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It’s National Peach Ice Cream Day, in these United States.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One believes that if you’ve got a problem to solve, the first step towards “victory state” over it involves wrapping your head around the problem and “getting smart.” I like to be fairly well educated about the nature of things before opening the hood and tinkering around with the engine, basically.

The subject of the MTA, or Metropolitan Transit Authority (a public benefit corporation), has been in the news quite a bit of late. The subways have been the particular focus, but the question a friend asked me the other night is what caused today’s post to come into existence.

What, exactly, is the MTA? Well, it’s complicated.

from wikipedia

Chartered by the New York State Legislature in 1965 as the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Authority(MCTA), it was initially created by Governor Nelson Rockefeller to purchase and operate the bankrupt Long Island Rail Road. The MCTA dropped the word “Commuter” from its name and became the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) on March 1, 1968 when it took over operations of the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA) (now MTA New York City Transit (NYCT)) and Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority(TBTA) (now MTA Bridges and Tunnels (B&T)). The construction of two bridges over the Long Island Sound was put under the jurisdiction of the MTA.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

To begin with, there’s just over 70,000 employees on the MTA’s payroll. MTA operates, ultimately, in the most densely populated sections of three states with the Shining City of Manhattan as the titular center and bullseye destination for its trains, automotive bridges and tunnels, and multiple fleets of buses.

Nearly all of the MTA train lines were originally built and owned by private businesses (with a significant public investment in the case of the subways) either during the late 19th or early 20th century, but bankruptcies and public foreclosures brought them into government hands. Private bus companies were acquired and folded into the Authority over the decades, along with bridges and tunnels that were formally owned and operated by seperate entities. Today, all of these operations are handled by the individual divisions of the MTA and overseen by a 17 member board of directors (who are all political appointees with virtually zero experience in transportation matters, incidentally).

from wikipedia

The Long Island Rail Road (reporting mark LI), legally known as the Long Island Rail Road Company and often abbreviated as the LIRR, is a commuter rail system in the southeastern part of the U.S. state of New York, stretching from Manhattan to the eastern tip of Suffolk County on Long Island. With an average weekday ridership of 337,800 passengers in 2014, it is the busiest commuter railroad in North America. It is also one of the world’s few commuter systems that runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, year-round. It is publicly owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which refers to it as MTA Long Island Rail Road.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Capital Construction is where all the money disappears into, basically. Pictured above is the Second Avenue Subway under construction, and however much I wish that I could show you a shot from the East Side Access project – I haven’t managed to find a way to get my camera down there, yet. The MTA is ostensibly meant to be self funding, through bonds it issues and through fare revenue, but it seldom works out that way and both State and City end up sending a significant amount of tax revenue their way to handle deficits.

Everybody asks why it is that these mega projects orchestrated by Capital Construction have the political support that they do while the wheels are falling off the buses and subways. Short answer is that a shot of a politician watching some mechanic turn a wrench while repairing a track switch is a lot less compelling an image, electoral politics wise, than one showing the same politician cutting a ribbon at the opening ceremony of a fancy new subway stop in the richest section of Manhattan on the Uppper East Side.

Capital Construction, like all of MTA’s divisions, is a vertical silo with its own hierarchy and political patronage. They do what they do, and compete for funding with the other divisions.

from wikipedia

MTA Capital Construction is a subsidiary agency of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), formed in July 2003 to manage the MTA’s major capital projects in the New York metropolitan area. It mainly focuses on improving transportation infrastructure and facilities in New York City, the Hudson Valley, and Long Island areas. Funding primarily comes from local, state, and national bond sales and budgets. As of April 2017, the current MTA Capital Construction president is Janno Lieber.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Long Island Railroad, for instance, is a vertically integrated “thing” all of its own. If someone from the Metro North side of MTA calls in sick, they don’t send LIRR employees upstate to fill in the slack. It doesn’t share “synergies” with Metro North (repair facilities, union contracts etc.) or with the New York City Transit Authority (subways). This situation is owed partially to the formerly seperate corporate entities that created the original lines.

Metro North is the grandchild of the old New York Central Railroad passenger service, and the LIRR is the child of Central’s arch rival and adversarial enemy – the Pennsylvania Railroad Company.

