Saturday, January 5, 2008

Traffic and mass transit in New York City

The following informal report has been sent to the Governor, various state senators and assemblymen, the NYC public advocate, Marty Markowitz, and each member of the 17-member commission on congestion pricing. I urge all of you reading this to also make your views known to those in power; only by doing so do we have any hope of acheiving the transportation system we in New York City deserve. Following this report is the text of a speech I gave to the congestion-pricing commission, and a letter sent to each member of that commission.

Governor Spitzer has promised to reform the MTA, a system desperately in need of reform. The poor performance of NYC Transit drastically contributes to poor air quality by adding cars to the roads, and costs the city billions each year in lost worker productivity due to lateness and artificially lowered real estate values. Neighborhoods that have the potential for growth fail to achieve it because they are ill-served by transit. In addition, we have for years failed to meet federal air quality standards and thereby have lost billions (billions!) in available federal mass transit aid.

The state of the subways in New York City actually encourages many to drive. Those who might use mass transit opt for cars because buses and subways run so poorly, and are quite unpleasant. I don’t specifically know what problems Governor Spitzer perceives, but, since I must ride NYC Transit an average of 3–4 hours daily*, (a ridiculous amount of time, and in horrible conditions, conditions that would be a violation of federal statute if I were a cow; cows are mandated to be transported with a minimum of 2 feet clear space on all sides), I have observed many serious problems on my own. Unfortunately, as I work 8–10 hours per day and spend another 3–4 hours commuting, I’ve been unable to perform the rigorous research this subject deserves; nonetheless, I’ve tried to make this report as accurate and objective as is possible, from a passenger’s point of view. It’s passengers who use the system, and passengers and citizens who pay for it. Yet the order of priority among transit honchos seems to be executives first, union members second, rolling stock and infrastructure third, and last and least, passengers.

*To put this in perspective, my commute, each way, is 15.5 miles, and takes between one hour and twenty minutes and two hours. When I lived in Tarrytown, NY and commuted to Grand Central, a distance of twenty-seven miles, my commute was thirty-four minutes.

Now, Mayor Bloomberg seeks to reduce traffic congestion, a laudable goal that all but the most shortsighted must realize is necessary for our continued well being. The latest report from the American Lung Society shows that particulate pollution (soot) has dramatically increased in all 5 boroughs. This is a direct result of increased traffic, and a major threat to public health, as this type of pollution causes Asthma and COPD, and is more harmful to the lungs than most. Next, consider the unnecessary contribution to the atmosphere of greenhouse gases and the concomitant negative effect upon global warming. Unfortunately, any initiative aimed at decreasing auto use will be doomed to failure, unless there are massive improvements in public transit; motorists will not eschew auto use unless they can be transported with comparable comfort and convenience. The necessary infusion of cash will be unprecedented—and entirely necessary. New subway lines are required throughout the system; neighborhoods without subway access must have it, travel times need to be halved, and civility needs to be restored to a system where anarchy prevails. New York City is the capital of the world. It deserves a transit system befitting that status.

Treating riders badly

The number one problem I perceive is a total lack of regard for the passengers, by management and union alike. Some examples:

• NYC Transit built several new station entrances in Times Square. They could have been closed to the frigid winter air, but aren’t. Fans, at the very least, could have been installed for the sweltering summer months, but weren’t. PATH riders have the benefit of platform fans, turn of the nineteenth-century technology. Try waiting for an N train at 34th Street in August. The temperature in this station has topped 120°, and there’s not a fan in sight. But every token booth is air-conditioned, and the heat discharged by those air conditioners isn’t even exhausted outside, but is directed at the paying riders, raising the temperatures of already sweltering stations.

• When a train is behind schedule, it is standard operating procedure to bypass stations full of waiting passengers to bring the train back on schedule. The stranded riders are
aurally assaulted with an ear-damaging 120-decibel blast from the train’s horn, a signal to let the people know they’re being left behind. The stranded passengers fail to see a benefit, and rightly so. Transit honchos get to disingenuously claim near-perfect on-time performance.

• One of the more egregious abuses is that single-ride customers may not transfer from subway to bus or vice versa. Multiple ride customers can. So the poorest customers are made poorer, are treated as third-class citizens. I say third class because if you must ride with the MTA at all, you’re a second-class citizen, at best. All customers should receive equal benefits; they’ve all paid a fare, and the poorest customers have paid the highest fare. This niggardly treatment of the poorest riders further reduces the mobility and purchasing power of the working poor, and thereby hurts small businesses, too.

