Archive for View from Underground

With apologies to Bob Dylan for the headline, the wildest subway story in months kicked off innocuously enough with a Tweet from the MTA on Tuesday night. A recent spate of trains delayed because someone pulled the emergency brake seemed to be intentional.

Since then, we’ve learned, thanks to reporting by Aaron Gordon that this targeted attack has been happening for months and has delayed more than 740 trains since March. We’ve heard MTA officials speak out forcefully against this behavior during yesterday’s Board meeting while admitting they’re not sure what criminal penalties the culprit (or culprits) may face. We’ve learned about near-misses, and we’ve heard from a few passengers who may have unknowingly spotted the culprit in the act.

It’s possible, in fact, that one person in New York is single-handedly responsible for the subway’s just missing out on Andy Byford’s performance improvement metrics for the past few months. So even as subway service slowly but noticeably improves, one New Yorker has taken to intentionally disabling trains and disrupting the commutes of thousands of people. It’s straight out of a movie.

Here’s the story as Gordon succinctly summarized on Wednesday:

This person has an established M.O., the source said, and Jalopnik confirmed this by reviewing internal incident reports. There are at least three so far.

The suspect disrupts service primarily on the 2 and 5 lines from Flatbush Avenue in central Brooklyn to midtown Manhattan. He climbs aboard the rear of the train as it departs a station, unlocks the safety chains, somehow gets into the rear cab, and triggers the emergency brakes. Then, he disappears, most likely through the subway tunnels and out an emergency exit.

Despite striking on average once a week for several months, the person has not been caught.

On Thursday, we learned that a culprit — it’s not clear if there are more than one — was nearly caught. Gordon reports:

Jerrylee Heath almost caught him. He was standing right there. It was 3:51 p.m. last Sunday. Heath, a train supervisor on duty at Times Square, got a call from Rail Control Center, the operational brain of the New York City subway system, according to an incident report from that day. Someone waiting for a Brooklyn-bound train at Fulton Street in lower Manhattan alerted staff that they had seen someone riding along the back of a departing uptown express train. Maybe Heath could make it to the platform in time, if the person was still clinging to the back of the train.

Two minutes later, Heath was on the platform. As the train edged into the station, he spotted someone just inside the rear cab. The safety cables were detached, and the rear door to the train was open. It was him, the person who had been nefariously triggering emergency brakes for months with the sole intention, apparently, of being a pain in thousands upon thousands of butts.

Before Heath could take any action, the person pulled the emergency brake—even though by that time the train would have been either barely in motion or at a complete stop—jumped onto the track, and dashed from the direction the train came, back towards 34th Street. Without police present and Rail Control Center’s approval, Heath was not allowed to follow him, per New York City Transit work rules. For the next 18 minutes, Heath rode downtown, then uptown again, to see if he could spot the culprit. But at 4:11 p.m., he radioed to Rail Control Center to deliver the bad news. “The unruly person,” as he was called throughout the incident report, got away. Again.

I’ve seen the incident report from an April 19 occurrence. For around 30 minutes starting at 4:17, the culprit rode on the backs of a variety of northbound 4 and 6 trains before triggering the emergency brakes of a northbound 4 train near 59th st at 4:48. The person, the MTA has said, did not just pull a rip cord in a car, but rather cut the safety chains on the back of a train, used a key to open the doors to the operator room and set off the brake valve before running down the tracks. This is someone with knowledge of train operations, and some have speculated this person is halting service in order to tag the tunnels. The April incident alone resulting in 75 delayed trains along the IRT lines.

It’s hard to write fiction this wild, and while it’s not the first time vandals have pulled subway emergency brakes for sport, this is a specifically targeted attack by someone with some expertise in train operations. What happens is anyone’s guess, but subway riders know to look out for someone riding the backs of trains. It’s only a matter of time before he’s caught, and we’ll find out exactly why what Jalopnik is calling a subway supervillain is targeting our commutes. It’s a special kind of New York crime designed to inflict maximum annoyance on a lot of people; crowd justice for this culprit seems almost too kind.

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MTA contractors, seen here in a 2014 photo, celebrated the reopening of Middletown Road. The rehab project is now the subject of a federal suit alleging the MTA’s violation of ADA obligations. (Photo: MTA New York City Transit / Marc A. Hermann)

When New York City Transit embarked on the 29-stop station renewal program in 2011 targeting decrepit subway platforms outside of Manhattan, little did anyone realize how momentous this work would become. Last week, more than five years since starting the renovation that spurred a lawsuit — and after many more years of what many advocates have called a clear flouting of ADA requirements — the MTA lost the first round of this ongoing lawsuit as a federal judge ruled that the agency’s component-based repair work at Middletown Road, including replacement of a staircase without the addition of an elevator, was performed in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The ruling is a sweeping one, as Judge Edgardo Ramos held that the MTA must install elevators when renovating subway stations unless an installation would be “technically infeasible,” rather, as the MTA has argued over the years, too costly, and it is one I and many disabilities advocates saw coming last year when federal prosecutors joined the lawsuit. Even with this ruling on the books, the court battle is far from over as the MTA plans to argue that, in this case, installing an elevator at Middletown Road was indeed technically infeasible, but the decision opens the MTA to significant liability and may require the agency to pursue an aggressive uptick in increasing the number of accessible stations throughout the city.

For its part, the U.S. Attorney’s office took a victory lap. “The MTA is now on notice that whenever it renovates a subway station throughout its system so as to affect the station’s usability, the MTA is obligated to install an elevator, regardless of the cost, unless it is technically infeasible,” Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement last week. “Individuals with disabilities have the same rights to use the New York City subway system as every other person. The Court’s decision marks the end of the MTA treating people with disabilities as second-class citizens.”

The MTA, meanwhile, stressed the new philosophy pushed aggressively by Andy Byford: Accessibility is a new top priority. “The MTA is steadfastly committed to improving access throughout the subway, with a hard and fast goal of making 50 additional stations accessible over five years. We’re not wavering from that commitment,” MTA Chief External Affairs Officer Max Young said in a statement.

