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Thomas DiNapoli has served as New York State Comptroller nearly as long as I’ve run this site. He’s outlived governors and MTA Chairs alike at this point, but he’s still chugging along. One of the problems I’ve had with his “audits” of the MTA is that, for those who pay close attention to these sorts of things, they aren’t too insightful. He hasn’t identified the key problems plaguing the agency — namely, the insanely high capital construction costs and lack of productivity for the dollars — and his reports generally take public information and condense them into soundbites. His latest audit is no different, but it’s worth spending some time with it and the MTA’s response.
In his latest report — the PDF is right here — DiNapoli took all of the MTA’s on-time performance numbers the agency shares once a month at its board meetings and determined what Transit officials have been saying for some time: The subways’ on-time performance has been dreadful, and it’s getting worse. In 2013 and 2014, Transit had set an on-time performance goal for itself of over 91 percent, but weekday trains were on time 80.5 percent of the time in 2013 and just 74 percent of the time in 2014. Instead of combatting the problem, the MTA has instead lowered its on-time performance goal to 75 percent, far below national average.
“The subways are New York City’s arteries yet on-time performance continues to be an issue,” DiNapoli said. “The MTA has actually lowered its own expectations for addressing subway delays. We’re encouraged that MTA has put more money toward improving the ride for straphangers, hopefully it will help improve on-time performance.”
The audit’s recommendations aren’t much. DiNapoli has asked the MTA to identify the sources of delays, come up with a plan to mitigate these delays and then track performance monthly. Yet again, that sounds like something the transit agency already does even if their mitigation plans aren’t particularly effective.
Things got interesting though in the back-and-forth between the New York comptroller and agency officials responding to the audit. Transit has long maintained that on-time performance — the time a train actually arrives at a terminal — doesn’t much matter so long as even headways are maintained. I believe the agency is ultimately correct, but it’s not a point that’s going to win them much sympathy from a public that, by and large, has no idea what “headways” mean. Riders will hear trains are late; nod their heads in agreement; and sigh in exasperation.
Anyway, in response, the MTA highlighted wait assessment as their primary internal metric of even and reliable service and claimed that they already know why trains are delayed. They cited fallout from record ridership, new flagging rules and ongoing maintenance, and unexpected and emergency maintenance as the main causes. “New York City Transit does not have a single policy or directive on reducing delays and improving on-time performance, nor should we,” agency officials said in response. “Providing high-quality service is our central objective, and it is inherent in everything we do…We do not wish to compartmentalize responsibility for improving service performance. Therefore, it is neither practical nor desirable to condense our performance related activities into one policy (or even several policies).”
DiNapoli, in his response to Transit’s response, noted that wait assessment has also declined and urged the MTA to attempt some sort of root-cause analysis. Of course, the root-cause analysis should recommend more subway lines and faster upgrade to a technology that allows for more trains per hour. That recommendation carries a high price tag and a multi-year lead time that won’t do much to solve the current problem. Thus, it’s not one designed to appease politicians who must run for office every few years.
Ultimately, no matter how you slice or dice it, performance has suffered, and the MTA hasn’t been able to overcome ridership that isn’t showing signs of doing anything other than increasing. DiNapoli may have pointed out the obvious, but sometimes, the obvious needs pointing out. Is it going to get better? Can it?
Postscript: On the Queens Boulevard Line
While we’re on the subject of delays, riders on the Queens Boulevard Line should gear up for a rough few weeks. Starting on Monday and running through September 4, Transit has to curtail all service along the line for work on the express tracks. The agency waited until 2 p.m. on the day before work is set to start to announce this bad news:
Transit forces are rebuilding sections of the express tracks through this area. Express E and F trains which usually travel at higher speeds will be required to slow to 10 mph through the work zones, reducing the number of trains that can use these lines each hour.
Some E and F trains will run on the local tracks, reducing the number of M and R local trains which can operate on those tracks. There will be no E service to or from Jamaica-179 St; customers should use the F instead and transfer at Union Turnpike. Customers on all four subway lines that use the Queens Boulevard route should expect less frequent service and should plan extra time for their travels.
This vital work is necessary to keep the express tracks in a state of good repair along the Queens Boulevard line, which is the second-busiest line in the entire subway system. The work was scheduled for the last three weeks of summer because it is typically one of the lowest-ridership periods of the entire year.
Even with ridership lower than normal, this work is going to cause headaches for a lot of people over the next few weeks. Delayed service, indeed.
When Bill de Blasio ran for mayor on a populist platform, he didn’t spend much time talking about transit. On one hand, that was by design. As the city has long ago ceded real control over MTA funding to the state, local politicians don’t feel the need to campaign on or do much to support the subway system. On the other hand, de Blasio wasn’t a subway guy. As a long-serving elected official, he drove everywhere. He didn’t — and still doesn’t — understand what the subways mean to the everyday lives of New Yorkers.