• The MetroCard is a great innovation; it’s unfortunate that it was so poorly implemented. Every day, people get stuck at turnstiles, attempting swipe after swipe. The card readers in other transit systems work smoothly; in the two years I lived in Miami, I never saw a card rejected, and you can be sure that their more reliable technology was purchased at a considerably lower cost. One can also pay for a bus ride with bills, card or change in Miami, and the bill readers accept wrinkled, old bills without protest while still reliably rejecting counterfeits.

• And what about the thirty-day MetroCard? Why thirty days and not thirty-one? Only five months have thirty or fewer days, which means that the average rider is forced to pay an extra $28/year to make up for the gap. It’s a small matter, but it clearly shows an anti-passenger bias, or perhaps (and more sadly) a culture with little or no concern for rider well-being.

• Conductors are hired and deployed without regard to speaking ability. If the main requirement of a job is communicating effectively to the public, then clear, Standard English speech, free of impediments, should be the main qualification for obtaining that job. It isn’t.

• Buses run according to the whim of the driver; they are allowed to leapfrog each other without regard to schedule. In practice, this means that 3 buses, scheduled to arrive at ten-minute intervals, can all arrive at the terminal simultaneously, leaving passengers along the route with half-hour waits, a situation that can, and does, happen often. On minimally serviced routes at night, such as the B1, an early arrival and departure means that passengers arriving at the stop ahead of the scheduled time may have to wait over an hour for the next bus. Though traffic delays are inevitable, this leapfrogging has to stop. Buses must be made to run on schedule, or at least, never ahead of the schedule. If that requires waiting on the driver’s part, so be it. The most efficient method for maintaining bus schedules would be through the use of GPS tracking, informing drivers when to wait.

• Whether due to supervision, or operator’s whim, far too many connecting trains leave transferring passengers in the lurch, literally closing the doors in their faces. Often, allowing the passengers to transfer would account for a delay of no more than 30 seconds, yet they are left behind with an average 10-minute wait for the next train. Inexplicably, at other times, trains are held for up to 10 minutes for connections.

• Another part of the conductor’s job is to make sure that passengers have entered and/or exited the train safely. This requires looking both ways, and in stations where the view is blocked, cameras and monitors have been installed so that the conductor may perform this function. How to explain, then, the oft-occurring incidence of doors closing upon passengers attempting to enter? Could slovenly work habits perhaps provide an explanation?

• Passengers are constantly berated by train operators and by ill-conceived MTA advertisements. All blame for late trains is assigned to the passengers. Perhaps running more than one train every 20 minutes at rush hour (in other words, adequate service), would keep passengers from holding doors. More trains need to be added during rush hours, which should rightly be defined as from 6AM till 10AM, and from 4PM till 8PM.

• At some bus depots, such as the Ulmer Park depot on the B64 line, drivers change shifts in mid-route, which is wholly for the drivers’ and management’s convenience. I’ve seen bus drivers turn off the engine and air-conditioning during the summer months, seal the doors, and leave the passengers waiting for a new driver without explanation—a new driver, who, at the very least, should have been waiting at the bus stop to relieve the departing driver. Driver changes should only happen at terminal stops, and drivers should punch-in to work remotely, at the terminal stop for their route. The technology has long existed to make this possible.

• In winter, drivers work in their shirtsleeves and heat the buses to levels intolerable to passengers wearing heavy winter clothes. The same goes for the subways. Drivers should be required to wear outerwear so that temperatures can be set for the average passenger’s comfort. Drivers should not have access to temperature controls. Temperature on public transportation should be maintained at a constant 70°, in summer, and at 60° (cooler, to allow for winter clothes) in winter.

• Locked cars. Everyone except the NYPD and MTA realizes that in this age of terrorism, preventing or hindering the movement of people out of an enclosed space is insanity. Yet the MTA insists that the policy benefits passengers. Please, tell me how I benefit from being locked in a car with a madman, intent on inflicting harm. Or with a homeless person, covered in feces. I’ve faced both of these situations within the past year. Incredibly, I can be issued a summons for switching to another car to avoid said homeless person. However, the policy is also to leave doors open while being held in a station, even when the temperature is well below freezing. Conductors who are considerate and close the doors while waiting can be disciplined for doing so. The only reasonable explanation for both seems to be that the management wants to provide passengers with the most unpleasant and dangerous ride possible.

• There are many, many more examples of poor treatment of passengers, but we’ll move on now, to...

...wasting money, and lots of it

• One of the more blatant examples of waste is the installation of highly polished marble, granite or terrazzo tiles throughout the system. This has many drawbacks. The tiles are very slippery when wet. At the Union Square station, during the rain, I’ve seen a dozen passengers slip and fall in as many minutes. What brilliant management, to increase the number of possible lawsuits! Another big drawback is that the tiles are not very durable. At the Broadway-Lafayette stop, you can count hundreds of broken tiles. Colored, textured concrete would have been slip-proof, attractive, more durable, and less expensive to implement and maintain. Shredded used tires, embedded in a resin-based matrix might be another, environmentally sound, economical and long-wearing flooring option. Instead, the worst possible material was purchased and installed. It looked good in the architect’s rendering.

