During its meeting on Wednesday, the MTA Board will vote to approve a $205 million contract with Siemens and Thales Transport for a part of the communications-based train control installation along the Queens Boulevard line. As the MTA works to pre-qualify other companies with relevant expertise, these two companies — the only two pre-qualified to bid on contracts since 2006 — will spend 67 months installing CBTC along the western part of the Queens Boulevard line. This may mean five years of intermittent service changes, but it also may lead to, as the MTA claims, a “‘state of the art’ train control system.” And we all know it’s about time.
As part of the discussion about CBTC, Transit released the video I embedded above. It explains how the stations aren’t the only part of the subway system. In fact, much of the technology is older than any of us (and nearing, or well past, the end of its useful life). It’s supposed to explain how CBTC can help increase frequency of trains along the Queens Boulevard line, but it also underscores exactly how deferred maintenance throughout the decades can come back to hurt a transit agency.
For decades, the New York City subway system was a victim of politics. It initially operated as a quasi-private business overseen by the elected Board of Estimate with fare policy set not by the operators but by politicians who had to answer to constituents. So the five cent fare lingered and lingered and lingered, even when it became obvious that the transit operators couldn’t run the system breaking even, let alone generate revenue to keep up with technology innovation. This was a repetitive cycle until the MTA came into being in 1968, and the nascent agency had its work cut out for itself.
Since the early 1980s, the city, state and feds have poured billions of dollars into restoring some semblance of investment in the transit system, but the backlog was tremendous. Nearly since its founding, the subways hadn’t undergone top-to-bottom overhauls, and the early money was spent on upgrading rolling stock and restoring stations to a usable state. We’ve had massive track replacement and big-ticket capital projects too, but the signal systems have lingered as a relic of history. Now, the MTA is trying to play catch-up, and it’s going to take a long time.
Elsewhere, transit agencies can focus on technological upgrades without having to sacrifice other projects in part because costs are kept under control. Paris, for instance, can fully automate subway lines quickly as they’re working from a base of newer equipment and shut down the system at night. They don’t face the same labor and corruption issues that New York hasn’t been able to combat.
As you watch the MTA’s nine-minute video, think about how the choices we make today reverberate for decades into the future. We need a state-of-the-art subway system now because it’s the system we’re leaving to our children and grand-children. It has to function then at least as well (or perhaps as poorly) as ours does today. And that incremental $200 million investment for a part of the Queens Boulevard line doesn’t even begin to cover it. Now does anyone want to close that $15 billion capital program gap?