Reforming the MTA


Please feel free to view my Capstone:

Bridging the Transportation Finance Gap: Planning Beyond Boundaries for a Connected 21st Century

Please also feel free to view my Senior Honors Thesis:

(Re)New Your City, New York City: Transporting Transformation Hubs

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is constantly running trains, but it is also constantly running a deficit. Unlike profitable transportation companies, such as the Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway (MTR), the MTA has few valuable real estate assets which could be adequately transformed into transit-oriented and transit-owned joint development hubs. Similar to other U.S. public transportation agencies, space for pragmatic and profitable commercial activities – including shops and offices operating on agency-owned land – is limited to a few select stations, yards, concourses, and passageways, because most profitable assets from private predecessors were sold decades ago. However, while the MTA’s ability to remain revenue-positive or self-sufficient through real estate development is stymied, the MTA has been capitalizing upon its few existing assets for additional revenue. This process, however, in coordination with the City of New York in order to develop value capture mechanisms, is lengthy and cumbersome. The MTA has not developed the resources needed to develop property. This Senior Honors Thesis elucidates how the MTA can overcome organizational barriers in order to contextually ‘transport’ the MTA’s limited portfolio of assets into ‘transformation hubs’, and in order to do so, advocate for a privatized, profitable, and independent real estate development division of the MTA, chartered for real estate development. While there is ‘room’ for improvement, institutional barriers ranging from NIMBYism and a fear of density to antiquated zoning laws, financing requirements, and a lack of communication among the City, State, MTA, and developers would need to be transcended through coordinated reformation efforts. The MTA’s collective mindset must be renewed for a 21st century narrative, in which the MTA also considers itself a top tier real estate developer.


Additional capstone literature review…

SUMMARY: America’s public transportation agencies cannot be profitable in the 21st century due to a political economy that isolates these agencies from municipal zoning and land use policies, and from forming value capture mechanisms – from tax increment financing to joint development and the transfer of development rights. This siloization of zoning, land use, taxation, and transportation operations is largely due to American fears of density alongside protections of private property, but it limits the potential for transit-oriented and transit-owned joint development, and it hinders the formation of public-private partnerships. Local, state, and federal structural reforms are necessary in order to streamline value capture processes, such as up-zoning transportation assets and relaxing land use requirements, in order to facilitate T.O.D. While value capture will provide marginal financial benefits due to the limited assets that U.S. agencies possess, it literally stands on its own merits as a vehicle through which the urban fabric can be renewed and enhanced. Transportation agencies cannot be profitable, but they can be organized more efficiently, if given the resources necessary to effectively practice value capture.

America’s public transportation agencies cannot be profitable. There are not enough riders to offset the high costs of maintenance and operation, and furthermore, America’s political economy limits the real estate potential of these agencies, which, nevertheless, have limited assets. The country’s formerly private, profitable passenger railways had to compete with vehicular transportation and airlines, and they could no longer stay afloat. Yet arguably unlike today’s public agencies, America’s former railroads avidly developed real estate. Pennsylvania Railroad built New York Penn Station and developed nearby Hotel Pennsylvania. New York Central Railroad built Grand Central and developed Terminal City atop its rail yards. The Hudson and Manhattan Railroad built the Hudson Terminal in Lower Manhattan, which is the predecessor to the World Trade Center. Elevated railroads connected Manhattan with Coney Island, building resorts at their terminals. Similarly glamorous hubs with offices, residences, and retail were built throughout the country. But then came suburbanization, the Interstate, and the Jet Age. White Americans moved to the suburbs and divested from cities. Most remaining assets were sold off, and public transportation agencies now lack the real estate expertise and the incentives to develop. Zoning and land use restrictions also inhibit public-private development.

Because of limited assets, T.O.D. will have a marginal impact on finances on American agencies, unlike in Hong Kong, where the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) is a profitable, privatized transportation company, partly because of all of the real estate that it develops. While this system works in China because the central government leases land to the MTR and technically owns all land, it would not work in the U.S. or other Western countries because they rightly have strong private property laws and a democratic process. Indeed, “if Britain’s rather fragile means of ensuring that local authorities account for their decisions works, it is because of the distance that exists between local authorities and central government, and the de facto independence that inspectors are bale to establish from both”; indeed, “Hong Kong has had difficulty in trying to model a system of appeals on British administrative practice because there is no such separation” (Booth 1996, 140). Even land that is already owned by public authorities has often not been developed in a similar fashion in the U.S., largely due to bloated bureaucratic regulations, which discourage cooperation with the private sector.

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) provides service for one-third of the transit riders in America, covers an area of approximately 5,000 square miles (MTA Transportation, 2015), and moves the largest regional economy in the richest country in the world by moving 8.7 million customers a day with 67,000 employees (MTA Capital Program, 2014). One in three transit rides in the U.S. are on the MTA network, and MTA ridership exceeds the next 16 largest U.S. transit networks combined. Still, while fares and tolls provide a significant amount of revenue for the public authority, it is far from enough for self-sufficiency, let alone profitability. The MTA needs subsidies and support from local, state, and federal sources. Moreover, because the state agency operates New York City’s subways, funding is constantly being negotiated between the City and State, especially for capital plans (Flegenheimer, 2015). The M.T.A. already owes $34 billion, more than the national debt of dozens of foreign countries (Flegenheimer, 2015). According to Crains New York Business:

The MTA collects two types of taxes from property sales in the city: the mortgage-recording tax (consisting of two separate taxes on mortgages recorded in the MTA’s 12-county service area) and the urban tax (imposed on commercial-property and apartment-building transactions in the five boroughs). Those taxes, in addition to an array of other state, regional and local taxes, subsidies and fees, and fare and toll collection, comprise the MTA’s revenues. (Hawkins, 2015)

In 2015, the MTA received $202.4 million from the mortgage-recording tax, which is 11.3% more than the MTA’s budget allotment of $181.8 million. Also, the MTA received $530.1 million from the urban tax, or 56.4% more than the $338.9 million originally budgeted. Finally, the “MTA received $130.7 million in total real estate tax revenue just in the month ending in mid-June, or 50.6% more than originally expected” (Hawkins, 2015). However, the MTA is wary of these fluctuations, and is not planning on using the increased funds to restore eliminated subway and bus routes, because a new downturn could leave the agency without the resources needed to sustain operations. After all, in 2005 and 2006, the urban tax surged, resulting in $900 million in 2007, which was nearly twice the amount anticipated by the MTA. Then, after the economy collapsed, annual revenue plunged by more than $1 billion and the urban tax received $149.7 million in 2009 (Hawkins, 2015). Clearly, this system is unstable and even in good times, the MTA needs additional funds to continue operations and expansion. Financing is vastly different for Hong Kong’s MTR because it is an independent corporation, and not a public authority, so while the government serves as majority shareholder, the MTR “has the freedom to develop real estate, to hire and fire who it will, and to take business-minded decisions—whereas other transit systems, including the one in New York, must deal with union contracts and legal restrictions” (Padukone, 2013). Indeed, according to Professor Vuchic at the University of Pennsylvania:

Many extensive rail and bus transit systems in Hong Kong and Japan operate successfully under private ownership. Population densities are extremely high in Hong Kong and Japanese cities such as Tokyo and Osaka. Use of automobiles in these cities is not only limited by space, but it is more expensive than in the U.S. and most European cities. Car travel is less subsidized by direct and indirect measures, such as tax exemptions for many trip categories, company car ownership, cheap or free parking. Land uses, including major activity centers, are planned with rail transit lines and located around their stations. In Japan, many regional rail companies own housing complexes, department stores, shopping centers, amusement parks, and other commercial developments whose income is used for partial support of transit operations. Although privately owned, many transit companies have various arrangements for cooperation, financial support or guarantees by the government. (Vuchic 2005, 435)

Yet even if U.S. systems cannot be profitable in our political economy, T.O.D. (literally) stands on its own merits, as it creates more dynamic places for people to live, work, and play, and supports sustainable livelihoods by reducing emissions. Still, often, accessibility to transportation improves the value of real estate, and agencies themselves do not capture this value. When an agency develops its property in coordination with a private developer to build and own or lease shopping centers, offices, and apartments, it is termed joint development, a form of value capture, which is, itself, a form of transportation finance.

This literature review will explore this particular type of value capture in depth, but it will also explore additional transportation finance tools and techniques. Moreover, the review will touch upon factors that hinder value capture, and it will explore policy and planning solutions that can assist with streamlining the development process. The review will focus on development processes and finance mechanisms, rather than particular cities and case studies, and it will utilize a collection of books, journal articles, news articles, and websites concerning transportation planning, transit-oriented development, and transportation finance. Sources were collected with the assistance of Tisch Library resources at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. Concept maps for research were crafted using the Tufts Libraries Classic Catalog, BLC WorldCat, JumboSearch, Harvard Libraries Catalog, Ulrich’s Periodicals Directory, and ProQuest. RSS feeds and search alerts were also utilized for database research.

To begin, there are various tools and techniques that can be used in order to implement value capture (Levinson, et al., 2009). Special assessment districts levy an additional tax on land parcels that receive a direct benefit from transit. Transportation utility fees are fees assessed on beneficiaries of transit infrastructure based upon how likely these beneficiaries will be using transit, thereby, for instance, reflecting the building’s density or parking capacity. Tax increment financing is a tax policy that captures the incremental difference in tax revenue after construction of transit facilities, in order to pay for the financing costs. Development impact fees are one-time fees assessed to developments, and are determined formally through policy. Negotiated extractions also are one-time fees assessed to developments, but they are negotiated on a case-by-case basis. Joint development is a public-private partnership between a developer and a public agency. And, last but not least, air rights are the sale or lease of air rights above a transit facility. Often, these tools and techniques are used together in order to complete a project; for instance, a developer may be using tax increment financing in order to practice joint development, while using air rights in order to increase density bonuses.

Yet most of these tools cannot be implemented by transportation agencies themselves. American public transportation authorities do not control zoning and land use laws, and they also operate amidst a sea of privately-owned land. Public transportation accessibility can dramatically improve the value of land, which rarely benefits these transportation operators directly. Perhaps the increased property taxes will be siphoned back to the transportation agency, but more often than not, developers benefit the most, and municipalities divert the increased property tax revenue from the agency that made it all possible. Indeed, landowners and developers may even be charged impact fees and taxes by the municipality for future development; however, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), since most transit agencies do not have taxing authorities, it is usually difficult for the agency to capture the value imparted on surrounding properties by their facility (GAO, 2010). This is not a sustainable practice, because most of our public transportation agencies are deeply indebted and cannot build, enhance, and expand.

America’s land use laws are arguably reflected by its Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) incentives. The LEED Neighborhood Development Rating System rightly incentivizes LEED construction in transit-oriented communities by prioritizing an access to quality transit, with seven (7) points for a project that is nearby public transportation. LEED also provides one (1) point for transit facilities and two (2) points for transportation demand management (TDM) practices. But many of these boons cannot be built or enhanced solely by a developer; they require effort beyond buildings themselves. LEED continues this political economy infrastructure by rewarding developers for their proximity to transit and for their own transit facilities and TDM practices, while not incentivizing developers to assist transportation agencies directly. Sustainable buildings should not just be environmentally sustainable, but socially and economically sustainable as well, requiring an investment in the community and its transportation infrastructure.

