With apologies to Michael Grynbaum…
A few months after moving into Gracie Mansion, Mayor Bill de Blasio approached his transportation commissioner with a question: How do we fix the Lexington Ave. I.R.T.?
An undulating, unloved subway route underneath the East Side, the Lexington Ave. I.R.T. has long been known for overcrowded subway cars, slowdowns and delays. “I certainly experienced it constantly,” Mr. de Blasio, who commutes to City Hall from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, said on Monday. “It just wasn’t in an acceptable state of repair for the greatest city in the world.”
Now the mayor, along with 1.3 million other travelers who take the subway line each day, is set to enjoy a smoother ride. An $8.5 million [Ed. note: Ha!] revamp of the subway line from 125th Street to the Brooklyn Bridge will be completed this week, with city officials billing the achievement as the subway line’s first end-to-end overhaul since its completion in 1918.
Mr. de Blasio, at a ceremony on Monday, stood on the platform at Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall as 4, 5 and 6 trains zipped along the tracks, rustling his orange windbreaker. “This was always a bad route in terms of crowds, delays, etc.,” the mayor said, although he noted that his personal “subway from hell” remained the R train, “which is still burned into my memory.”
A onetime railfan, now accompanied on the subway by a police detail, the mayor said he recalled his days looking out the front window fondly. He was also asked if his own travels had helped make the Lexington Ave. I.R.T. a priority in a new citywide transit improvement effort. “I’ve certainly experienced it,” the mayor said. “But, again, we’ve heard complaints about this one for a long, long time.”
* * *
Meanwhile, back in de Blasio’s New York, here’s what this article about the mayor’s press conference earlier on Monday actually says, under the headline “Mayor de Blasio Promotes Smoother Ride on F.D.R. Drive”:
A few months after moving into Gracie Mansion, Mayor Bill de Blasio approached his transportation commissioner with a question: How do we fix the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive?
An undulating, unloved route along the East River, the F.D.R. Drive has long been known for potholes, slowdowns and backups. “I certainly experienced it constantly,” Mr. de Blasio, who commutes to City Hall from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, said on Monday. “It just wasn’t in an acceptable state of repair for the greatest city in the world.”
Now the mayor, along with 150,000 other travelers who take the road each day, is set to enjoy a smoother ride. An $8.5 million revamp of the drive from 125th Street to the Brooklyn Bridge will be completed this week, with city officials billing the achievement as the road’s first end-to-end resurfacing since its completion in 1966.
Mr. de Blasio, at a ceremony on Monday, stood on the safe side of a guardrail as traffic zipped along the drive, rustling his orange windbreaker. “This was always a bad road in terms of potholes, bumps, etc.,” the mayor said, although he noted that his personal “road from hell” remained the Cross Bronx Expressway, “which is still burned into my memory.”
A onetime Ford Escape enthusiast, now driven around by a police detail, the mayor said he recalled his motoring days fondly. He was also asked if his own travels had helped make the F.D.R. Drive a priority in a new citywide repaving effort. “I’ve certainly experienced it,” the mayor said. “But, again, we’ve heard complaints about this one for a long, long time.”
* * *
This is not to say that de Blasio shouldn’t focus on the management side of his job, and after I took a few recent trips down the F.D.R. Drive in recent months, it was clear the road needed some work. But imagine — just imagine — if the mayor had the same pride in fixing subway issues and restoring the grandeur of the subway system to its proper place in the New York City transportation hierarchy.
About the F.D.R. on Monday, de Blasio said, “I certainly experienced it constantly. It just wasn’t in an acceptable state of repair for the greatest city in the world.” There’s no small amount of irony in that statement.
Lately, I’ve grown very frustrated with the 6 train. It’s slow; it’s crowded; it suffers from uneven headways and bunching. I’ve certainly experienced these problems constantly, and the 6 — local service along our city’s most crowded trunk line — just isn’t in an acceptable state of repair for the greatest city in the world. Imagine if the Mayor cared that much but about the subways — and everyone else’s ride to work — instead of just his own.
A few weeks ago, I first linked to The Atlantic’s lengthy piece on New York City Transit’s technological woes. At the time, I examined the trial and tribulations of bringing communications-based train control online and highlighted how the MTA’s current approach is both impossible to sustain and inefficient in its execution. It is the classic story of a large and conservative bureaucracy unable to adapt to technological change, let alone a fast pace of adaption.
