Home Capital Program 2015-2019 Can we talk about that other other MTA problem now?

Can we talk about that other other MTA problem now?

by Benjamin Kabak

It’s been three days since Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo announced their surprise deal on MTA capital funding, and we’ve all had enough time to declare Cuomo the winner. After months of bruising media battles, the city gave up more money in exchange for a hollow promise from the state to continue to follow a toothless law. Despite his rhetoric on affordable housing, De Blasio hasn’t embraced transit as a cause, and it showed.

For now, though, that’s neither here nor there. The state and the city still have to identify funding sources, and claims that no new taxes or fees will be implemented to generate $9 billion from the state seems laughable. The resistance to a rational plan to cut Manhattan congestion and generate transit revenue is almost as absurd as the fight between the mayor and governor over funding splits. But there’s another problem that now comes to the forefront and that problem is cost.

During the debate over funding responsibilities, the discussion on costs often took a backseat. The usual crew of transit advocates in New York City aren’t too keen to press on costs. They’re content to fight for dollars without questioning whether those dollars are being spent appropriately or efficiently, and as a sweeping generalization, few people would claim they are. Do the MTA’s costs make sense? No, of course not. Is anyone willing to do anything about it? Not yet.

The MTA’s high capital costs — and, to a lesser degree, operating costs — is a topic I’ve covered before, most recently in April when Dana Rubinstein reported that most transit organizations in New York City relied upon Alon Levy’s work to discuss high costs. This isn’t to say Alon’s work isn’t worthwhile; as I said then and reiterate now, it’s the most thorough examination of New York City’s high costs that exists in the transit sphere. His 2011 examination of ongoing capital projects remains ever green, and even without the absurdly expensive Fulton St. Transit Center or WTC PATH hug, New York City is home to the three most expensive underground rail projects in the world on a per-kilometer basis. At $1.5 billion per kilometer, the 7 line extension wasn’t the most expensive because the Second Ave. Subway costs $200 million more per kilometer, and that’s not the most expensive because East Side Access costs nearly double that.

It’s time to figure out why. In her story earlier this year, Rubinstein blamed “labor costs, work rules, managerial incompetence, the spaghetti of infrastructure tangled beneath Manhattan’s streets, a political firmament without incentive to tackle hard issues.” She didn’t touch upon another issue — corruption — that few are willing to discuss on the record, but corruption too serves as a reason for New York City’s high costs. Is anyone willing to rein them all in?

At this point, with the MTA’s capital plan funded to the tune of nearly $30 billion when all is said and done, it’s hard to argue that the agency is underfunded. It certainly has a backlog of projects due to decades of deferred maintenance and can’t seem to get out of its own way with regards to technological improvements such as the widespread installation of countdown clocks or a fare payment system a bit more cutting edge than the late 1980s/early 1990s MetroCard system. But the agency now also has access to a ton of cash, and imagine just how far it could go if the Second Ave. Subway cost $600 million per kilometer — second on Alon’s list to London’s Crossrail project — rather than three times as much.

Taking on costs and the forces driving them up requires far more of a politically bruising fight than securing some funding. Everyone wanted the funding, but few of the recipients of the funding, especially those in the construction industry, want lower construction costs. But without some attempt at rationalizing MTA construction costs, we’ll never have the subway expansion we need or a modern system with bells and whistles New Yorkers enjoy in other cities. And that’s a battle that someone needs to fight.

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Victor October 13, 2015 - 1:00 am

If elected officials don’t care to look deeply at costs, maybe the relevant attorney general office can try to see where the money is getting siphoned. We’re still awaiting Preet Bharara’s next indictment.

The MTA is a behemoth. Separate organizations overseen by one funding umbrella. Across the world, is there any other city or country that has all of regional transit under a single roof? A larger bureaucracy tends to obscure costs due to its size and, by its very nature, is a monopoly that precludes competition. I’m not saying it’s at all feasible to break up the MTA, but I just want to know more about how it’s done in other places. Surely the other extreme is Tokyo, where you have countless government and private transit operators.

And high infrastructure costs seems to be the pattern across the country. Look at exploding costs for the Green Line extension in Boston.

