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.