This political problem reared its head in early April when, with good intentions, de Blasio drove from the Upper East Side to Brooklyn in order to take a 20-minute subway ride designed to drum up support for federal transit funding. Yet, the Mayor took a lot of flak for his stunt because it was so blatantly just that. Instead of offering up more city money first and putting his money where his mouth was, de Blasio used a subway ride to earn some political points.
This week, the Mayor’s transit problem reared its head again in two distinct, but perhaps related, stories. First, on the day de Blasio’s team unveiled a budget that included a whopping $25 million increase in MTA capital funding — all the way up to $125 million — MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast made the case for even more funding. Relying on a recent Independent Budget Office study that garnered a lot of attention, Prendergast asked for at least $300 million annually and urged the city to contribute at least $1 billion to the next phase of the Second Ave. Subway.
Noting that “the role of the city’s mass transit system is historical and obvious,” Prendergast said today is “the right time for the City to acknowledge the need for significantly increased investment” in transit. “We believe the City must share in the cost of projects needed to ease current ridership growth and the system enhancements and expansion needed to address further growth,” the MTA chief wrote. “An example of such an investment — similar to the role played by the city in the extension of the 7 line to the west side — is the construction of the Second Avenue Subway line. We suggest the appropriate level of City investment in Second Avenue is a minimum of $1.0 billion over the five-year capital plan.”
In a subsequent exchange on Twitter between Adam Lisberg, the top MTA spokesman, and Amy Spitalnick, a top mayoral aide, Spitalnick accused the MTA of moving the goalposts. “We decided to fully meet MTA’s request. Our budget went to print. Then MTA moves the goal posts,” she said, defending the low amount. Of course, advocacy groups have called upon the city to fund at the $300 million level for months, but that again speaks to transit as a priority.
With this ongoing battle over funding as the backdrop, the Mayor on Monday “accidentally” sent an email to a Times reporter bemoaning a long subway wait. He supposedly left just 15 minutes to wait for an A or C train, travel from Canal St. to 34th St. and get somewhere on time. The Mayor, known for his tardiness, supposedly found himself waiting for over 20 minutes before dashing off the email in a huff. For what it’s worth, the mayor is always late, and there’s no record of a delay in the MTA’s text alert longs. That’s not a definitive listing of all subway problems, but New Yorkers have a long history of fudging MTA delays as excuses for tardiness. Just ask anyone who’s arrived at work 20 minutes late for an important meeting.
The Mayor’s optics problem is that in his email he noted that “we need a better system” regarding subway delay notifications and that it is “a fixable problem.” Of course it is, and all it requires is some political and economic support, but the mayor’s tardiness again pushed a real issue — transit funding — off the front pages. Meanwhile, local pols are trying to look everywhere but here for support, and the MTA may be a pawn in the ongoing de Blasio-Cuomo feud. But the truth is that populism and capitalism and economic growth in New York — from affordable housing to a vibrant and competitive job market — relies on the subway. The sooner our politicians digest this reality, the sooner we can move beyond petty tiffs and discuss real funding solutions.
When it comes to proper subway behavior, I have Very Strong Opinions about things. I’m not a big fan of the “Showtime!” troupes who sweep folks out of the way on crowded subways to perform acrobatic feats that are often more feet than anything else (though I did see a good pole routine on a semi-empty train a few weeks back). I also believe that healthy adults with backpacks should them respectfully at their feet, and riders should generally take up the right amount of space without doing anything too disgusting or personal in public.
So when I heard about a wedding on an N train on Friday, I raised a quizzical eyebrow. Maybe it’s because I’m amidst planning my own wedding (or at least my fiancée is), but I find myself unable to grow too skeptical of a wedding. And as far as minimizing impact to other riders, this one was perfect. The bridge and groom were married on a Manhattan-bound N train at 3:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon of Thanksgiving Day weekend. The bride boarded the train at 36th St., and they performed the ceremony while crossing the Manhattan Bridge. That’s a low-traffic time on a low-traffic route.
The groom summed up this zany idea. “We’ve been through a lot. Good times, bad times, and a lot of the good times have taken place on the train,” Hector Irakliotis said. “Confessions of love, reconciliations, goofy, ridiculous conversations — the whole spectrum. In New York, you spend so much time on the train, we thought why not?”
As Gawker noted, it’s exceedingly easy to answer Irakliotis’ rhetorical question, but the bride’s reason is enough to melt anyone’s heart. “I’m originally from Ukraine, and each time we’d come back here, I’d say to Hector, ‘It doesn’t feel like home until I see the skyline as we’re crossing the bridge.’ And he remembered that. He planned it out specifically so that we’d see the skyline as we were married,” Tatyana Sandler said. Hopefully, we won’t be flooded with copy cats, but as many of my Twitter followers noted, a beaming bridge is far more preferable to a flying foot landing on a straphanger’s nose.
I’m traveling for business this week and will check in when I can. I don’t anticipate any breaking news but, with the subways, you never know.
When the MTA unveiled its 2015-2019 capital plan a few weeks ago, agency officials knew it would not be smooth sailing. The agency had identified $32 billion in projects and $16.8 billion in steady revenue streams. The proposed budget included no contributions from New York State, and it was a challenge, in its way, for Albany to tackle the hard question of capital funding (and perhaps a Move NY Plan). It was then no surprise that the state’s Capital Program Review Board torpedoed the plan.
