Wednesday, December 19, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) Several months ago, NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member Charles Moerdler was droning on with objections to a change in a meeting schedule. The issue was minor and the room was warm -- one could be forgiven for mentally wandering ... or dozing off.
Moerdler wrapped up; Joe Lhota pounced.
"Chuck, I wish you would reconsider that position since your flawed thinking and the erroneous things you said are scurrilous."
Chins lifted off chests. What was this? Lhota continued.
"The lying to this board has got to stop!"
This was real. Moerdler looked mortified. But he rallied once Lhota had wrapped up his tongue-lashing. Moerdler replied by accusing Lhota of character assassination--remember, this began as a squabble about a meeting schedule--before concluding somewhat oddly, "I will not challenge you."
Lhota said, "Oh, I wish you would. Be a man!"
This was Lhota the politician, the guy who, as long-time deputy mayor to Rudy Giuliani, had an up-close view of power wielded as a blunt instrument. This was Lhota the alpha male making a calculated display not just to smack down Moerdler but to let others know that if you cross Joe Lhota, you could pay a price.
Lhota, who'll resign on Dec. 31, seems to have real feeling for New York City's transit system--he spoke movingly of damage done to it during Sandy. But he's no Jay Walder, his technocratic predecessor. Where Walder was bland, Lhota has been blunt.
Exhibit B would be Lhota's reaction to a court ruling in August that the payroll mobility tax, which accounts for almost 15 percent of the NY MTA budget, violates the state constitution. In response, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a measured statement that took issue with the decision. Lhota, for his part, convened a full-blown press conference at Grand Central Terminal, where he attacked the judge who made the ruling, and the suburban legislators who brought the lawsuit that prompted it, as "flawed as well as erroneous."
Lhota came with a chart to show that the MTA subsidizes the average subway ride by a little more than a dollar while subsidizing the average Long Island Railroad rider by more than 7 dollars. Take that.
Even the way he launched his political career was aggressive. It has to be the first time a public figure to announce his intention to run for mayor only moments after presiding over a fare and toll hike. Asked by a reporter how that combination of events reflected on him, Lhota joked, "It's a profile in courage."
And what of his 357-day legacy as NY MTA chairman? Transportation advocates give him credit for several successes: restoring service quickly after Sandy, cutting overhead at the MTA by hundreds of millions of dollars, and bringing back $30 million in subway and bus service that had been cut in 2010.
Those same advocacy groups expressed grave concerns over the MTA budget, which depends on regular 7.5 percent fare and toll hikes--the next one is coming in 2015--and a capital plan funded by massive borrowing. In a statement, the groups sounded a warning:
"Earlier this year, the MTA borrowed $7 billion to help pay for the last two years – 2013 and 2014 – of its current construction program. The agency already spends $2 billion a year out of its $13 billion annual operating budget to pay off its existing $32 billion in debt. Debt service is projected to go up to $3 billion in future years."
Storm Sandy only made the situation worse. The federal government and insurance should pay for most of the estimated $4.75 billion in damage to the NY MTA's transportation system. But $950 million of infrastructure damage may need to be covered by the authority. Advocates point out, "that will come to $66 million a year in additional debt payments for decades to come."
The other unknown that Lhota leaves is the fate of the contract he's been negotiating with Transport Workers Union Local 100 since January. Lhota has said the biggest challenge to the NY MTA's budget are the fixed and rising costs of workers' pensions and healthcare. That's why he made it a priority to get off to a good start with union chief John Samuelsen, who, in the past, made no secret of despising Jay Walder. But now Lhota is leaving before a contract has been reached.
And that speaks to the issue of stability. Counting interim executives, the NY MTA has had six leaders in six years. A Twitter wag pointed out that Lhota today followed his post-Sandy analysis--"We still have a long way to go to get back to normal"--by essentially saying "See you!"
He's leaving to "explore" a run for mayor of New York. Perhaps his successor will stay longer than a year.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
UPDATED Joe Lhota, the head of the largest transit agency in the U.S., is stepping down to run for New York City Mayor, less than a year after he was officially confirmed for his current job.
"I will be submitting my resignation to Governor Cuomo today," Lhota said Wednesday after an MTA board meeting where fare hikes were approved. Lhota said the resignation will take effect December 31 and he will "explore" a run for Mayor. Lhota descried the decision as "bittersweet."
The move roils both the Mayor's race and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority as it struggles to recover from storm Sandy, described by the Republican Lhota as "the worst devastation in our 108-year history." The NY MTA is estimating its damage at $5.2 billion, not including ways to fortify the system against future storms.
It also leaves New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in the uncomfortable position of choosing a new transit chief as he begs Congress for $60 billion in recovery aid. Lhota was selected after a large committee interviewed several candidates, then sent its top recommendations to the Governor.
Former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, who was elected Wednesday to serve as the Vice Chair of the MTA board, will now serve as its acting chair. Ferrer was the Democratic candidate for Mayor himself in 2005.
Lhota, an ex-deputy Mayor under Rudy Giuliani, has also worked for Madison Square Garden, a subsidiary of Cablevision.
Word comes, literally, on the eve of the MTA's vote to hike fares and tolls.
You can read the full story on the WNYC website.
