Home MTA Construction Addressing the reality of a century-old system

Addressing the reality of a century-old system

by Benjamin Kabak

The FASTRACK program has allowed workers to perform badly needed repairs. (Photo via Patrick Cashin, MTA)

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.

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pete March 1, 2012 - 2:26 am

The MTA is a welfare agency. If you do your job the smart (not right) way, when you finish at one end, its time start at the beginning again. Some people will brag and say “I am going to retire here [on this project]”, not just at the MTA, but at many government funded research, environmental cleanup/decontamination projects and civil engineering. SAS and EAS have been going for what 10, 15 years now? Water tunnel 3? Yeah, civil engineering and union labor means everyone is guaranteed a job for life on this project, since the project will never end. Nobody wants it to end, not the Public Authority/Quasi Governmental Agency overseeing it, not the politicians, not the unions, not the contractors, except for the public. When the MTA reaches the Manhattan end of the Queens Boulevard line, its time to start replacing the rails at the Nassau end of it again, since 20 years passed. It seems to me like most of the off peak service changes are for contractors, security/lighting/ventilation/”communications”. I bet the contractor doesn’t even show up every weekend, but the closing of the track is in the contract and the MTA will do it anyways. Then the contractor tells the MTA the project is delayed and over budget, and another 5 years of service changes.

Until threats of jail time come up, nobody is going to do a hard days work. Remember the subway system could never have been built, actually, no subway/heavy rail system in the USA could have been built, even post WW2 systems, with the MTA’s level of apathetic workfare labor force. I like to compare the WMATA with the MTA. The DC Metro was built from scratch in the time it has taken the MTA to “rehabilitate” an existing system (1980s to today). Come on, the MTA isn’t fooling anybody.

Whats the solution? Only thing I can think of that can actually work is privatization (and a few years later nationalization). Privatization should purge the ideology of busywork out of the MTA.

pete March 1, 2012 - 2:31 am

Ill point out a non-workfare example, of what happens when the MTA actually wants something to be completed fast rather than provide jobs for life, the Port Jervis line, 9/11 service restoration, and the Canal or Chambers Street 8th avenue fire. Absolute magic happens when the MTA wants something to happen.

Alex C March 1, 2012 - 3:44 am

Not to be mean, but that’s quite an insane and downright dumb diatribe. Privatization would mean bye bye to late night service and the G train and anything else that doesn’t bring in the money. Remember, a private company doesn’t give a damn, they want profits. Nassau County thought bringing in a private company to run their buses would make magic happen. It didn’t. Whoops.

Marc Shepherd March 1, 2012 - 7:15 am

Gosh, how silly can you get? Port Jervis, 9/11, and Canal/Chambers were service outages. The MTA worked day and night to get them restored. They were also emergencies, and you can’t do everything on an emergency basis.

The situations we are talking about here are the complete opposite: trains are running normally, and they need to be taken out of service for maintenance. People complain, because they want service to run 24/7 miraculously without ever needing to be fixed.

Privitization would be an absolute disaster.

Bolwerk March 1, 2012 - 10:55 am

I don’t know if the MTA even does an especially bad job with ongoing maintenance during operating hours, but there is something to be said for treating new construction as “emergencies.” Those projects sometimes had costs approaching sane, and there is no reason the fantasy Rockaway reactivation can’t use a similar model as restoring the PJ line. The difference, of course, is the PJL might have been MORE screwed up after being washed out, yet people depend on it.

His comments about privatization are built on the delusion that privatization = efficiency, but he’s not too off base on construction.

Joe Steindam March 1, 2012 - 11:47 am

Regarding your comment, treating new construction like “emergencies” to get them done faster, unfortunately I doubt that’s feasible. One of the big issues with SAS has been local residents have protested the blasting schedule and when trucks can enter and leave the area, restricting certain work to only certain parts of the day (Ben talked about this the last time SAS came up in the news). I doubt you’d get the local community to accept the around the clock intrusion of “emergency work.” The examples cited happened in the middle of nowhere, or in existing subway stations or construction sites. No community group would ever allow emergency pace construction unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Bolwerk March 1, 2012 - 12:45 pm

To be clear, “emergency” here is almost a euphemistic term for just cutting through needless red tape to finish projects…at sane costs. I didn’t mean that work needs to be done 24/7.

