One of the strange twists and turns of the ongoing saga over Governor Andrew Cuomo’s responsibility for the current collapse of NYC’s subway system involved a breakfast and some finger pointing at Con Edison this past summer. While I was on vacation (and subsequently recovering from a broken bone I sustained while on that vacation), this story of odd finger-pointing unfolded to a certain denouement that had Con Edison paying for some costs regarding power delivery to the MTA. It seemed strange at the time and raised eyebrows within the New York political landscape, and after a report this weekend in The Daily News, it seems that the MTA may have fudged some numbers to allow the governor to blame, and get money from, Con Edison for unrelated (or at best, quasi-related) subway performance issues.

The story goes a little something like: In July, Cuomo delivered remarks at a breakfast hosted by the Association for a Better New York in which he laid the blame for MTA performance issues on the shoulders of Con Ed. “Over the last 12 months, 32,000 delays because of power related issues,” he said of the subways, “and they can either be a power surge or power shortage, but 32,000 delays. The MTA doesn’t control the power, Con Edison does. Con Edison has a duty to safely, prudently and effectively provide electricity that powers the subway system. Con Ed is a regulated utility under the state’s Public Service Commission. April 21 after the last outage I ordered an investigation of the Con Ed infrastructure after a particularly devastating failure. The investigation goes on but PSC has already found that Con Ed must make immediate and significant improvements in this system because the reliability depends on it.”

In mid-November, Politico New York reported that Con Ed would be taking on the costs of electrical repair work required by the MTA. Marie French and Dana Rubinstein termed the whole thing an “unusual financial arrangement” that would eventually shift costs to Con Ed’s NYC and Westchester customers anyway, and no one could put a finger on why this arrangement was necessary or if it even made sense. Now it seems it does not make sense, at least not without some loose accounting. Dan Rivoli broke the news this weekend:

Internal emails obtained by the Daily News show an MTA honcho pushing staff to come up with a higher number of subway delays blamed on power issues, before Gov. Cuomo made a public show of citing problems with Con Edison as the single biggest source of disruption for riders. As the Summer of Hell was in full swing, NYC Transit brass found a creative way to make power-tied delays appear more common. They expanded the types of incidents that could be defined as power-related, including circuit failures, and emergencies — like a person on the track — where the power is intentionally cut off.

The broader definition detailed in emails from July 25 to Aug. 9 allowed the MTA to quadruple the tally of power-related delays, to 32,000 from 8,000…The real number of power delays, according to senior subways performance analyst Kyle Kirschling, was about 8,000. NYC Transit chief of staff Naomi Renek wrote an email to staff members at 6:03 a.m. on July 25, saying that she was “looking for a higher delay number for power.”

Kirschling initially appeared stumped. “I can’t think of a way to make the ConEd/External power figures higher,” he replied to Renek, NYC Transit Executive Vice President Tim Mulligan and other transit staffers. Kirschling, in a subsequent email, said Con Ed was at fault for just 3,422 of those delays.

So how did Con Ed’s responsibility increase ten-fold? As Rivoli details in his reporting, the MTA simply changed the definition of a power problem to those well beyond the scope of power delivery issues under Con Edison’s purview to bring the number up from 3400 to 32,000. He write of one particularly egregious exchange:

Cuomo’s deputy press secretary Maxwell Morgan checked in with Renek, emailing her and another governor’s aide, Maria Michalos. “Naomi, do we have the total real number of power-related delays over last 12 months? Higher than the 8k?”

Renek responded with an explanation. “The 8k is the real number of power-only incidents,” she wrote. “However, incidents coded as signal can also be power-related. We can safely say that track circuit incidents are power-related, although power is not the root cause.”

Soon, she and Morgan were hashing out how to spin the numbers to the public. “How would you massage that language?” Morgan wrote. “Could we say ‘power-related issues caused more than 32,000 delays?’ ” Renek replied that it was better to couch the numbers by saying power “caused or contributed to” the delays.

Hilariously enough, in initial comments to Rivoli, the governor’s team claimed Cuomo was only the messenger, and the MTA has vehemently defended its calculations, even claiming Con Edison is responsible in situations in which power is intentionally cut to the tracks by the agency to respond to a problem. “Are you gonna tell me power cut from the tracks is not a power-related problem?” MTA Chairman Joe Lhota said to Rivoli. (Don’t sleep either on Lhota, the MTA head, dismissing Kirschling, a six-year MTA vet, as a “bean-counter” in the Daily News piece. This has not gone over well with the rank-and-file at 2 Broadway as I’ve heard it.)

Under question later on Sunday, Cuomo repeatedly tried to shift blame to the MTA (which, for the record, he controls). “The MTA produced the numbers. The MTA says they’re accurate. I believe the MTA…I didn’t read the Daily News story. I was told about it briefly. I don’t know what the difference between power issues and power-related issues really are. You should talk to the MTA about that.”

So where does this leave everything? This is another story indicative of Cuomo’s attempts at blaming everyone else other than himself and his stewardship of the MTA for the MTA’s problems. It’s a tale of the governor’s people using downward pressure to force MTA employees to rewrite rules to make the governor look better while identifying a scapegoat dubiously responsible at best. It’s a story that demands an official investigation and again showcases how public trust in the MTA’s self-reported numbers should be essentially non-existent now. “It raises issues about accountability and it raises questions as to whether this is happening in other areas of subway performance,” John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany said to The Times on Sunday. “How far does this go?” How far, indeed.

Categories : MTA Politics
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The FIX NYC panel released its full report, today recommended a series of measures to reduce Manhattan congestion.

Update: The Fix NYC advisory panel released its full report on Friday morning. You can read it right here as a PDF. My questions below are still relevant, and I had some initial reactions via a thread on Twitter.

The Governor issued a statement on the panel’s report but hedged on the way forward:

“I have received the report from Fix NYC and will review it carefully. I thank the panel for their hard work and effort. I will discuss the alternatives with the legislature over the next several months. There is no doubt that we must finally address the undeniable, growing problem of traffic congestion in Manhattan’s central business district and present a real, feasible plan that will pass the legislature to raise money for MTA improvements, without raising rider fares.

A uniform pricing model for FHVs that discourages continuing presence in the central business district and incentivizes trucks to deliver on off peak hours is a necessary component. Tolls must be more fair. Trips to and from New Jersey can be less expensive than trips from New York City’s outer boroughs. Tolls vary widely, and they must be rationalized so costs are fair to all.

The report accurately points out that the objective is not to raise tolls entering the borough of Manhattan, but more specifically those trips adding to the congestion in a defined central business district. But, as a born and raised Queens boy, I have outer borough blood in my veins, and it is my priority that we keep costs down for hard working New Yorkers, and encourage use of mass transit. We must also find a way to reduce the costs for outer borough bridges in any plan ultimately passed.

I still wonder if this is a real plan he intends to champion or something he will use for cover to claim he tried to fix NYC’s traffic problems but could not overcome Albany resistance. My original post follows.