Let’s dive back into the piece and explore the countdown clock conundrum. As you may recall, James Somers initially set out to write about why only the A Division subway lines — the numbered routes — have countdown clocks while the B Division trains — the lettered lines — do not and will not for the foreseeable future. He also wants to understand why the A Division countdown clocks arrived years late. It is, he writes, “the story of a large organization’s first encounter with a large software project.” As you can imagine, it hasn’t gone particularly well for the MTA.
First, Somers notes that Automatic Train Supervision, the project that allowed the MTA to introduce countdown clocks on the A Division, is a subset of CBTC, and had the agency better coordinated and understood technology, they wouldn’t have spent 14 years installing an interim solution. The story goes south from there:
A post-mortem by the Federal Highway Administration details how from the start, an agency which had had little experience with large “systems” projects tried to wing it. For instance, the consulting firm tasked with developing the project plan never made a list of requirements, didn’t talk to the workers who would be maintaining the system until after it was designed, and left vague instructions for large chunks of work—specifying, for instance, “similar functionality to what is currently available”—that later became the focus of drawn-out contract disputes.
The MTA thought that they could buy a software solution more or less off the shelf, when in fact the city’s vast signaling system demanded careful dissection and reams of custom code. But the two sides didn’t work together. The MTA thought the contractor should have the technical expertise to figure it out on their own. They didn’t. The contractor’s signal engineer gave their software developers a one-size-fits-all description of New York’s interlockings, and the software they wrote on the basis of that description—lacking, as it did, essential details about each interlocking—didn’t work.
Gaffes like this weren’t caught early in part because the MTA “remained unconvinced of the usefulness of what seemed to them an endless review process in the early requirements and design stages. They had the perception that this activity was holding up their job.” They avoided visiting the contractor’s office, which, to make things worse, was overseas. In all, they made one trip. “MTA did not feel it was necessary to closely monitor and audit the contractor’s software-development progress.”
The list goes on: Software prototypes were reviewed exclusively in PowerPoint, leading to interfaces that were hard to use. Instead of bringing on outside experts to oversee construction, the MTA tried to use its own people, who didn’t know how to work with the new equipment. Testing schedules kept falling apart, causing delays. The training documentation provided by the contractor was so vague as to be unusable.
The MTA’s attempts at bringing the ATS system to the larger B Division faltered three times during the first decade of the 21st Century, and instead of trying to speed up the pace of installation of the CBTC system which would, as an ancillary benefit, introduce countdown clocks systemwide, Transit is again looking at a piecemeal solution. Again, it’s not working.
As we now know, the MTA doesn’t anticipate completed the installation of the Integrated Service Information and Management system on the B Division before 2020. An original deadline of 2017 was deemed unrealistic, and the delay in capital funding pushed this project back to the next five-year plan. And here’s the rub:
The problem is that the project has slowly taken on a bigger and bigger scope. The minutes of a 2012 Capital Program Oversight Committee meeting reveal that initially, the project’s focus “was to provide Train Arrival Information in stations.” Several service incidents, including a winter storm, drove the MTA to “re-focus project priority to provide centralized service-monitoring and information… followed closely by customer information.”
It is growing to look more and more like ATS. A request for proposal as recent as six months ago—back when funding looked more secure—called for a 77-month software contract to build out a sophisticated Rail Traffic Management System as part of ISIM-B. That piece of the project is envisioned as a complex centralized “expert system” that would allow operators to quickly diagnose service problems and would intelligently suggest ways to work around the disruption. It is, in a word, ambitious. And ambition is the death knell for big software projects. It’s what made ATS such a quagmire in the first place. It is, one suspects, why funding for countdown clocks has been cut from the latest capital plan: The rest of ISIM-B costs too much. It costs too much because it is trying to do too much. The consequence being that for five or six years, customers will hardly see anything get done at all.
At this point, Somers comes up short on a solution. He properly cites to BusTime, the MTA’s greatest software success story, as an example that the agency has had a few people at various times with the ability and trust to do something in-house. But those involved in the original creation and implementation of BusTime have long left the MTA, and Jay Walder, the CEO who was willing to give BusTime a shot, was forced out over his apparent lack of political savviness in dealing with both Albany and the TWU.
So what comes next? Certainly not countdown clocks on the B Division trains any time soon, and certainly not much faith that the MTA can execute complex technology upgrades in a timely or efficient manner. The MetroCard replace is on tap and could suffer from the same fate. Meanwhile, everything is years late and millions of budget. When it’s going to take the better part of a century to bring CBTC to the entire subway line, in the end, do we have any real hope that, without a top-to-bottom organizational overhaul, the MTA can execute on projects that are standard throughout the world? I’m not sure anyone really likes the answer to that question.
