Other cities have enjoyed train arrival boards for years. (Photo by flickr user NYCArthur)

When the MTA first proposed bringing train arrival boards into its system, the original target date for an A Division — that’s the IRT numbered lines in NYC Transit lingo — roll-out was 2006. As I reported last year, the MTA had since pushed back that date to 2011 for a delay of five years. In the latest Q-and-A sections about the 2010-2014 Capital Program, the MTA confirmed that the train arrival boards will make their A Division debuts in 2011 as long as the current schedule holds.

While an on-time date one year later is good news, the surprising development to many riders is that many of the components are already in place. Take a walk around many of the IRT stations — Bergen St. and Grand Army Plaza near me in Brooklyn come to mind — and wrapped LCD signs dangle from the ceilings. Those signs will, in around 14 months, usher in a new age of technology for the MTA.

To implement the countdown clocks, as the Q-and-A (pdf) says, the transit authority must implement a two-tiered technology structure. First, either Communications-Based Train Control, a state-of-the-art technology not loved by unions, or Automatic Train Supervision, a simple enhancement to the current system, must be brought online to “identify the location of trains.” Then, Public Address and Customer Information Screens must be installed in every station. This PA/CIS system broadcasts those annoying digital audio announcements currently heard on the L line and display the countdown clocks and other pertinent information.

Already in place along the Canarsie Line, all of the A Divisions except the Flushing Line — so the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 but not the 7 — are equipped with an ATS system. That installation cost $213 million and was covered by the current 2005-2009 capital campaign. Currently, the MTA is working to install the PA/CIS system, and as I mentioned above, many stations are already equipped with the digital signs. The final cost of this part of the project will be $171 million, and it should be online by December 2010. But the MTA document says it is “subject to the successful resolution of contractual issues.” That’s a big red flag.

Once the major installation projects are complete, Transit will begin using the technology right away on all but the White Plains Road (2/5) and the Dyre Avenue (5) Lines in the Bronx. The White Plains Road boards will come online in November 2011 when signal modernization is complete. Dyre Avenue passengers won’t enjoy this technology until 2016.

So that’s the good news. There is, of course, some not-so-good news. The Flushing Line will not enjoy train arrival boards until 2016 when the CBTC work and the PA/CIS upgrade are completed.

The B Division lines — all of the lettered trains — are even less likely to see this technology. The 2010-2014 Capital Plan budgets $25 million for “design/piloting of an ATS system for monitoring trains.” The report continues, “Full rollout on the entire B-Division will cost approximately $175 million, with the balance of the cost to be funded in 2015-19.” In other words, these lines may receive countdown clocks in a decade from now. The MTA has, however, included $46 million to equip the final 43 stations that have no public address systems at all.

Despite the slow roll-out, this is progress for the MTA. They have a concrete plan to bring this countdown clock technology to the system. It will, however, be online throughout the system nearly two decades after London and Washington, D.C. began using it. While the system allows for real-time train location data to be broadcast online, it is unclear if the MTA will take the technological leap of making that information available to the public.

In the end, Michael Grynbaum’s Times article on this topic says it best. Transit advocates are indeed skeptical about “whether this system would be sufficient.” I’ll let Andrew Albert, head of the NYC Transit Riders Council, have the last word. He said to Grynbaum, “It would be even more useful if they install a repeater on the street, so people can have time to get a cup of coffee or a newspaper.” Or just walk home.

  • A federally-mandated braking system with a lofty price tag · A new federal law will require the MTA to spend over $700 million on retrofitting its commuter rail fleet with a new braking system, according to the agency. WNYC’s Matthew Schuerman issued a brief report on how a required automatic braking system could prove to be very costly. In the wake of last fall’s deadly train crash in Los Angeles, Congress is now requiring freight and passenger rail cars to utilize positive train control, a system that would lock the wheels automatically if, for example, a conductor misses a signal. Congress has granted $50 million to outfit our nation’s rail fleet, but the MTA alleges it will cost $700 million just to address the problem in New York. As the Association of American Railroads calls this effort “an unfunded mandate with questionable safety benefits,” I wonder who will carry the burden of paying for it. · (4)
  • Cuza off NY1’s transit beat as ‘In Transit’ gets the axe · Bobby Cuza, the subway reporter/heartthrob on New York 1, is off the transit beat. According to Transit Wisdom, Cuza announced his transit departure during last week’s “In Transit,” the 30-minute Friday evening segment devoted to transit news. The NY1 vet won’t, however, be leaving the station. Instead, Cuza has shifted over to the political beat. It sounds as though NY1 will not be finding another host for the “In Transit” segment, and with this cancellation, New York City has lost a valuable and informative outlet for transportation news. · (3)

Earlier this week, I briefly touched upon a Second Ave. Subway report card released by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. At the time of my post, the report card had not yet been unveiled to the public, but late on Wednesday, Ben at The Launch Box secured a copy of the release.

