Even a school bus parking lot wouldn’t be a real barrier to Rockaway Beach Branch reactivation.

In the circle of transit life, popular local buses lead to bus rapid transit which leads to light rail which leads to subway lines. It’s not the most cost-effective or efficient way of building a transit network, but it’s the flow of demand. Ideally, if a corridor is popular enough, we wouldn’t be watching politicians falling all over themselves to talk up a bus lane and instead we would go straight to the highest-capacity, highest-speed transit option. Could this play out along the Woodhaven Boulevard corridor?

For transit in New York, the biggest obstacles to growth are speed and cost. The MTA can’t get a handle on costs, and projects come with price tags significantly higher than they are in similarly situated countries around the world. Furthermore, the MTA can’t nail down timelines, and projects that should have been finished years ago are still inching toward revised finish lines. These are operational and political barriers, but if enough forces line up behind a project, it can become a reality.

Lately, deep into Queens, an unused rail right-of-way has emerged at the center of a storm pitting advocates who are usually on the same side against each other. One group wants to turn this valuable rail right-of-way into a linear park akin to the High Line. Their plan isn’t clear on funding and includes numerous contradictions — such as promoting the idea with a dedicated bike lane that parallels Woodhaven Boulevard while assuring neighbors the park would close early at night. Another group wants to do nothing, and a third group — also not so clear on funding — wants to reactivate the right-of-way as part of the subway network.

I’ve covered this debate for years and am a voice for subway reactivation to an extent. After Gov. Andre Cuomo threw taxpayer money behind a biased study conducted by a pro-parks group, I’ve called for similar funding for a true alternatives analysis. We can’t dismiss the rail reactivation idea knowing now what we know about New York’s need for a resilient rail network in the face of increasing storm threats, but no official study has been released in nearly two decades.

Recently, though, a new voice has emerged for rail reactivation. Last month in a piece I admittedly overlooked at the time, TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen penned a piece for the Queens Chronicle advocating for rail. With BRT-esque plans for Woodhaven Boulevard back in the picture, it’s worth examining the union leader’s thought-provoking points:

On the surface, both parks and public transportation are similarly associated with safer streets, greater mobility, more walking, lower emissions and increased business activity. But the most meaningful, and often overlooked, difference between the two plans is the potential for increasing access to jobs. Reactivation of the Rockaway Beach Line, which was owned and operated by the Long Island Rail Road until 1962, would be far more economically advantageous for the 250,000 people residing within a half-mile of the existing right-of-way…

I would not be so quick to dismiss the reactivation of the Rockaway Beach rail line as too expensive and unrealistic. Notwithstanding the project’s necessity, phase I of the Second Avenue subway has a $4.45 billion price tag. In comparison, rehabilitating the rail’s existing infrastructure will cost about $800 million. This modest investment will significantly raise the quality of life in the far reaches of Queens. Furthermore, as suggested by a recent Queens College study done at the request of Assemblyman Phillip Goldfeder, up to 500,000 daily rides may be generated by the reconstructed rail line, and I completely expect ridership to grow over time.

This will directly produce the fares needed to sustain its ongoing operations and maintenance. As MTA and state officials work to figure out how to fund the MTA’s $32 billion five-year capital plan, they should consider prioritizing investment in the rail line. Residents’ overwhelming demand for public transportation in southern Queens will yield significant farebox revenues, minimizing the strain on the state budget. While it is tempting to choose parkland as the cheaper alternative, I doubt that the proposed park will see reliable income year after year…

Lastly, as a trackworker, I know firsthand that reconstructing the Rockaway Beach right-of-way is much more feasible than opponents claim. Following Hurricane Sandy, TWU Local 100 members rebuilt 3.7 miles of the A line (almost the same length as the Rockaway Beach segment) “from the ground up” within seven months. Restoring the damaged track, signal and electrical infrastructure with in-house labor cost the Metropolitan Transportation Authority only $75 million.

I’ve always been skeptical of the Goldfeder-funded study that claimed 500,000 trips per day. That would make it among the most crowded subways in the system, and the population of that area simply doesn’t support that kind of demand. Still, the ridership wouldn’t be insignificant.

To me, though, the intriguing aspect of Samuelson’s claim that construction wouldn’t be nearly as costly as opponents of rail reactivation claim. As New York State does not allow private entities to adversely possess government land, the acquisition costs even for land that isn’t currently physically reserved as the right of way would be slim to non-existent. Shoring up the structure for 21st Century rail operations and meeting federal safety guidelines would be more troublesome, but the A line to the Rockaways was part of the same ROW. Recent history may be instructive.

