minute temporary restraining order against its implementation.

Just about everyone talks about how we need to make transit better for working New Yorkers, and that moving New Yorkers by bus, train, and bikes is more efficient and environmentally-friendly than by car, and yet, progress has been ground to a halt in the name of “environmentalism” by a few local residents using their connections and resources to jam up a groundbreaking transit project.

The lawsuit that led to the restraining order comes from a few wealthy, car-driving “progressive” West Side residents who claim that the 14th Street bus plan, as well as the protected bike lanes on 12th and 13th streets, should be subject to an environmental review. (Funny, the car lanes and free parking weren’t subject to an environmental review.)

The cynicism being displayed here by some of my West Side neighbors is far from universal. In fact, support for a busway on 14th Street in our community is overwhelming.

Community Board 6 Manhattan, of which I am a member, represents 147,000 New Yorkers on the East Side, covers half of the 14th Street corridor, and has been on the record supporting bus priority for almost a year. We first voted in favor last September, and then just reiterated our support in a second resolution in February.

Our position has been informed by the testimony of dozens of people at multiple meetings, including meetings hosted by us, by the city Department of Transportation, by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), by our elected officials, and others.

Our support for bus priority on 14th Street is informed by our own experience. Because there’s no area north-south subway east of Union Square, we depend on MTA buses more than people in other parts of Manhattan. We rely on the M15-SBS almost like a subway. We use existing upgraded crosstown bus service like the M23-SBS and M34-SBS to connect to the subway system. And we absolutely depend on 14th Street bus service, which (as everyone knows) is unreliable even after recent MTA upgrades.

In our neighborhood, we need and we deserve world-class transportation, and the transit and truck priority corridor the DOT planned would give it to us. It was planning to launch last month — until West Side attorney Arthur Schwartz, who is leading the lawsuit, somehow convinced a judge to put it on hold.

It’s rich to have Schwartz attack the busway with the baseless claim that the community is united in opposition to it. I am here to tell you that that claim is false; the support of Community Board 6 is emphatic and broad-based and it’s on the record. It shouldn’t surprise us that this same attorney has been cluelessly quoted that he doesn’t take the bus when he’s in a hurry.

But some New Yorkers don’t have much of a choice; people like me and 27,000 of our neighbors ride the M14A -- the city's slowest bus -- and M14D every day. Collectively we've lost out on about a year's worth of time while our buses idle in mixed traffic. Our voices matter.

The benefits of faster and more reliable bus service disproportionately accrue to people with lower incomes (that’s the definition of progressive). That reality isn’t lost on most of us invested in the fight to improve transportation in New York City, and we aren’t going to let people like Schwartz wear a mantle that he hasn’t earned, no matter how much they like to call themselves progressive.

I hope the baselessness of this lawsuit is exposed at Tuesday’s hearing where a New York State Supreme Court judge will hear arguments on both sides. I’m optimistic we can get the busway back on track as soon as possible. It will be a game-changer for tens of thousands of working New Yorkers, saving us thousands of hours a year otherwise sitting in traffic or standing in the rain. That’s a progressive step forward that everyone should support.

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Rich Mintz is a member of Manhattan Community Board 6. On Twitter @richmintz.

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

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Slowing Down 14th Street Bus Plan is Anything But Progress, or Progressive Mon, 05 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Transit Organizing & the Future of the MTA https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8679-max-murphy-podcast-transit-organizing-the-future-of-the-mta https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8679-max-murphy-podcast-transit-organizing-the-future-of-the-mta speaker cojo

(photo: John McCarten/City Council)


July 17, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Transit Organizing & the Future of the MTA

john raskin wbaiJohn Raskin, founder and executive director of Riders Alliance, a transit advocacy group, joined the show to discuss his organizing work over the past seven years and the future of the MTA as he plans to depart the nonprofit after several major wins, including Fair Fares, congestion pricing, and the broader era of renewed attention on saving the subways and buses.

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

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Transit Organizing & the Future of the MTA Wed, 17 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
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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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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

 

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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