Home MTA Absurdity Prendergast orders a cultural cure for MTA’s Didn’t-Think-Of-It-Ourselves-itis

Prendergast orders a cultural cure for MTA’s Didn’t-Think-Of-It-Ourselves-itis

by Benjamin Kabak

For a few years, I’ve noted that the MTA suffers from something we could call “Didn’t Think Of It Ourselves-itis.” If someone at the MTA didn’t think of it — or if someone from the outside the MTA isn’t funding — the agency not only doesn’t embrace the idea but usually finds a way to dismiss any proposal out of hand with the variety of usual suspects. It’s too expensive; it’s too impractical; it’s too timely; it sets a bad precedent. The list goes on and on.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen this drama unfold in response to two different proposals. First, in mid-November, when politicians began to clamor for rationalized commuter rail fares to alleviate the stress of certain transit deserts within the city, the MTA dismissed its $70 million out of hand. “We just can’t agree to accept that kind of loss especially since we already lose so much money on other services,” Adam Lisberg said at the time.

A few weeks later, when the Riders Alliance proposed a free bus to Laguardia, a Transit spokesman issued a similar statement. “At the end of the day,” Kevin Ortiz said, “there is simply zero evidence that making it a free shuttle would increase ridership on subways to the point it would make the shuttle self-sustaining.”

These two statements seemed to embody Didn’t-Think-Of-It-Ourselves-itis. As I noted last month, when it comes to multi-billion-dollar expenses — and some projects that could rightfully be called boondoggles — the MTA doesn’t bat an eye, but when it comes to incremental operating costs for customer-friendly initiatives, the MTA suddenly cares deeply about efficient spending. It’s quite the paradox and one that MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast apparently wants addressed.

As the Daily News reported earlier this week, Prendergast has asked his staffers to listen to ideas for service improvements rather than simply dismissing them out of hand. It may seem like an obvious point to anyone watching from the outside, but it’s an important culture shift within the MTA. Dan Rivoli explains:

The MTA boss told agency staff to stop trashing ideas to give riders a break on fares and improve service “out-of-hand,” according to an emailed memo obtained by the Daily News. MTA officials’ response to some recent ideas — such as cheaper commuter fares for trips within the city or extra subway and bus service — “seemed to indicate that we were rejecting these proposals out-of-hand, mostly on the grounds that they were too costly,” MTA chief Tom Prendergast wrote in a message emailed to board members Nov. 29.

The quick criticism and cries of poverty had some MTA board members feeling sidelined from the decision-making process, transit officials said. “We must not and we will not give the appearance that this Board does not play a very thoughtful and active role in these decisions,” wrote Prendergast, who holds the dual role of the top MTA executive and chairman of the board…

Prendergast wrote that he told MTA staff to be “far less strident” when responding to proposals that affect fares and service…Board members have picked up on the dismissive remarks from the MTA about policy proposals aimed at helping passengers at a time of cramped rides and spotty, unreliable operations. “We need to operate essentially on the margin, doing some jerry rigging … to be able to provide some relief to our customers,” said MTA board member Allen Cappelli. “Yes, it will take money and time to do these things, but (riders) want us as an institution to think outside the box and not just go along with the way things are.”

How this will eventually manifest itself is still an open question, and the MTA is still likely to suffer from other symptoms of Didn’t-Think-Of-It-Ourselves-itis. But a time when service is suffering due to a system that’s too popular for its own good, an organization that can be as insular as the MTA should do all it can to attempt to improve the customer experience. If that means listening and implementing a few good ideas thought up by outsiders, so be it. It’s better, after all, than yet another cranky conductor yelling at riders trying to board a crush-loaded peak-hour train to “use all available doors” as though that will magically fix all of the system’s problems.