I deliberately avoided using the SAS as an example because it’s probably just stupid by design. If it were done as cut and cover, it probably could have been four tracks at a significantly cheaper price. Granted, it might have meant months of pain for more people, but that’s better than years of pain for residents in the 90s, not to mention billions$ in waste. And a permanently constrained trunk line.

Really, the only community groups that would complain are ones that are hostile to the idea of community.

Joe Steindam March 1, 2012 - 3:20 pm

Fair point. But that would require serious amounts of support behind the MTA from the communities affected and the politicians. No one was for leaving the 7th ave line broken under WTC or the 8th line incapacitated due to fire. People might not be as supportive of completing capital projects at any cost.

Considering the MTA had to move all the utilities on 2nd Ave for SAS construction, a 4 track cut and cover should have been given higher consideration. It would been tougher on the whole avenue, but since the whole avenue is already complaining about construction, better that it actually moved quickly than this decade of work on a mile of subway.

Nathanael March 1, 2012 - 5:40 pm

Unfortunately, the SAS has contended repeatedly with community groups which are hostile to the idea of community, from the NIMBYs who didn’t want a subway entrance in their precious TRAFFIC CIRCLE, to the landlords and NYC Department of Buildings who refused to do their job maintaining their buildings’ structrual integrity, to the utility companies who didn’t map their utilities.

Figure out how to deal with those and you have solved a problem.

Bolwerk March 2, 2012 - 1:08 pm

The way to deal with it is to recognize that they aren’t sensible people and a sensible person doesn’t need to listen to them.

R. Graham March 1, 2012 - 6:05 pm

I beg to differ. Cut and cover might be the more expensive option these days.

One of the main reasons constructing the stations is so expensive is because utilities have to be moved without affecting the service of those utilities to the customers. Phone, cable, gas, electric, sewage, steam, etc. Moving that stuff does not come cheap.

Right now the method is TBM but the machine operates at a depth below the utilities, so the only time you need to move them is when you create a launch box to lower the TBM into and when you create a station but at least wit the stations most of the utilities that need to be moved are pretty much at entrances and exits and maybe where you construct you exhaust towers. The only much removed is what had to be removed anyway and the only time you really need to use cement is when creating your station cavern.

Cut and cover involves removing everything and creating a box and in order to do that, especially for a four track line you have to relocate ALL and I repeat ALL utilities for the entire stretch of the cut and cover construction. And if the width of the line cuts too close to building foundations at some of the narrower parts of the avenue then you have to find a way to temporarily relocate those things to the side and cut at an even deeper depth so you can relocate the utilities on top of the box. Not to mention all of the cement you need to frame your box and all of the steel needed for beams to support the box structure. Even if you cut to the depths currently opened up by the TBM you can’t recreate the solid bedrock foundation that existed prior to a cut and cover dig. Plus you need more workers to get this done, especially at the speed desired where in the current method you don’t need as many workers or machinery.

I didn’t mention the dynamite used for blasting because no matter what that pretty much remains the same. They blast now in a way that they would blast in a cut and cover situation so that’s a moot point. At least with such a lengthy TBM method of construction they now know more of what it may take to get phases 3 and 4 done if that ever happens because there was never a chance in hell you were going to be able to cut and cover your way through midtown or midtown south. The only problem is where do you locate the new launch box.

As for those talking about the age of NY’s subway system. Technically it’s older when you combine the years the el’s had already been in operation before they were decommissioned and torn down. They knew back then what we know now, but just didn’t want to come out and say with a straight answer. The els were going to sap the hell out of property values. Metro-North used to exist in an open cut all the way from 96th St all the way down to Grand Central as she stands today in one of it’s many rebuilt versions. Had they buried that line from 96th to the river East Harlem would be extremely high cost living and the many housing projects that exist there now (most in the nation by neighborhood comparison) would not exist there today. However the topography had everything to do with that. It’s one of the most steepest inclines in Manhattan and a train tunnel would would have to start it’s decline way down the line. Especially for longer length commuter rail trains. The Lexington Avenue line deals with it fine at 102nd St. They wanted no part of it when building the original subway line back in the early 20th Century which is why the 1 line sees no part of the underground at the 125th St valley at Broadway. However the current structure is built over a fault and it was not built to give to ground movement. Most of that ground is built to stay at the same elevation regardless of the ground surface elevation above.

And that’s where I stop as I see I went on a long long tour through time.

Nyland8 March 1, 2012 - 8:05 pm

Your point is well made – but only as it applies to routes like SAS and ESA … because, as you point out, it is moving and rerouting hundreds of miles of other utilities that make it so impractical in Manhattan.