The question now though is whether that the MTA can perform any substantive work at any subway station without triggering the requirement to include elevators. In fact, I believe the ruling now requires the MTA to build elevators during any rehabilitation work. Let’s dive in.

Nuances in the ADA

The cruz of this case and in fact the long-time basis for the MTA’s antagonism toward installing elevators rests within two paragraphs of federal regulations relating alteration of transportation facilities by public entities. The governing regulation is 49 CFR § 37.43, and paragraphs (1) and (2) of section (a) form the basis for the legal dispute:

(1) When a public entity alters an existing facility or a part of an existing facility used in providing designated public transportation services in a way that affects or could affect the usability of the facility or part of the facility, the entity shall make the alterations (or ensure that the alterations are made) in such a manner, to the maximum extent feasible, that the altered portions of the facility are readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, including individuals who use wheelchairs, upon the completion of such alterations.

(2) When a public entity undertakes an alteration that affects or could affect the usability of or access to an area of a facility containing a primary function, the entity shall make the alteration in such a manner that, to the maximum extent feasible, the path of travel to the altered area and the bathrooms, telephones, and drinking fountains serving the altered area are readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, including individuals who use wheelchairs, upon completion of the alterations. Provided, that alterations to the path of travel, drinking fountains, telephones and bathrooms are not required to be made readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, including individuals who use wheelchairs, if the cost and scope of doing so would be disproportionate.

As you can see, these two paragraphs are very similar and rely on rather arcane legal nuances. Paragraph (1) mandates public entities to make accessibility alterations “to the maximum extent feasible” when altering “an existing facility or a part of an existing facility used in providing” transit “in a way that affects or could affect the usability of the facility.” The only limiting factor is thus the “feasibility” standard.

Paragraph (2) includes a carve-out the MTA has relied upon for years. If a public entity is undertaking an alteration that could affect usability of or access to a transit facility containing a “primary function,” the accessibility alterations may not be required “if the cost and scope of doing so would be disproportionate.” Whenever the MTA has argued that elevators would be too expensive to install, say, for example at Smith/9th Sts., this is the legal provision the agency cites in avoiding the ADA obligation.

What, though, you may be wondering, does it mean to “affect the usability” of a transit facility? And what does it mean for an area to “contain a primary function”? The feds describe a primary function as “a major activity for which the facility is intended” and lists a broad array of examples including fare collection areas and platforms. It seems then that nearly any alteration to a subway station would affect an area containing a primary function, and perhaps, you may think, the MTA has a legal basis for avoiding spending on high-cost elevators. Judge Ramos however does not agree.

The Court’s View

As part of the lawsuit, the MTA had argued that Paragraph (2), rather than Paragraph (1), contained the proper standard. Ramos’ decision essentially asks, “Why not both?” and holds that any time a public entity alters a station in a way that affects the usability in any sense, Paragraph (1), and the obligation to ensure wheelchair access unless technically infeasible, applies. Thus, even if the installation of an elevator would be expensive, the MTA still must include one.

Ramos’ decision rests on his interpretation of “usability.” Relying on previous 2nd Circuit precedence, Ramos determined that alterations that replace something as basic as a staircase with a functionally equivalent staircase do indeed impact the usability of the station:

The Second Circuit found replacements of kitchen floors and bathroom light fixtures to be “alterations” that changed the “usability” of condominium units under Title III provisions analogous to 42 U.S.C. § 12147. See
Roberts, 542 F.3d at 369. Defendants’ replacement of the stairways at Middletown Road Station was clearly an alteration that affected the station’s usability under Roberts. The alteration thus triggered accessibility obligations under § 37.43(a)(1).

Defendants argue that § 37.43(a)(2), not (a)(1), applies to the alteration because the renovations were to areas of the station that contained a “primary function.” But (a)(1) and (a)(2) are not mutually exclusive. Under § 37.43(a)(2), accessibility obligations are triggered when “a public entity undertakes an alteration that affects or could affect the usability of or access to an area of a facility containing a primary function.” An alteration can both affect the usability of a facility, which triggers (a)(1), and affect the usability of or access to an area of a facility containing a primary function, which triggers (a)(2). In addition to replacing the stairways, Defendants made extensive alterations to the mezzanine and platform floors of the station. Since these floors are where tickets are bought and trains are boarded, they clearly contain primary functions. Therefore, the Court agrees with Defendants that § 37.43(a)(2) also arguably applies to the renovations made at Middletown Road Station.

The MTA’s request for the court to determine that Paragraph (1) did not apply to Middletown Road was rejected, and at this point, by nature of this lawsuit, the MTA cannot argue elevators are too expensive. Rather, the agency must rely on the argument that doing so is “technically infeasible.” The court will hear arguments on just that very question regarding Middletown Road in the coming months.

What Does This All Mean

Now, all of these regulations and legal analysis may make your eyes gloss over, but it’s important. For all practical purposes, based on this ruling, whenever the MTA does anything substantive to a subway station, the Paragraph (1) obligations to install elevators will apply. Thus, any of the stations that were recently renovated via the ESI program are likely in violation of the ADA, and any other component-based stations that were renovated without full accessibility are likely in violation of the ADA as well unless the MTA can prove elevator installation would be technically infeasible and not just cost-prohibitive.

As you can imagine, this will cause some consternation for station rehabs going forward. While the MTA has pledged to meet an obligation to make 100 Key Stations fully accessible by the end of 2020, any minor work to spruce up stations could be thrown in doubt. I believe the MTA could craft an appeal as the analogy Ramos made between renovations of a condo — which sees a true increase in value due to new floors and bathroom lighting — is a weak one and the crux of the legal decision. After all, the idea that a like-for-like replacement of a staircase affects or otherwise alters the usability of a subway station seems to be a stretch.

