Politicians, platform security and MTA instabilityBy
As 2013 dawns, the MTA is once again engaged in a search for a new chief executive. Joe Lhota left his post after the day ended on Tuesday to explore a run for mayor, and with Thomas Prendergast taking the reins as interim Executive Director, Gov. Andrew Cuomo will have another opportunity to appoint an MTA CEO and Chairman. Whomever he finds will be the seventh such person to hold the job since 2006.
Amidst austerity budgeting, internal cuts and turnover at the top, stability has long been lacking at the MTA. It’s led to a significant amount of brain drain at HQ as non-union workers haven’t seen a salary increase in nearly four years while budgets have been slashed significantly. It also leads to no long-term focus as no signal MTA head has stayed or been kept around long enough to implement a new plan. Technology projects — such as the MetroCard replacement effort — tend to founder and only a concerted push by other institutional officials have kept capital projects on track.
With a renewed focus on platform screen doors following a second subway shoving death in December, that instability has taken center stage in the debate. The Daily News had a bit on the on-again/off-again effort to move forward with platform screens, and one easy conclusion to draw from the reporting is that the MTA needs stability. Pete Donohue and Stephen Rex Brown have the details:
The head of the company that wanted to install safety doors on subway platforms in 2007 blasted the transit authority this week for not making the system a priority. “It’s ridiculous,” Michael Santora, the president of Crown Infrastructure, said, citing the shove murder of Sunando Sen in Queens. “The plan went nowhere — really just dead ends.”
Crown Infrastructure offered the MTA a seeming win-win: The company would build the sliding doors on platforms, providing a new level of safety for riders, plus a reduction in track fires and noise. In exchange, Crown would keep all the revenue from advertising on the high-tech portals. But the idea never left the station, derailed by a perfect storm of big agency hassles, Santora said.
The MTA was in the midst of intense turnover. Since 2007, there have been four chairmen. In addition, the project’s main champion, MTA Capital Construction President Mysore Nagaraja, left in 2008. “He was passionate about it. He was the only one there in a position of authority that was really excited about it,” said Santora.
According to Santora, a litany of other problems stood in the way: MTA officials were worried that non-automated doors would give the union leverage as train conductors would have to press a second button to activate them. Additionally, the agency hesitated to fork over ad revenue even though Crown would have installed the doors for free.
MTA officials, past and present, defended the agency’s decision to avoid moving forward with the plan. Prendergast said Transit wasn’t satisfied with Crown’s initial plan to run a pilot in random stations, and one-time agency said Lawrence Reuter said platform doors were discarded on new capital projects over cost and maintenance concerns. It’s a veritable he said/he said of excuses that winds up in the news every time there’s a fatal track accident.
Meanwhile, the city’s politicians aren’t helping. Some of them have been responsible for the instability, as in the case of Lee Sander’s dismissal from the MTA, and others use these accidents for grandstanding that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Take, for instance, this response from State Senator Jose Peralta and City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer. Peralta has called upon the MTA to instituted “common-sense measures to improve rider safety and security.”
Whenever someone from Albany mentions a “common-sense solution,” you know it’s going to be a good one, and this one does not disappoint. They want, according to Fox 5, “a swift evaluation and accelerated implementation of the Help Point Intercom system” and “security cameras at more stations.” I see where Peralta and Van Bramer are coming from, but their solutions show a fundamental lack of understanding. Setting aside how the Help Point system is a complete boondoggle, when someone is in the tracks with a train bearing down on them, there’s no time to use a Help Point Intercom, and security cameras would help only after the fact. Prevention would start with screen doors, and the two representatives could help on that front by ensuring MTA financing and stability.
Over the years, we’ve seen politicians who control purse strings attempt to urge the MTA to turn backflips without offering up the funding for it. This is no different. If we’re going to be serious about platform safety — although whether it’s actually a serious problem is an unanswered question itself — the MTA needs stable leadership to see a project through and a realistic assessment of funding needs. Until then, no amount of public posturing will help.