Wednesday, November 28, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) The NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority held a board meeting Wednesday -- its first after Sandy -- and the main topic was how to solve a conundrum: filling the $5 billion hole that the storm blew in the agency's budget while simultaneously rebuilding New York's damaged transportation system.
NY MTA Chairman Joe Lhota seemed determined to assure the public that the agency, at the very least, had a plan. He began by saying revenue will not be raised by additional increases to planned toll and fare hikes in 2013 and 2015.
"The burden of Sandy will not be upon our riders," he said. "I have an enormous amount of confidence in our federal government that we will receive a substantial amount of money to get us back to the condition of functionality we had the day before the storm."
He said he didn't expect to see service cutbacks--though he didn't rule them out--and that he'd stick to a pledge to add or restore $29 million in subway and bus service.
Lhota said he is expecting FEMA and insurance to pick up 75 percent of the $5 billion tab. And he's hoping FEMA will boosts its reimbursement up to 95 percent. But the MTA can't count on that. As of now, the authority is on the hook for $950 million, which it needs right away to rebuild.
They'll get it by issuing $950 million in bonds. Lhota said the move will add $125 million to the authority's debt burden over the next three years. The best Lhota could say about where the money would come from is "cost-cutting measures" that are "unidentified at this time."
The MTA is paying $2 billion dollars in debt service this year. By 2018, debt service is expected to gobble up 20 percent of the authority's revenue. That's before figuring in the nearly $1 billion in debt that it voted to add Wednesday.
Lhota said the budget setback would not stop the authority's megaprojects, which are funded by its capital program. The Second Avenue subway, the East Side Access tunnel between Long Island and Grand Central Terminal, and the 7 train extension are essentially funded and nearing completion. Sandy delayed their construction but didn't flood them.
Today's decision to bring on more debt raised an alarm with Gene Russianoff of the New York Straphangers Campaign, an advocacy group. "Funding these needs by MTA bonds will increase pressure on fares through increased debt service - and it sets a troubling precedent for the funding of the next five-year capital program starting in 2015," he said in a statement.
Lhota added that all of the $5 billion will be spent on restoring transit to its pre-Sandy state. (Repairing the South Ferry Station alone is projected to cost $600 million.) None of the funds will be used to harden the system against future storms. That's going to take a whole other pile of money that hasn't been located yet.
Monday, November 26, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) Seven of the eight subway tunnels flooded by Sandy are back in service. But New York City Transit president Tom Prendergast said it will probably be months before the authority finishes fixing the eighth tunnel, which carries the R train under the harbor between Brooklyn and Manhattan. He said the problem is with the tunnel's electrical systems, such as the switches that keep track of train locations.
"Electrical equipment doesn't like water for obvious reasons -- water is conductive," he told reporters at the Midtown headquarters of the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "But salt water is very conductive and when salt water dries, it leaves salt, which is also conductive when it gets re-wet."
Prendergast said the authority does expect to get the R train running between 34th and Rector Streets--a normally busy stretch in Manhattan--within two weeks.
But he said the South Ferry subway station is also months away from re-opening. Sandy flooded that station to the ceiling, leaving little inside it untouched.
"You've got wall tiles that are down, you've got railings that are damaged," Prendergast said. "You've got possible damage behind wall surfaces, you've got electrical equipment in the form of elevators and escalators." (See a pic of drowning subway escalators here.) And as with the R train tunnel under the harbor, the station's electrical switches are coated in salt water and must be replaced.
The R train tunnel is one of the longest under-river crossings in the system and took more time to dry out, leaving more equipment damaged than in other tunnels.
A spokesman for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the MTA's price tag for damage caused by Sandy tops $5 billion.
(Click here to see what parts of the NYC subway system are still down.)
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) Poll results show that Superstorm Sandy has remade two kinds of landscapes in New York: physical and psychological. Beachfront is gone, trees are uprooted and whole communities have been forcibly rearranged by a monster tide. No less dramatically, a majority of New Yorkers are expressing love not only for their elected officials but everyone's favorite bureaucratic whipping boy, the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
You read that correctly.
The latest Quinnipiac University poll finds 75 percent of New Yorkers rated the authority's performance during and after Sandy at "excellent" or "good." That's better than the Red Cross's 66 percent approval rating, and the dismal 37 percent approval for the region's utility companies, which struggled at times to bring the power back.
NY MTA chairman Joe Lhota was highly visible in the days and weeks following the storm as his workers methodically pumped out no less than seven under-river tunnels and, one by one, got them back to carrying trains and vehicular traffic.
The NY MTA also showed a fair degree of nimbleness by running shuttle buses over cross-river bridges until the subways were dried out. (Taking a cue, the NY Department of Transportation today announced its plan to run a temporary ferry from the hard-hit South Shore of Staten Island to Manhattan.) And the authority captured the public imagination with an online map that showed the the subway recovering in real time.
The Quinnipiac poll, which surveyed more than 1,000 registered voters in New York, also reported that Mayor Bloomberg's odd-even gas rationing system won favor by 85 to 12 percent. Other winners: President Obama, New York Governor Cuomo and, with the best numbers, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. See the full results here.