* * *

With Governor Cuomo’s Fix NYC task force set to release its report on Friday afternoon, Jim Dwyer and Winnie Hu of The Times have a first glimpse at the traffic pricing plan behind which Cuomo may line up to bring relief to New York streets and money for transit. Here’s what we know so far:

Driving a car into the busiest parts of Manhattan could cost $11.52 under a major proposal prepared for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that would make New York the first city in the United States with a pay-to-drive plan…

Trucks would pay $25.34, and taxis and for-hire vehicles could see surcharges of $2 to $5 per ride. The pricing zone would cover Manhattan south of 60th Street. In a key change from past efforts, drivers would not have to pay if they entered Manhattan by all but two of the city-owned East River bridges, which are now free to cross, as long as they bypassed the congestion zone.

The proposals are part of a report by a task force, “Fix NYC,” convened by Governor Cuomo after he declared a state of emergency in the subways last June. The report says that the fees on taxis and for-hire vehicles could be put in place within a year, followed by trucks and then cars in 2020. None of those fees should be charged, the task force said, until repairs are made to the public transit system.

“Before asking commuters to abandon their cars, we must first improve mass transit capacity and reliability,” a draft of the report says.

This is a better plan than I expected and approximates Michael Bloomberg’s doomed proposal from 2008. That we have gone nowhere in the past decade is very telling, and that this plan doesn’t come with East River Bridge tolling parity is disappointing. But a Start is a start is a start, and if Cuomo accepts this plan, it can be a building block to something better and more complete down the road.

In no order, though, some questions:

  • If the 59th St. and Brooklyn Bridges aren’t rolled and can be used to enter or exit the cordon zone without paying the fee, how can we protect against massive increases in traffic across those bridges?
  • What transit upgrades can be implemented by 2020 that will be sufficient enough for the panel to be comfortable with the implementation of the traffic fee? Reliability and capacity increases take years or decades to see through, and not months.
  • Can anyone really Fix NYC without MTA construction cost reforms?
  • Is this a real plan that stands a chance of passing the New York State Assembly and Senate or is this just a CYA report to bolster Cuomo’s reelection campaign? With the Cuomo-supported plan to give Senate control to the state Republicans via the breakway IDC Senators, any traffic plan faces a tough hurdle in the state legislature. Will Cuomo push for this plan so that it passes the Senate or is just supposed to make him look like he tried, but failed, to fix city streets, traffic and the MTA?
  • Will the mayor finally experience his own come-to-Jesus moment on traffic pricing or will he continue to lie, distort reality and reverse himself in discussing a plan that will impact guys like him who live in NYC for decades but are seemingly allergic to the subway?
  • Do all of the players involved realize congestion pricing is only one part of fixing the bus network and solving transit woes and that other reforms are badly needed?

Some of these questions should be answered in Friday’s report; others may take a few weeks to unfold as we see the political forces line up behind (or against) the Fix NYC recommendations. Either way, this is a start and, while far from perfect, a good one at that.

Categories : Congestion Fee
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A recent report by NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer highlighted the ongoing problems with NYC’s bus network.

New York City’s subway crisis built very slowly over the past few years before cascading into a disaster in early 2018. So far, in the early going this year, nearly every rush hour commute has been plagued by delays on multiple subway lines, and the MTA’s subway action plan, as Nicole Gelinas recently detailed, hasn’t been a single dividend yet. Delays are, in fact, up since Cuomo announced this initiative.

This is of course the well-covered transit crisis, but the city is suffering through another transit crisis as bus ridership and service reliability has been tanking in slow motion over the past decade. In fact, based on trends through the end of October, without a massive influx in riders in November and December, average weekday bus ridership for 2017 will be below 2 million riders per day, a low mark not seen since the early part of the last decade, and a decline of over 170,000 riders per day since the high-water mark in 2012. Buses serve a key segment of New York City, and regular riders are less wealthy and more dependent on transit than the average subway rider. That ridership is cratering amidst worsening service and few are focusing on the issue is alarming.

A few weeks ago, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer released an extensive report on improving the bus system. “Falling ridership, major slowdowns, and a bus infrastructure in decline is having an effect across the five boroughs,” he said in a release accompanying the report. “If we’re going to have a thriving economy tomorrow, we need to rebuild our bus system today. By unleashing innovative technologies, as well as honing in on strategies that improve reliability and service, we can change the game for New Yorkers. This cannot be a problem that is swept under the rug – this is an economic and social imperative that is critical to our future. The status quo is unacceptable, and we have to do better.”

The report covers some familiar ground — New York city’s buses average, for instance, 7.4 miles per hour, slowest among the United States’ major bus networks and average speeds in Manhattan aren’t much faster than walking. In fact, thanks, in part, to these slow speeds, Manhattan has seen a 16 percent decline in ridership since 2011. Stringer’s report rightly places this decline in a larger economic context of shifting job centers as “residents of every borough are now more likely to commute within their home borough than to,” a reality the subway network cannot accommodate but one the MTA has not considered as part of a badly needed update to the bus network.

I’ll come back to the issue of network design shortly, but first, a glimpse at how technology is affecting speed and service. Stringer’s report finds that buses are in motion only around half the time. Much of the travel time is attributable to waiting at red lights (21%) and waiting at bus stops (22%). Bus stops are, of course, unavoidable, but dwell times can be reduced through a pre-board fare payment system or all-door boarding. The MTA hasn’t definitively committed to such approach when it phases out the Metrocard over the next few years, but without this promise, buses will continue to be slowed down by the MTA’s own choices. Meanwhile, signal prioritization on major bus routes, a long-sought-after reward, has been slow in coming, as NYC DOT and the MTA have not coordinated particularly closely on bus technology. Truly dedicated lanes with aggressive enforcement should also improve speed and reliability. This is of course hardly a secret, but one worth hammering at every opportunity.

Winding bus routes are indicative of a network in need of a redesign.

And what of that network design? It’s totally inadequate, Stringer charges. Here’s Stringer on the long and winding bus routes:

In Budapest, the typical bus route does not exceed 25 minutes from end-to-end. There is a clear logic to this policy: the longer the route, the greater likelihood for delays to accumulate and cascade down the entirety of the line. New York City buses do not follow this standard. Routes can span nearly two hours and travel well over ten miles. In fact, the average local route in Staten Island is 10.6 miles and the average citywide is 6.8 miles. Of the ten longest routes in the city, four are in Staten Island and three are in Brooklyn.

These ten routes are not only long, they are also meandering, averaging 13 turns each. Frequent turns along a route will slow down a bus, forcing it to wait for an opening in traffic and carefully maneuver onto a new road. This can be dangerous, as turns carry a higher likelihood for collisions. Most importantly, turns are indicative of indirect, slow routes that are riddled with detours. On dozens of the city’s routes—particularly in Staten Island, Queens, and Brooklyn—buses will intermittently exit a major road to do a quick loop around local streets. This can be infuriating for riders, who wish to get to their final destination as quickly and directly as possible.

The MTA has, in fact, acknowledged the efficacy of straighter routes, stating that “bus service is more reliable when operated in a straight line than when many turns exist along the route.” Unfortunately, they too rarely follows their own dictum. Among the city’s 220 local routes, 38 feature at least 15 turns and 97 have ten or more.

To solve this problem, Stringer urges the MTA to take Chicago’s lead. The Windy City has implemented a streamlined grid approach with shorter routes and less duplicative service. By offering more frequent service and well-timed connections (as well as a robust transfer policy), a better designed bus network can offer better service. (And this doesn’t even begin to touch upon stop spacing, another problem Stringer highlights in his report, as bus stops are too close together and spacing is largely inconsistent throughout the city.)

