Aug
21

Thoughts on the Port Authority’s airport-related fare increases

By · Published on August 21, 2019 · Comments (16) ·

The new price point for the LaGuardia AirTrain, shown here in a 2018 rendering, should cause state leaders to consider shelving the project.

Over the years, I’ve come to believe we spend far too much time talking about airports and far too much money building them. Yes, airports are an important piece of the New York economy, and those 67 million tourists we may attract this year have to get to the city somehow. But spending billions on airports — and more importantly, on building redundant means of accessing airports — doesn’t deliver much bang for the buck. The overwhelming number of New Yorkers simply aren’t interacting with airports on a day-to-day basis.

Still, the airports dominate the conversation. Thanks to ongoing construction and a refusal by the city and state to adequately manage traffic, getting to and from Laguardia can take hours these days, and the $2 billion Backwards AirTrain is years away. The Port Authority is also rebuilding Newark and renovating JFK. Unlike other transit projects, though, these dollars aren’t really fungible; revenue generated by airports must be spent on airports. The Port Authority cannot, in other words, shift airport money to other, more worthwhile projects.

Thus, airport projects move forward when other transit needs await funding, and the conversation inevitably turns to airports. At the end of June, the Port Authority, in various budget documents, dropped some airport-related bombshells in the form of a new fare structure for the AirTrains and new taxi and for-hire vehicle drop-off fees. I’ve been mulling over these new dollars and have some thoughts. But first the proposal.

The AirTrain has cost a flat $5 at JFK since 2003 and a similar rate at Newark since 2005. Meanwhile, in 2018, the JFK system saw over 20 million rides, a record, even as service on the driverless trains has been cut, and ridership has increased by six percent per year at Newark as well. Now the Port Authority plans to raise fares to $7.75 a ride starting on November 1. Bulk discounts should still be available, but this 55 percent increase is a steep one. Fares will be tabbed to inflation going forward.

Meanwhile, at some point in 2020, the Port Authority is going to implement taxi and for-hire vehicle pick-up and drop-off charges. Common at “peer” airports in LA, Chicago, San Francisco and DC, these fees allow the PA to generate more revenue for airport improvements. For-hire vehicles — the Ubers and Lyfts of the world — will be subject to a $4 pick-up and $4 drop-off surcharge at each airport, and yellow cabs will be subject to the pick-up surcharge only. Combined with PATH and toll increases, the new fees will generate $235 million in incremental revenue, and the Port Authority says these hikes are necessary due to “record infrastructure investment.” More on that shortly.

Thought #1: It’s going to be expensive to ride the AirTrain

It’s hard to understate how steep this fare hike is, and the AirTrain is going to be expensive — sticker-shock levels of expensive even. For someone connecting to the AirTrain via the subway, the ride will cost over $10, and any lower-cost benefits of the AirTrain are going to start to dissipate. A group of travelers or a family of four eying a transit trip to the airport but facing a price tag of $42 for the trip may just spring for a cab instead. It’s also hard to find any comparable system connecting an airport to a nearby transit hub that charges this month. Paris’ Orlyval, deep into the Parisian suburbs at Orly Airport, features a steep fare to the RER B stop at Antony but a low-cost integrated ticket all the way to Paris’ Zone 1. Nearly all other airtrain systems are free or much lower cost.

More importantly, though, these costs are going up for workers. We talk a lot about tourists when we discuss airport transit, but the workers — the employees who have to go every day — will have to pay steeper fares too. While discount, bulk tickets will still be available, the Port Authority is going to sunset 10-trip bulk purchases in 30 days rather than a year, and it’s not yet clear what that price point will be. Still, employees have pay full freight on airtrain, and these hikes can put this ride out of reach economically for many airport employees. The airtrain is much faster than the bus to JFK, and fare structures should be designed to encourage more efficient trips, especially for workers.

Thought #2: The Port Authority is spending a lot on expensive airport projects.

Along with the fare/fee proposal, the Port Authority released updated budget numbers, and everything just costs so much. The new Newark Airtrain is going to cost over $2 billion; the JFK Redevelopment will cost the Port Authority nearly $3 billion (up from $1 billion); and the Newark Terminal One project has seen its price tag jump by $350 million. While these are projected to be covered by revenue generated by the projects or private sources, the dollars just keep soaring ever upward, and cost containment is barely a part of the conversation.

Thought #3: The taxi/FHV drop-off and pick-up charges incentivize the wrong kind of behavior

In an ideal world, where we fight to keep cars off the road, transit routes to the airport would be fast, cheap and easy to navigate. The second-best option involves high-capacity vehicles that reduce or eliminate the need to use private cars for many trips. This new surcharge, when combined with low long-term parking rates, can be seen to push people toward their own cars instead of taxis. At the least, all cars entering the airports should be charged a drop-off/pick-up fee, and high-speed tolling technology could make this a seamless transaction.

Thought #4: The Laguardia AirTrain should be stopped

You’ll note that I didn’t mention the Backwards AirTrain in Thought #2 because this project deserves its own place on the list (and in the scrap heap of history). Based on new budget projections which add a net $390 million to the project, the Laguardia AirTrain is now projected to cost $2.05 billion. “The revised project cost,” the PA noted, “is informed by the planning efforts and preliminary engineering analysis underway as a result of previously authorized spending by the Board. The increase to the Capital Plan is $390 million, net of $160 million of reduced spending on other Aviation projects. This increase is projected to be covered by multiple sources, including: farebox revenue; airline cost recoveries; and future period [Passenger Facility Charges].”

Why is this project still going forward? It’s a $2 billion boondoggle that’s not expected to generate significant ridership and may be a worse choice than a no-build. It takes riders away from Manhattan to a 7 train that’s already overburdened or an LIRR line that runs once per hour and doesn’t connect through Jamaica. Even with a connection to car rental facilities, it’s a waste of a project and at $2 billion, a huge waste of money. It should be redesigned to serve a higher and better use, either through a connection to Jackson Heights or via Astoria. It’s now just flat-out silly.

Categories : PANYNJ
Comments (16)

Renderings show the new look for the Times Square terminal of the 42nd St. Shuttle.

The 42nd Street Shuttle is a quirky relic of New York City subway history. When the Interborough Rapid Transit Company opened city’s first subway in 1904, the current east-west jag across 42nd Street wasn’t a shuttle at all. Rather, it was a key part of the route from the now-abandoned City Hall stop to 145th St. and Broadway. But 101 years ago, on August 1, 1918, the 42nd St. connection was severed when the Dual Systems’ H system went into service, and thus it has remained a three-track shuttle since then. The Times Square terminal is even on the National Register of Historic Places.

Now, three tracks will be reduced to two, and the 42nd St. Shuttle will see its most significant overhaul in a century, the MTA officially announced on Friday. The work will result in two-track island platforms at each end of the Shuttle, two fully ADA-compliant platforms, six-car trains and a new passageway from Times Square connecting the Shuttle to the Sixth Ave. trains. Work is scheduled to begin on August 16 and will wrap in 2022 to coincide with the planned opening of the East Side Access project.

“Making our system accessible and easier to use for all New Yorkers is essential to modernizing the MTA, and this 42 St Shuttle transformation project is another example of our progress. Instead of simply fixing the most urgent conditions, we’re taking this opportunity to truly transform the 42 St Shuttle,” MTA Managing Director Veronique Hakim said in a statement on Friday (while Andy Byford was on vacation). “The project will allow the MTA to move more people, run longer trains and simplify transfers for customers between the city’s busiest transit hubs. We’re making crossing Midtown Manhattan quicker and easier for millions of customers.”

A new staircase where the Walgreens currently sits in Times Square will improve passenger flow into the Shuttle area.

