A Moving Solution: Second Avenue Buses

As a first-time candidate for public office in 2001, Michael Bloomberg said that the Mayor should have control over all public-transportation projects in the five boroughs, much like the control he sought, and won, over the city’s schools. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a Politburo-like behemoth designed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1967 as a way to shield elected officials from unpopular decisions like fare hikes, is mainly in the hands of the Mayor’s close friend, Governor George Pataki.

Candidate Bloomberg had the right idea, but he hasn’t said one word about it since. Mayoral control of the M.T.A. would come in handy as the Governor’s minions continue to plan for construction of a Second Avenue subway line, which was first suggested in the 1920′s and has been talked about ever since-talked about, and talked about, but never built.

Nobody is asking about alternatives. Nobody, except the Mayor-when he was a candidate.

The tab for the renewed talk about a Second Avenue subway already has exceeded $250 million in “design” work. At a candidates’ forum during his Mayoral campaign, Mr. Bloomberg said flatly that “there isn’t enough money for the Second Avenue subway.” Instead, he proposed a system called Bus Rapid Transit, in use throughout the United States and Europe, that could be up and running along Second Avenue within two years. It’s a terrific idea. Too bad nobody is doing anything about it.

Because Mr. Bloomberg and the M.T.A., whose board has four Mayoral appointees, have been unwilling to come up with a plan, the Bus Rapid Transit idea is on the shelf, even though it would save the city $350 million a year in fuel and personnel costs as well as reduce the time it takes to get to and from work. Bus Rapid Transit would essentially establish a “bus only” dedicated lane. Sensors on the bus turn the traffic signals green as it approaches; kiosks are set up at bus stops so passengers can pre-pay, thus speeding the travel time of the bus. Think light rail without the rails.

An M.T.A. study of bus delays due to traffic congestion found that operating expenses per revenue mile in New York were nearly twice those of other big-city bus systems. A federal study found that New York’s buses are the slowest in the country. In addition, an idling bus pollutes our air with diesel fuel at a much faster rate than a moving bus.

While his appointees on the M.T.A. board act mainly as rubber stamps for the Governor’s acolytes, the Mayor has not made one move to take control of the agency. In fact, Mr. Bloomberg recently made another environmental and economic blunder by lifting the restrictions on single-occupancy vehicles entering Manhattan, thus giving one person in a car the same rights as 55 passengers on a bus. This disastrous decision-do we need to inhale even more fumes?-came on the heels of his abandonment of a plan to charge tolls on East River bridges, which could have easily raised $800 million a year. It could also have served as a substitute commuter tax, by using technology to charge suburbanites more for bringing their cars across the East River.

Public officials apparently believe that the Second Avenue subway can be built in 12 years at a “projected cost” of $17 billion. Of course, that does nothing to solve today’s problems. That aside, however, do they really think the $17 billion is a realistic figure? If so, check out these numbers: The renovation of the M.T.A.’s headquarters at 2 Broadway was projected at $135 million. It’s now soared past $430 million, and it’s still not finished. Along the way, former U.S. Senator Alfonse D’Amato collected a $500,000 fee for a five-minute phone call to secure a loan for the owner. Curiously, only one fall guy at the M.T.A. took the rap for this outrage.

Given the current state of affairs at the M.T.A.-just recently, a cement company founded by the late Gambino crime family boss Paul Castellano was still working on an M.T.A. construction job-the possibilities for huge cost overruns during the construction of a Second Avenue subway are too huge to calculate. We can, however, safely assume the final cost won’t be anywhere near $17 billion. That number, naturally, is not adjusted for the mobsters, lobbyists, lawyers, engineers, consultants, and friends of the Governor and Mayor who are knocking each other over to line up at the trough. And the debt service, even at a conservative 3 percent annually? How does $600 million a year for 30 years hit you? Think $4 fare.

When the IND subway was finished in 1940 at twice its original “projection,” the City Comptroller said: “The city didn’t get what it paid for, but it certainly paid for what it got.”

But at least they built the damn thing.