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Brighter Journey for Staten Island Bus Riders - SI Advance

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On Staten Island, a brighter journey for bus riders

by Staten Island Advance

Saturday September 13, 2008, 12:00 PM

 

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After years of neglecting Staten Island's buses and bus riders, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is lavishing attention on the borough, with scores of new buses, two new depots and greater attention to detail.

 

Riders have noticed, but they're still looking for more: Better local service. An extension of a South Shore bus line so they more easily shop at Target. Around-the-clock express service.

 

Faced with a big budget crisis, the MTA will be hard-pressed to deliver.

 

 

 

Brighter journey for Staten Island bus riders

by Staten Island Advance

Saturday September 13, 2008, 11:55 AM

 

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By MAURA YATES and PHIL HELSEL

BYCRED: STATEN ISLAND ADVANCE

 

large_busdepot.jpg

 

For decades, a third depot has been seen as critical to the reliability of the borough's bus-transportation network. It's set to open ahead of pace in January 2010; a lease deal for a fourth depot could be made soon.

 

A year ago, the borough's local bus fleet could be described as aging and decaying. Earlier this month, the first of 159 new hybrid buses to hit local routes here was unveiled.

 

In summers past, many buses became so unbearably hot that drivers called them "coffins on wheels." This summer, only a handful hit the streets with malfunctioning air conditioners -- providing a true breath of fresh air for riders.

 

The string of improvements is so vast and unexpected that bus riders could be forgiven for wondering if an aggrieved Staten Island commuter took over the MTA or if somebody in charge is running for re-election. (The answer to both is "no.")

 

On the other hand, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority faces some significant challenges with its Staten Island-based bus service, on which more than 130,000 trips are taken on a typical weekday. With budget deficits and fare hikes looming ahead, imminent relief appears unlikely for riders in under-served South Shore communities, for weary commuters who complain of long waits for crowded buses home from Manhattan, or for those hoping to take advantage of a city that never sleeps while relying on express buses that stop running before 2 a.m.

 

UNDER-SERVED NEIGHBORHOODS

 

Despite huge ridership growth, particularly among the borough's 24 express routes, Staten Island's bus facilities have remained frozen in time since 1981, when the Yukon Depot opened in New Springville. It was overcrowded on Day One.

 

As a result of the space shortage at Yukon and the borough's other packed-to-the-rafters depot, Castleton in West Brighton, the development of new bus routes was put on hold.

 

"You look at the bus map from the '70s, and it's pretty much the same as it is now," said Bill Henderson, a Rosebank resident and executive director of the MTA's Permanent Citizens Advisory Council. The few notable recent local additions include the year-old S89 bus that connects all of Richmond and Port Richmond avenues to Bayonne, and an extension of the South Shore's S55 to Arthur Kill and Bloomingdale roads.

 

Some opportunities to expand service were never implemented.

 

For example, the borough's most heavily traveled local route, the S53/S93, carries nearly 10,000 people between Port Richmond/Willowbrook and Bay Ridge on an average weekday. Another Brooklyn route, the S79, links Bay Ridge with the Staten Island Mall via Hylan Boulevard and Richmond Avenue. It serves 8,500 daily.

 

The Brooklyn routes are popular for reasons that benefit those on both sides of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge: College of Staten Island students and Brooklyn residents heading to the Staten Island Mall rely heavily on the lines. And Islanders use them because Bay Ridge, with its R subway stop at 86th Street, is the closest link to the New York City subway system.

 

But despite the clear travel pattern shared by many Island commuters, anyone without a car or who lives too far from either of those routes must find another way to get to Brooklyn.

 

"They don't seem to ask the people, 'Where do you want to go? What do you want to do?'" said Angelo Tanzi, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 726, which represents the Island's bus drivers and mechanics.

 

Livingston attorney Allen Cappelli, Staten Island's newly appointed MTA board member, lamented the fact that mass-transit-minded Staten Islanders are so dependent on bus service, with the Staten Island Railway serving as the only other intra-borough option.

 

"We need to see what routes work, which routes don't, and push for the reallocation of resources," Cappelli said. "We need to give them great express-bus service that not only goes north-south, but east-west. It needs to be better."