• On many elevated platforms, the corrugated steel has been removed, and replaced with heavy-duty stainless-steel wire mesh. While the mesh does have decreased maintenance and longer life to recommend it, it costs at least 4 times what the corrugated metal did, and provides no shelter from the wind. Who advocated for the passengers? And why are there no shelters for passengers on exposed subway platforms? Nearly every Metro North and LIRR station has heated shelters on the platforms, and Metro North and LIRR passengers pay a lower-percentage cost per mile.* Could that be interpreted as preferential treatment for the more well to do?

* Metro North riders are the most-highly subsidized, followed by LIRR, and last, NYC Transit.

• Approximately 50% of the valuable advertising space available in stations and on trains and buses is unpaid, and much of this unpaid advertising is devoted to telling the passengers what stupid dolts they are. Other PSAs remain posted for many months, sometimes even years past their expiration, inviting riders to tour exhibitions or events that have long been gone. Getting this valuable media space out of the hands of the MTA altogether and leasing it as a concession to an advertising or display company could immediately double, or even triple the revenue stream from this neglected, but valuable resource.

• Let’s make an analogy. Your house needs a new roof; there are leaks when it rains. Your wife wants to remodel the kitchen. You prudently take your wife to dinner and explain that the roof must come first; the kitchen will come next year. Now, consider that many tracks and signals are in need of replacement, and that the transit system looks kind of shabby in places. You’d fix the tracks and signals first, wouldn’t you? Not if you’re NYC Transit. They decided to remodel stations first. With tiles that are now broken, less than ten years after being installed. And we still have outdated, inefficient signals.

• Lately, we’ve been hearing announcements such as, “There is a downtown express train now approaching West 4th Street”. These announcements are always made as the train is entering the station and is therefore clearly visible to riders on the platform. Do we really need to pay someone to give us useless information?

Bad management

And what better indication of bad management than the fact that trains run badly? Unfortunately, the system is Manhattan-centric—riders in Manhattan who take a train for a couple of stops are basically unaware of just how bad the system is. Sure, the Lexington Avenue lines are severely overcrowded, but overall, service in Manhattan is good. Manhattan has an abundance of stations with multiple lines, express and local trains on the same platform—effectively doubling the service for strictly Manhattan-based riders. That’s one of the keys to understanding how this system doesn’t serve the majority of riders. Manhattan riders are the ones with influence, the ones with the most money, so where they don’t see a problem, none exists.

You could argue that that’s efficient management—if you’re a cynic who believes that management’s job is merely to deflect criticism, rather than to serve the people of New York City.
And don’t forget that this MTA management has a forty-plus year history of capitulating to unreasonable—no, unconscionable union demands, so that the worst conductor, barely able to speak intelligible English, (stankleededoze— translation: stand clear of the doors) who is fond of yelling at the passengers, who doesn’t look both ways but simply tries to close the doors on passengers attempting to enter a car after waiting 20 minutes for a train that should have arrived after six minutes or so, who then blames those passengers for having the audacity to think that they should be admitted to this train because they’ve paid for service—cannot be fired for his poor performance, bad attitude, or for his inability to speak clearly. No, he can only be fired if he’s caught doing drugs, stealing, being insubordinate—he must commit a truly outrageous act to be dismissed. He has a job for life, benefits twice as good as anyone in private enterprise, excessive vacation time, free parking, free transportation for life—all of which are paid for by the taxpayer. Management could have bargained to get us our money’s worth, but they’ve deemed it not worth the effort, time and time again.

You may think I’m being harsh to the average TWU conductor, token booth clerk, bus driver or motorman (I’ve excluded mechanics, electricians, track workers, carpenters, etc., not only because I don’t know their average pay, but because many of them also have harder, more dangerous jobs requiring more skills). I’d ask you to consider the value of the salary and benefits they receive; the combined average pay of these workers, after five years, is approximately $60,000/year—without including benefits or overtime. Now, let’s look at the average monthly cost of benefits; 4 weeks annual vacation, twelve paid holidays, medical insurance, and free parking. Here’s the breakdown:

$ 76 free unlimited MetroCard

417 vacation

230 holiday

600 medical (average cost of family medical insurance in NYC)

400 parking (average monthly parking cost in Manhattan)

$1,723 average monthly cost of benefits per TWU employee*


* Doesn’t include pension costs

That comes to a whopping $80,676/year cost to the taxpayers. To put that in perspective, my sister has two graduate degrees and manages a large department at one of the city’s public library systems, and, after working twenty years, her pay and benefits are just beginning to be comparable to that of a subway conductor with only five years’ experience. Can anyone argue, with a straight face, that we taxpayers are getting our money’s worth from the average TWU worker?