But the feds have long been clear that any post-1991 renovation to old structures grandfathered into the ADA were supposed to include full accessibility work, and even with a basis for appeal, the MTA will face an uphill battle to overturn this case. Whether the court will require the MTA to install elevators at all stations they’ve renovated in recent years remains an open question.

Meanwhile, since the component-based station rehab project kicked off, the MTA has significantly changed its thinking on accessibility. Andy Byford has expressed public displeasure that only 24 percent of stations are accessible and has promised 50 additional accessible stations within the next five years as part of his unfunded Fast Forward plan. That’s a laudable goal and one that may be accelerated as any work of substance the MTA performs on subway stations will now trigger ADA obligations.

Still, as always, without cost control, this lawsuit could carry a steep price tag for an agency that can’t figure out how to install elevators for a reasonable price. If it takes the full weight of the judiciary to force the MTA to cut costs, so be it. We’ll all be better off for it as accessible stations improves transit access for anyone who has to carry bags, push strollers, deal with injuries or grow too old to climb stairs. It’s high time for the MTA to work toward fully accessible stations throughout the city, judicial opinion or otherwise.

“This ruling highlights why the New York City subway system remains overwhelmingly inaccessible to people who cannot use stairs,” Michelle Caiola, Managing Director at Disability Rights Advocates and one of the parties to the case, said. “If MTA had been complying with the ADA over the past twenty-five years by installing elevators when it performs station renovations, we would be closer to full accessibility today. Clearly, MTA must change its practices related to accessibility as soon as possible.”

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New York City, they say, is a cyclical town. Neighborhoods wax and wane; popular restaurants open and close; the city rises and falls; and even the Mets may be good again one day. Not everything that comes back is welcome, and four years after finally silencing emergency alarms, the MTA has turned some back on, at the request of the NYPD, in an effort to fight fare evasion. That ear-splitting sound, the subject of much consternation a decade ago, is back.

I first wrote about the debate over emergency exits back in 2009 when the conversation focused around the the ethics of opening doors knowing an ear-splitting siren would follow. In 2010, the New City Transit Riders Council issued a damning report on the ineffectiveness of the alarms. With the alarms still armed, Riders Council observers witnessed thousands of riders streaming out of the doors (and a handful entering without paying through the doors). In 2014, The New York Times created an op-doc on the doors, and when 2015 dawned, the MTA silenced the alarms, seemingly for good.

“Our customers,” then-agency spokesman Kevin Ortiz said, “have been quite clear in displaying their annoyance and letting us know that the alarms really were the number one annoyance for them as they travel through the system.”

Well, sounds that were annoying have been forgotten, and as the MTA and NYPD look to combat what they claim is a real increase in fare evasion, alarms at certain key stations have been turned back on. I first got wind of the unwelcome return of these alarms in mid-January when Twitter reports came in of alarms at Union Square, Columbus Circle, Jay St.-Metrotech and Times Square, among other stations. The alarms are not, as I can attest, back on at every station, and it seems that only a few fare evasion hotspots have been tagged for activation.

After some tense back-and-forth on Twitter over the need for the alarms, the MTA provided me a statement on the emergency exits. The NYPD, it seems, asked the agency re-arm some doors as part of a test. They noted to me:

NYPD is working to combat fare evasion and recently we complied with their request to re-activate alarms at several high traffic stations. This is a test for them to determine the alarms’ effectiveness in deterrence. At the same time, NYC Transit is working with NYPD to evaluate ways to reduce the inconvenience of the alarms for our paying customers and employees, looking into techniques such as enabling timed shutoffs. Nobody wants to hear an alarm going off, but revenue lost to fare evasion is revenue that can’t be used for running and maintaining the system, so we’re working with the NYPD to find the right balance.

Sarah Meyer, Transit’s Chief Customer Officer, also noted that the MTA should have an update on the effectiveness of the alarms “in a couple of weeks.”

The problems New Yorkers had with emergency exits haven’t gone away in the past decade, but the MTA’s priorities have shifted. Right now, the agency wants to fight fare evasion at certain key hot spots, and the gate sirens are one way to do so. The problem, of course, is one of action and reaction. As in the past, when the alarms go off, nothing happens other than lots and lots of noise. Cops or MTA employees (if any are even around) rarely, if ever, investigate, and the alarms serve as a clear signal to anyone nearby that a door that may be locked is now wide open. It’s almost an invite to potential fare evaders.

Outside of the noise pollution, the other problem with these alarms is how they stigmatize certain subway riders. Not everyone can get through NYC’s relatively narrow turnstiles (narrow to fight fare evasion in the first place, I should add). Parents or caretakers pushing strollers and people in wheelchairs who already confront a hostile system and those with large packages or suitcases simply can’t navigate the turnstiles. With stations including fewer and fewer employees, these folks are forced to enter through exits, and if the exits are now alarmed, the simple act of opening the day at the least inconveniences everyone and at the worst draws a crowd. I said this years ago, but the MTA could combat this problem by redesigning turnstiles to include wider, accessible entry gates that can fit wheelchairs and suitcases, as are standard in metro and subway systems throughout the world.

In fact, Meyer told me those gates are on the way as part of the MTA’s push toward more system accessibility, and I’m looking forward to them.

For now, though, we left once again with subway alarms and a familiar debate. Can the NYPD respond to alarms in high-volume stations fast enough for them to serve as a fare evasion deterrent while the MTA responds to requests to open them fast enough to ensure people who need and have properly paid for access get it without causing an ear-splitting ruckus? That’s under review, and we’ll find out soon what end of the emergency exit alarm cycle we’re living through. Will it be the continuation of a quiet one or the dawn of a new, louder, siren-filled era?

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A recent MTA report alleges a recent spike in fare evasion. is costing the agency $215 million per year, but there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical.

