Michael Bloomberg, in Battle Mode, Attacks MTA Performance and Proposes New Transit Services

Running for reelection, the mayor of New York City has good ideas, but he has no money to work with and no control over the transit authority.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has never been shy about his ambitions, and he has rarely cowered from doing what he believes necessary to realize them. When he determined he wanted to be mayor, he switched his party registration from Democrat to Republican; sensing that party’s extreme move to the right during the Bush years and fearful for his own electoral success, he became an independent. In his reelection campaign against Democrat Fernando Ferrer, he spent $70 million — compared to his rival’s $17 million. Last year, frustrated that New York City limits its mayor to two elected terms, he forced the city council into a switch that would allow him to win a third term because, he argued, steady leadership is essential during an economic downturn.

Despite his self-infatuation, the mayor has been a significant force for change in terms of alternative transportation in New York. His fight for congestion pricing, a policy that ended with a dud in the state legislature after Mr. Bloomberg bungled his attempts at lobbying, would have provided the Metropolitan Transportation Authority an important new financial resource. And under the leadership of Janette Sadik-Kahn, his Department of Transportation has been steadily transforming formerly automobile-centric areas of the city into more livable, walkable places.

It’s no surprise, then, that the mayor’s transportation platform for his reelection campaign is both ambitious and well thought through. But he faces a number of structural stumbling blocks that make the plan’s full implementation difficult to imagine.

It’s worth noting the principal goals of the plan, because they symbolize an important shift in the way New York politicians focus on transit improvements — notably because the list does not include any new subway extensions, which are typically the mainstay of similar attempts to attract the public’s support, and which are inevitably forgotten as soon as the campaign ends.

  • Expand City Ticket to serve all stations at all times (not just weekends, as of now).
  • F Train Express Service into Brooklyn, with an extended V Train.
  • Staten Island North Shore reuse for rail.
  • Brooklyn and Queens waterfront light rail/streetcar.
  • Next train information provided in all subway stations.
  • More BRT in all boroughs.
  • Commuter van service to under served areas of the city.
  • Free Manhattan crosstown bus service.
  • Expanded ferry system.
  • New integrated RFID transit card.

These are all good, implementable ideas that would improve transit in New York significantly for the city’s more than 8 million inhabitants. City Ticket expansion, specifically, would leverage existing resources to allow the outer borough population to take advantage of the commuter rail network. They’re currently forced to pay far too much for this service, and not enough Metro-North and Long Island Railroad trains stop in Queens and the Bronx.

Light rail along the Brooklyn and Queens waterfronts would be nice, serving areas frequently far from subway stations — though there are a number of other routes in Kings County that would be just as well-suited for streetcars. And there are plenty of good reasons to improve transit service on Staten Island.

But Mayor Bloomberg has to contend with two major problems: one, the savings he promises through administrative cost-cutting couldn’t pay for all of these new services, and he’s proposed no new major financial source that could fund them, let alone keep the ever-indebted MTA from falling behind on its payments again; two, the mayor of New York has no control over the MTA, meaning that his cost-cutting plans won’t hold water and his transit improvements will have to be funded by municipal dollars unless he can coerce the state government into moving money the way he wants. That’s an unlikely proposition considering the mayor’s previous relations with Albany. He claims it could be done through a “partnership.” We’ll see.

Mr. Bloomberg’s ideas, in other words, hold little actual weight in the New York political scene. While it may sound nice to improve transit through greater funding and a MTA management shake-up, those changes likely will only be made at the state level, where the mayor has little authority.

9 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Meh. Tackling Bloomberg’s proposals in order:

    Expand City Ticket to serve all stations at all times (not just weekends, as of now).

    That’s a subsidy from people who live in the central areas of the city and use the subway to people who live on the outskirts and use the LIRR, whose farebox recovery ratio is already one half that of the subway. And in the Bronx, Metro-North conveniently misses the major neighborhoods ill-served by subway, like Co-op City…

    F Train Express Service into Brooklyn, with an extended V Train.

    Community activists in Brooklyn, most of whom have probably never voted for Bloomberg, asked the MTA to do that. The MTA said fine, after they finish the Culver Viaduct repairs in 2012. No need for Bloomberg either way.

    Staten Island North Shore reuse for rail.

    This is something where a mayor might be useful. Then again, spare city money for transit should be spent on Second Avenue, not the North Shore. The problem is that Bloomberg prioritizes construction projects that pass through lightly populated areas, so that he can hand development rights to his friends. It’s no different from how he’s screwing over SAS to pay for the 7 extension.

    Brooklyn and Queens waterfront light rail/streetcar.

    Expanded ferry system.

    These read to me as “More options for people who live on the waterfront and hate the neighborhoods away from the water so much they wouldn’t use the subway.” You’d expect the first light rail lines to be in areas that are underserved, like central Queens away from the 7 and E/F/G/R/V, rather than areas that are 7 minutes’ walk from the nearest subway stop. The ferry expansion operates on the same principle.

    Next train information provided in all subway stations.

    The MTA did a pilot program on the L. It was a complete failure, with the information screens bearing little relationship to reality. If Bloomberg can force Siemens to design a system that works then he’ll be useful, but otherwise he’s just ranting.

    More BRT in all boroughs.

    Either it’s true BRT, in which case it costs the same as light rail, or it’s just a glorified limited stop service.

    Commuter van service to under served areas of the city.

    Even more subsidies for suburban parts of the city!

    Free Manhattan crosstown bus service.

    For people who use the buses to transfer to the subway or another bus, this is already free. The problem with the crosstown buses isn’t that they cost money, but that they’re slow.

