Cuomo Fails to Deliver the Hard Charge at Traffic and Transit Reform That New York Desperately Needs

After a year in which subway service reached appalling new lows, jeopardizing the economic health of the entire state, Cuomo spent a scant few minutes discussing the city's transit system in his annual State of the State Address.

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Today was supposed to be the big reveal for Andrew Cuomo’s congestion pricing plan, but that will have to wait. Instead of committing to a specific plan to reduce traffic by charging drivers to use the most congested streets in the city, the governor delivered a teaser in today’s State of the State Address.

After a year in which subway service reached appalling new lows, jeopardizing the economic health of the entire state, Cuomo spent a scant few minutes discussing the city’s transit system.

You can find encouragement in some short passages about the need to fix the subways and move beyond “cheap political slogans,” but it was not the hard charge at reform that New York City transit riders need right now. The Cuomo who’s been too enamored with costly, unnecessary infrastructure projects at the expense of basic maintenance for seven years was still commanding the podium today.

The looming question about congestion pricing is whether the governor will commit to a robust cordon fee to curb motor vehicle trips in and around the Manhattan core, along the lines of the Move NY toll reform plan, or opt for an ineffectual political lay-up, like adding a surcharge on for-hire vehicles without charging other types of trips.

After today’s speech, we still don’t know the answer. The governor made a few tantalizing references to congestion pricing but stopped short of committing to specific policies, like a cordon toll, saying that he will “present options” for the state legislature to consider during the upcoming budget season. Here’s a brief recap of what we did learn.

Congestion Pricing

“We must improve the NYC subway system,” Cuomo said. “We have failed to maintain it.” To his credit, Cuomo singled out the “40-year-old cars and 80-year-old signals” that are dragging subway performance down.

He framed the fix as “a question of funding,” including “long-term funding that is fair to all and addresses congestion problems.” This “must be provided in a very tight budget, and it must be provided this session,”  he added. “We can’t leave our riders stranded any longer.”

Rather than put his weight behind a specific policy to generate that long-term funding, Cuomo said his “Fix NYC” commission “will shortly present a report that will have several options for the legislature to consider,” and that “we will have new technology installed which will offer a variety of alternatives defining an exclusive zone in Manhattan where additional charges could be paid.”

Anything less than a real cordon toll plus a fee on for-hire vehicles in the Manhattan core won’t provide the congestion-busting impact that New York needs. It’s not at all clear that Cuomo intends to deliver.

Controlling Costs

The week after the New York Times published a devastating exposé of how MTA capital projects waste billions on labor, consultants, and contractors, Cuomo said nothing about how he plans to deliver critical transit infrastructure at prices in line with global standards. Without such a plan, it’s hard to see how Cuomo will follow through on the system improvements he claims to believe are imperative.

Improving Bus Service

Bus service is hemorrhaging riders at a much more severe pace than the subways. Cuomo’s MTA can speed up service systemwide by rapidly implementing all-door boarding in tandem with the fare system that will replace the MetroCard. But while they move two million passengers each day, New York City buses did not merit a mention in Cuomo’s 92-minute speech.

Mega-Projects New York Doesn’t Need

Cuomo’s penchant for peppering his annual address with big, expensive infrastructure projects that add little to no value to the regional transportation network was on full display. The backward AirTrain to LaGuardia and a car tunnel linking Long Island and Westchester got name-checked. So did the possibility of extending the subway to Red Hook. As a taunt aimed at Mayor de Blasio and his Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar, it’s hard to top. As a solution to the transit problems New Yorkers deal with every day, there are a thousand things more important.

  • Komanoff

    Super-smart take by Ben. Everything in it is spot-on.

  • JK

    Is Cuomo saying he intends to install EZ Pass and license plate readers on the East River Bridges and 60th Street cordon and then figure out who gets charged after they’re installed? What does this mean? “we will have new technology installed which will offer a variety of
    alternatives defining an exclusive zone in Manhattan where additional
    charges could be paid.”

  • HamTech87

    Get the cordon in place, and then turn the tolls on to justify the expense? This is just weird.

  • (((Yosef Kessler)))

    After excitedly anticipating the Governor to propose a congestion pricing plan at today’s state of a state. The Governor’s vague outlines and no clear mention of congestion pricing was a letdown

  • Charles Siegel

    I am not an expert, but based on what I read in today’s NY Times, the subway extension to Red Hook sounds good to me:

    Related Companies, one of the city’s biggest developers, and William
    Wachtell, an adviser to the company, have circulated a similar draft
    plan called “New York’s Next Big Thing.” Their plan calls for a one-mile
    extension of the R subway line from Lower Manhattan to Red Hook.
    The estimated $2.9 billion cost of the subway extension could be paid
    through the sale of land and the development of 45,000 apartments,
    one-third of which would be subsidized for low- and moderate-income
    tenants, under Related’s plan.
    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/03/nyregion/red-hook-subway-housing.html?_r=0

    Better transit, lots more transit oriented development including affordable housing, and it could pay for itself. What’s not to like?

    Again, I am far from being an expert on this issue and just want to start a discussion about it here.

  • Would a Long Island – Westchester tunnel not help the City by diverting those cars that are not coming here but are only passing through?

    (Or is the argument against it that, even if it did do that, those cars’ places would quickly be taken by others, and that we shouldn’t be creating more space for drivers and more inducement to drive?)