Brandon October 13, 2015 - 6:27 am

TfL is probably more of a behemoth, it does everything the MTA does and also seems to do quite a lot of what NYC DOT does as well.

The MTA doesn’t really operate as one agency though. The Transit Authority, Buses, LIRR and MNR are all very siloed, probably more than they should be on the operating side especially.

Stephen October 13, 2015 - 7:21 am

Thank you. I learned another TLA today.
And to save others the effort, if like me you didn’t know, TfL = Transport For London.

O/T: I clicked on their home page link and see that City has its own set of naming rights. Could you imagine if our Roosevelt Island Tram got a naming rights deal? I shouldn’t even write that phrase, since we already have one in the subway (the joint in brooklyn). Their tram is named by an airline. And the same airline bought the naming rights to one of the terminals of said cable line. I do not like naming rights at all. /end of naming rights rant. Thx for reading.

Alon Levy October 13, 2015 - 8:56 am

Across the world, is there any other city or country that has all of regional transit under a single roof?

It’s common on this side of the Pond, actually. Sometimes there are multiple operators and sometimes there aren’t, but there is coordinated planning and revenue-sharing. Examples include TfL as noted by Brandon, STIF in the Paris region, SL in Stockholm, SYTRAL in the Lyon region, and various German-speaking Verkehrsverbünde (VBB in Berlin, ZVV in Zurich, VRR in the Rhine-Ruhr area, etc.). In North America, Translink is a single agency covering all of Metro Vancouver.

tacony October 13, 2015 - 9:36 am

The MTA is a behemoth. Separate organizations overseen by one funding umbrella. Across the world, is there any other city or country that has all of regional transit under a single roof?

Huh? The MTA doesn’t run all transit in the region. It doesn’t run anything in NJ (The entire state of NJ is one big transit operator). The MTA doesn’t even run local transit (buses) in the NYS suburbs.

SEPTA runs all transit (subway, bus, trolley, rail) on the Pennsylvania side of its 5-county Philadelphia metro area. MARTA in Atlanta runs all transit in the counties that pay into it. There are tons more examples.

Jorge October 13, 2015 - 1:57 pm

NJ Transit runs 5/8s of the buses, all commuter rail and light rail vehicles. Private operators make up the rest of the operation.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has 14 counties in NY to oversee, And each operation is responsible for its own funding

SEAN October 13, 2015 - 3:11 pm

Yes & no. Even though there are private bus carriers in NJ with their own names on the vehicles, NJT still owns the busses. The private companies can decide where those busses travel to & from & set fare policy.

Victor October 13, 2015 - 3:10 pm

Ok sure good points. But the portion that is MTA is still huge.

It’s also larger than many of the examples listed above excepting London.

I guess my original question is about whether the organizational structure of the MTA is appropriate or if it can be improved. As Brandon pointed out, the individual organizations the MTA encompasses are pretty independent, so in some ways it’s one agency, in some ways it’s not.

SEAN October 14, 2015 - 9:21 am

That’s a good way to look at it. To illustrate, lets look at the proposed merger between the LIRR & Metro-North a few years ago. Although rejected by the MTA board, the merger would have eliminated a lot of duplicate functions within the MTA’s railroad opperations, but with two sets of rule books & work cultures & the like, I guess the MTA heads didn’t believe it was worth it.

Personally – I think it is ridiculous.

webster October 14, 2015 - 10:19 am

I’ve always found the easiest (or, maybe most sensible) way to think of the MTA is as a holding company…with various subsidiaries: LIRR, MNR, SIRR, NYCT.

Maybe not entirely correct, but it’s been useful in explaining to people who aren’t familiar with how the agency operates why things are a bit wonky.

AG October 14, 2015 - 2:59 pm

Boston Green Line yes – but even the “little” streetcar in DC is 2 years late and way over budget.

Beebo October 13, 2015 - 7:20 am

Chicago’s RTA runs the CTA, Metra and PACE buses. All three are siloed.

I think some indictment’s needed.

Duke October 13, 2015 - 7:44 am

It’s been said for ages that government agencies operate on the principle of budget maximization. The MTA is perhaps merely an extreme example of this.

