Archive for New York City Transit
As legend has it, when asked about a popular restaurant, perhaps in New York or perhaps in his native St. Louis (history is vague on the answer), Yankees catcher Yogi Berra uttered the famous line, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” Lately, I’ve been thinking about this Yogism in the context of subway ridership as after years of growth, ridership has stagnated and started to slip a little. Have we reached peak subway? Or the are the trains so crowded that no one goes there anymore?
This issue has been percolating throughout 2016, but it came to the forefront in the most recent MTA Board materials. Those materials, released at the end of September, include subway ridership figures through July, and the numbers are starting to sag. Total subway ridership for July was 138.9 million, down from a projected 141.3 million. The MTA believed rain over the July 4th weekend and some New Yorkers’ decisions to extend the long weekend into a mini-vacation led to the variance. It’s quite plausible as subway ridership figures are very sensitive to weather and long weekends.
Now, in a vacuum, missing projected ridership estimates by one percent isn’t that big of a deal, but the year-to-year numbers show a decline. Average daily weekday ridership fell by nearly 2 percent between July of 2015 and July of 2016. Weekend subway ridership, meanwhile, dropped by 3.5 percent between July of 2015 and July of 2016. Again, the MTA blamed rain and vacation, but July continued the year-long trend of ridership either leveling off or declining it.
I had a few thoughts stemming from this trend: First, does it matter? It might if the MTA continues to miss revenue projections due to lower-than-expected fares. It also might matter because we need to understand where these riders are going and why. If the low costs and popularity of cab-sharing apps are sending potential subway riders into cars, that could be a concern for congestion on our streets and a source of long-term competition around the margins for some subway rides. If the continued increase in Citi Bike riders is a factor, this may be indicative of something else at play. It could be that people are fed up with overcrowded rush hour trains that crawl through tunnels and lead to uncomfortable riding conditions because trains are too crowd. It could be something else.
That something else is the second question: What else is going on with the subways? Throughout the same board materials, a variety of other reports indicate service problems. The rolling stock is aging, and failures now occur on average every 120,000 miles (rather than every 143,000 as it was a year ago). On-time performance has dipped to 73.4 percent with a 12-month rolling average of around 68 percent, and wait assessment figures so inconsistent headway gaps, especially during the weekends when getting around time involves deciphering complex and wide-reaching service changes. What if New Yorkers are starting to give up on the subway because service simply isn’t reliable enough?
The subway systems’ renaissance over the past 25 years has been remarkable as annual ridership has grown from 900 million a few decades to 1.7 billion last year without significant increase in track mileage. With new stations and the Second Ave. line set to come online within the next few months, that number will jump again. But it seems that service is starting to come under pressure of all these riders who demand more. Twenty five years ago, the MTA didn’t plan to have 1.7 billion riders in 2015, and it’s not clear that the agency has a plan that will meet today’s ridership demands in 25 years, let alone the demands of whatever ridership could be in 2040. It’s starting to show, and the subways may just be so crowded that no one goes there anymore.
In the annals of MTA press releases, the one the MTA sent out late last week is certainly one of the stranger ones. The MTA, the press release noted, is going to clean subway tracks. You might think this would come with the territory, but track cleanliness — and resulting fires — has beguiled the MTA for decades. These fires aren’t the problems they once were in the 1970s and early 1980s, but we’ve all seen piles of garbage growing in the tracks.
The MTA is calling this effort MTA Track Sweep, and the video above gives an introduction to the program. It is, MTA head Tom Prendergast said, part of a renewed focus on the station environment. “Operation Track Sweep is a critically important part of our overall effort to create a transit system that’s faster, more efficient, and more customer-friendly,” he said. “There’s no question that a concerted and sustained effort to limit trash on subway tracks will have a significant impact on the efficiency of subway service…Just as importantly, this initiative will also have a positive effect on how people feel about their daily commute. When there’s less debris, the entire station looks and feels cleaner, and the ride is more enjoyable.”
