When The Facts Don’t Matter

The glorious, old Penn Station, before it was demolished to make room for the hideous monstrosity we know today. Source: Wikipedia
The glorious, old Penn Station, before it was demolished to make room for the hideous monstrosity we know today. Source: Wikipedia

THE COMMUTE: Much of what I was taught in school was either useless or not true. I spent several years studying algebra, which I actually liked, but only had occasion to use it about six times in the 46 years since I graduated high school. Meanwhile, no one ever taught me stuff I need to know in life, such as how to pick a fresh mango. The fruit lady near where I used to work would reject a half a dozen mangoes before choosing the perfect one for me. I should have asked her for her secret.

They also taught me in school that when there is a problem, first you define it, and next you do research, which may involve collecting new objective data. Using that data, you draw your conclusions… then you derive recommendations. The final step is to devise a strategy to get those recommendations implemented by gathering public support. If you can get enough support, those recommendations become reality and life is improved for everyone. I have since learned that it doesn’t quite work that way.

What really happens is that there is some group or government agency that wields too much power. They usually have an agenda, which is to help their friends who can benefit monetarily from a certain change. The recommendation is then decided. Data is gathered, or a biased study conducted, to support those recommendations. Data that does not fit in with the recommendations are ignored while other data are distorted using questionable statistics so that the numbers fit. It is amazing what you can do with data. For example, if you want to conclude that identity theft is not a widespread problem you just state that it affects only three percent of the population. If you want to conclude it is a big problem, you just use another statistic, such as that there are 25,000 new identity thefts occurring every day.

Check out Alon Levy’s discussion of how statistics were manipulated to conclude that there is more of a need to rebuild a major rail station than a major subway station in his blog Pedestrian Observations. Levy shows how those in power found the numbers to make the case they wanted to make. They distorted statistics to justify the need for a rail improvement by double counting. In this case, the example is showing the need for a new Penn Station with a price tag of $9.3 billion, which will not even make track level improvements to increase train capacity. At the same time the need for overhauling the Times Square subway station, which suffers from some of the same problems, like low ceilings, is minimized by passenger under-counting, for example by omitting transferring subway passengers when counting users of the station.

Then look at the many billions we are spending on East Side Access, which admittedly does improve train capacity, and the $3.7 billion for a new PATH Terminal, which does not. There is always money for mega-projects. That way, politicians can pay back their political favors to architectural and engineering firms who benefit most from these grandiose schemes, which minimally improve transportation and can be renamed after one of them when they die. However, when money is requested for a Staten Island Light Rail where the North Shore Line used to run, the MTA performs a study and concludes it is too expensive and we can only afford the less expensive Select Bus Service (SBS).

There is also no money to reactivate the abandoned Rockaway line, which would cut commute times to midtown from two hours to something like nearly 30 minutes for Rockaway residents, but there is money for Select Bus Service, which will save perhaps only 10 or 15 minutes.

Or what about the Tri-Boro RX Plan, which would benefit countless city residents and also boost the economy by greatly increasing the number of places to where people would be willing to travel to seek employment by utilizing unused or underused freight lines? This, too, has found little support in more than 30 years. Couldn’t we find a few billion for that, or a few million for some new bus lines from Southern Brooklyn to JFK, which has miserable transit access to the airport?

Just think of all the subway extensions that could have been built in the outer boroughs with the money that is allocated or would be allocated for Penn Station, the PATH Station, and East Side Access, which will benefit very few city residents.

The name of the game is not to help riders solve their transportation problems but to put money in the pockets of the big guys. Improving transportation for the middle class is merely a byproduct of helping the rich get richer. And squandering scarce transit funds this way jeopardizes transportation plans that may be beneficial, such as Sam Schwartz’s Fair Toll Plan, because it makes people more unwilling to fight for increased mass transit funding since they will have no say in how the money actually will be spent.

New Bus Routes

Regarding providing new bus routes to underserved areas, the MTA claims it has only enough funding to provide service every 30 minutes despite there being $20 or $40 million more in next year’s budget than they anticipated when these services were first proposed.

The MTA announced they will proceed with their proposed extension of the B67 from Downtown Brooklyn to Williamsburg and the new B32 from Williamsburg to Long Island City exactly as planned, ignoring all comments made at the April 29 public hearing. In their justification to the MTA Board as to why none of the public comments had any merit, the staff prepared what they call a Staff Summary Sheet in which they discuss the main points made at the hearing as well as alternate proposals and then refute them. The discussion runs from pages 174 to 187 (PDF) of the “Report to the Transit Committee.”

At the hearing, I testified that it made no sense to provide a bus route from Park Slope to Williamsburg via a lengthy time-consuming route through Downtown Brooklyn, as the proposed B67 would do. Rerouting the B69 to Williamsburg could provide a direct connection, because few use the route to access Downtown Brooklyn anyway. I also stated that DUMBO and Vinegar Hill could be served by a slight rerouting of the B57 instead of the B67. DUMBO residents also stated they preferred not to have the proposed B67 travel through their streets, because of traffic congestion, but along its perimeter instead.

Do you see any mention of my alternative to extend the B69 to Williamsburg (instead of the B67) to provide a more direct routing? Of course not. My companion proposal, however, to reroute the B57 through the Navy Yard was dismissed because riders going between Maspeth and Downtown Brooklyn would be inconvenienced, which would be minimal. Yet, the MTA was not concerned with inconveniencing riders when they rerouted the Q37 to the Aqueduct Racino last year. Also, they did not consider the number of potential riders who would benefit, saving 20 minutes or more, perhaps, by being able to directly travel between Park Slope and Williamsburg under my plan. A thorough analysis considers both — potential benefits as well as disadvantages — when weighing a plan; not only one factor, as the MTA has done in dismissing mine. Their poorly thought out proposal falls short. The two proposed routes even miss connecting with each other in Williamsburg by one quarter of a mile.


The case for a new Penn Station is the perfect example of why you should never believe a politician or a government entity that says “there is no money for it” or “the numbers don’t justify the expense.” They will always find the money and the numbers for what they want to fund. And when the MTA states they are providing you with other alternatives, don’t believe for a minute that they are telling you everything you need to know. You are only hearing the statistics and facts that support their pre-determined conclusions. They have done this in the past with Select Bus Service, they are doing it now with their new bus route proposals, and they will continue to do it in the future.

You don’t gather your data and then draw your conclusions like you were taught in school. You draw your conclusions first, and then find facts to support them, ignoring any that hurt your case. The facts don’t matter.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA / NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.