Here’s another idea for management to consider. Keep the trains running. Constantly. This isn’t the Lake Shore Limited, which needs to run on a schedule. This is the business of rapid transit, people moving on a grand scale. The faster trains run, and the greater the frequency, the better.

No behavioral standards

While there is a transit code of conduct, it is not enforced, for the most part. Take the new emergency exits, which can be activated by pressing a bar, which then sounds an alarm. Advertisements advising passengers that these exits are for emergency use ONLY have been posted in Spanish, English, Russian, Korean and Chinese (and those are just the languages of which I am aware), and passengers have been further advised that using these exits for convenience makes one liable for penalties. Yet passengers exiting at the Bay 50th Street stop use these emergency exits in front of police officers, who do nothing, they don’t even object!

I decided to ask one of the non-performing officers why he wasn’t giving out summonses, or at least warning these customers that their behavior was unacceptable. His response was to claim that most of the offenders are foreigners who don’t understand English. So, hey, if you don’t speak English, you get a free pass to disobey the law! If that’s the NYPD policy, then why is the MTA wasting money on printing the ads in foreign languages? Rules, and laws are meaningless without enforcement.

Spitting in public, and on the subways, has been a violation warranting a $500 fine since the late nineteenth century, when public health officials began to understand the causes of the spread of disease and epidemics. New York City, unfortunately, is home to countless migrants from countries with the highest rates of tuberculosis, such as China, India, and Russia, who, incidentally, have cultural predilections for spitting profusely. And spitting runs rampant in the subways. These wise transit chieftains have seemingly determined that it would be culturally insensitive to try to eradicate this disgusting and dangerous habit. When and if the H5N1 influenza epidemic strikes, subway riders will be doomed. But, hey, the police will give a summons for a lit cigarette at 500 paces, citing dangers from second-hand smoke, something that has never been clinically proven, even after a ten-year study by the World Health Organization. I’m not claiming that second¬hand smoke is good, just that rampant spitting is a greater and more imminent threat to public health.

Once, while I was riding the D train home, the doors opened at the 55th Street stop, and a Chinese man sitting opposite me, next to the doors opening onto the platform, nonchalantly turned his head and copiously spit through the opened doors, at the feet of two police officers. The officers merely chuckled. Unbelievable. They’re under a misguided and ill-advised directive to be tolerant of other cultures. I believe in tolerance, but tolerance is not absolute; limits are necessary. What’s next, allowing people to squat and defecate? Oh, right, the homeless already do that.

Then there’s the epidemic of leg spreading, most often seen in conjunction with feigned sleep. This is mainly the province of males, though some female riders have been seen engaging in this misbehavior. Adopting this behavior prevents anyone from sitting next to you, the subway riders’ equivalent of an upgrade from coach to first class. Young men sit, their legs spread as wide as possible. A bench intended for seven people commonly holds just four men, not because they are inherently larger (though that’s another incipient problem), but because they intentionally sit in a way that prevents others from sitting. Say, “excuse me”, and they won’t answer or move. If you can wedge yourself in, you can sit, but they’ll be pushing you with their legs. Once, I said something politely, “could you close your legs a bit so I can be comfortable, too?”. The response was, “ better watch yourself. You’re in the street, now. I ain’t takin’ no shit”. When did showing consideration for others become “takin’ shit”?

Everyone is rude these days. I often ask people, nicely, to please take their shoes off of the seats or the poles in the subway car. Just about everyone loves children, so I try to
appeal to that. I tell them that little children put their hands everywhere, and could pick up nasty germs from shoes. Usually, this embarrasses people into realizing that they are being selfish and inconsiderate, but not always. Once, a woman said that she taught 3rd grade, and that the “...children can die, for all I care”.

Why would anyone who can afford to drive a car willingly subject himself to such abuse? No one would, and that’s why we need drastic changes. And don’t forget, most people who can afford to drive into Manhattan on a regular basis are willing to pay almost anything to avoid mass transit. Since this is a fight we cannot afford to lose, that attitude needs to be priced out of reach.

Speaking of “inherently larger”, shouldn’t the morbidly obese be required to pay an extra fare? Of course they should. I mean really, if one needs a separate seat for each butt cheek, that person should pay more than a standard-issue human. If the airlines can measure bags, transit can measure people. This would increase revenues, and encourage the overweight to shed those pounds. We can’t afford to coddle the colossal.

