Dear NYC Transit

Riding downhill on the 9th Street bicycle lane in Brooklyn today around 12:30, I was traveling about the same speed as the B61, about a block ahead of it. I noticed that the bus driver was honking, over and over, once or twice a block all the way down the hill. Eventually I understood that the driver was blowing the horn each time he or she passed, and passed again, the same cyclists in the same bicycle lane. Finally, the bus driver passed and honked at me. Oh look, a bus! It was bus 5686.

While I’m sure your driver’s intentions are good, it is not helpful or safety-enhancing to “warn” cyclists with a horn honk when passing safely—quite the opposite. A seasoned cyclist will shrug off the piercing noise and do nothing, and that is the best case scenario. An inexperienced cyclist may be startled and look left—inadvertently moving into the vehicle’s path. Or they may retreat to the right—directly into an opening car door, which throws them left into the path of the bus. That’s what happened in Queens to Tskaka Cooke in June of this year, as I’m sure you’ll recall.

Please ask your drivers not to honk at cyclists and anyone else just going about their business on the street. Blasting the horn in routine situations makes them tense and dangerous, renders the horn useless as a signal of unusual danger, and surely isn’t appreciated by anyone who lives along your bus routes.

That doesn’t mean, however, that MTA finances look any better than they did in January. Yesterday’s agreement simply preserves the status quo for the capital plan. The bonding cap increase will allow the MTA to borrow up to $41.9 billion dollars even as debt service makes up the fastest-growing piece of the MTA budget. The debt increase would be the second for a single five-year capital program, which is unprecedented in recent years.

Hand in hand with this concern are complaints over enforcement. Twenty respondents were ticketed when SBS payment machines failed to produce receipts, and riders complained that buses were stopped during fare inspections, thus defeating the purpose of a faster commute. One East Sider’s tale highlights these concerns. “Last September I received a $100 summons even though the SBS ticket machine wasn’t working,”

None of that is over-enforcement, it is bad enforcement and bad maintenance. Ticket checkers should board buses and do their checking while it’s moving, like every other proof-of-payment system in the world. It should never be the case that all ticket machines at a stop are out of order, but if it happens, enforcement should be regular enough that people choose not to take the risk of riding without their proof of payment. When all machines aren’t working the bus stop is effectively closed, and the MTA needs to be smarter about making sure that never happens if they want SBS to succeed.

Dialing back enforcement would be the worst possible move, and the first step towards collapse of the whole effort. If New York government is too dumb and corrupt to make a simple proof-of-payment system work fairly on city buses, like so many other cities have done for decades, it may as well just give up.

The $375 whistles are a creative use of resources that could solve a quality-of-life and subway cleanliness problem. The Times decided it was worth a 700-word article in the New York section. Meanwhile, State Senate Republicans are threatening to deny the MTA enough state funding to qualify for a billion-dollar loan for the federal government, thus jeopardizing the future of the Second Ave. Subway and East Side Access project. Plus, the head of the MTA promised fare hikes in 2013 and 2015 simply so the MTA has enough money to pay off its future pension and health care obligations. Those happenings have warranted zero words of coverage in the so-called paper of record.

Nobody calls it that anymore, except in irony.

The business leaders of today, Ravitch argued, lack the public spirit of that earlier generation, and he expressed little optimism that they would eventually become advocates for the infrastructure of their city. “Their preoccupation on the whole is, honestly, keeping the Bush tax cuts, keeping the government from regulating them and making sure they’re too big to fail,” said Ravitch. Indeed, who has heard current Chase CEO Jamie Dimon ever mention the MTA?

Of course, no day in Albany would be complete without unnecessary references to a tired cliche, and here Lhota acquitted himself nicely. During the Finance Committee hearing, Lhota said it was time to cease repeating eight-year-old claims proven false about two sets of books. “It needs to end,” he said. “It was nothing more than a marketing gimmick by a former state controller who didn’t know what he was talking about.”

This is the most heartening thing Lhota has said so far.

For example, Madrid’s MetroSur, built for about $1.7 billion in today’s money, or $45 million per km, gets only 140,000-170,000 riders per day, for a total of around $10,000 per rider. This is fine, but not very low, since the very low construction costs are matched with low ridership per kilometer, more comparable to a tramway than to a subway; most Parisian projects are considerably cheaper per rider, even though Paris builds on-street light rail for the same cost Madrid builds tunnels. In contrast, Second Avenue Subway is about $25,000 per projected rider, high by non-US standards but not obscenely so; I know of no cheaper project in the US under construction right now, including some with quite reasonable per-km costs.

In 2000, then-Mayor Giuliani cut a deal to slash New York City’s contributions to the pension plans for two years (giving him extra money to throw around while running for Mayor), in exchange for the employees getting to slash there own contributions (by 75% over their careers) permanently. Now MTA head Joe Lhota was Giuliani’s budget director at the time. Was he involved with that deal? How did he justify it then, and what does he think of it now?