It’s ultimately an uphill battle for anyone to see anything happen here. The park plan is well over $100 million away from becoming a reality, and real reactivation would be, optimistically, ten times that amount. But without clarity, we’ll never know the costs, the benefits and the right way forward. At the least, people whose voices deserve to be heard are thinking about it. Considering the city’s needs, that’s a step in the right direction.

Categories : Queens
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NYC DOT and city officials have called the Woodhaven/Cross Bay Boulevard SBS plans ambitious, but there's much to learn from the hype. (Source: [block]0[/block])

NYC DOT and city officials have called the Woodhaven/Cross Bay Boulevard SBS plans ambitious, but there’s much to learn from the hype. (Source: NYC DOT/MTA)

As cocky as New Yorkers are, this exceptionalism sometimes leaves us missing out on good ideas implemented elsewhere, especially in the transit planning space. There is this tendency to think that just because something works elsewhere doesn’t mean it will work in New York, and opponents or skeptics find ways to argue around importing good ideas proven to be efficient because New York City is somehow different than Paris, London or countless other places that aren’t New York. Exploiting buses is just one area where we lag.

Lately, in fits and starts, at the pace of, well, a local bus inching its way up 3rd Ave at rush hour, the city has tried to overhaul the bus routes. In January 2008, the MTA and NYC DOT introduced Select Bus Service, a glorified express bus with pre-board fare payment and half-hearted lane enforcement. At some point, signal prioritization will arrive as well. Over eight years later, we have a grand total of eight SBS routes, and a mayor who promised to bring 20 more online in five years. It has essentially taken as long to build 79 percent of the Second Ave. Subway has it has to offer marginal upgrades on a handful of bus routes, but I digress. So far, Bill de Blasio’s administration has introduced zero SBS routes, but that’s about to change.

Last week, DOT finally unveiled their preferred design for the long-awaited Woodhaven Boulevard Select Bus Service/Bus Rapid Transit line. Call you what you want, but at parts, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. As the designs show [pdf], the city is finally thinking about something closer to physically-separated, center-running lanes, and they believe the design plans could improve bus travel times by 25-30 percent. For a congested corridor that has some of the highest bus ridership in the city, an improvement of this magnitude could benefit tens of thousands of people per day.

If you’d like to read more about the design, head on over to Streetsblog where Stephen Miller summarized the proposals in two posts last week. I’d like to discuss the messaging from city leaders instead. Along with the plans, DOT released a lengthy press release with the requisite back-slapping and sufficient amounts of New York exceptionalism.

They key word was “ambitious.” This, said Mayor de Blasio, “is the kind of ambitious overhaul New York City’s bus riders deserve.” Polly Trottenberg called it “an innovative design for Bus Rapid Transit” and summarized the proposal as “the biggest, boldest, and most ambitious design concept the City has attempted for Select Bus Service.” Senator Schumer called the plan “innovative” and “exciting.” (Meanwhile, State Senator Joe Addabbo Jr. had a windshield freakout over it, but whatever.)

Perhaps the Woodhaven Boulevard design is all of these things. It’s something the riders deserve, and it’s a first-of-its-kind-in-New York City proposal, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is somehow ambitious for anywhere other than right here in our backyards. It’s involves tried and true technologies and features that are in place in real Bus Rapid Transit networks throughout the world, and to make matters worse, DOT is still planning on hosting “block by block design workshops” which will do wonders for a speedy rollout of this $200 million project.

Ultimately — and I say this lovingly because I care — New York City is going to have to get over itself if it wants to get anywhere with transit planning. Our rollout rate for SBS lines shouldn’t be barely pushing one per year, and we shouldn’t be head-over-heels impressed with ourselves when someone finally has the political guts and gumption to propose elements of real BRT through a wide street in Queens. We have a capacity crisis, and it’s going to take leadership to solve it. Praising a plan that’s barely ambitious as though it’s the most innovative idea to come out of DOT in a decade has me more than a little worried for the future.

Categories : Buses
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The MTA has made it easy to zero your pay-per-ride card. (Via I Quant NY)

We start tonight, begrudgingly but admirably, with I Quant New York. Last year, this website made a huge deal about the amount of money you could put on a MetroCard for an even amount with the bonus. It was something blown completely out of proportion as the ability to refill a MetroCard essentially ad nauseam prevents monetary loss by anyone paying attention. Cards that expire with money left can be transferred to an active card by any station agent no matter how begrudgingly accepting they are of this aspect of their job.