The MTA is calling this a “modernization” project, and here’s what that entails, per the MTA’s press release:

  • Expanding current 4-car train length to 6-car trains: The consolidated track operation will also allow longer 6-car trains to enter the terminals, increasing total peak-hour capacity on trains by 20 percent
  • Centralizing the three-track operation to two tracks on one platform: This will make it easier for customers to identify and get to the next arriving train
  • Reconfiguring the current operation from three tracks on a curve to two straight tracks: This will eliminate large platform gaps, making the shuttle fully accessible for mobility-impaired customers, including wheelchair users, and increasing overall platform safety
  • Replacing the current signal system, which dates back to the 1930s, with new modern signals
  • Upgrading the terminal’s electrical infrastructure and adding new crew facilities

It’s not clear though if this is a true modernization effort, leading to a fully automated shuttle, and the six-car configuration could lead to two-person train operations along 42nd Street. It’s also not clear what the reduction from three tracks to two will do to train frequency, but considering short run times, any change in the number of trains per hour should be minimal. The reconfigured track layout will reduce delays on the Times Square side, and the MTA promises a 20% increase in capacity.

The Grand Central terminal will feature one of the largest platforms in the entire subway system.

They key to both ends of this project though are the reconfigured platforms. Track 2 met its demise back in 1918, and now Track 3 will be covered over. At Grand Central, the new platform, according to the MTA, will be one of the largest in the entire system. At Times Square, the trains on Track 1 will no longer open toward the IRT and BMT complex, and the new platform will be 28 feet wide.

The MTA doesn’t plan to shelve Shuttle service while this project unfolds, but the agency warns of “a few extra minutes of travel time” during a.m. and p.m. peaks. At some point, after all, one the Shuttle tracks will be out of service long before the project wraps. Still, it’s about time — the MTA has been talking about this project, as I mentioned, for years.

A diagram of the new track configuration at Grand Central.

It is worth at least a short aside on the value of this project. It’s not immediately clear how much this project will cost. In the capital dashboard, costs are a shade under $240 million for ADA accessibility upgrades and around $30 million for the station reconfiguration work, but the press release did not include a price tag. The MTA states that over 100,000 riders per day take the Shuttle, and the train alleviates pressure on the 7 — which would be unable to pick up most of the slack. Short of turning 42nd St. in a true transitway — Vision42, anyone? — the Shuttle work is required for ADA compliance purposes and to streamline operations.

Ultimately, though, the Franklin Ave. Shuttle is better, and I will stand by that opinion.

Categories : Manhattan
Comments (59)

One element of our political times that unfolds constantly involves chaos. By introducing chaos to a situation, it’s far, far easier to get away with sleights-of-hands and other backroom dealings while the public is consumed with talking away and working through the chaos. It’s easy, in other words, to offer up a myriad of distractions while shuffling pieces behind the scenes to accomplish other political ends.

This isn’t an approach that’s particularly novel nor is it unique to any single politician or political party. It’s both a feature and a bug of the way news is produced and consumed amidst a 24-hour constant cycle of everything always being on, and New Yorkers keenly into transit have lived through this phenomenon for years. It started long ago when Andrew Cuomo begin his lengthy diatribes alleging, falsely, that he wasn’t in charge of the MTA. These were so successful that the New York City subway system was allowed to collapse and he still coasted to reelection, garnering significant support in the five boroughs.

During that period, instead of focusing on the lack of investment and the lack of leadership caused by politically-inspired churn atop the MTA, activists and journalists had to parry with Cuomo’s ahistorical account of the MTA. It was an exhausting, time-consuming distraction, and as the recent MTA Transformation Plan, approved last week by the Board despite unanimous public opposition, shows, we’re not out of these woods yet.

It’s been hard to keep track of all the MTA news lately, and only some of that is by design. We’ve had Con Edison blackouts that stranded trains during a recent heat wave, ongoing computer problems that led to a recent Friday evening meltdown for the ages, MTA Inspector General investigations into everything and, of course, the Transformation/Reorganization/Whatever You Want To Call It Plan.

The story behind the Transformation Plan itself is a simple one with some interesting twists and turns. A bunch of months ago, Gov. Cuomo called upon the MTA to transform itself. This, in and of itself, is something of a distraction because since Cuomo controls the MTA, a state agency, he can just reorder the transformation without going through the charade of a costly consultant study and Board vote. But the Board vote offers him a layer of plausible deniability. Even though he controls the management and operations of the MTA, a Board vote gives him cover to point fingers at a largely powerless group of people, all of whom he appointed. He has fully exploited the structure of the MTA to his political benefit time and time again while exerting full and total control over an agency that he rightly fully and totally controls. It’s chaos; it’s distracting; and it’s almost impressively genius. If only we all stood to benefit.

Since I last had a chance to analyze AlixPartners’ $4 million Transformation Plan a few days after it was made public, this sweeping plan to reorganize the MTA and cut a few hundred million dollars per year out of the agency’s expenses faced universal condemnation by the public and then a quick approval by the Board with only Veronica Vanterpool voting against it. I’ve never seen a charade so blatantly executed in public as the vote last week, and it’s hard to wrap my head around what happened. For hours on Wednesday morning, speaker after speaker took the microphone to speak out against the plan. Advocates condemned it as a rush job, not subject to proper public vetting that disempowered key leaders (such as Andy Byford) and failed to reform the core of the MTA. Others, speaking in support of Byford and Alex Elegudin’s renewed focus on accessibility, railed against the plan for once again treating the city’s most vulnerable as second-class transit riders. Others voiced support for Fast Forward and recent improvements (recent isolated performance meltdowns notwithstanding).

Still, the vote went on because it had to. The vote went on because the MTA was left up a creek without a paddle. It was mandated, legally, that the MTA Board approve this Transformation Plan, and they had no real choice. The key was a change in the state’s public authorities laws orchestrated by Cuomo during budget negotiations in June. The law, which you can read here, required the MTA to produce a transformation plan and approve — not vote on, but approve — the plan by July 31. Had the MTA Board voted down the plan, the agency would have been in violation of law, and it’s clear from MTA Board member and State Budget Director Robert Mujica’s comments on Wednesday that had the Board voted down the plan, the state would have withheld money the MTA badly needs. It was a legislative mandate through fiscal pressure, and another way Cuomo used the MTA Board to enact his will.

As part of this charade, a week before the Board vote, Cuomo sent a letter that sources within the MTA said came as a big surprise. You can read the missive right here, and you’ll see why one MTA source referred to it as an “unhinged rant.” It’s a rant about homelessness, time-and-attendance matters, speeds and signals and a reorganization plan with a purpose. It is in fact the chaos we’ve come to expect, a blurring of issues that obscures the reality that Cuomo knew all about the reorganization plan. In fact, I’ve heard from many sources that most folks within the MTA believe the AlixPartners plan was written long before this process was made public and serves to give cover to moves Cuomo wanted to make.

But that’s neither here nor there. The Governor of New York can do what he so pleases with the MTA as it is his to control. Following approval last week, Cuomo issued simply a two-sentence statement. “The MTA’s reorganization plan is a good start, but now it comes down to execution and sound management. The timelines should provide hard dates to assess progress,” he said. So the question now is: Does any of this matter or is it just politics as usual?

It matters. It matters because of the political message the Transformation Plan sends to key cogs such as Andy Byford and Pete Tomlin. It matters because of the ongoing hiring freeze that is rapidly draining the MTA of any talent current serving in-house and ensuring that any young talent looking to enter the transit field is frozen out of the largest transit agency in the country. It matters because it disenfranchised the public, through advocates whose concerns were ignored. It matters too because we’ve heard deafening silence from anyone else in Albany tasked with MTA oversight, a lukewarm milquetoast throw-away statement from the mayor who hasn’t even read the full Transformation Plan and a vehement statement in opposition from Corey Johnson.