Meanwhile there is no will to fight it because New York is a state where the prevailing philosophy is that taxpayers are bottomless pits of money. It’s very telling that the discussion about these things is always dominated by debate over how to raise more revenue, while questioning whether the extra revenue is necessary is treated almost like blasphemy.

AG October 14, 2015 - 12:01 pm

You are absolutely correct. It is ironic that in the business capital of the country and one the top 3 in the world – the politics is anti businesses. That mentality seeps into public works – where expecting efficiency from any angle is like using a curse word.

Dan Kohn October 13, 2015 - 8:55 am

Indicting some construction leaders may make us feel better, but is extremely unlikely to have a lasting impact on cost. Within a few years, new corrupt leaders will take their place.

What’s needed are systemic improvements that actually change the incentives from maximizing budgets and change orders to delivering working infrastructure at the lowest cost. Design-Build seems to have had some successes, particularly with bridges, but I have not seen it widely applied to underground projects. http://www.dbia.org/about/Page.....Build.aspx

Alon’s work is incredibly important but it’s amazing in 2015, with $30 B in play, that we don’t better understand what could bring down costs or at least how to have projects finish on their promised schedule.

Larry Littlefield October 13, 2015 - 9:19 am

I’ll say it again — the construction unions and companies are probably forcing the MTA to pay for a massive hole in the multi-employer pension fund. Forcing transit riders to pay for past private sector construction and retroactive pension increases for those already in Florida.

Cuomo was backed by the construction unions, was he not? Wasn’t DeBlasio as well? Aren’t they all?

This whole “battle” just shows the extent of their contempt for us.

Meanwhile, those of us in the “urban portion” want to know why that whole LIRR disability scam was allowed to go on for years while Pendergast was in charge there. You don’t have fraud on that scale — 90 percent involved — without the unions AND management being part of it. And why are NYC riders forced to pay for that? Which politicians do the beneficiaries own?

Finally, is the TWU engaging in some kind of job action in “the urban portion” today? I got off one subway line and onto another today trying to find one that worked.

Larry Littlefield October 13, 2015 - 10:03 am

Speaking of which, because public employee retirement income is exempt from state and local income taxes, they are just going to keep borrowing.

Hoping to cash in and get away, leaving those of you who are young suckers and allowing it to happen to past even higher taxes for collapsing services in the future.

You keep letting them get away with it, so they keep doing it.

eo October 13, 2015 - 10:07 am

There are two factor that contribute to the higher costs. Let’s call them the “avoidable” and “unavoidable” increases.

The “unavoidable” increase has to do that this is New York and not some other city. New York has higher density than many of the examples that are usually cited for lower costs. These tend to be European cities with lower densities. Lower densities typically imply lower costs to acquire properties (for example, for entrances or ventilation buildings) and lower costs because there is less stuff buried in the streets (fewer people require smaller services (think gas, water,etc.) so less buried stuff to relocate and work around). Lower density also makes cut-and-cover much more acceptable because fewer people are impacted by it. There is no way around these “unavoidable” increases in Manhattan. Just by themselves even if construction costs for the same tunnel/building were the same as say in Sweden or Spain, you will end up with higher costs because the same tunnel here requires more other infrastructure to be moved and more money be spent on real estate acquisition. This basically makes the argument that New York should not be the most expensive place to build flawed. It should be the most expensive place to build. The argument should be by how much. Should it be 50% more or 3 times more? I would venture to guess that the answer is not 3 times …

Furthermore, comparing ESA to the Second Avenue and the 7 Extension by using cost per mile is like comparing apples and potatoes. The running tunnel costs (for the tube, concrete and the rails) are probably very close to each other for the three projects. The huge differences come from the stations. ESA has a huge 8 track station. Both subways have only two track stations. The only reason why you are concluding that the 7 Extension is cheaper on per mile basis is because they did not build the station at 10th Avenue, so when you are calculating the cost per mile you are spreading the cost of one station over the distance for two. The Second Avenue Subway is not skipping stations, so there is less running track to distribute the costs of the three stations over. For ESA if you account that the station is “about” 4 times larger than the station at 34th Street on the Extension, you need to multiply the budget by 4 for that station, to get to the cost of the ESA station. They come up comparable as they should — this is still the same island of Manhattan.