Oh, and one more thing. The media love to talk about how awful transit was in the seventies. Well, it was dirty and crowded, with lots of outdated equipment. But at rush hour, number 1 trains ran every 4 minutes, and reliably, too. And the A or D could get you from 59th street to 125th street in four minutes, as well. Wouldn’t you like to see that level of service again?

Some recommendations

Changes are imperative. Personally, while I back Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion-pricing initiative, I feel that it doesn’t go far enough. I’d rather see all cars, except for those belonging to residents, taxis, buses, ambulances and trucks making deliveries, and vehicles necessary for construction and maintenance, banned from Manhattan entirely. Plates identifying residents can make this possible. Impose not congestion fees, but entry fees, to all drivers entering the other four boroughs (excepting for through traffic that does not exit an expressway). Those few who are able to prove genuine hardship would, of course, be exempt. As the plan stands now, pollution and congestion will increase in boroughs other than Manhattan.

Of course, I won’t get my wish, but this could be done, and local businesses would not suffer—quite the contrary, they would thrive. The same complaints were heard when streets downtown were permanently closed to traffic many years ago, and businesses there saw an increase in sales. This IS the capital of the world, and people WILL come.

Other, perhaps more practical changes are:

• Double the number of trains, on all lines and at all times.

• Immediately stop all cosmetic improvements and concentrate on upgrading signals and infrastructure.

• Build new lines to serve the vast stretches of NYC that have no service.

• Raise the tax on gasoline an additional $2.00/gallon and dedicate the funds to mass transit. Sure, drivers will howl like stuck pigs, but worldwide, the vast majority of people have been paying these high gasoline prices for decades. Do it, it needs to be done; let’s not encourage delusions and fantasies. Let’s resurrect the notion that driving is a privilege, not a right.

• Raise all bridge and tunnel tolls to $15.00. Of course, those who can prove genuine hardship will get an exemption.

• Construct flyovers in Brooklyn for the BMT lines, to eliminate congestion. These
have worked very well on the IND line in Manhattan. (A flyover enables the express train to corkscrew around and under the local track, so that one train doesn't need to be held while the other crosses the track. You can see an example at 59th Street/Columbus Circle on the northbound A/D and B/C tracks.)

• Lease the right to place and maintain advertising to an independent, private company. The lease terms must include provisions for a percentage of the profits, as well as a flat rate. This one step has the possibility of holding off fare increases for many years— add improved service, and it could become a real cash cow.

• Place a police officer on every train, and on every platform of each station; strictly enforce the laws regarding seat usage, spitting and all other items in the MTA “code of conduct”. This would pay for itself through increased revenues from issued summonses. If you feel that’s a draconian tax, you have the option of obeying the rules. If the NYPD can’t or won’t spare the manpower, hire an independent contractor such as Wackenhut. The transit system in Miami uses Wackenhut in this capacity, and it has worked very well.

• Limit diesel train use to only when power has been cut. Particulate matter in diesel smoke is extremely harmful to health, more so than automobile pollution, and seriously contributes to NYC’s high asthma rates.

• Make the MetroCard more equitable; allow single ride customers to transfer, etc. Allow token booth clerks to issue refunds for up to $20.00. Who has the time to travel to Schermerhorn street to get a refund? No one, so NYC Transit gets to keep the money.

• Remove all locked doors from subway cars.

• Require anyone making announcements to have a clear, easily understandable speaking voice; train announcers in microphone/PA use.

• Require contractors to continuously work on projects until said projects have been completed. The standard contractor practice now is to, say, close off a stairwell, go work on other jobs around the city, return to the stairwell when the other work is scarce, etc., etc. So replacing a prefab stairwell can, and has, taken up to nine months.

• Speaking of prefab materials, utilize them wherever possible to reduce labor. Almost everything you see underground now is custom made.

• Find a way to get rid of the token booth clerks whose jobs have been eliminated— stop the practice of having them do work that benefits no one. A buyout would be preferable.

• End bus leapfrogging, incorporate GPS in all buses to maintain schedules.

• Above ground, strictly enforce the traffic laws and speed limits. Police could easily triple the number of traffic summonses issued. Every day, I see stop signs and red lights run, pedestrians threatened, speed limits broken, corners cut, turn signals unused. New York City drivers have an outsized sense of entitlement that extends to breaking laws. In New York City papers, the phrase that appears most often in accounts of traffic fatalities is, “No charges were filed”.

• In the seventies, licensed livery drivers were allowed to accept street hails above 96th street in Manhattan, and in the other boroughs. Resume this practice; yellow cabs are mostly not to be found in these areas.

• Do whatever is necessary to reform the bloated TWU. The previous governor missed two golden opportunities to act as Reagan did against PATCO. Don’t let another opportunity be wasted.

• Seriously, you could also get rid of every other person in management with no ill effects.