In response to the Riders Alliance’s call to improve transit access to LaGuardia Airport by rebranding the Q70 and eliminating its fare, the MTA came down hard against the idea. Despite the Riders Alliance’s contention that a fare-free service would likely generate more ridership, and thus more revenue, for the MTA, the agency opted to highlight the potential affect on its bottom line such a free service would have. Cost estimates ranged from a few hundred thousand to tens of millions, and while officials stopped short of uncategorically dismissing the idea, they might as well have.
“One-fourth of riders do not come from the subway and don’t use the free transfer, and thus we would lose money on one out of every four customers under their plan,” Transit spokesman Kevin Ortiz said to me in a statement. “If ridership would continue to grow on the route to the level they claim, we would have to add service, and that costs money. And where would we find the buses?”
Where would the MTA find the buses? Well, that must be the costs MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg had in mind when he later said on Twitter that the agency is “generally opposed” to ideas that “would cost the MTA tens of millions” of dollars. It’s hard to believe increasing service from every 12 minutes to every 10 for a few hours a day would have that much of an effect on the MTA’s budget, but that was the party line earlier this week.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t the only time the MTA, or its surrogates, relied on an argument over token amounts of money to reject a rider-friendly initiative. Earlier this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed a measure that would have upped MetroCard transfers on certain routes from one per two hours to two. The measure had bipartisan support, but Cuomo claimed it foisted an unfunded $40 million expense onto the MTA’s shoulders. “The bill,” he said in a veto message, “does not provide any funding to account for this expense. Such funding decisions should be addressed in the context of the state budget negotiations.” The MTA urged those riders who need the extra transfers to buy unlimited ride cards instead.
For the MTA, this recent attention to dollars lost around the edges of its $13 billion annual budget — a half a million here, $40 million there — is hardly a new development. The MTA’s operating budget has, for years, run on razor-thin margins, thanks in part to capital debt payments, and the agency has recently focused on penny-pinching when it comes to operations, often at the expense of rider-friendly initiatives. Costs matter.
Meanwhile, just a few weeks ago, the MTA secured $28 billion for its capital projects, and boy do costs not even come into consideration here. The MTA is currently building, along the East Side, the world’s most expensive subway and, underneath Grand Central, the world’s most expensive commuter rail terminal. The 7 line extension was the world’s second most expensive subway, and the Fulton St. Transit Center’s $1.4 billion price tag looks low only because the WTC PATH Hub across the street costs nearly three times as much. Meanwhile, future phases of the Second Ave. Subway are likely to cost even more, and no one at the MTA is decrying these dollar figures which are orders of magnitude higher than a free shuttle bus to the airport.
It’s hard to say that the MTA cares about construction costs. Outwardly, there’s been very little effort to get them under control, and project costs inch higher and higher with each passing year. Securing the dollars is a fight, and the money goes further everywhere else in the world. Government regulations, interest group politics, local NIMBYism, bad labor practices and plain old corruption seem to all play into the MTA’s costs, but no agency officials have claimed to lose money on capital expansion projects.
Ultimately, then, it seems that the MTA cares about money only around the margins. Usually, they don’t; sometimes, they do. And those times seem to implicate benefits for riders. This strikes me as a rather uneven response from an agency with so many customers that should be trying to attract more. If anything, it’s hypocritical and exhausting.
The Riders Alliance — with an eye toward an easy upgrade — wants to begin to push back on this idea. In a report released today, the advocacy group (of which I sit on the board) called up on the MTA to eliminate the fare on the Q70, thus making the bus ride between LaGuardia Airport and Jackson Heights or Woodside free. The group contends that the MTA wouldn’t lose money with the move — and based on a modest projected growth in ridership, could possible capture more revenue from those going to and from the airport. Additionally, the group has called upon the MTA to better brand the Q70 as specifically for airport travelers while increasing reliability and upgrading service. The ideas are new-to-New York but hardly revolutionary and deserve more than just a cursory glance.
“Transit access to LaGuardia shouldn’t be New York’s best-kept secret,” John Raskin, Executive Director of the Riders Alliance, said. “It should be intuitive and simple. Turning the Q70 into a free LaGuardia subway shuttle is a cost-effective improvement that could revolutionize how New Yorkers get to the airport. It’s not a billion-dollar project; it’s a free project with billion-dollar returns.”