 

Meanwhile, the success of the S89 bus route that runs over the Bayonne Bridge to the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail -- the MTA's first interstate bus service -- has proven the theory that if the MTA runs more buses, people will ride. Ridership has grown through its first year of operation, and today it serves more than 900 customers a day.

 

SOUTH SHORE NEEDS

 

Service to the South Shore also hasn't increased at the same rate as residential and commercial growth in that section of the borough, leaving residents living below Huguenot Avenue with limited options to get around.

 

"The South Shore is still under-served," Tanzi said, adding he knows of no plans to increase service to the borough's southernmost neighborhoods.

 

Transit riders there have all but given up hope of someday seeing an extensive network of routes within easy walking distance, as can be found throughout the North Shore.

 

"I don't see that changing too much," said City Councilman Vincent Ignizio (R-South Shore), of adding more walkable routes.

 

The MTA has instead worked to meet the needs of the South Shore car culture by agreeing to add 728 spaces either at existing or new park-and-rides in that part of the borough, all of which are expected to be approved and built by the end of next year, Ignizio said. Among the new park-and-rides in the works are lots at Arthur Kill Road and Huguenot Avenue, as well as space in Prince's Bay.

 

One of the most common requests on the South Shore is for bus service into the two-year-old Bricktown Centre shopping plaza on Veterans Road West.

 

Right now the S74 that runs up Arthur Kill Road, already the longest local route in the city, drops off employees and shoppers about a half-mile away, in a neighborhood with few sidewalks.

 

Ignizio and Assemblyman Louis Tobacco (R-South Shore) have proposed extending the route to form a loop around the popular shopping plaza, which contains a Target store and Home Depot, among other big-box retailers. The idea is being considered as part of the first comprehensive local and express bus study in years, currently being done by the MTA.

 

"We're still waiting, we've been asking for this for a year, and every time it's, 'Oh we'll study it,'" said Marie Bodnar, district manager for Community Board 3.

 

But, Tanzi acknowledged, "It's going to be hard trying to fill the need with what we have."

 

 

NEW LEADERSHIP

 

A new leadership team brought on under MTA executive director and CEO Elliot G. Sander is at the reins. The team including Transit President Howard Roberts, Senior Vice President for Buses Joseph Smith, and local honchos John Hein, who is the executive vice president of regional bus operations, and Staten Island's general manager for buses, Richard DeVito.

 

 

Since the new team took over, more attention is being paid to detail, Roberts told the Advance. Every broken bell, reading lamp and seat has been fixed. The overhaul of the air-conditioning systems left many commuters complaining that their buses felt like iceboxes. Roberts has said that's his favorite complaint, because it means the repairs are working.

 

In addition, the MTA added morning rush-hour service to eight express bus lines and evening service to five lines in 2007. Earlier this year, additional runs were added to seven local and three express bus lines.

 

Although they don't always see eye to eye, the management team has the union's support. "The new leadership has been true to their word, and they're trying," said Tanzi, head of the union that represents the borough's bus drivers and mechanics.

 

Despite the gains, the failure of congestion pricing erased a list of promised service enhancements that would have been funded through Mayor Michael Bloomberg's failed plan to charge drivers to enter Manhattan's business district during peak hours. Lost to the chopping block was 33 new express buses for Staten Island.

 

Meanwhile, the MTA's financial situation remains cloudy, partly due to the depressed real-estate market (reduced real-estate tax revenue means less money for the MTA) and partly due to skyrocketing debt repayments. Soaring energy prices also place a big strain on operating costs. Accordingly, "we're still at a standstill," when it comes to moving forward and expanding service, Tanzi said.

 

Stuck in neutral is one of the dreams at the top of many transit riders' wish lists: 24/7 express bus service from Manhattan, to give Islanders another option to get home instead of waiting for the ferry (hour-long waits in the wee hours), driving in or shelling out for an expensive cab ride.

 

But overnight express service is a big-ticket item, Smith said, given the challenges of staffing the shift, night differential pay and the comparatively low ridership. It all adds up to a cost-inefficient proposition.

 

"What it comes down to is, with the lack of congestion pricing and some of the financial situations we're in, there's no money there to expand service," Smith said.

 

The agency's financial hardships have raised the possibility of another fare hike -- the second since March -- which transit advocates say would undo all of the ridership gains. The current base fare has been $2 since 2003.

 

But "if gas drops under $3 again, it may be more difficult to justify a fare hike," Tanzi said.

