THE COMMUTE: If you have been reading Bensonhurst Bean, as you should be doing, you already know about the downgrading of MTA bonds from A+ to A by Fitch, the smallest of the three rating agencies. Joe Teutonico did a fine job summarizing possible impacts. One could only speculate what the long-term effects will be for you the rider. Higher interest rates for future borrowing resulting in further delays in completion of Phase 1 of the Second Avenue Subway, perhaps. Phase II completion from 63rd Street to Hanover Square is already in doubt. We may land another man on the moon before the Second Avenue Subway is extended to Brooklyn or a new subway is built in Sheepshead Bay.

The downgrading is certainly not good news for the MTA or transit riders, nor is Governor Cuomo’s stalling on signing the Lockbox Act making it much more difficult for Albany to raid transit funds. The only thing that could make matters worse would be if the payroll tax to help fund the MTA enacted in 2009 were also removed as some lawmakers have suggested. If the Lockbox Act is not signed, and the parole tax is discontinued, the MTA would indeed be in dire financial straits, worse than it is now. Other funding sources would have to be found. That would once again open up the debate for congestion pricing or tolling the free East River bridges, neither of which would be good news for commuters.

How Did We Get Ourselves into this Mess in the First Place?

The rationale of borrowing for capital projects is that when it is time to pay off the bonds, the project will be completed and will be generating new revenue. The theory is good but not what happened in practice. Not all capital projects generate new revenue such as a new signal system or rebuilding existing stations like on the Brighton line, but that didn’t stop the MTA from borrowing for those types of projects, not that they had any choice in the matter because the politicians saw to it that funding was not available from other sources. Voters passed several bond issues to build a Second Avenue subway that still eludes us while those bonds still had to be paid off. The MTA’s debt service has continually increased to the point that it amounts to 16 percent of its operating expenditures going up to nearly 18 percent in just three more years.

In the 1950s, in order to maintain an artificially low fare of 15 cents for 13 years, because Mayor Robert Wagner wanted to be reelected, he shifted capital monies designated to build the Second Avenue subway to the operating budget. In the 1960s, New York City began a program of deferred maintenance, the full impact of which was not felt until the late 1970s and early ’80s when the subway system was on the brink of collapse. Governor Pataki greatly increased the MTA’s reliance on borrowing as a means of funding all types of capital programs including ones that do not generate additional revenue in order for the system to catch up on much needed maintenance including overhauling subway cars and purchasing new equipment.

Because of so many years of neglect, it is now necessary to close down parts of the system on up to a dozen different lines at a time on a single weekend, something that was unheard of years ago. When I was growing up, I can’t remember a single instance of any subway line being closed for maintenance. An express may have operated temporarily as a local, but that was it; no shuttle buses necessary.

Other Future Impacts

Higher interest rates for the MTA’s future borrowing could be on the horizon, only worsening the debt situation. Or instead of borrowing more, additional operating monies could be shifted to the capital budget as Governor Cuomo has already done. However, that money would have to be replaced one way or another or else there will be have to be more massive service cuts. Fares may have to rise at a faster pace and all discount programs and monthly passes could be in jeopardy including free bus and subway transfers. Capital projects could be halted or severely delayed and the system fall back into a state of disrepair canceling out all the progress made over the past generation. This is of course a worst-case scenario. It would be disastrous if any of the above should come to pass because of all the ramifications that it would entail.

What Can Be Done

Politicians need to recognize the importance of a good mass transit system and fund it accordingly, not to steal dedicated transit funds to meet the State’s other obligations. The MTA needs to be more efficient and care more about its riders, the subject of a different discussion. Select Bus Service is no substitute for mass transit expansion and you should not be brainwashed into thinking that it is.

The MTA is not considering any new subway expansion in the foreseeable future other than completing the first phase of the Second Avenue subway and East Side Access and that in itself is wrong. Prioritized plans should be in place just in case the economy turns around and additional funding somehow becomes available. A plan in itself could give politicians an impetus to pressure the federal government to help fund new projects. No plans make it appear that we wouldn’t know what to do with mass transit money if we had it.