So what are they doing? First, the agency expanding its cleaning schedule. The number of station tracks that are cleaned every two weeks jumped from 34 to 94. Second, in mid-September, the MTA will being a two-week system-wide blitz involving 500 workers who will remove trash from tracks at every station. This is an effort that involves cleaning more than 10 miles of track, and the work will take place largely at night. The crews will post signs at each station noting when the clean-up efforts were completed. It’s not clear though when the MTA will again engage in such a concerted clean-up effort.
On a long-term basis, the agency is working to procure two more portable vacuum systems that can quickly scoop up garbage along the tracks near stations. These systems are expected to arrive before the year is over. Finally, the MTA will procure three new vacuum trains that will arrive in 2017 and early 2018. These trains can hold up to 14 cubic yards of trash — a mole hill compared with the volume of trash the MTA has to remove from its system.
It’s not entirely clear what’s pushing this effort. A few politicians have called upon the MTA to improve its trash-collection practices over the past few years as concerns about rodents and general cleanliness have taken center stage, and a Comptroller’s report last year highlighted the MTA’s trash collection failures. The MTA, Scott Stringer’s report found, simply could not keep up with the volume of trash that built up on subway tracks or its aggressive collection schedule.
So this new effort is a response to constant criticism, and it’s supposed to improve the passenger experience. It is notably not an effort to clear or beautify stations but rather is focused on tracks which should improve train service. We’ll see in a few months how it plays out, but as one MTA official noted, riders bear some responsibility too. “We’re approaching this as a sustained effort to get the tracks clean, and keep them as clean as possible over the long haul,” NYC Transit President Ronnie Hakim said. “Even as we redouble our efforts, it’s important for everyone to realize that riders have a critically important role to play as well – keeping the tracks clean means that everyone has to pitch in by disposing of trash properly.”
As part of the planning for the Second Ave. Subway, the MTA heard from numerous riders of the BMT Broadway line, and a good number voiced complaints about late-night R train service. Overnight, the R runs only as a shuttle from 36th St. in Brooklyn to Bay Ridge, and according to agency numbers, around 1800 of the 1900 riders are transferring from a subway line that reaches Atlantic Ave. or Manhattan. Come the fall, the R train shuttle will be a bit more useful as the MTA plans to extend it along 4th Ave. and under the East River to Whitehall St.
The agency announced this move earlier this week, and New York City Transit President Ronnie Hakim touted the move in a statement. “This added service will provide off peak customers with additional travel options and add seamless connectivity to vital transit hubs in Brooklyn,” she said.
Board materials released Friday further detailed the benefits: “Late nights when most subway lines are operating on a 20 minute headway, these transfers can be particularly long, especially if multiple transfers, first to the D or N and then to the R shuttle, are required.” It is, in other words, a customer-focused initiative, and a cheap one at that as the MTA claims sending the R to Lower Manhattan will cost only $1 million per year.
The plan is to send the R local along 4th Ave., and the MTA notes that the R would now serve 45th St. and 53rd Sts. in both directions overnight, eliminating conflicts with potential trackwork. It’s a win-win for all and should be implemented around December when the W train returns. But will the 2nd Ave. Subway debut then as well? If you follow me on Twitter, you may already know the answer, but I’ll have more on Monday.
Meanwhile, the weekend service advisories make a triumphant return. These are from the MTA. They may be incomplete or wrong. Pay attention to announcements on your trains and check signs at your local stations.
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, June 17, to 5 a.m. Monday, June 20, service is suspended between 137 St and 242 St. Take the A, C, M3, M100 or free shuttle buses.
From 3:45 a.m. Saturday, June 18, to 10 p.m. Sunday, June 19, service operates in two sections:
- Between Flatbush Av and E 180 St, and via the to/from Dyre Av
- Between E 180 St and 241 St. Downtown trains run express in this section. For local stops, take the Bx39 bus or take an uptown train and transfer.
