Do we trust Lee Sander and Howard Roberts? That’s really the question behind this line manager plan New York City Transit will begin to implement on Monday.
If we trust the MTA CEO with impeccable academic credentials and the NYCT President who helped streamline the New York City buses twenty years ago, then this seemingly bureaucratic addition of line managers will help improve subway service, somehow. If we don’t trust them, it’s just one more layer of bureaucracy in an organization already plagued with too many employees and layers of red tape.
First, the details: In response to the mediocre grades the MTA has received from the unscientific Rider Report Cards and the seemingly glacial pace of change the pre-Sander MTA, New York City Transit has decided to assign line managers to each line. While most government agencies would shy away from adding another 20 middle managers, Howard Roberts, NYCT president, and Sander, the MTA’s head honcho, think that turning each line into its own railroad with its own funds and crew will help streamline common problems.
William Neuman in The Times wrote more about this restructuring:
The changes are designed to give individual subway lines a greater degree of autonomy by putting each one under the direction of a manager who will be responsible for almost everything that happens on the tracks, in the trains and in the stations.
The goal, Mr. Roberts said, is to have 24 subway lines operating in many ways as 24 self-contained railroads. (The number may vary, depending on how the lines are counted.) They will compete against one another and be rated on service, cleanliness, on-time performance and other measures…
The new managers will be backed up with money and manpower. Additional cleaners will be assigned to stations and trains. And managers will also be able to send out special crews to “blitz” their stations — swarming in and spiffing up everything: peeling paint, rusted fixtures and damaged signs.
The pilot program — because the MTA always needs a pilot program — starts on Monday on the L and 7 lines, those isolated bastions of crowded, underperforming subways. And with the quote of the day comes Roberts. “Bureaucracy is where it takes a year to get something done,” he said. “Creating small organizations that can react quickly and solve problems overnight is the antithesis of that.”
I have long dreamed of the day the MTA solves something overnight.
Sarcasm aside, it’s really easy to see how this plan can fail. Individual subway lines are not autonomous. While the L and 7 are the only trains on their respective tracks, take the B train. At no point from Brighton Beach to Bedford Park Boulevard are the B trains the only trains on the route. The B must share tracks, switches and signals with, at times, the Q, the D and the C trains while the F, V and A also stop at similar stations but use adjacent tracks. Who is supposed to manage that mess?
And what about this whole competition thing? Most people don’t enjoy the luxury of competition in choosing their subways. The vast majority of New Yorkers take the same trains each day because that train is close to home and gets them to work. No one’s going to walk a significant distant to find a train that won’t save them too much time. So while one commenter at CityRoom suggests naming subway cars and other superficial improvements, the Subchat contributors suggest a more rational pay-for-performance model. If your line’s stations are the cleanest, you get paid more. I like that.
For its part, The Times likes this plan. In today’s editorial, The Times notes that, right now, one person is in charge of 468 stations which is why nothing gets done. Is it better to add a new vice president and 22 more managers to improve this problem? Only if more fat is trimmed.
As Railman718 noted (here and here) today on Subchat, this reorganization appears to be something that Sander and Roberts have had on the agenda since before either of them were installed at the MTA. It’s why Pataki-era leaders who weren’t known for their transportation savviness have left in droves.
So basically, we’re right back where we started. If the MTA is intent on eliminating middle management, as Scott suggested here yesterday that they are, it’s probably a winning restructuring. If they can create adequate spheres of influence and figure out how overlapping lines are going to managed, this plan will work. If they can address the systematic problems with the MTA and bring the current state of subway technology in New York City into the 21st Century while doing it, it’s a win. All of this just makes for one tall order facing an agency that needs to overcome a tall order to gain back the trust of its riders.