But the drum was beaten nearly to death, and in a victory for transparency, the MTA has added a new option to the MetroCard Vending Machine that allows you to buy a card that will leave $0.00 left over. Once the MTA started instituting bonuses of varying percentages at odd dollar amounts, the math became too complex to perform on a whim in front of a machine, but the agency — whether to capture dollars via unused fare media or otherwise — hadn’t introduced the concept of an even-amount purchase. Now, you can spend $27.25, get a $3 bonus and have 11 rides (so long as you don’t use the AirTrain). Voila. It’s magic.

In other news, there are a lot of service changes this weekend. In fact, the only weekend lines without some sort of advisory are the L and the G trains — a reality that probably fits Alanis Morisette’s weird definition of irony. But while the number of advisories seems steep, these aren’t terrible. Except for certain changes to the 7, J/M and 1 trains, the changes don’t touch most subway riders. It will be OK. And even though a bunch of North Brooklyn businesses are raising a stink about upcoming L train work, there’s no better time to take trains out of service than on the weekends. That the weekends are becoming more and more popular is an issue in and of itself, but for now, this is the solution. After the jump are this week’s changes. Read More→

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The new South Ferry station, seen here in January of 2013, will reopen in two years after a complete rebuild. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

One of the many challenges currently facing the MTA involves the lingering damage from Superstorm Sandy. Although it’s been nearly 2.5 years since the storm and its surge swept through New York, the MTA has repaired only two of the damaged subway tunnels, and the rest are seemingly on borrowed time. The agency simply can’t spend the money fast enough and can’t take multiple tunnels out of service at the same time. So long as the infrastructure holds up enough, the MTA can make the repairs over the next few years, but it’s a battle against the corrosive effects of saltwater and time.

In addition to the tunnels, the new South Ferry station remains out of service. Although the MTA is officially hoping to reopen South Ferry in 2016, in all likelihood, as we’ve heard rumored, the station will remain closed into 2017. It needs a full rebuild and more as the MTA is working to solve some problems with the original construction and fortify and harden the station and surrounding tunnels. It’s a project nearly as expensive as the original new-build station was nearly a decade ago.

But the money is on the way. Not that funding was in doubt, but in a statement released earlier this week, Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand along with Congressman Jerry Nadler announced $343 million for South Ferry, a new federal grant in addition to the nearly $200 million in federal dollars they had delivered last winter. This isn’t new money; the MTA had been expecting it as part of the Sandy recovery package. Still, it’s always a plus to have the cash in hand.

“After Superstorm Sandy devastated New York and damaged critical infrastructure throughout the city, we need to make sure we aren’t just building back, but that we are building back stronger so we can be prepared when the next storm hits,” Senator Gillibrand said. “I’m pleased to announce this federal funding for the South Ferry station and will continue to fight for resources to strengthen and build back the critical transportation infrastructure New Yorkers rely on to get to work every day.”

What I find most interesting about the press release though aren’t the mundane statements or announcement of the money. Rather, it’s a three-sentence description of the rehab work. “This project,” the release notes, “will rehabilitate the South Ferry Terminal Station to a State of Good Repair and protect the restored infrastructure from future flooding. The rehabilitation work will include leak remediation and repairs to the station, rail tracks, line equipment, signals and power equipment. Flood protection measures will include hardening of station entrances, vents, manholes, hatches conduits and ducts.”

Take a close look at that second sentence. The rehab work includes leak mitigation. This is essentially a tacit admission that the MTA’s contractors royally screwed up the job the first time around. Due to Sandy, the MTA has a do-over, but it’s not one they ever wanted. At least now, though, they can correct one mistake of the past, and as the federal recovery dollars continue to flow, I can’t help but wonder where this money is for the MTA’s capital plans needed for the future and not just those to rebuild after a storm.

Categories : Superstorm Sandy
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Sometimes, when I ride the subways during supposed off-peak hours, I’m reminded of a twist on a phrase Yogi Berra coined. Of a popular spot, the Yankee great once said, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” In a way, it makes perfect sense and no sense at all, but applied to the subways, the inverse is seemingly true. Unfortunately, it’s too crowded, and everybody keeps going there.

My personal anecdote spans the course of this week. Hot on the heels of the MTA announcing that they recognize they have a crowded problem came some of the more crowded rides I’ve taken in months. I had to let some early-morning Q trains pass me by at 7th Ave. because it was impossible to board. Then, on Tuesday night, while coming back to Brooklyn from the Upper West Side, I had to stand all the way from 96th to Grand Army Plaza, and on Wednesday, journeying at 9 p.m. from Union Sq. back to 7th Ave., there were no seats to be had on my Q trains.