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, June 17, to 5 a.m. Monday, June 20, service is suspended between Utica Av and New Lots Av. Trains operate all weekend between 148 St and Utica Av. Free shuttle buses make all stops between Utica Av and New Lots Av.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 18, to 5 a.m. Monday, June 20, trains run local in both directions between 125 St and Brooklyn Bridge.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, June 17, to 5 a.m. Monday, June 20, service is suspended between New Lots Av/Utica Av and Brooklyn Bridge. Take the 2 Subway3 SubwayD SubwayN SubwayQ SubwayR Subway or free shuttle buses instead.
From 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday, June 18, and from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Sunday, June 19, service is suspended between Bowling Green and Grand Central-42 St. Take the instead 4, 6 or R.
From 3:45 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 18, and from 9:45 p.m. Saturday, June 18 to 9:30 a.m. Sunday, June 19, 2 Subway trains replace service between Dyre Av and E 180 St.
From 6:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 18, Manhattan-bound trains run express from Willets Point to Queensboro Plaza, stopping at 74 St.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 18, to 5 a.m. Monday, June 20, service is suspended between Lefferts Blvd and Rockaway Blvd. Free shuttle buses provide alternate service.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, June 17, to 5 a.m. Monday, June 20, downtown trains run express from 145 St to 59 St-Columbus Circle.
From 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, June 18 and June 19, downtown trains run express from 145 St to 59 St-Columbus Circle.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, June 17, to 10 p.m. Sunday, June 19, Coney Island-bound trains are rerouted via the N Subway from 36 St to Stillwell Av. Coney Island-bound trains stop at 45 St and 53 St overnight.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, June 17, to 5 a.m. Monday, June 20, trains are rerouted via the in both directions between 21 St-Queensbridge and W 4 St. Free shuttle buses run between Court Sq-23 St and 21 St-Queensbridge, stopping at Queens Plaza.
From 11:45 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., Friday to Sunday, June 17 to June 19, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, June 19, to 5 a.m. Monday, June 20, Jamaica Center-bound trains run express from 21 St-Queensbridge to 71 Av.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 18, to 5 a.m. Monday, June 20, Manhattan-bound trains run local from 71 Av to 21 St-Queensbridge.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, June 17, to 5 a.m. Monday, June 20, Jamaica Center-bound trains skip 75 Av and Briarwood.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 18, to 5 a.m. Monday, June 20, Brooklyn-bound trains run local from 71 Av to 21 St-Queensbridge.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, June 17, to 5 a.m. Monday, June 20, Jamaica-bound trains skip 75 Av, Briarwood, and Sutphin Blvd.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, June 17, to 5 a.m. Monday, June 20, Coney Island-bound trains run express from Jay St-MetroTech to Church Av.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, June 17, to 5 a.m. Monday, June 20, service is suspended between Church Av and Hoyt-Schermerhorn Sts. A F provide alternate service.
From 6:30 a.m. to midnight, Saturday and Sunday, June 18 and June 19, Forest Hills-bound trains run express from Queens Plaza to 71 Av.
From 6:30 a.m. to midnight, Saturday and Sunday, June 18 and June 19, Rockaway Park shuttle service is replaced by A service.
Since early 2007, Thomas DiNapoli has served as the New York State comptroller. He has outlasted two governors and more MTA CEOs or chairmen than I wish to count. He has, if he wants it, complete and total access to bones of the MTA’s financials. He could study its contracting processes and inefficient spending. He could try to analyze why capital construction costs orders of magnitude more in New York City than anywhere else in the world.
Instead, DiNapoli would like to tell you that subway trains are getting more crowded and service is growing more unreliable. This is truly breaking news from a nine-year veteran who should be doing more. This isn’t the first time I’ve criticized DiNapoli for his particularly unimpressive audits, and although DiNapoli brings up some valid points I’ll cover shortly, it’s worth hounding on the limited scope of DiNapoli’s examinations of the MTA’s practices. He is talking about improvements around the margins when someone needs to address the larger problems plaguing the MTA’s contracting efforts and spending patterns.
