Home View from Underground Some thoughts on the MTA at a crossroads

Some thoughts on the MTA at a crossroads

by Benjamin Kabak

I know I promised an update on the potential New Jersey Transit strike, but I’m still not convinced service will shut down this weekend. It’s been decades since the last strike, and with region warning of crippling traffic and daily losses of millions of dollars, these things have a way of working themselves out at the last minute. I’ll post an update with the service advisories tomorrow night if the negotiations are not resolved by then. In the meantime, we’ll stay in New York City for today’s post.

A day after Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the MTA touted their new wifi-enabled buses as a possible cure-all for the city’s declining bus ridership, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast spoke at a breakfast hosted by the Associate for a Better New York. ABNY is a relatively expansive non-profit that connects New Yorkers from all areas of business, and an MTA breakfast is something of an annual tradition. Usually, the MTA chief gives his version of a stump speech, and that is basically what Prendergast did yesterday. Some of his statements, however, gave me cause for concern. Let’s review the Tweets:

So this is a fairly non-controversial take on the MTA, but it betrays a lot of problems. New York City has planned and is still planning for growth without a proper transit reckoning. The city is trying to rezone for a good number of new units as part of the mayor’s affordable housing plan, but transit considerations are superficial. Developers will be encouraged to fund the equivalent of station rehabilitation efforts to beautify nearby subway stops. Service expansion — which, as any L train rider can tell you, is badly needed — isn’t part of the conversation, and even the One Vanderbilt contributions which are hailed as the paragon of private investment in transit are delivering wider platforms and a new entrances rather than additional service on the Lexington Ave. IRT.

Meanwhile, how many times can we attempt to reinvent the MTA before someone actually has to step in and do it? Just 15 months ago, the MTA Reinvention Commission released its report that didn’t actually reinvent the MTA, and now officials are talking about reinvention again. Any attempt at reinvention should focus around three questions: 1. Why does everything cost so much? 2. How can the MTA lower costs to build at prices competition with international peers? 3. How can the MTA speed up construction and implementation of projects designed to increase current service levels (i.e., signal or automation upgrades rather than megaproject construction)? If those aren’t the primary questions, reinvention is just code for shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.

To be clear, this is essentially saying that ridership growth is happening all the time. Ridership may not be growing at rush hour because, for the most part, it can’t. Sure, we could fit additional passengers in some trains at certain points, but the MTA is closing in on tapping out of rush hour service. The issue now is that subways during off-peak service are nearly as crowded as rush hour trains because the MTA isn’t running trains frequently enough. That’s a more solvable problem than rush hour but one the MTA manipulates away through the load guidelines the agency sets for itself.

That’s a doozy of statement to make in public, and it’s certainly one at which I cringed yesterday. Much like a new paint job and USB charging ports, a nice station with cell service but a long wait for a train is putting lipstick on a pig, and it’s certainly not the approach officials should be promoting in public, even if in jest. But this seems to be where the MTA has settled these days. They can’t adequately address the service constraints without billions of dollars and years of disruptive construction so we get modern amenities designed to distract us from a system that can’t keep pace with ridership. That’s a big, big red flag. Where do we go next?

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John-2 March 10, 2016 - 12:43 am

Forty-five years down the line, better cellphone and wifi service may be the equivalent of original MTA boss William Ronan’s answer to the problems of the early 1970s, when he had all the subway cars and buses repainted in the agency’s new corporate colors, so people would think other improvements were being done to the system (the explosion of graffiti artists blew that scam up pretty quickly).

At least this time, some riders will get something when the SAS opens up, unlike the failed early-70s effort, and if that turns out to be a major success both with UES residents and those in Eaat Harlem and the Bronx who get slightly less-crowded Lex trains as a result, then you might see a little more proactive talk from Albany, as the governor tries to take credit for the good news and actually opts to throw real money the MTA’s way to try and boost his poll numbers.

Tim March 10, 2016 - 1:43 pm

I am very curious as to just how Cuomo will take credit for the SAS completion despite being somewhat absent most of the way through.

Brooklynite March 10, 2016 - 3:09 pm

Just like he’s taken credit for the million other good things MTA has done. “Governor Cuomo announces opening of Second Avenue.” “After 80 years of planning and work, Governor Cuomo got it done.” etc

bigbellymon4 March 10, 2016 - 3:56 am

There are many challenges when it comes to operating this vast system, and in response to Ben’s post, I will put them into categories.

Now we all know the trainload of crap (pun intended) the subway is. However, the smallest items that are being used to show as “improvements” should be basic things that don’t deserve publicity (Countdown Clocks, Cell/WiFi Service). Also, as the system increases in ridership in the off-peak areas, what is so difficult in running more trains during those times? After all, the trains are in the nearest yard. Also, in some areas of the system, headways can be increased by de-interlining. Some areas will have totally restructured service and others will lose services, but once the end goal is an increase in frequency, the complaints will quickly disappear. Granted it may be just 3-4 tph increase for some areas of track but it is better than nothing. Another item is the rollout of CBTC. Why is the MTA still not rolling it out to more sections of the system at one time such as Brooklyn and Manhattan or Bronx and Queens(besides lack of money)? The MTA is a public agency, and should use the communities and private agencies around the subway lines to help fund some of these projects. Like the RPA study a few years states, the MTA should be completing 21 or more miles per year. And, once CBTC is rolled out, the could even add Cell/Wifi coverage in to the tunnels.