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Jeff December 16, 2015 - 12:44 am

Longtime listener, first time caller, as they say on talk radio. We’ve needed this kind of initiative for literally forever; you could probably fill an encyclopedia with the good ideas that the MTA has tossed out without cause. Only two caveats:

1) Converting the Q70 to a free LGA-subway shuttle sounds like a great idea, but the MTA shouldn’t do much of anything to attract even more riders to the subway without doing a lot more to accommodate the record-breaking ridership it already has. One of the last things our crushloaded trains need is an influx of even more tourists struggling to pull their luggage through “all available doors.”
2) I don’t say this to let the MTA off the hook, but it seems like they’re spendthrifts on operations, but heavy spenders with capital (especially boondoggles) is because for whatever reason, capital funding is much easier to come by, and is much more available than, operational funding. Prendergast could probably get federal funding to build a subway for hamsters underneath Fifth Avenue, but Albany and Washington have almost always been much more thrifty with funding to run the service we already have.

mister December 16, 2015 - 1:55 am

With regards to your point#2, I think the inverse is true. The operating side of the MTA has a number of dedicated revenue streams which provide a source of funding that, while variable, can be counted on to be there. However, this means that they must keep costs under whatever this budget comes in at.

On the other hand, while there certainly seems to be little to perform cost controls on individual projects, there is no steady stream of revenue funding the capital program, and so projects are dropped outright – Just think about what happened to phase 2 of SAS. Capital funding has long been difficult for MTA to obtain – one of the biggest problems MTA has right now is that failure to obtain funding for capital programs in the past resulted in them creating debt that they are now paying out of operations.

Larry Littlefield December 16, 2015 - 9:50 am

“The operating side of the MTA has a number of dedicated revenue streams which provide a source of funding that, while variable, can be counted on to be there.”

All going to past debts and pensions.

Alon Levy December 16, 2015 - 11:50 pm

If I understand NTD and International Metro Benchmarking numbers correctly, then on PDF-p. 8 here, the system with the highest operating costs per car-km is New York’s. The NTD says it spends $8.60/car-km, but it excludes some maintenance costs.

BDawe December 20, 2015 - 8:24 pm

Where does it say that’s New York?

Nathanael December 21, 2015 - 11:27 pm

It doesn’t. But it’s a CoMet system (see description) in “the Americas” (AM). This means it’s either NY, Mexico City, Sao Paolo, or Santiago.

It’s NY.

The APTA numbers make it pretty clear that New York is way out there on the high operating costs side.

I believe the last time I checked, the most expensive-per-car-km-operated systems were:

— in commuter rail, LIRR and then Metro-North;
— in metro, PATH and then NYC Subway.

I might be mistaken, but all four of them are WAY up there on costs, out of line with all other systems.

Nathanael December 21, 2015 - 11:28 pm

Part of the expense is the idiotic featherbedding involved in having “conductors” who do nothing but sit in a cab and point at the “spot train here” board on the platform.

Kevin P. December 16, 2015 - 1:56 am

In tech we call it “not invented here” syndrome.

SEAN December 16, 2015 - 8:15 am

A great reference point would be a 21st century smartcard & payment system such as Chicago’s Ventra or Toronto’s Presto. Even Connecticut is moving in that direction on the busses it operates throughout the state.

SEAN December 16, 2015 - 8:19 am Reply
Tower18 December 16, 2015 - 10:29 am

The only US transit system remotely comparable to New York is Chicago, and though the Ventra rollout was plagued with problems at the beginning, it is up and running and working successfully. Chicago now has a single farecard across CTA, Metra, and Pace, and has even been able to do things like have the system automatically handle the CTA Link-Up pass for Metra (if you have a commuter rail pass, for an upcharge, you can get a CTA mini-pass that only works during commuting hours). With Ventra, if you have the Link-Up pass, any CTA tap-ins during the allowed hours are automatically free. No additional pass, no paper, no fuss.

Yes people still complain about Ventra, but supporters of inaction like to point at that and say “See? Look how bad it is” while ignoring how awful Metrocard is…PLEASE SWIPE AGAIN…PLEASE SWIPE AGAIN….PLEASE SWIPE AGAIN AT THIS TURNSTILE…PLEASE SWIPE AGAIN…JUST USED.

