Mayor Bloomberg’s 2012 Queens transportation report card

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Remember all the promises made by candidate Mayor Michael Bloomberg when he ran for a third term in 2009. “Mayor Mike’s Plan For A Better NYC Transit System”? He spent close to one million dollars in a media campaign wanting to make the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) more accountable. Fast forward three years later. Let us review the current status for some of his commitments and what has been accomplished for Queens residents to date.

“Making LIRR City Ticket available on weekdays so Queens commuters can get to work at half the cost.” Nothing to date. Why? Most trains stopping in Queens are running at capacity. There is little room to run additional trains into Penn Station during rush hour. Three of four tunnels running in bound have very tight spacing between trains. One outbound tunnel is shared by the LIRR, New Jersey Transit and Amtrak. Discount tickets will result in lost LIRR revenue, which someone will have to make up. Farebox revenues only account for a portion of the cost. No one has ever identified who will pay for the capital costs of additional trains, crews and operational costs to provide this service.

“Reopening dormant LIRR stations in undeserved neighborhoods.” “The MTA should reopen the Glendale, Richmond Hill and Elmhurst Stations.” Nothing to date. Why? This overlooks past history. Service between Jamaica and Long Island City via Richmond Hill, Glendale and other intermediate stops ended years ago when ridership dwindled to several dozen. Other than Richmond Hill, there are no real stations. Trains just stopped to discharge or pick up a handful of riders. Most ridership actually came from Nassau or Suffolk County. When arriving at Long Island City, customers have to board either the subway or ferry to reach final destinations. To attract significant numbers of patrons, frequency of service might require 20 minute intervals during rush hour. What trains would the LIRR divert from other terminals? Would there be a shuttle service between Jamaica and Long Island City? Who will pay for capital costs of building new stations, purchasing of additional trains, crews and operational costs to provide this service? The Elmhurst station on the Port Washington branch was closed when ridership dropped to less than 200 people per day. There are operational considerations for the LIRR when making added stops in spacing trains to and from Penn Station. What about the long dormant subway style Woodhaven Station on the Atlantic Avenue Brooklyn Branch which is still intact and overlooked in the plan.

“Creating Light Rail or Street Car Services in Western Queens Neighborhoods” sounds great. Nothing to date. Why? Street cars or trolleys haven’t been seen since the 1950’s. Between narrow streets, a combination of industrial and residential communities coexisting side by side along with a growth of bicycle riders – there are potential traffic conflicts between pedestrians, bicyclists, automobiles and delivery trucks to consider. With the Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) philosophy common in many neighborhoods – it may be difficult for the MTA to find a suitable site for construction of support facilities. This would be necessary to provide maintenance and storage of light rail or street cars. Construction of similar light rail or street car systems in other cities has cost hundreds of millions. How would these proposed new services be coordinated? Would they duplicate existing bus services? Who will cover the fare box deficit along with costs of new employees and operations?

“Offering new commuter van service to Queens neighborhoods specifically Bayside.” Nothing to date, but actually things have gotten worse. The Q31 no longer provides service on weekends.  The Q13 and Q31 (weekdays only) bus routes and taxi operators such as Kelly’s already providing feeder service to this LIRR station. No new van operator could survive without any operating subsidies which the City was unable to offer.

“Expanding Ferry Network and Linking to Transit System” makes sense. A partial success story. There is now ferry service from Hunters Point & Long Island City to Manhattan and Brooklyn. There is still no permanent ferry service from the Rockaways to Manhattan. A temporary service has been set up as a result of Hurricane Sandy.  Our waterways are an underutilized natural asset. Most of our existing public transportation and roadways are already operating at or above capacity. New ferry services can be implemented far more quickly than construction of new subway, commuter rail or highways. Finding funding for ferry boats, docks, parking and feeder bus service with costs from millions to tens of millions may be easier than finding the billions of dollars necessary for construction of new or extended subway, commuter rail or highways. Utilization of ferry boats can make a positive contribution to air quality. Private ferry operators have come and gone due to significant financial deficits preventing them from staying in business

“Cost Cutting & Management Reforms,” which could cut $247 million from the bureaucracy. Perhaps a partial success story, but the original Five Year Capital Plan had to be reduced by billions due to significant shortfalls.  There isn’t much left to go after. Significant costs are locked in place such as salary, fringe, medical and pension costs for union employees. You could try and negotiate with unions to allow management more flexibility in work rules and assignments to support greater productivity. Offering to share some of the savings accrued from this with workers to foster improved partnering between management and employees might help. Yearly interest payments on the MTA’s long term debt is taking a bigger bite out of future budgets leaving less money for capital projects.

Additional fare increases besides the ones previously scheduled for 2013 and 2015 might be necessary to support implementation of “Mike’s Plan For A Better NYC Transit System.” Before anyone starts complaining about past and future MTA fare increases, remember the average cost of riding either the bus, subway or commuter rail has gone up at a lower rate than either the consumer price index or inflation. Prior to introduction of the MetroCard in 1996, which affords a free transfer between bus and subway, riders had to pay two full fares. Purchasing either a weekly or monthly pass further reduces the cost per ride. Thousands of employers offer Transit-Check making the total cost even lower.

The Greek philosopher Diogenes is still searching for a public official who will come out publicly when any transit fare increases are appropriate. Will any elected official find the additional billion dollars to fully fund the original proposed MTA Five Year Capital Plan? This may be necessary to keep the current fare structure, maintain a basic state of good repair and continue system expansion. Would other existing state of good repair projects have to be sacrificed to support these ideas put forward in 2009 by Bloomberg? Who will make the tough decisions?

Intelligent riders are also taxpayers and voters. They are all ears waiting for Mayor Bloomberg in the twilight of his last year in office or other brave elected officials to come forward, offer specific solutions and give the facts not the fantasy.