Monday, November 05, 2012
Eight days ago, the subway system shut down. Seven days ago, it suffered the worst devastation in its history. All seven tunnels under the East River were flooded.
By Monday morning's commute, most of the subways were running under the East River. The R and the L were not (more on that in a minute).
By Sunday night, the MTA had restored all of the numbered lines across the East River (2, 3, 4, 5 & 7), as well as many lettered lines. This morning, at the last minute, the A, C and E were also connected. The #1 train ran all the way downtown to Chambers Street.
The link was to the restored subway map.
(Lhota, by the way, is a Republican -- a former Deputy Mayor under Rudy Giuliani.)
MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg says MTA workers have been working "around the clock" to replace signals corroded by salt water. Lisberg said increased headways -- or time between trains -- was due to reduced power and signalling issues caused by damaged signals.
Commuters, for the most part, were patient as they crowded onto train cars that were running about a third as frequently as usual. In two-and-a-half hours of riding the rails, I didn't hear any sighing, moaning, or cursing at the MTA, or at fellow passengers, a frequent accompaniment to the squeal of the trains on a morning commute.
WNYC's Jim O'Grady reports a similar amount of patience -- for now -- at the J train in Williamsburg, now the backstop for both the L and G. Jim describes the lines as "immense," but says straphangers were so relieved to be able to get into Manhattan that frustration was far from the boiling point.
But at least one straphanger was deterred. "Holy God," he said, seeing the subway line. "Looks like I'm working from home today.
On Sunday, rider Rachel Tillman applauded outright when the F train re-connected under the East River. "Good!' she exclaimed, giddily, "It's going all the way. When I heard the announcement I thought it was a mistake. Once we reached Jay Street-Metrotech I realized it was going all the way. It makes me very happy."
Thursday, October 25, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) Joe Lhota, chairman of the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority, was a guest on The Brian Lehrer Show Thursday, where he predictably resisted prompts to choose between two proposed flavors of subway and bus fare hikes: raising the base fare or the cost of unlimited cards.
"Reporters all want me to say what I want to do one way or the other," he said. "Here's what I want to do: I want to listen to the public." Eight public hearings on the fare and toll hikes will begin on November 7 in Long Island. Lhota said he'll participate in some of the hearings "until the wee hours of the morning," if necessary, to make sure every question has been answered.
(Go here for dates, times and directions to the hearings.)
Less predictably, Lhota held up President Ronald Reagan as an object lesson for Congressional Republicans who would cut mass transit funding. "We cannot be a car-only society," Lhota said, claiming that Reagan, too, "had that vision."
He then praised Reagan for dedicating six cents from an increase to the federal gas tax to mass transit.
"When I go to Washington and I talk to the folks in the majority in the House--and I have to deal with all of the Republicans, as well as the young Republicans who are part of The Tea Party movement--I'm constantly reminding them that the best and biggest supporter of mass transit in the 20th Century was Ronald Reagan," Lhota said.
Lhota also talked about Hurricane Sandy, which is expected to hit New York City on Monday. He said he'd already taken two conference calls to discuss preparations like "sandbags and getting buses to higher ground." But he didn't think he would have to shut down New York's subway and bus system, an unprecedented move that the authority took last year in advance of Hurricane Irene.
Listen to the entire interview:
Monday, October 15, 2012
The New York MTA has released its new fare hike proposals, bringing the cost of a monthly MetroCard to as much as $125 under one scenario.
The hikes, which came as the authority also proposed a one dollar rise in cash tolls over most of its bridges and tunnels -- to $7.50 -- are not unexpected. The authority has presented a virtually endless series of hikes to pay for its operations in its current budget.
MTA chief Joe Lhota said the increases are unavoidable. "Costs that the MTA does not exercise control over, namely those for debt service, pensions, energy, paratransit, and employee and retiree health care, continue to increase beyond the rate of inflation."
The proposals will now go to hearings before a final option is settled by the MTA board.
Our Jim O'Grady sends these notes from MTA's headquarters. We'll have a fleshed out version soon.
The current base fare of MetroCard is $2.25. A 30-day unlimited pass is $104, and a 7-day pass is $29.
There are four proposed versions of the increase, which the MTA is calling 1A, 1B, 2A and 2B. (Click on the below graphic for more detail.)
Under Proposal 1, the base fare would rise to $2.50. Under proposal 1A, the bonus discount would remain unchanged, effectively providing a per-trip fare of $2.34. Under this proposal, the 30-day unlimited MetroCard would rise to $112 and the 7-day would rise to $30. Under proposal 1B, the bonus discount would be eliminated but the increases to time-based cards would be lower. The 30-day would rise to $109 and the 7-day would remain unchanged.
Under Proposal 2, the base fare would remain unchanged. Under Proposal 2A, the bonus discount would be reduced to 5%, effectively increasing the per-trip fare to $2.14. Under this proposal, the 30-day unlimited MetroCard would rise to $125 and the 7-day would rise to $34. Under Proposal 2B, the bonus discount would be eliminated, the 30-day card would rise to $119, and the 7-day would rise to $32.
Under each of these proposals, the $1 surcharge for purchasing a new MetroCard would be implemented.