Meanwhile, the Plan itself effectively disempowers all agency presidents, transfers key projects to MTA Capital Construction (the biggest source of MTA construction problems over the past decade and a half), borrows from Fast Forward while shunting aside Fast Forward’s main proponent, and erases progress spearheaded by people who aren’t Andrew Cuomo. The report talks too of “failure to attract talent” at a time when Byford has brought in a key accessibility proponent and a world-renowned signals expert. The former was not lost on accessibility advocates who raised such a stink last week that Cuomo enforcer Larry Schwartz had to promise additional accessible stations to save face.

Behind the plan, other efforts are at play to lessen the impact of those making a difference but conflicting with Cuomo. The new COO/Managing Director-type role proposed by the Transformation Plan is open only to outside candidates (so Cuomo can handpick the role and ensure Byford, for instance, can’t apply), and Transdev, a private transit operator, has been poking around the MTA of late. Remember that the initial versions of the plan initially called for subways and buses to be separated. That line was killed shortly before publication when advocates vehemently objected, but speculation is rife that Transdev will ultimately take over the city’s bus system. I’ll have more on that story in the coming weeks.

For now, Byford — and this is really about Byford — will serve on the new signals panel, another Cuomo attempt to step on feet. I’ll have more on that later too. But where this all leads is anyone’s guess. The MTA needs reform and reorganization, but it needs careful reform and reorganization. The people who are competent should be promoted and supported, but instead, we seem to be stuck in a chaotic process of reorganization spurred on to minimize the influence of those most competent who have been praised publicly. It’s petty politics, and it’s a whole bunch of chaos as we’re trying to cut through the noise toward a better commute. There’s no real way out here either, and the MTA’s millions of customers are simply pawns in an unnecessary political game of distraction, obfuscation and chaos.

Categories : MTA Politics
Comments (11)

The highly-anticipated MTA Transformation Plan was released to the public on Friday afternoon. Did it live up to the hype?

While I was away on vacation, the lead-up to Friday’s unveiling of AlixPartners’ much-ballyhooed MTA Transformation Plan seemed to reinforce the political nature of the plan. Amidst ever-louder rumors that the recommendations had been written long ago by someone other than the consultants with the $4 million contract, Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned that not everyone would be happy with the plan, and early reporting indicated that Andy Byford could be stripped of some responsibilities and power (largely, it was theoried, as a short-sighted move in Cuomo’s ongoing one-sided grudge match against the popular and highly competent NYC Transit President). Palace intrigue stories ruled the roost.

Late in the day on Friday, the actual report landed, and it landed with both a thud and a hint at things to come. It promises the bare minimum of transformation while failing to explore true efficiencies such as combining the two commuter rail agencies into one with streamlined service and operations. Despite early word to the contrary, it ultimately didn’t end up recommending an immediate split of New York City Transit’s buses and subways into separate divisions, though contemplated such a split down the line, and it recommended that many MTA functions, particularly with respect to construction, be centralized under Capital Construction, without acknowledging the cost and performance issues that have plagued Capital Construction seemingly since its inception. As I’ll explore, transit advocates are particularly concerned with this proposal.

And of course there is the $40 billion plan: How does this transformation plan affect Andy Byford and his Fast Forward plan that, if allowed to proceed, would fix and modernize the subways? On that front, the plan isn’t particularly clear. It includes recommendations for a series of improvements — centers of excellence for customer communications, an accessibility guru, and a focus on maintenance and safety — that Byford has spent months implementing both as part of Fast Forward and as part of his job in repairing the transit network, but it also calls for removing all construction work, implicitly including signalling, the backbone of Fast Forward, from agency head purview to the Capital Construction group.

But here’s where things get murky: Despite the actual words in the report, multiple MTA officials have told me Byford will retain control and oversight of the bulk of Fast Forward, including the key resignalling initiatives. It’s possible that when the dust settles, Cuomo may find a way to push Byford out of that role as well or attempt to step on the NYC Transit president’s toes as he is trying to do with Save Safe Seconds. But for now, a report that simply should have embraced Fast Forward as the best practices model for reforming the key parts of the MTA seems to muddy the waters. It’s ultimately a superficial report without clear indication as to which, if any, international best practices it was modeled after, and sources tell me AlixPartners have struggled to defend even some of the more basic recommendations (such as splitting up buses and subways). It seems more akin to political cover for Cuomo’s ongoing attempts at controlling the minutiae of the multi-billion-dollar MTA, but that would just be par for course.

Inside the Plan: The Seven Recommendations

So with that in mind, let’s take a quick look at what this thing, available here as a pdf, actually says. Here are the seven recommendations:

  1. Recommendation: The MTA should refocus agencies on service delivery, core safety, operations and maintenance activities, and centralize all support functions. In the new organization, the agencies should focus exclusively on service delivery, safety, day-to-day operations and maintenance, rather than general support functions. The agencies will have reporting lines to a Chief Operating Officer. All other services will be merged and coordinated centrally with a goal of driving a higher level of services at lower costs. This would result in consolidation of more than 40 functional groups within the existing MTA Agencies to six departments in the new MTA organization. Furthermore, the Transformation Plan calls for changes to the fundamental ways the MTA does business in order to achieve more effective and efficient performance.
  2. Recommendation: MTA should centralize all capital-related functions across MTA into a new central group responsible for planning, development, and delivery of a Capital Program that improves service, the customer experience and accountability. To address slow, costly, and bureaucratic processes and to create accountability, all Capital-related functions across the MTA should be merged into a central group. This new capital group will be accountable for planning, development, and delivery of the Capital Program. This group would identify optimal project delivery (groupings, timing, delivery), increase competition in a historically constrained supplier market, and complete important capital projects that improve service and customer experience quicker.
  3. Recommendation: MTA should create a new central engineering function reporting to a new Chief Engineering Officer to set standards, ensure quality and sustainability of infrastructure. To address inconsistent engineering methods across agencies and eliminate the duplication of processes and standards and ensure quality and sustainability of infrastructure, a new central Engineering group reporting to a Chief Engineering Officer will establish clear engineering and maintenance standards to be executed consistently across all agencies. This will provide consistent standards and specifications and eliminate unnecessary complexity and duplication.
  4. Recommendation: MTA should create a new central customer communication function to provide high quality and consistent customer engagement led by communications specialists. To address many existing differing communication types (i.e., service updates, timetables, customer feedback, etc.) from several different agencies, MTA should centralize communications to clearly and consistently manage the message, medium and content.
  5. Recommendation: MTA should centralize all operating support functions (i.e., operating standards and service design) focusing agencies on service delivery. To eliminate silos and enable multimodal network design optimization, the MTA should centralize operating standards and service design. Currently each MTA agency has its own internal operations standards and service design capabilities, which would be better managed under one integrated function serving all agencies.
  6. Recommendation: MTA should centralize all human resource functions to reduce redundancies (such as differing organizational structures and too many layers across agencies) and drive clearer lines of accountability. The MTA should create a centralized human resources department focused on attracting, developing, and retaining the talent required to improve MTA performance and service delivery. This new entity will be tasked with clearly articulating a new talent strategy. This will help to resolve issues of duplication and improve analytics, data consistency, and data integrity.
  7. Recommendation: To drive the transformation, the MTA will require a selection of new leadership roles and capabilities [including a Chief Operating Office reporting to the CEO and the MTA Board, if the Board chooses; a Chief Transformation Officer reporting directly to the Board; and an MTA Accessibility Officer reporting directly to the CEO].