When discussions of expanding the subway system were occurring decades ago, the question was always “Should we build a Second Avenue Subway or extend the Nostrand Avenue line?” for example. The answer of course was Manhattan is more important than Brooklyn, and you know the rest. The question should have been: “Which lines do we need?” It never should have been a question of building one line or another. By comparison, when Major League Baseball requested the city’s assistance in rebuilding Yankee Stadium and Citifield to replace Shea Stadium, did any politician dare to suggest that we could only afford to float bonds or make city improvements for only one new stadium and the other would have to wait 10 more years? Of course not.

Enacting the Lockbox Act into law is only a first step. A long-term funding solution for mass transit must be found, which must include more aid from the federal government. Barack Obama promised to help rebuild the aging infrastructure of large American cities when running for election. That would include highways and mass transit. However, that promise was not kept.

Until our elected officials realize that providing aid to mass transit is just as if not more important as facilitating the building of new sports stadiums for example, the MTA will never be able to dig its way out of its current financial mess. Where is it written that sports stadiums need to be replaced every 30 years, while it is perfectly okay for the subways to utilize 100-year old signal systems? New stadiums are sexy and make money for their owners. There is nothing sexy about a new signal system. Mass transit is the lifeblood of the city. If it is allowed to crumble, either physically or through service deterioration, so will the entire city.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

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  • Guest

    I can’t feel sorry for the MTA. The fat cat higher ups at the top don’t care and would still find a way to screw people even if all the acts are passed and the borrowing didn’t exist. Wasn’t there a surplus and two sets of books years ago. What on earth happened to all that money? It certainly wasn’t used to benefit improvement on the subway. The higher ups should not be paid more then $50,000/year each with no bonuses and be forced to see what has become of the subway system, ie by riding it daily like all us other slobs instead of taking comfortable limos to work. They chose to cut service to bus and subway lines not the government. All that money that is saved by cutting their salaries should be placed into extending lines, fixing stations etc… Since the subway system is in such disrepair through no fault of the customer and only through neglect, we should pay no more then $1.00 until it is fixed. All the money it would cost to place toll booths on the east river crossings would cause nothing but congestion, anger, backlash and lost revenue. This one amazes me the most, instead of taking all that money for the east river toll plazas that will need to be built, which wouldn’t surprise me is already set aside, place it into the MTAs budget and use it to fix the damn subway system.

  • Guest

    I can’t feel sorry for the MTA. The fat cat higher ups at the top don’t care and would still find a way to screw people even if all the acts are passed and the borrowing didn’t exist. Wasn’t there a surplus and two sets of books years ago. What on earth happened to all that money? It certainly wasn’t used to benefit improvement on the subway. The higher ups should not be paid more then $50,000/year each with no bonuses and be forced to see what has become of the subway system, ie by riding it daily like all us other slobs instead of taking comfortable limos to work. They chose to cut service to bus and subway lines not the government. All that money that is saved by cutting their salaries should be placed into extending lines, fixing stations etc… Since the subway system is in such disrepair through no fault of the customer and only through neglect, we should pay no more then $1.00 until it is fixed. All the money it would cost to place toll booths on the east river crossings would cause nothing but congestion, anger, backlash and lost revenue. This one amazes me the most, instead of taking all that money for the east river toll plazas that will need to be built, which wouldn’t surprise me is already set aside, place it into the MTAs budget and use it to fix the damn subway system.

    • http://secondavenuesagas.com Benjamin Kabak

      There were never two sets of books. That’s a claim a discredited politician put forward, and the courts found to be false. 

      If you don’t think higher-ups should be paid more than $50,000 a year, how do you propose attracting any talent at all? The best MTA head is leaving for a job that pays him over $1 million in six weeks.

    • LLQBTT

      $50k per annum for top management? What alternate reality are you from?

    • BrooklynBus

       
      That’s the salary they pay secretaries these days and they are not even satisfied with that.    

  • Anonymous

    Fire each and every toll booth clerk!  These creatures are absolutely the most useless government employees.  What is their job exactly, get fatter by the day?  Anytime I see someone ask these clerks a question all they do is give attitude or give worthless answers hoping to get rid of the costumer.  And as far as providing safety…. They aren’t going to get out and help you if there is trouble.  Maybe if they are not asleep and this is a big maybe they will call the police who wont get in time to help you either.  Fire the clerks and put in more cameras and more transit cops.