But we are left with DiNapoli’s reports as they are, and this one says that subway service is bad! Perhaps it’s worse than the MTA says! Breaking news! The New York State Comptroller is ON IT!
DiNapoli’s latest report – available here as a PDF — is a slog through the MTA’s wait assessment numbers. Wait assessment essentially measures headways and the MTA’s adherence to its published guidelines. A seven-minute gap between 6 trains at rush hour, for instance, means one or two trains missed their scheduled runs, and as such, wait assessment is negatively affected. Using only the annual figures, DiNapoli has determined that the 5 and A trains are the two worst performing lines in the system and that the MTA’s wait assessment figures show service growing more unreliable. The 1 and C or D trains have been the best, but DiNapoli is skeptical of the numbers he opted to study for this audit.
“The MTA is very clear that it considers its wait time assessment to be its most important measurement of the reliability of subway service and riders’ experience,” DiNapoli said. “It turns out the way Transit calculates this measurement obscures the reality of straphangers’ wait times. New York’s subway riders deserve better.”
DiNapoli’s critique focuses around annual wait assessment figures. For annual numbers, the MTA averages wait times across the year, and performance may look better than it is. But the MTA also provides monthly numbers in its Board materials, and for some reason, DiNapoli didn’t examine the granular details. “The MTA reports these wait assessment figures to the public every month for every subway line, and uses them as part of its many analytical tools to determine the root causes of delays and develop strategies for improving service,” the MTA said in a statement. “While the audit recommends changing how wait assessment is calculated and reported, the comptroller’s proposal misstates how subway service guidelines operate and would introduce statistical disparities if put into practice.”
This battle over some very inside-baseball measurements aside, it’s hard to deny that our subways are more crowded than ever and service can’t meet demand. The problem is that fixes are years away. First, the MTA doesn’t really have the rolling stock for significant increases in peak-hour service. Until the R179 order starts coming in, the MTA is constrained by the train sets they have on hand. Second, the MTA needs communications-based train control, but full systemwide implementation is still years or decades away. DiNapoli should instead explore why and what can be done to speed up this process.
As has become party line lately, the MTA blamed “crowding” as “the single most frequent cause of subway disruptions.” To me, this is victim-blaming. The MTA says trains are delayed because there are too many people using the trains. But ultimately, the MTA can’t keep up with demand, and trains are delayed because there aren’t enough of them to adequately carry passenger loads. That’s on them, not us, and it’s a problem that could be more readily improved if the New York State comptroller took on the harder questions.
Apologies for the radio silence over the past few days. I’ve been in Florida for a few Spring Training games this week and didn’t have an opportunity to write any new posts. I’ll have a generally regular schedule next week. Before I jump into the service advisories, let me take care of a bit of news I’ve been sitting on recently. The MTA has made two key appointments at New York City Transit.
Wynton Habersham will head up the Department of Subways, and he faces a tough task. As we know the subways are more crowded than ever before, and by choice and circumstances, the MTA is decades away from solving the true capacity problems. Habersham, the first African American to take the position, recently spoke to Metro magazine about the demands of the job, and it’s clear he has a tough task ahead of him. Habersham, a former Maintenance of Way guy, talks about improving customer communication, but while he takes the helm shortly before the opening of the Second Ave. Subway, it’s not clear yet how he will address capacity issues. That’s the $64,000 — or multi-billion-dollar question.
In other news, John O’Grady, a long-time Transit vet, has been named the permanent Senior Vice President of Capital Program Management. He had been serving in the position on an interim basis while heading up the Sandy recovery work. I interviewed him in early 2015 at the Transit Museum. He will be tasked on, according to the agency’s press release, “using design/build to accelerate construction schedules and find cost savings and efficiencies, and incorporating any new recommendations and best practices to modernize the 112-year-old subway system.”