What follows is Maloney’s assessment of this project. She gives the overall effort a B- but sees a modicum of light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Take from this what you will. I’ll chime in with some commentary at the end.

Second Avenue Subway Report Card

On April 12, 2007, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) celebrated the most recent groundbreaking for the Second Avenue Subway. At the time I expressed the wishful hope that the fourth groundbreaking on this project would be the charm. And it still may be, but there’s been a lot of sobering news since we celebrated the subway line’s most recent resurgence.

At groundbreaking, the plan was for the subway line to be completed in 2013, with three tracks at 72nd street and at a cost of $3.8 billion. Today, the MTA and the Federal Transit Adminstration (FTA) are discussing whether the subway will open in 2016 or 2018, projected costs are now estimated at $4.4 billion and we’ve lost the third track. Meanwhile, construction is having a dramatic impact on local businesses, residents and traffic. Roughly two and a half years into construction, it is time to take a look at the project and see how well the MTA is doing. Just as the City has found that report cards help evaluate the schools, this report card is intended to gain a better understanding of how the MTA is doing in moving forward with construction. This is a mid-term report, and the MTA has plenty of time to make up for early deficiencies.


Project Merit: A+
All the reasons that led the FTA to consider this project one of the best in the nation remain strong factors. The subway will relieve overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue line, which continues to be the most overcrowded subway in the nation. When it is completed, it is expected to carry roughly 202,000 passengers a day, more than any other new start project in the nation. New Yorkers continue to rely on mass transit to commute to work, more than any other area of the country, and the Second Avenue Subway will provide much needed capacity on a system that has not grown in more than half a century.

Economic Benefits: A+
The Second Avenue Subway is creating 16,000 jobs, most of which are well-paid union jobs. At a time when the construction industry is slowing down, infrastructure construction like the Second Avenue Subway provides a vital source of income for thousands of construction workers. It has generated $842 million in wages and produced $2.87 billion in economic activity. Economists like Mark Zandi tell us that every dollar spent on public infrastructure increases GDP by an estimate $1.59. Using that formula, the Second Avenue Subway will generate nearly $7 billion in GDP.

Communication with the Public: B+
The MTA has held numerous public hearings during the environmental review portion of the project, and before property takings were approved. The MTA has also worked with Community Board 8, and other community boards, and has participated in Second Avenue Subway Task Force Meetings at least quarterly. As construction moves forward, they have agreed to attend meetings as frequently as monthly. In addition, the MTA has attended frequent meetings of the Second Avenue Business Association, and has worked with the City to mitigate impacts relating to sanitation, signage, traffic, utilities disruption and other matters. The MTA has hired Claudia Wilson who received plaudits at a recent Community Board 8 Second Avenue Subway Task Force Meeting for her availability and her willingness to solve individual problems. The MTA has also been willing to meet with local residents to resolve individual concerns relating to particular buildings. Nonetheless, despite these efforts, many community residents seem to know little about the project until construction begins in their neighborhood. Further, some details have not become public until it was considered too late to address the problem. For example, residents of buildings adjacent to ancillary facilities are being told that their windows will be covered by the new buildings. The likelihood was long known, but the MTA never told the neighbors until the designs were finalized.


Planning: B-
The Second Avenue Subway is a complex project, and it requires a lot of coordination to bring all of the elements together. It is surprising, therefore, to find that there has been so little progress in two and a half years. Anyone with experience in New York City’s streets knows that there are few roadmaps for utility pipes, and that there are surprises. The MTA says it lost several months on the tunnel launch box because of where utilities were located. Delays of this type should have been expected and built into the schedule. Further, the MTA should have investigated the structural integrity of local buildings long before masonry started falling. If there had been better coordination between the MTA and city agencies, blasting would not have been delayed in order to allow adjacent building to be appropriately shored up. All of this should have been done much earlier in the process.

Construction Management: B-
The MTA is working on many large projects simultaneously and it needs to ensure that this project is getting the attention it deserves. The 7 train extension (which does not need federal approvals and is being constructed in a less dense area) began long after the Second Avenue Subway, and the tunnel boring machine is already in the ground. The MTA has recently taken steps to pull up its grade by getting permission of the MTA board to allocate federal funding so that contracts can be bid more quickly. It has broken contracts into smaller chunks to allow for more competitive bidding to bring costs down. It has created a schedule of contracts so that the public can follow its progress to make sure that contracts are being bid on time.