Earlier this summer, as the MTA was busy confusing cause and effect by blaming for-hire vehicle services for the city’s transit ridership drop, certain members on the MTA Board got a bug in their ear that fare evasion could be a reason why transit ridership has dropped over the past few years. It was never quite clear where this idea came from. Perhaps a few board members were irked by the Manhattan DA’s decision to stop prosecuting fare evaders as criminals; perhaps the few board members who do ride the subways regularly were basing their complaints on the lived experiences of watching people hop turnstiles or stream through emergency exits; perhaps the agency is just trying to avoid responsibility for the ongoing slow-motion death spiral driven by declining service reliability. Whatever the reason, fare evasion has dominated the conversation for the past month, and while I think this is largely a distraction, let’s try to unpack what’s happening here.

In a nutshell, the MTA is facing a large budget deficit that will result in some combination of fare hikes and cuts to service. At the same time, ridership is declining, leading the MTA to miss its revenue projections, and the MTA needs to account for all of its dollars to make its budget projections, already based on fantasy, work even just a little bit. So fare evasion has come under the microscope. A few weeks back, the MTA released a special report [pdf] on fare evasion that alleges with flimsy evidence that subway fare evasion has nearly doubled since mid-2013 to over 200,000 passengers per day and that bus riders who do not pay for their rides count for around 350,000 riders per day or over 16 percent of daily ridership. “It is an increasing problem,” Transit president Andy Byford said in December.

All told, the MTA estimates it lost $215 million to fare evasion in 2018 and is responsible for over a third of the subway ridership drop. According to the MTA’s report, the increases in 2018 are nearly all attributable to an increase in people entering through the emergency exits, and the DA’s decision to cease criminal prosecutions of fare evaders – a common-sense progressive position that doesn’t negate other effective fare enforcement techniques – is shouldering the blame as well. MTA officials meanwhile have been commenting on the issue to no end, as acting MTA Chair Fernando Ferrer did after a recent MTA Board meeting: “You cannot deny the evidence of your own eyes. You see this all the time. This is a growing problem. It’s worrisome, and it’s having a financial impact.”

In response to the MTA’s hand-wringing, the subway story of late 2018 has shifted nearly completely from one of bad service getting worse to one focusing heavily on instances of fare evasion. The Times stationed a few reporters at Times Square, the busiest station of the system, and observed nearly a person per minute entering through exits. Gothamist ran a video of various forms of fare evasion. Even Andy Byford’s promise to remove or fix faulty signal timers seemed to fall by the wayside in favor of more coverage of fare-hoppers.

There’s only one problem: The MTA’s report, all seven pages of it, draws sweeping conclusions based on a questionable methodology as the agency fails to grappled with the complexitites of its allegations, and even those promoting fare evasion as a significant problem have raised some questions that should cast doubt on the thoroughness report. As Byford himself said to The Times, “Is it some sort of protest vote? Is it because you can’t afford it? Is it because you fundamentally disagree that you should pay for transit in the first place? Is it more of an opportunist thing — you didn’t set out that day to evade the fare, but because the gate happened to be open, you followed a bunch of people through?”

First, the methodology: The MTA sent staff to 180 fare control areas (not, mind you, 180 stations) for quarterly observations and then extrapolated system-wide data based on ridership numbers. The MTA alleges this methodology could lead to an undercount of fare evasion, but I believe it could also lead to a significant overcount. It’s not a secret that certain stations have higher observed rates of fare evasion than others, and the MTA has not said which station fare control areas they assessed for this study. They haven’t said if they picked certain hot pockets of evasion, and they haven’t said if they picked fare control areas that are staffed 24/7 or areas that are staffed only for some hours or not at all. Even anecdotally, riders know where fare evasion is negligible and where it isn’t, and the MTA’s data makes no distinction. At the least, the data should be based on a rigorous study of video evidence from all available fare control areas.

The MTA’s report blames emergency exits for the rise in fare evasion.

Second, as the MTA itself has made clear, they don’t know who is evading paying the fare or why, and thus, their conclusions that everyone avoiding a swipe counts as a lost dollar (or a lost $2.75) is unfounded and likely wrong. As recent news coverage and Byford’s own remarks make clear, people skip out on fares for a variety of reasons. It’s true that some people don’t want to pay, but others may have gotten swipe-read errors from the old MetroCard technology and can’t find a station agent to help correct problems. (Those that do find a station agent may find the agent unwilling or unable to help.) Others may have left their unlimited ride cards at home. There are numerous reasons why people at one time or another do not pay, and it’s highly unlikely that if fare enforcement led to a 100% pay rate, everyone skipping out on fares today would pay tomorrow. The $215 million figure is, in other words, wishful thinking.

Meanwhile, if the MTA is concerned with fare evasion, the agency should do a better job pointing fingers at the right culprits. Rightly so, the Manhattan DA’s office has pushed back hard on the idea that decriminalizing fare evasion, usually a “crime” of poverty anyway, is a cause for an increase in fare-jumpers. The office has pointed out that enforcement continues, through summonses and arrests (but not criminal prosecution) which in fact frees up officers to spend more time patrolling the system. In a statement in November, Danny Frost, the director of communications for Cy Vance, did not hold back. “The MTA is running out of people to blame for its monumental failures,” he said. “Transit experts uniformly agree that the MTA’s own performance has driven this decline in ridership. My Byford should fix the subway.”

Even if a rather technical change in enforcement policy with regards to criminal prosecutions has driven people’s attitudes, the MTA’s own actions deserve scrutiny as well. Over the last decade, the MTA has eliminated station agents from various entrances, thus leaving stations completely un-staffed at all hours of the day, and the agency (thankfully) turned off the piercing alarms on emergency exits. Both of these moves could create an environment more conducive to fare evasion as well. Meanwhile, even something as simple as turnstile design and placement could lead to fare evasion. The MTA does not have any wide turnstiles for people with larger packages or strollers, and at many stations, emergency doors are closer to staircases to street level than the block of turnstiles are. The MTA could imitate European and Asians systems that have taller (and wider) fare gates that are harder to jump and can be pushed open in an emergency, obviating the need for side doors that may facilitate fare jumping.

Could a redesigned fare gate drive down evasion rates while improving system access?