    • BrooklynBus

      Did you ever stop to think perhaps they act that way is that they feel unappreciated by management who treats everyone alike, not rewarding you if you do a superior job? There have been token booth clerks that have saved lives.  They are not all useless.  You should have heard the ones who spoke before the MTA when their jobs were in jeopardy.  You couldn’t help but feel for them.  Many faced welfare without that job and only wanted to be able to put food on their table. 

      • Anonymous

        Unappreciated by management?  What’s there to appreciate?  Aside from a rare few individuals, they are rude, lazy and unprofessional.  They sleep, listen to the radio or bitch on the phone all day long, so they are practically ON welfare.  As far as saving lives, hire one transit cop for every 10 booth attendants and they will provide a lot more safety.  And I did see them when their jobs were in jeopardy, saying how important their jobs are and what great professionals they are, pleaaaaase.  If their jobs were actually important to them they would put some effort into doing them. If they were to give that kind of costumer service at a private company they would be fired the first day.

        • levp

          Fired the first day? Ever used Sprint (or AT&T)?

    • levp

      Questions:

      1. If clerks will be replaced by transit police, where the cost savings are going to come from?  Transit Police in NYC is part of NYPD since 1995. Police is just as unionized as any other MTA employees.  Officer’s starting pay ranges “from $35,881 to $41,975, and top pay from $65,382 to approximately $76,000 annually. With longevity pay, holiday pay, night shift differential and other non-guaranteed additions, the total annual compensation for officers receiving top pay will be approximately $90,829.”
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_City_Police_Department#Salary_and_retention_issues

      2. How cameras are going to speed up help response (compared to live clerks)?  After all, someone has to be watching those cameras 24/7 (instead of watching sports on their phones).

      3. How disabled customers (including, but not limited to wheelchair-bound passengers) are going to open the service gates?

      • Anonymous

        1) The replacement doesn’t have to be one for one.  Fire 10 clerks and hire one officer.  Or create separate train station security guards, kind of like the ones that stand next to Metro Card machines when they are being fixed.  Have them travel from station to station.  A guard with a gun has a much bigger deterrent on crime than a fatso in a booth.

        2) One person can monitor several stations including areas where the clerks aren’t looking (which is most of the time straight ahead.)  The person can then go on the loud speaker and announce that police have been called.  You can even go the extra step and design software that detects fights.

        3)  The same way they do in stations that dont have clerks.  They can always ask someone to open the door for them.  or you can have doors that open automatically.

        • levp

          Still,

          1. Most stations have one attendant.  Therefore, one officer would be responsible for 10 stations.  Officers move from station to station using the same trains public does.  How would that help a person at midnight waiting for a train on station that the officer just left?  Provided that he/she actually patrols each station until the next train comes, the officer will be back on that station in 10 stations x 20 min. interval = 3 hrs. 20 min.)  And if he/she does not patrol the station, then how is this equivalent to current situation?

          2. Great Britain in general (obsessed with security cameras) and London Tube in particular show that cameras are not a good deterrent to crime, although they could be great at collecting visual evidence of that crime.  So I’m skeptical, to say the least.

          3. Currently, entrances that don’t have attendants are not wheelchair-accessible.  And if the door opens automatically, how many fare-beaters do you think will hold that door open forever?

          So I don’t think eliminating station attendants would solve MTA’s problems. On the other hand, if one would review outside contracts and/or upper management compensation…

          • Anonymous

            You are nipicking at little things that are worked out in any large system instead of embracing progressive change.

            1) 1 for 10 is just an example.  It can be 1 for 5.  Also you will have more guards in stations and times which are at higher risk.  I hardly think you need more guards at Union Square or Grand Station.  Efficiently is key.  Fatsos sitting in booths who a lot of the time dont even see the platform are useless.  

            2) U.S is not Britain, and I don’t know how effective or not effective cameras are in Britain.  Camera’s seem to work pretty good in casinos.  They are a tool and just like any tool they can be used wisely or they can be waste.

            3) Fare beaters can already use the doors if they want to, simply wait for someone to open them and then go through.  Or even better they can just jump over the turnstile.  If someone is determined not to pay the fare and dont care about getting caught, the way to do it is really not that hard.

          • levp

            My point is that when you achieve desired risk mitigation/efficiency ratio, you will not have any significant cost savings.

          • levp

            My point is that when you achieve desired risk mitigation/efficiency ratio, you will not have any significant cost savings.