Traveling companions who boarded at Canal St. were shocked to find the train so crowded at a relatively late weeknight hour. “It never used to be this crowded,” one said to the other, and I nodded to myself. As recently as a five, let alone ten, years ago, the subways just weren’t this crowded. We’re living through an historically unprecedented explosion in ridership, and the MTA can’t catch up.

Right now, the problems facing the MTA are those of the present and those of the future. In the short term, the MTA, still years away from fully recovering from the effects of Sandy, has a backlog of repairs that need to be initiative. In the long term, to meet demands of today’s ridership, the MTA needed to start planning a decade ago, but right now, they’re stuck in a neutral planning for demands of the next decade without a fully funded five-year capital plan. There’s no easy way out of this conundrum.

The news isn’t exactly getting better for the financially beleaguered transit agency. In a comprehensive report issued this week [pdf], the Citizens Budget Commission examined the MTA’s finances and determined that the agency may face a funding gap greater than $15 billion. In a nutshell, the non-partisan group doesn’t believe the MTA has the cash on hand to make certain contributions to the budget, and thus, the funding gap is closer to $20 billion. On the one hand, this is all accounting sleight of hand, but on the other, someone — future New Yorkers and subway riders — will pay for more debt financing through steeper and more frequent fare hikes or worse service.

As part of the report, the CBC examined numerous funding options, and while no one around here went for their plan to cap unlimited ride MetroCards, the CBC has largely examined driving as a potential source of revenue. The new report discusses the Move New York tolling plan and a variety of fees and taxes on driving to fund transit expansion. These are ideas the MTA tentatively endorsed yesterday, and promisingly, the Board’s Staten Island rep seems to be on board. (For more on the CBC’s ideas, check out this video.)

But I keep coming back to the crowds. The MTA’s system in 2015 can’t handle increasing volumes, and nothing indicates ridership is going to decline. The MTA needs to start planning now for a future with even more straphangers, and they need the money to do so. Every day we wait is another day with trains too crowded for rush hour passengers, delays due to signal problems, and every transit woe in between.

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The Citizens Budget Commission believes a high cap on unlimited MetroCards could alleviate some of the MTA’s budgetary woes. (Source: CBC)

I love my Unlimited MetroCard. I’ve been using one for years, and it makes using the subway essentially free. I pay once per month — in my case, on a pre-tax basis — and get a card that simply tells me to “Go.” I can swipe in at Grand Army Plaza and take a 2 or 3 to Franklin Ave. without thinking about the cost or a subsequent card purchase. I can hop on a bus without a thought, and in fact, the more I ride, the better a deal I get from my unlimited card.

In a very real sense, as I wrote half a decade ago, the Unlimited MetroCards ushered in a revolution in New York City transit history. As then-Gov. George Pataki noted in the late 1990s, ”The goal” with these MetroCards “was very simply to empower the rider. Empower the person who takes the subway and the person who takes the bus by giving them the broadest possible range of options as to how they want to choose to use the mass transit system.”

And it worked. The average cost per ride a subway rider must pay declined precipitously, and only recently, through aggressive fare hikes, has the MTA clawed back revenue it lost to these unlimited cards. Still, the MTA drew in more in inflation-adjusted dollars in 1996 before unlimited ride cards were introduced than it does today. Furthermore, ridership has spiked — to over 6 million per day at times during peak ridership seasons last fall — and the MTA’s fare discounts push ridership.

But has the unlimited ride card outlived its useful life? That’s the question New York City’s Citizens Budget Commission posed recently. The independent group argues that, with ridership up and demand greater than subway supply, the MTA could incrementally rollback the incentives from the unlimited ride cards. After all, in the 1990s, the agency had to incentivize riders to return to a restored system, but today, the system sells itself. By capping unlimited ride cards at levels beyond the reach of all but the power users, the MTA could, they argue, draw in an additional $93 million a year.

Here’s their take:

The need for increased fare revenue need not be met exclusively through current practices of raising base fares and adjusting discounted prices. The MTA can generate revenue by capping the number of rides permitted on the 7-day and 30-day passes. Unlike recent fare increases hitting nearly every straphanger, the caps would provide needed revenue while affecting fewer riders, many who now enjoy very deep discounts, and would still retain heavily discounted fares.

Based on data provided by the MTA for October 2013, riders used 7-day passes for 45 million rides per month and 30-day passes for 66 million rides per month. These rides can be attributed to an estimated 2.8 million 7-day passes and 1.1 million 30-day passes. At a price of $30 the break-even number of rides for a 7-day pass was 13; for a 30-day pass at $112 the number was 48 rides. (Both calculations use the $2.38 fare available with a volume discount.) Rides above these numbers are effectively “free” for the pass holder.