Raskin is of course referring to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s multi-billion-dollar plan to build a poorly-routed LaGuardia AirTrain. The Riders Alliance feels their bus proposal would alleviate the need for an AirTrain in the short term, but it’s not just about finding a better way to build a more direct and cost-efficient AirTrain. It’s about providing a better transit solution for LaGuardia-bound travelers overall.
The crux of the report rests on the fact that 90 percent of the Q70 ridership is already transferring to or from the subway (85%) or LIRR (5%), and thus, the MTA has already captured that revenue. In essence, nearly all riders are already riding the Q70 for free, but everyone pays in dwell time, a major criticism for Q70 ridership. (In fact, if anything, eliminate the fare just to cut dwell times on the Q70 would be well worth it.) Were the bus to be free, the Riders Alliance contends, even an increase in transit usage by just one percent of all LaGuardia Airport travelers would cancel out the free bus and in fact make the MTA money. Whether the subways could fit another 200,000 passengers is another question.
But this isn’t just about making the bus free to increase ridership in the short term. While some are skeptical of initiatives that seem like a short-term move designed to get more people on transit (rather than on implementing changes that lead New Yorkers to choose a car-free, transit-heavy lifestyle), the Riders Alliance report takes a longer view as well. The group has called upon the MTA to run the Q70 with headways no longer than 10 minutes while providing either a dedicated lane for the bus or allowing drivers to optimize their route based on current traffic conditions. Doing so should make the free bus not just the easy choice in the short term but the right choice in the long term as well.
Additionally, the report notes that current Q70 service isn’t particularly well-suited to appeal to LaGuardia riders. In addition to inconsistent headways and routing that suffers from the whims of surface traffic, signage doesn’t encourage use. The buses do not include information regarding departure terminals and signage at the airport can’t even get the fares right. MetroCards aren’t available for purchase at the bus stop, and those unfamiliar with the New York City bus network wouldn’t easily determine that the Q70 provides a quick connection to the subway. The bus is, in fact, labeled as a bus to Queens rather than a bus to the subway or the LIRR, and neither the MTA nor the Port Authority have signage that clearly indicates what this bus does. In fact, a quarter of airport travelers surveyed said they didn’t know and couldn’t tell that the Q70 was more a shuttle to transit rather than a local bus through Queens.
To that end, the Riders Alliance have proposed rebranding the bus so that it’s clear where this bus goes and how it goes there. Without a fare and with more frequent service and better advertising, the bus can be a key link to the airport rather than something those in the know take out of convenience. It’s a new idea for New York City but hardly one so radical that it can’t work. As Joe Sitt, head of the Global Gateway Alliance, said, “A clearly branded, free airport subway shuttle is a low cost solution that would provide LaGuardia’s 27 million passengers with a 21st century access link, and with plans to modernize LaGuardia underway, the time to act is now.”
For its part, though, the MTA threw cold water on the plan. Transit spokesman Kevin Ortiz said the agency “wholeheartedly disagree[s] with the premise that this could all be done at no cost to the MTA. First of all, one-fourth of riders do not come from the subway and don’t use the free transfer, and thus we would lose money on one out of every four customers under their plan. If ridership would continue to grow on the route to the level they claim, we would have to add service, and that costs money. And where would we find the buses? Also, what’s to say that all this would do is shift a portion of riders from the M60 to Q70? At the end of the day, there is simply zero evidence that making it a free shuttle would increase ridership on subways to the point it would make the shuttle self-sustaining.”
Is this is simply a case of “we-didn’t-invent-it”-itis that plagues New York City, legitimate pushback or a combination of the two? Either way, this is a plan whose feasibility is worth pursuing.
Later on today, the Riders Alliance, along with the Global Gateway Alliance and other NYC advocacy groups, will issue a report and hold a press conference calling upon the MTA to eliminate the fare on the Q70 bus. Their proposal would streamline and clarify access to LaGuardia Airport while increasing the number of airport travelers using a transit connection. The group contends the idea could be implemented immediately and would likely improve the MTA’s bottom line. It’s an intriguing idea and one completely foreign to New York City.
Due to an embargo on the report, I can’t say much more now about the initiative, but I have a full post ready to go when the embargo is lifted at noon today. Be sure to check back then for the details and fine print regarding this plan. Needless to say, it’s one that deserves full consideration (if not a fast implementation). Can the MTA embrace an idea that so outside the box for the agency? We’ll find out soon.