Unfortunately, transit agencies have little ability to partake in transit-oriented development (T.O.D.) because they do not control zoning and land use, and because they are controlled by onerous financial regulations. Yet T.O.D. can increase agency revenue, increase its ridership, and improve its assets. It can improve air quality, decrease traffic congestion, increase the supply of housing, create jobs, and increase tax revenue. Still, while state agencies do not need to follow municipal regulations, public agencies nevertheless do not have a profit motive and they are controlled by transportation boards, with members appointed by politicians who are swayed by NIMBYists. Ideally, municipalities should provide (joint) developers with generous floor-area-ratio (FAR) bonuses if the developer renovates the station platforms below their buildings, and incorporates the station entrances into their two sites.

In order to begin the joint development process, a financial feasibility analysis would need to be conducted. This would include the cost of decking and the land value based upon existing physical, demographic, and market conditions for relevant properties and parcels. It would also include relevant zoning, land use, and air rights laws, resolutions, and amendments. A development scenario would also need to be designed, showing the placement of buildings, amenities, entrances, ventilation, clearance, and circulation; access, egress, traffic, parking, terrain, and environmental review processes would intersect these scenarios. The concept and site selection would also be coupled by site assembly, site planning, and an organization of the management structure. A marketing strategy would also need to be implemented, and demand generators – factors such as renters, buyers, anchor stores, trade areas, market capture, and foot traffic – would need to be calculated based on market demand. Advocates, facilitators, lenders, owners, users, realtors, managers, tenants, architects, contractors, and brokers would all need to be involved with the transportation authority in order to produce the best program and form, full of flexibility, activity, and density. They would need to find the gross, find the net, find the cash flow, find the tax credits, find the appraised values, and find the assessed values. They would need to deal with permits, retail space, community space, open space, financial structuring, incentives, risks, rents, and leasing, as well as the hard costs, soft costs, fees, equity, and debt service. Then, there’s mortgages, loans, and operating expenses. No wonder there are so many professionals involved in the development process (Nelson, 2014).

Private railroads tried to stay afloat by selling their assets in the mid-20th century, thus creating Madison Square Garden above the contemporary Pennsylvania Station, and the Pan Am Building above Grand Central Terminal in New York. The destruction of Pennsylvania Station sparked the beginnings of a preservationist movement which saved the nearby beaux-arts Grand Central Terminal from complete destruction. However, the movement was too late to preserve the dominance of the Helmsley Building on Park Avenue. New York Central Railroad, which owned Grand Central Terminal and the Helmsley Building, sold air rights for the construction of the Pan Am Building (now known as the MetLife Building) above the terminal. Donald Trump bought the Penn Yards on the Upper West Side for the construction of Trump Place. Indeed, the Jet Age had arrived alongside the Interstate Highway system, and unfortunately, no air right revenue streams were enough to keep Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central Railroad afloat, even after they merged together to become Penn Central. Trucks took freight revenue, and premium high-speed train travel became the lore of airlines. When the US Post Office decided to no longer ship mail on the railroads, it was the last straw. When Penn Central filed for bankruptcy a few years later, intercity passenger routes were to be transferred to Amtrak and freight routes were to be transferred to Conrail, a nationalized freight carrier. Around this time, public transportation authorities were also being formed in metropolitan regions, such as New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

These transactions were made possible by the 1961 Zoning Resolution, which the Department of City Planning (DCP) drafted as the first and last update to the 1916 Zoning Resolution. While numerous amendments have since been added to the document, the core tenets of the 1961 resolution remain in effect, today, in 2015. Mayor Robert Wagner and DCP Chairman James Felt’s Zoning Resolution divided the city, for the first time, into residential, commercial, and manufacturing areas, and introduced incentive zoning and floor-area-ratio (FAR). FAR was a revolutionary concept that made building setbacks irrelevant, as it regulated height through a ratio that measured the area of a parcel occupied by the building, and dictated height through that ratio. For instance, an FAR of 1 could be a one-story building occupying the entire parcel, or a two-story building occupying half of the parcel, and so on and so forth. Furthermore, the resolution also introduced most regulatory tools associated with a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR), colloquially known as air rights. Amendments have been passed in order to use TDR to preserve green space and historical landmarks without interfering with the financial rights of property owners. But air rights were also used in order to sack Pennsylvania Station in 1963, and use its air rights for the development of Madison Square Garden and Penn Plaza, while moving the station entirely underground. Today, this cavern lacks circulation, light, and common sense. Air rights were also used atop highways. The Port Authority’s George Washington Bridge and Bus Terminal funneled vehicles along the Trans-Manhattan Expressway, below the Bridge Apartments. The 4,000 residents of these four aluminum-sheathed high-rises deal with noise and exhaust every day, but like most urban dwellers, they deal with it, and it is arguably better than leaving a gaping hole.

According to the American Planning Association (APA), air rights go back to early English common law, with its basis in the Latin legal maxim: cujus est solum ejus est usque ad coelum et ad inferos — to whomever the soil belongs, he also owns to the sky and to the depths. Though the air is now a public aviation highway, the practice remains utilized. The 1961 Zoning Resolution defines railroad or transit air space as “space directly over a railroad or transit right-of-way or yard, which right-of-way [is] open, except for structures accommodating activities incidental to its use as a right-of-way or yard, and not otherwise covered over by any building or other structure at the effective date of this amendment”. According to the Resolution, the City Planning Commission could now permit development in air space for any use permitted by the applicable district regulations, as long as the area only includes the portion of the right-of-way which will be covered by a permanent fireproof platform, and as long as adequate access to streets is maintained. While today’s public authorities are state agencies, thereby limiting their legal need to comply with municipal rules, agencies oblige nevertheless in order to appease politicians and Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) activists.

The United States was founded in 1776, as Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations. America was one of the world’s first democracies in order to protect “life, liberty, and estate”, as prescribed by John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government in 1689. Far from the agricultural society that wrote the US Constitution, cities in the early 20th century had to find means through which zoning could be legally enforced. The 10th Amendment of the US Constitution did grant general police powers to the States and to local governments, and government had the right to enforce order, protecting general welfare, morals, health, and safety. But the 5th Amendment of the US Constitution declared that no American shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, and that no private property shall be taken for public use without compensation. Moreover, the 14thAmendment, approved after the Civil War, expanded equal protection of the laws, applicable to former slaves and rebels, upholding their ability to rein supreme over their private property. Zoning was able to become a legal instrument, first implemented in New York City following the construction of the Equitable Building in 1916. Since then, zoning has been used in order to exclude groups of people from neighborhoods, and decrease density by artificially regulating demand and supply near transit stations.

Today, less than two percent of passenger movements are conducted by public transportation in the United States (Guess 2008, 378). These agencies “cannot be profitable because when service increases, fixed costs increase by a greater amount, including debt service, operations, supplies, maintenance, and salaries” (Guess, 2008). Indeed, “fares rarely will provide more than half of total revenue, and they are usually not market-rate, so as to provide a service to the poor and so as to relieve congestion” (Guess, 2008). According to Simon Hakim in Privatizing Transportation Systems, publicly-controlled transportation removes the incentive to control costs, and removes consumer choice, allowing for organized labor to take control of the system and destroy any semblance of competition (Hakim, 1996). However, despite the potential for public-private contracts, and the “belief that the private sector can perform more efficiently than the public sector” (Hakim 5, 1996), public transportation cannot currently be competitive and profitable in the United States, just as the Interstate Highway System cannot be profitable.

Public transportation authorities were designed to operate transit, but not to own the assets that had been developed by prior companies. The grandeur of railroad terminals arguably decreased as taking flight became the transportation mode of the elite, and as white flight became the response to the Great Migration of African-Americans to New York and its subways. For instance, highways and airlines today also require government funds, yet funding for these systems are termed ‘investment’, whilst funding for transit and national railroad systems are termed ‘subsidies’ (Vuchic 2005, 184). Moreover, “‘in European communities, public transportation is not viewed as a ‘social service’ for people who are unable to afford private means of transportation… Instead, it is regarded as a solution to protect and preserve the environment, to reduce automobile use and traffic congestion, and to improve mobility of the overall population’” (Vuchic, 2005, 184). This highlights the stigma against public transportation in the United States, according to Vukan Vuchic, UPS Foundation Professor of Transportation Engineering and Professor of City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania.

Yet no such stigma exists in Hong Kong, where the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) Corporation is a profitable transportation company, privatized with the government owning the majority of shares. By building offices, apartments, and stores directly above stations, the MTR is able to use value capture mechanisms in order to actually be profitable (Loo, 2010). Due to Hong Kong’s density, the percentage of residents who ride mass transportation is the highest in the world (Suzuki, 2013). This equitable, sustainable, and feasible efficiency (Zhao, 2011), coupled by the fact that the government technically owns all land and leases it only for certain periods of time, makes it relatively easy for the MTR to acquire parcels for transit-oriented joint development atop station entrances. Chinese leasehold systems allow for the MTR to then sell or lease these properties to other developers. Furthermore, unlike American public transportation authorities, the MTR is privatized and operates on commercial principles, whilst being controlled by the public vis-à-vis majority shareholdings by the local government.

Public-private partnerships (P3s) require immense resources which are difficult to synergize (Enoch, 2002). Often, the public sector does not know how to regulate the private partner, and the private partner cannot think in political terms (Davis, 1986). In Hong Kong, the MTR is private itself, so this issue is irrelevant. The Rail + Property (R+P) program has begun to design P3 pedestrian-friendly environments, increasing the value of property. Indeed, “often missing was a high-quality pedestrian environment and a sense of place”, and “most first-generation R+P projects featured indistinguishable apartment towers that funneled pedestrians onto busy streets and left them to their own devices to find a subway entrance” (Suzuki 2013, 63). This program accounts for more than half of all income to the company, with an average of 35,000 additional passengers during the week at R+P stations, and housing prices increased by 5-30 percent (Cervero, 2009). However, the general MTR strategy would be difficult to achieve today in the United States or Britain, because the land use system is now entirely different.

Yet in the late 19th century, when transportation systems were privately owned and operated, joint development projects were commonplace. The private sector involvement in infrastructure investment in the 19th century overshadowed all other economic developments of the period (Grimsey, 2004). The U.S. government also granted land to railroad companies in order for railroads to span the continent. But once public agencies became owners, it became difficult to coalesce opportunities; numerous regulations made it mutually disadvantageous to form public-private partnerships (Keefer 1985, 334). According to the Wall Street Journal:

For decades, city and county transit agencies have leased out kiosks or small storefronts in their rail stations to businesses such as newspaper stands and coffee shops. Now, agencies are far more ambitious, developing large-scale, rent-producing developments, including hotels, apartment buildings and shopping malls, around their rail hubs. Transit officials expect real estate to become an increasingly important revenue source, amid stagnant federal funding and rising costs of upkeep for aging systems. (Dulaney, 2014)

When the development process involves a public agency, with limited expertise and resources, and with transportation as a core business, P3s clearly become paramount. They allow for the expertise and efficiencies of the private sector to be juxtaposed with the public sector. A small public transportation agency, for instance, may contract out its operations to a private operator, theoretically because the private sector brings skills that the public agency cannot provide at similar costs. The agency would regulate the private operator, making sure in its contract that it does not cut service to cut costs. However, these P3s often fail because the public sector does not know how to regulate the private sector, and because the private sector cannot think in political terms. According to Perry Davis, author of Public-Private Partnerships: Improving Urban Life, language is extremely important in order to craft an effective PPP, which are not a new phenomenon. In fact, “one hundred and fifty years ago Alexis de Tocqueville cited extra-governmental associations as America’s legacy to democracy” (Davis 1986, 1). These partnerships can be implemented for public transportation’s sake because “a crumbling social infrastructure – just like a deteriorating physical infrastructure – makes a poor environment in which businesses and business markets can thrive” (Davis 1986, 2). Yet “as partnerships require novel business approaches to civic needs, so does government require a fresh view of its role” (Davis 1986, 2). Arthur Nelson’s Foundations of Real Estate Development Financing: A Guide to Public-Private Partnerships further elucidates the challenges of P3s.