Meanwhile, Easter weekend means only a handful of subway service changes. As always, these come to me from the MTA. If anything looks wrong, take it up with them.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, March 25 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 28, 3 trains are suspended in both directions between 148 St and 96 St. Take the 2 for service between 96 St and 135 St. Free shuttle buses operate between 135 St and 148 St, stopping at 145 St. Transfer between free shuttle buses and 2 trains at 135 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, March 25 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 28, 3 service operates between 96 St and New Lots Av all weekend, replacing 4 service in Brooklyn.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, March 26 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 28, 4 trains run local in both directions between 125 St and Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, March 25 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 28, 4 trains are suspended in both directions between New Lots Av/Crown Hts-Utica Av and Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall. Take the 23DJN or Q instead. For service between Manhattan and Brooklyn, take the DN or Q. Transfer between 46 and DF trains at Bleecker St/B’way-Lafayette St. For service to/from Fulton St and between Borough Hall and Franklin Av, take the 2 or 3. For service between Franklin Av and New Lots Av, take the 3.
From 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, March 26, and from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Sunday, March 27, 5 trains are suspended in both directions between Bowling Green and Grand Central-42 St. Take the 46 or N instead. For stations between Grand Central-42 St and Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall, take the 4 or 6. For Fulton St, Wall St, and Bowling Green, use nearby R stations at Cortlandt St, Rector St, or Whitehall St.
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, March 25 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 28, Jamaica-179 St bound F trains are rerouted via the M line from 47-50 Sts to Roosevelt Av. To 57 St, take the Jamaica-179 St bound F to the nearby 5 Av/53 St station. Or, transfer at 34 St-Herald Sq to an uptown Q for service to nearby 57 St-7 Av. To Roosevelt Island and 21 St-Queensbridge, take the Jamaica-179 St bound F to Roosevelt Av and transfer to a Coney Island-Stillwell Av bound F. From these stations, take a Coney Island-Stillwell Av bound F to 47-50 Sts and transfer to a Jamaica-179 St bound F.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, March 25 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 28, L trains are suspended in both directions between 8 Av and 14 St-Union Sq. M14 buses provide alternate service.
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, March 25 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 28, N service is rerouted via the R line in both directions between 59 St, Brooklyn and Canal St.
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, March 25 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 28, N trains are suspended in both directions between Times Sq-42 St and Queensboro Plaza. Take the 7 or Q instead. For service between Queens and Manhattan, take the 7. Transfer between trains at Times Sq-42 St and/or Queensboro Plaza. For service to/from 49 St and 57 St-7 Av, take the Q. For service to/from 5 Av/59 St and Lexington Av/59 St, use the nearby 59 St 456 station via transfer with the 7 at Grand Central-42 St or N at 14 St-Union Sq.
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, March 25, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 28, Q trains run local between 57 St-7 Av and Canal St.
From 6:30 a.m. to 12 midnight, Saturday and Sunday, March 26 and March 27, R trains are rerouted via the D line between DeKalb Av and B’way-Lafayette St, and via the M between B’way-Lafayette St and Queens Plaza. N trains will make all R line stops between DeKalb Av and Times Sq-42 St. Q trains make all R line stops between Canal St and 57 St-7 Av. Transfer between NQ and R trains at Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr or 34 St-Herald Sq.
In a few weeks, Veronique Hakim will assume the position as President of New York City Transit, and her first task will be a big one as Joseph Leader, the senior vice president in charge of the Department of Subways, is retiring this Friday. Leader was appointed in 2013, and the Daily News broke word of his departure yesterday afternoon.