• Replace all incandescent bulbs with CFLs.

• Replace bulbs in signals with LEDs.

• Make all workers and management pay for their parking. (And if mass transit is so good, why does nearly every TWU worker drive?)

• Eliminate free MetroCards for worker’s families, and for retirees.

• Require all NYC Transit executives and administrative staff to use mass transit to get to their jobs.

Speech to the congestion pricing commission

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.

Let me begin by saying that PlaNY 2030 presents many good and timely ideas; but I must also say that the Manhattan-centric implementation presented by Mayor Bloomberg is flawed, and inadequate to meet our long-term needs. Establishing a SMART Financing Authority is a good first step, but we will need unprecedented amounts of cash, literally hundreds of billions of dollars.

I take issue with restricting congestion pricing to Manhattan; we who live in the outer boroughs of New York City are full citizens, and deserving of equal consideration. My daily commute, using public transportation, takes one and a half hours each way to travel a mere 16 miles—and the Federal DOT defines any commute over 45 minutes as an "extreme commute". Most of my neighbors also suffer from such extreme commutes on a daily basis, and the vast majority of New York City residents are not car owners. This situation must be fixed if we are to maintain New York City as a viable economic powerhouse. I know people who live in Pennsylvania who spend less time on their commutes. When I lived in Tarrytown, nearly twice the distance from work, my commute took 34 minutes—one third the time.

The latest report from the American Lung Association shows that particulate pollution in all parts of New York City, and particularly in Brooklyn, caused by auto and diesel exhaust, is at an all-time high, contributing to high rates of asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Is it any wonder, then, that New York City boasts one of the highest asthma rates in the world? And do we outer-borough residents not deserve relief from this public health disaster?

My alternate proposal consists of three parts.

1) An entry fee, in addition to congestion pricing.
The entire city, not just Manhattan, suffers from nightmarish traffic. When I recently had occasion to return a rental car to Manhattan from my home in Bensonhurst, the trip took two and a half hours, for a journey of ten and a half miles. There was no accident clogging the roads, they were just jammed, as usual. This is typical for vehicular travel within the five boroughs.

So, rather than just congestion pricing, which will only alleviate traffic in Manhattan, and which will only produce limited revenues, charge a daytime entry fee to New York City, a twenty-five dollar surcharge to all drivers entering the five boroughs, with a reduced fee for through traffic, and let those funds be dedicated to public transportation improvements, with a percentage set aside for road and bridge maintenance. This alone would have an extremely beneficial effect on traffic throughout New York City, and produce vastly higher revenues than Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing alone.

There are those who will object and say that such a fee will hurt business in the city—nonsense. The city is (at least for the time being) the economic engine that drives prosperity throughout the region—if they have a genuine need to drive, they will continue to come, and many will move to mass transit, a desired outcome.

New York City residents will be exempt from this fee, and could be identified through special EZPass devices, and by special New York City license plates. This would also remedy another source of revenue loss—many city residents now register their cars in other states—Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, etc., to obtain lower insurance, and to take advantage of lower registration fees. Under this plan, they would have an incentive to register as New York City residents, producing another revenue stream, and with reduced traffic will come reduced accidents and insurance rates.

2) Driver and enforcement reform.

We must step up enforcement as well. The vast majority of moving violations do not result in any sort of fines or penalties; they go unnoticed. This needs to be addressed; increased enforcement will produce more revenue, and a percentage of that revenue, plus a portion of entry fees can be dedicated to traffic enforcement and driver reform. Many drivers in the area feel that they can break speed limits, talk on cell phones, fail to signal—even kill pedestrians. And they're right. Review pedestrian deaths over the past few years; if a driver isn't drunk, he usually faces no charges or fines of any sort. A casket truck driver killed a four year-old boy last year in Sunset Park; he admitted to speeding and to running a red light, actions which directly caused the boy's death, yet he faced no charges at all. Time and again, pedestrian deaths resulting from driver carelessness go unpunished. This is wrong, and if we are a just and humane society, we can no longer countenance such behavior. Drunk driving causes forty percent of all traffic fatalities— guess who causes the rest. Careless driving must have steep penalties; our children deserve no less. Stringent traffic enforcement will change driver attitudes, return revenues, and even convince many to use mass transit, instead.

3) Reform the MTA.
PlaNY seeks to add over three-hundred more express buses, complete the Second Avenue subway, and the number 7 line extension. These improvements, while notable and desirable, are inadequate. Again, those who take express buses are still victims of extreme commutes—extreme commutes that cost more than double what other transit riders pay. Last week alone, there were 2 letters to the Daily News complaining of two and a half hour express bus commutes, due to construction. One would think that the city DOT and the MTA could coordinate their efforts—and one would be wrong.