Even though redevelopment generates higher rates of investment return to investors, numerous obstacles have to be overcome. Some of these involve changing planning and development codes to be more responsive to redevelopment opportunities. Others are expensive in the near term because infrastructure has to be upgraded – though it would probably have to be upgraded eventually anyway. Many involve land assembly brownfield remediation. Still others are related to the complexity of modern real estate financing, especially when it involves multiple land uses (Nelson 2014, 4).

Public-private partnership models should be being implemented throughout the U.S., but people continue to fear density and displacement, and zoning and land use policies have become 20th century artifacts. Cities need to streamline joint development procedures, allowing for developers to build if they contribute funds towards renewing, enhancing, and expanding the systems that benefit their bottom lines. If affordable housing requirements and parking requirements make decking unfeasible, they should be exempt from these rules. Also, while the price of parking is almost always bundled as part of the rent, typically, a transit pass or subsidy is not included. But these changes require tackling NIMBYists so that transportation agencies can take on risk without being booed away from development. Alternatively, transportation agencies should be allowed to dispose of their properties, or lease them to a developer, as agencies are not experts at development. According to Arthur Nelson, a P3 for joint development would involve each party contributing what it does best, such as:

For the public sector, this can include planning and zoning activities that can recast the overall development vision of the area, upgrading infrastructure, expanding mobility options through sidewalks, bikeways, road improvements, and transit, as well as acquiring property and preparing it for redevelopment and assisting with financing. For the private sector, it can include market analysis, construction financing, construction management, procurement of long-term financing, and project leasing, as well as property management (Nelson 2014, 5).

Moreover, according to Vuchic:

The main goal of the public agency should be providing services the city and its residents need, rather than focusing only on optimal financial results of operations. Considerable economies of scale can be achieved by consolidation of many different lines, vehicle fleets, company managements, into a single agency. Network integration allows profits from heavily used lines to be used to support lightly used lines that are essential for area coverage, social, or other reasons. Governmental public policies can be better coordinated and subsidies controlled with a public agency than with many private companies. (Vuchic 2005, 433)

There are ample risks and ample rewards in a P3. For the public sector, perceived or real conflicts of interest, alongside a fear of the misuse of funds and resources, are compounded by land use conflicts (such as dislocation, relocation, or fair market value disagreements), public opposition, and worries that the private partner may fail (Monty, 2014). Meanwhile, the private sector is often concerned about excessive costs, time-consuming regulations, and accusations from the public; moreover, concerns that changes in key public or political leadership will derail partnerships are often concerns, alongside fears of market failures (Monty, 2014). Yet there are also plenty of rewards. For the public sector, of course, a P3 can provide for economic development, increased tax revenue, and improved public infrastructure and quality of life, whilst creating jobs and advancing the city’s image; perhaps, politicians would also be reelected due to their performance (Monty, 2014). For the private sector, a public partnership allows for resources to sustain their organization, and hopefully, the P3 is profitable, creating value, whilst enhancing their reputation and building their market niche (Monty, 2014).

The public sector can alleviate most of its concerns by following five rules: first, establishing a jurisdictional constitution; second, separating the analysis, evaluation, administration, and oversight agencies; third, ensuring that the bidding process is competitive; fourth, maintain caution, especially for projects with long life cycles, due to contract renegotiation concerns; and fifth, avoid stand-alone private sector shells with limited equity (Siemiatycki, 2006). All of these rules are essentially about effective communication and trust, which can be aided by transparency. This commits partners to the project terms, be it private partners that would otherwise seek to limit their responsibilities, or public partners that would otherwise waver under political pressure (Siemiatycki, 2006).

For the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), a P3 was necessary in order to manage the authority’s real estate assets. The internal department had to maintain the tenant ledger, collect rents, negotiate lease agreements, sell surplus properties, and respond to requests from developers (Flier, et. al., 1997). The T did not have the necessary resources, expertise, or profit motive in order to conduct these processes, so it contracted Transit Realty Associates (TRA), a consortium of firms, in order to outsource the T’s real estate division. Firms included: AW Perry, specializing in ownership, management and permitting; K.C. Donnelley and Company, specializing in brokerage; The Development Group, specializing in public property development and financing; and, Antrum Management, an engineering firm specializing in parking garages (Flier, et. al., 1997). According to Buzz Constable, a principal at TRA, the TRA had to organize hundreds of lease agreements, many of which dated back to the early 1900s, and were not cataloged at all (Monty, 2014). 80 percent of the T’s leased assets were non-performing; indeed, the T did not even have the time to collect rent or update property agreements, one of which dated to 1910 (Monty, 2014). The TRA instituted market procedures and marketed properties for new lease opportunities, allowing for the MBTA to receive, from $3.5M per year in 1996, to $14M per year in 2014 (Monty, 2014). While this is a marginal impact and the T is still deeply indebted (Kane, 2009), the TRA was nevertheless successful, having also created a Land Tracker system with GIS, allowing for the organization of the authority’s portfolio. The GIS based system catalogs basic information including location, size, assessed value, rail line and station, use, zoning restrictions and environmental information.

According to Joseph Monty, a Tufts University alumni who wrote his thesis on the MBTA’s joint development practices, the potential for value capture to significantly offset operating and/or capital deficits of transit systems is not lost on most transit agencies:

A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that 32 of 55 transit agencies surveyed had used some form of joint development as a source of funding and the bulk of these developments were concentrated on mature systems which operate heavy rail transit such as the Los Angeles Metro, Washington Metro, and Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit. Furthermore, the GAO (2011) characterized agencies likely to utilize value capture as those which have formal joint development policies, real estate expertise, and developable land holdings. (Monty, 2014)

Due to the lack of profit incentives in the public sector, America finds itself with “obsolete equipment, strong unions, and difficulties in contracting out services” (Hakim 1996, 20). In denser countries without a friendly atmosphere of car ownership, such as Japan, rail service is profitable and attractive (Hakim 1996, 18), and this was also the case 100 years ago in New York. Most American cities today, which are oriented towards the automobile, cannot cover investment and operating expenses, requiring direct or indirect financial assistance (Vuchic 2005, 435), but this was not true of New York in the early 20th century. The city helped to fund subway systems, and contracted their operation to private companies. However, the city’s regulations kept the private companies from raising fares, eventually spiraling into bankruptcy:

The consolidation of the Manhattan Elevated Railway Company, the Metropolitan Street Company, and the IRT created a monopoly of fixed-rail rapid transit. This provided the rationale for the dual contract to fix the fare at five cents. The consequent constraints caused by a politically expedient fixed fare and wage inflation led maintenance to be deferred. The fixed fare destroyed the incentive for the companies to invest in quality, or even to maintain quality. The fixed fare also prevented expansion in that only those lines with very high ridership can be profitable if the fare is set too low. Lines which would have been economical at higher prices were not built. The transfer of ownership into the public sector compounded the problems. The incentive to control costs was removed and was replaced by the political need to placate an organized labor force (Hakim 289, 1996)

Today, the MTA’s funding shortfalls are due to a lack of political will – such as an unwillingness to raise fuel taxes – but the MTA’s budget is not the only transportation budget in dire straits. Nearly 25 percent of the nation’s 596,570 bridges are considered deficient, with “eight percent of urban interstates and 30 percent of urban arterials in poor conditions”, a consequence of a national transportation funding problem (Staley 2009, 169). Labor unions and their monopolistic powers force “excessively high wages and inefficient labor practices”, while agency management may allow for technological obsolescence, “defeating the advantages of providing good service as the dominant goal” (Vuchic 2005, 433). Indeed, according to Michael Bernick and Robert Cervero in Transit Villages in the 21st Century:

America’s cityscape has increasingly turned its back on new mass transportation investments. Too many recently built light rail, heavy rail, and commuter rail systems in the United States feature stations enveloped by parking lots, vacant parcels, open fields, warehousing, and marginal activities. This stands in marked contrast to the colorful streetcar suburbs that sprung up along trolley lines around a century ago, or to much of urban Europe where apartments, shops, cinemas, and offices continue to cluster around rail transit stops (Bernick 1997, XI)

American railroads used to be financed privately, even in Los Angeles, where the Pacific Electric Railway system, owned by Henry Huntington, was built because “Huntington believed he could increase his fortune by coupling streetcar expansion with real estate investment – namely, purchasing inexpensive land on the metropolitan fringe and increasing its value through the provision of rail transit services” (Bernick 1997, 20). In Brooklyn, New York, many railroads were owned by developers before they were eventually subsumed by the City and State, and these developers constructed giant hotels and resorts on railroad property in Coney Island, where the masses retreated. Vukan Vuchic, transportation expert, writes that since the 1980s, public agencies have been adopting “some forms and practices of private companies for greater operational efficiency” (Vuchic 2005, 299), and to reduce “political pressures and achieve competitive pricing, public agencies contract some sections of transit services to private operators” while retaining control “to ensure that public interest is not subjugated to short-term economic efficiency” and eliminate “competition, which tends to disintegrate transit networks and lower the quality of services (Vuchic 1999, 299).

Many cities are returning to transit, such as Los Angeles, because transit has “great significance for reducing traffic congestion, offering alternative means of travel, and contributing greatly to the quality of urban life” (Vuchic 2005, XIII). Still, Americans tend to demand less public transportation funding than peer countries, partly due to existing suburban densities and lifestyles, partly due to the lower economic and ethnic homogeneity of the population in urban areas, and partly because a “large segment of the population, along with many political leaders and decision makers, has never seen or experienced the modern, efficient transit services that exist in many peer countries” (Vuchic 1999, 171). As such, American cities, with a stronger individualistic and market-focused emphasis, face problems of “economic inefficiency, environmental deterioration, and unsatisfactory quality of life” due to “the inefficiencies and other impacts of urban transportation systems” (Vuchic 1999, XVII). Value capture cannot work without accessible transit in dense areas and without coordination between land use and transportation planning. In contrast, subways in Tokyo and Hong Kong are profitable because of high densities and associated benefits, unlike sprawling American cities.

According to Joseph Monty, “one key to success may be pursuing value capture opportunities before a transit facility is built” (Monty, 2014); for instance, “looking at a potential new rail transit corridor in Louisiana, it was predicted that if zoning regulations were to allow between 25 and 60 dwelling units per acre in the areas served by the new transit, approximately 10,000 to 20,000 new residential units would be constructed over the course of 30 years” (Monty, 2014). If just 1% of the market value of that new development was captured, it could potentially match and offset the predicted deficit of the rail system (Renne, 2010). Yet in the United States, a country where 85 percent of work and non-work trips are via the automobile compared to 50 percent in Europe (Buehler, 2014), it is difficult to coordinate between various institutions. Older European cities, built for density prior to the mass ownership of the automobile, suffered after World War II, while America had ample resources and ample land to construct penetrative highways (Buehler, 2014). Corresponding land use and zoning standards allowed for vastly different urban fabrics across the pond, leading towards stronger support for public transit in Europe, as compared to the individualistic-oriented United States. These problems are faced throughout the United States, and especially in New York. Nonetheless, the MTA has been working with the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and Department of City Planning (DCP), as well as with developers, in order to dispose of MTA property. However, it is an entirely different story in Hong Kong.