Ultimately, the report includes numerous recommendations across a variety of topics, and I’m hitting only the highlights in this post. I’d urge you to browse through the entire report and digest the findings. In the end, the current bus network is not designed to provide good connections to the subway and hasn’t been restructured to get people from where they live to where they work (or otherwise want to go). The technology to speed up buses lags behind global leaders in the field, and the MTA and NYC DOT haven’t committed to creating a bus infrastructure that will combat the massive ridership declines. Meanwhile, with regular bus riders making on average just $24,000 per year, this sagging infrastructure and collapsing mode of transit hits hardest those who can least afford another route home.

So while the subway collapse is spectacular and very public, borne out through daily delays and the general frustration of a city at its wits’ end, the bus crisis is an insidious undercutting of the city’s most vulnerable. Stringer’s report garnered some headlines late in the fall, and it deserves to be rebroadcast, but are the right people listening? Are they ever?

Categories : Buses
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Can the city save its subway system before it’s too late? The Times Magazine Section asked just that question this weekend.

Needless to say, taking the subway these days is a bit of a crapshoot. Last week, before it even started snowing, the MTA couldn’t sustain semi-reliable service during Wednesday night’s rush hour commute as crews were working to move trains out of the way of an incoming snow storm while dealing with the fallout from a mid-morning assault at Jay St. and a signal problem along 4th Ave. in Brooklyn. It resulted in multi-hour commutes for thousands of people who just wanted to get home before a winter storm descended on the city, but it even seemed very familiar to anyone watching the subway system’s slow-and-then-fast descent into unreliability and madness. Things are a mess. When will they get better?

Riders aren’t the only people wondering about the fate of the subway. Following The Times’ exposé before the New Year on the MTA’s out-of-control cost problem, the Grey Lady took another deep dive underground this weekend. In a magazine piece that’s been months in the work, Jonathan Mahler made the case of the subways, as his headline suggests. The idea that New York City must absolutely invest in its subways seems like one you and I may take for granted, but Mahler’s piece is somber reminder of the path we may face if our politicians do not find a way to fix the subways.

Coming just a few days after Brian Rosenthal’s magnum opus on costs, Mahler’s piece overlooks the reality that the MTA probably shouldn’t be trusted with massive amounts of dollars before reforms are implemented, but that is besides the point. In fact, the editorial board of the paper cleared up that conflict today, and more on that later. Mahler’s piece takes a deep dive into the importance of the subway to very fabric of New York City and concludes that we simply cannot afford to whiff on the opportunity to fix the subways. Doing so could lead to an inexorably decline in the success of this city. Mahler too pinpoints the class issues inherent in the discussion, a notable aspect of any discussion of public transit. “Can the gap between rich and poor be closed,” he asks, “or is it destined to continue to widen? Can we put the future needs of a city and a nation above the narrow, present-day interests of a few? Can we use a portion of the monumental sums of wealth that we are generating to invest in an inclusive and competitive future?”

The essence of his piece is laid bare in a comparison with international views on subway systems:

Most countries treat subway systems as national assets. They understand that their cities are their great wealth creators and equality enablers and that cities don’t work without subways. The public-private corporation that runs Hong Kong’s subway expects 99.9 percent of its trains to run on time, and they do. (If you are traveling to the airport, you can also check your luggage at a central downtown train station and not see it again until you’ve landed at your destination. Imagine!) China has been feverishly building new metro systems in cities across the country, a recognition that subways are the only way to keep pace with the nation’s rapid urbanization and the needs of its citizens. And it’s not just new cities that are seeing major investments in their subways. Two decades ago, the decline of London’s Underground became a national crisis; now it’s moving toward running driverless trains. For that matter, Los Angeles — Los Angeles — recently embarked on a 40-year, $120 billion project to build out its mass-transit system.

New York City’s subway, meanwhile, is falling apart. If you are a regular rider, you know this firsthand. But even if you aren’t, it has probably become difficult to ignore all the stories about the system’s failure: the F train that was trapped between stations for close to an hour without power or air conditioning, the Q train that derailed in Brooklyn, the track fire on the A line in Harlem that sent nine passengers to the hospital. The cumulative impression of all these miserable underground experiences — and all these stories about miserable underground experiences — is that the situation is hopeless, that the subway cannot be fixed. The subway has been wrecked, and in this era of short-term thinking and government mistrust, public-works projects with benefits larger than any single mind can realize are no longer possible. But it is possible to fix the subway. And we must. Our failure to do so would be a collective and historic act of self-destruction.

Mahler’s piece, magazine-length at that, deserves a close parsing, and he traces the political machinations over responsibility for the decline of the subway. It features stunning photos by Damon Winters of a system falling apart, and it concludes that no amount of money is too little to spend on the subway:

Just this partial list — I haven’t included the platform doors, for instance — brings the total to about $111 billion. It’s a big number. But not when you put it in context. New York City and its environs generated $1.7 trillion in gross metropolitan product in 2016. That’s roughly 9 percent of the nation’s overall G.D.P. How much of that activity is dependent on the subway? About a year before Hurricane Sandy, a state-funded group of scientists and engineers produced a comprehensive (and as it happens, prescient) report on the damage that a hundred-year storm surge could cause to the system. One of the study’s authors, Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist at Columbia University, told me that losing the subway for a month would cost the city about $60 billion in lost economic output.

The reality of this apocalyptic scenario hasn’t sunk in. Absent sufficient resources, the subway has been left with diminished ambitions and empty spectacles…

New York won’t die, but it will become a different place. It will happen slowly, almost imperceptibly, for years, obscured by the prosperity of the segment of the population that can consistently avoid mass transit. But gradually, an unpleasant and unreliable subway will have a cascading effect on New Yorkers’ relationship with their city. Increasingly, we will retreat; the infinite possibilities of New York will shrink as the distances between neighborhoods seem to grow. In time, businesses will choose to move elsewhere, to cities where public transit is better and housing is cheaper. This will depress real estate values, which will make housing more affordable in the short term. But it will also slow growth and development, which will curtail job prospects and deplete New York’s tax base, limiting its ability to provide for citizens who rely on its public institutions for opportunity. The gap between rich and poor will widen. As the city’s density dissipates, so too will its economic energy. Innovation will happen elsewhere. New York City will be just some city.

I generally agree with Mahler though believe cost reform must be a key part of any effort to fix the subways. After all, $100 billion spent efficiently will go a lot further if 30-40 percent of those dollars aren’t assumed to be the cost of corruption right off the bat. In a real city not beholden to corruption in fact, $100 billion could lead to a completely updated and modernized subway system, but we ad the people we elect to represent us seem stuck in this rut of ignoring the 800 pound gorilla in the room.

Mahler’s piece wasn’t the only one to make the case for the subways this weekend. Today, the edit”orial page of The Times includes a call for our leaders to do something. “Billions of dollars that could have gone to maintaining and improving the subways,” the piece notes, “have been wasted on exorbitant costs. Projects have also been delayed by mismanagement.” In fact, The Times notes that based on Alon Levy’s calculations, the first phase of the Second Ave. Subway could have cost a quarter of its $4.5 billion price tag were it built literally anywhere else in the world. Without cost reform, the editorial states, “no amount of revenue, whether it comes from higher fares, from a tax on millionaires as Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed, or from congestion pricing as Mr. Cuomo has suggested, will be enough to fix the subways. Too many of those added dollars would be frittered away.”