But ultimately, if you still have the nagging feeling that none of this matters, you’re probably right. Two elements the MTA glossed over suggest just how little this matters. First, with regards to international comparisons, fare evasion in New York City was historically and globally low and remains at or even under the average for comparable subway systems. Fare evasion generally ranges from around 1-7 percent of daily ridership, and the MTA’s figure of around 3.8% is right in the middle. With around 96-97 percent of riders routinely and regularly paying the fare, a small amount of fare evasion isn’t just expected but normal the world over. Meanwhile, the agency doesn’t contemplate the costs of increased enforcement. We know about the social costs of criminalizing fare jumping and how this crime of poverty is disproportionately enforced across race and class lines. We don’t know how much it would cost the MTA to drive down this rate of evasion. Does spending $80 million on enforcement to generate $100 million more in revenue (for a net of only $20 million) benefit New York in the long run? How better could those enforcement dollars be spent to, say, improve service so people don’t respond with a shrug and a leap over the turnstile. After all, many people told The Times they don’t feel bad fare-jumping considering the MTA doesn’t seem to feel bad about how poor subway service has become. (This is of course a different story on buses where all fares should be based on proof of payment, and one could make the case that most NYC buses should be free or at a significantly lower fare anyway.)

In the end, as Ross Barkan recently wrote for City & State NY, the hand-wringing over fare evasion is a distraction from the real story: Ridership is down because service reliability is down and travel times are up. Again, fare evasion may be an effect of a confluence of factors, but it’s not the cause or even the problem. Once the MTA’s houses of cards are in order with respect to subway service, we can try to drill down on the whys and wherefores of fare jumping. With the transit system facing various problems few are willing to solve, fare evasion should truly be the least of everyone’s concerns.

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The city is investing more in ferries over the next few years. Is this a good use of public funds? (Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

As long time readers of mine know, I am a bit of a skeptic when it comes to ferries. After all, we built a bunch of bridges and a subway system between the boroughs of New York City in part because the ferry system just couldn’t cut it as far as mass transit went. Ferries are, by their nature, a niche mode of travel offering low capacity and high operating costs, and in a city of millions, most of whom are landlocked miles away from the nearest ferry dock, a ferry shouldn’t be a political priority for public investment.

Yet, on Thursday, for what was at least the eighth time since the beginning of 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio was behind a lectern hosting a press conference about ferries. This time, he was in Bay Ridge to announce that, due to ridership projections that exceeded expectations, the city would be investing an additional $300 million in ferries over the next few years for bigger boats, better docks and a new maintenance facility. Total capital expenditures are now in the realm of around $500 million, and the city continues to expect to maintain a $6.60 per ride subsidy for all ferry riders.

On the one hand, this news about ferries could be interpreted as a positive development. The ferries are popular! People who ride them — whoever they are — love them! What could be better than a nice day on the water in New York harbor?

But let’s temper our enthusiasm a bit. The popularity is a function of expectations. Here’s a glimpse at the numbers, per the city’s press release. The New York City Economic Development Corporation, the agency in charge of the NYC Ferry system, hasn’t released ridership data publicly so we’ll just have to take the city’s word for it:

NYC Ferry launched on May 1, 2017. Original projections predicted 4.6 million riders once all six routes are operational and fully rolled-out. However, NYC Ferry carried 3.7 million passengers in its first year, with only four routes operating—and only two of them running for the entire 12 months. Updated projections based on the first year of service now show that demand could reach as high as 9 million riders per year by 2023.

As a comparison, Citi Bike carries the same ridership as the ferry system over the span of around four or 4.5 months depending on the time of year, and a random bus line with 4.6 million riders annually is good for around the 38th or 39th busiest in the city. Bill de Blasio has held no press conferences on the B9 lately and notably isn’t investing an additional $300 million in buses even if the opportunity is right there for him.

And even with this new investment, the 350-passenger ferries are still expected to operate only every 25-35 minutes. As the mayor said, “On a really crazy beautiful day in the summer when it seems like everyone in the city wants to go to the beach at the exact same time, there’s still going to be lines but we are going to be serving a lot more people and we’re going to be getting them where they want to go faster.” This seems problematic to say the least for something de Blasio has trumpeted as recently as this week as “the key to a future of New Yorkers being able to get around more easily.” More on this shortly.

Lately, as ferry fatigue has set in, de Blasio has faced some skeptical questions from the city press corps as the transcript from Thursday’s event shows. When asked about the lack of subsidy for Citi Bike, a significantly more popular mode of transit, de Blasio showed his hand and lack of holistic thinking on transportation. “I would argue that each element of our mass transit planning has to be seen individually,” he said. “I felt very strongly that the Citi Bike model could work without subsidy and I’m supposed to be the steward of the tax payer’s money. And if it could keep achieving its goals without it, of course that was the optimum reality and I still believe that.”

Toward the end of this question, de Blasio rambled his way to an interesting observation about the ferry system. “Private sector was out there for quite a while with ferries,” he said, “and some impact was seen. But nowhere near the potential, and we knew there had to be a public investment to actually achieve what was possible in one of the greatest coastal cities in the world.”

And here is where I want to pick up the thread. The mayor is correct that the ferry system worked good enough but has been far more popular with public investment, but that’s because we the taxpayers of New York city are subsidizing each and every ferry ride to the tune of around $6.60 per ride. We’re not subsidizing buses or subways to this degree, and Citi Bike pays for its space on the street.

Perhaps this is a good use of public money, but I’m skeptical. I’m not opposed to the idea of a ferry system that serves New York’s waterfront, but let’s take a deep dive into the people who may be taking the ferry. We don’t know for sure who these folks are because, again, NYCEDC hasn’t released a lick of ridership data. But I pulled some census data last week, and if you look at all of the census tracts that have a least one address within 0.5 miles of a ferry terminal in Queens and Brooklyn, median household income is around $18,000 more than city average, and if you exclude Astoria, the only dock truly amidst low-income housing, that median bumps even more.

