The L train tunnel seen here in 2012 shortly after Sandy will play host to Gov. Cuomo on Thursday night. Photo: MTA New York City Transit / Marc A. Hermann

In four months, give or take a few weeks, the MTA is finally going to shut down the L train between Brooklyn and Manhattan for Superstorm Sandy-related repairs. The looming closure is hardly a secret, and talk of the work and mitigation plans have consumed NYC’s transit realm for the past four years. I first wrote about the L train shutdown in late 2014, and it has since been the subject of numerous presentations, meetings, plans, reports, studies and even lawsuits. What was once supposed to be a 18-month shutdown has been whittled down to a 15-month sprint, and with prep work already well under way, the biggest concerns are about the effectiveness of the mitigation plan. The biggest concern, that is, until this week when Gov. Andrew Cuomo, once again in charge of the MTA, decided to step in.

Until this week, Cuomo had been largely quiet on matters related to the L train shutdown. Content to let the city, his favorite transportation foil, bear the brunt of work (and criticism) over mitigation efforts that everyone expects to fail during the first morning rush hour on the first day of the shutdown, he hasn’t said much about the work. And then he went on Brian Lehrer’s show on Monday. For some reason, something or someone drew his attention to the L train shutdown, and on the WNYC show, he announced plans to tour the tunnel this Thursday with a team of “national experts, international experts,” as he put it, to determine if 15 months is the right amount of time for the work or if the MTA can speed up the plans.

This announcement seemingly caught the MTA by surprise, and as late as Wednesday, the agency still had not announced the operations plan for Cuomo’s visit. We know he’ll be there at or around midnight on Thursday night, and we know the MTA is going to try to single-track L trains through the tunnel for around 90 minutes or so to accommodate the governor’s desire. He hasn’t told anyone which “experts” are coming with him, and it’s not clear how much of an assessment these experts can perform in such a short time period or whether this assessment is really just another infrastructure-related photo op. This thing reeks of a political stunt that it’s hard to know where to begin.

First up is the why. Why is Cuomo doing this and why now? On Brian Lehrer’s show, he told a story about constituents bugging him about the shutdown: “I can’t tell you the number of people in Brooklyn who have looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Are you sure that there is nothing else that can be done and there’s no way you can possibly shorten this?’ I said, ‘I will make sure, personally, that there’s nothing else that can be done, and this is the best option.’”

But then on Tuesday, he made a brief appearance on one of Alan Chartock’s many WAMC shows on Northeast Public Radio out of Albany and had a different story to tell:

And I actually had a gentleman come up to me who said, have you personally gone through it? And I said, no, I didn’t personally go through it, but that’s not what I do. He said, well they told you you couldn’t replace the Tappan Zee Bridge, right? I said, yeah, well that’s right. He said, but you did it anyway, right? I said, yeah you’re right. He said, well, why don’t you go look at these plans and bring the best people to look at the plans just so we know? And that’s that New York logic, right? Cynical, make sure you try everything.

This might be one of those political ticks that doesn’t really matter, but it sure seems as though Cuomo is creating some straw-people to give him cover at this late date. Who knows who planted this seed? Cuomo often acts on his own based on his own impulses whether his advisers suggest he do something or not, and this may just be a situation where he doesn’t want to say that disrupting late-night L train service was his own idea.

Lending further credence to this theory is the timing of it. One and off since the summer, the MTA has halted L train service between Brooklyn and Manhattan over the weekend to prep for the Sandy Fix-and-Fortify work. Had Cuomo wanted unfettered access to the Canarsie Tunnels, he could have gathered his groups of experts at any point over the past few months for hours upon hours of access to the tubes without inconvenience a bunch of people just trying to get home or get to work late at night.

And what of these experts? As I noted, Cuomo has been awfully tight-lipped about how these experts are. He offered some additional commentary to Chartock:

We’re assembling a team of outside the box thinkers who have nothing to do with government. They’re just international experts in tunnel construction and electric systems and I’ve asked them to come take a look just so New Yorkers have confidence that every option has been explored. I think if they know that they’ll feel better about the delay because they’ll know it wasn’t capricious, it’s not arbitrary, it’s not incompetence. Everything that can be done has been done and that’ll make me feel better on a personal level if nothing else.

Imagine being the people at the MTA who have slaved over these plans for years, faced with the pressure of reducing the timeline as much as possible, just to Cuomo step in with a bunch of folks at the last minute to second-guess your work for a photo op. Perhaps the MTA hasn’t earned the benefit of this doubt, and heaven knows we can point to countless examples of ineptly managed and delivered MTA construction projects. But the Sandy work has been smooth and on time. There is no reason to think the L train work wouldn’t be, and anyway, the time to consult with experts was years ago and not months before the shutdown starts and after work has begun and contracts awarded. That Cuomo hasn’t even opened this event to press indicates to me as well that his experts are far from expert, but we’ll only find out from the MTA or Governor’s office (or if anyone stakes out either end of the L train tunnels to see who shows up with the governor on Thursday night).

Ultimately, here’s what I think is happening: After two years of lengthy discussions, numerous studies and tons of public meetings, Andrew Cuomo is stopping L train service for some period of time so he can hold a photo op inside a tunnel that’s shutting down in four months. In a few weeks, the MTA will hold a press conference to announce that they’re going to try to finish the L train work in less than 15 months — perhaps, say, 13 months — but can’t make any guarantees. Cuomo, suddenly in charge of the MTA again, will take credit for the good news, and that will be that. It’s a blatant stunt with a clear endgame for no real reason, but make no mistake about it: Yet again, it’s a clear sign that Cuomo is in charge of the MTA, and the MTA will respond to his whim no matter the scope or impact on customers.