Earlier this week, the Transit Museum hosted a panel discussion on the history and look of the New York City subway map. It was the second such event in a month, and it seems that the field of map design is undergoing something of a renaissance, especially in regards to our map. From the pre-Vignelli days to the current John Tauranac-inspired version that you can’t actually use in the subway system due to its absurdly large size, we could (and have) discussed map preferences for posts on end. Perhaps, soon I’ll revisit the topic.
In the meantime, Peter Lloyd, a historian with a specialty in the New York City subway map and its various iterations, is trying to raise funds for a multi-volume book detailing the history of our subway map. With only a few days left in his Kickstarter campaign, he’s a bit short of his goal. Check out his proposal here, and consider if it’s a worthy endeavor. I’m a sucker for subway map histories, and I hope his book can see the light of day.
Meanwhile, we have weekend changes to discuss. There’s a map for those — hosted by the MTA at the Weekender site. The descriptions follow.
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, November 20 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 23, 1 trains are suspended in both directions between 14 St and South Ferry. Take the 23 trains and free shuttle buses instead. Free shuttle buses provide alternate service between Chambers St and South Ferry.
From 6:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Saturday, November 21 and from 9:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Sunday, November 22, 1 trains run every 16 minutes between 137 St and Van Cortlandt Park-242 St. The last stop for some trains headed towards Van Cortlandt Park-242 is 137 St.
From 3:45 a.m. Saturday, November 21 to 9:00 p.m. Sunday, November 22, Van Cortlandt Park-242 St 1 trains run express from 215 St to Van Cortlandt Park-242 St.
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, November 20 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 23, 2 trains run local in both directions between Chambers St and 34 St-Penn Station.
From 6:30 a.m. to 12 Midnight Saturday, November 21 and Sunday, November 22, 3 trains run local in both directions between Chambers St and 34 St-Penn Station.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, November 20 to 7:30 a.m. Sunday, November 22, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, November 22 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 23, Crown Hts-Utica Av bound 4 trains run express from 14 St-Union Sq to Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall.
From 4:00 a.m. Saturday, November 21 to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, November 22, Woodlawn-bound 4 trains run express from Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall to Grand Central-42 St.
From 6:00 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday, November 21 and from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, November 22, 5 trains run every 20 minutes between Eastchester-Dyre Av and Bowling Green. Eastchester-Dyre Av bound 5 trains run local from Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall to Grand Central-42 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, November 20 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 23, Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall bound 6 trains run express from 14 St-Union Sq to Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall.
From 6:45 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Saturday, November 21 and Sunday, November 22, Mets-Willets Point bound 7 trains run express from 74 St-Broadway to Mets-Willets Point.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 21 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 23, A trains are suspended in both directions between Euclid Av and Lefferts Blvd. Free shuttle buses provide alternate service and operate between Euclid Av and Lefferts Blvd, stopping at Grant Av, 80 St, 88 St, Rockaway Blvd, 104 St, and 111 St. Transfer between trains and free shuttle buses at
Euclid Av and/or Rockaway Blvd. A service will operate normally between Inwood-207 St and Eculid Av, and between Rockaway Blvd and Far Rockaway every 20 minutes.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, November 20 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 23, E trains are rerouted via the F in both directions between Roosevelt Av and W4 St-Wash Sq. Free shuttle buses run between Court Sq-23 St and 21 St-Queensbridge, stopping at Queens Plaza.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 21 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 23, E trains run local in both directions in Queens.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, November 20 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 23, F trains are suspended between Coney Island-Stillwell Av and Kings Hwy.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 21 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 23, F trains run local in both directions in Queens.
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, November 20 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 23, N trains are suspended in both directions between 36 St and Coney Island-Stillwell Av. N trains are routed via the D line in both directions between 36 St and Bay Pkwy-95 St, the last stop. DR trains and free shuttle buses provide alternate service. Free shuttle buses operate between 36 St and Stillwell Av, making all station stops. Transfer between R trains and shuttle buses at 59 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, November 20 to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, November 22, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, November 22 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 23, 36 St-bound R trains stop at 53 St and 45 St.
Following up on last week’s report, one-time MTA executive and current New Jersey Transit Executive Director Veronique Hakim has accepted the position as president of the New York City Transit Authority. Widely considered as the number two transit gig in the country behind MTA CEO and Chair, the TA president is in charge of the vast network of subways and buses that currently serve over 8 million New Yorkers per day. Hakim, a 20-year vet of the agency, is the first woman to be appointed to the job, and her arrival comes at a time when the subways are sagging under the weight of ever-increasing demand.