Mitigation of Construction Impact: C
The MTA seems to want to try to mitigate the impact of construction on local residents and businesses. They have been diligent in meeting with local businesses. They have hired people who genuinely appear to want to work with the community to address individual concerns, and some members of the community have complimented their efforts. They have reduced the number of buildings they have condemned to limit the number of people who will be losing their homes. They have created a Shop Second Avenue campaign to try to drive customers to affected businesses. Unfortunately, more than a dozen businesses have closed along the subway’s construction zone despite these efforts.

On Time Record: C
When this project went into Final Design, the MTA was projecting a completion date of 2012. By the time the project broke ground, they projected a completion date of 2014. This summer, the MTA began projecting a 2016 completion date. Some argue that the project will not be finished until 2018. Others suggest that the MTA could get its act together and move forward more aggressively, finishing earlier than December 2016. There’s a lot of room for improvement here.

Staying on Budget: C
When the full funding grant agreement was signed, this project was supposed to cost $3.8 billion. Today, the MTA is projecting $4.4 billion. It’s not going to be easy to find the extra funds, particularly when there are so many other competing projects. The longer this project takes, the more it will cost. The MTA is taking advantage of the dip in the economy to bring some of the costs down, and it has scrapped plans for a three track system to reduce costs further. But unless the MTA meets its projections, it will be very hard to find the resources to complete this project.

Progress Toward Completion: C-
Thus far the MTA has bid 3 of 11 contracts. It has completed some of the preparatory work for the tunnel launch box, including building the slurry wall, but no blasting has begun. Thus far there has been no tunnel dug, no shafts completed, no station entrances built, and no ancillary facilities built. It’s early in the project and preparatory work does need to be done before we should expect to see tangible results. Two and a half years into construction, we hoped for greater progress.


Overall Grade: B-
The Second Avenue Subway is crucial to the economic future of New York. It needs to be built. The MTA has an ambitious construction schedule, and it needs to put its full attention to making sure that this project is moving forward with all deliberate speed. Up until now, the project has been marred by missed deadlines, cost overruns and a harsh impact on local businesses. There is a lot of room for improvement, but also the possibility that the project is now starting to gain momentum.

* * *

It’s tough to dispute Maloney’s assessment. She is brutally honest about the pace of progress, and in fact, her C grades for the project’s on-time and on-budget records could even be considered generous. In the end, the MTA should inform the public why this project is nearly six years behind schedule and what the agency is doing to address these concerns. The city needs the Second Ave. Subway, and after so much disruption on the ground, further delays should not be tolerated.

“The new subway line will be great for the East Side in the long run, but the construction process is clearly devastating the neighborhood,” Upper East Side Assembly representative Micah Kellner said of Maloney’s report. “It is simply unacceptable that the time line is endlessly revised with the excuse that the original end date was merely ‘optimistic’ and arbitrary. The MTA must be held accountable for the construction’s impact on the lives of residents and the livelihoods of business owners. This report only serves as a reminder of the serious work that needs to be done to streamline this project.”

Comments (19)
  • Wanted: A few good subway maps · I’m currently working on a post about the evolution of the New York City subway map and the various ways in which station location and geographical information are presented on maps from around the globe. I’ve come to the realization though that I do not have a few maps I might need for this project, and so I’m going to attempt to crowd-source. Do you, loyal SAS readers, have any subway maps from the early or mid 1990s lying around? Do you want to find a new home for them (or lend them to me for a bit)? If so, please contact me. · (2)
  • MTA awards last major East Side Access contract · As the Second Ave. Subway battles problems and delays, the MTA’s East Side Access project is moving ahead mostly as scheduled. Yesterday, the MTA awarded a $659 million tunneling contract to a joint venture team of Granite Construction Inc., Traylor Bros. Inc. and Frontier-Kemper Constructors Inc. The contract, according to the Associated Press, covers the “Queens Bored Tunnels and Structures for Long Island Rail Road’s East Side Access project in New York. The work to be done on the project represents the last major link in the tunnels from Queens to Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.”

