On Wednesday afternoon, for some reason, Gov. Andrew Cuomo swooped in for a transit vist. In a seeming unsolicited letter to MTA CEO and Chairman, Cuomo urged the MTA to form a panel called the Transportation Reinvention Commission in an effort to focus the MTA on its needs for the next century. The letter came at an odd time and with plenty of reasons to be skeptical, but maybe, if things break the right way, the MTA and New York State could turn this into a positive step.
As the letter notes, Cuomo sent this massive to the MTA because their next five-year capital plan is due before the Board for approval in September. That can’t be the impetus behind it though because it would show a complete lack of comprehension of the capital process. Last year, the MTA released its 20-Year Needs Assessment which feeds and informs the capital plan. Does Cuomo think the MTA is going to slap together some $30 billion, five-year plan in less than four months? Does he think this panel can convene and issue recommendations ahead of any work on this plan? I hope not.
But this skepticism aside, Cuomo’s basic idea isn’t a bad one. Here’s his letter:
New York faces a pressing need to prepare the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) for tomorrow’s challenges. To adapt its system for a changing world, a changing state and a changing climate, the MTA has a unique opportunity to proactively redesign how it serves its customers. The MTA is scheduled to submit a Capital Plan this fall to identify investment priorities for New York’s mass transit network. While past Capital Plans have focused on maintaining and expanding the existing MTA network, New York needs the MTA to develop a reinvention plan to make our subways and our entire transit system ready for the challenges of the next century.
I am recommending the MTA empanel a Transportation Reinvention Commission to examine its network and develop a plan for the future. The Commission should include international transportation experts and be selected by the MTA. It should hold public hearings as it develops findings and submit a preliminary report to me in advance of the MTA Board’s scheduled Capital Plan approval in September.
We have been operating the same subway system for the last 100 years. The next 100 years, however, look radically different for New York. The clear evidence of a changing climate in our nation makes more major storms like Superstorm Sandy a real and present threat. Increasing population, demographic shifts and record ridership pose new challenges to operating and maintaining our existing mass transit network, meeting and exceeding New Yorkers’ expectations, and spurring the continued growth of New York’s economy. Already, there are more than 8.5 million riders – more than the entire population of New York City – using MTA trains and busses every day. This Commission needs to fundamentally reexamine our subway system to meet these needs and expectations.
Cuomo’s assertion that “we have been operating the same subway system for the last 100 years” could not be further from the truth. In 1914, the BRT and IRT operated a bunch of streetcars and subway lines without the connections we know today, and the IND routings were barely a thought. The opening of Brooklyn’s 4th Ave. subway was still a year away, and only the Joralemon and Clark St. tunnels brought subways from Brooklyn to Manhattan. So we have not been operating the same subway for 100 years.
Yet, the next 100 years do look different. The MTA has to modernize a system that is, at parts, 100 years old; it has to meet growing demands for transit within the preexisting population and the growing population at large; it has to combat rising sea levels brought about by climate change and the threat of future flooding; and it has to figure out a way to grow at costs that aren’t astronomical. It also has to be more aggressive in thinking big than the Straphangers Campaign who, as a response to Cuomo’s letter, called for more Bus Rapid Transit.
So Cuomo has urged the MTA to appoint “international transportation experts” to this panel. Maybe they can figure out why everything costs so much in New York. Maybe they can look at work rules and personnel padding, at costs and timelines and project management, to figure out a way to reign in this problem. We may be skeptical because of Cuomo’s record and attention to transit, but at the least, this panel deserves a chance to do something. It won’t inform the next five-year capital plan, but it could have a deeper impact further down the road.