As you can see, these so-called transformations are hardly that transforming. Consolidating true back-office functions such as human resources, legal and communications are true efficiencies that should have been realized decades ago but speak of the siloed nature of the MTA’s sub-agencies. The rest of the recommendations are either covered by plans put forward by current leadership or seem flimsy. Why, for instance, should a transit agency not be in charge of operating standards and service design for its own service delivery? It doesn’t make sense, operationally or otherwise, to, say, remove oversight of operating standards and service design for buses and subways from the auspices of New York City Transit and place these responsibilities under a centralized agency. There is no inherent benefit to placing service design for commuter rail with service design for local buses and subways, and it works instead to create communications and inter-agency pain points. The report itself fails to argue why this type of consolidation would be useful and doesn’t name a signal transit agency that has implemented such an approach to ops planning and ops execution.

With respect to the personnel recommendations, in addition to the accessibility overlap, it’s also worth questioning the call for a COO. Ronnie Hakim is currently the Managing Director of the MTA, reporting to the agency’s CEO and Chair. If she isn’t already fulfilling the COO role AlixPartners identified, what exactly is her job at the MTA and how could it be reformed so that she is essentially this COO? Questions such as these — ones probing the role certain Cuomo allies play at the agency — were seemingly ignored.

Reactions to a ‘Rush Job’

Ultimately, this $4 million plan reads more like a basic PowerPoint presentation of bare concepts that aren’t truly transformational and contain wrong information about the MTA’s structure and history. It reads very much like a rush job thrown together to support the political buried within. One MTA source acknowledged the conceptual nature of the report, indicating that the Board expects more detailed plans in the final report due in September. But this is what the Board will vote on later this month, and advocates aren’t impressed. Nick Sifuentes, the executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, did not mince words:

“A rushed, three-month process with no public input is a lesson in how not to do reform of the nation’s largest transit system. This brief report would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious for the millions of New Yorkers who rely on subways, buses, and commuter rail every single day. Especially with service improving, the governor should commit to an actual democratic process for MTA reform, not something done in, basically the dead of night.

The AlixPartners ‘plan’ relies heavily on the purposed ‘success’ of the governor’s Subway Action Plan, which has been wildly overstated by its proponents. Analysis by Aaron Gordon and others have shown that the SAP has actually not significantly improved service. If this plan relies on the SAP process as justification for wholesale change at the MTA, that foundation is pretty thin. The report’s revisionist history and factual inaccuracies just further the conclusion that this is not the way to handle sweeping reform of the single largest public entity in the state.”

Transit Center, too, released a strident statement objecting to the central tenet of the reorganization report. That transit watchdogs are so opposed to empowering capital construction, one of the more problematic elements of the MTA, with key modernization initiatives should be telling.

And so we’re left with an expensive report, an uncertain future for Andy Byford, the key leader with loads of public support, the most riding on the report and seemingly the touchiest relationship with the governor, and haziness around the recommendations. Will this transform the MTA or simply shuffle the deck chairs of this Titantic as Captain Cuomo steers the ship toward an iceberg? You can probably guess my answer.

Categories : MTA Politics
Comments (8)
Jun
21

Second Ave. Sagas Podcast, Episode 5: OMNY with the MTA’s Al Putre

By · Published on June 21, 2019 · Comments (6) ·

This is the dawning of the age of OMNY and the end of the line for the MetroCard. As the MTA brings its new open-loop contactless tap-and-go fare payment system online, New Yorkers have seen readers pop up throughout the city, but most riders still have more questions than answers about this mysterious new system replacing the MetroCard.

I wrote up an overview of OMNY when I covered the launch at the end of May, and for this episode of the Second Ave. Sagas podcast, we’re talking all things OMNY. Joining me for the conversation is the MTA’s own Al Putre. He is the executive director of the New Fare Payment Program and has been in charge of revenue collection at New York City Transit for decades. In this week’s podcast, Putre and I talk all about OMNY — what it is, what it can do, when we’ll get unlimited ride cards and what the privacy concerns may be — as I ask your questions. Give it a listen.

You can learn even more about OMNY on the system’s official site, and you can catch my conversation with Putre via the player below at all the popular podcast spots — iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, Pocket Casts and your favorite app. If you like what you hear and have been enjoying the podcasts, please consider leaving a review on your iTunes.

As always, thank you for listening and thanks as well to Joe Jakubowski for sound engineering. I’ve been enjoying producing these podcasts but they take a lot of time and effort. I can keep doing them only through the generous contributions of my listeners so please consider joining the Second Ave. Sagas Patreon. Since this site runs entirely on Patreon contributions, I can keep it going only with your help.

Categories : Podcast
Comments (6)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, seen here with a bridge, has been making a flurry of MTA moves lately to further cement his grip on the organization he controls, but the why of it all remains murky.

Over the past few weeks, thanks to Reinvent Albany’s lengthy report on MTA reform [pdf], I’ve been thinking a lot about the structure and role the MTA Board plays in agency governance. When you really drill down on it, you can easily reach the conclusion that the MTA Board is a meaningless entity designed for one thing and one thing only — giving the Governor of New York apparent cover for all matters MTA and serving as a convenient whipping boy when things go wrong.

Think about it: What exactly does the MTA Board do? It doesn’t hire or fire any part of the MTA management. The governor does, through his appointment of the MTA Chair and CEO (and approval of any agency president or other high-profile hires). It doesn’t negotiate contracts. It doesn’t set policy. It doesn’t develop a budget. It simply votes — up or down — on initiatives prepared by MTA staffers, who are all under the purview of gubernatorial appointees. Sometimes, the MTA Board raises a question or two and delays a vote for want of information, but the Board doesn’t and can’t shape policy. Ultimately, the Board just rubber-stamps major procurements and other initiatives put in front of it by the governor or those acting on his behalf.

Take, for example, the recent hullabaloo over overtime spending. It seems likely that some of the LIRR overtime accrual is the result of fraud that should be prosecuted, but most of the overtime spending at non-LIRR agencies and at New York City Transit in particular is a direct result of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Subway Action Plan and ongoing emergency order. As I detailed in a post on this subject in May, the Subway Action Plan and the Governor’s insistence on pushing through everything as fast as possible led to a huge spike in overtime spending.

By itself, that’s fine. The subways needed to be blitzed by repair work, and while I still believe Save Safe Seconds has had more of an impact on improved subway performance than the action plan, the action plan has helped (for example, by focusing on basics such as clearing out clogged drains). But Cuomo has been so obsessed with overtime spending that he can’t or won’t focus on the good overtime vs. the bad overtime. It’s all just a negative to him, and so he’s pushing through his own plan to combat overtime, exposing the MTA Board for the empty vessel it is.

During last month’s contentious meeting, most of the board members overruled the objections of Larry Schwartz, Cuomo’s enforcer on the MTA Board, to turn down a request for the agency to hire a prosecutor to investigate fraud. These board members instead recommended a consultant to help the MTA reform its time-and-attendance practice while relying upon the new MTA Inspector General (appointed by Cuomo) and the proper state or county Attorneys General to prosecute the fraud. But that led to one disgruntled governor, and so he went to work.

As Dana Rubinstein reported for Politico New York last week, Cuomo simply overruled the MTA Board and decided that the agency will hire a former prosector to investigate overtime abuses anyway. As Rubinstein notes, Carrie Cohen, the Morrison & Foerster partner who will be approved next week, will cover similar ground as the new MTA IG, and those who opposed the appointment initially weren’t happy. “This was all debated once and defeated,” John Samuelsen, TWU International president and MTA Board member, said to Rubinstein. “This has now become an example of, ‘If I don’t get my way the first time, we’re going to ram it down throats anyway.’”

Cuomo is a master at this type of exploitation, and he’s using the overtime scandal to dubious ends. Following the appointment of the new MTA IG and a subsequent tampering of a time-tracker at an LIRR office, another time clock was damaged, this time at a New York City Transit facility. Cuomo lumped the incidents together, but I’ve since been told by multiple MTA sources that the second incident was an accident. Furthermore, it impacted a time clock used by managers and not rank-and-file who are accused of running the overtime fraud. Cuomo, in public statements, claimed they were all related, and this may be another part of his unnecessary and one-sided battle with Andy Byford. I’ll come back to motive shortly.