Eight public hearings are scheduled from November 7 to 15. The public can also record videotaped comments at MTA headquarters and train stations in Long Island and Westchester. From the MTA's website: Members of the public are also encouraged to submit written comments via to the MTA's website, or register to speak at a public hearing by calling (718) 521-3333 between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. MTA Board Members will review transcripts of all public hearings and submitted videos, as well as copies of all written comments submitted via the web.
The MTA says 2013 fare and toll increase must generate $450 million annually. The 2015 fare increase must raise $500 million annually.
38% of fare trips use bonus MetroCard
31% use 3o-day
16% - 7-day
10% - pay per ride
5% - cash
Most Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North tickets would rise by 8% to 9.3%, with the fee increase based on distance.
E-ZPass discounts (vs cash) remain.
RFK Bridge, Throgs Neck Bridge, Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, Queens Midtown Tunnel:
E-ZPass - from $4.80 to $5.30
Cash - from $6.50 to $7.50
Verrazano Narrows Bridge:
E-ZPass round trip - from $9.60 to $10.60
Staten Island resident E-ZPass rate: from $5.76 to $6.36
Henry Hudson Bridge
E-ZPass - $2.20 to $2.43
Tolls by mail (camera snaps license plate, bill mailed to driver; this bridge is cashless) - $4 to $5
Cross Bay, Marine Parkway Bridges
E-ZPass $1.80 to $1.99
Friday, October 12, 2012
When the NY MTA agreed to sell the Atlantic Yards to Forest City Ratner to build the Barclays Arena and some 17 other buildings, the authority's board waxed enthusiastic about how the city was getting a new subway entrance out of the deal.
But so far, in the mornings, it's totally dead.
Pretty much every morning since the stop's been opened, for about three weeks -- and we've checked -- it looks like this. Seven am, 8 am, no one. A sort of strange, post-Apocalypse feel.
As we've been reporting, lots of fans are going to events at the arena by transit. The 18,000-seat arena has just 541 car spots on site, about 150 of those for season or VIP ticket-holders. Even last night, when Brooklyn-born Barbra Steisand performed, and drew a heavy crowd from the suburbs, people took the train.
The subway stop is set in a vast, uninviting plaza, with not much there to entice a morning subway rider, like newsstands or coffee-shops.
However, once you do cross Flatbush Avenue from Park Slope to get there, it is by far the cleanest and easiest way to enter the subway stop. Working escalators. Plenty of turnstiles. Tidy, well-lit hallways that don't smell (yet). And the shortest, least confusing ascent (or descent, in the case of the B-Q), from any entrance.
Word from transit officials: "Use It!"
Ratner, BTW, paid $76 million for the new subway entrance. But the whole deal with Ratner was heavily criticized at the time as a sweetheart deal for the developer, which was allowed to work with the MTA over a period of years to develop a bid to obtain the railyards for its arena.
Ratner offered $100 million less for the Yards than the rival developer -- but the MTA board argued that building a new subway entrance would in part compensate.
After much pressure, the MTA opened the bidding process for the rail yards to other developers, but then rejected the one other bid it got because it wasn't as detailed as Ratner's bid.
Friday, October 05, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) Three religious groups -- two Christian and one Jewish -- have decided to fight speech with speech in the clamor over a controversial subway ad. Pro-Muslim ads from those groups have begun showing up in the New York City subway -- in some cases, cheek by jowl with an ad that equates the the word "jihad" with savages.
Harriet Olson, CEO of United Methodist Women, said she and her colleagues objected to the original ad and wanted to counter it with a "visual response." So her group matched the anti-jihad group's $6,000 ad buy for posters in ten Manhattan subway stations. “We think that respectful dialogue is absolutely important and that the work for peace is very difficult," she said in an interview with TN, before referring to the anti-jihad ad: "incendiary speech is not the way to get there.”
Jim Wallis of Sojourners, a Christian social justice group, said he was similarly offended by the original ad. "As a rabbi wrote in The New York Times last week, this ad may be legal but it's wrong and repugnant," he said. The Sojourners ad reads simply, "Love your Muslim Neighbors."
It will begin appearing on Monday, as will a separate pro-Muslim ad by Rabbis for Human Rights. That message reads: “In the choice between love and hate, choose love. Help stop bigotry against our Muslim neighbors.”
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the executive director for the group, which includes 1,800 rabbis. "We want it to be clear that the Jewish community doesn't support this de-humanization of an entire group of people, but rather the Jewish community values working in partnership with our Muslim neighbors," she said.
After the original ad caused an outcry, including a rowdy confrontation at a New York MTA board meeting last week, the MTA considered banning so-called issue ads from its properties. The authority decided instead to put a disclaimer on some ads that express political, religious or moral views. The disclaimer would read that the ad “doesn’t imply an endorsement” by the MTA. The pro-Muslim ad by United Methodist Women does not include a disclaimer.
Thursday, October 04, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) "This is 72nd Street. Transfer is available to the 1 train .... watch the closing doors!"
The group said 85 percent of announcements on subway cars that give basic information are clear and accurate -- as are the majority of subway car announcements about delays and disruptions. The group said those are the best results for the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority since 1997.
“We found that transit officials are doing a better job keeping riders informed,” said Straphangers Campaign field organizer Jason Chin-Fatt.