And that’s the key. We can spend $100 billion; we can, as David Leonhardt eloquently argues, implement congestion pricing in a way that makes sense and improves New York city for everyone; we can vow to fix the subways. But until cost reform are part and parcel of any reform effort, no amount of money will fix the subway because it will all just be siphoned away into the great unknown of the New York City subway system’s blackhole of institutional corruption.

Categories : MTA Economics
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The world’s most expensive subway construction project opened a year ago. Can the MTA take the steps needed for cost reform? (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Why do New York rail construction projects cost so much? In essence, with a $5-$6 billion tag attached to Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway on the horizon (let alone the recent politicking over the fate of the Gateway Tunnel), this is the big question plaguing New York. With limited dollars not going nearly as far as they do the world over, the MTA’s cost problems are a significant barrier to New York City transit expansion.

For years, those watching the MTA have rung the alarm on the agency’s high construction costs. I’ve written about cost concerns and the ever-increasing budgets for big-ticket MTA capital projects for years, and I’m not alone. Alon Levy has, since this post in 2011, charted the absurd costs of U.S. rail construction in detailed comparisons with international peers, and Stephen Smith, via the @MarketUrbanism twitter feed, has beaten the cost drum. When challenged, MTA officials have acknowledged that construction costs, but no one has tackled the twin issues of cost transparency and cost control. No one, that is, until last week, when The Times ran a massive front-page story charting all the reasons why NYC transit construction are so high.

As the finale in the series that started with an in-depth look at our unfolding transit crisis, Brian Rosenthal, with help from Doris Burke and Alain Delaquérière, has done what the MTA or the New York State Comptroller should have done years ago: They scrutinized MTA spending and took a deep dive into the agency’s contracting practices, staffing policies and lack of productivity in a way that lays bare just how bad the MTA is at managing big-ticket construction projects or getting a good return on its dollar. The article is, essentially, the story of how institutionalized corruption has become the norm in New York City. I highly urge you to read the entire piece and peruse through my instant reaction Twitter thread from Friday. I’ll excerpt a bit here.

First, the lede in which no one knows what 200 people are doing as part of the East Side Access project, a $12.5 billion project that costs, as The Times notes, seven times more than similar work elsewhere:

An accountant discovered the discrepancy while reviewing the budget for new train platforms under Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.

The budget showed that 900 workers were being paid to dig caverns for the platforms as part of a 3.5-mile tunnel connecting the historic station to the Long Island Rail Road. But the accountant could only identify about 700 jobs that needed to be done, according to three project supervisors. Officials could not find any reason for the other 200 people to be there.

“Nobody knew what those people were doing, if they were doing anything,” said Michael Horodniceanu, who was then the head of construction at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs transit in New York. The workers were laid off, Mr. Horodniceanu said, but no one figured out how long they had been employed. “All we knew is they were each being paid about $1,000 every day.”

At the outset, the article blames everyone and dives in from there. I haven’t seen a more succinct summary of the MTA’s problems than this excerpt:

Trade unions, which have closely aligned themselves with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other politicians, have secured deals requiring underground construction work to be staffed by as many as four times more laborers than elsewhere in the world, documents show.
Construction companies, which have given millions of dollars in campaign donations in recent years, have increased their projected costs by up to 50 percent when bidding for work from the M.T.A., contractors say. Consulting firms, which have hired away scores of M.T.A. employees, have persuaded the authority to spend an unusual amount on design and management, statistics indicate.

Public officials, mired in bureaucracy, have not acted to curb the costs. The M.T.A. has not adopted best practices nor worked to increase competition in contracting, and it almost never punishes vendors for spending too much or taking too long, according to inspector general reports.

At the heart of the issue is the obscure way that construction costs are set in New York. Worker wages and labor conditions are determined through negotiations between the unions and the companies, none of whom have any incentive to control costs. The transit authority has made no attempt to intervene to contain the spending.

Meanwhile, when faced with the conclusions of The Times’ reporting, the MTA pointed to its favorite bogeyman — New York exceptionalism. Projects cost a lot in New York because things are expensive. MTA Chairman Joe Lhota pointed at ” aging utilities, expensive land, high density, strict regulations and large ridership requiring big stations.” In the reporters’ fact-based world, none of this would fly:

But the contractors said the other issues cited by the M.T.A. were challenges that all transit systems face. Density is the norm in cities where subway projects occur. Regulations are similar everywhere. All projects use the same equipment at the same prices. Land and other types of construction do not cost dramatically more in New York. Insurance costs more but is only a fraction of the budget. The M.T.A.’s stations have not been bigger (nor deeper) than is typical. “Those sound like cop-outs,” said Rob Muley, an executive at the John Holland engineering firm who has worked in Hong Kong and Singapore and visited the East Side Access project, after hearing Mr. Lhota’s reasons.

In Paris, which has famously powerful unions, the review found the lower costs were the result of efficient staffing, fierce vendor competition and scant use of consultants. In some ways, M.T.A. projects have been easier than work elsewhere. East Side Access uses an existing tunnel for nearly half its route. The hard rock under the city also is easy to blast through, and workers do not encounter ancient sites that need to be protected. “They’re claiming the age of the city is to blame?” asked Andy Mitchell, the former head of Crossrail, a project to build 13 miles of subway under the center of London, a city built 2,000 years ago. “Really?”

So what makes MTA projects cost so much? One answer is overstaffing. As I have detailed before, the MTA staffs upwards of 25 people on TBM projects while most other nations use around 10 for similar work. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg:

The documents reveal a dizzying maze of jobs, many of which do not exist on projects elsewhere. There are “nippers” to watch material being moved around and “hog house tenders” to supervise the break room. Each crane must have an “oiler,” a relic of a time when they needed frequent lubrication. Standby electricians and plumbers are to be on hand at all times, as is at least one “master mechanic.” Generators and elevators must have their own operators, even though they are automatic. An extra person is required to be present for all concrete pumping, steam fitting, sheet metal work and other tasks.

In New York, “underground construction employs approximately four times the number of personnel as in similar jobs in Asia, Australia, or Europe,” according to an internal report by Arup, a consulting firm that worked on the Second Avenue subway and many similar projects around the world. That ratio does not include people who get lost in the sea of workers and get paid even though they have no apparent responsibility, as happened on East Side Access.

And then of course there is good old fashioned featherbedding. As Rosenthal details, the Sandhogs’ union gets a free perk just because the MTA uses TBMs, a technology that has been employed to dig subways for the better part of 50 or 60 years. As he writes, “One part of Local 147’s deal entitles the union to $450,000 for each tunnel-boring machine used. That is to make up for job losses from ‘technological advancement,’ even though the equipment has been standard for decades.”

Besides the obvious institutionalized corruption and back-patting, Rosenthal details how the MTA’s own practices lead to significantly higher costs. This is a key part:

Mr. Lhota, the M.T.A. chairman, agreed that leaving negotiations to unions and vendors may be problematic. “You’re right; in many ways, there’s this level of connection between the two,” he said. But the chairman said he did not know what could be done about it. Hiring nonunion labor is legal but not politically realistic for the M.T.A. The transit authority could get unions to agree to project-specific labor deals, but it has not.