Nevertheless, T.O.D. stands on its own as a way to reshape New York into a more livable, sustainable city, and the revenue provided will still help with the MTA’s maintenance and expansion costs. The MTA does not have the resources needed to develop property. The authority also has to deal directly with the public and with a fear of density, as well as antiquated zoning laws, financing requirements, and a lack of communication between the City, State, and MTA. The legal hassles that the MTA would need to pass in order to develop residential property, for instance, would far outweigh the benefits. Governments tend not to do a good job at speculative development, with additional regulations and costs obliged, such as union labor. Moreover, most of the MTA’s yards and bus depots are active assets and cannot be shut down in order to be rebuilt or overbuilt. Only a few – such as the Hudson Yards – were built with enough room between the tracks for support structures, and still, it is expensive to move around machinery on an active yard and deck the site. In far-flung locations in the outer boroughs, the real estate is just not valuable enough to pay for decking. Even if it was, zoning would need to be changed, because most of the MTA’s assets are in manufacturing districts, which limits the height of buildings and lowers the land value.

The MTA Fulton Center, a transportation hub built with eminent domain in Lower Manhattan, one block from the World Trade Center, is only four stories tall. While air rights may be transferred, the MTA could have developed a taller building in the heart of Lower Manhattan, only a few blocks from their 2 Broadway Headquarters, for which they spent billions to locate and renovate. Moreover, the Fulton Center was completed in 2014, and the retail outlets there, managed under a P3 contract, have yet to even open, signifying the extreme lack of a profit motive at the MTA. Of course, the authority may not have known if Lower Manhattan’s real estate would resurge after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, and the authority may not have wanted to compete with the Port Authority’s World Trade Center offices and retail. After all, the World Trade Center had serious vacancy problems for decades, and as a public authority, the MTA may not have wanted to deal with the outcry of the public. But these are excuses. If the authority was concerned about vacancy, it could have built its own headquarters atop the Fulton Center, as had been done historically by private railroads; indeed, the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad, the predecessor to the Port Authority’s PATH, built Hudson Terminal atop its terminal station, which is the predecessor to today’s 21st century World Trade Center.

Because railroads have fixed costs, railroad profitability rises with increased ridership, which increases with increased density. Today’s railroad hubs often do not follow the example of hubs built by private companies, leaving these opportunities for airports, which strive to be self-sustainable and self-sufficient, using commercial real estate and airline fees for revenue, instead of relying on a local tax base (Prokop, 2014). But once all of these factors are corrected, comprehensive designs for hubs with joint development and light can be designed once again in New York City, which arguably rivals the density of Tokyo and Hong Kong. Yet the political economy of these Asian cities is vastly different. In Japan, for instance, “to accelerate economic growth after World War II, the Japanese government adopted a policy of constraining consumption, encouraging savings, and reducing labor costs”, catalyzing the growth of public transit (Vuchic 1999, 156). According to Transit Villages in the 21st Century:

A century ago, America’s vast urban railway networks were built by entrepreneurs who packaged transit investments with real estate development. In Japan, and especially the Tokyo metropolitan area, this is still commonly practiced today. Nearly all suburban rail lines in greater Tokyo have been privately built, typically by large consortiums that link transit and new town development. In the United States, we have tried the model of publicly led transit and privately led land development over the past 50 years with disappointing results. (Bernick 307, 1997)

The United States is not Japan or China, and our political economy is vastly different. Public transportation is seen as a subsidy rather than an investment. Yet Danielle Dai, who researched Chicago’s joint development policies, has provided solutions:

…Adopting formal, yet flexible, joint development guidelines or policies; supporting private sector participation through workshops; exploring opportunities within the zoning ordinance to encourage more investment in transit; encouraging the new transportation authorization bill to incorporate policies for joint development, value capture, public-private partnerships in transit, and transit-oriented development; and open public forums to foster communication about joint development deals (Dai, 2011)

In the end, value capture and joint development are not new ideas. This method was applied in London when the Metropolitan Railway Company bought undeveloped parcels along its planned extensions (Enoch, 2002). Moreover, King’s Cross Station, built in 1852, is the oldest surviving terminus in London. It stands essentially across from St. Pancras, which was built twenty years later from 1865 to 1876. King’s Cross “was the largest railway station that had yet been built” (James 265, 2014) until George Gilbert Scott designed the Midland Grand Hotel and St. Pancras for the Midland Railway twenty years later (James 2014, 266). The “hotel’s Gothic revival façade gives a decorous public face to the terminal behind”, and “the combination of hotel and train station proved both convenient and profitable, but it required a very different architecture from that of King’s Cross – one that promised both cultivation and comfort” (James 2014, 266). The real estate value of the site also allowed for the space beneath the station to be used as storage for beer. Joint development had created a destination onto itself. Recently renovated, St. Pancras is the terminal for Eurostar trains to the Continent.

Privatized subways in Tokyo and in Hong Kong are profitable due to high ridership. Parts of Manhattan are denser than Tokyo and Hong Kong, but sections of New York’s outer boroughs are less dense than Los Angeles. In Hong Kong, the subway, the MTR Corporation, acts as a real estate developer and transit operator, funneling riders into its trains through its malls, apartments, and offices. New York subways were simply not built below company-owned shopping centers, and China operates under a lease-hold system, with the Hong Kong central government leasing land to the MTR for development. In America, with private property rights, this practice cannot be emulated. While the MTA cannot ‘transport’ ideas, it can ‘translate’ them. Transit-oriented development will have a marginal impact on the MTA’s finances, just as joint development could not save private railroads from bankruptcy. The political economy of the country has changed, and the MTA operates a 100-year-old system with high costs.

In conclusion, America’s public transportation agencies cannot be profitable in the 21st century due to a political economy that isolates these agencies from municipal zoning and land use policies, and from forming value capture mechanisms, from tax increment financing to joint development and the transfer of development rights. This siloization of zoning, land use, taxation, and transportation operations is largely due to American fears of density alongside protections of private property, but it limits the potential for transit-oriented and transit-owned joint development, and it hinders the formation of public-private partnerships. Local, state, and federal structural reforms are necessary in order to streamline value capture processes, such as up-zoning transportation assets and relaxing land use requirements, in order to facilitate T.O.D. While value capture will provide marginal financial benefits due to the limited assets that agencies possess, it literally stands on its own merits as a vehicle through which the urban fabric can be renewed and enhanced. Transportation agencies cannot be profitable, but they can be organized more efficiently, if given the resources necessary to practice value capture.


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While many transportation hubs will have retail opportunities, or offices atop…

Here are some highlights:




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52 Comments on “Reforming the MTA”

  1. Rayn Riel January 5, 2016 at 9:24 am #

    According to the New York Times, as a child, I was a “train fanatic who took rides to nowhere” (, so it makes sense that I’d write this…


  2. Rayn Riel April 7, 2016 at 3:29 pm #

    And, my Written Capstone Examination:

    Bridging the Transportation Finance Gap: Planning Beyond Boundaries for a Connected 21st Century


  3. Carl June 16, 2016 at 11:40 pm #

    Here is what happens with bad incentives


  4. Fred June 26, 2016 at 10:52 pm #

    Clean the Gowanus Canal! Make developers pay for it!


  5. Fred June 27, 2016 at 12:35 am #

    Sure, NYC may not be the capital of NY… But at least you have more influence on politics than residents of US territories. Then again, so many NYkers are not US citizens so perhaps they have very little influence.

    MTA may be a state agency but it is HQ in NYC!


  6. Fred June 27, 2016 at 2:11 pm #

    New Yorkers are afraid of joint development ever since the demolition of Penn Station. Even the Fulton Center, brand new, was not built tall, so they can bring “light” into the station…

    But look, so many decking opportunities…


  7. Fred June 27, 2016 at 4:18 pm #

    New York’s subway has a lot of problems but even still is one of the best in the world. We have trunk lines with local and express tracks to increase capacity, increase frequency… with 3, 4, sometimes even more tracks, multiple levels of platforms…


  8. John June 29, 2016 at 10:04 pm #

    What do urban planners have to do with this???

    The wealthiest 62 people on this planet own as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population — around 3.6 billion people. And, the top 1 percent owns more wealth than the whole of the bottom 99 percent. 

    The very, very rich enjoy unimaginable luxury while billions of people endure abject poverty, unemployment, and inadequate health care, education, housing and drinking water.

    In the last 15 years, nearly 60,000 factories in this country have closed, and more than 4.8 million well-paid manufacturing jobs have disappeared. Much of this is related to disastrous trade agreements that encourage corporations to move to low-wage countries.

    Despite major increases in productivity, the median male worker in America today is making $726 dollars less than he did in 1973, while the median female worker is making $1,154 less than she did in 2007, after adjusting for inflation.

    Nearly 47 million Americans live in poverty. An estimated 28 million have no health insurance, while many others are underinsured. Millions of people are struggling with outrageous levels of student debt. For perhaps the first time in modern history, our younger generation will probably have a lower standard of living than their parents. Frighteningly, millions of poorly educated Americans will have a shorter life span than the previous generation as they succumb to despair, drugs and alcohol.

    Meanwhile, in our country the top one-tenth of 1 percent now owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Fifty-eight percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent. Wall Street and billionaires, through their “super PACs,” are able to buy elections.


    • Mar November 26, 2016 at 6:53 pm #

      Questioning assumptions is so important. When we build our first city on mars, with 3d printers, solar power, water and air, fighting back radiation and evolving our species across time and space, we’ll be one step further towards survival and security. Language and science are the center of communication, of our species. A simple sentence tells so much – about our thought process, about how we identify groups and contexts. White man conquers another planet now, trashing it like we did the native peoples in US… it’s all politics.

      People can be so secretive, and all of that leads to poor communication and accountability. For instance, the WTC hub – who decided to have it built like that, with white marbles? Probably many people over many years, lots gets lost in the communication, not the operations engineers, who now have to maintain it, and maintain the machines that maintain it, and deal with scheduling all the cleaners and staff and financing. The MTA also has problems, how are they going to maintain the new Hudson yards station? It’s so huge, they probably will need scaffolding to clean it or to fix the lights, and then flagging, which will slow down trains, and all the elevators and escalators… It is all about costs and benefits. Balancing the union with management concerns.


  9. John July 8, 2016 at 12:11 pm #

    Like education. About politics, not teaching. Just as transit becomes about politics rather than A to B. Broken incentives. Union keeps from change. Segregated communities, segregated schools, different levels of funding due to parent contribution, failing parents, communities…


  10. Fred July 8, 2016 at 7:31 pm #

    Developers should pay not just for transit improvements but for parking for cars and BIKES … schools… etc. Thus unfortunately in a bad economy a lot of funding goes down the drain


  11. Bobby July 19, 2016 at 6:56 pm #

    At least the City helped fund the Dual Contracts. Just as the feds helped RRs build across the country with generous bonds, land, etc. Political economy has changed.


  12. Bobby July 19, 2016 at 7:56 pm #

    fix declining bus ridership!

    center lanes are necessary so there’s no turning cars, parked vehicle conflicts…

    until then, i guess they are extending the sidewalk so buses don’t have to turn in/out of the parking lane to pick-up passengers


  13. John July 20, 2016 at 10:58 am #

    The tube has narrower stations than NYCT, narrower trains… few platform gates… and they are also very crowded and congested. But they don’t need platform gates to keep the tracks clean from trash. What we suffer from here is mismanagement.