The group says automated announcements on the 4 train are clear and accurate 100 percent of the time. The R train ranked last because it gave garbled or wrong information almost half the time.
Straphangers said the MTA gives train conductors a list of 18 official delay announcements, including “unruly person on the train ” and “waiting for connecting train.” Conductors are supposed to make an announcement immediately after a delay, and again within 2 minutes.
The group said staff members who conducted the survey came across their share of "meaningless announcements," or phrases that did little to inform passengers about what was wrong and when they could expect to be moving again. Those included, “we have a red signal, ” “this local is now an express ” (with no explanation), or jargon such as, “we have a schedule adjustment."
Tuesday, October 02, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) Fiscally speaking, the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority has emerged from intensive care. That's in the judgment of NY State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who says the patient has recovered with the help of a potent medicine: a series of fare and toll increases, with more to come.
The report, issued Tuesday evening, notes that the NY MTA plans to raise fares and tolls by 14 percent between now and 2015--three times faster than the expected inflation rate. If approved, the fares and tolls will have risen 35 percent since 2007.
The MTA imposed a 7.5 percent hike in December 2010. The hike came with drastic service cuts, some of which have been restored. But overall, riders in New York City and its suburbs have been making do with less service and regularly rising prices.
Another financial bright spot for the NY MTA is the nearly 242,000 jobs added by the 12 counties served by the agency. That has boosted the use of mass transit. And revenue has been rising from the NY MTA's dedicated taxes, particularly those from real estate transactions, which are projected to grow at an average annual rate of five percent.
DiNapoli also credits the authority with cost-cutting measures expected to generate annual recurring savings of $1.1 billion by 2016.
Despite the relatively rosy prognosis, the patient could yet land back in the hospital. The first and foremost threat to the NY MTA's financial health is the specter of a repeal on constitutional grounds of the payroll mobility tax, which provides $1.8 billion a year.
The authority is also counting on reaching a deal with its unions that allows for no pay raises over three years--or raises offset by rule changes and productivity gains. That's no sure thing. Nor is the $20 billion needed for the authority's 2015-2019 capital program, the source of which has yet to be identified.
NY MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota said he was pleased with the report. “I appreciate Comptroller DiNapoli’s thoughtful and thorough analysis of our financial plan," Lhota said in an email." His report recognizes the significant financial challenges the MTA faces in the near term, the aggressive steps we have taken to meet them, and our ongoing efforts to address longer-term challenges, including identifying funding sources for our 2015-2019 Capital Program.”
Wednesday, September 12, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joe Lhota wants to either take away or reduce the bonus money from subway and bus riders who use pay-per-ride Metrocards. Right now, riders get a 7 percent bonus when they put $10 or more on a Metrocard. Lhota says he’ll propose cutting the bonus as part of the transit agency’s effort to raise the $450 million needed to balance its budget next year.
"The stated fare price is $2.25 cents, and the average revenue we receive per rider is $1.63," he said. "It shows the depth of our discount system that goes on, and I think we really need to have a discussion of, 'Do we need a discount that deep?'"
Lhota says he'll formally propose the change next month. If the NY MTA Board approves the plan, which would be subject to public hearings in November, the bonus could be gone by March. That's also when fare and toll hikes of about 7 percent are scheduled to kick in.
For every $10 a rider adds to a Metrocard, the card comes out with $10.70, which brings down the cost of a subway or bus ride from $2.25 per trip to $2.10.
Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign, a transit watchdog group, said he opposes the idea of cutting the bonus because they're designed to help those with lower incomes. "It's accessible to poor people," he said. "You don't have to have $104 in your pocket the way you do with a 30-day pass, or $29 a week with the seven-day pass."
It was not hard to find riders at the Spring Street stop of the C / E train who frowned on the proposal. A.T. Miller, a temp worker and photographer from Brooklyn, claimed the bonuses have helped him. "If I'm going to do a gig for somebody and I'm shooting somewhere else, I usually end up using two and three rides and that becomes very expensive," he said. "And that helps out with the little bonuses that they give us for buying a $10 Metrocard."
Lower East Side resident Jasmine Villanueva was more direct: "I think that sucks, 'cause I'm already broke."
NY MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg countered that there's only three ways to raise the $450 million needed by the authority next year:
- Raise the base fare in increments of a quarter. (Raising fares by nickels or dimes adds too much to the cost of collecting fares.)
- Raise weekly and monthly pass prices in dollar increments.
- Reduce or eliminate the bonus for buying multiple rides on a Metrocard.
“It's going to be some combination of those three,” he said, adding an assurance that cutting the bonus will not allow the authority to take in more than an additional $450 million next year.
Lhota unveiled the initiative on Wednesday in a Crain's New York Business talk in Midtown Manhattan. Talking to reporters afterward, he portrayed the bonus as an odd vestige of New York's retail culture.
"It's like this unique New York concept of, you buy 12 bagels, you get 13," he said. "I can't figure out when that started. But we had that same theory going on when you bought tokens. You buy 10, you got one free. So the thought was, if you buy $10, you gotta get something additional for it."