Hakim’s appointment is another in the revolving door of transit politics, and some have grumbled about the “inside baseball” nature of her return. She spent 23 years at the MTA, as an attorney with both New York City Transit and Capital Construction, before heading up the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and New Jersey Transit. Yet, she’s a qualified pick who’s earned praise from others in the industry, and it’s high time the men’s club atop the MTA’s leadership positions is broken. “Our transit network is the lifeblood of the entire region, and I am glad to welcome Ronnie back to New York City Transit and to entrust her with the responsibility of ensuring safe and reliable service even as ridership grows every month,” MTA Chairman and CEO Prendergast said. “Ronnie’s comprehensive transportation experience, her detailed vision for the future and her demonstrated ability to bring real improvements to customers make her the right person to tackle New York City Transit’s challenges now.”
Her tenure begins on December 28, the Monday in between Christmas and New Years, and she’ll take over from interim head James Ferrara, who will remain as the President of MTA Bridges & Tunnels. “Having spent more than two decades of my life at the MTA, I am deeply honored to have the opportunity to lead New York City Transit at a time when surging ridership is affecting every element of its operations,” Hakim said. “Subway and bus customers have high expectations for the network they rely on every day, and I look forward to meeting their expectations of safety, reliability and quality at New York City Transit.”
Meanwhile, Transit’s gain is someone else’s loss, and the someone else in this case is our neighbor to the west. For New Jersey Transit, Hakim’s departure is another in a long line of troubles for the agency in recent years. Kate Hinds summed up seven of them for WNYC yesterday afternoon, and tops among those was brain drain. In addition to Hakim, NJ Transit has lost its rail ops head who was involved in planning for a new trans-Hudson tunnel, its capital program head, and a travel forecast official. This is a problem for an agency that’s struggling to maintain, let alone grow, amidst lukewarm state support but increasing ridership demands. Considering how tough it’s been for transit agencies to replace top talent lately, NJ Transit may be on the precipice of a problem. More on that later.
Despite journalistic claims of objectivity, some of the best reporting happens when a writer pursues something personal. In this instance, James Somers wanted to know why his F train stop at Carroll St. didn’t have countdown clocks, and what he undercovered made for a massive piece in The Altantic on the dreadful state of the MTA’s technology and its efforts at modernizing. As you may imagine, what Somers found is an agency beset by institutional paralysis, on the one hand, and a fear of taking any risks, on the other.
What Somers uncovered is an open secret amongst the transit literati. The MTA admits it to those who ask, but it’s rarely publicized. The truth is that the F train — and all B division trains — do not have countdown clocks because the MTA doesn’t know where the trains are. The fixed-block signal system doesn’t allow for MTA operators or individual towers to identify which trains are where, and those non-stop signal problems we hear about can, the MTA says, be caused by something as innocuous as debris on the tracks.
I’d like to spend more time discussing some of the issues Somers’ piece raised, but for today, let’s delve into one section — the tale of bringing CBTC to the L train:
[The RPA’s Richard Barone] explained that the Canarsie pilot suffered from problems that weren’t unusual for big transit projects in New York. The first was outmoded work rules. CBTC is designed so that trains can run themselves. But the L still has two-person crews on board every train. They’re not very busy: An April 2007 article titled “Look, Ma—no hands!” in the trade magazine Railway Age featured a delighted train supervisor named Lance Parrish riding in a CBTC-equipped train on the Canarsie Line. “All Parrish has to do is scan the onboard displays and acknowledge a flashing/beeping alerter every 20 seconds.”
…The second was a fear of change. It costs $168,000 per track-mile per year to maintain trackside signals, 90 percent of which is spent on labor—much of it done overnight and on weekends, qualifying the workers for overtime. If those signals were eliminated, millions of dollars could be saved each year. But New York decided to run CBTC on top of a reduced form of the old fixed-block signaling system, requiring that both be expensively maintained, despite evidence from other cities that no backup was necessary. (In Vancouver, the SkyTrain has had no CBTC-related accidents in more than 26 years.) And the fact that the two systems had to work together—requiring the supplier to study the old signals in depth—became a major source of delays.
Barone says New York just wasn’t willing to rip the band-aid off. Cities like London deal with major transit upgrades by packing maintenance and line closures into as short a window as possible, however painful that might seem at the time. New York, by contrast, draws out its track maintenance. When I spoke to the president of Thales Transport & Security, one of two major CBTC suppliers to New York, he said that “getting time on the track is by far the biggest schedule driver.” Crucial test-runs get queued behind miscellaneous track maintenance, so that it takes months to validate even small changes. “In the New York mindset,” he said, “there just isn’t the concept of the trains ever stopping.”