    • John July 20, 2016 at 11:47 am #

      The MTA website is pretty good. accessibility, customer service, employment, faqs, business services, transparency info, service, maps, fares, tolls, schedules, news, trip planner… learning about sandy work, capital program, safety, sexual conduct, fastrack, tourism, new buses, wifi, help points, on the go, SBS, travel time, civil rights, cashless tolling, metrocard advertising, on the go kiosk advertising, capital plan expansions, sustainability… art, developer resources… so much going on!

      i particular like tolls by mail, makes cars go thru faster, less congestion, emission, waste of gas


  14. Bobby July 21, 2016 at 9:35 pm #

    HR makes everything harder, all the bureaucracy, paperwork, titles, who knows when things will get done. just politics, bad management… like a bad car service dispatcher, estimating time/cost a lot sooner/cheaper than it really is… with OT, delays, raising costs even more… too bad we can’t still trade in our tokens.


  15. Nysolar July 29, 2016 at 5:39 pm #

    people need to stop holding doors! it creates a gap in service. more crowding further down the line due to delay. then more dwell time. makes it so much worse. need wider platforms, staircases, more DATA to make good decisions… countdown clocks on A div is great since one can decide to get out and wait for express or keep going local. every second counts. And stop littering.. blocking doors

    crowding is a symptom of another problem, not a problem itself… it’s about passenger loads, service plans, construction plans, ridership, schedules, station designs, fleet…


  16. Mark July 30, 2016 at 8:59 am #

    brooklyn bridge park, a great reclaimed industrial area for the public (nyc deindustrializing)… funded by real estate, condos on the site!

    notice south street seaport being rebuilt in manhattan

    what a lovely city..
    and now the bridge is reopening:


  17. Friedrich July 31, 2016 at 2:34 pm #

    It is really quite simple. Leaders don’t know what’s going on, on the ground, and under the ground… So how can they reform, sitting in their offices? And if they try to gain experience and see how things work, before they reform policies, they will be treated as auditors and won’t get the real deal. I see this all the time.


    • Rex September 15, 2016 at 6:05 pm #

      Well, the state is the real auditor, especially for platform cleanliness KPIs


  18. Alex August 2, 2016 at 8:14 pm #

    In sprawling cities, subways do not make sense… no ridership for it. Or, ridership, but every hour. At the same time, if you have a dense place, but low frequency, reliability, people are not going to wait and they will just drive. All about supply and demand.


  19. urbphile August 13, 2016 at 7:15 pm #

    NYC needs more one-man operation! Even the L, automated with CBTC, has a conductor and a motorman! The motorman just is there for an emergency and presses a button (dead man’s switch) to make sure he is not asleep. (With platform screen doors, no need for a motorman, since no one will jump into the tracks… but now, the motorman on the L can clearly also be the conductor. There are screens/cameras at the front of the platform for the motorman to look at the whole platform… )

    here in paris they have automated trains, and platform screen doors. the train are all the same size so they can be aligned with the platform screen doors. the L is all the same size too.étro_Line_14étro_Line_1

    But no. Surprised they don’t still use tokens, old signage… surprised the whole system does not look like the transit museum! I

    n the New York City area, most subway trains over 300 feet (91 m) are operated by a two-man crew of a motorman and a conductor.[60]

    The following New York City Subway services and rolling stock are used for one-man operation as of November 2013:

    Full-time one-man operation:
    Franklin Avenue Shuttle (R68)[2]
    Rockaway Park Shuttle (R46)[2]

    Part-time one-man operation:
    5 train during late nights (R142)[2]
    A train on Ozone Park – Lefferts Boulevard branch during late nights (R46)[2]
    G train late nights & weekends (R68, R68A)[2]
    M train during off-peak hours (R160)[2]

    With modern urban and suburban railway systems, the driver is typically alone in an enclosed cab. Automatic devices were already beginning to be deployed on newer installations of the New York City Subway system in the early 20th century. The Malbone Street Wreck on the Brooklyn Rapid Transit system in 1918, though not caused by driver incapacitation, did spur the need for universal deployment of such devices to halt trains in the event of the operator’s disability.

    In most modern locomotives, an “alerter” is used. This system, based on vigilance control works by alerting the motorman or engineer with a buzz or bell every few minutes or so. If he or she does not push a button on the driver’s console, the “alerter” system will automatically put the train into a full emergency brake application. To acknowledge the alert and thus prevent penalty brake application, the engineer or motorman reaches down to press the button and reset the system. Most major railroads in the United States and abroad use this system both in their freight and passenger operations. It is also used on the R143 and other New York City Subway cars while under CBTC operation. Older locomotives produced before 1995 do not carry this feature, but given the modular nature of the system it is not uncommon to find them retrofitted

    In modern New York City Subway trains, for example, the dead man’s switch is incorporated into the train’s speed control. On the R142A car, the train operator must continually hold the lever in place in order for the train to move.

    Entry into an occupied block is prevented by an automatic train protection system (ATP), which supervises both manual and ATC operation and stops the train well before it would enter an occupied block.

    Signaling and operation on the Washington Metro system involves train control, station identification, train signaling, signage, and train length. As with any working railroad, communication between train operators, dispatchers, station personnel and passengers is critical. Failures will result in delays, accidents, and even fatalities. It is therefore important that a comprehensive signal system operated by a central authority be in place. This gives individual train and station operators the information they need to safely and efficiently perform their tasks.


  20. performetro August 18, 2016 at 10:35 am #

    Reforming our performance!!!???

    “A recurring challenge facing North American transit managers in today’s economic climate is the persistent question of how to do more with less – not only to maintain but to improve service in the face of deficits of historic proportions, and against a background of public pressure to reduce government costs. MTA New York City Transit (NYCT) has responded to that challenge by re-tooling its performance measurement frameworks to better capture performance from a customer’s perspective, respond to management system improvement initiatives, and better incentivize operating decisions that deliver excellent customer service.

    NYCT’s key operating performance indicators as measured from a customer’s perspective have traditionally been in two areas: on-time performance (OTP), and service quality indicators (SQI). The main OTP measure method is called Wait Assessment (WA), designed to measure wait times experienced by customers waiting to board at a station stop. WA applies an analytical algorithm on departure times of all vehicles passing a time point. Initially defined as % of intervals between trains that does not exceed a +2 minutes peak/+4 minutes off-peak threshold more than the scheduled headway, the algorithm has undergone numerous refinements.

    WA standard was modified to within +25% of the scheduled headway, thereby making it relative performance measure that is stricter for lines with more frequent service. However, this pass/fail standard does not give any information on the distribution of service intervals not meeting standard, thus it was further refined to use a distribution for failing intervals provides customers a more detailed view of system performance, planned to be effective beginning January 2012. At this time NYCT is considering setting WA standards for shared-track territory, treating different routes as the same service corridor and analyzing performance of trains sharing track together regardless of their route designation.

    Upgrading a previous sample-based method that gathered limited data manually, extensive data was downloaded from the Automated Train Supervision (ATS) to provide 100% coverage and much lower time-lag for compiling performance measures. This allowed near-term corrective action by operations supervisors.”


    • performetro August 18, 2016 at 10:48 am #

      “A recurring challenge facing transit managers today is the persistent question of how to do more with less—to maintain and improve service despite deficits of historic proportions. New York City Transit (NYCT) responded by re-tooling performance measurement frameworks and procedures to better capture customers’ perspective, respond to management initiatives, and incentivize proper operating 6 decisions. NYCT’s primary performance measure, Wait Assessment (WA), measures customers’ maximum wait times while waiting to board at stations. Defined as percent of headways between trains not exceeding 125% of scheduled headways, a “Reach and Match” algorithm was developed to account for NYCT’s irregularly scheduled service and ensure customer experienced headways are matched to the specific published scheduled headway in effect at that moment, regardless of which scheduled trip was supposed to arrive. Upgrading sample-based methods that gathered limited data manually, track- occupancy data was downloaded from the Automated Train Supervision (ATS) system for the No.1 through No.6 routes, providing 100% coverage, much lower public reporting time-lag, and the ability to take near-term corrective action. The increase in data availability also allows NYCT to easily consider corridor-level and track-level WA standards for internal diagnostic purposes, analyzing train performance in shared-track territory regardless of route designations, to provide better service.”


    • Yokoinu September 14, 2016 at 5:35 pm #

      • The MTA has stated that “wait assessment” is the best way to measure customer experience with respect to service reliability. However, wait assessment performance did not improve during our audit period. The goal for meeting the weekday wait assessment standard was 79.4 percent for 2013 and 80.7 percent for 2014 and 2015, with the actual results of 80.3 percent for 2013 and 78.8 percent for 2014. As of June 2015, the year-to-date assessment performance was 78.4 percent or 2.3 percent below the standard.

      • Wait assessment was calculated as a simple mathematical average: the wait assessment percentages for each line were added and the sum divided by the number of lines. This approach lets smaller lines that operate less frequently or shuttle services that provide limited service to carry the same weight in the overall average as a line that runs more frequently over a longer distance. For example, the E train with 199 trains and wait assessment of 74.5 percent and the C train with 108 trains per weekday and a wait assessment of 81 percent carry equal weight in the overall system-wide average. This likely resulted in higher system-wide averages for wait assessment, as lines with lower frequency and shuttles tend to have better wait assessment rates than lines that run more frequently. Further, the public is not made aware of this.

      • Transit addresses on a day-to-day basis the immediate causes for not meeting wait assessment goals. However, Transit has not developed a full and comprehensive plan to deal with the longterm causes of service disruptions, including matters related to major structural and technology improvements.


      • Yokoinu September 14, 2016 at 5:48 pm #

        OTP is just based on total number of scheduled trips, which is GOOD! The 4 or 5 have more trips than the G, for instance, so the indicator is more ACCURATE than if Wait Assessment is an average of one shuttle train being equally weighted with the 4 or 5…

        But, WA is an average because B division is measured at intermediate points (to measure headways), and this is done manually because there is no ATS from the RCC to measure it like on A division… At terminals, I-TRAC and electronic recording are used for OTP and there are people there to record it permanently (ATS for A Division), which is not the case at intermediate stations…

        So they could get people permanently there, or use the platform controllers… to fix this problem, or get the new signal system eventually… which would allow for countdown clocks…

        Back in the day, it was all paper sheets, all the numbers were often fudged probably. They probably are still largely meaningless and inaccurate. Latest board book shows overcrowding delays increasing even though ridership is declining. I feel dispatchers are just saying what they’re hearing — the system is “overcrowded” — so they write that down. Really, who knows which delay caused which incident, and there were probably many different delay causes but they have to pick one. Planned work goes down in the winter because of the weather and the holidays, so they won’t pick that one as often, but a lot of it is just… random


  21. performetro August 18, 2016 at 10:55 am #

    “New York City Transit (NYCT) operates the third largest subway system in the world (by annual ridership), carrying about 5.0 million riders on an average weekday. The subway system extends 830 track miles through four boroughs, covering a service area of 321 square miles and serving a population of 8.0 million people 24-hours, seven days a week. NYCT’s predominant role is to ensure that trains and buses operate safely, reliably, on-time, and provide convenient services to the customer in a cost effective manner. One of the tools available to ensure the mission is being carried out properly is an independent performance audit infrastructure—outside of both the operations management and the customer advocacy groups—and continuous applied research and improvements in not only monitoring methodologies but also how the service can be improved”


  22. performetro August 18, 2016 at 11:05 am #


    NYCT’s key operating performance indicators as measured from a customer’s perspective have traditionally been in two areas: on-time performance (OTP), and service quality indicators (SQI). The main OTP measure method is called Wait Assessment (WA), designed to measure wait times experienced by customers waiting to board at a station stop.