The profit percentage taken by vendors also is itself a factor in the M.T.A.’s high costs. In other parts of the world, companies bidding on transit projects typically add 10 percent to their estimated costs to account for profit, overhead and change orders, contractors in five continents said. Final profit is usually less than 5 percent of the total project cost, which is sufficient given the size of the projects, the contractors said.

Things are much different in New York. In a series of interviews, dozens of M.T.A. contractors described how vendors routinely increase their estimated costs when bidding for work. First, the contractors said, the vendors add between 15 and 25 percent as an “M.T.A. Factor” because of how hard it can be to work within the bureaucracy of the transit authority. Then they add 10 percent as a contingency for possible changes. And then they add another 10-12 percent on top of all that for profit and overhead.

The MTA takes a laissez-faire relationship to its contractors’ agreements with labor unions and then sits back as the contractors build in extra costs (and profit margins) to their agreements. No wonder the contractors want the MTA capital plan to be as expensive as possible as high amounts of available dollars lead them to realize more profits. And the examples are endless. Rosenthal notes that other countries’ bidding processes lead to as many as eight bids on complex construction work whereas the MTA sees two that often come in far higher than estimated. MTA Board members meanwile, are keen to wash thier hands of graft:

More than a dozen M.T.A. workers were fined for accepting gifts from contractors during that time, records show. One was Anil Parikh, the director of the Second Avenue subway project. He got a $2,500 ticket to a gala, a round of golf and dinner from a contractor in 2002. Years later, shortly after the line opened, he went to work for the contractor’s parent company, AECOM. Mr. Parikh and AECOM declined to comment.

A Times analysis of the 25 M.T.A. agency presidents who have left over the past two decades found that at least 18 of them became consultants or went to work for authority contractors, including many who have worked on expansion projects. “Is it rigged? Yes,” said Charles G. Moerdler, who has served on the M.T.A. board since 2010. “I don’t think it’s corrupt. But I think people like doing business with people they know, and so a few companies get all the work, and they can charge whatever they want.”

Firms that donate to politicians and operate a revolving door between their offices and the public sector are the only ones to bid on complex projects and they do so at inflated costs. It’s graft, and whether it’s legal is a big open question mark in my mind. But don’t sleep on MTA ineptitude either; the agency after all hired three “operational readiness” consultants for East Side Access ten years before construction work is set to wrap on the project. The waste and the rot run deep.

As you read The Times piece, you may be wondering what happens next. After all, MTA officials have been on the record acknowledging these problems for years, but they never act. Horodniceanu talked about overstaffing on TBM projects years ago, and he never acted. A faction on the MTA Board recently started raising concerns over contracting dollars, but the full board still voted to approve all projects. And the $6 billion Second Ave. Subway phase looms large.

As I see it, two people could fix this mess. One is Andrew Cuomo. He could exert the leverage he has over the MTA and the labor unions to get both sides to come to the table on a solution. Unfortunately, he has shown no willingness to challenge union costs, and he has used the MTA for political show only. The other person is New York State AG Eric Schneiderman who could use his office’s legal powers to investigate these contracts and, if legally feasible, start prosecuting all of these players for fraud. That would be a big shock to the New York state construction graft industry but is a reach legally with standards for proving this type of corruption very high these days.

Are we stuck then? Is the only outcome a well-deserved Pulitzer nomination for Rosenthal and The Times and vindication for Stephen Smith, Alon Levy, and the thousands of transit nerds who have listened to them over the years? I hope something more comes out of this series of articles. The future of reasonably priced transit projects in NYC depends on it. But even with everything out in the open, corruption has a way of persevering absent a major shock to the system that enabled it in the first place.

The R211 model was on display at 34th St. – Hudson Yards earlier this month. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Over the past two decades, the MTA has engaged in a multi-billion-dollar effort to upgrade its rolling stock. Since 1999, the agency has welcomed over 3200 new subway cars and, once the R179’s testing issues are resolved, an additional 300 are on the way. The agency is also on the verge of awarding a contract for the R211, an order with an additional 1025 new cars that are expected to arrive early next decade. By the time the R211s are delivered, nearly two thirds of the MTA’s subway cars will be a part of the so-called New Technology Train program that launched with the R142s in 1999, and very few of them will feature open gangways, a standard design element throughout the world.

The MTA, as many of my long-term readers know, has had a touchy relationship with the idea of open gangways. Transit experts and advocates have long bemoaned the agency’s reluctance to embrace the design standard, and the agency has hid behind New York City Exceptionalism, alleging that engineering difficulties make the idea impossible to implement. That London has managed to do so on old routes with tight curves should lay bare this lie, and as the MTA’s own internal assessment reports have recently called for open gangway designs, the MTA has determined that its day of reckoning will come way or another.

The benefits of open gangways are obvious: open-ended cars can increase passenger flow and capacity by up to ten percent. At a time when our subway system is strained to meet passenger demand, open gangways offer up a huge boost in space without the need to run more frequent service. It’s practically a free way to provide more service with the only costs being engineering and design work that will pay off over the 40- or 50-year life of new rolling stock.

Future generations of MTA rolling stock will feature touch-screen subway maps, perhaps with the return of the Massimo Vignelli subway map. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

We know that open gangways are on the horizon. As part of Gov. Cuomo’s plan to not really save the subway system, the MTA unveiled cars with open gangways last year and promised that “up to 750 cars” of the R211 order could include open gangways. The R211 contract will include a ten-car open gangway pilot, and the option for 740 more cars is contingent upon the pilot passing its tests. The contract hasn’t been bid out yet (though Bombardier has already been disqualified), and the test cars won’t arrive until 2020. But recently, the MTA offered up a tour of a model of the planned open gangway cars.

The R211s feature doorway widths of 58 inches. The MTA believes the wider boarding space will improve passenger flow. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

The models were two halves of a subway car and were on display in the voluminous mezzanine at 34th Street-Hudson Yards earlier this month. I had an opportunity to stop by to explore the models, and my photos are below. You can find them on my Instagram page as well. For anyone who has ridden new rolling stock around the world, the models were a familiar glimpse at now-standard technology. The trains come with wider doors for easier boarding (though the doors are still a few inches narrower than London’s current standard), flip seats to fit more standing passengers, open gangways and some technological features such as touch-screen maps, LED indicators on doorways, and upgrades to the FIND displays. Open doors are still be stored internal to the rail car wall so windows are much smaller than they are in Europe, but otherwise, these strike me as what NYC subway cars should have been for the past 10-15 years.

In the end, the MTA spend billions on at least 3500 cars that could have stored far more people. As we look forward to the new design, the R211s are symbolic of a loss opportunity sacrificed at the altar of NYC stubbornness and exceptionalism. Just because open gangways weren’t invented here doesn’t mean they can’t work.