I’m no expert on this subject, so, I reached out to a buddy who is one of my “rail rabbis” and he anonymously offered this statement and assessment of the situation involving Metro North and LIRR, which – despite logic and what you might think, don’t use the same trains nor operate in common fashion or custom.

“Metro-North Railroad is made up of three distinct operations. Two of these operate out of Grand Central Terminal, the third operates out of Hoboken Terminal.

Hudson and Harlem lines are the remnants of the New York Central Railroad (Vanderbilt), out of Grand Central Terminal.

The New Haven line is the former New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad (New Haven for short).

The New Haven was unique in that they operated commuter trains out of Grand Central Terminal and their long distance trains out of Penn Station. The line over Hell Gate was financed by the New York Connecting Railroad, which was a paper railroad business agreement between the New Haven and the Pennsylvania Railroads.

The third operation is frequently overlooked. it is the former Erie Railroad (Jay Gould, THE robber baron), later Erie Lacawanna Railroad operation to Port Jervis New York. MTA pays for the New York portion, while New Jersey Transit pays for the New Jersey operation. This operates out of Hoboken Terminal.

The New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroad merged in 1968 into the Penn Central (Good book to read is “The Wreck of the Penn Central” by Joseph R. Daughen and Peter Binzen).

It was an unhappy merger, with battles between the two different management ideologies. It ended up with the US Government creation of Conrail in 1976 to salvage what remained of several north east railroad operations (Including Penn Central).

Conrail operated many commuter railroads, which received state subsidies for commuter operations. (Amtrak was formed in 1971 for intercity/long distance passenger trains, not the many commuter operations) Conrail wanted out of commuter operations at its founding and in 1983, it was NY States turn and Metro North was created.

The LIRR and Metro North are two distinct systems, with the only real compatible technology being the train couplings and the gauge of the trains.

Metro North utilizes an under-running third rail and the LIRR utilizes an over running third rail. Diesel locomotives and diesel hauled electric passenger cars also weigh different, with Metro North being able to haul heavier equipment, Long Island bridges are load limited. The Park Avenue Tunnels on Metro North and the East River Tunnels on the Long Island also limit the interchangeability of some equipment. Signal systems are also different.

The Electric Multiple Unit (MU) trains of Metro North and LIRR look similar and are ordered from the same vendor/companies, but they are configured to operate on their respective systems. They are not freely interchangeable. The Arch Street shop of the LIRR is a warranty shop for the recent purchase of the M-7 MU’s. Metro north ships them there for work, but not before all the third rail shoes are removed, and they have to travel over the Hell Gate from New Rochelle, NY. (The Ventilation system vents on the Metro North Roofs won’t fit in the LIRR East River Tunnels).

The LIRR bilevel cars will not fit in the Park Avenue tunnels.

Metro North diesel locomotives are too heavy for the bridges on the eastern end of Long Island.”

from wikipedia

The Metro-North Commuter Railroad (reporting mark MNCW), trading as MTA Metro-North Railroad or simply Metro-North, is a suburban commuter rail service run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), a public authority of the state of New York. With an average weekday ridership of 298,900 in 2014, it is the second-busiest commuter railroad in North America in terms of annual ridership, behind its sister railroad, the Long Island Rail Road. Metro-North runs service between New York City and its northern suburbs in New York and Connecticut, including Port Jervis, Spring Valley, Poughkeepsie, White Plains, and Wassaic in New York and New Canaan, Danbury, Waterbury, and New Haven in Connecticut. Metro-North also provides local rail service within New York City at a reduced fare. There are 124 stations on Metro-North Railroad’s five active lines (plus the Meadowlands Rail Line), which operate on more than 775 miles (1,247 km) of track, with the passenger railroad system totaling 385 miles (620 km) of route.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Another vertical silo at MTA is the Bridges and Tunnels group. This is Robert Moses’ old Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority empire, rebranded and “nationalized” by Nelson Rockefeller back in the late 1960’s. TBTA has always been, and always will be, its own fiefdom.

For those of you not familiar with the terms “vertical silo” or “synergies,” that’s a fairly archaic series of terms used in the investment banking industry to describe business units within a corporate structure. When a corporate merger occurs, the investment bankers will often try to “flatten” these silos and merge them with other units to avoid redundancy, which saves them money and ostensibly streamlines an operation. This is not how Government people think, btw. If the MTA was a company and got taken over by another corporation, the VERY first thing the new owners would do is try to flatten these silos and eliminate the wasteful or redundant departments.