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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A list of the first set of signal timers Transit will fine tune. Transit later issued some correction. Click to enlarge.

As subway service has gone from good to bad to worse over the past few years, signal timers have come up frequently as a topic of conversation. The timers, as I explored in March, arose out of a 1995 subway crash that was ultimately determined to be due to human error, and the MTA has spent over two decades slowing down the trains because, well, who knows. No one could explain why by the time year 23 of the signal timers arrived that many were being installed. Subway service has been slowed because the MTA opted to slow the trains, and now Andy Byford is starting to do something about it.

Emma Fitzsimmons of The Times broke the news in an article on Monday in which you will find a few comments by me. The essence is this: By attacking faulty signal timers and raising speed limits on others, Byford believes he can alleviate the system-wide slowdown caused by the MTA’s own internal decision-making processes without sacrificing safety. As anyone who has experienced a slow crawl of, say, a 2 or 3 train north of 86th St. or an R train ride up or down 4th Ave. in Brooklyn will attest to, eliminating these slow spots is a move that can’t happen soon enough.

The MTA announced the changes in a press release on Monday afternoon as part of the awkwardly-named “Save Safe Seconds” campaign:

This past weekend, several months of careful testing and study have led to the safe increasing of five speed limits between 36 St and 59 St on the nr line in Brooklyn, with 15 mile-per-hour zones being increased to 20 or 30 miles per hour. Twenty-nine more increases throughout the system have also been approved by a safety committee and will be rolled out in coming weeks, with Transit officials estimating speed limits to be safely increased at more than 100 locations throughout the system by the springtime. The speed limit changes already approved increase speeds generally in the 10 to 20 mile per hour range to speeds that reach the 40s.

The same team doing this work is also testing and fixing speed regulating signals called “time signals” or “timer signals,” with 95 percent of some 2,000 such signals tested since the initiative began in late August. Approximately 267 faulty timer signals have been discovered and approximately 30 of them have been fixed so far in what amounts to very labor-intensive work to inspect, diagnose and repair or replace numerous possible pieces of equipment during times of exclusive track access for workers such as weekends or nights.

“Safety is always our top priority, and we’re working hard to maximize our subway’s potential within the boundaries of stringent safety standards,” said NYC Transit President Andy Byford. “Subway cars have come a long way in safety and performance since the system’s speed limits were first put in place up to a century ago, and some speed-regulating signals have become miscalibrated over time, forcing trains to go slower than they need to. We’re taking a fresh look, with no compromise to safety, at how to reduce delays and get people to their destinations sooner.”

This announcement though seems modest in comparison with the findings in Fitzsimmons’ article. According to her reporting, the MTA has installed around 2000 signal timers throughout the system — or the equivalent of around 3 for every mile of track. Even though we can point to multiple causes for the declining reliability of subway service, it’s hard to understate just how costly these signal timers have been as trains have slowed to a crawl lately. The initial effort to remove them is a modest too. Here’s Fitzsimmons:

Over the summer, Mr. Byford created a new “speed unit” — a three-person team that traveled every mile of track on the system in an empty train to find areas where trains could safely move faster. The team identified 130 locations where the speed limit should be increased. So far, a safety committee at the transit agency has approved 34 locations for speed increases…

About 30 signals have been repaired in Brooklyn, from the DeKalb Avenue station to the 36th Street station, on the B, Q, D, N and R lines, and near the 9th Avenue station on the D line. Mr. Byford wants to eventually fix all of the faulty signals, though he cautioned that the work is complex and could take awhile.

I’m guardedly optimistic that this move is the start to a solution for our speed woes. As Fitzsimmons notes, NYC subways are among the slowest in the world, and as I keep saying, that’s largely in part due to the MTA’s own choices that slowed down speeds to an unacceptable level in response to discrete incidents caused more by human error than faulty signals. Unfortunately, 30-40 timer fixes every few months won’t do much to fix speeds, and any observant rider can reel off a handful of spots where timers have become more noticeable in recent years (the Franklin-Atlantic run on the 4/5, Grand Army Plaza to Bergen St. on the 2/3, the Q/N heading north into Union Square, the 6 between 51st St. and Grand Central, etc., etc., etc.). So for this to pay real dividends, Byford will have to push for a faster pace, and a faster pace is what frustrated NYC subway riders deserve. For this one, the MTA has only itself to blame, and only the MTA can fix it.

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SAS Phase 2 is indeed underway but will not be completed until 2027 at the earliest.

Under the best-case scenario, Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway will not open until 2027, and this three-stop extension of the Q train through East Harlem may not be ready for passengers until 2029, according to new documents released last week by the MTA.

As part of the refresh of the environmental review process in advance of starting heavy construction toward the end of next year, the MTA received certification recently from the Federal Transit Administration that the Phase 2 documents showed no significant environmental impacts that were not previously addressed. Included in this FONSI were a series of questions and answers that arose out of this past summer’s public comment period, and in response, the MTA discussed the lengthy construction schedule and its hopes to speed up work. “[The] MTA will continually seek opportunities to reduce the construction schedule, if feasible and if it can be done without compromising safety,” the agency stated. “The Supplemental EA assumed a construction completion year of 2029 to provide a conservative (i.e., worst-case) time frame, so as not to underestimate the period of time during which the community would experience construction-related effects. [The] MTA is investigating alternative project delivery and other methods to expedite an opening date potentially as early as 2027, contingent on timely funding.”