Zach S December 16, 2015 - 11:40 am

CTA I believe allows open payment, so you can use any contactless credit card. No need to use their cards if you don’t want.

SEAN December 16, 2015 - 4:43 pm

That is correct. As a footnote, You can only use Ventra on Metra via the app. http://www.ventrachicago.com

Tower18 December 16, 2015 - 6:03 pm

Correct, but you don’t get transfers or passes with your own card, so not of much use for now.

SEAN December 16, 2015 - 8:27 pm

I called the Ventra call center prior to my previous post to find out if their card or a bank card would work on Metra & I was told no. I also asked if that functionality will work on Metra at some future time & again the answer was no, only the app will work that way. Kind of stupid if you ask me.

Tower18 December 17, 2015 - 10:33 am

Yes but you can use your Ventra balance to buy the ticket on the app. I think it’s a good compromise.

Nathanael December 21, 2015 - 11:29 pm

Boston is absolutely comparable to NYC. CharlieCard is working excellently, and the Green Line had implementation challenges which NY does not have.

VLM December 16, 2015 - 9:20 am

Not Invented Here Syndrome is a major problem plaguing the MTA, especially with regards to technology and easy upgrades (open gangways, anyone?), but it’s slightly different than the Didn’t Think Of It Ourselves-Itis Ben describes. Two sides to the same (inept) coin really.

Larry Littlefield December 16, 2015 - 10:16 am

The antidote is to play the Tom Lehrer song Lobachevsky.

Alon Levy December 18, 2015 - 2:06 am

Coming to think about it, riding the subway reminds me so much of National Brotherhood Week. For 45 minutes each direction, each day, you can forget that it’s one of the most segregated regions in America.

Eric December 19, 2015 - 6:09 pm

Really? I looked at two lists of the most segregated areas in the US. One was all Southern and Midwestern cities with no NYC. The other had NYC at #2 but noted that this did not represent people’s experience, because the neighborhood divisions are physically smaller in NYC (due to the higher density) so NYC residents travel through more “neighborhoods” than in other cities, increasing the diversity of people you meet on the street.

Alon Levy December 20, 2015 - 10:51 am

I did mean the second list, the one with New York at #2.

The neighborhoods are indeed geographically smaller (I think it’s done on the census tract level), but what this means is that New Yorkers live in homogeneous neighborhoods but travel through other race’s neighborhood on their way to work. Hence you have people of all races on the subway, but still sharp color lines between the UES/UWS/Morningside Heights and Harlem.

Bolwerk December 21, 2015 - 8:50 pm

Makes sense to me.

But the wider region is probably very segregated, given the ethnic composition of suburbs and small satellite cities.

Herb Lehman December 16, 2015 - 8:59 am

This whole thing honestly sounds to me like a publicity stunt by Prendergast. I don’t expect the MTA to magically stop being dismissive of every reasonable suggestion anytime soon.

Bolwerk December 16, 2015 - 11:31 am

I don’t expect Cuomo to stop being dismissive soon.

Justin Samuels December 18, 2015 - 3:12 am

While they can dismiss individuals and even non profits they can’t dismiss Albany or even City Hall because where does their funding come from? Cuomo could fire Prendergast if he wants to. When mayor politicians talk, the MTA will listen and implement.

The MTA has to negotiate with the City the next fare increase. The city politicians will continue to push for metrocard fare prices for commuter railroads. Exactly how much it costs is the question, and that’s why the city didn’t want to necessarily agree with the first figure the MTA gave them. It’s just like neither the city nor the governor agreed with the capital budget at first and they fought over it for awhile.

I do not think the MTA will take much in the way of suggestions from the general public however.

lawhawk December 16, 2015 - 9:42 am

Not done in-house is how the MTA hasn’t moved past the Metrocard, which it has been looking to replace for years now. They could adopt the PATH card reader system, which involves not only a Metrocard reader, but a RFID tap/go card. Or they could go with an optical system that NJ Transit uses.

Frankly, the tap and go system makes more sense, and it’s a system that many other transit agencies already use in some variation.