In fact, the NY MTA used a 20 percent bonus in the late 1990s to help entice riders to give up their brass tokens and switch to the then-novel concept of a Metrocard. Over time, the authority reduced that bonus to 15 percent and then the current 7 percent.
Subway ridership dipped after the last bonus reduction and fare hike in 2010--but then rose past previous levels. That's part of why MTA Chairman Joe Lhota doesn't seem worried about reducing the discount, or eliminating it all together.
"There are some people who are basically saying, 'Look, if you don't give the discount, they won't buy a ten dollar card, they'll buy it individually.' I don't buy that, I don't buy it at all," he said. "New Yorkers love convenience."
Pay-per-rides with discounts are the most popular type of fare cards, accounting for more than a third of all Metrocards sold, and more than monthly or weekly passes.
Thursday, August 30, 2012
(Staten Island, NY -- Colby Hamilton, WNYC) Staten Island is getting a bus rapid transit -- or something like it. New York City's brand of fast buses, which feature off-board payment and relatively few stops, is coming to the city's least populous borough.
So-called "select bus" routes already run in Manhattan and the Bronx.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg says daily commuting for thousands of Staten Island transit users could be reduced by as much as half an hour a day.
The new bus service along the S79 line on to Hylan Boulevard will make just 22 stops, down from 80 stops on the regular bus service. Approximately 4,000 daily riders use the current, non-select service along the S79 line.
“By streamlining the number of stops to 22, we’re bringing a red carpet to the borough’s busiest bus corridor,” said Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.
Bloomberg called select bus service throughout the city a “proven winner.” MTA Chief Joe Lhota said, as a part of a recent round of service restorations, other Staten Island bus lines are being added -- and will coordinate with the ferry schedule.
Thursday, August 23, 2012
LISTEN: Get more details in this conversation as WNYC's Richard Hake speaks to MTA head Joe Lhota.
NY's MTA Chief said his agency contributes more than $7 to each Long Island Railroad passenger's ride, compared to just over a dollar per subway ride.
Joe Lhota came out swinging Thursday in defense of the payroll mobility tax struck down by a state court Wednesday. (Full ruling)
Lhota held a press conference in Grand Central Terminal to call the ruling "flawed and erroneous." He showed up armed with some figures.
Suburban rides on Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad receive a bigger subsidy per ride, than NYC subway rides.
The tax funds $1.8 billion of the MTA budget, about 15 percent. The tax is levied in 12 counties where the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority operates subways, buses, bridges, or commuter rail. It is a constant political football for suburban districts around New York City who feel they are paying for the city's subway.
Here are the subsidies for the average ride for each of the three rail networks operated by the MTA.
Now, there are billions of rides taken on the subway and only about 80 million on LIRR (and we're tracking down the additional figures to flush out this kind of comparison) but Lhota's point is that the subsidy isn't exactly a suburbs-to-city stream of tax money. The biggest winners are the riders of Long Island Rail Road, coincidentally, exactly the people who vote for Nassau County (aka Long Island) Executive, Ed Mangano, the man who filed the lawsuit challenging the mobility tax.
Here's a primer on the mobility tax and four other fees that could also be overturned if the court ruling stands courtesy of the MTA:
Fees and Taxes affected by the ruling according to the MTA:
- Vehicle Registration Fee – Vehicle registrants residing in the 12-county district pay an additional $50 to register a car for each 2-year period.
- Taxi Surcharge – A 50¢ surcharge on all medallion taxi (yellow cab) trips that begin within New York City and end within the 12-county MTA service territory.
- Automobile Rental Tax – Automobile rental charges within the 12-county MTA region incur an additional tax of 5%.
- Auto License Fee – $2/year for each driver's license. So most people pay an additional $16 fee at the time of their renewal.
And here's how the MTA explains the payroll tax collection:
As for the Payroll Mobility Tax itself it is paid by employers and self-employed individuals earning more than $50,000/year located within the MTA’s 12-county region at rates ranging from 0.11%, or 11¢ for every $100 paid to employees, to 0.34%.On December 12, 2011, Governor Cuomo signed legislation revising the Mobility Tax structure by exempting or reducing some categories of taxpayers who had been paying the 0.34% rate, as follows:
- Self-employed individuals earning less than $50,000 per year (Exempt)
- Businesses w/ annual payroll between $10,000 and $1.25 million (Exempt)
- Public and private elementary and secondary schools (Exempt)
- Businesses w/annual payroll = $1.25 million -$1.5 million (0.11%)
- Businesses w/annual payrolls = $1.5 million and $1.75 million (0.23%)
Thursday, August 23, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
For the best summary of this issue LISTEN to this short conversation with WNYC's Matthew Schuerman:
(New York, NY - WNYC) When news broke last night that a New York Supreme Court Justice had struck down a crucial transportation tax, the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority issued a tart remark that included a promise to “vigorously appeal today’s ruling."
Then the authority's financial officers had overnight to contemplate the prospect of having a $1.8 billion hole blasted into their annual budget if the ruling is upheld.
That could not have produced sweet dreams. Instead, it prompted the authority to send forth a more robust denunciation of Justice R. Bruce Cozzens Jr.'s finding that the tax, collected from 12 counties in and around New York City served by the NY MTA, was levied in a way that violated the state constitution.