          • Anonymous

            You are nipicking at little things that are worked out in any large system instead of embracing progressive change.

            1) 1 for 10 is just an example.  It can be 1 for 5.  Also you will have more guards in stations and times which are at higher risk.  I hardly think you need more guards at Union Square or Grand Station.  Efficiently is key.  Fatsos sitting in booths who a lot of the time dont even see the platform are useless.  

            2) U.S is not Britain, and I don’t know how effective or not effective cameras are in Britain.  Camera’s seem to work pretty good in casinos.  They are a tool and just like any tool they can be used wisely or they can be waste.

            3) Fare beaters can already use the doors if they want to, simply wait for someone to open them and then go through.  Or even better they can just jump over the turnstile.  If someone is determined not to pay the fare and dont care about getting caught, the way to do it is really not that hard.

      • Anonymous

        1) The replacement doesn’t have to be one for one.  Fire 10 clerks and hire one officer.  Or create separate train station security guards, kind of like the ones that stand next to Metro Card machines when they are being fixed.  Have them travel from station to station.  A guard with a gun has a much bigger deterrent on crime than a fatso in a booth.

        2) One person can monitor several stations including areas where the clerks aren’t looking (which is most of the time straight ahead.)  The person can then go on the loud speaker and announce that police have been called.  You can even go the extra step and design software that detects fights.

        3)  The same way they do in stations that dont have clerks.  They can always ask someone to open the door for them.  or you can have doors that open automatically.

    • Db628

      umm they provide safety and answer questions and for god sakes they open the damn locked gate door to let people with big packages and baby carriages through! i have seen so many people ask others to pen that door fromthe other side. And don’t think that people are not hopping the turnstiles either. MTA is probably losing money rather than saving. I agree with elevator clerks but overall subway token booth clerks are needed.

  • LLQBTT

    Phase II SAS is actually 96 St to 125, not below 63 St.  That is Phase III and IV.

    Good point on having a plan, but that is just further evidence in support of the complete dysfunction that is this region’s transit system.  Politicians don’t care except for Liu who wants better weekend diversion signs, so you see where his head is at on the matter.  They steal $.  MTA doesn’t care because there is a revolving door of CEOs because of the limited support, funding and constant beratement they get.  The management structure encourages feudalism and territoriality within the other levels of management.  Politicians use the MTA as a political wasteland for nepotism for people generally unqualified to find work. The union takes advantage of all this. The set up is too complicated for the average voter to understand. The subway? Oh yeah, the city runs that? Wrong…

    The whole thing stinks and needs to be re-thought.

    • winson

      i personally do not find a need for the Second Avenue Subway below 63rd Street. That section on the Lexington Avenue Line is not as crowded as north of 59th Street since it gets help from other midtown lines while it is the only up-down line on the east of central park. Hope to the see that soon because the 4,5,6 get jammed all the time. If only the IRT Nostrand Avenue Line was extended down to where KCC is as planned in the 1930s, Sheepshead Bay would have better service

      • Anonymous

        Coming southbound on the Lex Express, I used to see the northbound trains already jam packed at Brooklyn Bridge starting at 3PM. They were about 50% more crowded than the southbound trains. North of 42 St it is even worse because the locals are also jam packed at 3 PM.

        There was no KCC in the 30s. Why would they have proposed a subway to Manhattan Beach? In the 1970s the last stop was proposed at Avenue W.

  • nolastname

    Allan what can you tell me about the tunnel from Li to Madison Square? Is that part of the 2nd Ave project? Is the Italian company that owns the drill really abandoning it on site because of the expense to remove it?  Was any of this at cost to NY?

    • Allan Rosen

      You are talking about the East Side Access tunnel from 63rd Street to Grand Central Station to permit LIRR riders to use Grand Central instead of Penn Station. The drill is being abandoned because the cost to remove the drill I guess was greater than it was worth and there was space to leave it. They wouldn’t be able to do the same thing on Second Avenue unless they abandon plans for the lower half. I don’t believe there was a cost to the City or MTA. 

  • bluemeanie

    Anybody know when the B train is gonna go back to being express again?

    • levp

      Oct. 3rd

      • bluemeanie

        thanks man

  • http://twitter.com/aemoreira81 Adam Moreira

    Personally, to me, I see this having no operational effect, but on the capital side, it should take the focus away from “make work” projects.

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