Each “free” ride represented $2.38 in foregone revenue assuming the unlimited passes were eliminated and passengers purchased volume discount rides instead. The monthly number of “free” rides on the unlimited passes is estimated at 28.4 million. This equals about $67 million in foregone revenue monthly, or $807 million annually. Since a significant share of unlimited pass purchasers does not actually use the cards enough to reach the break-even point, these “unused” rides are extra revenue for the MTA. If this extra revenue was also foregone, the net gain from eliminating the unlimited passes would be $619 million annually. But eliminating unlimited passes would be a radical change, causing hardship for many straphangers and undermining the sense of convenient mobility the passes are intended to promote. A fairer strategy is to cap the number of rides on these passes at a number above the break-even point.

The CBC acknowledges that the MTA hasn’t made enough information available to assess the proper cut-off for unlimited ride cards, but they assume a hair over three swipes per day, an exceedingly high volume of rides. Limiting pay-per-rides to 22 swipes per 7 days or 92 per 30 days could lead to eliminating nearly 4 million rides that are free — that is, they are taken after the breakeven point on MetroCards. The unlimited ride cards would still be a great deal, but the MTA would capitalize on very high volume users (and those who try to defraud the system by selling swipes) to the tune of $7.8 million a month.

Part of me hates this idea. The psychological benefits of a true unlimited ride card encourage transit use at a time when New York City’s transit advocates should do all they can to keep residents out of private automobiles. It cuts against the grain of environmental advocacy, congestion pricing proponents and Vision Zero efforts to add any new psychological barrier, albeit a small one, to transit use.

But on the other hand, it’s hard to deny that revenue is revenue. The CBC estimates that only 60,000 30-day card users and around 415,000 7-day card users would exceed their lofty cap, and those figures are only 15 percent of all 7-day card users and 5 percent of 30-day users, relatively small percentages overall. It’s an idea that warrants some debate and discussion. As the CBC says, “Unlike general fare increases affecting nearly every straphanger, the caps would provide financial benefits while affecting only the relatively few riders who use their 7-day and 30-day passes most heavily and would still benefit from discounted fares.”

Categories : MetroCard, MTA Economics
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Pesky escalators at 34th St. and 11th Ave. await passengers (via MTA)

Pesky escalators at 34th St. and 11th Ave. await passengers (via MTA)

For the most part, the abandoned subway stations dotted through the city are remnants of subway service past. The 91st St. station located beneath by childhood apartment building flashes by in the blank of an eye, and the Bergen St. express stop — destroyed in a fire — is visible only during the right GOs. Then, there are the stations never used such as the mythical South 4th St. stop or the lower level at Nevins Street. Urban explorers and city historians know about these secrets.

But what of the station that’s pre-abandoned? It one day will be used, but for now, it sits mostly finished but with no passengers. It’s the newest subway station in New York City, and it’s not yet set to open until, well, soon — perhaps by mid-summer if all eventually goes according to plan. I am of course referring to the 7 line extension at 11th Ave. and 34th St. As recent photos released by the MTA show, it’s a gleaming, bright, brand-new subway stop entirely devoid of people, and as a recent report released by the MTA shows, the station is likely delayed again until the start of the third quarter of 2015.

The latest new came out of Monday’s MTA Board committee hearings. As the Capital Construction committee books reveal, the MTA is “aggressively pursuing completion” before the end of June, but foundation work at a site underneath planned development and testing is likely to push that date into July. During Monday’s meeting, MTA officials confirmed that the June opening is unlikely, and a summer opening is in the 7 line extension’s future. Considering how unfinished the station looked in December of 2013 when Mayor Bloomberg had his ceremonial non-opening, we never should have believed the station would be ready in 2014 in the first place.

The source of the latest delays is two-fold. First, the MTA’s own testing issues are an impediment. The fire alarm and transmission-backbone systems are behind schedule while Transit is finally beginning Level 4 acceptance testing for those pesky incline elevators. The MTA and its consultants anticipates 15 weeks for remaining testing with two weeks’ lead time; hence, the July revenue service date.

Meanwhile, additional work at Hudson Yards — something that wouldn’t have been a problem a year ago — has reared its head. Site J was due to host a ventilation plant that wasn’t required for revenue service. Work was due to start around now, and, well, here comes the work. As crews seek to sink parts of the foundation near passenger areas, the MTA may need to coordinate schedules around this work. You may think this should have been a consideration earlier in the project, but here we are.