    As it was first conceived, Wait Assessment was an absolute measure of relative performance. It’s an absolute measure because the thresholds of what constitutes an acceptable excess wait time [10] is a fixed quantity for a given time period (+2 minutes peak/+4 minutes off-peak). However, it is a measure of relative performance because it is based on headways between trains—obtained by comparing a train’s departure time with its predecessor, and not by comparing a train’s departure time with the fixed schedule. The rationale for this was to provide a customer with a “Bill of Rights”, a fixed standard of excess wait time above which the service interval is considered unacceptable.

    Statistical measures of service reliability, such as root-mean-squared average passenger wait time [7], were considered too complex for use as public measures. NYCT developed simplified version of the algorithms that are more easily understood. The result was Wait Assessment (WA). This design of the PI program achieves a duality of purposes:
    1. To provide the public with measurements that are clearly defined, easily verifiable, readily understandable, and realistically represent the many factors that impact their riding experience, such that NYCT can be held accountable to its core mission.
    2. To provide quantitative information to operating personnel that can be used to diagnose and correct service problems, and to improve overall performance.



    A recurring challenge facing transit managers today is the persistent question of how to do more with less—to maintain and improve service despite deficits of historic proportions. New York City Transit (NYCT) responded by re-tooling performance measurement frameworks and procedures to better capture customers’ perspective, respond to management initiatives, and incentivize proper operating decisions. NYCT’s primary performance measure, Wait Assessment (WA), measures customers’ maximum wait times while waiting to board at stations. Defined as percent of headways between trains not exceeding 125% of scheduled headways, a “Reach and Match” algorithm was developed to account for NYCT’s irregularly scheduled service and ensure customer experienced headways are matched to the specific published scheduled headway in effect at that moment, regardless of which scheduled trip was supposed to arrive. Upgrading sample-based methods that gathered limited data manually, track-occupancy data was downloaded from the Automated Train Supervision (ATS) system for the No.1 through No.6 routes, providing 100% coverage, much lower public reporting time-lag, and the ability to take near-term corrective action. The increase in data availability also allows NYCT to easily consider corridor-level and track-level WA standards for internal diagnostic purposes, analyzing train performance in shared-track territory regardless of route designations, to provide better service.

    NYCT is unique in North America in providing frequent service throughout the day over multiple interconnected routes. During rush hours, all routes have typical headways between 2 and 8 minutes with minor exceptions, and passengers do not generally arrive according to prescribed schedules; instead they arrive at stations at random times since they know they will not have a long wait. NYCT’s publicly available timetables do not generally give exact arrival times; instead they may say, e.g., service is TRB 2013 Annual Meeting Paper revised from original submittal. Levine, B., et al. Page 4 provided every 4~7 minutes on Northbound “5” route on weekdays. During most off-peak hours, standard service headway is 10 minutes or more frequent, whereas in overnight periods, policy headway is every 20 minutes. Another feature of scheduled subway service is that headways on trunk lines are rarely uniform, due to interactions between routes of different service frequency at flat junctions or merge points.

    NYC subway, an amalgamation of three previously independent subway systems, required a good deal of passengers to transfer trains to get to their final destination; passengers are thus generally more concerned about waiting time, than on-time performance at the train’s terminus.

    The Performance Indicator (PI) program was established in 1994 in response to the MTA Inspector General’s research recommending the need for measures of service reliability other than the traditional Terminal On-Time Performance (TOTP). TOTP is a good operational measure for commuter railroads where the majority of customers are traveling to the final stop in the central business district (CBD). However, transit routes tend to drop off and pick-up many passengers at intermediate stations, which requires more sophisticated measures capable of blending waiting time and travel time experiences from a customer perspective. Turnquist and Bowman (5) describe the effects of network structure on service reliability. They find that controlling link travel time variability and scheduling to ensure easy transfers are both important, and that that service reliability is very sensitive to frequency of service. This becomes a key factor in the NYCT subway system and requires a reliability measure that can distinguish between minor differences in service.

    Service during overnight periods is provided less frequently; WA is not calculated during these periods since many people arrive according to schedule, making on-time performance a more important measure.



    • performetro August 18, 2016 at 11:25 am #

      Though, delay data could also be collected along the route (electronic data is collected and sent to the rail control center for processing at terminals), and delays certainly occur at some point from terminal to terminal… If trains are not kept to schedule, that’s when the gaps start happening, which harm WA and terminal OTP! both OTP and WA are important… And then trains are late to terminal, late to depart, etc etc

      platform controllers need to tell passengers to spread across entire platform, and they need to keep trains moving, churning passengers, so they don’t get all clogged up and bottlenecked. the countdown clocks will help, because passengers will know that another one is coming soon. or they can just use another train.

      soon, countdown clocks from WiFi connectors on the trains:

      these are the “hubs” for the help points… so many wires down there!


      • Sammy August 22, 2016 at 12:26 pm #

        Trains need to go FAST into stations… no excuse. Acela goes super fast thru stations it does not even stop at… Change the TWU safety culture, make it a SPEED culture, or else we will slow down, our economy will slow down, disconnect…

        Even the NEC, which is revenue-positive, one of the few rail corridors where it makes sense to have rail, is slower than European corridors. Most of the US is too sparsely populated for rail to make sense, but the NEC has cities close enough for rail to be faster than plane travel, since you go from center city to center city, and arrive with mass transit options, so it is convenient. But, the NEC has sharp curves and few dedicated sections for high speed, due to commuter rail operations which are slower, imposing speed limits. The NEC is also very dense, cities sprawl into each other, so acquiring land is expensive to straighten out the system. In Europe, there are higher gax taxes, stricter land use regulations to protect farmland, because they are more comfortable with central authority unlike the US, founded to be independent and individual. (Also, they have less space, so they need to preserve farmland.) We havae aging bridges, outdated catenary and signals, uncoordinated scheduling, and little investment in rail. Thus, this is the result.


  23. performetro August 18, 2016 at 12:08 pm #

    most A division towers are now abandoned… all done in the RCC due to ATS-A, the signal blocks are seen from central control, automated the schedule there, the merges… unlike in B div

    Abandoned stations…


  24. Sammy August 22, 2016 at 11:21 am #

    They need to find a balance, between speed and safety, between the unions and management, between raising fares and cutting waste… Just as Fresh Kills Park in Staten Island, on the former landfill, has created a balance… It produces biogas from all of the waste, and it is a former dump, yet it is being turned into a park… and the grass is kept a bit high for animals and birds to nest, yet not too high, to go out of control and damage the landfill foundation…


  25. Bigg August 23, 2016 at 1:26 pm #

    Yes, this is a bureaucracy, and they are not going to change easily. Most of the rules make no sense and take time and money away from doing things that matter. They don’t coordinate, communicate, because no reason to do so. No incentives. Paid regardless of performance.

    The Board and all of its committees – real estate, NYCT – are largely… non-visionary…


  26. performta August 23, 2016 at 3:51 pm #

    Cleaners making the subway dirty, platform controllers holding the doors, what’s next?! Let’s get Strategic Initiatives to fix this!


    Interesting study! So, no increased F service if half go express, because they still share same track on the rest of line, and there are capacity constraints, rolling stock constraints… And, the G runs local, so people should be fine. But, if the local/exp trains arrive at stations at the same time, people can switch, platforms may be more crowded, but over all, it will save time! all within loading guidelines.


    • Sam August 23, 2016 at 4:31 pm #

      Yes! the switches, signals, merges, debris, water issues, signage, ROW, MOW, track, all those details. capacity constraints, terminal, tracks, flexibility, weather, unions, number of cars, how cleaned maintained, flagging rules, signal issues, how everything is logged and recorded, the frequency speed cost fare beaters station environments… budget, procurement, lighting design stairs close to street, ADA, ATS, tower operations, cbtc, electronic train records, general orders, abandonments, headways, gap trains, late trains…

      all of that and more, here:

      Subways are very capital intensive, but they then should be cheap to operate, due to their efficiency. Once you get the rolling stock, get it designed to the specifications, you can get going. Thus LIRR and MNR did a joint procurement for their new trains.


      • heteropolitan trans authority August 29, 2016 at 1:32 pm #

        Subway is so complex – all the ADA pavers, escalators, elevators… hard to keep it running, through all the variances, procurements, ridership changes, crowds, weather, debris, delays, police, ROW work, car equipment, potential collisions and derailments, employee issues, fires… climate change…


  27. Hank September 3, 2016 at 2:24 pm #

    There is no incentive to control costs. Especially due to public sector unions.


  28. Albequek September 13, 2016 at 7:41 pm #

    Many stations’ platforms were extended back in the 40s, including IRT Broadway… Too bad they got rid of skip stop. Or rush hour express (there is 1 express track but I guess it ends after 137 underground yard so it is really for yard layups)… But good they are fixing those deep stations. Some of the oldest in subway. But they stop some trains early before getting to terminal and bring them around during rush for more efficient service. It probably causes gaps in service, along with intermodal connections/door holding, for the Bee-Line in the Bx, Metro-North, A/C line… and, the old South Ferry has only 5 cars, so people have to walk to the front 5 cars at rector, causing more delays for the city of arts, culture, neighborhoods… what about fixing this???

    The 9 train had served as a way to help get people living uptown to their destinations faster by offering skip-stop service (the 1 would go local). But now that there are more trains overall, and more people living uptown, the 9 is an old-fashioned throwback.

    Lawrence Reuter, President of NYC Transit, told the Times:
    “Skip-stop service on the 1 line is an idea which today doesn’t make sense for our operations or our customers. By eliminating skip-stop service, the majority of riders along the 1 line will benefit from shorter travel times and will no longer have to stand on platforms as trains pass them by during rush hour.”

    So many rules and regulations for operating this complex complex machine!–City_College_(IRT_Broadway–Seventh_Avenue_Line)

    obama worked to clean 137th!


  29. Sink September 17, 2016 at 6:34 pm #

    reform liquor laws


  30. Wixx September 18, 2016 at 12:25 pm #

    Aviation is also very interesting. Unlike trains, it’s really just from terminal to terminal. No real discussion of headways or wait assessment. It’s just OTP.

    And that depends a lot on various factors – maintenance problems, fueling, weather, airline glitches, congestion, late arrival of crews, security issues…

    There are more and more passengers at our airports – LGA was designed for far fewer people. Now, the terminals are too small, not enough room for security… and more and more delays, crowds, lines through security, to the gate, onto plane, to runway…

    (LGA is so tight and narrow, there’s just not much space, which can be good, since it takes time to taxi to runways and more time at bigger airports… LGA, EWR, JFK all have lots of delays, similar percentage.. and there are more and more rules stalling planes

    15 minutes or more and they’re late, so airlines have been adding time to schedules, playing with the numbers. LGA has been trying to renovate the terminals and connect them together, etc. And connect it to mass transit.

    But just look at the ridership at these airports. It’s boomed. And it’s all really one airport in the region, air traffic control needs to coordinate to all three.