Already, then, this generous subsidy is going toward wealthier-than-average New Yorkers, and since the ferries operate on a separate fare system, my quasi-educated guess is that ferry ridership skews even wealthier than census tract medians. After all, those riders who need to transfer to a bus or subway after their ferry rides would have to pay a second fare, and lower income workers are less likely to be able to do so. So as buses struggle and the mayor resists the Fair Fares initiative, does it make sense to subsidize rich New Yorkers who live in waterfront condos and work close to Pier 11 near Wall Street? This is a conversation we should be having about ferries but have not, as the mayor likes to pat himself on the back over boats without understanding how transit planning should be seen in totality rather than individually.

Ultimately, we may decide that having a robust ferry network is a net positive. Maybe we should subsidize these 9 million rides per year. Maybe we should do so while also investing similarly in buses and subways. After all, transit planning should be holistic. But for now, we should be aware that we are subsidizing a niche, low capacity transit mode with a ridership that skews rich. That is not a particularly good use of taxpayer money. Someone should tell the self-proclaimed steward.

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Once upon a time, before the 2010 cuts decimated transit service in NYC, the MTA worked to ensure that off-peak subway service met increasing demands. From 2000 until 2010, as off-peak demand, especially between 5 a.m.-7 a.m., increased, the MTA responded in turn, adding more service so that the percentage of off-peak trains generally aligned with the percentage of riders using the system during these early hours. But since 2010, as New York City’s economy has rebounded from the depths of the recession and off-peak commuting has increased, the MTA hasn’t added service at a commensurate level, and this service gap is hurting New York’s lower-income workers, according to a new report by NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer.

“During rush hour, we’re packed into subway cars like sardines. But outside traditional ‘9-to-5’ travel, off-peak service is fundamentally failing to meet demand. It’s a crisis within a crisis, because over the past decade, the nature of our economy has changed,” Stringer said in a statement, “and ridership late-nights and early mornings has risen while actual service to match it has not. That means that those who need service to get to work during non-traditional hours are stuck with a crisis not of overcrowding, but of infrequency.”

Subway service to and from the Manhattan hub has not kept pace with growing ridership in the early morning (5 a.m. to 7 a.m.)

The crux of Stringer’s argument is the chart above. Based on the nature of New York City’s economic recovery, as more jobs have shifted outside of the 9-to-5 realm, the MTA has not added service to meet demand. Thus, as Stringer put it, more riders are waiting longer for more crowded trains in the morning even as the MTA has engaged in an on-again, off-again PR campaign to ask riders to shift travel outside of the peak hours. Furthermore, riders who need to commute during these off-hours are generally earning around 20% less than those who travel for traditional peak-hour jobs. They can ill-afford sub-par transit service, but that’s what they’re getting.

The numbers are stark: Since 2010, ridership to and from Manhattan has jumped by 14% in the two hours before 7 a.m. and by 13 percent in the four hours after 7 p.m. Meanwhile, over the same period of time, train service declined by 3 percent between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. and increased by only 3 percent between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. Thus, anecdotes of 10:30 p.m. trains packed to crush load are borne out by numbers that show service failing to keep pace with ridership trends. As Stringer notes, these unreliable commutes can lead to reprimands at work, docked pay, termination and a general slow-down in productivity. His office had previously estimated that subway delays cost around $400 million annually in lost productivity and wages.

Subway service in and out of the Manhattan hub did not keep pace with growing ridership in the early morning and evening from 2010 to 2016

Stringer’s report has some interesting trend information concerning commutes. As ridership has exploded over the past 30 years, commuting patterns have undergone a dramatic shift. In 1985, a whopping 49 percent of daily ridership into the Manhattan central business district occurred between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. Now that number is only around 28 percent. In essence, all of the people riding in 1985 between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. are still doing so (and then some), but off-hour commuting which was non-existent to a combination of safety concerns and lack of jobs has exploded.

Meanwhile, people are waiting much longer. Stringer’s report notes as follows:

While the MTA may be restricted from increasing frequencies in peak hours due to aging infrastructure and underinvestment, these capacity constraints are less relevant in the early morning and late evening. In fact, the MTA runs 60 percent fewer trains from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. than it does from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 38 percent fewer from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. Clearly, there is ample train and track capacity at these hours.

This dramatic decline in off-peak subway service, of course, leads to significantly longer wait times for riders. During the morning rush hour, for instance, 87 percent of subway lines run more than six trains per hour and 36 percent run more than 12. That means that passengers will rarely wait more than five or ten minutes for a train—provided all goes well.

By contrast, in the evening (8:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.) and early morning (5:30 a.m. to 6:30 a.m.)—when a growing number of workers depend on public transit—subway service is significantly diminished. Just 47 percent of subway lines maintain headways of less than 10 minutes in the evening and only 10 percent maintain frequencies of less than 5 minutes. In the early morning, meanwhile, only 43 percent have headways of less than 10 minutes and zero have headways of less than five minutes. Looking at individual lines, the biggest drop-offs in the early morning are on the 1, 6, 7, B, and W trains, where hourly throughput declines by more than 50 percent in the peak direction, as compared to the A.M. rush. In the evening hours, the 4, 5, A, B, and F lines experience a similar fall in service.

This is, of course, not a surprise to those who have tried to ride outside of peak hours. Waits are noticeably longer, and trains tend to be nearly just as crowded off-peak on some lines as during the peak due to these increased headways. As I mentioned, it’s particularly jarring in the context of numerous MTA officials urging those with flexibility to commute at off-hours to do so. Percentagewise, at least, a significant number of commuters have moved to these so-called off-peak timeslots, but the MTA hasn’t provided a carrot in the form of increased service to go with the stick.

Where I find Stringer’s report lacking however is in its messaging. The recommendations are on point; the MTA, he says, should perform a comprehensive review of scheduling and strongly consider how latent or induced demand can further drive up off-peak commuting. But in releasing the report to the public, he also tried to use it as a crudgel to beat on the drum of city support for the MTA’s subway action plan. He says city support of the subway action plan will ensure the trains run on time, but he could use this report to call for the subway action plan to directly add more off-peak service. It would be a better use of the money anyway than the SAP band aid that many think won’t actually fix anyone’s commute.

