How do you maintain a 20th century — or in some cases, a 19th century — subway system into and through the 21st century? How do you move forward while making up for years of deferred maintenance? How do you undertake construction work on a subway system that runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year?
In a sense, as I’ve learned over the past five years, those are some impossible questions. They plague every person who takes a position of leadership at the MTA, and the answers from 347 Madison are often those that the customers do not like to hear. Those answers, of course, involve complicated and confusing weekend service diversions, late-night service changes with trains operating at slower speeds or, recently, full line shutdowns for seven hours at a time. Our subway system suffers from decades of neglect, and the MTA is trying to play catch-up.
Lately, New York City straphangers have grown vocally weary of the constant service changes. As we are alerted of weekend service changes only a few days before they are implemented, weekend travel is unpredictable, and that, in and of itself, is a negative for any transit agency that strives on predictable routing and scheduling. Late-night commuters know to add 10 minutes not for waiting but for painfully slow travel through work zones, and the latest perceived slight is FASTRACK. Billed as an efficiency measure, it comes across as a service cut that doesn’t ease the pain of weekend travel.
During yesterday’s MTA Board meeting, the city’s press corps peppered new MTA head Joe Lhota with questions concerning the MTA’s vast array of work. Must the shutdowns continue? Must weekend service be so painful? Hoping for the best, the reporters were instead offered a dose of clear-cut reality from Lhota. He was blunt in his honesty.
“When you look at how old the system is, I don’t think I can tell you that there is ever going to be a time when we will not be in need of repair and renovation and rehabilitation of our system,” he said. “We will do everything we can to do it as efficiently and effectively as possible.”
What does he consider to be efficient? In response to a question from Christine Haughney of The Times, Lhota noted that weekend work will continue for the foreseeable future and beyond. “We will strive,” he said, “to keep the system in a state of good repair.”
What else can Lhota say that isn’t a bald-faced lie? New York City and later the MTA spent decades ignoring the subway system as it fell into disrepair, and only an aggressive investment and rehabilitation plan has gotten it to where it is today. Still, we suffer through stations that haven’t been modernized in decades and an infrastructure in need of constant investment. Simply maintaining a system that is 108 years old in parts is expensive; growing and adapting it for the 21st Century is even though.
So we suffer, and that seemingly is the best outcome. If we want a system that can continue to work for another 108 years, we have to deal with service changes and weekend diversions. There’s no real way around that. Perhaps the MTA could up the productivity with changes to the work rules, but the work isn’t going away. That’s the sad reality of a system that came into being when the Yankees were the Highlanders and Teddy Roosevelt was president.