Meanwhile, Cuomo is barely even trying to hide the way he’s manipulating the MTA. Take the makeup of the Board. We know Cuomo controls the plurality of Board seats, for what that’s worth when discussing a rubber-stamp organization, and lately, he’s taken to making the most of it. Word recently emerged that Cuomo was looking to name Albany-based state budget director Robert Mujica and Linda Lacewell, the current nominee for Superintendent of the New York State Department of Financial Services, to the Board, but the governor doesn’t currently have two seats to fill.

The Post got to the bottom of things: Reportedly, Michael Lynton, confirmed to the MTA just this spring, will be (or has been) booted from the Board, allegedly for being too independent. Fernando Ferrer will also be leaving his post. Replacing Lynton with Mujica will require the state legislature to waive residency requirements, and it’s not at first clear why they should. Is Mujica that important to the MTA Board for the legislature to waive these requirements in a last-minute hearing this week or next? If they do waive these requirements, what’s stopping Cuomo from naming upstate allies to a downstate board anyway?

Cuomo, in a radio appearance on Alan Chartock’s show last week, claimed Lynton’s independence had nothing to do with the move. Said the governor to his pal on WAMC:

Michael Lynton, when I put him on, the need was to bring new tech firms into the MTA sphere because the MTA keeps contracting with these bad contractors who I believe they have an incestuous relationship with. And the new issue became these, over the past couple of weeks, the US attorney’s investigation the Queens DA in vandalism of time and attendance systems. So, the way a coach will shift players depending on what’s happening on the court, basketball, and the need Michael Lynton, who’s great, and is from the tech world and I think that bringing new tech vendors. Today the need is financial expertise, anti-fraud systems. So I switched for the state budget director, who is a financial wizard, in my opinion, and can safeguard the state money and the Department of Financial Services commissioner who is a former federal prosecutor and is very good on financial fraud. It had nothing to do with Fernando Ferrer or Michael Lynton, who are both great, I’m going to put them on other boards.

But this move isn’t an innocent one. In a long and rambling statement released during the height of the L train debate in January, Mujica called for full gubernatorial control of the MTA Board. It was a bit of a sleight of hand since, as I’ve detailed above, the governor already controls the management and operations of the MTA, but you can see why and how Cuomo is stacking the board with third-term loyalists. These appointees play fast and loose with their own financial disclosure requirements and may not even live in the MTA service area. This doesn’t strike me as a shift toward better governance.

So back to the question of motive. For all of these machinations, maneuvers and public misdirections, I’m hard-pressed to figure out what Cuomo is after and why. He may, as has been loudly discussed in transit circles over the past few weeks, be looking to push out those who are outside of his circle and who get credit for good work they do. He may be leaning on the MTA, a prominent organization and one that plays a large role in the city and state, as a way to reward those still loyal to him after nearly nine years in office. He may simply have it in his head that he can fix things. But as with many areas, his moves seem to be responsive and reactive rather than proactive, and he’s not attacking the roots of the MTA’s many problems (or allowing those who can free rein to operate).

The MTA sits on the edge of a cliff, and one push in the wrong direction can send everyone and everything tumbling off it yet again. Is Cuomo chipping away at the foundation or building a stronger one? I lean toward the former but wish for the latter, and I don’t know why or where it all goes from here.

Categories : MTA Politics
Comments (5)

Andy Byford, seen here on an L train, needs the Governor to support, rather than fight, him to be able to see through his plan to fix the subways. (Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

A few weeks ago, when the Emma Fitzsimmons’ story on Andrew Cuomo’s inability to coexist with Andy Byford first broke in April, the governor took exception to the story. In an appearance on Alan Chartock’s show on WAMC, Cuomo slammed the paper over the story.

“I think they have to sell newspapers. I think that is the way of the world. I think it’s symptomatic of our political system now. You have less public trust in newspapers, in politicians,” he said to Chartock, who just chuckled along with his friend the Governor. Cuomo continued, “There’s a chairman who runs the authority. In this case it’s Pat Foye. And I deal with the chairman. It’s very rare for me to deal with a division head directly.”

To Cuomo, in his public statements at least, Andy Byford, the president of New York City Transit and a globally respected leader in his fielder, was simply a division head, and the Governor of New York couldn’t be bothered with those.

Unsurprisingly, Cuomo’s statement was mere hyperbole. As two MTA sources have since told me, Cuomo regularly talks to actual division heads and even lower-ranking MTA employees. A few days before his appearance on Chartock, Cuomo was on the phone with managers in Transit’s Division of Operations Planning discussing signal timers and speed restrictions, my sources have told me, and in the intervening weeks, Cuomo and his MTA loyalists have continued to involve themselves in Byford’s Save Safe Seconds campaign to speed up the subways and repair faulty signals and recalibrate unnecessarily slow speed limits.

Cuomo, according to a senior MTA official, has tried to implement his own version of moving fast and breaking things, Mark Zuckerberg’s now infamous motto that hasn’t aged too well. The governor, I’ve been told only talks to certain members of the signals team (but not, according to my sources, Byford) and has repeatedly asked why the MTA cannot simply implement a blanket increase in speed and be done with it. The same senior source explained that Transit is implementing the speed increases in a methodical way to ensure passenger safety is paramount, and Cuomo’s approach would be both inefficient and not nearly as safe.

But signals are just one area where the governor has resisted Transit’s — and by extension, Byford’s — authority. As Larry Schwartz and Andy Byford discussed at last week’s MTA Board meeting, the ongoing Grand Central 4/5/6 rehabilitation project is another source of conflict. Byford’s and Schwartz’s exchange was the first the public had heard of any issues with this project, and while it’s a lengthy and messy one, Transit has kept most of the second busiest subway station in NYC open and accessible during a comprehensive rebuild of the station.

Still, as one MTA source relayed to me, a few weeks ago, Melissa DeRosa, a top Cuomo aide, arrived at Grand Central during the height of rush hour and amidst a delay in service on the Lexington Ave. line. She witnessed capacity crowd conditions and promptly raised concerns about the project. Now, Cuomo and his allies on the MTA Board are making noises about the project. One source told me they objected to the replacement of a staircase rather than a repair, and Cuomo’s allies are making noises about removing the project from Transit’s purview and placing it under the auspices of Capital Construction. There’s no real need to do this, and in fact, the complexity of the project and the need to ensure it doesn’t interfere with Lexington Ave. subway service would generally dictate that Transit oversees it. But that’s the nature of the impasse. Cuomo is in charge, and he wants what he wants whether it makes sense.

The back-and-forth between Cuomo and the professional staff at Transit doesn’t end here. One MTA official told me that nearly $1 billion worth of procurement orders are awaiting Cuomo’s signoff and are simply sitting on his desk waiting for action. Since the design-build threshold sits at $25 million, anything over must be design-build or receive a waiver, and Cuomo hasn’t moved on approving these projects. MTA insiders feel this stall tactic by Cuomo is another way for the governor to avoid doling out promised state capital funds to the MTA, on the one hand, while accusing the agency of spending too slowly on the other. Dave Colon explored this issue in a Gotham Gazette piece last month.

It’s one thing for Cuomo to be responsible for the MTA and in charge of the agency (which he is). It’s another for him to be openly or quietly antagonistic toward the men and women he’s tasked with fixing the subway because he either doesn’t like the attention they’ve gotten or worse. This saga came to a head again on Tuesday when WNYC and Gothamist ran a piece questioning the Byford-Cuomo relationship. Despite constant on-the-record denials by Byford to numerous reporters (including me) in recent weeks and one in the piece, WNYC claimed rumors about Byford’s departure were resurfacing. They’re not, but later in the day, Brian Lehrer asked the governor about his relationship with Cuomo, and Reinvent Albany transcribed the exchange.