The MTA is one of the most poorly managed enterprises to ever exist. Time limits here prevent me from citing a long litany of poor performance, but we're all aware of the many billion-dollar boondoggles attributable to this agency, ranging from their over-priced headquarters to their poorly-planned station renovations. After over one-hundred years of operations, August 8th's flooding debacle left many lines out of service more than twenty-four hours after the rains had ceased. Likewise, many sections of track, signals and switches are still in need of repair, while lavish amounts of money have been spent on poorly conceived cosmetic improvements, such as the marble tiles at the Broadway-Lafayette station, half of which are broken, due to poor installation. Slippery when wet, these tiles also cause an increase in slip and fall suits against the MTA.

It should be clear to all that incremental improvements will not meet our transportation challenges. If we seek to get drivers out of their Lexuses, or even their Corollas for that matter, we need a transit system that is safe, affordable, comfortable, and, most of all, one that is at least twice as fast as the system we have now. Adding some so-called express busses will not even come close to accomplishing these goals. New subway lines are necessary; lines that reach the vast stretches of Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island that have been abandoned by mass transit. In addition, standards of behavior need to be enforced; Miami has hired Wackenhut to augment the police in that regard, with an enforcement officer on every train, and with excellent results.

The twenty-first century presents us with numerous challenges; among them, population pressures, pollution, increasing political instability in many parts of the world, oil shortages and prices that are now over $90 a barrel, and the challenge of sustainabilty. We live in the financial and cultural capital of the world, and we must create a transportation system befitting that status. We have before us the opportunity to set the standards and create a shining example for America and the world; we must not let that opportunity pass.

Letter to members of the congestion pricing commission

Dear Commission member:

After all the testimony you have heard, investigations you’ve performed, and the communications you’ve received, the following should be noted:

1) The MTA, and NYCT in particular, are not perceived by the majority of New Yorkers as terribly competent. In fact, they are not; they barely manage to keep the outdated system we have up and running. I remind you once again that the D train has an average speed, over its entire route, of only twelve miles per hour. We have a multi-million dollar track-metrics inspection machine, and it has shown that most sections of track are not in sufficiently good shape to handle the speeds of which the trains are capable. Likewise, the majority of signals are also incapable of handling increased throughput at the higher speeds necessary to achieve better commuting times.

One of the problems I have not previously mentioned is that I, and many others, believe that the state authority model is faulty; I contend that these authorities have failed in their intended purpose; to serve the people of New York.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was founded with the sole purpose of building a cross-harbor tunnel from Brooklyn to New Jersey, in 1915. Now, in 2007, both Anthony Weiner and Jerold Nadler, among others, are still fighting to get this crucial transportation link built. When viewed from this perspective, the Port Authority’s biggest success has been in exporting jobs from New York to New Jersey.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has also failed in its core mission: to provide transportation adequate to the needs of the region. We, the people of the city and state of New York, need agencies that are responsive and accountable, and not a law unto themselves. The dissolution of these authorities, and their replacement with a more effective and responsive model should be a top priority, and an integral part of any plan to ameliorate traffic and improve mass transit throughout the five boroughs and the downstate region.

2) The majority of New York City residents support congestion pricing in one form or another—provided that the funds obtained from congestion pricing are dedicated to meaningful improvements to mass transit.

3) The majority of New Yorkers do not support the Manhattan-centric plan proposed by Mayor Bloomberg. While Mayor Bloomberg and his administration deserve kudos for opening this dialog, there are insufficient disincentives in PlaNY 2030 to discourage drivers from using cars to enter the city, and not enough incentives to encourage them to use public transportation. The majority of New Yorkers also rightly doubt the sincerity of an administration that proposes congestion pricing, yet seeks to add 20,000 parking spaces to the West Side, and a like number to the Atlantic Yards project.

4) Maintaining the status quo is not a viable option. Children in all 5 boroughs are acquiring, suffering from, and even dying of respiratory diseases at an annually rising rate. Both businesses and individuals throughout the region are fed up with transportation problems and their related costs. The state has habitually shortchanged the mta, failing to meet its own funding formula, and we have also repeatedly failed to obtain available federal transit dollars, due to our historical inability to meet federal clean-air standards. New York City residents who use public transportation pay the highest percentage of operational costs of any transit system in our nation, yet service is abysmal. Continuing down this road is untenable.

5) Existing public transit is incapable of providing for passenger comfort and efficient, predictable service while handling current volumes; even less so with increased ridership. Much of the existing infrastructure within the five boroughs is a decaying remnant of the Victorian era, that, while quaint, is increasingly expensive and impractical to maintain.