Click through for a few more images of the R211 models. Read More→

Categories : Rolling Stock
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An overview of the L train shutdown mitigation plan. (Click to enlarge)

One strange fact of New York City that we — the royal we of this city — never contemplate involves the logistics of moving a few hundred thousand people every day in between the borough of Brooklyn on the Island of Long and the borough of Manhattan on the island of, well, Manhattan. It’s just a thing that happens every day, but beginning in April of 2019, just over 15 months from now, the 225,000 people that use the L train’s Canarsie Tubes are going to have to find another way to travel under the East River. The L train shutdown, in the aftermath of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, is hardly a surprise, but the MTA and NYC DOT have been mum on mitigation plans. We heard about an initial proposal to implement HOV3 lanes on the Williamsburg Bridge in October, but Mayor Bill de Blasio did not want to release those in the lead-up to his reelection.

On Wednesday, after months of waiting and New Yorkers growing increasingly frustrated by the silence, DOT and the MTA finally unveiled their mitigation proposal. The plans involve that HOV3+ restriction on only the Williamsburg Bridge; new inter-borough bus routes between Brooklyn and Manhattan; a core busway for 14th St. in Manhattan with a two-way bike lane on 13th St.; and increased subway service on nearby and connecting lines. I have seen the public release DOT has put out regarding these plans and a presentation with more detail regarding the mitigation efforts. Today’s announcement “identified specific corridors and related transportation modes” targeted for mitigation, per the DOT release, and the agencies will next assess the “timing and scope” of various vehicular restrictions and transportation improvements. While these plans are not horrible, they’re also not great, and DOT seems to be afraid to tell single-occupancy car drivers that they’re banned from certain streets during the L train shutdown. Furthermore, that DOT and the MTA aren’t considering HOV3+ restrictions and a busway as 24/7 requirements off the bat is already concerning.

The images in this post are from the internal presentation. DOT’s release provides more context, and I’ll offer up some of that context as I discuss the images. Ultimately, this plan will be subject to public comment, and DOT and the MTA have vowed to revise it. It is also premised on the hope that at least 70 and perhaps as much as 80 percent of the L train riders will use alternative subway service to travel between Manhattan and Brooklyn. To that end, the two agencies believe that anywhere from 5-15 percent will utilize buses, and they are planning for 3800 bus riders per peak hour across the Williamsburg Bridge. Meanwhile, 3-5 percent are expected to use expanded East River ferries, but how the remaining 10-20 percent get around could be the difference between crushing congestion and a successful mitigation plan.

Click to enlarge.

For better or worse, the underlying theory of mitigation divides the Canarsie Line into zones. Unavoidably, this division raises concerns about class and the socioeconomics of the L train that DOT and the MTA haven’t sufficiently addressed. Essentially, though, L train riders in zone 3 – and particularly those south of Broadway Junction who make up only 11% of Manhattan-bound riders — have numerous other subway options for access across the East River. Those in Zones 1 and 2 make up just shy of 50% of the L train’s Manhattan bound ridership during the A.M. peak hours, and they have worse access to Manhattan-bound alternatives. With 57 percent of the morning commute bound for north of 14th St., DOT and the MTA need to transport a lot of people across the East River in some way, shape or form that does not grind the city to a halt.

So what’s the plan for Zones 1 and 2? That HOV3+ lane on the Williamsburg Bridge and added bus shuttle routes. Take a look:

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

The bad news: As Polly Trottenberg stressed to reporters on Wednesday afternoon and as DOT’s document mentions, DOT is considered these lane restrictions “during rush hour at a minimum.” Based on L train ridership patterns and the impact of this shutdown, the HOV3+ lane should probably be a bus-only lane and should definitely be in place on a 24/7 basis for the duration of the shutdown. But here’s the story: The lanes will run from Grand St. in Brooklyn to Spring St. in Manhattan with bus service to the Essex/Delancey, Spring St. and Broadway/Lafayette-Bleecker St. subway stations. Additional bus priority lanes will be in place on both ends of the Williamsburg Bridge, and three new bus routes will provide inter-borough connections — including one that deliver riders to the 14th St. corridor. It’s not yet clear how HOV3+ enforcement will be implemented on the bridge, but enforcement will be key to ensuring buses can move freely. As to the other free East River crossings, DOT says they will “continue to analyze” how this plan will impact traffic on the other crossings.

But what happens when you get across the bridge? Right now, the focus is on the 14th Street corridor — a stretch of the L train that sees 50,000 passengers a day. That’s more than the busiest bus route and a ridership 66% higher than on the current M14 route. (Brooklyn-only travelers account for 125,000 trips per day on the L, and they’ll have service between Bedford Ave. and Canarsie at six-minute headways during the shutdown.)

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

The MTA and DOT did not embrace calls for a full Peopleway and have instead opted for what they are calling a “Core Busway” between 3rd Ave. and either 9th Ave. heading east or 8th Ave. heading west. Only buses and local deliveries will be permitted on those blocks with a major wrinkle — for now DOT says these restrictions will be “rush hour restrictions.” This is, in my view, a big mistake, and as I mentioned, any plan that isn’t 24/7 is doomed to lead to confusion and, worse, congestion. But again, this is a pattern of DOT shying away from inconveniencing drivers at the expense of pedestrians and transit riders.

Anyway, the agencies have adopted this “Core Busway” approach rather than a full busway because they feel it has less impact on bottlenecks, particularly near Alphabet City and a more distributed effect on traffic on nearby local streets. A block to the south, DOT plans to create a two-way protected bike lane down 13th Street, and Trottenberg did mention they hope to maintain these bike lanes after the shutdown. Again, enforcement on 14th St. remains an open question.

And what of the subway improvement plans? So glad you asked.

As the MTA and DOT anticipate that “alternative subway routes will carry the large majority of L riders,” the MTA plans to implement service increases throughout the subway system. I have been told that 480-foot G trains may run as frequently as every 4 minutes, and the MTA will implement MetroCard transfers between the L and 3 at Livonia/Junius, between the G at Broadway and J/M/Z at both Lorimer and Hewes Sts., and between the G at 21st St. and 7 at Hunters Point Ave. The M will run to 96th St. and 2nd Ave. during weekends and late nights.

The MTA also plans a series of passenger flow improvement efforts along the J/M/Z lines and at certain G train stations, and station entrances at three stops will be reopened. It’s not clear though how these subways lines will handle the increased capacity as it may be challenging to fit another 160,000 riders per day on trains that are very crowded as they cross the East River. This plan does not yet seem to add capacity to the A/C trains, the 3 train or, more importantly, the Queens trains, and riders of the 7 and E trains in particular are very concerned that the L train shutdown will completely overburden lines that simply cannot hold more passengers.

The shutdown, as I’ve discussed in the past, will include some system improvements to the L train stations, and I’ve heard rumors of a new escalator down to the L train platform from the mezzanine above the IRT at Union Square.

In addition to these specific improvements, DOT and the MTA are going to explore “major changes” to Grand Street in Brooklyn that could turn that road into a bus and bicycle corridor, and DOT is hoping to increase Citi Bike capacity throughout the impacted areas. So that’s the plan for now, and it’s going to evolve with more detail and more public input. But the lack of 24/7 commitment and, for example, the fact that DOT hasn’t acknowledged the impact for-hire vehicle services will have on surface congestion still make me worried that DOT in particular is underestimating the impact of the L train shutdown on the city at large. Those 225,000 rides per day aren’t just going to end up on an overburdened J train without significant work toward making rides tolerable.

