In discussing the MTA’s 20-year dream of having open gangways in its next generation of rolling stock yesterday, I mentioned the capacity constraints facing the system. These new trainsets are vital to increasing capacity because, as Toronto claims, they can bump up ridership by 8-10 percent with an investment that happens every few years due to normal wear and tear. The MTA doesn’t need to spend billions on the slow process of building subway lines when it can add space simply by redesigning its rolling stock.
According to the 20 Year Needs Assessment, the MTA is well aware of the capacity constraints the system faces and the problems the agency faces in attempting to address this issue. In a section toward the end of the document, the agency discusses solutions to capacity constraints, and it’s a point worth exploring here. Essentially, there are a series of key choke points in the system, including the Queens Boulevard Line, the West Side’s IRT line (and some switches in Brooklyn), the L train through Northern Brooklyn and the F and M in Downtown Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. How can the MTA solve these problems?
Off the bat, the agency recognizes a simple but dismaying truth: Mega-projects are not a short-term answer. “In identifying solutions for these choke points in the subway system the MTA needs to be cognizant of the long time horizon that “megaproject”-type solutions require. For example, the currently under-construction Second Avenue Subway took nearly 10 years to go through planning, engineering and required environmental analyses, and will take nearly the same amount of time for construction of its first phase. This schedule makes it difficult for megaproject-sized strategies to address current or anticipated transportation needs in a timely manner.”
The answer is full of buzzwords and involves “additional strategic solutions that make the greatest possible use of existing bus and subway lines to meet the evolving needs of an ever more mobile population.” Here’s how the document puts it:
In addition to regular state of good repair maintenance and regular replacement of power, signals and track, there are needed upgrades to the existing subway system to support additional system capacity. Critical among these is expansion of Communications-Based Train Control. Currently available on the L line and being installed on the 7 line, CBTC will allow more frequent train service on crowded corridors such as the Queens Blvd. line.
Maximizing the benefits of CBTC, however, may require fleet expansion to provide more frequent train service, which in turn may require more yard space for train storage and maintenance, as well as increased power generation capacity for the busier subway lines.
Other strategies which may alleviate hotspots may include:
- Corridor analysis studies to better analyze specific travel trends and identify cost- and time-effective capacity improvement efforts.
- Rebuilding critical subway junctions where lines merge and separate (such as the Nostrand Junction on the 2/3/4/5 lines) to maximize train throughput and reduce delays.
- Rebuilding constrained terminal stations (such as Brooklyn College/Flatbush Terminal) to address capacity choke points.
- Restructuring existing service to maximize throughput.
- Expanded Select Bus Service utilizing dedicated bus stop,s off-board fare collection and limited stops to provide alternative travel routes in congested corridors.
I worry about the inclusion of Select Bus Service on this list because it’s not really a substitute for improving and streamlining subway service. If anything, it’s a complementary to subway service and should be used to get people from underserved transit areas to subway stations. Without a massive increase in the number of buses on the road, Select Bus Service cannot be a substitute for improved subway service.
Still, we’re left with a list of unsexy but necessary investments. Without multi-billion-dollar expansion efforts that a decade and a half, at best, to go from proposal to reality, the MTA has to find incremental improvements somewhere, and CBTC and switch rebuilds are going to become a need rather than a luxury. We may dream about open gangways and reactivated rights-of-way, but it is here in these efforts that the needs of the 20-Year Needs Assessment come into focus.