Ultimately, though, the overall message is one worth remembering: Yes, the MTA needs a new signal system and a comprehensive overhaul of its procurement and construction processes. By as with the signal timers, commutes are worse than they should be because of choices made at the MTA. The agency is not a bystander in the accelerated slow-motion collapse of the city’s transit system.

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A fatal J train crash on the Williamsburg Bridge consumed the front page of The Daily News on June 6, 1995 .

Early in the morning on June 5, 1995, Layton Gibson blew a red light on the Williamsburg Bridge and crashed his J train into a stopped M train. Gibson was going only about 20 miles per hour when his train collided with the one in front of him, and he died instantly as 54 passengers were hurt in the crash. A subsequent investigation determined that both human and mechanical errors led to the crash, and while Gibson did try to stop when he saw the M train ahead of him, the then-77-year-old signal system did not trip an emergency brake in enough time to avoid the collision.

Now, 23 years later, the MTA still hasn’t gotten around to beginning to replace that signal system, and it’s now 100 years old, a dubious achievement indeed. But in the aftermath of the crash, the MTA determined that many of the then-septuagenarian signals were too close together to adequate stop modern trains faster than their late-1910s counterparts, and thus, the MTA in conjunction with Parsons Brinckerhoff began to implement speed limits throughout the subway system. Richard Perez-Pena, writing for The Times back in 1995, told the story. The emphasis is mine.

About one-third of the system has the antiquated signals that are considered candidates for speed limits, though officials said not all of them will require one. Just how many will is still under study. Joseph R. Hofmann, senior vice president in charge of subways for the Transit Authority, an arm of the M.T.A., said the plan to improve the trains’ emergency brakes would eventually make many, if not all, of the slow-speed orders unnecessary. But that program will not be completed for more than two years, and in the meantime trains will have to slow down in dozens of places where no speed limits were in place before…In any place where there is not adequate stopping distance, the report said, the Transit Authority “must institute speed restrictions or take some alternate immediate action to insure at least 100 percent stopping distance.”

The PB report indicated that more thousands of signals did not have adequate stopping distances, and the MTA instituted immediate speed restrictions on some lines that, The Times said, added around four minutes of travel time. Over the years, those speed restrictions seemed to become a way of life and faded into the background of the subway crisis in which we are mired.

But a few months ago, I noticed something peculiar. Southbound 6 trains heading from 51st St. to Grand Central were inching through the tunnel, and it seemed a timer was to blame. I had noticed a few of these slower trips over the years; for instance, 2 and 3 trains heading north into 96th St. now begin to slow down as early as 86th when they used to run at speed well past the abandoned 91st St. station. I started asking around and heard the tales of new timers identified in the wake of that 1995 crash being freshly implemented and of a group trying to fight back against timers. No one could explain why the timers were necessary now, and nearly everyone involved with decision-making at NYC Transit and the MTA in 1995 has long since left the agency.

Aaron Gordon started asking around too, and he published this piece in The Village Voice last week on slower trains. It is a must-read on the state of the MTA. The gist of it is that much of the MTA’s woes, especially with regards to their default view that “overcrowding” is causing delays, are self-inflicted. The MTA slowed down the trains, and thus service is worse. I’ll excerpt here as Gordon picks up with the post-1995 changes to the speed limits:

NYCT had predicted that the signal modifications would only marginally affect run times. But the 2014 study — the first time the authority had attempted to analyze the impact of any of the revamped signals, using its improved data system — found 2,851 lost total passenger hours per weekday could be attributed to thirteen modified signals alone. That was almost double the predicted impact; for comparison, the modifications of those thirteen signals alone created 5 percent as much lost time as that experienced by riders of the entire London Underground on its average day…

NYCT’s estimates were so off in part because they didn’t account for a human element. The most problematic of the newly modified signals were “one-shot timers,” so called because the operator has only one chance to meet the posted speed limit. One-shot timers are easier and cheaper to install, say MTA sources; the more “shots” the operators have to get under the required speed, the more timing mechanisms have to be installed across a longer portion of track. (An MTA spokesperson disputed this, characterizing the decision to install one- or two-shot timers as safety-related.) But the consequences of going over the speed limit are high — the train is stopped, and the operator gets penalized — so many operators now opt to go well below the posted speed limit just to be on the safe side.

“The grade time signals force us to operate slower, and because they have been installing them gradually, the subways have been slowing down gradually,” the train operator told the Voice. “I used to be able to go from 125th Street to 59th Street on the A line in seven minutes. Now it takes around nine minutes!”

Gordon has talked with some train operators and others within the MTA who are laser-focused on the signal timer issue, and I have spoken with some within the MTA who have largely echoed Gordon’s reporting. A group within the MTA is working like mad to overcome bureaucratic inertia and resistance to rocking the post-1995 boat in an effort to better assess whether timers are necessary both in terms of safety and in terms of cost of worse service. If trains are running at slower speeds, then the MTA simply cannot run as many trains per hour as it needs to in order to meet service demands or as many trains per hour as the system was built to handle. Thus, bad service — slower service, more crowded service — is a choice the MTA has made and is not, as Gordon notes, due to overcrowding but rather a cause of it.

But Andy Byford, the new man in charge of Transit, seems to have his ear to the ground on this issue. In this week’s MTA Board materials, he states that he has “asked my team to look in detail at the effect on line capacity of various signaling changes that were progressively introduced as a result of the Williamsburg Bridge crash of 1995.” He also discusses his hopes to see if these changes can be “safely mitigated.” Gordon received a similar response from the new New York City Transit president for his article:

In an email to the Village Voice, Byford acknowledged that “changes made to the signal system (in response to a crash in 1995) have undoubtedly had an impact on subway capacity,” and added that NYCT leadership has already met to begin reviewing the issue. “We are studying the impact and what was done to see if adjustments can be made while still maintaining the safety benefit these changes (and more onerous flagging arrangements) were brought in to address. This renewed scrutiny is part of my drive to properly understand — then tackle — root cause. As I have already said, the real fix is renewed signal systems and that will be the anchor behind my Corporate Plan that I am currently working on.”