TBM is usually only cheaper as the distance increases – because so much money as a percent of the total project is committed to mobilization and demobilization. Manhattan is the rare exception. But if you were contemplating C&C through … lets say parkland … it would be much, much cheaper.

Imagine C&C starting at the Queens Botanical Garden, going southeast through the Kissena corridor, 188 Park, Cunningham Park, swinging down around the Grand Central Parkway all the way to St. Johns U. before resorting to tunnel mining. !! That stretch of subway could be tunneled through like watching a PAC-MAN game … wock-a . wock-a . wock-a . without closing a single ball field for an entire season. From there you’d only have to tunnel mine 4,200 feet to connect that end to the Parsons Blvd. station – and most of that journey would bring you under three public High schools and Tilly park. So you wouldn’t have too many problems with NIMBY lawsuits over nighttime “seismic events”.

At the other end, you could C&C right up College Point Blvd. – a road that has very few residents and is, at times, 8 lanes wide – connecting to the Flushing 7 and Metro North. Another half mile through industrial territory and VOILA!! suddenly you’re north of the Whitestone Expressway and looking to connect to LaGuardia. Easy Peasy – and 95% of it cut and cover. Then getting from airport to airport via mass transit becomes at least doable, if not convenient.

Where to tunnel mine, where to C&C, where to TBM, where to build elevated or open trench – they’re all still viable options under different circumstances – IF the political will can be generated.

Matthias March 2, 2012 - 11:06 am

TBM is usually only cheaper as the distance increases

This is exactly why the TBM should still be going down Second Avenue.

JB March 1, 2012 - 12:51 pm

Wondering whats less painful for these residents…alot of commotion/noise over a short period of time, or what they currently deal, commotion only parts of the day strectched out for far more years

Chet March 1, 2012 - 9:39 am

Wow… that’s the kind of comment I’d expect to see in a NY Post article. Everything is a conspiracy and the unions are to blame.

How about trying to get something done where every ten or twenty minutes you need to pick all your tools up and clear out or get run over by a train?

Almost all other subways in the world shut down for six hours every night of the year allowing for work to get done. Most of those systems also didn’t let them fall into a state of total disrepair forty years ago.

Considering the scale, the age, and the 24/7 nature of the NYC subway, the MTA does a rather impressive job of keeping it moving.

Joe March 1, 2012 - 10:11 am

I honestly think the age thing is a strange argument. The NYC subway may have begun construction in 1904, but there are no parts that date back to that age. EVERYTHING has been rebuilt multiple times since then—there was a time of severe neglect through the ’70s and ’80s, but that was a problem that pretty much every American city went through.

There’s another 24-hour agency in the US with even less money and even older infrastructure (in parts): the Chicago ‘L.’ The Red Line’s northern branch was build 4 years before the NYC subway began construction, and like NYC, it’s a 24-hour route with express and local tracks.

There are almost no insane service changes on the weekends or nights. These days it’s generally limited to two things: single-tracking (or “boarding changes,” in CTA nomenclature) that result in up to about 5-minute delays, which they are generally great about communicating. This is either track/switch replacement or signal work and lasts for a couple nights or so, or the relatively recent “Renew Crews” which swarm and completely facelift a station in about 2 or 3 days.

When it’s time for major work, the CTA just blitzkriegs the crap out of entire branches, like the recent Brown Line modernization program, which basically rebuilt every single station and all of the tracks and structures at once. It was a pain in the butt for a while, but they were excellent about communication, it finished early, and since then there is basically no more work that requires service changes. They’re taking the same approach for the upcoming Red Line modernization.

Yes, the NYC subway is more complicated, but the ridiculous night & weekend service changes can’t JUST owe to that. I think FASTRACK is a step in the right direction, though. I’d love to see the MTA focus on trunk lines hollistically rather than the peicemeal approach to infrastructure improvement that causes endless annoyance and confusion for travelers. It’s like peeling a band-aid of a hairy leg very, very, slowly.

JB March 1, 2012 - 1:45 pm

I believe the Jamaica Line is from the 19th century

Nathanael March 1, 2012 - 5:42 pm

Chicago shut down the entire Green Line for a YEAR. This was clearly a major error, and it took several years for ridership to recover; and they actually lost the end of the line due to insane NIMBYs at the time.