MTA head, Joe Lhota said, "the ruling is flawed as well as erroneous." He added the lawsuit also contests four other dedicated taxes, totaling $1.8 billion per year. "The payroll mobility tax drives the entire economy of New York. Without the MTA, New York would choke on traffic," he warned.
At issue is a "mobility tax" that collects 34 cents per hundred dollars of payroll from employers, excluding small businesses. The tax was created in 2009 to save the NY MTA from a budget crisis caused by the recession.
In addition to running the largest subway system in the U.S., the city buses, the MTA also manages regional commuter rail companies and the bridges used by them.
Late last year, Governor Cuomo reversed the tax for certain small businesses, promising to replace "every penny" with money from the state's general revenues.
Below is the MTA's most recent fighting words in full, followed by reactions from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg.
MTA Statement on Payroll Mobility Tax ruling
The MTA strongly believes that yesterday’s ruling from Nassau Supreme Court is erroneous. We will vigorously appeal it and we expect it will be overturned, since four similar Supreme Court cases making the same argument were previously dismissed.
The Payroll Mobility Tax maintains a regional transportation system that moves more than 8.5 million people every day and drives the economy of New York City, Long Island, the northern suburbs and the entire state.
Removing more than $1.2 billion in revenue from the Payroll Mobility Tax, plus hundreds of millions of dollars more from other taxes affected by yesterday’s ruling, would be catastrophic for the MTA and for the economy of New York State.
The MTA is getting its fiscal house in order. We have cut more than $700 million from our annual operating budget and eliminated 3,500 jobs. We are on track for this year’s discretionary spending to actually be lower than last year’s.
Without the Payroll Mobility Tax or another stable and reliable source of funding, the MTA would be forced to implement a combination of extreme service cuts and fare hikes. The Payroll Mobility Tax remains in effect for now, and we expect that it will survive this legal challenge.
Governor Cuomo told reporters this morning that he didn't think there would be a disruption to the NY MTA's budget, adding, "I believe this ruling is wrong and will be reversed."
In a separate event, Mayor Bloomberg told reporters that one way to make up for the NY MTA's potential loss of revenue would be to enact a congestion pricing plan like the one he proposed for part of Manhattan in 2008, which was defeated by a vote in the state legislature. The mayor then continued with a bit of sarcasm, "I betcha the legislature thinks they have a better plan. My suggestion is you address your question to those people who think they have a better plan."
Friday, August 17, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) UPDATE: A source in the NY State Senate says this bill is now a state law. Here's a few of the law's main points:
Bus permit applications must include identification of the intercity bus company, buses to be used, and bus stop location(s) being requested; total number of buses and passengers expected to use each location; bus schedules; places where buses would park when not in use.
The city, prior to assigning an intercity bus stop, must consult with the local community board, including a 45 day notice and comment period.
Intercity bus permits would be for terms of up to three years; permits will cost up to $275 per vehicle annually; permits must be displayed on buses.
Intercity buses that load or unload passengers on city streets either without a permit or in violation of permit requirements or restrictions will face a fine of up to $1,000 for a first violation, up to $2,500 for repeat violations, and suspension or revocation of permit.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to sign a bill into law on Friday that would restrict where long distance bus companies can pick up and drop off passengers in New York City.
The bill becomes law if Governor Cuomo doesn't veto it by Friday at midnight, and would take effect after 90 days.
Greyhound and Peter Pan, two of the large carriers, are betting Cuomo will sign the bill: they're already vying for prime spots in Chinatown. Both have scheduled meetings next month with the transportation committee of Community Board 3 in Manhattan, which includes Chinatown.
The new law would require input from community boards before the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority could grant bus parking permits to a company. The permits would cost $275 per bus and be good for up to three years. Companies that operate curbside without a permit would risk a fine of $1,000 for a first violation and $2,500 for repeat violations.
As of now, bus companies can load and unload passengers at most legal parking spots in the city. Residents and officials in Chinatown, where many long distance bus companies do business, say that's causing crowding and pollution.
Greyhound operates discount carrier Bolt Bus. However, Greyhound spokesman Jen Biddinger said that if the company gets the new permits, they'd go not to Bolt Bus but "a totally new service operated by Greyhound." She declined to say how many spots the company is angling for. Greyhound currently offers curbside service at 34th & 8th at Penn Station.
Two accidents last year involving low cost bus lines killed 17 people. In May, the U.S. Department of Transportation shut down 26 "Chinatown" bus lines for safety violations.
State Senator Daniel Squadron alluded to those events when endorsing the current bill, "This first-ever permit system will bring oversight to the growing and important low-cost bus industry, helping to end the wild west atmosphere while allowing us to identify problems before they become tragedies," he said.
MAP/VIDEO: How To Survive, And Occasionally Thrive, In New York Penn Station, The Continent's Busiest Train Hub
Tuesday, August 07, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) New York's Penn Station is rail hub as ant colony: tight-cornered, winding and grimly subterranean. Like ants, 600,000 passengers per weekday course through it, pausing only to stare at an overhead information board until their departure track is revealed and then, toward that specified bowel, they descend.