I just demonstrated how flawed the per-mile comparison of the three NYC projects is. Now think about how different the projects in Europe are and how inappropriate comparisons per-mile are.

The “avoidable” increases are everything else that is not force on us by being in NYC. These include the corruption in the contracting business, the extortion by the unions which with their rules require double the staff used in Europe, the ridiculous regulations and paperwork that needs to be pushed around before a shovel goes into the ground. To estimate these costs you should take the cost of a running mile of tunnel(without any stations) in Europe and compare it to the same thing here. Then you know how much more we are paying for running tunnel. Then you can do the same for stations, but you need to pick similar stations, not compare a cut-and-cover station in Europe with a deep bored station here.

Only after this is done we can get to the question of how much cheaper it is to build in Europe. The reality is that the analysis will find that the Europeans opt much more often for cut-and-cover than we do (we never do anymore). The Europeans practically never blast out caverns for stations, at least not of the size we are doing in here. The Europeans will close streets for years, to do the cut-and-cover. We have chosen (I believe mistakenly) to pander to the NIMBYs and never do. Our problems is what we decide to build. In the name of not inconveniencing anyone, we do not have the guts to close Second Avenue for through traffic for 30 blocks and dig the street up for 2 years. Our problem is that we select the projects based on grandiosity and how few NIMBYs will get disturbed, not based on sound economic analysis.

If somehow miraculously the next phase of the Second Avenue subway ends up being cut and cover (it kind of needs to be — sections of the tunnels exist and they are not that deep) everyone will be surprised how much cheaper it is than the deep bored caverns (hopefully inflation does not eat up all the savings).

Alon Levy October 13, 2015 - 10:57 am

Paris has the same density as Manhattan. It also has more preexisting underground infrastructure; Metro Line 14 ran into catacombs during construction.

In fact, despite the high density, New York has what should be a distinct cost advantage over older European cities: straight, wide avenues. Paris of course has these, but they already have Metro lines; the new lines, including M14 and the RER lines, carve their own underground ROW, and at times have had to go underneath older lines, like Sixth Avenue Line, which was built next to and underneath PATH and as a result suffered from elevated costs for the era.

As for ESA, I think it’s useful to split costs not just into avoidable and unavoidable, but also into cost growth that comes from high unit costs and cost growth that comes from too much scope. The ESA (and ARC) cavern is the latter: the cavern is unnecessary, a byproduct of turf battles between the LIRR and Metro-North. California HSR’s high costs are entirely a matter of unneeded scope and bad alignment decisions, and in areas where these are not factors, the costs are within the range of Western European HSR. In contrast, there is no obvious scope creep to subway lines: SAS stations are not unusually palatial.

eo October 13, 2015 - 12:17 pm

You are absolutely right about too much scope. Almost any through-running(including ones with cavern through-running station) would have been at less half the cost of ESA+Gateway in spite of the more expensive rolling stock to accomplish this. Two terminal stations with stub tracks(ESA and Penn South) are about twice as expensive as one through-running station. The problem is that the state border matters because it determines who pays, so short of annexing NJ into NY state it will not happen. Politicians and bureaucrats won’t allow it.

I do not know enough about Paris, but I suspect that the Upper East Side density is approached only in select spots the downtown area, while everywhere else it is at most half. And I do suspect that their costs are much higher in those select areas than elsewhere on the same line. All European cities I have been to are very far from our densities here apart from select downtown areas. If anything, their costs are more inline with what we would spend on Utica Ave Line or any new line in Brooklyn (outside of Brooklyn downtown) or Queens [problem is we do not know what our costs there are because sadly the powers to be think that these are places not good enough to consider transit for them].

Alon Levy October 13, 2015 - 4:37 pm

The Paris CBD doesn’t have high residential density – it’s commercial, like Midtown. Parts of eastern Paris do approach UES density. M14 doesn’t pass through the densest arrondissements, but it passes under the CBD, and is bored deep, with deep-level stations excavated during construction.

adirondacker12800 October 13, 2015 - 1:08 pm

East Side Access was planned and the tunnel under the East River completed, years before there was Metro North.

