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Comptrollers’ audit blasts MTA service changes

by Benjamin Kabak

To help weekend crowds combat route changes, the MTA redesigned its service advisory signs last fall.

The MTA is losing millions in poorly-planned weekend track work, and the agency is not doing an adequate enough job in providing alternate routes or information on service changes, a new report issued jointly by Thomas DiNapoli and John Liu says. The State and City Comptrollers’ report claims that the MTA wasted over $10 million over three years as trains were not placed back in service as work wrapped early. Furthermore, a sampling of projects found significant cost overruns as well.

“When the MTA fails to manage its service diversions properly, it’s more than an inconvenience; it’s a waste of taxpayer money and it derails local businesses,” DiNapoli, the state comptroller, said. “Our audit found that MTA’s service diversions are increasing in frequency and leaving taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars in cost overruns. The subway system is showing its age, but the MTA has to do a better job managing all aspects of these diversions, from rider notification to budgeting.”

The report — the first one issued jointly by the two comptrollers’ offices in some years — landed yesterday, and it was but another salvo in the barrage aimed at the MTA’s track work. Earlier in July, weekend service changes drew headlines when The Times noted how growing weekend ridership at some stations and along some lines has led to disgruntled passengers. The MTA subsequently promised to study weekend service along the L, but this new report seems to show how one study won’t be enough.

The details of the report are fairly unsurprising. Basically, the MTA’s track work is a mishmash of GOs that often aren’t recorded properly, aren’t communicated to the public properly and cost to much. For instance, the report found that that Transit spent just $228,000 in 2010 informing its 2.3 billion riders of service diversions while the Long Island Rail Road spent over $740,000 on its 81.9 million riders. At randomly selected stations, auditors found 20 signs instead of Transit’s alleged 50 and did not find signs at street level, in subway cars or on platforms in many instances. Furthermore, while Transit has a policy that calls for newspaper advertisements, they ran just twice out of 50 sampled diversions.

On the efficiency front, the findings were even worse. Servuce diversions increased in number between 2008 and 2010, and those lasting for more than a month rose from seven to 57. More damning though were the allegations of poor time management that cost the MTA upwards of $10.5 million and its passengers countless aggravations. Says the report: “Transit often reroutes riders’ trains even when no work is taking place. When asked for the General Order Worksheets that track time spent on each diversion, Transit management could only provide auditors with 29 of the 50. Of those 29 diversions, work started late on 28 and stopped early on 21. Unproductive work time ate up anywhere from 10 to 27 percent of the time trains were diverted, though there was no cost mitigation.”

“Sadly this confirms the nagging suspicion of riders, residents and business owners alike, that subway service is taken down more than necessary,” Liu, the city’s comptroller, said. “The MTA must understand that the City never sleeps and weekend service is neither ancillary nor expendable. We expect the MTA to maintain and repair the tracks, while keeping disruptions to a minimum.”

The two final areas studied showed similarly poor findings. In a study of 15 diversions and 12 contracts, the comptrollers found that four of these contracts were over budget by $26.6 million. Furthermore, shuttle buses are seemingly employed without regard for the ridership numbers. Transit officials generally could not explain how estimates were used to determine shuttle bus demand, and the only estimate they could provide was six years old.

For its part, the MTA issued its usual statement on weekend work. “Due to the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operation of the subway system, planned service diversions are necessary in order to perform maintenance and capital work,” the authority said. “We make every effort to minimize customer inconvenience by coordinating work — performing multiple jobs in the same area so that we do not have to go back again. However, some projects are extremely involved, requiring several shutdowns.”

Still, in a response to the comptrollers’ report, Transit acknowledged its shortcomings. DiNapoli and Liu issued five recommendations. They include better outreach on service changes; closer monitoring of expenditures; a push to restore subway service as soon as possible; and a renewed attempt to better assess shuttle bus demand. Simple changes could go a long way toward making off-hour and weekend travel much, much less inconvenient for millions.

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nycpat August 1, 2011 - 1:47 am

If a project wraps early how do you restore service if the crews have all been reassigned?

Benjamin Kabak August 1, 2011 - 1:49 am

That is not a detail I would expect Liu or DiNapoli to understand.

Avi August 1, 2011 - 9:07 am

Or how do you inform the riders of service resuming? Especially if trains are rerouted and people walk to a different station looking for rerouted trains.

Marc Shepherd August 1, 2011 - 9:11 am

Overall, it is a rather silly report. Idiotic would not be too strong a term. There is very little in the way of real insight. Most of their recommendations would not produce any improvement for the riding public.

I think that GO’s are generally well publicized, but in an era when money is tight, the auditors want the MTA to spend more. Amazingly, they want Transit to adhere to an antiquated policy of advertising GO’s in the newspaper, rather than questioning whether that policy makes any sense. Who today relies on the newspaper before planning a subway trip?

sharon August 1, 2011 - 1:38 pm

Liu is just a fool. Service change notices are clearly displayed in a timely manner and on the website. Better now then in the past. They just want more union workers out there to pay back for the campaign donations(bribes) they received. No politician should be allowed to vote on a matter that they received campaign funds from an organization connected to the matter and all excess contributions are to be returned to a election pool

Ray August 1, 2011 - 4:36 am

There are much bigger fish to fry. Did these guys really spend taxpayer money auditing the number of posters and newspaper ads? Big catch.