The mezzanine level at Hudson Yards awaits 7 train passengers. (Via MTA)

The mezzanine level at Hudson Yards awaits 7 train passengers. (Via MTA)

What is completely surreal about this project right now is that it’s a nearly finished subway station underneath the streets of Manhattan. You can skim through the photos in this PDF or take a stroll near the Javits Center. It’s not a particularly important stop for a few more months, and I’d wager that most New Yorkers have no idea it’s on the eternal verge of opening. But it’s there, awaiting completion for the past 15 months.

And yet, while it doesn’t really matter in the short-term if this station opens in June or July or last April or next September, it matters for the credibility’s sake. The MTA is asking for $15 billion for another capital fund, but it can’t open a one-station extension that was supposed to ready for service before 2013 ended. The cognitive dissonance is overwhelming. Meanwhile, according to MTA documents, Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway is still set to open by the end of December 2016. I think I’ll take the over.

Categories : 7 Line Extension
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Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have woken up on Sunday morning to something of a Twitter storm. I had, you see, come across this Post article on the fare hike in which a copy editor writing the headline called the subways “atrocious” (which has since been changed to “woeful”) and the intrepid reporter noted that service is “worse than ever.” Acknowledging that there are clear warning signs and less-than-reliable service these days, I wasn’t impressed by this article.

Today’s problems — as anyone who has lived in New York for longer than the five years the 20-something author from Newburgh, NY, has knows — is not nearly close to being “worse than ever.” Hop back in time to the late 1980s and early 1990s when train breakdowns were common and doors wouldn’t open. Jump back to the early 1980s and late 1970s when muggings were commonplace and track fires frequent. Jump back to the mid-1970s when the MTA briefly pondered cutting the L train entirely due to a cratering ridership and backlog of maintenance. That was literally worse than ever.

Perhaps it was unfair of me to come down so hard on a reporter for The Post. After all, it’s The Post, and I should expect nothing better. (It also led to a fantastically sarcastic reply from Joseph Cutrufo.) But the underlying problem with Gabrielle Grilli’s was just how wrong it was around the edges. She claimed that recent fares hike cover “only the raises of MTA employees” and warned that the MTA is going to cancel the Second Ave. Subway without explaining how that threat affects only future, unfunded portions and not the one currently under construction. It also has nothing to do with the fare hikes and everything to do with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s lack of support for the MTA’s capital plan.

The overall issue with articles such as this one is that they are how the public gets its information. I have a dedicated but small readership, and The Post and The Times and The Daily News all reach more eyeballs than I do by an extremely high number. To see this type of coverage in our newspapers is discouraging, especially when these papers are supposed to serve as a conduit between the public and its politicians.

Grilli clearly tried to write something else. Her story wasn’t based entirely in fiction as a late-night release from the Straphangers showcased how certain elements of subway service are trending downward in recent years. Here’s what Gene Russianoff had to say:

This is the fifth subway, bus and commuter fare increase in eight years in the New York City area, leaving riders weary and angry. More hikes are planned. At the same time, service is suffering. Delays are on the rise throughout the system and crowding is at record levels.

The MTA also has a $15 billion gap for rebuilding transit over the next five years. If this shortfall stands, New Yorkers will likely lose many improvements for better service. This could range from fewer new subway cars and buses to the slow installation of countdown clocks alerting riders of train arrivals. It also could mean borrowing billions for these improvements, which would create more pressure on fares.

What riders desperately need are state leaders who will be powerful champions for funding decent transit. First and foremost, there’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, who appoints the MTA’s Board of Directors. Governor Cuomo should forcefully make the case for new transit funding. He can tell New Yorkers that the MTA fuels the State’s economy, conserves the State’s energy and promotes its environment. He should also press for progressive transit funding, like MoveNY’s fair tolling plan.

And here’s what he shouldn’t do: On one day, call the MTA’s capital budget “bloated” and on others use the system as a personal photo op. And on yet other days, raid hundreds of millions from dedicated transit taxes and use them for non-transit purposes. Cuomo’s leadership is key to winning a robust capital program. But the possible loss of critical rebuilding projects is a reminder of a painful truism: Never leave the subways without funding.

The MTA’s own board materials published in advance of Monday’s committee meetings lay bare this reality. Terminal delays on both weekends and weekdays jumped by around a third over the past year; trains aren’t arriving as regularly as they should; on-time performance is declining; and as rolling stock ages — even newer cars are reaching their teenage years — breakdowns increase slightly. All in all, things aren’t nearly as bad as they were or could be, but the system needs to be maintained, with money and attention and support, to avoid a future that repeats the past.