Henry October 13, 2015 - 3:59 pm

If I remember correctly, the SAS stations are being built as caverns with full-length mezzanines. I don’t know if that would be more costly than, say, a crossrail station with exits only at the ends of platforms.

Fool October 14, 2015 - 10:02 am

A public servant should be going to jail for the deep tunnel cavern.

Quirk October 13, 2015 - 12:06 pm

“New York has higher density than many of the examples that are usually cited for lower costs.”

Stopped reading there.

rustonite October 13, 2015 - 1:14 pm

THIS: “In the name of not inconveniencing anyone, we do not have the guts to close Second Avenue for through traffic for 30 blocks and dig the street up for 2 years.”

How much cheaper would all of this be if we were willing to inconvenience drivers?

Thomas Graves October 13, 2015 - 2:34 pm

Forget about Europe for a moment. The population density of Tokyo is 3X that of New York City (app. 6000 per sq km vs 2000). The cost of new subway construction is way less than that of New York’s. And no, it’s not all cut-and-cover. The Oedo line for example, is very deep.

As Larry Littlefield notes, it’s the embedded corruption & give-aways developed over decades and never rooted out, including mafia-controlled construction (unions and companies), sky’s the limit pension schemes, outrageous work-rules, corrupt politicians etc, etc. And the only ones asking questions are the people on these boards.

New Yorkers themselves have become so inured to filthy, decrepit subways that they long ago gave up hoping things would get better. Nice to have $30 Billion, but it won’t buy much in Gotham.

HudsonMoleRat October 13, 2015 - 10:55 pm

Some though laws restricting who could ‘donate’ funds to parties would go a long way in this state.

Nathanael October 19, 2015 - 7:47 am

Don’t forget the neighboring building owners, whose buildings were already structurally unsound, but who *claimed* that the MTA’s tunnel-digging was damaging them. The Department of Buildings, which is *supposed* to keep the records and collect the evidence to prove that the building owners are lying, refused to lift a finger to do anything.

So the MTA ended up paying out of its own pocket. Because of corruption at the DOB.

Stephen Smith October 13, 2015 - 2:34 pm

If Manhattan’s subways are expensive because of the dense tunneling environment, then why is it that the 7 train extension and the 2nd Ave. subway are basically the same cost (once you account for the missing 7 train station), despite the fact that the former is in the least densely built part of Manhattan and the latter is in one of the most densely built parts?

Crawdad October 13, 2015 - 12:52 pm

“New York has higher density than many of the examples that are usually cited for lower costs.”
Stopped reading there.

It’s true, though. NYC has higher core density than any other city in the western world. Denser even than Paris or Barcelona. It has higher core density than any developed city in Asia except for Hong Kong, and even in Hong Kong the higher density area is relatively small in scope.

Alon Levy October 14, 2015 - 8:25 am

First, in Hong Kong there are three districts denser than the Upper East Side, totaling 1.3 million people.

Second, Paris and New York have the same peak density. UES = 11th Arrondissement = ~42,000/km^2. Now, New York’s peak lasts a bit more, in the sense that the UWS and LES are almost even with the UES, whereas Paris rapidly drops to about 30,000/km^2. But the top neighborhood density is the same.

Now, New York also has segments of even higher density, along Second Avenue… but they’re small in scope, and honestly, it doesn’t matter terribly much how tall the buildings are when you have a throughfare as wide as Second Avenue.

Christopher October 13, 2015 - 2:51 pm

Wish I had saved one of the better editorials I’ve read on managing infrastructure costs written by Michael Dukakis sometime in the 1990s. He pointed out the need for tough bargaining and management at the state and federal level. I know he’s probably written on that in other mediums since then. Truly this is a problem that has only ballooned since the 1990s. Someone needs to make this their platform again. I think there’d be significant popular support for that kind of analysis. I know that MBTA is digging into their costs right now again. I don’t understand why NY political leadership (even one! just one person!) is not making this an issue.

Larry Littlefield October 13, 2015 - 3:57 pm

“I don’t understand why NY political leadership (even one! just one person!) is not making this an issue.”


Nathanael October 19, 2015 - 7:49 am

Frankly, even in Boston, they are actually making an effort to do tough bargaining and management.