As the News notes, Leader’s departure comes at a time of increased ridership but also increased frustration as crowding is at historic highs and subway rides seem slower and less pleasant than ever. Leader was a major proponent of the current FASTRACK maintenance program, and The News notes that Leader’s “last major initiative was an attempt to get trains moving more smoothly through the overcrowded and problem-plagued system” that involved using “subway station platform workers to move riders in and out of trains faster and boost[ing] maintenance and inspections.” Whether the latter has been a success is hard to say. Without boosting frequency and overall system capacity, these efforts strike me as the proverbial lipstick on a pig.
So as Hakim arrives, she’ll be able to appoint her own right-hand aide to head up the largest subway system in America at a time of ever-increasing crowds and capacity concerns. Due to work shift rules, the MTA’s lead time for increasing service can run anywhere from six to nine months — which means, based on recent trends, that gains from increased capacity will be wiped out by the interim increase in ridership. Shortening this lag should be one of Hakim and her next SVP of subways’ top priorities. For now, Wynton Habersham, Transit’s Vice President and Chief Officer of Service Delivery, will serve as the interim SVP of subways.
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.
The revolving door of the transit world may keep spinning through the MTA’s top positions, according to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal. A few months after Carmen Biacno retired as president of New York City Transit, the MTA may be narrowing its search to a former executive now working in New Jersey. As Andrew Tangel reported last week, the agency may tab current NJ Transit Executive Director Ronnie Hakim for the vacancy atop Transit. Hakim, an MTA vet who has spent the last five years leading various Garden State agencies, would be the first female to lead Transit.
According to Tangel, Hakim’s appointment is not yet a sure thing. She’s still negotiating her departure from New Jersey Transit, a spot she’s held only since early 2014, and even though she would lend stability at the top to NYC Transit, NJ Transit would continue to suffer from frequent turnover. Hakim was previously a lawyer with Transit and with MTA Capital Construction and served briefly as an interim president of MTACC before Michael Horodniceanu took over.
If Hakim assumes the position, her challenges are formidable. The subway system is literally bursting at the seams, and the MTA’s 20-year plan isn’t fast enough to address crowds that have made peak-hour commuting a truly miserable and frustrating experience every morning. The agency has also struggled to maintain the system and has a backlog of Sandy recovery work to get through. Hakim is competent, but with 23 years of MTA experience in her pocket, she’s very much an “Inside Baseball” pick at a time when the agency needs to be more nimble and flexible than it is.
Over the past decade, the MTA has ping-ponged through an era of uncertain leadership. The agency has burned through Lee Sander and Jay Walder and Joe Lhota, along with a few interim heads, and Tom Prendergast, now on the job for nearly three years, is the longest tenured MTA Chair since Peter Kalikow stepped down toward the end of 2007. With such frequent turnover, it’s been exceedingly hard for the MTA to plan for now or the future, and it’s starting to show.
October is the busiest time of year for subway ridership, and the last few days have been absolutely brutal. I can tell you what it’s like to ride from Brooklyn to Midtown and back every day, and while my tales are simply one person’s experiences, I’ve heard from many riders throughout the city who have experienced the same frustrating commutes. At 8:20 a.m., I’ve had to let B or Q trains pass me by; at 8:10 a.m. at the 6 train’s 4th uptown stop in Manhattan, I’ve been packed tighter than a sardine in a tin can. At times when I used to be able to grab a seat on the way home at night, I’ve had to stand from Grand Central to Nevins St. Wait times are long; trains are crowded; and there’s no relief in sight.
This problem — of uncomfortable rides, disgruntled customers and every-increasing ridership — is one of both the MTA’s doing and a lack of investment. The MTA sets its own load guidelines, and trains are crowded because that’s how the agency can wring every dollar possible out of the system. Service was far more frequent when the subways first ran in the early 1900s than it is today, but with the MTA’s budget operating on razor-thin margins, the MTA has to run what a consultant would call efficient operations. That means riders don’t get more more train than they want, even if it means a six-minute wait for a packed 6 train during the a.m. rush.