On the one hand, the MTA’s response says nothing new. We’ve known about the lengthy construction schedule for Phase 2 for a few years, and the agency is constantly “investigating alternative project delivery” methods in an attempt to speed up their pathetically lengthy construction timelines (with little to show for it). On the other hand, the MTA’s response is notable for what this means for the present and future of the Second Ave. Subway. If the MTA can somehow achieve a 2027 opening date for Phase 2 of this project, a full 20 years will have elapsed between the 2007 groundbreaking for Phase 1 and the revenue service date for Phase 2, and in that 20 years, the MTA will have built only six new subway stops and less than four miles of tunnels. Needless to say, this is an unsustainable pace for a city trying to keep pace with international peers and in desperate need of massive expansion of its transit network.

To add insult to injury, a glimpse back at the original Environmental Assessment documents for the full-length Second Ave. Subway reveals an alternate timeline in which the full-length project would be wrapping up within the next 13 months. Originally, the MTA wanted to begin construction in 2004, build segments concurrently, including starting Phase 3 before Phases 1 and 2 were to be completed, and finish the full project for a total cost of $16.8 billion by the end of 2020. Now, the MTA hopes to start Phase 2 by 2020, and we still don’t know how much this modest segment will cost. (The most recent cost estimates for Phase 2 were $5.5-$6 billion, nearly double the figure the MTA put forward in the 2004 EA documents.)

Like I said, this problem isn’t anything new: The MTA’s inability to build any major project in a timely manner has garnered headlines for years, and it’s why East Side Access is going to take 15 years to complete. It is also in stark contrast to peer cities such as London and Paris, both of which are building significantly more new transit connections and new miles of track in far less period of time for far less money. But it highlights part of the city’s mobility crisis: How can New York City grow if the transit network simply cannot keep pace? How can the city expect to develop new potential job and population centers if it takes two decades to build six new subway stops?

I do not have the answers to these questions, but neither does the MTA. Without serious transit construction reform though, New York City will stagnate. The roads can’t handle more personal automobiles, and buses can’t move efficiently through traffic. For now, we wait — somehow, until 2027 at best — for the only three new subway stops under consideration right now.

Other Highlights from the FONSI

Reinforcing a slow construction timeline wasn’t the only newsworthy bit from the FONSI Q-and-A document. I’m mostly going to embed Tweets from this thread of mine. First up, why are the stations so overbuilt? The MTA says, “Projected ridership.” I find this to be a real symptom of extremely onerous safety requirements that require massive underutilized mezzanines. At no point are the Second Ave. Subway mezzanines crowded, and the stations aren’t projected to be popular enough to warrant more space that even more crowded IRT stations.

How about station entrances? Those can’t be relocated due to costs.

Finally, the construction process. This warrants a post on its own due to the short-sightedness of the answer. Once the MTA sinks a tunnel boring machine into the ground, the agency is actually pretty good at operating it. Tunnel construction times and costs are generally in line with international standards, and it’s the rest of the project that costs so much and takes so much time. For Phase 2, a lot of people have called upon the MTA to dig a tunnel long enough for connections to West Side trains (or even toward New Jersey), but the MTA has no plans to do so. It’s a bad and costly decision. More on that soon.

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A $3 base fare for subway and bus rides are among the fare hike options the MTA is currently debating.

On its own, a fare hike doesn’t portend a looming transit death spiral. In fact, regular and predictable fare hikes for, say, a subway ride designed to ensure that revenues remain fairly consistent with inflation and other costs over the long term can be a sign of a robust and well-managed transit system working to compete with other modes of transit. But when a fare hike is coupled by service cuts amidst a prolonged period with an overall decline in ridership and revenue, the transit death spiral canary starts chirping a bit louder in that coal mine. Last week, the canary showed up at the MTA Board’s budget meeting as the board books showed a continued decline in ridership, the budget forecast called for service cuts, and the MTA started debating the structure of next year’s fare hike. It certainly seems like New York City’s transit system sits on the edge of a death spiral.

The transit death spiral is a particularly prickly beast to pin down. A few months ago, Aaron Gordon wrote about it in his newsletter, and I’d like to reframe Aaron’s model slightly. The death spiral encapsulates a budget cycle in which a transit agency recognizes a revenue shortfall due to lower-than-project ridership, raises fares and cuts service to compensate, and thus further dampens ridership, leading to additional shortfalls. As the cycle repeats, the spiral becomes inescapable until a massive bailout or death. When the topic arose over the summer, Cap’n Transit wrote a rebuttal to Gordon’s piece, and in the intervening few months, the spiral seems to have worsened.

The current cycle will come to a head soon when the MTA Board reconvenes to approve a 2019 fare hike. On its own, the 2019 fare hike isn’t a surprise as the MTA instituted biennial fare hikes beginning in 2011, but with service reliability on the decline, riders seem particularly up in arms over next year’s planned hike. You can see the proposals in the chart atop this page, and I’m agnostic as to which one the MTA should choose. With the introduction of subsidized Metrocards for low-income New Yorkers on the horizon, eliminating the pay-per-ride discount and keeping the increase on unlimited passes at a minimum is probably my preferred outcome, but that choice is akin to just shuffling deck chairs. In a handful of months, we’ll be paying more.

You can view the fare and toll hike proposals in this pdf, but the details of the hike aren’t the big story. Rather, the big story is the MTA’s worsening financial picture. That story unfolds in this pdf, and it’s a dire one. In the span of two years, since the July 2017 financial plan, the MTA’s long-term outlook has worsened by over $800 million. According to MTA documents, the biggest drivers are declining ridership ($485 million), paratransit costs ($321 million), workers compensation payments ($125 million) and overtime ($100 million). The MTA has relied on a series of one-shot budget moves to stave off deficits, but these one-shots are drying up. As Robert Foran, MTA CFO said last week, absent healthcare and pension reform, the MTA is out of cost-savings measures, and no politicians have desired to leap into that fraught battle. (In fact, Gov. Cuomo did just the opposite when the MTA labor contracts were up recently.)