    New integrated RFID transit card.

    The MTA’s already pilot testing RFID with credit cards…

  • Red

    Alon, you just made the same argument the mayor (and RPA) made for free crosstown service. The logic is that making crosstown buses free would speed up service by eliminating fare collection. Since most crosstown bus users are transferring, you could make them free without costing the MTA much if anything, the mayor claims.

    Also Yonah, it is not 100% true to say the mayor has no control over the MTA. He controls 4 of the 17 board members, which gives him… well, virtually no control over the authority.

  • Vin

    This is something where a mayor might be useful. Then again, spare city money for transit should be spent on Second Avenue, not the North Shore. The problem is that Bloomberg prioritizes construction projects that pass through lightly populated areas, so that he can hand development rights to his friends. It’s no different from how he’s screwing over SAS to pay for the 7 extension.

    Interesting point about Bloomberg and property development. I completely agree that the SAS should be the city’s number one transit priority. However, North Shore rail does have one major advantage over SAS, and the 7 extension – nearly all the right-of-way is already there, and completely unused. Some of the trackage is still there, too, though it would obviously need to be rehabilitated if it is usable at all. In some places, there are actually abandoned station platforms. One thing about the North Shore rail project that sets it apart from other major rail transit improvements in NYC is that it would be very cheap to implement.

    Even more subsidies for suburban parts of the city!

    I don’t really see why this is a problem. The city’s suburban – or, more appropriately, semi-suburban, as even many of NYC’s less-dense pockets are quite dense – outskirts pretty much uniformly have the longest commute times in the country. This is because they frequently have limited access to commuter rail and no access to subways. Residents are forced to take express buses, or drive or take a local bus to the nearest subway station. Improving transit in the city’s outer neighborhoods – eastern queens, southern Brooklyn, Staten Island, northern Bronx – absolutely should be a priority.

  • Vin

    Hmm…looks like my attempt at XHTML did not go over very well…

  • AlexB

    When you list the ideas, they sound pretty lame. Many of them have already been addressed in the MTA 5 year capital plan or brought up by groups that want to improve transit instead of just get re-elected. You would think he should just promise to fund the MTA’s 5 year plan 100%.

    When you read the actual document, though, there are some good ideas. In addition to the city ticket subsidy, he is calling for the reopening of unused LIRR stations in Queens, such as stations on the lower Montauk Branch between Jamaica and LIC. This would be a big help for the area around the Brooklyn/Queens border. If they reopen those stations, it seems likely they would rebuild the abandoned ones in the Bronx along the NEC. Instead of expanding the city ticket, I would expand the express bus monthly pass to include the LIRR and MNRR within city limits.

    Although many politicians call for improved ferry service, more routes, etc., Bloomberg is calling for a comprehensive East River network that you can use with a Metrocard. Say what you will about expensive condo towers on the waterfront, much of the East River waterfront is quite inaccessible. I could see a number of people taking a ferry from Broadway and the East River in Astoria to E 86th in Manhattan, and certainly to E 34th St. If Bloomberg can repeat New Jersey’s “Gold Coast” in Queens and Brooklyn, I say go for it.

    Reiterating, the point about the crosstown buses is that most people who use them are usually transferring to/from them and therefore don’t pay anyway. Requiring payment just slows down already ridiculously slow bus routes. This is a basically free way to improve service.

    Lately, I’ve been riding the L every day and the information screens seem to work just fine. I wish every line had them, but I thought this was going to have to wait until they had computer based train control on all lines? Can they implement train arrival time notices without changing the signals throughout the system?

  • Norman Brown

    Conspicuous by their absence:
    1) Some type of service on the abandoned Rockaway Branch in (underserved) Central Queens.
    2) Swift completion of the LIRR Mainline Third Track without which East Side Access will be irrelevant.
    3) Safe, clean, public toilets throughout the TA system and decent places for the Bus Drivers to safely relieve themselves.
    4) $

  • Red, the crosstown buses are slow not just because of fare collection, but also because crosstown traffic is slow. This is a problem north-south buses just don’t have: the M34 and M42 are far slower than the M15 and M1. The problem is threefold: the stoplights are optimized for north-south rather than east-west traffic; east-west surface traffic capacity in Midtown is lower than north-south capacity; and there is little east-west subway service to relieve surface transportation.

    Vin, the longest commutes are not just in the suburban parts of the city, but also in many low-income urban neighborhoods. Inwood is particularly bad, since its residents’ transportation alternatives include one all-local subway line, and one express line that doesn’t get them to where they want to go. The areas that are served by the LIRR and Metro-North are by and large not the longest-commute neighborhoods, except when commuter rail is so slow and requires so many transfers it’s no faster than the subway. They’re certainly not the longest-commute, lowest-income neighborhoods.

    If Bloomberg gets money for reopening stations on the Lower Montauk Line then it’ll do some good to shorten commutes – but that’s independent of how LIRR fares are set. If he gets money for direct Manhattan service for all the stub-end tunnels, like Flatbush and St. George, then it’ll do even more good.

  • Chris G

    As for the crosstown buses, all I can say is vision42. I really think the only way to speed up crosstown service is to eliminate cars on some of the crosstown routes.

    I know everyone doesnt want things like congestion pricing and such, especially those that can afford to buy off the pols, but this city has to get its head out of its rearend soon or its going to fall flat under a car dominated hell.

    I would think the mayor would be one who could see that. Look at traffic after the broadway closures. Closing some areas to cars is a VERY good thing.

  • EngineerScotty

    Damn spammers!

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