But they’ll continue studying the issue to death, as they find it increasingly difficult to keep the existing system operating.

Heck, the MTA ought to consider some of the suggestions to rationalize the headways and increase capacity where possible as made by Alon Levy per yesterday’s posting, but they wont do that either.

Other suggestions that ought to be followed up:

Eliminating trash containers throughout the subway system given the success in the “pilot” program.

Free up transit workers to do more light maintenance in stations – whether it’s painting or sprucing stations up. That requires work rule changes, but it would ultimately improve the customer experience in stations. It shouldn’t take years to do refurbs of stations. Peeling paint within customer areas should be resolved more quickly.

JJJ December 16, 2015 - 2:27 pm

They should start by installing the PATH machines at MTA stations that connect with PATH. And give people a $1.00 discount when transferring.

Larry Littlefield December 16, 2015 - 9:49 am

The MTA staff is reacting to the agency being used as a cash cow by political actors for the past 20 years.

The city services in turn need to be a cash cow to pay for the LIRR and toll breaks.

oiononio December 16, 2015 - 9:49 am

On the Q70 to Free shuttle idea…Wouldn’t a revamp of the Jackson Heights bus terminal fix the problem? It seems that passenger flow would be improved if the connecting buses were already inside fare control, and the crowds could use all available doors. Then the Q70 would need to be “free” from LGA inbound. The current setup (this bus on the curb, the others idling past a set of narrow doors, seems like a major design flaw…

Jon Y December 16, 2015 - 3:15 pm

One of the EASIEST (easiest in terms of actual costs and requirements) would be to make the Q70 an SBS route so that there is off-board payments and multi-door entry. Right now, nearly half the time it takes to go from Subway to LGA is wasted waiting for the bus to slowly load everyone throuh the front door.

Andrew December 16, 2015 - 8:12 pm Reply
Alon Levy December 16, 2015 - 11:58 pm

“Nearly half” is an exaggeration. I rode the Q70 last week and timed it. It’s maybe 5-6 minutes of delay on a ride of perhaps 20-30 minutes.

When you think about it right, the route can’t possibly be a major beneficiary from off-board fare collection, since it has low turnover. When any bus fills, on-board fare collection slows it down by about the same amount of time per rider. It’s more obvious on the Q70 because all the riders board at one stop, but the effect is the same as on any other route. The routes with the biggest delays induced by on-board fare payment are the ones with high turnover, i.e. with the most boardings per unit length.

Eric December 17, 2015 - 6:44 am

If only 1 or 2 or 3 riders get on at a stop, they can all get on by the front door, and pay their fares after the bus has closed its doors and started moving. If you’re filling up a bus all at once, the bus has to wait for each person to pay.

Alon Levy December 18, 2015 - 2:09 am

Hmmm. Now I want to test this empirically on various routes, and see how many people the driver will let pay after the bus starts moving.

Herb Lehman December 18, 2015 - 10:09 am

5 or 6 minutes of delay on a 20-30 minute ride is very significant. That’s 20 to 25 percent of the trip’s time. When you count on transit to get you to work on time, as I do, 5 or 6 minutes can make a big difference.

brianvan (@brianvan) December 16, 2015 - 10:16 am

I’m enjoying the thought that what this all really came down to was Prendergast telling Lisberg specifically not to rip into others’ transit suggestions on Twitter.

g December 16, 2015 - 10:43 am

Instead the MTA will more politely ignore suggestions as “Will be taken under advisement” or “Under consideration pending availability of funds”. Nothing will actually change and they’ll be just as resistant to outside ideas as before…perhaps moreso if they can successfully deflect proposals for change without being confrontational.

David December 16, 2015 - 8:58 pm


Also, I question whether this announcement was meant as we’re all interpreting it. It seems to me like his comments were meant more to placate MTA board members, perhaps feeling slighted in their control of the agency, than to apologize for the MTA’s attitude to transit advocates.

Justin Samuels December 18, 2015 - 3:14 am

Not exactly. If ordered by Albany in particular the MTA has to comply as the Albany can replace the CEO and many of the board members. The city can replace the remaining board members and as they are partially funding the MTA they do have some leverage.