So the options are fare hikes and service cuts, the two best ways the MTA has of controlling revenues and expenses. With fare hikes scheduled for 2019, service cuts loom for 2020 – the first cuts since the crippling scalebacks in 2010. The MTA, of course, hasn’t said exactly what the service cuts will be, but it sounds as though the agency could change “service guidelines” to allow for more crowded trains and less frequent service. The total cuts to the subway will equal around $10 million – which is modest and projects to a few fewer trains per hour during certain times of the day on some, but not all, lines – and $31 million for buses which will devastate the bus network. Perhaps then the buses, with extremely steep ridership declines, are closer to that death spiral than the subways.

Service cuts by themselves won’t close the MTA’s budget gaps and will harm the long-term health of the transit network by driving down ridership.

Still, service cuts are a last-gasp approach. As Foran detailed at last week’s meeting, the MTA prefers to seek out a separate revenue streams to avoid service cuts while closing its budget deficit, and I think back again to the piece I wrote on the fight for congestion pricing revenue. The money may have to go to shoring up the MTA operations budget before it can go to the capital plan (or Andy Byford’s Fast Forward fund) as everyone is laying claim to a magical cure-all that won’t be.

If that doesn’t further complicate the picture, Aaron Gordon in his newsletter last week noted yet another issue the MTA budget projections: Their out-year projections do not account for planned or potential work that could further stifle ridership and revenues. I quote from last week’s edition:

The L shutdown, for example, begins next year. The MTA predicts the vast majority of trips will still take place within its ecosystem, but it’s easy to imagine ridership falling due to discretionary trips not being taken or a higher-than-projected rate of folks opting for rideshare or bicycling instead. Indeed, the MTA now predicts a 1.1 percent decrease in ridership in 2019, following a 2.8 percent decline this year. This is a major revision from the July plan, where they predicted ridership *increases* in 2019 and 2020 despite acknowledging the L shutdown. Their logic: the economy is good.

These explanations are more confusing than insightful. Pegging ridership trends to future employment projections may be accepted practice but it’s been demonstrably unreliable in recent years due to fundamental changes in how we work, shop, and travel…But there’s an even bigger red flag in their ridership projections. If the MTA does get funding to move ahead with the Byford Plan, entire trunk lines in Manhattan as well as major branches in Queens and Brooklyn will be shut down on nights/weekends for months if not years on end. In other words, the most extreme planned work shutdowns in the city’s history will occur in the next decade if Andy Byford gets his money. Ridership will almost certainly suffer.

That’s not an argument against doing the work, but merely a consideration therein, especially when projecting budgets. But, as of now, the MTA is predicting flat ridership for 2020-2022. Of course, the MTA cannot budget for a plan that has yet to be funded, but they don’t even flag this as a potential risk. This is emblematic of the agency’s tendency to get caught flat-footed by predictable ridership trends.

In other words, the plan to repair the system will, by necessity, lead to temporarily lower ridership, and the MTA isn’t accounting for it now. Their budgets for outyears aren’t conservative enough, and we’ll have to go through this process sooner than the MTA currently anticipates. You see where this is going? That’s also part of that death spiral.

Meanwhile, the MTA itself is struggling to figure out why service is declining. This came up first over the summer during the presentation of the July financial plan when the MTA failed to distinguish between the cause and the effect of the ridership decline. Ridership is declining because off-peak and weekend service isn’t reliable, and with easy and cheap alternatives such as for-hire vehicle apps, those who take discretionary subway trips are opting for more reliable means of travel. Last week, the MTA bigwigs tried to blame fare evasion as the leading cause of ridership declines without offering any evidence whatsoever, and it seems like the gatekeepers don’t know what ails the transit network. Between the lack of foresight in budget planing and the lack of understanding of the ridership decline, it’s hard to say if the current MTA Board and management can work its way out of this mess before the spiral leads to death or at least temporary paralysis cured only by a steep infusion of cash.

I am ultimately not particularly optimistic as we sit here a few days after Joe Lhota’s departure and a few months before fare hikes and the L train shutdown start to tax the system. It’s not clear what the future holds for Fast Forward, and it’s not clear where these downward trends lead. Enough people are watching that I hope we can escape the spiral before it gets worse, but like I said, that canary just won’t stop chirping.

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Joe Lhota’s abrupt departure cleared the way for snarky tabloid covers and a renewed focus on MTA issues in the wake of election day’s Democratic takeover of the State Senate.

As last Tuesday’s state election results rolled in and it became clear Democrats would win a decisive majority of the New York State Senate seats, I began to think about what this sea-change in Albany would mean for the MTA. Somewhat optimistically, I believe that unified Democratic control of the state legislature along with a resounding third-term for Andrew Cuomo should at least lead to a push to fund Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan, likely via congestion pricing, and reform the MTA. But then Friday’s news landed with a bang, and the MTA once again found itself facing turmoil at the top.

It’s not quite clear why yet, but as Mayor Bill de Blasio was on the phone with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer for his weekly on-air Q-and-A session, news broke that Joe Lhota had resigned immediately as MTA Chair and CEO. Just three weeks ago, Lhota had told reporters on the record that he would not be stepping down after Election Day, and Lhota’s departure came as a surprise. It’s not clear what served as Lhota’s motivating factor for leaving. Subway performance has stabilized to a certain degree, and Lhota has seemingly set up the agency to begin a long and expensive modernization project. But his second tenure atop the MTA wasn’t as smooth as his first, and he left amidst heavy tabloid criticism long before the tough job of fixing the MTA was through.

