THE COMMUTE: Last week in Part 1, I briefly summarized the MTA’s “Looking Ahead: A Context for the Next Twenty Year Needs Assessment” and stated that the MTA’s reaction to changing needs is disappointing. I stated this because many of the transit problems and problems with the MTA I have highlighted here during the past three years are not being addressed, presumably because the MTA still does not recognize them as problems.
Most importantly, the problem of inadequate and outdated bus routes that have not kept up with land use changes during the past 70 years, which I have mentioned numerous times, and has been recognized by others such as Transportation Alternatives, is totally omitted. There is also no mention of improving reliability on local bus routes, another major problem. The MTA apparently believes that the local bus system operates just fine, except that perhaps it is a little slow, so their primary strategy to fix the bus system involves ramming through dozens of new Select Bus Service (SBS) routes. These routes help some but has been overrated and also makes travel more difficult for seniors since bus stops are spaced further apart. For many, using an SBS and transferring to a local bus will mean paying an extra fare. Presumably, occasionally adding a new bus route or extension at 30-minute headways, as they have been doing this year, is deemed sufficient for the next 20 years, although there is no mention of even the need to update bus routes or the need to do any system-wide studies.
The MTA recognizes that travel to the Manhattan Central Business District (CBD) is becoming less important with intra-borough travel and inter-borough travel increasing over the next 20 years. Yet no mention is made about studying new express bus routes between major urban centers like Flushing and Jamaica, or building off-street bus terminals or even new bus depots. Improving airport access to areas such as southern Brooklyn, which is totally deficient, is also something that needs study and is omitted.
Also, there is no mention of the need to study a new fare structure, such as a time-based fare, or the need to re-examine any aspect of the fare policy such as the refund policy for unused LIRR tickets, which now include a hefty penalty, extending the time that tickets can be used (which I believe now is only two weeks, having been reduced from six months), lowering intra-city LIRR fares, and integrating all MTA fares such as allowing free transfers between LIRR and buses and subways. It also omits adding new subway and bus fare options, such as greater discounts for prepaying for longer than 30 days, offering discounts for groups such as families using the same MetroCard or reinstituting discontinued options such as a biweekly pass, a one-day pass, etc. The only mention of the fare relates to adding new subway transfers as if that is the only problem with the fare. There isn’t even a specific plan to replace the MetroCard that the MTA eventually intends to phase out.
Subjects that are Mentioned
Even the topics that the MTA does mention leaves much to be desired. For example, in “Overcome Subway Capacity Obstacles,” it is unclear whether “Nostrand Junction” refers to constraints at the terminal stop at the Flatbush/Nostrand Junction or the junction at Rogers Avenue and Eastern Parkway, where the Nostrand Avenue line diverges (also called “Rogers Junction”). If it is the latter, the MTA promised to alleviate that congestion point in the 1970s and it has never been done. So why should anyone believe that it will be done within the next 20 years due to the MTA’s misplaced priorities, such as providing Wi-Fi services in the subways, which is considered more important than reassessing off-peak subway crowding guidelines to ensure that riders get seats at midnight?
Under “Optimize the Subway and Bus Network” it is disturbing that the MTA inserts the word “possible” when discussing utilizing under-utilized rights of way, rather than making a firm commitment to study the feasibility of the Tri-boro RX Plan, or Rockaway Line reactivation. That leaves open converting abandoned rights-of-way to busways as suggested by mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, instead of building the Tri-boro RX rail line. The only possible advantage to a busway would be to operate a dozen routes on it, which would diverge to various destinations providing more direct service, which would never happen due to the high operating costs that would entail.
In the case of removing general traffic lanes for a Woodhaven Boulevard SBS instead of reactivating the Rockaway line, traffic would be greatly increased along the boulevard and surroundings streets. A rail reactivation would make midtown accessible from the Rockaways in 40 minutes, while an SBS along Woodhaven could only shave off 10 or 15 minutes from a two-hour commute.
The word “possibly’ also means perhaps letting valuable rights-of-way continue to rot or convert them to green-ways to enable three-hour bike rides to Manhattan. The MTA recommends completing the full Second Avenue Subway, while recognizing that over the next 20 years travel to the CBD will become less important and non-Manhattan travel will increase. So it is interesting that the word “possible” is not used when discussing the full-length Second Avenue Subway but is used when discussing reactivating unused or under-utilized rights of way, although reactivating those lines would cost approximately $50 million per mile, instead of the $2.3 billion per mile that Second Avenue is costing, with costs escalating every day.
The possibility of building other less costly subway lines during the next 20 years such as the Nostrand Avenue and Utica Avenue extensions are also omitted from the 20-year needs assessment, with the MTA putting all its eggs in one basket, SBS, the panaceas and cure-all for our transportation needs of the next 20 years.
Subways and buses came under the control of the MTA in 1968 to create a regional and unified transportation system. Yet now, more than 40 years later, they have not achieved that goal. On the surface there is one logo and there has been some streamlining. We also have some nice maps of the various systems but little else has been done with the exception of using toll monies to support mass transit.
Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transit Operating Authority (MaBSTOA) and NYCTA have largely been combined and we now have bus-to-bus and bus-subway transfers, but there has been little or no further fare integration between the rails, subways and buses. The LIRR and Metro-North still operate as two totally separate agencies.
Private bus operations have been absorbed into the MTA as the MTA Bus Company, which still operates independently from New York City Transit preventing efficiencies from occurring like reassigning buses to different depots or streamlining bus routes. MTA Long Island Bus (formerly Metropolitan Suburban Bus Authority) was dissolved. Instead of absorbing Suffolk County’s local bus system into the MTA as originally planned, operation of bus service was returned to Nassau County.
Regionalization of transit services is an admirable goal, but since it has largely not occurred more than 40 years after the MTA takeover, there is now talk of returning control of the subways and buses back to the City, which maybe now deserves a closer look.
“Looking Ahead” does not include a word about improving customer service which would include improving signage, announcements, maps, reopening closed subway entrances, changes to subway services, improving coordination between modes, and a willingness to fairly evaluate suggestions from the public rather than just dismiss them, which would result from a change in MTA corporate culture.
During the next 20 years, the MTA has not proposed any further efforts toward regionalization of the system and is showing that in “Looking Ahead” they are still suffering from tunnel vision, not able to see many of the system problems the rest of us see. That includes local bus routes not adequately serving the needs of the residents, some of whom have resorted to using dollar vans. That is a partial reason for “flattening” of bus usage that the MTA cites, the other being fare evasion. The MTA continues to largely ignore both in doing its bus planning. The MTA needs to remove its blinders when “looking ahead.”
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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