Categories : L Train Shutdown
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The R179 out on its first day of passenger service! #R179 #NewTrain

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What happens if the MTA spends $600 million on 300 new subway cars and they don’t work? It’s a crazy question but, in this topsy turvy world of 2017, one with which the MTA is currently grappling as Bombardier’s R179s are not passing their field tests. The MTA has 26 cars on hand for testing, and they just don’t work.

It’s been a while, thanks to my sparse posting schedule, since we’ve checked in on the R179 order, but we are no stranger to the R179’s issues. This order are supposed to replace the R42s and R32s, some of the MTA’s oldest rolling stock, and provide new cars for the J, Z and C lines. But the contract was plagued with problems from the start. Bombardier underbid other companies by nearly $60 million, but a joint venture between Alstom and Kawasaki warned the MTA against relying on Bombardier’s bid. They were right, and in 2015, we learned that delays in delivery due to mysterious production issues would cost the MTA at least $50 million.

The problem has gotten worse since then, as Dan Rivoli in the Daily News details in his latest on R179 testing issues.

The new car failed its first major test carrying passengers on the J line in Brooklyn and Queens. In fact, eight-car test trains were pulled from the tracks three times in less than two weeks since its Nov. 19 debut — dumping riders onto station platforms along the way. The third mishap for the model forced the MTA to suspend the 30-day passenger test cycle for nearly a week, threatening to further delay the delivery of train cars from Bombardier that is already two years behind schedule.

While MTA officials at the time believed it was a solid choice to award Montreal-based Bombardier a $600 million, 300-car contract in March 2012, it has proven to be a manufacturing mess from the beginning. Instead of wrapping up the contract by January 2017, it is now set to be complete by December 2018. Bombardier is now barred from bidding on a $3 billion contract for a future model set to be delivered by 2023. “These cars aren’t doing real well and we have a problem,” MTA board member Andrew Albert said.

Here’s what sidelined the R179 test train, a model destined for the lettered lines:

  • Nov. 19 — The train operator’s console erroneously indicated a door was open, when it was actually closed. Earlier that day, the emergency brakes kicked in when a bucket fell onto the tracks from the 121st St. station platform in Richmond Hill, Queens.
  • Nov. 27 — The test train leaving the Sutphin Blvd. station in Jamaica, Queens, lost motor power as it trudged uphill at half speed over a standard gap between train equipment and the third rail.
  • Nov. 30 — A red light indicating a problem with a door lit up in yet another train car, though the door was closed on Gates Ave. in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

The tests, Rivoli reports, were resumed this past week, and MTA officials hedged on short-term success. It’s not quite what you want to hear when it comes to rolling stock that’s supposed to be around for another 40 or 50 years. “The issues that have been identified are rectifiable and they have been, which is why the testing has resumed,” Phil Eng, NYC Transit’s interim president, said. “We are cautiously optimistic.”

It’s impossible to read this as anything other than indictment of the MTA’s low-bid standards. The agency is forced to accept the lowest qualified bid, and although Bombardier’s bid lost to the Alstom/Kawasaki JV on technical merit, it was deemed good enough at the time. “Good enough at the time” it seems isn’t good enough now, and the MTA has already disqualified Bombardier from even submitting a bid for the upcoming R211s (more on those and open gangways soon). Will the MTA have an internal reckoning with respect to its bidding process? Can we count on these new cars to provide a better ride for passengers used to daily trips on the C line’s own version of the Nostalgia Train?

Bouncing Bombardier from the pool of eligible contractors if a good start, but MTA officials are mum on anything else. Joe Lhota, who was in charge of the MTA when Bomardier on the contract, just wanted to look forward. “What’s important now is not rehashing the past,” he said to The Daily News, “and instead focusing on getting these cars delivered and on the rails for our riders.” For a beleaguered MTA, the R179s have been a worst-case scenario so far as the bad news grows worse.

Categories : Rolling Stock
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The mayor called 24-7 subway service a ‘birthright’ as the RPA’s Fourth Regional Plan kicked off a debate over the MTA’s approach to modernization.

Every generation or so, the Regional Plan Associate releases a major vision for the New York City metropolitan area and the ways its residents travel. The third Regional Plan, released in 1996, included calls for the Second Ave. Subway, East Side Access, and a streamlined transit hub at Fulton St., projects we know and love (or love to hate). Not everything becomes a reality — the 1996 plan also included calls for a one-seat ride from Lower Manhattan to JFK Airport and the Triboro RX circumferential line — but the plans serve as a blueprint for years’ and decades’ worth of discussions. So when the RPA unveiled its Fourth Regional Plan last week, the moment was something of a watershed for the next few decades’ worth of transportation plans.

Or at least it should have been, but one part of the RPA’s Fourth Plan stole the headlines. In it, the RPA may have proposed, to some degree or another, curtailing some or all 24/7 subway service. It was a vague, off-handed mention that that should have been clarified before the plan saw the light of day, but it cut at something New Yorkers believe to be sacred. Even if only approximately one percent of subway rides occur overnight, you can pry our 24-hour, seven-day-a-week subway service from our cold, dead hands. But as complaints about subway service the whole rest of the time mount, something has to give.

The spark to this fire was a brief mention of a plan to close, well, something at some time that arose on page 120 of a 374-page report [pdf] in the section on “accelerate the adoption of modern signaling systems.” The MTA’s need to quickly replace its collapsing signal system is hardly controversy; this paragraph was:

Guarantee track access and extended work windows. Track work is complicated and expensive on a 24/7 system. Closing the subways on weeknights and/or for more extended time periods would create more opportunities for track installation and testing of the equipment—and reduce costs. Only 1.5 percent of weekday riders use the system between 12:30 am and 5 am. The overwhelming majority of people who ride the subway during the daytime would benefit from the better, more reliable, cleaner and better-maintained system that weeknight closures allow. Of course, whenever lines are shut down, the MTA will need make sure that riders are not left stranded. New bus service should be provided to mimic subway service on traffic-free streets, and with shorter waiting times than today’s overnight subway service.

Now, it’s not immediately clear what the RPA is proposing here, and their comments surrounding the plan, including a subsequent blog post, did little to offer clarity. They say they want to “close the subways” for “more extended time periods” to allow for concentrated periods during which workers can access tracks. It’s indisputable that the current system, which allows for track access during limited overnight shutdowns, is a barrier to a quick signal replacement effort as the MTA itself believes it cannot complete a wholescale signal replacement effort in less than 40 years. But the scope of work completed during FASTRACK — night shutdowns, in which workers are afforded at most 4-5 hours of access — is limited to cosmetic repairs and track clean-up efforts. Replacing a light bulb isn’t the same as replacing an entire signal system.

Since the RPA mentioned the paucity of overnight riders, everyone latched onto this idea as a bad one put forth by a think tank insulated from the reality of low-income workers who rely on the late-night subway service, as bad as unreliable as it is, to get from work to home. Officer cleaners and late-shift healthcare aides can ill afford to lose their rides home. The outcry was immediate.

The mayor sounded an alarm and New York exceptionalism at its finest. “I’m a New Yorker, ” he said. “Twenty-four hour subway service is part of our birthright. You cannot shut down the subway at night. This is a 24 hour city.” (Of course, other 24-hour cities have more reliable late-night options via buses which are better suited for late-night ridership volumes, and some are only now introducing limited 24-hour service a few nights a week, but I digress.)