In a brief note issued to the MTA last Friday, the CPRB simply said, “Nope. Good try, good effort.” They didn’t offer a rational — though the humongous funding gap was clearly to blame — and sent the plan back to the MTA “without prejudice.” That was the easy part. The hard part comes next. That’s the part where the MTA pares down the plan; Albany figures out some funding scheme; and everything gets approved.
It sounds so easy, but of course, it’s not. Along the way, the MTA will have to contend with the usual array of everything. In a Bond Buyer article about the CPRB decision, one know-nothing type putting himself out as a government consultant even tried to resort to that tired “two sets of books” trope. It’s an uphill battle every five years and one that no one ever seems to remember or learn from ahead of the next fight.
Yesterday, the obstacle was City Council. Now, MTA hearings in front of City Council aren’t all charades. It’s an opportunity for politicians to get MTA officials to say some things on the record, and what they said yesterday raised some concerns. The MTA seems to be planning the next phase of the Second Ave. Subway to go under pre-existing tunnels; they keep saying B Division countdown clocks are 3-5 years away, the same timeline they’ve had for 2-3 years; and plans to build a subway to Laguardia will proceed over a bunch of NIMBYs’ dead bodies in Astoria. That’s all been around in one form or another, but yesterday’s hearing served as a reminder.
Things went south when the capital plan came out though. A read through WNYC’s Kate Hinds’ tweets reveals city politicians arguing, after the fact too, for pet projects in their neighborhoods. While Mark Weprin deserves a nod for voicing some support for the Move NY congestion fee plan, some City Council members (and, um, MTA officials sitting in the hot seat) didn’t even know the basics of BusTime.
Overall, the hand-wringing seemed largely appropriate for a political arena, but as the City Council offered up some half-hearted solutions for someone else’s problem, no one bothered to talk about their contributions to the capital plan. In the MTA’s $32 billion plan to help improve mobility in and around New York City, the city’s capital funding contributions are pegged at all of $657 million or two percent of the total required funding. This meager amount of $131 million a year assumes a 25% increase over previous capital plans and some additional money for the MTA’s bus program. Who has skin in the game? Not City Council.
Ultimately, this is all about the dollars. Those people who pony up and take the step necessary to identify funding streams can have their say in the planning process. For now, though, the political charade plays itself out. The end game is obvious, but how we get there is not.
It’s often challenging to write about subway-related deaths or collisions without seeming callous or overly concerned. The deaths — ranging from intentional suicides to homicides to accidents — that we’ve heard about underground are tragic, and non-fatal incidents can be life-altering. They’re newsworthy because people aren’t supposed to be hit by trains and because they can impact normal rides for millions.
Early on in 2013, many people were showering an overwhelming amount of attention on subway/passenger collisions. Newspapers were marking each accident, alleging an uptick, while the TWU seemed to latch onto the stories as something they could exploit for good P.R. The union called for all train operators to slow down to 10 miles per hour while pulling into stations. It would have been incredibly time-consuming and costly, and the MTA did all it could to shoot it down.
Even as I disputed whether or not these subway incidents were enough of a problem to warrant action, over the course of the year they crept in and out of transit-related news coverage. Spurred on by a dramatic image of a man who had been pushed into the tracks and facing down an incoming Q train, the press coverage drove the MTA to begin to pilot sensor technology that is supposed to alert transit employees when an unauthorized person has entered the tracks. We discussed the high price tag for platform edge doors, and the overall cost assessment of working to save lives. The answers aren’t easy.
Now, with 2013 in the rear view mirror and full-year numbers available, we can assess whether the concerned coverage was in line with the numbers. Not so surprisingly, it was not. As Pete Donohue detailed today, subway deaths were slightly lower in 2013 than in 2012 while the total number of people struck by trains jumped slightly. It is still exceedingly unlikely that anyone will get struck by a train though, any solution should reflect this reality.
According to the preliminary numbers, 53 people died due to train collisions, down from 55 in 2012, while 151 people overall were struck by trains, up from 141 in 2012. Donohue notes that these numbers are a bit higher than average as 134 people were hit by trains and 41 killed per year from 2001-2012. These averages, however, do not reflect a steep increase in ridership since 2001 of around 20 percent, and with over 1.6 billion swipes per year, a de minimums number of people are struck by trains. “The chance of being struck and killed by a subway train remains astronomically low,” an MTA spokesman noted to the Daily News said.
Eventually, when money and varying subway car lengths are no obstacles and when a company is willing to front installation costs in exchange for ad rights, the MTA should implement platform edge doors. They’ll protect passengers from trains, keep garbage off the tracks and improve temperate control during the summer. For now, though, paying too much attention to this issue obscures deep-seated ones affecting transit on a daily basis. These deaths and collisions shouldn’t happen, but not even one-one hundred thousandth of a percent of riders are hurt by trains. Riding the subway remains safe.