Gordon’s piece ends with a sad story from a TO who feels the MTA is trying to slow down trains at a time when New Yorkers need better subway service. I’ll leave you with the quote I gave Aaron for his story: “If you’re running trains at speeds that are lower than what the system capacity was designed for, then you’re losing capacity, and that’s a choice that you’ve made. If that’s a choice that you’ve made, then you have to prove to people why you’ve made that choice. And if it’s a question of a hypothetical safety situation that doesn’t come into play, then you kind of have to question how that analysis has been reached.” It’s now up to Byford to tell us why these signals are necessary and how the MTA can maintain safety standards while reducing timer-related delays and improving service.

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Over the past few months, as city and state representatives to the MTA Board have squared off over the scope and omissions in Transit’s Enhanced Stations Initiative, the MTA’s adherence to the requirements in the Americans with Disabilities Act has come under the microscope. The agency agreed a few decades ago to make 100 Key Stations fully accessible by 2020, and the MTA is, it says, on pace to meet this goal. Disabilities advocates say that, despite the Key Stations, the MTA routinely flouts the requirements of the ADA by not investing in elevators when non-Key Stations undergo renovations. That the ESI stations aren’t being made accessible is a key sticking point, and now the feds, focusing on a 2013-2014 renovation of the 6 train’s Middletown Road stop, have joined a suit alleging MTA violations of the ADA.

The suit, one of many the MTA currently faces alleging similar violations, has been working its way through federal court for nearly two years. A June 2016 DNAInfo article profiled it when the plaintiffs first filed. The feds, in something of a surprise move this week, filed a complaint-in-intervention to join the suit.

Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, condemned the MTA. “There is no justification for public entities to ignore the requirements of the ADA 28 years after its passage,” he said. “The subway system is a vital part of New York City’s transportation system, and when a subway station undergoes a complete renovation, MTA and NYCTA must comply with its obligations to make such stations accessible to the maximum extent feasible.”

The crux of the government’s complaint — available here as a pdf — involves the MTA’s request to the Federal Transit Administration for funding for the renovation. The agency spent $21 million but could not find a budget for elevators to make this elevated stop accessible. Prior to the renovation, the FTA had asked the MTA to defend its claim that it would be “technically infeasible” to include elevators, and the never MTA never provided such justification, the feds claim. Subsequently, the claim alleges, NYC DOT conceded that elevators could have been technical feasible had they been incorporated into early project designs. After a lengthy back-and-forth over funding, the FTA determined that the MTA had violated the ADA, and the MTA lost out on federal dollars for rehab. Now the feds are seeking an injunction mandating that the MTA install the necessary elevators at Middletown Road.

The MTA has said it will defend the suit on the merits, and disabilities advocates are thrilled that the feds are finally taking legal sides in this fight. A litigator with the Disabilities Rights Advocates noted that the feds’ involvement “sends a clear message to the MTA that they can’t continue to get away with business as usual.”

My semi-informed guess is that this is a test case for the feds and the MTA. Multiple other suits are percolating through the courts right now involving the MTA’s alleged violations of ADA requirements, but this one is a particularly strong one. It is focused on only one station and rests on a determination by a federal agency that the MTA actually violated Title II of the ADA. It’s as close to an open-and-shut case on the ADA as one may find, and if the MTA is intent on fighting it on its merits rather than settling, the feds are likely to win.

With a victory in their pockets, federal prosecutors would have stronger arguments for some of the tougher cases against the MTA, including potential suits targeting the Enhanced Station Initiatives. Transit Center’s Jon Orcutt, for one, recently told Politco New York that the MTA should probably be sued over the ESI, and this seemingly easy case puts that goal in reach. “They’re doing major work in stations and not doing anything on accessibility. They probably need to be sued directly on stations to bring that issue to a legal head,” Orcutt said.

Of course, this could still settle out, but it adds a new wrinkle to the MTA’s resistance to fulfilling the terms of the ADA on a system-wide basis, and it’s about time prosecutors forced the agency’s hand. The subway system should be on a path to full accessibility; it’s a moral imperative and a legal one too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some late-night workers voiced their support too.

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

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

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While I haven’t had an opportunity to post here in a few weeks, the transit news has been rolling non-stop. From Penn Station to the subway’s aging signal system, we’re witnessing the acceleration of the slow-motion collapse of New York City’s transit infrastructure, and Gov. Cuomo is taking responsibility for his MTA only in fits and starts. There are no plans to ramp up the pace of work required to ensure the system doesn’t backslide any further, and that is a topic I hope to explore more in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, as train service starts to sag and reliability declines, everyone is wondering how much can New York City, an economic center of the country, withstand before the problem becomes a national one. I believe we may already be there even if our leaders won’t, don’t or can’t take responsibility for any of their actions. It’s a lazy cliche to say only time will tell, but for now, only time will tell.

For more insight into the current state of things, I spoke with Slate’s Isaac Chotiner last week, and his Q-and-A with yours truly ran today in the online mag. We discussed the issues writ large of declining service reliability; we pointed some fingers at Albany; and we pondered whether the feds, not particularly sympathetic to urban life these days, could be depended upon for a rescue as they have been in the past.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt and my thought for one politically challenging but perhaps necessary approach to the S-L-O-W pace of signal upgrades. Mosey on over to Slate for a full read, and I promise I’ll have more here soon.

If you were governor, what could you do right now to make the situation better?

Say to people, “We know your subway system is bad, we know your train system is bad. To really fix it we have to take lines out of service for extended periods of time.” We don’t know what those periods of time are because no one at the MTA has really explored the issue yet. But if you can accomplish a signal replacement in a year without a train service, it might be better to do that than to knock out service over seven or eight years and have this uncertainty.

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