The reasons for his departure remain a mystery. Good government groups had raised ethical concerns about his seemingly conflicting roles on the MSG Board and head of NYU Langone Hospital and have constantly noted that the MTA Board and CEO position is statutorily required to be a full-time job. Though Lhota alleged to have delegated authority, Reinvent Albany, among others, claims he simply wasn’t legally permitted to do that, and perhaps Lhota thought he would come under more scrutiny for apparent conflicts at a time when Albany’s focus should be on transit funding and capital spending reform rather than ethics clashes. But this is just speculation on my part, and maybe Cuomo just wanted someone else to spearhead the multi-billion-dollar request to fund Byford’s plan.

So now the MTA faces changes on two fronts — political and personnel — but there is no reason why the two should be separated. In fact, the personnel and the politics hands the New York State Senate its first opportunity to, well, do something. First, I believe the Reinvent Albany post I linked to above is spot-on. When Lhota came up for a confirmation hearing in 2017, the Senate dragged its collective feet until the final night, held a perfunctory hearing via a phone call with Lhota, and approved the veteran as MTA head without much ado. The next person to be nominated for the spot should be required to serve full-time with no outside income or other apparent conflicts and should face a full Senate confirmation with serious, probing questions about MTA performance, funding and cost reform. If the Democrats in the State Senate plans to exercise the powers recently granted to them, they can state with an informed grilling of the next person tasked with heading the MTA at this juncture.

Separately, with the election in the rear-view and Cuomo seemingly on board with a congestion pricing plan, the Senate can get back to the business of legislating. Now that the Democrats have a strong pro-congestion pricing caucus, passing a plan, with money for transit, should be a top priority. Congestion pricing will also help clear up NYC streets which have become nearly impassable during nearly every hour of the day. This may rely on Cuomo pushing the issue a bit. He spoke at length during the campaign of congestion pricing but also, as Gotham Gazette noted, offered something of a carrot to reluctant representatives. Of this initiative, Samar Khurshid wrote:

Cuomo has pushed for a comprehensive congestion pricing program to fund the MTA, arrest the decline of New York City’s subway system, and reduce the clog of Manhattan streets. But Democrats, particularly in the outer boroughs and in suburban areas around the city, are far from unanimous on the proposal. Cuomo seemed to recognize these differences in appearances in early October on Long Island and South Brooklyn. In Long Island, he pledged to make the city “pay its fair share for the MTA,” while at the Brooklyn event, he pledged to secure funding for the beleaguered transit authority through congestion pricing.

How that horse-trading plays out is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the Governor embraces the Mayor’s endless calls for yet another millionaire’s tax to fund transit; perhaps he continues his disinformation feud over MTA funding responsibilities. Still, it seems as though Cuomo is lining up something to ensure suburban representatives pass congestion pricing when the issue comes to the forefront. We have to be careful with congestion pricing though because it is not the only path to MTA funding. We need congestion pricing for a variety of reasons (including easing the lost productivity and environmental harm caused by endless congestion), but as I wrote last month, the revenue will not be sufficient to shore up the MTA’s finances. Still, any additional funding mechanisms will have to pass muster in Albany, and the state representatives are well away all eyes are on them.

To that end, the State Senate and Assembly should reinsert themselves in the oversight process. The various committees tasked with keeping an eye on the MTA have held one joint hearing on the authority over the past three or four sessions, and that hearing turned into a personal gripe-fest with legislators complaining more about bus stops being moved 100 feet rather than structural issues with MTA operations and spending. The state governing bodies must be willing to hold the MTA accountability for its inability to spend money efficiently or build timely. The city’s and state’s futures depend on it.

Ultimately, these are tall orders for a newly-unified government and a party that hasn’t had much success when it has been able to set the state agenda. Though the “three men in a room” model of state governance will likely fall by the wayside with unified Democratic control, Cuomo has indicated that he plans to stay heavily involved in the legislative agenda, but he is also cognizant of how a failure to fix the MTA may reflect poorly on him as he commences a run at the White House in 2020 (however misguided I personally believe that to be for him). If the opportunity exists to keep Cuomo’s attention focused on the New York City subways, then, by all means, everyone invested in improving transit should seize that opportunity.

With Lhota out and Albany gearing up to address MTA issues, transit will be at the forefront of the legislative agenda for the foreseeable future. The next MTA Chair and CEO has to be someone who has Albany’s ears and Albany’s trust on key issues and must be someone who can fight for Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan. At the same time, the State Senate and Assembly must put the MTA under a microscope, actions Albany has generally avoided as legislators often feel dealing with the MTA is a lose-lose proposition. I’m cautiously optimistic change in Albany and change atop the MTA can quickly lead to good outcomes. If it does not, the transit death spiral we’re desperately trying to avoid will inch closer and closer.

Categories : MTA Politics
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Joe Lhota has stepped down as MTA Board chair for the second time in six years.

Joe Lhota has resigned as the CEO and Chair of the MTA effectively immediately, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced today. Lhota had come under fire from ethics watchdogs (including Reinvent Albany) for holding multiple jobs, including a spot on the MSG board, that could conflict with his duties at the MTA, but he had stressed as recently as two weeks ago that he was not planning on stepping down, despite rumors to the contrary. Fernando Ferrar will again assume the role of interim MTA Chair, a position he held following Tom Prendergast’s 2017 departure from the MTA’s top spot.

The news broke as Mayor Bill de Blasio was on the air for his weekly spot with Brian Lehrer, and he was just as surprised as anyone else. The mayor, apparently, had not been given advanced warning of the resignation. “There are clearly a lot of other leaders at the MTA who can carry forward the work but no one is going to get the work of fixing our buses and subways done if we don’t have a permanent funding source,” he said. “They need a plan from Albany, and they need accountability.” He spoke further of a new “culture of accountability” – an argument with which I agree.

This is of course Lhota’s second premature departure from the MTA. He stepped down at the end of 2012 to run for mayor and returned to the MTA in mid-2017 after Prendergast left his post. Lhota’s current term was scheduled to run through June of 2021.

