I’ve been thinking about some ways to keep this site moving in light of the time I have to spend on it these days. As you all know, new posts have been infrequent and without warning. The site isn’t dead, but I’m going to try a new format around these pages. My goal is a weekly post on Sunday nights/Monday morning with some key links at the end. I may try to do one or two posts during the week that are links to articles worth reading. You can also keep up on with my on Twitter as well. There’s a lot going on in transit these days — both noise and otherwise — and I don’t want to stay silent.
To that end, let’s dive into the news of last month: Shortly before the first end of the New York legislative session — in fact, with only a few hours to spare, Gov. Andrew Cuomo finally nominated a permanent MTA Chair. The move was a surprise as supposedly a committee was to be engaged in a big search for a replacement, but when the dust settled, Cuomo appointed Joe Lhota, the former MTA head, to resume his spot. Lhota agreed and was confirmed with hardly any hearing, a part of Albany’s continued failure to exercise its MTA oversight obligations. He’ll be the Chair but will keep his job at NYU Langone while delegating executive director duties to someone else. For now, that “someone else” is still Ronnie Hakim.
At the time, in June, Lhota’s appointment seemed to me to be a bit of a “Hail Mary” move by a beleaguered governor. Lately, the subway’s performance decline has been notable, and a growing drumbeat has emerged out of New York City ensuring that Cuomo is named as the source of the problem, as he in charge of the MTA, and calling for him to do something. Right now, Cuomo needs someone to project competency, and Lhota projects competency. After all, he was in charge of the MTA during the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and was credited with getting so much of the system up and running again relatively quickly after such a catastrophic storm. So Lhota, a member of the search committee, winds up with the job.
In the aftermath of Lhota’s appointment, Gov. Cuomo has declared a state of emergency for the MTA. It’s not quite clear if that has legal force, but it allowed Cuomo to garner headlines for promising an additional $1 billion in MTA funding. (It’s not quite clear where that $1 billion will go or if Cuomo understands how laughably small that amount is considering the cost of overhauling the signal system.) Lhota too in some of his first public comments, promised to overhaul the MTA too.
“Millions of New Yorkers depend on the MTA every day, and we must rebuild confidence in the authority with a complete overhaul of the system, he said during the Genius contest a few weeks ago, “identifying the root causes of our problems and taking immediate and decisive action to fix them. It is our responsibility to transport people as safely, quickly and efficiently as possible, and the current state of the subway system is unacceptable. In tandem with the Genius competition proposals, we will deploy a multi-faceted plan to restore confidence to the MTA and prove that we can deliver for our customers.”
Ultimately, though, the words are meaningless without actions, and actions haven’t come yet. To truly overhaul the MTA, as many have been saying for a while, requires a commitment to change at all levels. The MTA has to be able to deliver projects at a reasonable cost and in a reasonable timeframe. We need MTA projects to be competitive with European spending levels and not ten or even 100 times more expensive, and we need delivery timetables to be rapidly accelerated. The signal system project, for instance, is supposedly going to take decades, but the MTA should have a plan to shut down lines, one a time, and blitz the signal system. Could work be completed in 10 years instead of 40 with adequate attention, investment and mitigation? We the public do not know because the MTA itself, by all accounts, doesn’t know.
In Saturday’s New York Times, Joe Lhota responded to be an editorial calling for more MTA investment with a letter to the editor pushing the fiscal issue onto the shoulders of the legislature. He wants some attention on operations as well as capital. “The day-to-day operations of the subway desperately need an infusion of additional financial support from every level of government, including the city. Today, our customers pay a larger portion of the system’s operations from their daily fare than the customers of almost every other mass transit network in the country do,” Lhota wrote. “The burden of operations should not fall primarily on subway and bus riders; it’s time for all elected officials to use their budgets to support the transit system, which drives the region’s economy and makes New York possible.”
The MTA needs money, but funneling more money into a black hole won’t solve the problem. It needs to rethink who it is paying to do what, how much is being paid and how much productivity the money is generating. These aren’t easy questions, and they’ll face resistance from an entrenched bureaucracy and various special interests who don’t want the MTA’s monetary flood to slow to a trickle. These reforms — deep, structural reforms — are what Lhota must deliver to be successful. Otherwise, the state of emergency will deepen.