BGGB August 1, 2011 - 1:45 pm

Why is number of posters irrelevant?

Scott E August 1, 2011 - 8:01 am

Here’s an idea: controversial, yes, but it will at least be predictable. Start planning GO’s now for all of 2012. Every section of track will get a period of time with a GO, in rotating fashion, and they would be scheduled such that alternate routes are not affected. Construction schedules would be forced to accommodate the GO schedule, rather than vice-versa, which may serve as a time-incentive for various contractors and projects. The schedule could be publicized at the beginning of the year and there would (should) be no surprises to passengers or train crews. There would be no changes except for extenuating/emergency circumstances.

This would save on administrative/organizational costs (which span multiple departments and would avoid the haphazard approach to GO’s which confuses passengers and token clerks, as well as those who read (and write) the service advisory signs. It would make scheduling of labor (train crews) more predictable. It also forces preventative maintenance to be performed in a logical, sensible schedule across the entire system. Could it work?

Ron August 1, 2011 - 8:50 am Reply
Scott E August 1, 2011 - 9:05 am

Wow… what a coincidence. I was thinking along the lines of scheduled drawbridge openings (some bridges near the shore in NJ do this) rather than opening whenever a ship approaches. I never knew that DC was doing this.

Al D August 1, 2011 - 10:27 am

So they had to do a tag team on the MTA now. I tell you. I don’t really understand their role as it relates to the MTA. DiNapoli in particular seems as if he wants to be the MTA’s IG or “QA” Dept. or something. As for Liu, as council person, I recall that the only thing he wanted to do was to bash the MTA every chance he got. It didn’t matter that the 7 train (serving his then constituents) was (and is) 1 of the best in the city.

Benjamin Kabak August 1, 2011 - 10:28 am

Liu wants to be mayor. That’s what this is all about.

John-2 August 1, 2011 - 11:20 am

Liu made a big stink half a decade ago to get the MTA to spend money running a Grand Street shuttle bus when B/D service across the Manny B was out. Problem was nobody was riding the buses, opting instead just to walk from the N/Q Canal Street station or take the J train one stop from there to the Bowery. Hopefully, the part of his audit that included the shuttle bus information also took into account finding out whether or not those buses will actually be used.

BrooklynBus August 1, 2011 - 9:21 pm

Of course, but that’s not what this discussion is about. He is only doing his job. Would you rather he not audit the MTA? Perhaps the report is not perfect as some has alleged, but that doesn’t mean it should all be dismissed. How do you explain away the parts about unproductive work 10 to 27% of the time, the over budgeting, and that the MTA could not provide much of the requested information?

As Norman Seabrook stated when he voted against the service cuts, he was not convinced that the MTA looked under every nook and cranny before making the cuts. I tend to believe him as this report supports that allegation.

Clarke August 1, 2011 - 11:26 am

MTA needs to buy SubwayWeekender and make the map available on all platforms. It’s easy to read and makes sense of all of the “F runs on the A” nonsense they put out. People like pictures, not words.

pea-jay August 1, 2011 - 12:14 pm

hell, even their long term projects do include maps that show re-routes and shuttles with unaffected service faded to the background. Why they cant do this for the entire system, every weekend is beyond me. Hire a person just to do cartographic updates full time.

My dream vision would have every station have multiple flatscreen TVs with a map of the current route pattern in operation AT THAT MOMENT. Dynamic mapping. Even cooler if this could be done on the trains too. In addition to showing re-routes it could also highlight routes in red/yellow if there were delays and X’ed out stations to show closures.

Avi August 1, 2011 - 12:33 pm

That would be great. I’m sure Walder would have loved to get behind it. Now will DiNapoli and Liu help come up with money to pay for it, or just use the MTA to score personal political points?

SEAN August 1, 2011 - 12:10 pm

Imagine if the subway was closed overnight for construction & cleaning similar to the DC Metro? These same brainless polititions would go apeshit.

pete August 1, 2011 - 1:36 pm

The way the MTA is going. Wouldnt it be cheaper and with less rider impact to build a new parallel subway tunnel 1 block away and fill in the old one?

Alex C August 1, 2011 - 10:05 pm

Stand at any IND Crosstown station south of Hoyt on a weekend and watch as sheep let F train after F train pass by expecting a G with a poster saying there isn’t G train service there on that day five feet from their faces. Same thing happens when the G goes to Coney Island due to weekend work and people stand at an F Culver station waiting for an F train as the conductor blares over the PA system that the G train is going to Coney Island. You can put all the notices you can, it makes no difference if the riding public are complete morons.

Dan August 2, 2011 - 1:39 am

Sure, although clearly this is where NTT P/A systems and further roll out of the LCDs at a few places like the railroad terminals and perhaps eventually Fulton Street and other stops are crucial as they can make things far more clear.

Of course, that does entail the T/Os and station attendants being made perfectly aware of what the GOs are going to be, and it seems as though right now some things slip through a bit…

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