For the MTA, Lhota’s departure continues a period of tumultuous turnover atop the agency. Since Peter Kalikow served out his full term in the mid-2000s, the MTA has seen five or six permanent MTA CEO/chairs — the Dale Hemmerdinger/Lee Sander hydra, Hyperloop’s Jay Walder, Lhota the first time, Tom Prendergast and Lhota the second time — and only Prendergast served for more than two years. With a number of interim heads in between, this creates a real leadership void at the MTA and uncertain for agency heads. Oftentimes, new MTA Board chairs prefer to select their own agency heads (though hopefully Lhota’s successor opts to retain Andy Byford).

Lhota leaves amidst a tough time for the subway. The MTA has instituted a significant subway action plan that officials claim has halted an increase in delays, but the number of delays and unreliability of service remains high. No one who rides the subways believes any of problems have been solved and more loom with the L train shutdown less than six months away.

The Wall Street Journal, first to break the story this morning, had more:

In a statement, Mr. Lhota said he took the position for the “sole purpose of halting the decline of service and stabilizing the system for my fellow New Yorkers.” He touted an $800 million emergency repair package that he crafted in his first month, as well as a new executive team he put in place.

In September, the number of total train delays fell to the lowest point since February 2016, Mr. Lhota said. “There is still a long way to go to achieve the performance that New Yorkers demand and deserve,” he said.

The state official said the governor’s team and the MTA would immediately begin a search for a new chairman. The search comes at a time of turnover in Mr. Cuomo’s administration: Commissioners of three state agencies acknowledged this week that they were leaving their posts, and more departures are expected.

In a statement, Gov. Andrew Cuomo praised Lhota. “Joe Lhota has dedicated decades of his life to public service culminating in two tours of duty at the helm of the MTA,” he said. “He stabilized the subway system, appointed a new leadership structure to completely overhaul the MTA, and led with a steady hand during some of the agency’s most challenging moments. In short, Joe demonstrated time and again why he was the right person for the job. I am deeply grateful for his service to the State of New York. In accordance with MTA bylaws, Vice Chair Fernando Ferrer will serve as Acting Chair while we prepare to name a permanent replacement for when the Senate returns in January.”

Off the cuff, Lhota’s departure gives Gov. Andrew Amazon Cuomo, the state official who is definitely in charge of the MTA, a chance to think outside the box. He’ll need to find a strong champion for transit at a time when the MTA job is often considered lose-lose in the industry, and he could use this opportunity to seek out diversity atop the ranks of the MTA Board, a long-overdue move for the MTA. Cuomo has also said he will make the appointment before the State Senate returns to session in January, a break with precedent as he has sat on prior MTA appointments in the past. With Byford’s Fast Forward plan in need of funding and a 2019 fare hike on the horizon, the MTA cannot afford to be without permanent leadership for too long, and the newly-empowered Democratic State Senate will have to confirm anyone Cuomo nominates for the job.

More to come.

Categories : MTA
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In a few hours, the polls in New York will open on an election that, at one point, may have been viewed as a referendum on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s leadership of the MTA. For a few months, before the noise from Washington overwhelmed local issues, it seemed as though Cuomo was going to have to take responsibility for the ongoing decline of the subways during his eight-year watch. But after dispatching Cynthia Nixon, who failed to turn the subway crisis into a campaign issue with traction, and drawing Marc Molinaro, a largely ineffectual candidate with a semi-decent plan to reform MTA (while also defunding it, in part), Cuomo will waltz to victory on Tuesday with some vague promises to push through an overtaxed congestion pricing and fight for the subways.

A few weeks ago, on the eve of Cuomo’s primary, I wrote that the governor doesn’t like the subway and isn’t going to save it. That largely holds true tonight as well. There’s a chance Cuomo, who believes he can run for the White House in 2020, will embrace saving the subway as his signature moment and devote the right energy to Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan, but there’s a better chance he’ll use the region’s infrastructure for a bunch of photo ops while highlighting projects that don’t solve our problems. The area’s best hope is for a Democratic-controlled State Senate to pass congestion pricing and perhaps exercise its oversight powers more often than once every three years. To that end, those in Bay Ridge should consider a vote for Andrew Gounardes, and those of us who live in former IDC districts should consider a vote for the challengers. Otherwise, #FlipYourBallot and vote YES on proposition 3 to impose modest term limits for Community Boards and hope for the best for transit.

With that said, it’s worth looking at the state of subway ridership on the eve of Gov. Cuomo’s second reelection effort. As I hinted at a few weeks ago, it’s not a pretty picture as ridership has essentially started to crater. After months of a steady decline, August saw a steep dip as average weekday subway ridership fell to just over 5 million riders a day, a drop of 2.5% from 2017, and combined weekend ridership fell by nearly 9%, the steepest year-over-year decline in decades.

These trend lines are heading in the wrong direction.

With the city’s economy continuing to add jobs, it seems that riders are fleeing the system and turning to other modes of travel for their commutes. The factors I explored a month ago are still at play, but this nosedive in August raises some serious red flags. Even during the slow summer months, when the MTA anticipates a dip, ridership was nearly 2 percent below projections (and the resultant farebox revenue missed its target as well). As ridership declines, the MTA’s finances grow strained, and city streets grow more crowded from the congestion caused by erstwhile subway riders resorting to for-hire vehicles. We head further toward that downward death spiral.