The Brown Line project was a major step back from that, keeping the line open the entire time, but closing half the stations at a time. I think that struck the right balance. I’m glad that NYC is moving towards something closer tot he CTA Brown Line project.

Nyland8 March 1, 2012 - 1:20 pm

Privatization is certainly NOT the answer, as private corporations are answerable to nobody. At the very least, political pressure can still be applied to the MTA, and that is as it should be. Privatization might have some limited benefit in fields where some competition exists, but the New York subway system is no such animal.

It seems far too many people on the outside of the workings of the system have very strong opinions about things which they know little or nothing about. Perhaps it’s human nature. The limitations – the constraints – around which the MTA works run deep and wide and, all things considered, they don’t do too bad a job. This is not to say that there isn’t ample room for improvement. All people entrenched in any system, public or private, develop an interest in maintaining the status quo. Nobody wants to be driven out of their comfort zone, and transit workers are no exception.

Spendmore Wastemore March 1, 2012 - 6:28 am

There IS a way to do this better.

1. As noted, bring in a non-apathetic workforce which is given clear goals, rewards, and has something to lose if they underperform. Example: the CalTrans contractor who repaired an overpass so far ahead of schedule that the company made nearly all their fee on the early completion award.

2. Make it physically possible to do the work by shutting a line section completely for one week per year, or two weeks every other year (whatever amount of uninterupted work is physically required).

Where there are 4 tracks on could temp wall off 2, allowing work to procede 90% unimpeded on 2 adjacent tracks, thus allowing one-way local service, express in the other. But if it’s neccesary, shut a whole segment every few years.

With aggresive managemnt and accountability (=nothing resembling the current workforce) the work could be done so that it doesn’t fall apart nearly as fast.
e.g: Roadbed drainage gets upgraded, ground compacted, and a far stronger grade of concrete could be placed; rails could be laid straight without the misalignent MTA often puts in new track, perhaps with vibration absorbing technology added, support beams moved to allow switch upgrades etc.

Get to know people who’ve worked on the system, especially someone who has left and run their own work in the real world. They’ll give you some insight into the level of sloth built into operations; it’s designed to employ the maximum number of people while delivering the minimum result the public will accept.

Matt March 1, 2012 - 9:41 am

I agree. The patchwork process of minor upgrades every so often resulting in long periods of service disruption is not the best use of resources. The fact that most lines have four tracks and connect to other lines is a huge advantage for the MTA. We see it all the time with work during nights and weekends. Why not shut down two tracks and accompanying platforms along an entire section of a line so that long-term, dedicated system upgrades can be put in place in the most efficient way possible. Would it be utterly terrible for there to be no uptown 1, 2, and 3 trains for a year? Maybe. Would there be reasonable replacement transit options for the time being? Yes. Is large scale, long-term upgrades necessary for the continued success of this great aging transit system? Yes.

Nathanael March 1, 2012 - 5:44 pm

The two-track lines outside midtown and downtown Manhattan, with no redundant service, are a harder problem, but yes, the majority of lines should definitely be upgraded this way.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines March 1, 2012 - 8:57 am

[…] TWU: MTA Could Restore Service, Re-Hire Staff; Lhota Fields Inane Press Qs (CNY, News, Kabak) […]

Larry Littlefield March 1, 2012 - 9:56 am

“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?”

I just hope that isn’t a bald-faced lie. It’s Generation Greed again. They would benefit from allowing the system to go to pot, because they would hope to be done with it by the time it happens.

People haven’t been blunt enough.

Larry Littlefield March 1, 2012 - 10:10 am

By the way, the need for repairs has nothing to do with the system being a century old. Everything wears out over time, except perhaps the holes the subways run in, and needs to be replaced. Everything.

The system was built, for the most part, over 50 years. The MTA has not yet completed the job of rebuilding over the next 50, which is why some critical components are unreliable.