The ballooning cost for the Green Line was immediately blamed (in the press!) on a bad contracting method that allowed the prime contractor to inflate costs, and the immediate response was to rebid to different contractors.

In New York, can you imagine that happening?

JJJJ October 13, 2015 - 2:53 pm

While this is about capital costs, what about operating costs?

NYC is one of the only systems in the world still paying for multiple employees per Subway train. Yes, unions – but MBTA managed to evict the guy sleeping in the middle of the train, why can’t MTA?

Why are we building new subway lines (2nd Ave) using 100 year old manual technology? We’re talking about being on the cusp of self driving cars which is insanely complicated, and we cant get self driving trains which only have to start and stop? There must be a million elevators in NYC that have mastered that ability, but the MTA cant do it?

Age? Please. if Paris could convert their oldest line to automated, why can’t NYC start the process?

Thomas Graves October 13, 2015 - 3:14 pm

While subways & surface trains with no on-board operators proliferate in Europe and Asia, the only one in North America (outside of airport people-movers) seems to be Vancouver’s Skytrain. Further proof that Americans are falling farther and farther behind in implementing new transportation technology. Automating the NYC subway is so far-fetched an idea it never even comes up for discussion. The unions wouldn’t allow it. And given how long it’s taking to implement CBTC, moving to totally automated trains is probably a 22nd century initiative.

JJJJ October 13, 2015 - 5:42 pm

There are a couple of non-airport driverless people movers, such as the Miami Metromover. Not only are there no staff on trains, there arent any at stations either.

BART and DC Metro can operate without drivers. People like to say “because unions” but the real answer is “because of lack of leadership”. As I mentioned, MBTA kicked out the 2nd subway operator, even with unions. Last I heard, unions in Paris are pretty damn strong. It can be done. The problem is if you dont even try.

Its much easier to blame the union before the conversation even starts.

adirondacker12800 October 13, 2015 - 6:03 pm

One track of the Times Square Shuttle was automated back in the 60s.

Brooklynite October 13, 2015 - 7:19 pm

JFK Airtrain is driverless, and managed to navigate the morass of the Port Authority as well as issues with NYC lawyers.

Also, I believe that on the L all the TO does is press a start button. The trains drive themselves. Why there are no screen doors on the L eludes me: there aren’t even issues with 75′ cars not lining up! If it weren’t for the screen door issue we could conceivably have unmanned trains on the L tomorrow.

Henry October 13, 2015 - 4:02 pm

We are building the SAS using manual technology because of the fact that SAS is not a closed system, so having driverless trains would be a fruitless exercise if they were just going to interline onto non-driverless lines. SAS is also not going to be used to full capacity until at least Phase III comes on, since until then it’ll just be funneling into the Q, which has capacity limits on the Broadway Express and at DeKalb Av.

HudsonMoleRat October 13, 2015 - 10:43 pm

You are aware the MTA is slowly phasing in CBTC, right? They can’t just press a button and all of sudden the network starts moving on its own.

The Paris example is silly considering they’re going through the same slow process (the projected completion date for their long term automation plan is 2050!).

Stephen Smith October 13, 2015 - 11:28 pm

The same slow process? Paris has countdown clocks on all of its lines, including its suburban trains. It has CBTC on a couple (I think four?) Metro lines (compared to NYC’s one), and two are fully driverless (compared to NYC’s none).

HudsonMoleRat October 14, 2015 - 12:07 am

There are only two lines operating with modern CBTC systems (SAET) while the rest operate using an older block based system (it’s about as advanced as what was tested on the 42nd street shuttle in the 60s).

The MTA is pathetically slow most of the time but when it comes to ATO/ATC they haven’t been very slow.

Alon Levy October 14, 2015 - 8:19 am

The central trunk of the RER A has CBTC as well.

HudsonMoleRat October 14, 2015 - 2:49 pm

Thanks for the info. I wasn’t aware they were done installing the new equipment on the transversale.

I might as well ask, do you know if the STIF or the RATP have a webpage (in the language of Shakespeare ou dans la langue de Molière) listing all their current projects with construction updates?

