How MTA bus plan, double-decker and all, could open up congestion pricing

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New York had the feel of London as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority unveiled a bus-operations overhaul that includes a new British-style double-decker bus.

“It’s very much a watershed,” Andy Byford, the president of the MTA’s New York City Transit subdivision and himself a Briton, said Monday as the new bus sat behind him on Whitehall Street in lower Manhattan. “We want to transform and modernize our bus network and arrest the ridership decline in recent years.”

While the double-decker clearly generated a buzz, as evidenced by the lunchtime gawkers, the bus action plan Byford and MTA bus operations chief Darryl Irick outlined to members of the MTA board’s transit and bus committee on Monday is intricate.

Essentially a companion to the more headlined subway action plan, it includes electric buses, tap-card readers to replace the MetroCard payment system, all-door boarding and data mining. It also calls for lane enforcement cameras and other strategies, some of which require cooperation from the city’s Department of Transportation and state lawmakers.

The MTA is one of the largest municipal issuers with roughly $37.3 billion in debt.

Effective street management and other components could pave the way for full congestion pricing, which a panel appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo supported but which the legislature in Albany essentially sidestepped this election year.

“This is a great step toward [congestion pricing],” said board member Scott Rechler, a former vice chairman of the Port Authority if New York and New Jersey. “We really can’t implement congestion pricing [and] force people out of their cars if we don’t have a bus system that functions effectively.”

Cuomo’s Fix NYC supported a surcharge plan that supporters say could generate up to $1.5 billion annually for mass transit and up to $15 billion through bonding.

Lawmakers instead approved a surcharge for every ride in for-hire vehicles in Manhattan south of 96th Street: They include $2.50 for yellow taxis; $2.75 for other for-hire vehicles, including Ubers and Lyft; and 75 cents for carpool rides such as Via and UberPool.

The surcharge is projected to raise at least $435 million annually.

"In our view, the additional projected revenue from pooled-, taxi-, and ride-hailing services is significant, because the authority faces rising operating expenses and debt service costs that have outpaced revenue growth," said S&P Global Ratings. "Nevertheless, the MTA likely will still need to achieve additional unidentified savings, a figure that will grow in the out-years, to balance operations if it cannot find additional revenue sources."

While relations between Mayor Bill de Blasio and the state-run, Cuomo-controlled MTA have been strained, one board member called on a unified push for congestion pricing.

“The mayor and the MTA have to be better proponents of congestion pricing,” said board member Veronica Vanterpool, a de Blasio appointee. “If congestion is such a root cause, then the MTA has to be at the forefront.”

MTA officials hope to reverse a trend of declining bus ridership in the face of massive street congestion and the growth of for-hire vehicles.

Byford called his the bus initiative “a forerunner for the full-on corporate plan” for NYC Transit that he will release to the board next month.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer's report last week said ridership has dropped off even on the MTA's Select Bus Service, a de-facto form of express travel. Stringer on Monday called the bus plan a step in the right direction.

“Things have changed here in New York City, so we have to change,” said Irick, a former bus driver and supervisor. He said the authority intends to examine all 326 bus routes, their rationales, and how residence and employment commuting patterns have shifted.

The plan, said Byford, will generate benefits short-, medium- and long-term. “We think there are things that can and should be done right now." Byford could not provide a cost estimate, given variables such as the number of bus lanes and cameras the MTA can obtain.

“Two key points,” he told reporters. “Number one, a lot of cost is already contained within our budget because what we’ve done here is package together quite a few existing initiatives but for the first time they’re in a compelling plan that will transform the bus service that we provide.

“And number two, quite a few of these don’t actually cost any money. They need better attention, better focus and that’s exactly what we’re going to give them.”

Some of the changes could work in sync with next year's planned shutdown of the L train for 15 months, beginning next April. The MTA will make critical repairs to the L's Manhattan-to-Brooklyn Canarsie Tunnel, which Hurricane Sandy damaged. Expected mitigation strategies include expanded bus service.

Transit advocates have scheduled a noon rally for Tuesday on the steps of City Hall. They intend to call on Mayor de Blasio to implement a 24-hour-a-day busway and other street-related changes during the tunnel reconstruction.

The double-decker bus service is scheduled to begin later this year on Staten Island-to-Manhattan routes, possibly the express 17J, which enters Manhattan through the Lincoln Tunnel and then winds downtown. Dwell time at stops for people to go upstairs at the 83-seat bus would be too long for local runs, said Byford.

“You’re bringing London to New York,” said transit advocate Omar Vera. “I love the double-decker buses."

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Infrastructure Transportation industry Andy Byford Bill de Blasio Andrew Cuomo Metropolitan Transportation Authority City of New York, NY State of New York New York