Ongoing normal replacement is maintenance.

pete March 1, 2012 - 8:02 pm

Ongoing replacement isn’t maintenance, its workfare. The MTA is now replacing tracks they replaced in the mid 1980s. They will NEVER be finished and they line will be detoured every weekend forever as a policy. Either the maintenance standard is way beyond what “private” freight railroads and other heavy rail transit systems do, or the work is intentionally scheduled to replace 30 feet a night so it takes 20 years to do the line (not train route), and the line perpetually is not in a “good state of repair”, the MTA can then go cry poverty to the public and the pols. Nobody wants to be layed off or loose their job, so the slower you work, the more job security you have. I’ve never heard of the MTA having quotas, performance reviews or bonuses for any employee, union and non union. If the MTA was a fast food restaurant, you would be waiting 30 minutes for fries either because by policy there is 1 employee on the clock until the line is atleast 30 customers deep or 6 employees are sitting and doing crossword puzzles and 1 is doing all the work and there is no consequences for doing nothing. This isn’t a union vs non union thing, this is all MTA labor, MTA union, MTA non-union and contractor labor. Unlike in a restaurant, where customers would walk out if the line was 30 deep and 1 cashier, there is no competition to the MTA, and unlike the DC Metro, where if service isn’t running, the chairman of the WMATA will get a phone call from the pentagon telling him he will be in Gitmo for “aiding the enemy” if trains arent running the next day.

Nyland8 March 1, 2012 - 10:24 pm

Your rant proposes that 65,000+ MTA employees are all part of a conspiracy to NOT do their jobs adequately. 65,000+ people conspiring to NOT be more efficient … to NOT be productive … to NOT run mass transit as best they can with limited resources, capricious politics and a demanding public? So I guess that every improvement that I’ve seen in the system over the past 40 years has happened despite this vast conspiracy? By accident? Or magically?

Just curious Pete … is that how YOU work? Workfare?

BrooklynBus March 3, 2012 - 6:45 pm

Of course the MTA has quotas. Isn’t that what the whole signal scandals were about? Workers were required to inspect more signals than was physically possible. So they made up the numbers claiming to have inspected them, rather than getting in trouble for not meeting their quota.

Today’s Headlines | Body Local NYC March 1, 2012 - 10:20 am

[…] TWU: MTA Could Restore Service, Re-Hire Staff; Lhota Fields Inane Press Qs (CNY, News, Kabak) […]

Matthias March 1, 2012 - 12:12 pm

As we are alerted of weekend service changes only a few days before they are implemented…

With a few exceptions, weekend service changes are posted on the MTA website weeks in advance.

I agree that “Fastrack” is a step in the right direction. “Slow and painful” can be replaced by “fast and not much more painful”, and although Fastrack isn’t supposed to replace weekend work, I think it will help by reducing the amount of work that needs done.

BrooklynBus March 3, 2012 - 6:50 pm

Who said Fastrack isn’t supposed to replace weekend work? What is it supposed to replace? Just midday weekday work?

jcoifman March 1, 2012 - 4:24 pm

MTA has a remarkable tool at its disposal that it is not using – the photo sets that they post on Flickr showing the actual work go a long way to explain what is happening during these Fasttrack stoppages. They need better, more sustained media partnerships to get this stuff into play. They might also get local TV guys down there in the tunnels, not just the stations, to showcase this stuff.

pete March 2, 2012 - 7:50 pm

2 guys standing, 2 guys working. The picture is staged, its really 3 guys standing, 1 guy working.

Nyland8 March 2, 2012 - 8:21 pm

It’s 4 guys working.

Jaime March 3, 2012 - 2:46 pm

The guys standing around in the picture are supervisors. An example of the redundant supervision at the MTA.

Alon Levy March 1, 2012 - 10:09 pm

Let me remind everyone that Fastrack is not a substitute for anything; it’s an attempt to save $15 million a year in maintenance cost, while also shutting down service at 10:30 pm some nights (Tokyo, London, etc. run trains until after midnight). For an agency that’s losing about $5 billion every year, the MTA is sure good at being penny-wise.

Andrew March 5, 2012 - 10:12 pm

No it’s not. It’s an attempt to address a maintenance backlog in a reasonably efficient manner.

Service is not shut down at 10:30. Service on one line, with nearby parallel substitutes, is shut down at 10:00, for 16 nights of the year. The other 349 nights, service runs all night.

UESider March 3, 2012 - 3:26 pm

For the record, even private company employees work slower and squirrel away secrets for their own job security, whether perceived or real.

Where progress matters, i.e. the emergency repairs, it comes down to the public eye. When you get a lot of attention, as the emergency situations do, there’s less latitude for being slow and more participants have an interest in looking good and doing good.

The difference is that from a macro perspective, for-profit companies tend to be More efficient, though still somewhat wasteful. But, the bigger the system gets, the more bureaucratic and inefficient they become – public or private.

Where there’s a buck to be made, you’ll find a wrench in the works every time.


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