Henry October 14, 2015 - 10:00 am

The Paris Metro and RER are also operationally simpler than NYCT, though. The Metro and RER lines are, for all intents and purposes, operationally distinct; you won’t find a train running down from an RER A suburban branch onto one of the other RER lines, for example, but it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that a non-CBTC equipped D train will be rerouted onto the CBTC Queens Blvd Line during a service change. Given that the requirements for CBTC on the NYCT system are much more stringent (need to be able to handle non-CBTC equipment that gets routed into CBTC territory during a service change, must be able to transition trains from non-CBTC to CBTC territory during regular service seamlessly, must be able to handle myriad service changes, etc.), it’s no surprise that implementation is slower than in peer systems. London has similar issues on the Sub-Surface lines, and that CBTC program is also delayed.

HudsonMoleRat October 14, 2015 - 2:58 pm

To be fair, the SAET system actually allows older non-CBTC equipped trains to run on the same corridor as CTBC equipped trains. So it is technically possible but the operational benefit from that type of hybrid system would probably be far too small to justify that type of solution.

webster October 14, 2015 - 10:35 am

The SAS has accommodations for both the old, blocking system and CBTC…

Moreover, the real issue with moving to driverless operations are Federal rules (Department of Labor) that make it difficult to get rid of employees through any other means besides attrition (quitting or retiring)…

The only reason Paris has any success implementing driverless service was by giving massive pay raises and moving current employees into the information centers, after implementing CBTC.

The MTA’s problem is that their roll-out is entirely too slow for such a deal to make much sense…

JJJJ October 14, 2015 - 12:06 pm

Thats what Boston did. When they kicked out the 2nd operator, they were given a new position. But once they quit/retire whatever, that position does not get filled.

You have to start somewhere

Larry Littlefield October 14, 2015 - 1:30 pm

The unions don’t care about the second operator. They care about the dues. Productivity gains don’t hurt the workers unless they involve slavedriving, and can help them. The unions have their own self interest.

Nathanael October 19, 2015 - 7:50 am

Frankly, NY Transit could use more customer-facing employees, so there would certainly be work for the displaced operators to take. London staffs every single station…

Miles Bader October 15, 2015 - 2:33 am

NYC is one of the only systems in the world still paying for multiple employees per Subway train.

Keep in mind that per-train labor costs matter less when you’re running very long, very crowded trains.

Tokyo still has a separate driver and conductor on many/most lines, but because they have such high ridership, it’s probably less of an issue than it is in many cities. [They’re slowly moving to “one man” operation, but my vague impression is that they only do this on lines with platform-side doors (which are also slowly being added), so maybe there are specific rules governing when they’re allowed to do so.]

mister October 13, 2015 - 5:37 pm

There are many reasons why capital construction costs at MTA remain extremely high. While many chalk it up to the construction industry being “controlled by the mafia”, it’s simply too cliché to make this claim. Can anyone here cite a recent, specific example of this happening and directly driving up costs? Does anyone here know how Skanska, Dragados or OHL, huge, international firms, are controlled by local mafia?

A discussion that blames high costs simply on the nebulous term of “corruption” doesn’t address the root of the problem. Virtually every useless politician runs on a platform of cutting corruption and waste, but doesn’t have an actual plan or even the slightest idea of how to do that. Real, tangible reasons need to be identified if there’s going to be a discussion on how to drive down costs.

I see a number of reasons that costs are what they are. The first, and biggest problem, is the MTA’s own inability to provide cost effective design of their projects. All too often, MTA projects include items that are custom designed, single sourced or proprietary. Getting designs that are informed by what is happening in the private sector, AND getting end user groups to accept these changes would go a long way to making substantial savings on many of these projects.

The second problem is staffing levels. I am all for unions and maintaining the rights of workers, but there are too many work rules that require workers which don’t do much to continue to be employed on projects. The most egregious example of this is the need for Operating Engineers to man compressors and personnel hoists, but mandatory additions of personnel to some work crews in other trades drives up cost of many projects. A great deal of this goes beyond the control of MTA, although having non-union contractors bid on more work would force BTEA contractors to sit down and have a real negotiation with the unions to see how costs could be trimmed. In addition, on many projects MTA personnel do a lot of the work, and sometimes the work rules require employees to be present who do very little. MTA could drive down its Force Account expenditures by using their own manpower more effectively (Construction Flagging is the worst offender here).