    The recession decreased ridership a bit (same on subways), but delays still go up… on the subway – more rules, signal changes, flagging changes, maintenance issues, better data collection methods…

    What to do, what to do…

    They even closed airports, like


  31. Binok September 20, 2016 at 3:22 pm #

    The vending machines are sometimes broken and people intentionally break them all so that people buy from the scammers, but apparently when they are broken, a signal is sent to HQ to come and fix.


  32. Binok September 21, 2016 at 6:10 pm #

    The majority of the subway stations were built in the early 1900’s with ventilation systems using the piston action of subway cars forcing air through a series of vents to/from the sidewalk. While newest stations at Hudson Yards and Second Avenue have built-in air tempering, it would be extraordinarily difficult and expensive to retrofit existing stations with such a system. Stations are surveyed to rate condition, including lighting, so people feel safe. And escalators and elevators. And subway car interiors are cleaned all the time, hvac fixed, etc.

    Lol, second avenue subway and hudson yards will cause more delays and planned work.

    Considerably worse were spikes in both hate crimes and air-conditioning failures, record system-wide overcrowding, the looming shutdown of the indispensable L train, and—salt in the wound—a fare hike, effective next month. The ten-best list was perhaps harder to pull together, there being a shallower pool. Hats off to more Wi-Fi service and countdown clocks, and a fleet of newly designed cars. Top of the list, however, was momentous, and a bit of a no-brainer: the début of the Second Avenue subway, which opened to great fanfare at noon on New Year’s Day—ninety-seven years after it was first conceived.

    The New York City subway opened in 1904. City-built but leased to private enterprise, the system grew fast, and then more or less stopped growing before the Second World War began, when the city took control. Maintenance fell off, too, so that by the time the state took over, in the sixties, the upkeep backlog strained the M.T.A.’s finances and capabilities and made any visions of new stations or lines unrealistic. We all know about the seventies: the system went to pieces, ridership and revenue plunged, and the Warriors came out to play. In the nineties, boom times, better governance and policing, new equipment, and the introduction of the MetroCard reversed the trend. In the past quarter century, ridership has almost doubled—it’s nosing up toward two billion a year now—while capacity has hardly increased.

    Since 1880, there had been an elevated railway on the avenue, which brought soot, noise, and gloom to the neighborhood—and therefore diminished the value of its real estate. Turner wrote, “It should be borne in mind that it is not contemplated that the comprehensive transit scheme in its entirety should be undertaken at once but that it should be proceeded with gradually and continuously.” Gradually, indeed: a modified version of the plan, approved in 1929, was quickly undone by the Depression, and then by the war. Still, the city went ahead and demolished the Second Avenue El, in 1942, and the Third Avenue El, in 1956, leaving the East Side, amid a boom in new apartment buildings, with nothing but the Lexington subway line, which, even in 1920, was described by Turner as “heavily overcrowded.” “In a relatively short time the existing subway will be wholly unable to meet the transit requirements of the East Side of Manhattan,” he wrote.

    The yoke wasn’t really taken up again until the sixties. In 1965, as the era of Robert Moses and his car-centric building schemes wound down, Governor Nelson Rockefeller created the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Authority. In 1968, the M.C.T.A. took over the N.Y.C. Transit Authority and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (Robert Moses’s base of operations) and dropped the C. The M.T.A., an arm of the state, was now in charge of the subways. It was able to raise money for transit as a result of the federal government’s Mass Transit Act of 1964. Mayor John Lindsay supported the so-called Program for Action, or the Grand Design, an ambitious regional rail plan, conceived by the M.T.A., which imagined an array of new subway lines, including forty miles of new track in Queens and the revival of the Second Avenue idea. This iteration would run from the Bronx to the Battery, and be ready to roll by 1982. Phase I would cost two hundred and twenty million dollars. Construction commenced on three tunnel segments in 1972 but was soon halted, because of the fiscal crisis. Ed Koch, who became mayor in 1978, suggested that the abandoned tunnels be used to grow mushrooms.

    The Second Avenue subway persisted, like a fungus. Governor George Pataki took it up in the nineties, pushing for the so-called East Side Access project. (East Side Access, our Big Dig, is made up of a new East River tunnel and a new subterminal at Grand Central to allow the Long Island Rail Road, which terminates at Penn Station, access to the East Side. Its final cost is now estimated at eleven billion dollars, nearly three times the original estimate, and it is still five years from completion.) Transportation planners knew that an L.I.R.R. station would add even more riders to the Lexington line. At the beginning of the last decade, consensus emerged among planners that the Second Avenue subway was the most practicable solution to the problem, even if every mention of it provoked what one planner called a “Pavlovian chuckle.”

    Breaking ground in April, 2007, the M.T.A. fell down a rabbit hole of engineering challenges, operational folly, and nimby (or really imby) grievance. The decision was made to go deep: dynamite and bore the Seventy-second and Eighty-sixth Street station caverns (“shoot and blast”) rather than dig a trench from above (“cut and cover”), in order to avoid the jungle of utilities immediately belowground and also to spare the people living along the route—more than a hundred thousand per square mile—as much as possible from the damage, dirt, and noise. This was hard to do. Crews had to blast the bedrock and remove all the spoils while a busy, dense neighborhood aboveground tried to pretend it wasn’t under siege. Surveys of two hundred and twenty-five buildings identified foundations that needed bolstering, leaning tenements that had to be propped up, and detaching façades that had to be reinforced, all on the taxpayer dime. The M.T.A. built half-block-long muck houses to contain the debris and the fumes from the dynamite blasts, and the spoils as they were loaded onto supertrucks and borne away from Manhattan. Eventually, the neighborhood revolted over the explosions, which were going as late as 10:30 p.m. (“That was stupid and inappropriate on our part,” Horodniceanu said), and so the M.T.A. decreed that the daily blasts end between 7 and 8 p.m.—the kind of modification thereafter cited to account for its trouble meeting the deadline.

    Horodniceanu, a courtly civil engineer who was born in Romania and later fought with the Israeli Army in the Six-Day War, took up the cause of community relations. He became something of a Second Avenue subway celebrity, known to all as Michael H., a bow tie among the hardhats and the lapel pins. The four-hundred-and-eighty-five-ton tunnel-boring machine was named after his granddaughter, Adi. He led seventy-three Saturday tours of the tunnels, went door to door to assuage local shopkeepers, and cooked for the construction workers at a neighborhood restaurant, though there wasn’t much he could do about a plague of flies—a result, he theorized, of the excavation of all the old hops the neighborhood’s long-gone breweries had dumped into the ground.

    The Ninety-sixth Street station, situated in shallower ground, was cut and cover. The ground in a tunnel section just south of it was too soft for the boring machine, which was engineered for schist, so to solidify the ground the engineers had to freeze it, which they did by drilling holes and inserting a web of more than a hundred refrigeration tubes, averaging around seventy feet long. This took four or five months. Each lateral twenty-foot segment of excavation required the insertion of slurry walls and a system of horizontal struts to support them so that the surrounding earth, and therefore the sidewalks and buildings, wouldn’t collapse into the excavated pits. All the utilities—asbestos-shrouded steam pipes, old cast-iron water mains, electricity cables, natural-gas lines, and the Empire City ducts containing cable and telephone wires—had to be diverted as well. At one point, a diver had to descend into a slurry wall—a frogman Santa wielding an underwater welding torch fifty feet down a chimney full of muck—to free up some steel that had got caught.

    Such contortions came at a steep price. Phase I cost $4.5 billion, by the state’s accounting. Per mile, it’s the most expensive rail project ever built, and several times the cost of new subway lines in London and Paris. Phase II, though shorter in distance and with the advantage of some tunnel segments left over from the false start in the seventies, has been projected to cost even more: six billion dollars. In an era of straitened budgets, obligations of this magnitude can make ambitious infrastructure hard to justify, no matter the system’s requirements. There are many culprits: population density, the nature of the schist, the desire to appease the neighbors, the size of the stations, which the M.T.A. attributes to ever more stringent fire and safety regulations. (The stations, not the tunnels and the tracks, accounted for the greatest share of the cost.) You could write a treatise on the convoluted inanities and inefficiencies of state-run construction projects. In this one, for example, each station had a different contractor, who in turn, and often obliviously, tapped the same subcontractors and suppliers, leading to shortages, logistical headaches, and, yes, delays. One imagines cheaper options. Benjamin Kabak, the author of the blog Second Ave. Sagas and a critic of the project’s high cost, recently tweeted a photo of a cop talking to El Chapo, a celebrated tunneller, after he was extradited to New York: “So we just opened this new subway,” the caption read. “It took 10 years to build 2 miles.”

    Cuomo distances himself from the outlay, if not the goods. “I wasn’t there when they designed it,” he said. “Are we building extravagant facilities? Are we wasting money? These are legitimate questions. But I don’t think it applies here. The Second Avenue subway has a very austere construction. Only thing you can point to as extravagant is the public art. And I would argue that this isn’t extravagant.” (Altogether, the installations at the four stations cost $4.5 million, a tenth of one per cent of the budget, according to the M.T.A.)

    His own biggest extravagance, perhaps, was to insist on the deadline, since the work-acceleration agreements with the contractors cost the M.T.A. sixty-six million dollars (though this might have saved them money in the long run). The hands-on approach can have other, hidden costs. Cuomo’s objection, during a final walk-through last year, to some design elements in a new concourse at Penn Station prompted twenty-five million dollars in expenditures and a delay of more than half a year. (The Governor’s office said that the modifications were necessary and that the objections were not solely Cuomo’s.)

    The Second Avenue subway was the brainchild and the ward of many who preceded Cuomo; he adopted it late and then smothered it with so much attention that you’d have thought the baby was his. By this past fall, Cuomo was holding weekly meetings with contractors and subs. “It was the L.B.J. approach,” his adviser Rick Cotton said. “Love and fear.” The Governor began showing up at the stations unannounced, several days a week, at off hours, and getting on the phone with contractors and suppliers to convey what you might call urgency.
    Cuomo said, “We told them, if you fail on this project, that’s going to be taken into consideration on all the other state projects you bid on.”

    Tom Prendergast, the M.T.A.’s outgoing chairman, characterized the ultimatum thus: “You want to work here? Deliver.”

    The tricky stuff, as the deadline neared, wasn’t the tracks or the signalling. It was the complexity of integrating various computerized systems in the stations, and the vexing nature of vertical transportation: that is, the elevators and escalators. The Governor, in weekly meetings, went around the room grilling the vertical-transportation contractors. This fall, it came to light that someone had forgotten to order a required elevator-safety device called a shunt trip breaker. “The shunt trip breaker. The nemesis to all modern-day construction,” the Governor said. Soon, Michael H. was on the phone with a supplier in the Dominican Republic—a sub to a sub to a sub—negotiating the price of a pair of bespoke shunt trip breakers.

    Cuomo, in his second term, has become infatuated with public works. He casts himself not only as a bulwark of progressivism in the age of Trump but also as a master builder, in the tradition of Robert Moses. He emphasizes Moses’s visions and successes, while glossing over his methods and abuses. He likes to say, as he did last month at his State of the State speech, at One World Trade Center, “New York has lived off its inheritance for too long.” He told me, “Somewhere along the way, we lost our confidence or our ambition or our mojo for big projects. We used to build big things.” Governors are remembered for what they build, not for what bills they pass, especially if they aspire to higher office—which Cuomo, of course, will not cop to. He has some big projects under way (a new Tappan Zee Bridge, a new Penn Station, a new LaGuardia Airport, the East Side Access) and some others in mind (a new J.F.K., a freight tunnel under New York Harbor), any one of which, some speculate, might one day bear the name of his father, if not the son. The début of the Second Avenue subway was the show pony of his New Year’s master-builder tour, trotted out among references to the state’s great historical public works. Still, it’s a bit of a stretch to compare three subway stops to the Erie Canal or the Brooklyn Bridge.