6) Everybody knows that the 350 million dollars from the federal government is just a starting point; the vast infrastructure improvements we need will realistically cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and will require a new, dedicated funding model. The new express buses will be a welcome addition, but without intensive traffic and driver reform, they will not, in and of themselves, be of much help. Let’s use this unique opportunity to implement substantive and necessary improvements to transportation throughout the region.

7) It is clear that any congestion pricing plan will need to be implemented in steps, as our existing public transit infrastructure is, at present, incapable of handling the increased volumes required for genuine improvements in air quality and traffic reduction. Any proposed fees should be implemented in phases that correspond to actual transit improvements.

New York City Council Member Letitia James spoke to you of “the big pink elephant in the room”, referring to the Atlantic Yards project, and I wholeheartedly agree, yet there is a much bigger, pinker elephant looming.

In 1907, there was much talk of pollution in New York City; but when they spoke of pollution, they were referring to profuse quantities of horse excrement in the streets. Naysayers (no pun intended) scoffed at the notion of the car; it could never replace the horse; yet by 1920, horses were scarce, and cars predominated in the urban streetscape.

We are at a similar juncture in history, and that bigger, pinker elephant is the same gasoline-powered internal combustion engine that promised to save us from the ills of pollution a mere hundred years ago. A large part of our challenge is to convince our fellow citizens that their continued well-being is largely contingent upon making our current car usage patterns as obsolete by 2020 as the urban horse was by 1920.

The largest part of meeting that challenge lies in improving mass transit; we need a faster, more reliable way of moving people about. If we are concerned about the economic growth, health and vitality of the region, we must become proponents of a vastly expanded and improved mass transit system; we cannot continue to advocate an automobile-centered transportation model—that model falls short of meeting our needs today, and certainly will not meet them in the future.

Bombardier, Kawasaki and Grumman, and others, offer several alternatives to our current subway/express bus/local bus model; light rail, guided light transit (GLT), advanced rapid transit (ART; the recently-initiated AirTrain to JFK is an example)—all of these are more efficient, require less maintenance, less new infrastructure, and create less of a footprint, than would building new subway lines. These systems also have the distinct advantage of requiring fewer employees. Guided light transit, in particular, could be rapidly deployed, and would produce immediate benefits at a relatively (compared to constructing new subways) low cost. Express buses can also be a useful addition to the mix, but only with drastic reductions in current traffic volumes.

Ferries have been mentioned by many; new public and private routes should be established— keep in mind that ferries also have an ineffable quality, a romance that other transportation lacks, a je nais se quois—and the unique advantage of being a proven tourist draw, capable of producing more revenues.
Likewise, the bicycle can play an important role in the region; bicycle use should be encouraged, and incentives provided. We could abolish sales tax on bicycles and bicycle equipment, for one; and establish, wherever possible throughout the city, inviolable bike lanes, with high penalties for cabs, cars and/or buses who disregard them. Even better, we could have designated streets and avenues set aside for bicycle and pedestrian use only. We must also change bicycle rider habits; they must respect and obey all rules of the road, at all times.

Objections have been made that the cost of setting up monitoring systems to ensure payment of any congestion fees would claim a substantial share of any revenues produced; that the technology is unproven, and so forth. Balderdash, hokum, hooey and nonsense. The success of EZ Pass can put those objections to rest; ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) is a proven technology, and holding costs to a minimum is not an insurmountable task.

Now, I’m obviously partial to many of the ideas I’ve presented to you, as others are partial to their own ideas. I must repeat once more that increased enforcement of our existing traffic laws is probably the single most important tool available to us to bring about the vast sea changes that meeting our transportation needs require. As the situation now stands, traffic law enforcement in New York City is virtually nonexistent. Simply adopting strict enforcement throughout the region, not only within New York City, would return as much or more revenue than Mayor Bloomberg’s $8.00 fee, and would go a long way towards changing driver habits.

Yet I also feel very strongly that the best solution lies in an amalgam of all the ideas that have been presented to you—that combining Mr. Fidler’s one-third of one percent regional income tax and encouragement of the development of hydrogen fueling stations, with Mr. Weiner’s proposal to reduce truck traffic and his proposal to increase metered parking rates, with entry restrictions to the Central Business District (even a total ban on cars), with my entry fee and increased traffic enforcement plan, etc., will produce the highest revenues, and the best solutions for the region.

I implore each of you to objectively consider every option available, to study every proposal and technology, consider every point of view, and then recommend to the Governor, the New York City Council, and the State Senate and Assembly the very best plan possible for all the people of New York. I’m asking you to make a plan with your great-grandchildren in mind, a plan to carry us into the twenty-second century; a plan that recognizes and affirms that New York City is, and will continue to be the greatest city in the world. During your deliberations, I ask that you keep in mind the following quote:

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” —Robert Burns