It’s not quite clear what anyone’s plan for this alarming modeshift may be. Cuomo is talking about congestion pricing which could push some folks back to the subways, and the MTA itself is touting Fast Forward. The latter though is a long-term solution with fewer short-term gains, and it’s not clear the powers-that-be are picking up on the problem. Make no mistake about it: A significant mode-shift away from transit to less sustainable modes of travel is a problem for the city’s productivity and environment, and a culture shift away from traveling anywhere, especially on the weekends, is a problem for the vibrancy of New York City. Without the subways, the city can’t function, and right now, month by month, we inch closer to that breaking point.

I worry about a disengaged Andrew Cuomo after the election when the subways aren’t fixed but no one is running against him on the issue. Will he still care or will we be stuck with what we have until he’s out of office? Photo ops won’t be enough to save the subways or our congested streets, and the transit death spiral could lock the entire region in its sour embrace sooner than we’d all like to contemplate.

Categories : MTA Politics
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An MTA map shows service patterns during the L train shutdown. (Click to enlarge)

It’s now just six months until one of the largest transit diversion in New York City history, as the MTA and New York City Department of Transportation announced on Tuesday that the 15-month L train shutdown will begin on Saturday, April 27, 2019. Until the end of July 2020, no L trains will run between Brooklyn and Manhattan, as the MTA finally performs the rebuild of the Canarsie Tunnel, damaged in the flooding from Superstorm Sandy back in 2012. The shutdown, under attack by West Village NIMBYs who cannot stomach some street space in Manhattan given over to buses and bicyclists, promises to be disruptive throughout parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan even with careful mitigation plans, and now the countdown is on.

“We’re continuing unprecedented efforts at public outreach, responding to local communities and giving as much notice as possible on key dates in this project,” NYC Transit President Andy Byford said in a statement. “With the L running as a Brooklyn-only service for 15 months starting after the weekend of April 27, we’ve been hard at work with our partners at NYCDOT and other City agencies to make sure that the alternate train, bus, ferry and bicycle networks work together to get people around successfully.”

Just how successful initial mitigation plans will be remains to be seen. Transit advocates are generally skeptical that a part-time busway on 14th Street and HOV3+ restrictions on the Williamsburg Bridge without corresponding requirements on nearby East River crossings along with no plan to address lower-capacity ride-sharing services along these routes will lead to crushing congestion, and the plans to increase subway service, while substantive, do not leave much room for error. If anything goes wrong, the cascading delays will lead to unmanageable crowding along lines that are expected to pick up the slack for the L train, but the real test will be how the city and MTA adapt the plan to demand during the first few days of the shutdown next spring. If they’re agile and quick, those HOV3+ restrictions can morph into bus-only hours, thus alleviating some expected congestion.

Lately, after years of community meetings, presentations and patiently fielding public inquiries, the MTA has settled on the details of the increased service. The MTA will run its own ferry service from Williamsburg beginning on April 21, 2019, and five new bus routes, including Select Bus Service for the M14, will commence that day as well. Just last week the MTA approved 198 new weekday roundtrips on other lines to carry the slack with G train riders enjoying 66 more roundtrips per day and the M 62. (The detailed breakdown begins on page 193 of this pdf.)

In approving these service increase, Andy Byford stressed their volumes. “We will be adding more than a thousand roundtrips each week and pushing our resources to capacity, which is also why you’re seeing so much preventative maintenance and repair work on all these lines already,” he said. “We are making these lines as reliable as possible for these new service levels starting in 2019.”

Meanwhile, in addition to the plans I have detailed before, the MTA and DOT announced air monitoring throughout the shutdown. This in response to neighborhood complaints that the plan to use diesel buses for mitigation will lead to unacceptably high levels or particulates. Experts, including Charles Komanoff, contend rightly that diesel buses are far cleaner than they were when they developed the reputation for pollution, but it’s clear that DOT and the MTA are particularly concerned with giving community groups ammunition that could torpedo any portions of the delicately balanced mitigation plan.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit filed by a self-proclaimed progressive who can’t stomach transit riders continues apace. Although the federal claims I detailed in April were dismissed following the August released of the Environmental Assessment, Arthur Schwartz refiled numerous claims objecting to the L train shutdown in state court a few weeks ago. The filing is available here as a PDF. I expect this complaint to be handled or dismissed for reasons similar to those I detailed in April, and the MTA and DOT have until the end of November to produce a state environmental review or move to dismiss the claim. It’s a last-gasp effort by West Village residents upset that they cannot have unfettered access to city streets for their private automobiles during an event disruptive to 200,000 subway riders per day. Make of that what you will, but with six months remaining until L train service shutdown, the clock is ticking.

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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A new report by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli lays bare the MTA’s debt crisis.

If it seems inevitable that congestion pricing will arrive in New York City, that’s because it is. Although no one in Albany appears to be in a hurry to push through pricing plan, every gubernatorial candidate, including the incumbent set to win by 20 points or so in two weeks, has, to one degree of enthusiasm or another, endorsed a fee on cars entering Manhattan. But with expectations high, can congestion pricing be the savior everyone is hoping it will? Can it fund Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan or is the money already earmarked for something far less sexy? if I’m even asking, you can already guess the answer.

The most recent answer comes to us from a comptroller’s report on the MTA’s tenuous financial outlook. As Thomas DiNapoli explores in a new release [pdf], the MTA’s mounting debt is set to explode over the next few years, and with numerous competing demands on any new sources of revenue the state may authorize, along with a need to modernize the system, the MTA is in a position of promising the moon and stars while stretching dollars to cover investments it simply cannot afford. It’s a dire picture indeed.

The state comptroller summarized his findings in a press release on the report. In essence, even without addressing Andy Byford’s $40 billion Fast Forward plan, the MTA’s debt service payments are set to balloon to $3.3 billion by 2022 with the MTA’s total debt to reach $41.9 billion that year, and that’s before the agency starts bonding out Byford’s plan. Meanwhile, even though the MTA plans to raise fares next year and in 2021 and reduce certain expenditures, the operating budget gaps are projected to be $262 million in 2020, $424 million in 2021 and $634 million in 2022. To close those gaps, the MTA will need to implement massive cuts or fare increases or receive a new dedicated funding stream.