The other MTA problem is a lack of foresight and money. The agency hasn’t planned for a spike in ridership, and the crowds in the subway, as Charles Komanoff recently discussed, are approaching something akin to gridlock. There’s no room for more passengers, and the technology that enables the MTA to run trains more frequently is years away from implementation. It is also, as I’ve discussed recently, far too expensive for the MTA to implement these upgrades and far too late to be planning them only now. Planning for today’s crowds tomorrow is a recipe for failure, and we are up a creek without a paddle.
There is some modicum of relief on the horizon as the MTA announced some service increases on Thursday, but for some reason of economics, these changes don’t go into effect for another nine months. So that’s nine more months of overcrowded trains (that also seem to run slower than ever). Transit says they are adding service on 12 lines though the “most significant changes” are on the 42nd St. shuttle — hardly a move that does much for the rest of us. The C train will see three additional trips on Sundays as well.
The MTA summed up these service increases “Other major lines that will be increasing service include the Seventh Avenue 1/2 lines, with a total of five additional round trips during peak and evening hours; the Eighth Avenue A/C/E lines, with three additional round trips during midday and evening hours and three more round trips on Sunday mornings; the J/M/Z lines, with a total of three additional weekday round trips; and the system’s busiest route: the Lexington Avenue 4/5/6 lines, with seven additional weekday evening round trips.”
For the meager cost of just $5.8 million annually — barely a fraction of 1% percent of the agency’s budget — headways will be shortened by around 30 seconds in the evening. This is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to improving commutes.
Even in announcing these upgrades, Transit officials seemed to nod more toward the constraints of improving service than toward the benefits of these added runs. “Our subway system is more than a century old and even where we are aided by new technology, we are still limited by the overall age and condition of the system and the maintenance that is needed to run trains safely,” James Ferrara, interim president of Transit, said. “Making these service changes wherever we can lets us make the best use of existing resources as we expand to keep up with private sector development.”
There’s no good answer here. Unless there is a mass migration away from New York City, the subways will remain crowded. Ideally, Transit is assessing how to deal not with 6 million daily customers but with 6.3 or 6.5. It’s really only a matter of time unless the system — and the city — simply cannot handle that volume. But that’s a future we’d all rather not contemplate.
Over the past few/10/20/30/50 years, the New York City Transit Authority has engaged in an elusive game of repair. In transit-speak, the agency wants to achieve a state of good repair for its systems and stations, and although trains now run much more reliably than they did in the late 1970s and 1980s thanks to aggressive track replacement and signal work, our subway system’s stations are by and large in bad shape. As many have pointed out, attempting to achieve a state of good repair for a system with nearly 800 miles of track and a soon-to-be 469 stations is a Sisyphean task.
That Greek mythological figure is exactly how the city’s Citizens Budget Commission described the MTA’s effort in its latest report on the elusive State of Good Repair. Released last week, the report [pdf] essentially states what we all knew: The MTA is very unlikely to ever attain a State of Good Repair. Although that’s the headline, though, that’s not quite the main attraction. The MTA is never going to achieve a state of good repair because time keeps moving forward. A state rehabbed 20 years ago will need another overhaul in 15 years, and that’s just the unavoidable truth of a 35-year lifespan. The inefficiencies in the MTA’s progress though are dragging down the system.
More recently, the MTA has admitted that achieving a State of Good Repair is essentially impossible and has shifted to a component-based approach to station maintenance. This way, key elements such as staircases or platform lighting are repaired while other elements that may not affect the customer environment are left to the winds of time. This too has its problems as the CBC report details.
But enough of generalities. Let’s talk about the report. The CBC analyzed the MTA’s component-based approach and found that nearly a quarter of the MTA’s components are serious deficient, and 33 stations — including some high-profile, high-traffic ones — have less than half of their components in an acceptable state of repair. These include 7th Ave. on the Brighton Line and Grand Army Plaza (shown above), two of my local stations, and 16 in Queens, most serving the 7, N/Q or J trains.