One City Council member is considering introducing a bill mandating overnight subway service be maintained if the MTA wants city funding. The law of unintended consequences is screaming in protest as this mandate could inhibit the MTA’s ability to do any work, let alone large-scale capital work it seemingly cannot do now.

Even MTA Chairman Joe Lhota pushed back hard as he seemingly objected to something the RPA wasn’t even proposing. “I believe a permanent closure of the entire subway system every night is a bit draconian,” he said. “The MTA has successfully been closing certain subway lines in evenings and on weekends as needed for maintenance and repairs. A permanent closure, I fear, would be inappropriate for the ‘city that never sleeps.'”

Had the RPA been more careful in its initial release, no one would have been talking about a permanent closure, and it’s not clear to me that the RPA intended to infer that a permanent closure was even on the table. We can unequivocally say that a permanent overnight closure of the subway system shouldn’t be on the table. The MTA doesn’t have enough maintenance workers to make this worthwhile, and there is no real underlying need to stop 24/7 service.

But to improve subway service at all other times, it may be time to consider line-by-line shutdowns for extended periods of time so that the MTA can make modernization a reality in the next 15 years rather than the next 40. My proposal comes with many conditionals and is modeled on the L train shutdown and what I believe to be the proper mitigation plan. Close entire lines, or certain discrete segments of them, for the number of months needed to make all repairs and replacements to the signal system. Provide adequate advanced notice and adequate replacement service (via bus bridges and increased service on nearby lines) and institute a night bus service as robust as the one in London. If this is sold as a short-term pain that’s necessary to deliver long-term gains, New Yorkers will accept it and plan around it. At this point, considering the state of the subway system, do we have another choice?

Last Thursday, RPA Chair Scott Rechler made just that point as the brouhahah over his organization’s plan developed.

Some late-night workers voiced their support too.

Of course, this is where the MTA’s credibility gap is a big negative. We don’t know what the L train mitigation plan is yet, and DOT and the MTA will have to collaborate on surface-level replacement service to a degree not seen in recent years. Worse though, New Yorkers don’t believe the MTA can complete work on time or provide adequate replacement service, and riders fear the MTA won’t restore service that is lost to short-term cuts. Based on the agency’s recent track record, I don’t blame anyone for this skepticism.

Yet, I’m left with the feeling that options are limited. Normal service these days is an unreliable toss-up of failing signals and endless delays, and experts expect unreliable transit to have a negative impact on NYC’s economy. If Option A involves short-term 24/7 shutdowns with the promise after of much better service and Option B involves muddling through until the entire system collapses, I’ll take A. How we get there from here involves careful messaging and a reasoned debate over the past way to fix the NYC subway system. The RPA’s plan, and the outcry over one vague paragraph in an otherwise thorough document, was not the way to start the discussion.

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Current TTC head Andy Byford will be the next NYC Transit president. (Photo via TTC)

Current TTC head Andy Byford will be the next NYC Transit president. (Photo via TTC)

Being the next head of New York City Transit may sound like a thankless, no-win situation. Between a public rightly demanding something resembling reliable and trustworthy transit service and a boss in Gov. Andrew Cuomo demanding whatever half-developed idea pops into his head on any given morning, the constituencies for this presidency are fickle and, in the case of commuters facing another morning of subway meltdowns, angry. But that doesn’t stop many people from taking on the Herculean, or perhaps Sisyphean, task of running and fixing the subways, and last week, the MTA announced that Andy Byford, from London by way of Sydney and Toronto, will assume the role of New York City Transit President by the end of the year.

Byford replaces Ronnie Hakim atop Transit. When Joe Lhota took over the MTA, Hakim moved into the position of MTA Managing Director, splitting responsibilities with MTA President Patrick Foye and MTA Chief Development Officer Janno Lieber. “We are thrilled that Andy is going to lead NYC Transit during this time of great change,” Lhota said in a statement last week. “Our transit system is the backbone of the world’s greatest city and having someone of Andy’s caliber to lead it will help immensely, particularly when it comes to implementing the Subway Action Plan that we launched this summer. In order to truly stabilize, modernize and improve our transit system, we needed a leader who has done this work at world-class systems and Andy’s successes in Toronto are evidence that he is up to this critically important task.”

The British native started out working for the London Underground in the late 1980s before working in leadership for both South Eastern Trains and London’s Southern Railway. He spent a few years in Australia with RailCorp before moving to Toronto where he has led the Toronto Transit Commission since 2012. APTA recently named the TTC, under Byford, as its Outstanding Transit System of the Year, but not all has been wine and roses for Byford in Toronto. Some Torontonians have grown weary of near-annual fare hikes, and Toronto transit voice Steve Munro told The Times that Byford has grown “somewhat less receptive to criticism” over the years.

Still, Byford brings an international perspective to an agency that has been mired in New York Exceptionalism for years. The MTA has been seemingly shy or afraid about implementing best practices not invented here for reasons that have been tough to explain. If Byford can bring his learnings from London, Australia and Toronto to New York City, perhaps Transit can fight its way out of this crisis with an approach more robust than Lhota’s pet Subway Action Plan.

But Byford’s approach in Toronto and the legacy he leaves behind is almost besides the point as the 800 pound gorilla in New York’s room looms large. That gorilla is of course Andrew Cuomo and the influence he exerts over, well, everything. Byford brings a unique perspective to the insular MTA, but the question is whether Cuomo will listen. So far, he hasn’t as Byford participated in the laughably sterile MTA Reinvention Commission a few years ago and on a panel this past summer as part of the MTA genius campaign. Both led to recommendations that were routinely ignored in Albany.

In The Times last week, Marc Santora explored the question of politics and the ways in which Byford should or shouldn’t play politics. (It’s the companion piece, in a way, to Jim Dwyer’s full-on assault on the poor politics of transportation in New York right now.) Santora’s thesis is that Byford should avoid political fights, specifically the feud between Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio. But Byford shouldn’t be afraid of taking positions, and I worry already that he’s going to thread too fine a needle. Take a look at this excerpt from Santora’s piece (the emphasis is mine) :

Mr. Cuomo supports a congestion pricing plan that would charge drivers entering the most crowded parts of Manhattan and is expected to offer a detailed proposal early next year. Mr. de Blasio has been steadfast in his opposition to congestion pricing, saying it would burden low-income New Yorkers, and has instead pushed a plan to raise taxes on wealthy residents.

Mr. Byford said he was “agnostic” about how the money is raised, adding that his task was to show that he could win political support by building a management team capable of running the subway. Transit advocates said he must also win over riders by quickly showing concrete gains, especially by improving on-time performance.

I am willing to give Byford a pass because he’s the new guy, but being agnostic as to matters of transit, transportation equity and funding is a recipe for being a Cuomo pawn. We need a New York City Transit president who is willing to be a champion for New York City transit with a lower case t. He should fight for smart policies and intelligent funding that can help stabilize and modernize our old system. That will involve challenging Cuomo and taking sides that aren’t always popular in Albany. Will that play with the Governor? Will that help push Transit toward a future where delays and poor service aren’t the norms? It’s a tall task, and for now, it’s Byford’s.

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