Cuomo, you’ll note, referred again to the agency presidents as “division heads” and filibustered by talking about the LIRR overtime issues, a problem in which Andy Byford and New York City Transit have no role. After claiming that the MTA “needs to make major reforms” and that the MTA Board will decide Byford’s fate (it won’t; Cuomo will), the governor offered a lukewarm endorsement for Byford and the other agency presidents. The talk on fare hikes to fund Fast Forward, a plan Cuomo should endorse and embrace but won’t, and the claim that he’s on the side of the riders doesn’t ring true at all. Supporting the riders would mean throwing the full weight of his office behind a fully funded Fast Forward plan.

Later in the day, when I asked the governor’s office about his involvement in management and operations decision and his relationship with Byford, his office offered a statement: “The Governor supports Andy Byford; he said it himself on the radio this morning. We’ll leave the conspiracies and gossip to others.”

So as the relationship between the governor and the agency he controls seems to teeter along in some state of unrest — where the governor doesn’t appear to trust the experts he brought in and should trust to get the job done — where does that leave things? Based on the current status quo, Andy Byford isn’t leaving tomorrow or next week. That could change if Cuomo forces him out, and the looming MTA reorganization should be telling one way or another. Will Cuomo try to remove Save Safe Seconds or even the Fast Forward plan from Transit? Could that be a tipping point? We’ll find out soon.

Ultimately, as I wrote in April, I viewed Fitzsimmons’ original story that brought these simmering tensions into the open as a message from Byford’s proponents. Transit allies were trying to get the point across to the governor, in a suitably subtle way, that Cuomo needs Byford to fix the MTA more than Byford needs Cuomo. The governor, if he lets his NYC Transit president do his job, can take credit for being the chief executive of New York State who oversaw the revival of the MTA. Never mind that Cuomo’s neglect got the city into this position; Cuomo’s acceptance of an expert’s plan can get the city out of that position will earn him plaudits. It’s been a rocky few weeks since then, and Cuomo may not be able to step back and let the repair work proceed apace. But if Cuomo pushes out Byford, would anyone qualified and competent even want to take the job next? And where would that leave all of us?

For the sake of the city, this tension should subside, and the MTA funding should flow so repair and modernization work can continue. There’s no real need, other than ego, for any other outcome.

Categories : MTA Politics
Comments (8)
Jun
02

With OMNY launch, the end of the MetroCard almost finally arrives

By · Published on June 2, 2019 · Comments (26) ·

With a sealed token slot, a MetroCard swiper and an OMNY reader, our Frankenstein turnstiles showcase the last three generations of subway fare payment technology. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak. See more on Instagram.)

It’s hard to believe the MetroCard is only 26 years old. It seems as though the MTA has been talking about replacing the now-iconic blue and gold cards for nearly half its life, but that’s what happens when plans for a fare payment system based on a magnetic strip first proposed in 1983 take a decade to become a reality. By the time everyone is using the thing, it’s already outdated.

Now, though, the end is truly near, and the MetroCard’s killer, a tap-and-go system called OMNY and developed by Cubic based off of London’s current contactless fare payment technology, officially launched on Friday. “The Metrocard has served New York well for the last 25 years but its time has come,” MTA CEO and Chairman Pat Foye said during Friday’s press conference.

The path to get to a tap-and-go system for New York City was a bit of a torturous one, and the city has yet again seen its global competitors pass it by. London, for instance, adopted its own proprietary tap-and-go card in 2003 and has been accepting contactless cards on the Underground since late 2014. New York City, meanwhile, rolled out the MetroCard when magnetic strips were nearly obsolete and spent much of the last two decades spinnings its wheel. A brief contactless pilot around 2006 went nowhere as American payment card market wasn’t in line with the MTA’s needs, and a concerted effort to replace the Metrocard by 2012 floundered spectacularly amidst a bureaucratic morass. The Cubic solution came into view in mid-2016 but not until after a short delay in the project due to political in-fighting over the MTA’s capital plan. It’s never easy in New York City.

But on Friday, New Yorkers could finally tap and go. The new system — branded as One Metro New York since it will be used throughout the region — launched with a 16-station pilot on all stations along the Lexington Ave. line between Grand Central and Atlantic Ave. and on all Staten Island buses. For now, and as the system rolls out citywide over the next 18 months, only those riders paying full fare will be able to use the contactless option as OMNY won’t be ready for time-based cards — 7- or 30-day unlimiteds — until 2021 at the earliest.

Still, even though over 50% of riders can’t use their preferred travel passes on the system, MTA officials were excited about the debut. “We’ve spent years designing, developing and testing OMNY and we’re going to spend the next several months with the help of all New Yorkers to ensure all systems are working as we designed them,” Foye said.

OMNY doesn’t come cheap. Cubic’s contract includes a budget of nearly $650 million as workers need to outfit every turnstile and bus in the city with the new technology and develop and build new fare payment card machines. But the MTA expects to earn back this expense by significantly lowering the amount of money is spends on fare collection. With higher maintenance costs and a technology wearing down, even with the steep cost, the MTA believed it had to upgrade. “We really didn’t have a choice but to replace the Metrocard,” Foye said.

Under the OMNY rollout schedule, all buses and subways will have readers by the end of 2020, but the MetroCard will live on until 2023. (Click to enlarge)

Despite the hoopla surrounding Friday’s launch, New Yorkers still have a lot of questions about OMNY, and it’s clear in the responses I’ve received that people still aren’t quite sure what is happening and what the new fare payment system will be. I’ll try to explain. OMNY is a contactless, open loop payment system that will fully replace the closed-loop MetroCard. This means riders can pay with a variety of options including contactless-enabled debit and credit cards, Apple Pay on their iPhones (or an Apple Watch), Google Pay or any similar system or, when the rollout is complete, riders who are unbanked, don’t have credit or debit cards or wish to pay with cash, will be able to purchase an OMNY card, as they do now.

“At every phase of this,” Foye explained, “New Yorkers will be able to use Metrocards (or OMNY cards) or cash. People who do not have bank accounts or credit cards are going to continue as they can today use cash to buy a MetroCard or ultimately an OMNY card.”

For those of us who use time-based monthly or weekly cards, the MTA will at first establish an account-based system via OMNY where riders can purchase time. I’d imagine WageWorks will rely on a similar system too, but the pre-tax benefits system hasn’t yet determined how its offerings will work with the new system.

The MTA will eventually offer a proprietary OMNY card for those who want to pay in cash or do not have bank cards. Cash will always be an option, MTA officials said on Friday.

Eventually, too, the MTA can institute fare capping as Transport for London does in London. This system essentially converts pay-per-ride outlays to time-based caps after a rider pays for a certain number of rides in a certain period of time. After a rider reaches the cap, the rest of the rides in that time period are essentially free, and capping is a huge benefit for those riders who can’t afford to layout nearly $130 in advance for a monthly card or who wind up riding more frequently in a certain period of time than they anticipated. Any capping fare structure is still at least 3 or 4 years down the road, if not more.

As to payment processing, the transaction is seamless and without the potential for swipe errors that currently plague MetroCard users. Payment card taps are nearly instantaneous, and Apple’s new Express Transit Pay feature means a user doesn’t even have to unlock the phone or pre-validate use of the card to pay.

That doesn’t mean the initial pilot will feature smooth contactless transactions each time. During Friday’s press conference, Al Putre, the MTA’s executive director of new fare payment technology, spoke about the breadth of credit cards available throughout the world, a concern also raised by the MTA’s independent engineering consultant during a recent Board review of the project. There are, Putre noted, over 350 payment cards manufactured all over the world, and each have their own chipsets. “We’ve configured this system to match as many of them as we can find,” he said. “However, until we introduce them into the ecosystem and we run this pilot, we can’t be certain we’ve hit them. So hopefully with this process, we’ll identify any cards that need to be configured, and we’ll be good to go.”