Even then, a balanced budget is no sure thing. As DiNapoli notes, the MTA’s current budget projections rely on “the assumption that the current economic expansion will continue uninterrupted.” As DiNapoli writes, that’s not sure thing: “As evidenced by the sharp drop during the Great Recession, the MTA’s revenues are sensitive to economic fluctuations. Changes in business cycles are inevitable, and the likelihood of an economic setback grows with each passing year.” Additionally, DiNapoli notes that, despite recent trends (including a very negative report on August ridership I’ll cover later this week), the MTA’s fiscal outlook relies upon a ridership increase in 2019. As the comptroller charitably notes, “While subway service has improved marginally in 2018, it remains far below riders’ expectations, and the improvement may not be enough to persuade riders to return in the face of higher fares.” Fare increases, as DiNapoli charts, have already outpaced inflation over the past decade, and if the MTA’s assumptions fail — if the economy falters and/or if ridership continues its precipitous decline — the MTA’s deficits, and corresponding fiscal pressures, will grow.

So how, you may ask, does this implicate the fight over congestion pricing? Well, the MTA has multiple competing fiscal demands right now. The agency is legally required to balance its operating budget and needs money over the next decade, as part of the next two five-year capital plans, to fund Byford’s Fast Forward program. Without it, service reliability will continue to decline, and eventually, the subway crisis will grind New York City to a halt. So essentially, the MTA needs two new revenue streams — one to fund its capital program and one to fund budget deficits (driven by the increased debt load from its capital spending). Congestion pricing can’t cure two ills in one fell swoop, but it’s being billed as a grand solution for the MTA’s woes.

On the one hand, New York City needs congestion pricing for numerous reasons. It needs to clear out congestion for economic, environmental and sustainability reasons, and it needs a new dedicated funding stream for transit. On the other, the MTA needs far more reform than congestion pricing. It needs a strong commitment from Albany to fund the capital budget through direct investments rather than new debt. It needs a strong commitment to reform capital spending so that projects aren’t orders of magnitude more expensive here than they are anywhere else in the world. And it needs an immediate response to the ridership and reliability crisis. These are not ills congestion pricing can solve immediately, and in certain ways, congestion pricing will put more pressure on the transit system to deliver reliable service immediately.

So as we talk about solutions to the MTA’s problems, and digest DiNapoli’s report in light of the MTA’s own budgetary picture, we have to be realistic. Congestion pricing is a piece of the puzzle, but that money will disappear into the agency’s budget as fast as it can. Perhaps congestion pricing can delay the inevitable, but can the MTA save itself from, well, itself? That’s the billion-dollar question upon which the fate of New York City rests, and as the Magic 8 Ball might say, “Reply hazy; try again.”

Categories : MTA Economics
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Generally, in recent New York City history, as the city’s economy grows and employment increases, transit ridership does as well. On a basic and obvious level, it makes sense. After all, people need to get to work, and if more people are working, more people are going to be using the subways and buses to get to their jobs. And yet, this time around, something funny is happening: As the city’s economy continues to add jobs, transit ridership has continued to plunge.

This story began years ago as ridership started to slip, and I looked into the numbers over the summer. When the agency released its board materials for last week’s meeting, the picture remained negative. Average weekday subway ridership in July 2018 was nearly 2 percent lower than in July 2017, and the MTA noted that this dip was a steeper decline than the one during the second quarter of this year. Weekend ridership has declined by over 5 percent. Take a look at the graph of the 12-month rolling averages. Weekend totals include both Saturday and Sunday.

July ridership numbers show an ongoing decline.

The averages aren’t the only numbers showing an alarming dip. Year-to-date ridership is 0.5 percent below 2017’s pace even as total NYC employment has inched up by nearly two percent over the same period in 2017. Where is everyone going? Or better yet, how are they getting to work?

In the Board materials, the MTA doesn’t speculate as to the lost riders. The agency notes that bus ridership is lower due to fewer student rides, but student rides make up a small fraction of trips especially during the summer months. That’s an unsatisfying answer. Meanwhile, we’ve already seen the MTA attempt to explain the ridership decline with less than impressive results. The agency blamed for-hire vehicles for the declining ridership rather than the poor service, and it’s not clear the agency has a plan to stanch the bleeding or cares much about it.

And that brings me to the next question: Should we care? The answer is a nuanced one. On the one hand, the declining ridership in excess of MTA projections means the agency will miss its fare-based revenue projections, but the miss totals only around $3.1 million. The year-end total will be somewhere around $5.5-$6 million, a piddling amount for an agency with a $13 billion budget but still an amount that could lead to service cuts. Meanwhile, if a modern economy allows potential commuters to work remotely, perhaps we shouldn’t expect a ridership increase commensurate with employment numbers.

But the nagging feeling I have, based on that July report on ridership mode shifts and the general worsening subway service, is that subway and bus ridership numbers are declining because the MTA can’t provide regularly reliable and fast service. Thus, potential transit riders are looking at other modes for travel, and the increase in usage of FHVs (along with added congestion) will increase because the MTA’s service doesn’t provide the reliability New Yorkers need.

If Transit is worried about this ridership decline, the executives aren’t showing it. Andy Byford’s Fast Forward remains a plan without a funding stream rather than an ongoing concern, and agency officials haven’t spoken of the need to combat the decline or a fear that the bottom could fall out. I believe stopping this dip should be a primary concern if NYC is stay on a pace of sustainability with fewer car trips and more transit usage. This slow-motion death spiral will choke the city.

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