Right now on the metrocard fares for the LIRR and the MNRR the city and the MTA are fighting over the price. Eventually they will come to an agreement, just like they did on the capital budget. The metrocard transfer to LIRR and MNRR are apart of the negotiations for the MTA to raise fares in 2017, which they will. Fares go up automatically every two years.

Nathanael December 21, 2015 - 11:32 pm

Honestly, from everything I’ve been told, Prendergast is a good guy who wants the MTA to function. He’s probably as frustrated as we are.

Beebo December 16, 2015 - 5:24 pm

I’m wondering how unique NYC’s requirements are, that a contactless card swiper system can’t be off-the-shelfed, e.g., from Toronto or Chicago’s vendor.

Obviously, whatever they buy would have to have provisions for working with the current cards. (E.g., two readers, until such time as the metrocard is obsoleted. Or maybe just a separate reader that transfers your balance from one type of card to the other.)

But either way, it does not appear to be that big of a deal from where I’m standing.

SEAN December 16, 2015 - 9:01 pm

It’s not – Chicago has proven that since this is their second Generation card system. L.A.’s TAP & Clipper in the Bay area are more complicated with multi-level fare structures & numerous transit providers.

Lets look at NYC vs L.A.

NYC has…
MTA, MNR, LIRR, NICE, Bee-line, PATH,NJT, Coach USA & CT Transit.

I purpusly left out smaller systems in the Hudson Valley & Suffolk County & you could count them if you want. The only complicated parts are where fares are calculated by distance & that is solved with exit taps.

L. A. Has Metro, Metrolink & about fifteen city operated bus systems including Long Beach, Santa Monica Big Blue Bus, Glendale & Pasadena who’s fares vary widely & not all transfers are honored between opperators with a tap. And yet it manages to some how work.

Also as I type, I realized you could add DC to this list minus the wild fare fluctuations you find in L. A.

Beebo December 17, 2015 - 6:16 am

Yes, but are you going to support all these providers via the same card? Or just MTA-owned venues? Seems like several systems went overboard with flexibility. Why? Do I one day ride the MTA; the next the LIRR; then Coach USA? Probably not.

SEAN December 17, 2015 - 10:06 am

Of course – NYC isn’t in a bubble. It is essential to serve those who live outside the city & a single fare medium expands travel flexibility for all transit users regardless if they ride an MTA route or not. Let me give you an example…

Lets say you are in Forest Hills & you want to go to Ridgewood NJ, currently you 1. swipe to board to enter the subway, 2. exit at Penn Station to take a train or exit at the PABT, 3. buy a separate ticket for NJT.

Now with a regional smartcard you would 1. tap in at the subway with a possible tap on exit, 2. tap in at either Penn or PABT & 3. tap again in Ridgewood before exiting to calculate the correct NJT fare.

I’m not going to get into passes & electronic purses here to keep things simple.

Tower18 December 17, 2015 - 10:38 am

I think many riders would ride at least NJT/LIRR/MNRR/PickYourBusLine and then also NYCT in the same day. So yes, you should integrate all of them into a single farecard.

All MTA-owned is a baseline, so you need NYCT, LIRR, and MNRR. I don’t know if you need PATH, but since they’re already somewhat integrated with MetroCard, why not. Same with NICE and Bee-Line. It’s silly not to include NJT, but that’s a likely outcome given lack of regional coordination. In a sane world, there’d be a regional transportation authority that provides oversight and planning for both sides of the Hudson.

SEAN December 17, 2015 - 11:03 am

I do that on a fairly regular basis & I cant be the only one. So as a result,regional connectivity is extremely important & with one payment mechanism, travel options broaden significantly.

Beebo December 17, 2015 - 7:18 pm

At a certain point, I say, wave a credit card at the reader, instead. After all, we’re just recreating that credit card, albeit solely for transit-related expenditures.

