As far as 2016 goes for the MTA, this year may promise to be something of a quiet one. The MTA has no fare hikes planned, and its recently approved budget is fairly rosy by agency standards. In fact, in a piece on Gotham Gazette published Monday, Ben Max posted 40 questions for New York politics in the new year, and none of them concerned the MTA. The biggest pressing transit issue seems to concern the fate of Uber in New York City and New York State.
But that doesn’t mean big stories are afoot. There’s plenty happening this year that could echo well into the city’s future. Allow me then to preview a few stories worth watching in 2016.
1. Will the Second Ave. Subway open by the end of the year? The MTA is under the gun to wrap up Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway before 2016 ends. For years, the agency has promised to deliver this long-delayed project on time (according, at least, to the latest estimates); for years, the feds have claimed the MTA will miss its 2016 deadline; and meanwhile, the clock is racing toward December. Most recently, an outside consultant warned of a moderate risk of delay, and we’ll learn more in March and again in June as the MTA issues its quarterly updates. If I were a betting man, I’d take the over and look for an opening in early 2017. But the agency is under a lot of political pressure to deliver on time.
2. Whither the MTA’s capital plan? In October (though it now seems like years ago), Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a funding agreement that would guarantee nearly $9 billion in state funding for the MTA capital plan and an additional $2.5 billion from the city. It was supposed to be a hallmark deal designed to bolster the MTA’s five-year $28 billion capital plan, but any movement on approvals has all but sputtered to a stop. The state’s Capital Program Review Board hasn’t blessed the MTA’s most recent proposal, and upstate politicians want “parity” on infrastructure (that is, road) spending in some of New York’s less populous areas that certainly shouldn’t be investing billions in roads right now. This is what happens when the governor has no comprehensive approach to transit funding.
On a more granular level, thanks to the delays, the MTA had to push back plans to start Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, and local New York politicians aren’t happy with the way money has or hasn’t been allocated to what they view as city needs. It is, in other words, a mess, and it’s not clear when this mess will be resolved or approved. The MTA is working with city stakeholders to address the Second Ave. Subway issues and accelerate Phase 2, but it’s not clear when state approval will arrive or what affect this long delay will have on projects that need to get started. This logjam should clear up in the early part of 2016, but we’re now in month 13 of this 60-month plan with funding not yet guaranteed.
3. Spinning wheels or moving forward on the Metrocard replacement. The MTA’s efforts to replace the Metrocard is one of those agency initiatives that, like B Division countdown clocks, are constantly three-to-five years away from reality, and as we sit at the start of 2016, the picture is worse for the Metrocard’s eventual successor. Thanks to the delays in the capital funding approval process, the MTA has held back the RFP for the next-gen fare payment project, and the Metrocard replacement may be delayed until at least 2023. When will the MTA release its RFP for the project and what will the parameters be? We should find out soon, if the MTA can get out of its own way with regards to this key technology project.
4. Yet another contract for the TWU. I’m sort of cheating with this one as it won’t become a real story until the first month of 2017, but 2016 marks the final year of the five-contract the TWU agreed to back in mid-2014. That’s what happens when you go over two years without a deal. How this will play out is anyone’s guess. Last time, Gov. Cuomo had to step in, and he failed to take advantage of any leverage the MTA had to reform work rules or streamline operations. TWU President John Samuelsen recently won reelection, and as expected, he has never embraced modernization, which would lead to reductions in staffing levels. This won’t develop into a story until the second half of the year, but it’s one worth watching.
5. The crowds keep growing. Last year, the subways reached ridership levels not seen since the end of World War II, and trains are constantly crowded at every hour of the day. Modest service increases aren’t set to go into effect until the summer, and by then, at the current pace of ridership growth, the increases won’t be adequate enough to reduce overcrowding. Is there a tipping point? Will we reach it sooner rather than later? What can the MTA do to improve service and meet spiking demand?
6. Who will be the next Dr. Zizmor? As 2016 dawned, we learned today that famed (though, at times, troubled) dermatologist Dr. Zizmor has retired from medical practice to spend his time, in part, studying the Talmud. Though his ads haven’t graced subway cars since 2013, he remains a symbol of 1990s New York, a time when the city was turning from bad to whatever it is today. Michael Grynbaum and Marc Santora penned an excellent paean to the doctor in today’s Times, and I wonder which subway advertisement will become New York’s next great icon. Dr. Zizmor, like Julio and Marisol before him, will join subway advertising history while a red manspreader may be just as emblematic of the mid-2010s as Zizmor was to the mid-1990s.