(Interestingly, the MTA’s decision to implement a contactless fare payment technology finally pushed the U.S. bank card industry to embrace contactless as a standard. The MTA spent a lot of time pressuring and working with these companies to bring contactless to the masses, and the industry expects these cards to spread rapidly as OMNY comes online. Bloomberg’s Jennifer Surane wrote an insightful overview on the behind-the-scenes negotiations that went into bringing OMNY to reality.)

As to concerns over security, the MTA noted the technology adheres to payment industry requirements and vowed to continue its current practices. “It’s the same process as someone going to a MetroCard vending machine with a credit card,” Foye said. “We are not going to sell, lease or do anything with any customer’s information. That’s our policy today and that’s going to continue to be our policy.”

I’m sure I’m not answering some questions a lot of New Yorkers may have, and I’m hoping to schedule a chat or mailbag on OMNY along with a few more Q-and-A type-posts. In the meantime, the MTA’s OMNY website discusses the future to come and includes the rollout schedule. The early returns though are promising. In fact, for its first full day of use on Saturday, OMNY saw 6100 taps, far more than the MTA had expected, and 80 percent of those were via phones, Vin Barone of amNew York reported on Sunday. “We’re thrilled,” Putre said, “New Yorkers are adopting OMNY even quicker than expected, and that the first several days have gone so well. The more that people use the system the easier it will be for us to learn what’s working and what isn’t, ensuring that New Yorkers will get the system they deserve — one that saves them time and hassle as they go about their day.”

Ultimately, then, this is the true end of the MetroCard. We’ll be stuck with it until 2023, but the 1990s’ hot new thing that somehow became a familiar New York icon in short order is on the way out. The MetroCard is dead; long live the MetroCard.

Categories : MetroCard, OMNY
Comments (26)

The mayor’s new plan to improve buses is less ambitious than the city’s network needs right now.

As most of my readers know, when it comes to Bill de Blasio’s transit record, I am not, to say the least, a fan. Although the mayor doesn’t control the MTA, he otherwise sets the agenda for NYC’s streets, and on that front, as I wrote in a piece for Curbed New York last week, his record is a bad one that shows a bias toward planning that goes out of its way to accommodate low-capacity personal vehicles at the cost of transit prioritization and pedestrian and cyclist safety.

The mayor, driven everywhere, has long been a driver in NYC, and his failure to embrace and expand everything from the popular pedestrian plaza programs to a true network of protected bike lanes to bus prioritization has left New Yorkers’ mobility options at least in stasis since the start of his term in 2013, if not worse. My Curbed piece explores this view in detail, and I’d love for you to read it right here. I didn’t hammer the point on expanding the pedestrianization of the city, but to that end, Doug Gordon of Brooklyn Spoke has the topic covered.

What I would like to explore a bit more in depth are buses. The mayor’s agenda essentially set the stage for good (or, in de Blasio’s case, bad) bus service. He decides, through NYC DOT, how street space is allocated to various modes of travel; whether buses get priority, via infrastructure, design and technology, over low-occupancy, private vehicles; and just how many other cars are on the road.

For New York City in 2019, the proliferation of parking placards and placard abuse and the decline in bus speeds go hand in hand. The constant presence of cars illegally parked in bus lanes and buses navigating through slow traffic is one of the greatest failures of de Blasio’s tenure, and we have reached the point where the bus system is now in crisis thanks in no small part to the mayor’s inactions. In fact, when the MTA recently announced service cuts to 11 bus routes with the threat of more to come, the agency noted that certain of the cuts came about so that bus travel times would accurately “reflect current traffic conditions.” In other words, buses can’t meet their schedules these days and service is being cut because the city hasn’t done enough to get cars out of the way, and the buck stops with the mayor.

Lately, the bus crisis has become more of a talking point for New York politicians jockeying to separate themselves from the mayor. Corey Johnson’s transit takeover plan calls for massive investment in buses, and a 2017 Scott Stringer report issued a similar call for more city investment in buses. The MTA is chugging away at operational reforms (unfortunately while cutting service to save dollars), and even the mayor, after years of constituent complaints, put forward something of a plan for buses in April. What’s good? What’s bad? And will any of it be enough before the bus system collapses in on and itself? Let’s find out.

Ridership Snapshot: The Current State of Buses

The latest bus ridership reports show a system bleeding riders for the better part of two years.

In a word, the current state of bus ridership is bad. Average weekday ridership in March was just under 1.8 million, and the 12-month rolling ridership average shows a decline of 5%. As recently as 2017, the 12-month rolling ridership average was over 2.1 million, but ridership has been on a steady downward trajectory as travel times have increased. Bus ridership has essentially never recovered from the last fare hike.

To drive home the point, average bus speeds in New York City are 7.4 miles per hour, the slowest among the 17 largest U.S. bus companies, a recent report by Stringer found. In Manhattan, buses average 5.5 miles per hour, and some crosstown routes are slower than a normal walking pace for a healthy adult. Buses are in motion only around 55% of the time with red lights and bus stops accounting for over 40% of travel time. These unreliable and slow travel times have led to an exodus as those who have the luxury of choice no longer see the bus as the best one.

2021 Hopefuls Jockey for Bus Investments: Scott Stringer’s Take

So far, as I mentioned, both Stringer and Johnson, two local pols with dreams of Gracie Mansion dancing through their heads, have focused on buses lately. I explored Stringer’s proposal in early 2018, shortly after it was published. It’s very much a potential platform plank masquerading as a Comptroller’s report as it included 19 recommendations on everything from bus route design to procurement practices to bus lane design and enforcement.

As politicians look to rescue the buses, the focus on bus lane design and enforcement is the hinge. Here’s Stringer’s take:

First, maintenance should be improved. All bus lanes, whether SBS or not, should be marked distinctly and repainted more regularly so that they do not become faded.

Second, the DOT should continue to experiment with greater separation of bus lanes to physically restrict other vehicles from entering the lane. They should also build more lanes in the center of the road…Not only should these median bus lanes serve as a model going forward, existing curb-side and off-set bus lanes should be converted, where feasible. The City should also expand the number of double bus lanes—like those currently proposed on Fifth Avenue—to better accommodate turns and help mitigate bunching by enabling buses to go around those waiting at a stop.

Finally, the City must improve the enforcement of its bus lanes.

Stringer also urged the city to “place greater emphasis on bus lanes outside of SBS corridors. It can also assist with the introduction of new, inter-borough routes by installing exclusive lanes on more city bridges.” He further called on NYC DOT to do a better job designing Select Bus Service lanes. NYC, he wrote should “introduce truly separated bus lanes to ensure they are protected from unauthorized cars and trucks. It should also work to provide exclusive lanes throughout the entirety of the route, not just segments.”

Importantly, as well, Stringer urged the city and MTA to reconsider stop spacing, especially along routes where stops are less than 750 feet together, a distance well below international standards. Lately, the MTA had been considering just that approach along the M14, but local resistance based on a belief that buses should be door-to-door transit options is likely to torpedo that plan. To fix and speed up buses, though, some stops will have to be eliminated. As Stringer noted:

“Shorter distances between stops may well be appropriate in certain sections of the city, like those with a high concentration of seniors. Yet the fact remains that bunched stops lead to slow and unreliable service that repels all bus riders, both young and old. Across the city, there are nine bus routes with stops located less than 650 feet apart. Four are in Brooklyn, three are in Manhattan, and two are in Queens (see Table 5). All but two saw ridership fall between 2011 and 2016 and collectively, they experienced a nine percent drop, more than double the city-wide average.”