All that waiting isn’t free. These are huge projects for a company like Thales; they’ll spin up a whole office, a whole mini workforce, just to work on it. And when they’re waiting for track time, that workforce doesn’t just spin down—it continues to get paid. Anticipating delays, contractors inflate their bids.
So what we see here in this one little excerpt from a much longer story is an insight into why the MTA can’t seem to bring technology innovation to our system in a timely fashion and, in part, why everything costs so much. If we are to reform MTA practices and get more (or perhaps any) bang for the massive amounts of capital bucks to which the agency now has access, we’re starting to understand the best places to start.
More coming later when we look at how Somers explains the countdown clock conundrum. In the meantime, be sure to check out the full article. It’s well worth the read.
We spend a lot of time talking about where New York City’s transit system goes and how it could be better, but we don’t spend too much time talking about where the transit doesn’t go. We know how current service could be improved, and we all have fantasy maps regarding planned service extensions. But we don’t always address the so-called transit deserts where transit riders have few options and commuters face long rides to job centers.
At a time when affordability is a buzzword surrounding the political discourse in the city, these transit deserts stick out like a sore thumb, and last week, Ydanis Rodriguez, head of the City Council’s transportation committee, held a hearing on improving access. From light rail to ferries, the speakers ran the gamut of topics we’ve discussed over the past few years, and those facing questions responded adeptly. For instance, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg spoke about how light rail involves more than just tracks and a line on a map; it involves, she explained, the need to invest in the infrastructure behind light rail and create a sustainable network.
One idea though that has come up time and again over the years involves commuter rail access through New York City. When I was in Berlin and Paris this past summer, I had the opportunity to ride both the S-Bahn and RER trains, and for someone used to New York City’s concept of commuter rail, the European model is eye-opening. These trains enjoy the benefits of through-running through center city areas, and the fare structure is rationalized to encourage both intra-city and city-to-suburb travel. It didn’t cost me more to take the RER a few stops than it would have to make a similar trip on the Metro.
Here, the LIRR and Metro-North do not share a fare structure with each other, let alone with New York City Transit, and those who board commuter rail lines within New York City pay a much higher — and often cost-prohibitive — fare. If our politicians have their ways, this practice would end, and riders would be able to use commuter rail trains within the boroughs for a much lower cost. The city is pushing aggressively to make this happen, and one MTA Board member is embracing the cause.
As officials explained, last week, they want the MTA to reduce fares on intra-city travel and provide a free transfer from the LIRR or Metro-North to New York City Transit’s network. The MTA though is crying poverty. Agency Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast claimed that such a move would cost the agency $70 million per year and that no one has yet identified how to cover the missing revenue. “We just can’t agree to accept that kind of loss especially since we already lose so much money on other services,” spokesman Adam Lisberg said to Gothamist. “This year we will lose $575 million on unreimbursed paratransit service as well as discounted fares for seniors and free rides for schoolchildren. When we start each year more than half a billion dollars in the hole, we don’t want to dig it any deeper.”
Allen Cappelli, the Board member who plans to bring up the issue during today’s committee meetings, doesn’t accept the cries of poverty. “Honestly, it sounds to me like seat-of-the-pants analysis and I think this issue warrants more than somebody’s best guess,” Cappelli said to the Daily News. “Now that money is, while tight, not as dire as it was, we ought to be looking for ways to improve service for people in our region.”
This debate of course gets to the heart of the conflict between the suburban-focused commuter rail and the city-centric subway system. Do suburban riders want city passengers hoping on board their commuter trains for a few stops? Do suburban riders want to see their trains slowed in order to make more stops to better serve inaccessible areas? Can MTA agencies work together on rational fare policies? These are questions that hit at the very essence of the MTA’s regional approach and haven’t been satisfactorily addressed in years.
I expect this conversation to continue, especially as the MTA looks to reactivate certain LIRR stops in Queens and bring Metro-North into Penn Station via the Penn Station Access plan. Eventually, we have to move toward a European model. But can we get there without unnecessary kicking and screaming? We’ll find out soon.
Saturday is an exciting day for the New York area transit community. After a long wait, Transportation Camp makes its return to the city. The event at City College is sold out, and the waiting list is already closed. However, I know many of my readers will be there. Be sure to say hi if you see, and perhaps I may even lead a session.