 

Either way, "fare hikes are counterproductive for what we're trying to do," Cappelli said. "They should always, always, always be the last resort."

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Intraborough travel: Life in the slow lane

by Staten Island Advance

Saturday September 13, 2008, 11:57 AM

 

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Despite the improvements in the physical condition of the borough's buses, there are still plenty of gripes among commuters who complain about long waits between buses, on-board conditions during rush hours that resemble what it must feel like to be packed in a sardine can, and express bus riders who feel a $5 fare is a ripoff if they are forced to stand for an hour on a packed bus, especially after waiting for it at an uncovered shelter.

 

large_busndl.jpg

A city bus crosses Hylan Boulevard, heading down New Dorp Lane in New Dorp

 

Even newcomers to Staten Island, who are accustomed to the myriad of subway and bus options found in the more populated boroughs, say Staten Island's bus system is getting better -- but many of the complaints that have persisted for years remain. Among them: buses that leak when it rains, not enough limited-stop local routes and buses that are either late or miss their stops altogether, especially at night.

 

Gladys Lepratto moved to the borough from Brooklyn just about a year ago and still speaks of the train and bus lines there with a bit of nostalgia -- especially considering it takes her 90 minutes on two bus lines to get from her home in New Dorp to her job at the Teleport.

 

"It's just funny that in the same city and state, there are people going to Jersey and it takes less time than going to the other side of the Island," said Ms. Lepratto, 50.

 

Her biggest complaint: if the S53 that takes her home at 11 p.m. is late and misses the ferry at St. George, her connecting bus, the S78, doesn't stick around. It can mean an hour wait.

 

"In the morning it's okay, but in the evening it's the worst," said Julie Rampersaud, 59, of Great Kills, who takes a local bus to the Eltingville Transit Center and then S74 to the ferry to get to her babysitting job in Manhattan.

 

Another rider from the Park Hill section of Clifton said she recently waited 45 minutes on Victory Boulevard near Bay Street for the S48 to ride with her 6-year-old grandson to PS 45 in West Brighton. Delays like that make it impossible to plan a reasonable trip, the 68-year-old grandmother said.

 

Express bus riders are veterans when it comes to dealing with some of the worst traffic around.

 

"Buses are subject to whatever traffic is out there," said Bill Henderson, a Rosebank resident and executive director of the MTA's Permanent Citizens Advisory Council. "And as long as the traffic situation continues to deteriorate on Staten Island, it's only going to get worse." To fix the problem, Transit officials have added more dispatchers in Manhattan, to make adjustments as needed if buses get stuck in a traffic jam. A few buses are also kept on standby to plug gaps in service, Smith said.

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2 new Staten Island bus depots are on the way

by Staten Island Advance

Saturday September 13, 2008, 11:58 AM

 

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Despite the MTA's gloomy financial outlook, the future for Staten Island buses is better than it has been in decades, thanks to the two new bus depots on the horizon.

 

The Castleton Depot was originally intended to hold 135 buses, while Yukon was built for 250. Yet the borough's fleet numbers about 800, without nearly enough room to house them, or, more importantly, to fix them when they break down.

An artist's rendering of the Charleston bus depot scheduled to open in early 2010.

 

The ideal ratio is one maintenance lift for every 15 buses. That could be pushed to one lift per every 20 buses, but maintenance quality begins to suffer after that. Before, repairs were triaged and a blind eye was turned to minor problems because of a lack of maintenance lifts to fix them.

 

Completion of the Charleston Bus Annex, a project more than three decades in the making, is expected to help make repairs more efficient by adding 13 lifts.

 

Work on the $150 million complex is under way, and may even be ahead of schedule, with half of the new 87,000-square-foot building's pilings already completed at the site on Arthur Kill Road near the Outerbridge Crossing.

 

When finished, it will have space to service and maintain 200 or more buses, with the new lifts.

 

But like Yukon before it, the space at Charleston Depot will be accounted for before the foundation has even been poured.

 

"The third depot is already spoken for," Henderson said. "All that space is gone."

 

A lease on space for a fourth depot could be signed soon, making good on an MTA promise to start to undo years of neglect to the borough's bus system because of a shortage of space. Of course some transit experts say Staten Island needed a fifth depot -- yesterday -- to catch up with the decades of growth, but no one's talking about that yet.

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