Johnson Calls for Fast Bus Lane Expansion

The Speaker’s Let’s Go transit plan devotes a lengthy section to buses. Noting that NYC’s buses are “extremely unpredictable and the slowest of any big city in the country,” Johnson aptly notes that what we’re doing now isn’t working and criticizes the city for dragging its feet on everything. Only 15 new miles of bus lanes, for example, were installed between 2017 and 2018 in all of New York City.

Johnson’s plan is rightly ambitious. He calls for 30 miles of new bus lanes per year and echoes Stringer’s call for better design:

“Every new bus lane should be camera enforced and physically separated from traffic along appropriate corridors where camera enforcement proves ineffective. In addition to the physical separation of bus lanes, the plan should also prioritize the implementation of two-way separated bus lanes in the median along key corridors, to keep buses free from conflicts with deliveries, turning vehicles, and double-parked cars wherever possible.”

He wants every bus route to have camera-enforced lanes and signal prioritization technology by 2030 and wants to push through on current route re-design efforts to drive bus ridership to 16 percent of New Yorkers’ trips within a decade, essentially doubling bus mode share. It’s aspirational but would help free up significant road space by reducing private auto and for-hire vehicle use while bolstering sagging bus service.

The Mayor Finally Releases a Plan

And what of the mayor? Over a year after Stringer released his report and a few weeks after Johnson’s plan was unveiled, the mayor finally acknowledged that something had to give on buses. To that end, he released his Better Buses Action Plan [(pdf)] last month. As bus plans go, it’s a fine one, but a better fit for a first-term mayor looking to leave an imprint on the city rather than a term-limited mayor who’s seemingly lost interest in the city.

A full list of the specific improvements are available in the press release, but on specifics if pales in comparison with Johnson’s plan. At a high level, the mayor wants to “improve” five miles of bus lanes per year and install 10-15 new ones annually, or at best half of what Johnson proposed. The mayor wants to bring TSP to 300 intersections per year (rather than the 1000 Johnson proposed) and has suggested piloted just two miles of physically separated bus lanes this year. Why we need such a modest pilot of a design that works the world over is a good question.

On enforcement, the mayor spent a good deal of time during his press conference highlighting the seven new NYPD tow trucks. It’s unclear if anyone has seen these tow trucks in action, and they certainly aren’t aggressively removing cop cars from bus lanes yet. Just walk down 2nd Ave. in the East 20s any weekday and count the placards. He doesn’t seem to understand the breadth of the problems with placard abuse — including abuse of real placards, use of fake placards, and traffic enforcement agents willing to overlook illegal parking if you scribble something on a napkin and stick in your dashboard — and can’t comprehend how these cars interfere with speedy buses and mobility in the city.

The mayor’s goal is to increase bus speeds by 25% by the end of 2020, but even that increase — from an average speed of 8 mph to 10 — seems unlikely with a plan as modest as the mayor’s. Maybe it can move the needle on certain routes, but when the mayor’s own action plan highlights just five miles of lane upgrades as a headliner, I see a piecemeal approach to bus improvements rather than a holistic, citywide effort to reform the network.

What’s Next For Buses

For now, we’re stuck with de Blasio’s plan and the MTA’s ongoing network redesign efforts while Johnson’s and Stringer’s proposals remain aspirational at best until after the 2021 mayoral election. That doesn’t mean buses are doomed, but it does mean that projects and lane upgrades and, yes, buses themselves will continue to move slowly. The MTA’s redesign effort has seemingly slowed the rate of ridership loses, at least for Staten Island, in the early going, but routes are just one part of this puzzle. The city needs true bus lanes, real enforcement and faster and more reliable bus service. We know what needs to be done; we just need a leader to do it.

Categories : Buses
Comments (6)
May
23

‘The trains don’t work ’cause the vandals pulled the handle’

By · Published on May 23, 2019 · Comments (7) ·

With apologies to Bob Dylan for the headline, the wildest subway story in months kicked off innocuously enough with a Tweet from the MTA on Tuesday night. A recent spate of trains delayed because someone pulled the emergency brake seemed to be intentional.

Since then, we’ve learned, thanks to reporting by Aaron Gordon that this targeted attack has been happening for months and has delayed more than 740 trains since March. We’ve heard MTA officials speak out forcefully against this behavior during yesterday’s Board meeting while admitting they’re not sure what criminal penalties the culprit (or culprits) may face. We’ve learned about near-misses, and we’ve heard from a few passengers who may have unknowingly spotted the culprit in the act.

It’s possible, in fact, that one person in New York is single-handedly responsible for the subway’s just missing out on Andy Byford’s performance improvement metrics for the past few months. So even as subway service slowly but noticeably improves, one New Yorker has taken to intentionally disabling trains and disrupting the commutes of thousands of people. It’s straight out of a movie.

Here’s the story as Gordon succinctly summarized on Wednesday:

This person has an established M.O., the source said, and Jalopnik confirmed this by reviewing internal incident reports. There are at least three so far.

The suspect disrupts service primarily on the 2 and 5 lines from Flatbush Avenue in central Brooklyn to midtown Manhattan. He climbs aboard the rear of the train as it departs a station, unlocks the safety chains, somehow gets into the rear cab, and triggers the emergency brakes. Then, he disappears, most likely through the subway tunnels and out an emergency exit.

Despite striking on average once a week for several months, the person has not been caught.

On Thursday, we learned that a culprit — it’s not clear if there are more than one — was nearly caught. Gordon reports:

Jerrylee Heath almost caught him. He was standing right there. It was 3:51 p.m. last Sunday. Heath, a train supervisor on duty at Times Square, got a call from Rail Control Center, the operational brain of the New York City subway system, according to an incident report from that day. Someone waiting for a Brooklyn-bound train at Fulton Street in lower Manhattan alerted staff that they had seen someone riding along the back of a departing uptown express train. Maybe Heath could make it to the platform in time, if the person was still clinging to the back of the train.

Two minutes later, Heath was on the platform. As the train edged into the station, he spotted someone just inside the rear cab. The safety cables were detached, and the rear door to the train was open. It was him, the person who had been nefariously triggering emergency brakes for months with the sole intention, apparently, of being a pain in thousands upon thousands of butts.

Before Heath could take any action, the person pulled the emergency brake—even though by that time the train would have been either barely in motion or at a complete stop—jumped onto the track, and dashed from the direction the train came, back towards 34th Street. Without police present and Rail Control Center’s approval, Heath was not allowed to follow him, per New York City Transit work rules. For the next 18 minutes, Heath rode downtown, then uptown again, to see if he could spot the culprit. But at 4:11 p.m., he radioed to Rail Control Center to deliver the bad news. “The unruly person,” as he was called throughout the incident report, got away. Again.

I’ve seen the incident report from an April 19 occurrence. For around 30 minutes starting at 4:17, the culprit rode on the backs of a variety of northbound 4 and 6 trains before triggering the emergency brakes of a northbound 4 train near 59th st at 4:48. The person, the MTA has said, did not just pull a rip cord in a car, but rather cut the safety chains on the back of a train, used a key to open the doors to the operator room and set off the brake valve before running down the tracks. This is someone with knowledge of train operations, and some have speculated this person is halting service in order to tag the tunnels. The April incident alone resulting in 75 delayed trains along the IRT lines.

It’s hard to write fiction this wild, and while it’s not the first time vandals have pulled subway emergency brakes for sport, this is a specifically targeted attack by someone with some expertise in train operations. What happens is anyone’s guess, but subway riders know to look out for someone riding the backs of trains. It’s only a matter of time before he’s caught, and we’ll find out exactly why what Jalopnik is calling a subway supervillain is targeting our commutes. It’s a special kind of New York crime designed to inflict maximum annoyance on a lot of people; crowd justice for this culprit seems almost too kind.

Comments (7)