A LaGuardia train, and other early ‘reinvention’ proposals

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LaGuardia airport. (AP Photo/Frank Eltman)
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Some of the finest minds in transportation descended on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Madison Avenue headquarters Tuesday afternoon to engage in an unusual brainstorming exercise: What should be done to fix the M.T.A.?

The occasion was the first public meeting of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s election-year M.T.A. reinvention commission, a body he created in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which deluged and then hobbled the system, and after the Metro-North derailment that killed four passengers, the first passenger deaths in the railroad’s history.

Tom Prendergast, the Cuomo-appointed M.T.A. chairman, invited some of the most prestigious names in transit to join the commission, and several of the the region’s transit leaders appeared before those experts on Tuesday to offer their advice, of both the specific and unspecific variety.

Transportation is “a means to almost all of the ends that matter to us in New York,” said Tony Shorris, Bill de Blasio’s first deputy mayor and the former Port Authority executive director.

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The commission, he said, represents “a pretty rare opportunity to step back and put the politics of the moment aside.”

But the politics of the moment mandate that the city, where most of the M.T.A.’s operations take place, pay only $500 million into the authority’s roughly $30 billion five-year capital plan, and $780 million a year into the M.T.A.’s more than $13 billion annual operating budget, according to the Straphangers Campaign.

The state, taxpayers and subway riders pick up much of the rest.

“Is there an opportunity for the city to play a more active role in managing and financing the region’s transportation system?” Regional Plan Association president and commission member Bob Yaro asked him. “Any stomach for that at City Hall?”

Shorris said that he was not in a position to discuss “financial architecture” at the moment.

A few minutes later, Straphangers staff attorney and commission member Gene Russianoff asked the same question in slightly different form. 

“We’re not here to necessarily go through the math of the city’s budget and the state budget,” Shorris answered.

Polly Trottenberg, the city's transportation commissioner, used her time in the hot seat to talk up the infrastructure financing mechanism called “value capture.”

The idea is relatively straightforward: When cities build transit and enhance nearby real estate values, they can capture a piece of that enhanced real estate value through special levies, and thereby finance the infrastructure in question.

“The city partnered with the M.T.A. to use a value capture model to build out an extension of the number 7 line to 11th Avenue,” she said. “The project did certainly face some challenges as we all know, but clearly it’s proved to be a very viable tool and I know one of the many that this commission is going to be taking a look at.”

One project that she suggested might benefit from that sort of thing is Woodhaven Boulevard, where the city is contemplating building a robust bus rapid transit system, which Trottenberg said on Tuesday would cost roughly $200 million.

How might that work?

“If you have a route where you have dedicated bus lanes where you really built out the infrastructure like you would have in B.R.T., presumably there will be some real real estate upside in that,” she said. “But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. We’d be many steps down the road to figure out how that would actually work.”

Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union president Stuart Appelbaum testified in favor of bus rapid transit, and union protections for workers at stores in de-facto M.T.A.-run malls, like Grand Central Terminal and Fulton Street Transit Center.

And then New Jersey Transit executive director Ronnie Hakim and New York State transportation commissioner Joan McDonald got up to speak.

“There’s a strong chance that by the end of the decade, the projected demand for transit will exceed the capacities of both buses at the [Port Authority bus] terminal and trains to Penn Station,” said Hakim.

Governor Chris Christie, who appointed Hakim to her current post, singlehandedly killed Access to the Region’s Core, a federally backed project that would have doubled rail capacity under the Hudson and helped alleviate the bottleneck.

On Tuesday, Hakim recommended ferries as a stop-gap measure.

“We can work jointly to take some of the stress off of bus and rail by taking advantage of the significant ... capacity offered by ferries, ferries across the Hudson, across the East River and elsewhere,” she said.

But it was, arguably, a commissioner's question about congestion pricing that prompted the most interesting response of the afternoon.

“We need an Air Train that goes to LaGuardia,” said McDonald, the transportation commissioner for Cuomo, who promised to improve New York City's airports in this year's state of the state speech. “And do we have dedicated lanes that go to LaGuardia and JFK? People are willing to pay for that. And we just have to personally—I think we have to bite the bullet and move on. But I don’t make all those decisions. Just that one little caveat at the end.”