In something of a Catch-22, one of the reasons for these performance issues can be traced to recent record-high ridership with daily fares pushing past 6 million on a regular basis. The system simply isn’t currently built to withstand this many people. In essence, the subways are so popular that they are breaking down under the strain of too many people. For years, advocates have warned of the need to build for the future either through technological initiatives that can increase capacity on preexisting subway lines or through system expansion projects. Neither of these are far enough along to solve today’s problems, and it’s questionable if they can solve tomorrow’s problems before it’s too late.

It’s true, as the Straphangers and Riders Alliance have both pointed out lately, that Cuomo needs to step forward and be responsible. But we shouldn’t have this conversation without a look at the institutional flaws at the MTA. The agency is asking for $30 billion, and perhaps it’s bloated though not as Cuomo expects. His AirTrain proposal is more bloated than useful. Do they need this much? And why does everything cost so much and take so long? The MTA’s construction projects are more expensive and time-consuming than any other international transit agency’s work. They can’t automate lines or build new ones. They can’t even bring escalators, elevators and vent fans online in a timely fashion. Something needs reform just as something — the MTA and its subway system — needs proper political support.

Ultimately, contractor corruption and work efficiencies aren’t sexy. It’s easier for Gabrielle Grilli to highlight today’s service problems because she doesn’t know better just as it’s easy for people to bemoan the long lost W train or fetishize 1980s graffiti because they don’t know better. People who do know better though should come through with what’s needed: support, money and a real eye for reform. New York’s present and future depend on it.

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I heard New York, but New York doesn't heart fare hikes. (Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

I heard New York, but New York doesn’t heart fare hikes. (Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

On Sunday, March 22, at 12:01 a.m., for the fifth time since 2008, the MTA is raising fares. On the one hand, the agency is attempting to overcome years of institutional deflation following the introduction of the unlimited ride cards that left today’s average fare lower in inflation-adjusted dollars than it was in 1996. On the other hand, New Yorkers are facing fare hike fatigue, and it’s unlikely to stop until Albany steps in as the MTA has budgeted for biennial hikes to align roughly with inflation for the foreseeable future. In advance, I’ve answered some frequently asked questions. Let’s dive in.

So what’s the new fare anyway?

It’s complicated. (It always is.) For the second hike in a row, the per-swipe cost is going up. One swipe will now deduct $2.75 from your MetroCard, and there’s an 11% bonus on all purchases above $5.50. The cost per ride for pay-per-ride cards then comes out to $2.48.

I’m not very good at math. What’s 11% of $2.75 and how do I find even amounts?

Have no fear; the MTA’s MetroCard Calculator is here. The key number to remember is $22.30. That’ll get you an even number of rides with the bonus and without any leftover amount. I’m sure we’ll see countless articles about this on various aggregator websites. It’s not that exciting.

How about the unlimiteds?

The 7-day card will cost $31, up a buck, and the 30-day card will jump to $116.50, up $4.50. For those who buy 7-day cards, the breakeven point is 13 rides per week, and for 30-day cards, the breakeven point is 48. If you ride 13 times or more in 7 days or 48 times or more in 30 days, you should be spending on unlimited cards and not pay-per-rides cards. Those totals are down considerably from where they were a few years ago.

Can I stockpile MetroCards?

While I remember stockpiling tokens as a kid with my parents in advance of each fare hike, the MTA no longer allows New Yorkers to hoard underpriced MetroCards. You can spend as much as you want now on pay-per-ride cards, and that money won’t expire. But if you buy a card on Saturday, you must activate it by March 29 to get full value, and you must begin using seven-day cards by April 4 and 30-day cards by April 27 to get any value.

Unused cards can be sent back to the MTA for a refund of the purchase price. Cards that you use in between that grace period gap will shut off at the end of the time period, and you can mail them back to the MTA for a pro-rated refund. For 7-day cards, that’s $4.29 per unused day, and for 30-day cards, that’s $3.73 per day. The refunds generally take around three weeks to process. (For example, if you activate a 30-day card on March 31, it will work until April 27. You can then mail it back for a refund of $7.46.)

I can’t believe there’s another fare hike. What can I do to stop it?

Complain to your legislators; write to Governor Cuomo. Ultimately, the politicians are in charge of transit policy and funding, and if they’re not going to step in, they deserve to hear all about it.