A third problem is the MTA’s inability to embrace cost saving technology. The big thing that everyone looks at is reduction of train staff, but there are a lot of other issues that go beyond what the average person can see. For an example of this, consider what Transit Wireless is paying to install Wifi, Cell Service and connectivity for the new HPIs for 277 underground stations (around $200 Million) vs what PA/CIS is costing for 187 B division stations ($400 to $450 Million). One reason why is that TW is relying on some technologies that the MTA isn’t embracing.

Many of these issues won’t be fixed overnight, but a number of small sensible steps could help fix things. For one, by negotiating with workers and not demanding that we cut their jobs, but that we move them around to make everyone more efficient. Negotiations will go better if we don’t immediately start out with the goal of laying people off. If we’ve decided that we’re going to spend $30 Billion, we need to agree that we’re going to spend it on people who are actually working. Another way to cut costs is to incentivize the workers. MTA can do this directly with their own employees working on capital projects, and with contractors by offering to split cost savings on projects. If we have a budget right now of $30 Billion, then we have a starting point. Utilizing contract agreements where where the end price is not fixed, such as a Not-to-exceed or Guaranteed Maximum Price, and then tracking expenditures could result in a cost savings for the MTA.

Fixing the MTA’s capital cost woes is not likely to happen, since the very structure of the organization is designed to allow pols to point an accusatory finger at the agency while not doing their jobs. As long as this remains the case, then fixing the MTA’s capital costs and other issues will continue to be a non-starter.

Larry Littlefield October 14, 2015 - 7:29 am

The bottom line is that the MTA budget contains a cost estimate for all to see. It is inflated, as it is based on the prior inflated contract. The contractors use it as a floor. They manage to exceed it, and then have a higher estimate for the next contract.

The explanations above to not account for why the cost of signal replacement projects doubled over a decade, for a similar number of interlockings and length of track. After adjustment for inflation. When the price of all things electronic continues to fall elsewhere, and quite a bit of the non-electronic work on signal replacement projects (track) is done by NYCT workers themselves.

Streater October 14, 2015 - 6:21 pm

Driverless vehicles will eventually replace the subway… and the then we can say bye bye to the unions. Just shutdown the trains, pave over the tracks for driverless bus trains.

AG October 14, 2015 - 11:27 pm

Driver-less cars could never handle the capacity of the subway.

Streater October 15, 2015 - 12:08 am

not driverless cars… driverless buses… and they will be faster than the subway. This is coming… no doubt… and everyone on this website should realize the end of the subway is near… especially if work rules are not reformed. Unions always end up killing themselves in every industry.

Nathanael October 19, 2015 - 7:52 am

Nope. Google “conical wheel” and “train” to find out why buses simply do not have the capacity of trains.

Driverless trains, of course, ALREADY EXIST (Docklands Light Rail, Vancouver Skylink) and could be implemented within a year if management wanted to.

Guest October 19, 2015 - 10:22 am

The subway is grade separated (no intersections, no other traffic, exclusive river crossings), trains are significantly larger with more capacity than any bus.

Driversless POVs are nice but will never be the dominant form of transportation in NYC. Not enough room, too small capacity.

Expect NYC to only cede more road space to other uses as time passes. I imagine entire areas banning automobiles (E.g. Financial District).

Rich B October 15, 2015 - 12:29 am

This may not be all that crazy. It’s clear that driverless taxis, cars, and long-haul trucks are coming quite soon. It’s only a matter of time before the attention turns to busses. I don’t know how it will play out. Busses might become an obsolete concept, or they might be automated. I have no idea how subways will be affected. Honestly, all I do know is that automated, driverless vehicles are going to have a huge impact on absolutely all forms of transportation. It’s going to change everything.

Nathanael October 19, 2015 - 7:53 am

No, it’s not. Proof:

We’ve had driverless trains since the 1970s. Has it “changed everything”?

s. November 6, 2015 - 10:53 am

MTA have money.. If they spent money on what other reason? Don’t know.. Then everyone could tell MTA want to ” raise MTA bus fare or subway fare again in 2018 ? Why raise MTA bus & subway fare again. If MTA have money…


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