MTA, for instance, has multiple divisions of armed police and guardsmen. There’s TBTA cops, MTA cops, MTA Operations armed guards, a whole seperate department of MTA Security… and they’re all operating under different rules, jurisprudence, and circumstance.

It’s all very complicated.

from wikipedia

The Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, doing business as MTA Bridges and Tunnels, is an affiliate agency of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that operates seven intrastate toll bridges and two tunnels in New York City. In terms of traffic volume, it is the largest bridge and tunnel toll agency in the United States, serving more than a million people each day and generating more than $1.5 billion in toll revenue annually as of 2012.

The seven bridges are:

  • Triborough Bridge (officially Robert F. Kennedy Bridge), the agency’s original namesake and flagship crossing, connecting Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens, via Randalls and Wards Islands
  • Bronx–Whitestone Bridge, connecting the Bronx and Queens
  • Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island
  • Throgs Neck Bridge, connecting the Bronx and Queens
  • Henry Hudson Bridge, connecting Manhattan and the BronxMarine Parkway–Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge, connecting Brooklyn and the Rockaways (Queens)
  • Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge, connecting Broad Channel to the Rockaways (Queens)

The two tunnels are:

  • Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel (officially Hugh L. Carey Tunnel), connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan
  • Queens–Midtown Tunnel, connecting Queens and Manhattan

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The focus of public ennui these days is generally related to the subway system, although this summer the LIRR situation has gathered a lot of storm clouds to the Long Island Railroad. What New Yorker hasn’t stood there on some subway platform and exhorted “EFF YOU, MTA” at least once?

My rail rabbi quoted above offers this, on the subject of the “switch problems” and the MTA’s promises that modernizing them will fix everything wrong with the subways:

“One thing we mentioned about “outdated signal systems” with regard to the subway is that the 100 year old signal, while worn out, allow better utilization of the tracks. As I understand it, typical headways on the NYC subway system are four to seven minutes at rush hour. As a comparison, newer fully automated systems, like BART in San Francisco, WAMATA in Washington DC and MARTA in Atlanta can’t beat seven minutes, with ten minutes being the normal.”

A humble narrator has been getting increasingly involved with transit issues in recent years, and I’ve joined the steering committee of Access Queens, a community organization led by Sunnyside’s Melissa Orlando, which grew out of the “7 train blues” Facebook group. I won’t bore you with the usual song you’ve read everywhere else about switches, overcrowding, deferred maintenance, and aging tracks – instead I’d ask for you to click through to the Access Queens site and see what our group has been working on.

It may be the “Summer of Hell” for the LIRR, but it’s always transit hell in Queens.

from wikipedia

The New York City Transit Authority (also known as NYCTA, The TA or simply Transit, and branded as MTA New York City Transit) is a public authority in the U.S. state of New York that operates public transportation in New York City. Part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the busiest and largest transit system in North America, the NYCTA has a daily ridership of 7 million trips (over 2 billion annually).

The NYCTA operates the following systems:

  • New York City Subway, a rapid transit system in Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens.
  • Staten Island Railway, a rapid transit line in Staten Island (operated by the Staten Island Rapid Transit Operating Authority, a NYCTA subsidiary)
  • New York City Bus, an extensive bus network serving all five boroughs, managed by MTA Regional Bus Operations.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The MTA Bus company is part of NYCTA, or New York City Transit Authority, but that’s not all of it. There’s tons of bus lines in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, Yonkers, and even Westchester which MTA operates. Buses aren’t the sexiest way to get around, of course, but when it’s raining a bus is always superior to walking. Unfortunately, the vertical silo of the bus company seldom coordinates with the NYCTA subway company during outages and planned work, nor coordinates their schedule with them.

from wikipedia

MTA Regional Bus Operations (RBO) is the surface transit division of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), created in 2008 to consolidate all bus operations in New York City operated by the MTA.


Upcoming Tours and events

The Poison Cauldron of the Newtown Creek Walking Tour, with Atlas Obscura – July 22nd, 11 a.m. – 2 p.m..

Explore the hellish waste transfer and petroleum districts of North Brooklyn on this daring walk towards the doomed Kosciuszko Bridge, with NCA Historian Mitch Waxman details here.


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

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Written by Mitch Waxman

July 17, 2017 at 11:00 am

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