With that, let’s get to the good stuff. After the jump, weekend service charges for 13 subway lines. Read More→

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Renderings for a $10 billion bus terminal that will take 15 years to build. (Via Port Authority)

Renderings for a $10 billion bus terminal that will take 15 years to build. (Via Port Authority)

While discussing on Thursday the Port Authority’s apparently gold-plated plans to build the world’s most expensive bus terminal in the heart of Midtown, the bi-state agency’s board let slip a joke. Concerned with the $10 billion price tag, one Port Authority Board member suggested a design competition similar to the one Gov. Andrew Cuomo has hosted for the beleaguered LaGuardia Airport. John Degnan, PA chair, seemed amenable to the idea so long, as he said, as “maybe not a Spanish architect” emerge the winner.

This was, of course, a not-so-veiled jab at Santiago Calatrava and the World Trade Center PATH Hub’s ever-escalating costs. For the Bus Terminal though, the Port Authority doesn’t even need a Calatrava to drive up the costs. Their own engineering consultants were more than happy to oblige. Despite the shocking costs, though, the Port Authority’s overseers all seemed to agree that inaction isn’t an option, but moving forward on a $10 billion replacement plan is a tall order. Who will foot the bill? How? And why does this thing cost so much anyway?

As part of the master planning effort to replace the aging bus terminal, the Port Authority released an updated report [pdf] from its engineering team. In broad strokes, something has to give. The Port Authority Bus Terminal is essentially at capacity, and ridership models predict a continuing upward trend over the next 25 years. Currently, as the report notes, “peak demand exceeds capacity,” and the problem will only get worse over the next few decades.

To top things off, the current bus terminal is structural deficient and must be replaced. The report makes it very clear: “The structural slabs supporting bus operations will need to be replaced in 15-25 years,” and doing so requires replacing the terminal entirely. Additionally, the PABT “was not built for taller, longer, heavier modern buses.” It simply can’t withstand the physical pressure today’s coaches place on the building.

So what’s the $10 billion solution? To build a bus terminal that can, in the words of the PA, handle the seating capacity of Citi Field every peak hour. The devil is in the details on the various plans. The most expensive involves a rebuild of the current terminal and all of its supporting infrastructure at their current locations along with additional capacity to meet 2040 ridership projections. (Whether 2040 is too soon a horizon for an infrastructure project that will take 15 years to complete is an open-ended question that bears investigation.) This plan requires an interim bus terminal and contains only one tower above the terminal.

The other proposals are a little cheaper with potentially more development options, but each contain their drawbacks. One doesn’t include intercity buses; a few plans move the terminal to 9th Ave. — a long block away from the nearest subway station; the cheapest couldn’t even handle today’s crowds and would require additional facilities elsewhere to meet demand. The costs and locations of those aren’t baked into the proposal.

The cost breakdown though is alarming. According to the Port Authority’s engineers, the building would come with nearly $6 billion in hard costs and nearly $3 billion in soft costs — planning, engineering, legal, professional, financing and insurance. To me, that sounds like the costs of corruption in the construction industry in New York City and not really the actual cost of building something new. The $10.5 billion price tag also includes $1.9 billion in contingencies.

Streetsblog had more from the meeting on costs:

[Skanska’s Mark] Gladden compared the bus terminal replacement to the UPS Worldport in Louisville, Kentucky, which handles virtually all of the shipping company’s domestic air freight. Built 15 years ago, he said, it cost $850 million. Taking inflation and construction cost increases into account, the project would likely cost $1.7 billion today. Moving the project to New York, with its higher construction costs, would double the price tag to $3.4 billion. The UPS project didn’t have the steel requirements and logistical challenges posed by operating a bus terminal in Midtown Manhattan, Gladden said, which contribute to the additional costs.

Gladden added that East Side Access and the Second Avenue Subway, multi-billion dollar projects under the management of many of the same consultants working on the Port Authority Bus Terminal, serve fewer people than the bus terminal. The bus terminal, built for 150,000 daily passengers, now handles 232,000, about as many as Grand Central Terminal. That number will reach as high as 337,000 by 2040.

“We recognize that projects of this magnitude and this complexity right at the very beginning result in sticker shock,” Gladden said. “We have a high level of confidence that this estimate, at this point in the program development, reflects an accurate or reasonably accurate cost.”

Based on the Port Authority’s comments today, the agency — and thousands of bus commuters — are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Much like other New York City infrastructure, the PABT is literally collapsing. It’s not designed to handle the crowds, and it will outlive its useful and functional live soon. But the Port Authority will have to find $10 billion to fund a replacement building and soon. How they do that — without a Spanish architect — remains to be soon. Perhaps they should consult Spanish construction firms though; at least they know how to build on the cheap.

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