Some thoughts on the MTA at a crossroadsBy
I know I promised an update on the potential New Jersey Transit strike, but I’m still not convinced service will shut down this weekend. It’s been decades since the last strike, and with region warning of crippling traffic and daily losses of millions of dollars, these things have a way of working themselves out at the last minute. I’ll post an update with the service advisories tomorrow night if the negotiations are not resolved by then. In the meantime, we’ll stay in New York City for today’s post.
A day after Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the MTA touted their new wifi-enabled buses as a possible cure-all for the city’s declining bus ridership, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast spoke at a breakfast hosted by the Associate for a Better New York. ABNY is a relatively expansive non-profit that connects New Yorkers from all areas of business, and an MTA breakfast is something of an annual tradition. Usually, the MTA chief gives his version of a stump speech, and that is basically what Prendergast did yesterday. Some of his statements, however, gave me cause for concern. Let’s review the Tweets:
— ABNY Organization (@ABetterNY) March 9, 2016
So this is a fairly non-controversial take on the MTA, but it betrays a lot of problems. New York City has planned and is still planning for growth without a proper transit reckoning. The city is trying to rezone for a good number of new units as part of the mayor’s affordable housing plan, but transit considerations are superficial. Developers will be encouraged to fund the equivalent of station rehabilitation efforts to beautify nearby subway stops. Service expansion — which, as any L train rider can tell you, is badly needed — isn’t part of the conversation, and even the One Vanderbilt contributions which are hailed as the paragon of private investment in transit are delivering wider platforms and a new entrances rather than additional service on the Lexington Ave. IRT.
Meanwhile, how many times can we attempt to reinvent the MTA before someone actually has to step in and do it? Just 15 months ago, the MTA Reinvention Commission released its report that didn’t actually reinvent the MTA, and now officials are talking about reinvention again. Any attempt at reinvention should focus around three questions: 1. Why does everything cost so much? 2. How can the MTA lower costs to build at prices competition with international peers? 3. How can the MTA speed up construction and implementation of projects designed to increase current service levels (i.e., signal or automation upgrades rather than megaproject construction)? If those aren’t the primary questions, reinvention is just code for shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.
MTA chief Tom Prendergast @abetterny says ridership growth is in midday, weekends, nights
— Dan Rivoli (@danrivoli) March 9, 2016
To be clear, this is essentially saying that ridership growth is happening all the time. Ridership may not be growing at rush hour because, for the most part, it can’t. Sure, we could fit additional passengers in some trains at certain points, but the MTA is closing in on tapping out of rush hour service. The issue now is that subways during off-peak service are nearly as crowded as rush hour trains because the MTA isn’t running trains frequently enough. That’s a more solvable problem than rush hour but one the MTA manipulates away through the load guidelines the agency sets for itself.
MTA's Tom Prendergast: you may be delayed but if you're at a nice station with cell service, "time goes a lot faster"
— Dan Rivoli (@danrivoli) March 9, 2016
That’s a doozy of statement to make in public, and it’s certainly one at which I cringed yesterday. Much like a new paint job and USB charging ports, a nice station with cell service but a long wait for a train is putting lipstick on a pig, and it’s certainly not the approach officials should be promoting in public, even if in jest. But this seems to be where the MTA has settled these days. They can’t adequately address the service constraints without billions of dollars and years of disruptive construction so we get modern amenities designed to distract us from a system that can’t keep pace with ridership. That’s a big, big red flag. Where do we go next?