Some days, the Roosevelt Island Tram now reaches little of its once-valued charm. Instead of a peaceful glide home, away from crowded, noisy streets, it can be a struggle getting on at all as tourists aggressively claim spaces. Even as the Tram bleeds cash, RIOC has no answer… unless silence counts.
by David Stone
The Roosevelt Island Daily News
It’s a weekday afternoon, around 3:00, before rush hour or kids coming home from school. But demand for the Tram is such that the last cabin left a dozen or so behind when it lifted off toward Roosevelt Island.
Tourists are a big part of the problem as straggling lines at both MetroCard machines attest.
Then, as the next cabin arrives, hopeful passengers close in around the entrance. If you politely stand by, like in the old days, you may not get on.
Moms push their kids, some first-time riders, into the front, close to the doors, and when they slide open, the kids outrace everyone else for limited seats at the big front and back windows.
As I try walking casually in, some guy starts pushing me aside, hustling for the bench. When he doesn’t succeed, he’s angry – at me for not getting out of his way. But the problem really is with the moms and their kids, who have claimed almost all the seats.
The sign reserving space for seniors and disabled passengers is lost behind them.
As usual, Tram personnel say nothing, and if there’s a PSO around, he or she is helping tourists figure out the MetroCard dispensers.
This is only the tip of the iceberg of how much trouble the Tram is in.
The Tram Now and Its Uncertain Future
Safety concerns – the wobbling when cabins pass support structures, the slow, swaying landings – diminish in light of the Tram’s severe fiscal woes.
You can blame the increased demand and crowding on RIOC’s weird decision to promote the Tram as a cheap tourist joyride. It’s part of a Roosevelt Island “branding and marketing” scheme President/CEO Shelton J. Haynes launched shortly after he took over RIOC.
Who that was supposed to help is a mystery, but it wasn’t – and isn’t – a hit with the community.
What makes the increased ridership so troubling is that it contributes to huge monetary losses in Tram ridership. RIOC’s feeble, bunkered management is silent, but the Tram’s viability is in question.
Financial Truths Cloud the Future
The irony is that while ridership soars, the Tram’s fiscal situation dramatically worsens. It was already losing money before Haynes took over, but it’s gone from manageable losses to a torrent of red ink.
And that affects not just Tram operations because the losses drain resources from every other RIOC need, most of which management also remains silent and secretive about. But secrecy in the Blackwell House bunker can’t stem the failures or their effects much longer.
A primary cause at the root of this mess, as we’ve reported before, is an old, flawed MetroCard deal still governing RIOC’s Tram revenue. Put simply, the revenue-sharing deal arranged for RIOC getting the then prevailing $2.00 fare. While it was never updated to recognize multiple fare increases since then, expenses have risen steadily.
The math is simple. Using rounded figures, RIOC collects roughly $4 million in annual revenue today as ridership bounces back from the pandemic. But despite the circumstances, RIOC’s obligation to subcontractor Leitner-POMA, operators of the Tram, is now over $5 million every year.
Just keeping the Tram running results in a $1 million annual loss. As unsustainable as that is, there’s even worse.
As Daeman De Stefano, RIOC’s acting CFO, reported at its April board meeting, increased ridership adds heavily to the agency liability insurance burden. Although he wasn’t specific, he suggested that the Tram accounts for at least $1.5 million in premiums and probably more as the total jumped over $5 million.
Put simply, the Roosevelt Island Tram now loses an unsustainable minimum of $2.5 million every year.
The Hochul/Haynes administration has no known plans for fixing the glaring problem. Anyone believing that this does not put the Tram in serious jeopardy is wearing blinders.
RIOC and some elected officials keep flying flags of hope that OMNY readers will soon be installed in the Tram Plazas, but how does that help? If RIOC does not renegotiate its contract with the MTA and get a fairer share, all that will happen is more staggering losses with more modern technology.
Talk of renegotiation has been before RIOC’s board since 2019 but guess what… MTA has so far refused to meet with RIOC. And why should they? They’ve been getting an extra million every year. Why would they ever give that up willingly?
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