    Politicians get clear of boondoggles when they can. No one, you’ll note, has jumped up to take the blame for the Oculus debacle, Santiago Calatrava’s four-billion-dollar railway hub and dinosaur skeleton. The authorities, the infrastructure entities initially devised to transcend politics, spread accountability so thin that the elected officials who stack them with appointees get to bob and weave. The city itself doesn’t always have much say in what it becomes. And the way projects are given priority has less to do with real regional planning or economic good sense than with the caprices of government horse-trading and funding.
    Everyone always talks about how much better other cities’ subway systems are: Paris, London, Tokyo, Singapore, Seoul. New York has a few competitive disadvantages: its trains run 24/7, and, in spite of its self-regard, it is not its nation’s undisputed urban center and showpiece, and therefore not the beneficiary of outsized attention and funds. Also, the governance of the city’s transit system is so convoluted, amid a tangle of state and city ownership, obligation, and deflection, that decisions, much less good ones, are hard to come by. When an L.I.R.R. train derailed last month while entering a station in Brooklyn, it was almost comical to watch Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio try to outmaneuver each other for political advantage. (Cuomo rushed to the scene, while De Blasio decided he had better things to do: let the jockeying begin.) Though fellow Democrats and Clintonites, they have nevertheless carried on a long-running feud that can only partly be explained by customary tensions between city and state. It was hard to see much beyond personal pique that led them (and their staffs) to squabble in December over the jurisdiction of a stray deer that turned up in a Harlem housing project. (The deer died while in city custody awaiting state intervention.) The acrimony doesn’t help advance otherwise popular and commendable ideas, such as MetroCard discounts for the poor. (The city and the state each say the other should fund it.)

    You had to wonder if one of the reasons Cuomo spent so much time peacocking on Second Avenue was to stick it to de Blasio in his own back yard. De Blasio, for his part, downplayed the advent of the new subway, even though its northern terminus is three blocks from Gracie Mansion, the Mayor’s residence. Technically, the state runs the subways, so his deferral to Cuomo makes sense in terms of structure, if not exposure. The Mayor has so far declined to work the Q into his commute to City Hall. This is in large part because he chooses to travel most mornings by chauffeured S.U.V., under police escort, from the Upper East Side to the Y.M.C.A. in his old neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, in order to work out. Afterward, he is driven back across the East River to City Hall. His exercise regimen is reportedly a half hour on a stationary bike. The geographical illogic smarts. He might as well make a side trip to Staten Island for an egg-and-cheese.

    To many New Yorkers, it was galling to see one of the city’s whiter and more affluent neighborhoods get a new line, when so many precincts outside Manhattan are so ill-served. The cutoff at Ninety-sixth Street, the traditional dividing line between East Harlem and the Upper East Side—between brown and white—was conspicuous, reminiscent of the scene in the 1984 John Sayles film “The Brother from Another Planet,” in which a subway magician says to the protagonist, as the uptown A train pulls into Columbus Circle, “Wanna see me make all the white people disappear?” (“125th Street next.”) Phases II, III, and IV, if they ever come to pass, should mitigate this sense that Yorkville has been granted its own special commuter spur, a Trump-era twist on the Waldorf-Astoria’s private stop. It will be interesting to see if these other neighborhoods get the same consideration, when it comes time to cut and cover, or shoot and blast. Who will be Harlem’s Michael H.

    In planning terms, however, the question is how many people, not what kind. The line went where the people were. By the end of January, it was taking on a hundred and fifty-five thousand riders a day. As it stands, the new subway is a godsend for Yorkville residents commuting to Times Square or Madison Square Garden or anywhere else downtown and west—a trip that until January, 2017, always involved some kind of less-than-optimal but certainly conversation-inducing combination of rides.

    To the extent that mass transit is a city’s lifeblood, its role is not just to drain but to nourish. It not only follows density; it creates it. One of the main rationales for expanding subway lines is to foster economic development, which, really, means new and bigger buildings. This is why the Second Avenue subway has always been popular with real-estate developers and construction unions. Certain portions of the route are maximized, more or less, but the upper end, near the current terminus at Ninety-sixth Street, is still in flux. Rents and lot values rose prior to completion, and now seem to be climbing further.

    It’s an odd, semi-gentrified corner of the city, a mix of giant apartment towers and older tenements. A block east of the subway’s Ninety-sixth Street entrance is a storied open-air roller-hockey rink, site of dimly remembered rumbles, and, past that, a busy F.D.R. Drive interchange, the former stomping grounds of the infamous squeegee men, the windshield entrepreneurs who were run off by Rudy Giuliani when he was living a half-dozen blocks south, at Gracie Mansion. In between the rink and the Mansion are the Isaacs Houses and the Holmes Towers, housing projects still considered by the police to be a “high-crime zone,” though the dime-bag corner at Ninety-second and First is now a Greenmarket. Barack Obama lived in a drug-infested tenement on Ninety-fourth Street between First and Second when he attended Columbia, in the early eighties. Just to the west of the station is Normandie Court, a block-square apartment megalith of some three dozen stories, once known as Dormandie Court, for the postcollegiate settlers who keg-partied there, during the great yuppie migration of the eighties and nineties. Just uptown, on the other side of Ninety-sixth, is the biggest mosque in New York.

    Last Monday morning, a little before nine, TV-news trucks were parked there, in pursuit of reactions to the mosque shooting in Quebec. Pedestrians, paying little mind, flowed toward the Q, a fresh tributary of the old familiar flow to Lex. On Track 2, a train was slowly filling up: seats for all. L.E.D. signs indicated that the time between departures, known as the headway, was eight minutes. No more exultation: New Yorkers on a workday, amid crappy news, their own meshugaas, and the doldrums of winter. At Eighty-sixth Street, the first to board was a blond woman with a pink yoga mat, and behind her a preppy guy with a crimson sweater emblazoned with the letter “H.” By Seventy-second Street, the train was full, though not sardinishly so, in the manner of the Lexington line. A seated passenger, conducting the usual absent-minded survey of riders’ shoes, concluded that the footwear was more expensive here on the Q.

    Soon, the Q was pulling into Times Square. It was just another train, neither new nor old. People got on and off. Nothing moved. After a moment, a familiar announcement came over the P.A.: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are delayed because of train traffic ahead of us.”


  33. Eiona September 27, 2016 at 2:15 pm #

    Bureaucracies are good for procedures. Procedures are necessary to stay safe.


  34. Tim October 11, 2016 at 6:25 pm #

    Freight railroads are all fine now. Railroads went bankrupt because they had so many regulations. Deregulation brought back the industry. And Amtrak is semi private. Basically 100% gov’t shareholding.

    Maybe it’s easier to make money with freight, just like it’s easier for bridges and tunnels for automobiles to make money. The TBTA didn’t have to drive and maintain private vehicles — just the ROW. Amtrak should do something similar with its railroads.


  35. Giddian58 October 26, 2016 at 8:31 pm #

    holding doors delays thousands on the train, thousands on the trains behind that train, and makes the train late so platforms are more crowded at future stations and the train dwells longer and soon spirals out of control and becomes quite late. so that one minute of door holding can exponentially grow to delay a train by 5 or more minutes, and then the trains behind it and trains it needs to merge with, and also, trains in front of it may be held to maintain even headway. and even 1 minute late means missing a transfer, being late to work school or a date. it is so selfish to hold doors and it costs so much, cumulative hours of peoples’ days. do not hold doors! and use all available doors, spread across platform (entrances and exits and transfers vary widely), let people off first, go into the center of the car, take off your bag… platform controllers should be making people do this.

    Newer trains will have local recycling, so not all doors open again when people hold them, and also wider doors. Hopefully they will also be open-gangway, and have fewer seats. and it would help if people were less fat! People are fatter these days, certainly making things more crowded.

    Holding doors is not a nice thing to do!


  36. Gringo October 28, 2016 at 12:09 pm #

    Regulations and taxes also destroyed the railroads, and labor unions. Amtrak thankfully was able to prune service, and acquire ROW once Penn Central went bankrupt. They got Penn Station and got the portions of the NEC not already owned by state authorities, like the MTA, ConnDOT, and MBTA. Still, Amtrak has a lot to maintain, so of course costs are higher than a bus. NJT and LIRR lease Penn and track rights, Amtrak is the landlord and has to repair the Hudson tunnels, for instance.

    Reliable subway service keeps NYC humming. And COST and SPEED are the main factors, not safety, or comfort…

    Temporary disruptions cause delays and gaps in service – breakdowns, operational failures (signal trouble, broken rails, car trouble). Then there are external things – water main breaks, sick customers, police action, weather.

    And, long-term changes are slowing down service! More riders, more dwell times, capacity constraints from signal modifications and flagging (rules are changed due to union power to have more employees, even if they don’t follow existing rules and that causes the accident.)

    Signal modifications are making the system slower for safety, since trains don’t stop as quickly anymore as it caused sudden jolts and flat wheels when kids always tripped emergency brakes (new trains only allow it to be pulled near station where people could be dragged)… So, the control lines are longer, grade time signals make trains go slower, etc. Lower throughput means less capacity and more crowding, which means slower trains and longer running times while the schedules aren’t updated so more and more trains are delayed at the terminal.

    They should fix the schedules, so merges can be completed better, and get more rolling stock because they have limited cars right now.

    Speed restrictions, flagging problems, and a lot of planned work and more frequent infrastructure, track, signal inspections mean more and more delays. And with better recording of delays, we’re going to have even more!

    The A division will be worse off, because more trains are at capacity, and the IRT was built earlier, when the city had fewer people and they didn’t know how much demand there’d be… (Times Square was originally a local station). So those platforms and trains are narrower, with fewer concourses/mezzanines and entrances/exits, so more station crowding. Yes, it’s quick and easy to go up one flight of stairs to the street, but because there are few mezzanines/crossovers, there’s also less capacity, and maybe it’s less safe because people have to cross the street aboveground to get to the right direction.

    IND stations are longer, wider… 6 Av was built for 11-car trains! And 42nd has such wide platforms, and stretches for so many blocks, since they wanted to lessen the curves into the station (for speed) and have less underpinning for buildings during their cut/cover.

    With enhanced inspections, targeting highest incident locations, more ultrasonic testing, welded rail, quick response teams, multi-discipline response teams (signal track third rail)… maybe it’ll be better. And they do minimize gaps to recover from incidents, and consolidate work planning to create multi-discipline work zones.

    Platform controllers need to tell people to step aside, let people off, move across platforms and deep into cars (the longer 75 foot cars are more problematic, since they are longer and also have 4 doors, so people don’t stand as far from doors in center of car.)

    There’s a lot that can be done if they are committed to solving problems and being open and honest, if they realize there are problems and are forced to do something about it and don’t want to just ignore things to make their lives easier.

    IRT may be narrow, at least it isn’t PATH! Those are even older tunnels, only fit 7 car trains, the conductor doesn’t even have his/her own space since they are trying to maximize capacity. And… unlike railroads, FTA has no outdated labor rule, so at least TWU cannot strike legally without getting fines and jail time (Taylor Law). keep those flanges running!



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