Competing Transit Solutions Abound, But Not Debate Among Them

Move NY’s Alex Matthiessen, New York City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, and Veronica Vanterpool, a mayoral appointee to the MTA board at the Mar. 1 transportation forum in Midtown. | Photo by Dusica Sue Malesevic

BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVICCan the Gordian knot that is the city’s transit system crisis be untangled?

At a transportation forum last week, experts, advocates, and public officials looked at the many different threads of the problems facing a system in dire straits — with both bus and subway ridership down amidst widespread complaints about delays and overcrowding — and examined possible solutions.

The first proposal up came in a more than 20-minute presentation on congestion pricing — an idea that has been around for decades and, when mentioned by West Side State Senator Brad Hoylman in his introductory remarks, elicited applause, yays, and boos. Hoylman and his East Side colleague, Senator Liz Krueger, sponsored the Mar. 1 event.

Alex Matthiessen is the founder and campaign director for Move NY, an organization that has worked to build support for congestion pricing. He asked that the audience — a good-sized crowd at the CUNY Graduate Center at Fifth Ave. and 34th St. — “keep an open mind [about] the plan that’s now on the table.”

The latest congestion pricing iteration set for discussion in Albany came from a January report by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Fix NYC task force, a 15-member panel he put together in October. Drivers traveling into Manhattan below 60th St., dubbed the “central business district” in the proposal, could pay $11.52 once a day for the privilege. Taxis, Ubers, and other for-hire vehicles would also incur a surcharge within a designated zone.

Matthiessen said the current tolling system, which imposes costs on only some of the entryways into the city, generally, and into Manhattan, specifically, “incentivizes folks to get off of those highways and get on the city streets to go through residential neighborhoods, and then sit in traffic, idling and waiting to get over to those free bridges.”

Currently, drivers face no tolls crossing the East River into Manhattan on the Queensboro, Williamsburg, Manhattan, and Brooklyn Bridges, but do on other tunnel and bridge entrances.

Revenue from congestion pricing would be used for system improvements at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which oversees the city subway and bus lines as well as the suburban commuter rail lines.

While Cuomo has said congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come, he has not put the entire Fix NYC plan in his budget, Matthiessen noted.

The panel did not debate the merits of the current proposal, though Polly Trottenberg, commissioner of the city’s Department of Transportation and a member of the MTA board, noted that no city officials were on the Fix NYC panel.

“Keep your eye on that, folks, because one of the proposals is that they will continue to be the entity that will set all the policy for how congestion pricing might happen and where that money might go,” she said.

What got more discussion were questions of, should the MTA get more funding from congestion pricing, how the agency will allocate it and if there is a risk funds could be diverted from transportation priorities. Last summer, the MTA came under fire when the Daily News reported that nearly $5 million in transit funds were diverted to three struggling ski resorts upstate.

Since 2005, the MTA’s operating budget, its day-to-day spending, has doubled — from roughly $8 billion a year to just under $16 billion a year, said Nicole Gelinas, a New York Post columnist who is also a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

The agency’s revenues have also gone up, she said, not just in fares but also in its tax haul. In 2005, according to Gelinas, taxes brought in about $2 billion and they now bring in about $5.5 billion a year. During the financial crisis in 2009, she explained, the State Legislature approved new taxes that provided $2 billion in extra money for the MTA.

“But that extra money has been eaten up by these rising costs,” she said. “The danger is that without cost reform at the MTA, [congestion pricing] revenue will just be consumed by rising operating costs, just as the tax package 10 years ago that was supposed to rescue the MTA.”

The MTA’s capital budget also has issues.

Veronica Vanterpool, the Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas, and Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and the Bus Turnaround Coalition. | Photo by Dusica Sue Malesevic

Veronica Vanterpool, an MTA board member and former executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said that during her almost two-year tenure on the board, she saw one project’s cost jump $1.1 billion.

“We have to have project budgets that are reflective of what the anticipated costs are,” she said. “This agency has to do much, much better in terms of estimating its budget costs.”

Gelinas added, “Whether it’s maintenance, modernization, or building something new, we have to prioritize these projects much better so that they actually benefit people who are in the city.”

For the MTA’s current five-year capital plan, which ends next year, 71 percent of the expansion projects are for the suburban commuter system, the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North, which together account for only seven percent of total riders, Gelinas said.

Later in the discussion, Trottenberg echoed that point, saying, “The MTA is investing a lot of money not in New York City but in the suburban systems, and, you know, I’m not totally against that but I think there is a misallocation.”

Last month, the board approved $213 million to renovate eight subway stations. Trottenberg and Vanterpool, two of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s four appointees on the 14-member MTA board, voted against it.

“We fight the good fight on the MTA board despite all this theater about who runs it,” Trottenberg said. “Just to be clear, there are 14 votes on the MTA board, the city has four of them, and we lose every time.”

The evening did not only focus on the subways but also on buses. Krueger asked audience members how many care about buses, and more than half of them raised their hands.

“There are a couple things I think we can do to improve bus service in New York City in the short term,” said Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and the Bus Turnaround Coalition.

A chart at last week’s forum showed that from 2015 to 2016, subway and bus ridership declined, while ferry, bike, and, especially, ride services use increased. | Photo by Dusica Sue Malesevic

Transit signal priority — technology that allows a green light to stay green a little bit longer so a bus can get through the intersection — can “speed up buses 10 percent right off the bat,” Sifuentes said.

Trottenberg noted that adjusting green light times in Manhattan is particularly difficult given all the other constraints on traffic light timing on busy streets.

People are frustrated by the speed of buses, Sifuentes said. Since 2012, the average speed in Midtown has fallen from 6.5 miles per hour to 4.7 miles per hour in 2017, according to Move NY’s Matthiessen.

“A lot of folks walk faster than that,” Sifuentes said. “A lot of people who rely on the bus can’t. We have to make the buses move faster.”

Other ways to speed them up include all-door boarding, and Sifuentes said that once the city’s buses move to a new fare system it will be possible to install card readers at both rear and front doors.

Sifuentes said that in some areas it makes sense to install additional bus lanes and to reconsider the route network.

“The things that I’m talking about are not pie-in-the-sky,” he said. “Almost everything I’ve mentioned is being done in other cities around the country and around the world right now.”

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