On Friday morning at the Transit Museum, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a series of MTA projects designed to help modernize our subway system. By and large, these initiatives weren’t new as much as they were promises to speed up slow or stalled projects, such as wifi for underground stations, a move to a new fare payment technology, USB charging stations in the subway and B Division countdown clocks. I took a deeper dive into these plans in a rare weekend post that explored the tensions between Cuomo’s lofty rhetoric around expanding transit use and utter modesty of these proposals. I’d urge you to read that for my take. Today, I want to look closer at a different element of his MTA plans.
One part of Cuomo’s announcement that drew headlines and consternation involved plans to revise the way the MTA approaches station rehabilitation projects. For years, the MTA has seesawed between full station overhauls and a component-based repair system, often implementing the latter at stations that won’t undergo the former for years (if not decades). You see, with 469 stations — and soon to be 472 — under its purview, at current construction rates as set forth in the current five-year capital plan, it would take the MTA around a century to renovate every station. If only the lives of New York City subway stations were that long.
So during Friday’s semi-surreal event, Cuomo and MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast announced what the agency is a calling a “new, rapid approach” to station redevelopment that may speed up work by as much as 50 percent while saving money as well. Take a look at how Cuomo described it. “And that, “he said, referring to the rapid pace of construction on the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, “is what we are going to do with the MTA, 30 stations put them out all at once, design build whole new station, let people walk in there and say, “Wow, this is the MTA.” This is the train station – amazing. Yes, we can.”
You can see why people might get upset about this. Cuomo sounds like he’s proposing that the MTA shut down 30 subway stations all at once, and New Yorkers — especially those in Astoria where four adjacent subway stations will get this treatment — were concerned about losing access to the subway system for extended periods of time. In subsequent comments, though, Prendergast said that not all stations would be closed at once. The MTA expects to wrap work on these 30 by 2018 for most and by 2020 for a few stragglers. With rehabs expected to last 6-12 months, MTA officials said the agency will plan so subway riders will always have a nearby station.
As part of this work, the MTA is going to “revamp the design guidelines for subway stations to improve their look and feel…These cleaner, brighter stations will be easier to navigate, with better and more intuitive wayfinding, as well as a modernized look and feel.” The navigation element confuses me because every single one of the 30 stations is a single- or side-platform one-line station without any transferring or confusing corridors. Some have closed entrances that should be reopened, but streamlining navigation is more applicable to major destinations — which these 30 are not. Hopefully, though, navigation considerations come into play in the agency’s design guidelines, and we’ll learn more about that as the process unfolds.
More importantly, the MTA is trying something new with regards to construction and procurement. As the governor’s subsequent press release explained, “The MTA will use design-build procurement to deliver the projects more quickly, at a lower cost and with better quality, as a single contractor will be held accountable for cost, schedule and performance. Stations will be closed to give contractors unfettered access with a singular focus – get in, get done and get out.”
Prendergast explained that, instead of work extending for two or three years on weekends and nights, contractors will be given uninterrupted access to stations within the hopes of completing work much faster. The inspiration is clearly the Fastrack repair program which has led to cost savings and speedier timeframes.
Riders won’t be without subway service, though some may have to work a few more blocks or alter their commutes. And from a State of Good Repair perspective, this work should push the ball along. But there’s an element of Sisyphus to this proposal. If the MTA can get through 30 stations in three years, rather than 20 in five as the current capital plan proposal allows,
Even if the MTA can realize cost savings and find ways to speed up the work, getting through 30 stations in three years still means nearly 50 years before every station is repaired, and those renovated early in the cycle will be well past the point of bad repair by then. It’s a start, then, but is it enough? And that seems to be a common thread with Gov. Cuomo’s MTA proposals.