    Work on this tunnel is scheduled to take 42 months and will begin immediately. Reports the AP, “The companies will excavate and concrete line four bored tunnels beneath an active rail storage yard. The tunnels will total nearly two miles in length and about 22 feet in diameter. The work also includes excavating three emergency exit structures, underpinning existing bridges and demolishing various rail yard buildings.” Although it will not meet its original 2012 completion date, the East Side Access project remains on track for a 2015 opening. · (6)

Now and then, we leave New York for glimpses of life in other transit systems. While TWU members are protesting MTA’s current labor policies, other public transit systems are running into their own labor-induced fiscal problems. Today’s journey out of New York City takes us south to Washington, D.C., where the WMATA is in its own financial bind.

The excellent urban planning and pro-pedestrian and -transit blog Greater Greater Washington has tirelessly covered Metro issued in the District. Over the last few weeks, David Alpert and his team of contributors have explored the WMATA’s $100 million budget gap. To us, that figure represents small beans. After all, what is a $100 million gap after a year spent talking about a $1.5 billion gap? Yet, the vitality and viable of the D.C. area is heavily dependent upon a properly functioning Metro system.

Michael Perkins first tackled the causes of the gap a few weeks ago. According to Perkins, over half of the raise is related to increased labor costs. Nearly $20 million will go to mandatory 3 percent pay raises for WMATA employees, and another $33 million comes from pension, health care and benefits plan increases. MetroAccess, the WMATA equivalent of our ParaTransit service, will cost an additional $19.7 million. Energy costs round out the budget deficit.

To a tee, D.C. is facing the same problems as New York City. The MTA is facing a mandatory three-year, 11-percent raise for its employees. Pension and health care costs continue to rise, and ParaTransit’s economics were a sticking point during last winter’s fare hike debate.

A few days after exploring the sources of the deficit, Perkins examined some gap-closing measures. His main proposal examined a rather modest (by New York’s standards) five percent fare increase with fees designed to reward constant riders. The WMATA can also ask Maryland, Virginia and the federal government for more money. The MTA doesn’t enjoy that luxury but isn’t beholden to three ideologically different and very fickle overseers. Finally, Perkins explored some service cuts and cost reductions including turning escalators into staircases during off-peak hours as a way to save energy.

The GGW series wrapped up last week with an exploration of the long-term financial plans for the America’s Subway. While the MTA just announced a $28.8 billion five-year capital plan, the WMATA believes it needs just $7.6 billion over the next ten years to acehive and maintain its own State of Good Repair. Without more borrowing or contributions from the three jurisdictions served by Metro, the DC subway system will begin a slide into disrepair.

In the end, I’m not surprised by any of these fiscal challenges facing the WMATA. Around the country, the story is the same. High operations costs coupled with ever-increasing compensation packages for workers along with a weakening economy are sending the nation’s transportation authorities into fiscal difficulties. Although these networks move millions of people every day, the federal government is loath to invest in them as heavily as they do roads, and cities such as New York, Washington and Chicago are left with severely unfounded infrastructure agencies that are also heavily in debt. When will that policy change?

Categories : WMATA
Comments (6)
  • Maloney slams SAS and MTA inspector general investigates · As the timeline for the Second Ave. Subway stretches infinitely into the future, politicians and watchdogs are growing tired of frequent delays and no promises of a full subway line. Originally set to open in 2012, Phase I of the SAS may now open for business by the end of 2017 if everything as it is now continues apace. In a recent review of the project, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney rated it a B- and warned that delays could push the completion date well into 2018. While Maloney praised the project for creating thousands of jobs, managers, she said, have not kept the new subway line on budget or on time.

    While I’m still waiting to get a copy of the report, the Daily News offers up its own shortened version: Maloney’s office is critical of the MTA’s inability to recognize potential problem spots — such as structurally deficient buildings — ahead of time, and she feels many delays could have been avoided or included in initial project assessments. Meanwhile, Barry Kluger, the MTA’s inspector general, will soon issue his own report on the delays and problems associated with the long-awaited Second Ave. Subway. This probe, according to The Post, will examine “the MTA’s repeated contract revisions, the amount of money it allocated to buy real estate to continue the project, and the reported trouble between the agency and Con Edison.”

    Finally, in other (bad) Second Ave. Subway news, the MTA has been unable to secure a blasting permit due to two shaky buildings on East 92nd St. I first tackled this issue two weeks ago, and the MTA has remained in a holding pattern since June. Although the agency says the delay in securing the permit will not push back the completion date, the longer the delays go, the less likely that reality becomes. The MTA and the building’s owners are still battling over who exactly is responsible for the cracks that appeared in the building. The MTA says these buildings were structurally unsound before work began, and records support these contentions. The landlords say underground work exacerbated the problems. · (7)
  • TWU protests set to give MTA ‘a taste of hell’ · As the MTA continues its push to appeal the binding arbitration decision that guarantees TWU Local 100 workers an 11 percent raise spread over three years, TWU organizers are fighting back. After a picket really last week in front of MTA Headquarters, the labor union is planning two more days of protests. The union members will rally from 4:30 p.m to 7 p.m. today in front of MTA HQ at 44th St. and Madison Ave. More ominous though is the transit-wide protest set for Oct. 14. It is being billed on the TWU’s website as the first day of outrage, and the TWU promises to give the MTA (and perhaps its riders) “a taste of hell.” I do believe a labor battle is brewing, and the city’s transit systems will serve as Ground Zero for the fight. [Daily News] · (18)