With this in mind, the CBC asked if the MTA is allocating enough funding to its State of Good Repair efforts and what else the agency could be doing to speed up State of Good Repair efforts. I found their answers both frustrating and insufficient. For the first question, the CBC questioned the MTA’s prioritizing spending on expansion efforts such as East Side Access or Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway over repair works. To me, this misses the forest for the trees. If New York is to grow and remain competitive globally, it absolutely has to expand its high-speed, high-capacity transit network, and the only way to do that is through subway expansion. We can and have talked about the problem with these capital projects’ costs, but New York City can’t afford a future without an expanding subway network.
On the second issue, the CBC took a look at station repair costs, and it wasn’t pretty. Of the 42 station renovation efforts under the last five-year capital plan, 28 were over budget, and 10 saw their costs double. That’s setting aside the fact that the MTA accomplishes only 8 of these per year. Costs have increased at a rate that outpaces inflation, and the CBC, in so many words, notes that ADA-compliance often costs more than the benefits it delivers.
To achieve cost savings, the CBC urges the MTA to “make effective use” of public-private partnerships — which has proven easier said than done time after time. One of the CBC ideas — subway station conservancies modeled on the Department of Parks’ example. The CBC notes that “appropriate governance” would be required to avoid “inequities among neighborhoods,” but that has not exactly worked out well for the city’s parks. An adopt-a-station program would need aggressive oversight and some sort of redistribution scheme to ensure that those stations in Queens get the same investment as the ones in Midtown.
In a way, the CBC report though ignores what I mentioned earlier: The MTA cannot maintain and achieve a State of Good Repair, and the agency recognizes this. With 468 stations, the work is never-ending, and the MTA has to figure out a way to ensure that funding is sustainable and sufficient for a never-ending renovation scheme that considers a 35- or 40-year useful life. That is, if a station is renovated now, it will have to be re-done in 2050, and stations that were overhauled in 1995 are up for renovation again in 2030.
Meanwhile, the report has led to some interesting examinations of MTA funding schemes. Christopher Bonanos at New York Magazine asked if real estate developers should fund MTA repairs. Playing off of the One Vanderbilt investment in the Grand Central station, he urges real estate developers to pony up money for subway improvements and throws in the carrot of zoning variances or subway-level real estate:
Every giant glass tower that goes up in midtown adds a few hundred occupants (at least) to the grid. Each building increases the load on city services: water, sewer, electrical, transit. Setting aside the big transfer points like Times Square, a local midtown subway stop serves about 20,000 or so riders on a weekday. Add ten new apartment buildings in the neighborhood, and that number of users will go up by a significant percentage. If those buildings’ developers are relying on city systems, they should pay for their improvement. Every giant new tower, or group of towers, should be matched with a renovated station down the block…The MTA could even sweeten the deal by throwing in a lease on some of its own wasted real estate. Some of the giant mezzanine spaces of the A-C-E stations, for example, could easily garage a few shops. Chipotle and Starbucks probably wouldn’t want to be in the grimy stations that exist now — but in fresh, bright renovated ones? Why not? In exchange for building out the stores, the developer would get a share of the rental revenue for, say, a decade.
On the other hand, Rebecca Baird-Remba at New York Yimby cast a skeptical eye at P3s as a be-all and end-all solution for transit funding woes. She feels that New York State requires formal legislation overseeing P3s before the MTA could rely on them for serious transit funding, but ultimately, these one-offs are alluring.
All in all, it’s a tough balance. The MTA isn’t going to achieve a state of good repair, but station repairs should move faster than they do. Again, though, without a serious conversation on cost control and an aggressive cost-cutting initiative by the MTA, we will be paying more for less as the years go by. Even Sisyphus didn’t have it that bad.
For a map showing how your local station stacks up against the system’s worst, check out this interactive overview from the CBC.