  • reasonableexplanation

    A tunnel would honestly be the only thing that would develop long island into a denser (and ultimately more urban and walkable area), especially if it had provisions to add rail in the future.

    Right now Long Islanders and Westchester/Connecticut folk can work locally, or in the city, yet there’s tons of jobs that either would commute to in the other place. Making them accessible would likely make both places more attractive places to live, and over time would increase density enough where walkable neighborhoods become possible.

    It’s an investment yes, but a good one.

  • Charles Siegel

    Like any new freeway, it would induce demand and generate more automobile traffic. The point you make in parentheses is true.

  • Right. I see that point.

    But isn’t there something to what @reasonableexplanations:disqus said? Wouldn’t the automobile traffic generated by a Long Island – Westchester connection end up promoting density and urbanisation in those counties? And wouldn’t this have the knock-on effect of slowing the rise in real estate values and rents within the City, perhaps making housing more affordable?

  • AMH

    That proposal describes rerouting R service from lower Manhattan (no mention of what would replace it in Brooklyn), while referring to using a tunnel stub on the Nassau St Line, which could only be used by J/Z (not R) service. Quite a strange plan. The J/Z can already be extended to Brooklyn on existing track to improve 4 Av Local service; a better Red Hook extension would connect to South Ferry (1), making better use of the current stub-end terminal there.

  • Andrew

    There is no chance in hell that it would come anywhere close to paying for itself. Get real.

  • Newtonmarunner

    Not at $30B for 100K riders ($300K/rider) Cuomo’s Long Island Sound Invisible Car Tunnel is not a good investment. Even if you cut costs to 1/4th of the cost ($75K/rider), it would still be a bad investment. European rail projects have capital costs of $5K-$25K/rider. In the U.S., those capital costs for rail projects run between $15K/rider and $40K/rider. Even with plenty of project bloat, the Second Ave. Subway Phase I costed $25K/rider (for 200K riders). Even a 3-Line Regional system combined with Triboro, Utica and Nostrand Ave. Subways, and Astoria Line to LGA would combined cost far less than Cuomo’s car tunnel, and have several multiples more riders.

  • Newtonmarunner

    Compared to regional rail, Triboro, Utica, Nostrand, Second Ave./125th St., Northern/50th St., line reorganization, etc., 1 to Red Hook should sit far, far behind those projects.

    As far as better service to Red Hook, reorganize the subway lines such that the Smith St. El has 2-3 minute headways to 6th Ave. Local (to the 63rd St. Tunnel to Queens Blvd. Local). Send the G to MetroTech (from Fulton St.) to terminate there (eventually Borough Hall for Regional Rail) for the G to have a better transfer to the F and R, and relieve the A. Restore full service to the Nassau St. Subway (J/Z) by replacing the M with the Z in Central Brooklyn. Fix Dekalb, by having the Fourth Ave Express go to the 6th Ave Express to CPW Local to Grand Concourse, and the Brighton Line go to Broadway Express to 2nd Ave. Have Washington Heights get the 8th Ave Express, and Queens Blvd. Express get the 53rd St. Tunnel and 8th Ave. Local. Switch Flushing and Astoria so Astoria gets the 42nd St. Tunnel, and Flushing gets the 60th St. Tunnel. This would all cost a lot less than another East River Tunnel to Red Hook, but allow for faster, more frequent, and more reliable service.

  • Newtonmarunner

    Though it should have full service rather than “half” service (from the M going to 6th Ave. and the J going to FiDi), the Nassau St. Subway should not go back to Brooklyn. That would be too circuitous a path.

    Please see my response to @CharlesSeigel. Thanks.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Set the cost aside for a moment, since as we’ve seen with that NYT article, building anything around here is several times more expensive for a variety of unfortunate reasons.

    Can you think of another project that will increase density in the NYC area in such a dramatic way that this one will? Arguably much more than any new subway line through already relatively dense Brooklyn or Queens.

    How else are you going to get Long Island and Southern CT to be dense enough to be truly urban?

  • newtonmarunner

    No, I won’t put costs aside. To not divide any project’s metrics by cost is silly.

    How else to increase density in NYC? Subways on Utica and Nostrand Aves. for starters. Regional Rail and building housing by the stations. Triboro. So many more things. Basically building more rail, and allowing more people to live by it.

  • newtonmarunner

    P.S.: Residents will not be as receptive to density if the area is auto-centric, which a car tunnel is, than if the development is transit-oriented, which rail (any kind) is. The more people use cars, the worse using a car gets (see traffic); the more transit users there are, the better transit gets (more frequent headways, going from bus to more reliable rail, making trains longer and more frequent to match demand, more incentive to have good maintenance as more transit users, adding another relief line, etc.). And the Long Island Sound Tunnel will just make the region more and more auto-centric, hurting regional mobility. Our future capacity is in buses and rail — mostly rail — not automobiles.

  • newtonmaruuner

    No, it wouldn’t promote density. Bringing more rail service (more frequent Metro North and LIRR commuter headways with a few urban infill stations, such that commuter rail service in the outer boroughs and near suburbs operates like is an express subway), elimination of the abomination that is skip-stop service, and building more housing along these rail lines would increase density. Buses and rail have an order of magnitude more capacity than roads, and that is where our future transportation capacity is — not with building a more auto-centric region, as the invisible tunnel does.

  • I see. Very good point.

  • Good response. Thanks for elaborating.

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