7th Ave. Tiles 1

To you and me, this 7th Ave. station on the IND Culver line is not in very good repair. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Since the New York City subways reached their nadir in the 1970s, the MTA has striven to achieve a State of Good Repair. While an admirable goal, it is a very limited one that is nearly impossible to reach or maintain. After falling decades behind in a planned station-by-station overhaul, the MTA, in its next five-year capital plan, is moving toward a more efficient component-based maintenance system that will better restore the system to that State of Good Repair.

One of the larger obstacles with the term is that it is a phrase of art, and few agencies can agree on its meaning. In a paper published earlier this year, the Transportation Research Board tried to define Good Repair, and the Federal Transit Administration sees a major backlog in projects designed to achieve a State of Good Repair for transit systems across the country.

Internally, the MTA says that a State of Good Repair is achieved “when the infrastructure components are replaced on a schedule consistent with their life expectancy.” In othe words, train cars have to be replaced as they break down, and fare payment systems, as I explored yesterday, have to be upgraded when the technology becomes obsolete. What happens though when parts of a station are in an adequate state of repair while other cosmetic parts aren’t? What happens when half of a platform needs an overhaul and the other does not?

For years, the MTA’s plan has not answered these questions. Rather, beginning in 1982 and set to run through 2020, the MTA’s State of Good Repair plan consisted simply of a station-by-station 100 percent renovation with emergency repairs made at other stations as necessary. Now, though, over 200 stations remain in need of renovations, and a system-wide overhaul would not wrap up until 2050. By then, the stations first renovated in the mid 1980s and early 1990s would need to be redone again. Meanwhile, as stations not scheduled for renovations for decades fall apart, as MTA documents say, “some stations that were rehabilitated in earlier capital programs have components that require repair.”

In the new capital plan, though, the MTA is loosening its approach toward station repairs. Instead of station-wide renovations that leave some stations waiting decades for a renovation, the new approach will be component-based. “The current labels no longer adequately describe the condition of the MTA’s infrastructure,” an attachment to the 2010-2014 Capital Plan reads. “This is because assets are comprised of many components, which have varying normal replacement requirements. These components must be regularly replaced for the total asset to remain in good repair. Future plans will evaluate the repair needs of the components in establishing the assets overall state of good repair.”

Recognizing that a subway station is “not a single asset,” the MTA is moving to a modular State of Good Repair component replacement plan while still maintaining the current station renovate pace. To do, the MTA has broken down its system into ten component parts: interior stairs; street stairs; platform edges; windscreens; canopies; platform floors, walls and ceilings; platform columns and thru-spans; mezzanine floors, walls and ceilings; vent bays; and the all-encompassing other.

Furthermore, the new strategy will be a three-tiered approach. As I mentioned above, full-scale station rehabilitation will continue apace. Station renewals — comprehensive improvements designed to replace components rated a three or worse on a five-point scale — will “refresh the appearance of the station.” Component renewals will “repair or replacement of individual station components in need of repair.” According to the MTA, “These investments will be based on the appropriate replacement cycles for individual components, and will be performed in a manner that is minimally intrusive to the customer experience.”

With this new plan in place, the MTA has an ambitious goal. All components rated a 3.5 or lower will be replaced within 15 years, and then Transit will maintain a 20-year cycle for all renewal-level maintenance projects. It is an ambitious plan to say the least but one that addresses the key shortcomings of the State of Good Repair concepts.

The news coverage of this inside-MTA overhaul has focused primarily on the stations set to receive upgrades. The Post looked at the 25 stations slated for an overhaul while the Daily News highlighted Seneca Ave., a station in Queens in which 86 percent of the components are in need of replacement. That is hardly the story though. Rather, the MTA is set to begin a method of overhauling the system that should modernize and maintain the parts in need of repair while recognizing that a systematic station-by-station overhaul is inadequate for our infrastructure needs. That’s a far better way to tackle repairs than trying to attain the unreachable State of Good Repair.

Comments (9)
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