Even the transit executives who run the place understand that it needs a makeover: they've hired Los Angeles construction firm Aecom to draft a renovation plan, expected by the end of the year, called "Penn Station Vision." There's talk of moving back walls, upgrading signs and improving the lighting. But that won't happen until Amtrak decamps across Eighth Avenue into a new space at the Farley Post Office, which is at least four years away.
In the meantime, what can a traveler do to make her time in Penn Station more bearable? [VIDEO BELOW]
That's the question I set out to answer with Nancy Solomon, an editor at WNYC who's been commuting from New Jersey to the West Side of Manhattan through Penn Station for more than ten years. Our tour of the station on a sweltering summer afternoon revealed a bi-level, nine-acre public space that, in some places, barely functions. "The station is doing what it was never, ever designed to do, which is accommodate more than a half-million commuters," says Ben Cornelius, a former Amtrak worker and TN reader who toiled in Penn Station for six years. "It was designed to be a long-haul, long-distance train station, not a commuter barn."
Yet, Nancy and I turned up a handful of grace notes: a hidden water fountain, a sanitary restroom, decent sushi. And to our surprise, we stumbled upon a large, and largely overlooked, piece of the original Penn Station.
More than most municipal facilities, Penn Station is haunted by the ghost of its earlier incarnation--a Beaux Arts masterpiece by legendary architects McKim, Mead and White.
That station rose in 1910 and fell, against a howl of protest, in 1963. Its dismantled columns, windows and marble walls suffered the same fate as a talkative two-bit mobster: they were dumped in a swamp in New Jersey. On the levelled site rose Madison Square Garden and a nondescript office tower; station operations were shunted to the basement, where they remain. Here's one way to navigate it:
Penn Station users: What do you do to make it more bearable? Where do you eat, rest, go looking for shortcuts? We want to know!
Sunday, August 05, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) At first, MTA spokesman Sal Arena insisted that no part of the architectural glory of the old Penn Station survived in the stripped down bunker of today's Penn Station. But the carved leaf pattern in a large steel entryway on the lower level seemed so at odds with the rest of the station's no-frills style that we asked him to re-check that.
Arena obliged. Then wrote back, "I stand corrected."
TN has learned that this entryway--part of the original Penn Station--was walled off in 1963, when the above-ground part of the station was razed. The destruction was decried by many as an act of "historical vandalism." (Public ire at the leveling of the 1910 building is credited with launching the modern preservationist movement.) Madison Square Garden and a blocky office tower replaced the formerly grand public space; the train hub was shunted into the corridors beneath them.
There the entryway lay hidden for 30 years.
In the early 1990s, Penn Station underwent a major renovation, its first since the original building was demolished. That's when workers took down the wall and discovered the entryway. "It was found exactly where it is now," Arena said. "The contractor cleaned it, painted it and put in windows." It is now a deep umber color.
As far as we can tell, the entryway went back into service quietly--no announcement was made about the salvaged piece of history. It's safe to assume that a large part of the station's 600,000 weekday travelers pass by without an inkling of its provenance. In places, the paint on the entryway's columns is worn away from the hordes of commuters brushing past it, wanting only to leave Penn Station.
Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, called the discovery a "cool" but minor find. "It's the sort of thing that's a curiosity, an oddity, one of those pieces of history that you need a plaque to explain," he said.
He noted a remnant of the past that can also be found outside the present station: two stone eagles from the vanished building that flank an entrance at 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue. Bankoff said they're handsome, if hard to see, and small consolation for the "interplay of space and light" that was lost when the original station was torn down and tossed into a trash heap in New Jersey.
Except for a pair of stone eagles and a strangely tenacious red entryway.
COMING SOON: A feature story about the some of the small conveniences in the present Penn Station that can make passing through it more bearable. We'll also be asking for your Penn Station tips.
Wednesday, August 01, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) For the fourth year in a row, the C train ranked last among New York City's 20 major subway lines. That's according to The Straphangers Campaign, an advocacy group, which says the C performed worst or next to worst on several measures:
Amount of scheduled service
Delays caused by mechanical breakdowns
Subway car cleanliness
OK, we threw in that last one. But the train's rolling-tin-can look is part of what makes it so mockable. The R32 cars used on the line are nearly 50 years old, and have a hard time showing up more often than every ten minutes during peak periods. That's last among lines.
On the bright side, the C plied its route between East New York in Brooklyn and Washington Heights in Manhattan in a way that made it above average in two categories: regularity of service--which means it is infrequent but tends to be on time--and chance of getting a seat during rush hour. That matters because the cars' suspension produces a rocking ride that is better experienced sitting down or on Dramamine.
The NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority did commit last year to spending $24 million to spruce up the cars on the line, which are among the oldest in operation in the world. But that was merely to stretch out their use until 2017.
The best-ranked line was the Q train, which Straphangers found to be clean with clear announcements, and least plagued by delays from mechanical breakdowns. It was the Q's first time in the top spot since 2001.
This is the Straphangers' 15th annual report card on the New York City subway system. The group said it's seeing "a positive trend for subway car breakdown rates and announcements," but that trains are getting dirtier. The group concludes: "Future performance will be a challenge given the MTA's tight budget."
To see the report, which includes profiles and comparisons of subway lines, go here.