The same I suppose could be said of “cash” 🙂

SEAN December 17, 2015 - 8:23 pm

Ventra was built to allow RFID bank card paymement. The new card systems being installed in Philadelphia http://www.septa.com & Portland OR http://www.trimet.com will do the same. Current card systems will need to be upgrated to accept RFID bank cards, but that’s more or less a software issue.

Nathanael December 21, 2015 - 11:34 pm

Cash is really the best.

Unfortunately, the US has managed to end up with a truly insufficient collection of *coins*, which are good for fast cash payment. Bills suck for payment.

The refusal to change the available coins is because our money has been stuck in amber since Ronald Reagan.

adirondacker12800 December 22, 2015 - 12:45 am

It’s hard to give people weekly or monthly discounts if they are going to be using cash.

Old New Yorker December 17, 2015 - 4:00 pm

They need to get rid of Marc Mednick at the top of their empire…he’s been a major bottleneck in their operation since he joined the Transit Authority. He’s a useless executive — does nothing for them in any way, shape, or form. Send him out the door on his precious bicycle.

Nathanael December 21, 2015 - 11:35 pm

Sounds like you know where some of the bodies are buried.

Michael December 18, 2015 - 1:26 pm

From a previous message:

“If that means listening and implementing a few good ideas thought up by outsiders, so be it.”

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a public hearing/town hall meeting held by City Comptroller Scott Stringer near the Atlantic Avenue/Barclay Center in Brooklyn. Among the many comments and statements by regular citizens, one person presented a suggestion for the building of a expressway-type tunnel for cars and trucks UNDER Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn to help deal with the very crowded elevated Brooklyn-Queens Expressway nearby. The person who made this comment said that he had researched the issue, and wanted to present a paper to the Comptroller on getting the project done his suggestions. A member of the Comptroller’s staff took the report, with the Mr. Stringer saying that he’d look at the report.

I turned to my friend and remarked that if that person had actually had done the research he said he did – then just how did he miss the subway line that has been there since the 1920’s, today we call it the D, N & R lines in Brooklyn, running the length UNDER Fourth Avenue from stem to stern.

First off, I do not mean to “down-grade” or “cast any shade” upon the earnest hopes of folks that try to spur new ideas or proposals. I’m sorry but I just have to say the following:

a) Some ideas are not practical or implementable – either for physical, financial, technological or other reasons.

b) Some ideas simply will not improve the situation greatly, while incurring major costs or disadvantages for the agency, the riders, or the public at large.

c) Some ideas may work “in theory” but not in actual practice – whether that is due to engineering, implementation, time, money, man-power, need, etc.

d) Some ideas are indeed practical and implementable – but may involve huge amounts of time, money and man-power to realize.

e) Some ideas are indeed practical, affordable, having been tested to offer many benefits but many take some time to properly implement.

f) Some ideas may indeed conflict with the actual or perceived interests of other powerful groups, and there is “push-back” against the proposal.

g) Some ideas may indeed reflect what is possible at this point and time, with the current manpower, time, resources and money available – even though the proposal may not be “perfect” or “not follow the grand design theory”. Do not let the “good enough” become the enemy of the “perfect”.

h) Some ideas may indeed rise up to be funded and in the early stages of implementation, but the situation – financial, political, environmental, etc. – has changed. What were once good original ideas have to be modified to fit changed circumstances. Stuff happens – ideas change – people change, etc.

In any case, there has to be a forum and a filtering process that separates the various kinds of ideas and proposals. Frankly some ideas or proposals are simply not worth the paper or computer space they were printed on. Some ideas and proposals are indeed worthy of greater consideration and review – meaning they therefore need to be moved up the chain of consideration, and possibly to implementation.

The criticism of late, “Well I had an idea about __________, and how come nobody is listening, or how come it was not implemented yesterday” – should not be the start of the conversation. Ideas and proposals need to be honestly looked, debated, discussed, reflected upon, tweeked or modified, reviewed, etc. All ideas and proposals are not equal.

Just my thoughts.

Nathanael December 21, 2015 - 11:21 pm

The traditional name for this disease is

Not Invented Here or NIH.


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