Of course, it’s a weekend in New York City so there are subway changes affecting travel. For those going to Transportation Camp, 1 trains won’t run north of 137th St., but the A, C and D trains will all stop at 145th St. The list of weekend changes follows:
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, November 13 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 16, 1 trains are suspended in both directions between 137 St and Van Cortlandt Park-242 St. Take AC trains, M3, M100, and free shuttle buses instead. For service between 137 St and 168 St, use free shuttle buses or the AC at nearby stations. For service between 168 St and 191 St, use M3 or free shuttle buses. Or, use the A at nearby stations. For service between 207 St and Van Cortlandt Park-242 St, take free shuttle buses. Transfer between buses and A trains at 207 St and between A and 1 trains at 59 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, November 13 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 16, 3 service operates to/from New Lots Av all weekend, replacing the 4 in Brooklyn. Trains run express in Manhattan.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, November 13 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 16, 4 trains are suspended in both directions between New Lots Av and Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall. Take the 23DNQ or R instead. 4 service operates between Woodlawn and Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall, making local stops. For service to/from Fulton St and between Borough Hall and Franklin Av, take the 2 or 3 instead.
From 6:00 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday, November 14 and from 8:00 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Sunday, November 15, 5 trains are suspended in both directions between Bowling Green and Grand Central-42 St. Take the 46 or R instead. Transfer between 5 and R trains at 59 St. Transfer between 5 and 46 trains at Grand Central-42 St. Transfer between 46 and R trains at Canal St.
From 6:00 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday, November 14 and from 8:00 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Sunday, November 15, 5 trains run every 20 minutes between Eastchester-Dyre Ave and Grand Central-42 St.
From 12:15 a.m. Saturday, November 14 to 4:30 a.m. Monday, November 16, 7 trains are suspended in both directions between Times Sq-42 St and Queensboro Plaza. EFNQS and free shuttle buses provide alternate service. 7 service operates in two sections between Flushing-Main St and Queensboro Plaza, and between Times Sq-42 St and 34 St-Hudson Yards every 15-20 minutes. Free shuttle buses make all station stops between Vernon Blvd-Jackson Av and Queensboro Plaza.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, November 13 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 16, A trains are rerouted via the F line in both directions between W 4 St-Wash Sq and Jay St-MetroTech.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, November 13 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 16, A trains run local in both directions between W 4 St-Wash Sq and 59 St-Columbus Circle.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, November 13 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 16, Lefferts Blvd-bound A trains skip 104 St.
From 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, November 14 and Sunday, November 15, C trains are rerouted via the F line in both directions between Jay St-MetroTech and W 4 St-Wash Sq.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 16, D trains run local in both directions between W 4 St-Wash Sq and 34 St-Herald Sq.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, November 13 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 16, F trains are suspended between Coney Island-Stillwell Av and Kings Hwy.
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, November 13 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 16, L trains are suspended in both directions between Canarsie-Rockaway Pkwy and Myrtle-Wyckoff Avs. Take free express and local shuttle buses and AC or J trains.
- Free local shuttle buses provide alternate service between Rockaway Pkwy and Myrtle-Wyckoff Avs, stopping at East 105 St, New Lots Av, Livonia Av, Sutter Av, Atlantic Av, Broadway Junction, Bushwick Av, Wilson Av, and Halsey St.
- Free express shuttle buses serve Rockaway Pkwy, Broadway Junction, and Myrtle-Wyckoff Avs only.
- Transfer between free shuttle buses and L trains at Myrtle-Wyckoff Avs. To/from Manhattan, consider the AC or J via transfers between trains and shuttle buses at Broadway Junction.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, November 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 16, Astoria-Ditmars Blvd bound N trains stop at 53 St and 45 St.
From 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Saturday, November 14, and from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Sunday, November 15, Q service is extended to Astoria-Ditmars Blvd.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, November 13 to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, November 16, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, November 16 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 16, 36 St-bound R trains stop at 53 St and 45 St.
Rockaway Park Shuttle
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, November 13 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, November 16, the Rockaway Park Shuttle. Free shuttle buses provide alternate service between Rockaway Park and Beach 67 St A station, stopping at Beach 105 St, Beach 98 St, and Beach 90 St. Transfer between free shuttle buses and A trains at Beach 67 St.
From 12:01 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. Saturday, November 14 to Monday, November 16, the 42 Street Shuttle will operate overnight.