Now Cuomo is here touting this new buses as some glorious idea that has ever hit the streets of NYC. Great they have WiFi and great they have USB charging areas. But the major issue comes down to improve service in a way that someone who takes the bus is like “yeah, that route is reliable.” How many routes can we say that for? Not enough. The first and foremost problems are the infrequent arrivals of buses and then bus bunching. Once those are solved, then we can start thinking about Wifi/USB charging. Within NYC, buses need to portrayed as a vehicle of priority on city streets. Bus lanes (preferably dedicated right-of-ways) should be used on the most heavily traveled lines. Many drivers see buses as a mode of transport that slow and unreliable but with bus lanes, these buses can move by and may help to cut down on traffic (once they move faster than the normal traffic), boosting ridership.


Now we talk about reinventing again. Why? This agency needs a top to bottom scrub of what goes on in the agency and why does it operate in that way. They may be able to cut down spending in other areas (token booths) and repurpose the people for other jobs that are more benificial to the system as whole. Projects should not cost so much and the way the MTA spends it’s money (besides on it debt) should be a dollar (a million here) spent wisely. Besides selling station naming rights and ads in the system, there should be other ways thought of for the MTA to generate revenue. However, all these small items that may yield a thumb up from riders is not enough to right the sinking ship. There needs to be a deep, thought out process that helps to change the focus and purpose of the MTA.

(Also, even though USB charging ports are nice, they should use standard outlets instead. It is fairly simple to hack a device that plugs into a USB port, charging or not. Don’t take my word for it, there was an episode on CSI:Cyber (can be found on cbs.com) which detailed how someone was a able to infect devices with malware just from plugging into a USB charging station in an airport.)

Lacy March 10, 2016 - 6:30 am

There is no evidence that Prendergast is the right man for the job with statements like that. He seems to be just as incompetent as his boss.

Larry Littlefield March 10, 2016 - 6:47 am

My wife got home in half an hour last night. That is the best case, no delays, two trains arriving as she does.

It is generally over an hour now. On Wednesday, it was an hour and a half.

Once all the money is going to past debts and pensions, and there is little money for ongoing normal replacement, there will be an end to scheduled rehab. Entire lines will be shut down when deterioration gets too bad, for a decade or more as money is scrounged up.

The way Generation Greed is dealing with this is not dealing with it. The can was kicked until it became a 55 gallon drum filled with nuts and bolts. And not just at the MTA. Consider this whistling past the graveyard.


People trapped in auto dependent suburbs, but without enough income to afford the multiple cars this requires due to falling wages and falling labor force participation as the population ages. So the young move to cities with transit, and find that encumbrances by older generations are leading to service cuts and declines — in cities with economic booms such as NY, Chicago, Boston.

Larry Littlefield March 10, 2016 - 6:50 am

I meant on Tuesday it took an hour and a half. And as people wake up and see their situation, what is their reaction? Vote for Trump/Sanders, it seems.

Rob March 10, 2016 - 8:42 am

an answer, but you are not going to like it: stop encouraging and providing sanctuary to illegal immigrants in nyc!

Larry Littlefield March 10, 2016 - 8:49 am

The greatest human need is someone to blame. Back in 1994 it was the Black people. Remember that? It turned out they weren’t getting very much of the $ after all. So the hunt is on for a new scapegoat.


VLM March 10, 2016 - 8:52 am

If you think illegal immigrants have fueled a 25% increase in transit ridership since the early 2000s, I’m just going to assume that you’re some Trump-loving racist moron.

SEAN March 10, 2016 - 6:23 pm

Found this linked from another site.


Trump is a symptom not a cause.

Rob March 11, 2016 - 9:58 am

Assume what you want [and you should know what that means], and I am not ‘blaming’ anyone, but facts are facts whether you people care to entertain them or not.

I don’t have specific ny data, but it is reasonable to conclude that its experience is not all that different from CA. From the Univ of California Transp. Ctr:

“Immigration has contributed significantly to transit ridership in California, and has been responsible for almost all ridership growth since the 1980s; without immigration, transit use in the state would have declined.”


Larry Littlefield March 11, 2016 - 8:33 pm

NYC has historically had a much higher share of legal immigrants, as opposed to illegals, than other places. And they are more diverse, rather than being from one country. In addition their educational attainment mirrors the native born.

Perhaps these factors explain why people are more pro-immigrant here.

NattyB March 10, 2016 - 12:09 pm

How did you find this post? Ben’s readers are typically well informed. Did this get posted on Drudge or something?

Rob March 11, 2016 - 10:02 am

I was certainly well informed that you people would prefer to wallow in your denial than accept the facts, wasn’t I?

smotri March 10, 2016 - 9:30 am

If it’s not ‘illegals’ then it must be Generation Greed, Generation Greed, Generation Greed!! Mamma mia! Give it a rest!

Larry Littlefield March 10, 2016 - 9:38 am

Sure. As soon as the debt and unfunded liability overhang from the past 30 years goes away, and we are no longer burdened by it.

Herb Lehman March 10, 2016 - 10:13 am

Yesterday on the article about WiFi-enabled buses, I commented that it seemed like the MTA was making light of how slow the buses are by adding WiFi and charging stations. I was being snarky with that comment. But Prendergast is being dead serious that this is their response to dealing with delays. Wow.

Larry Littlefield March 10, 2016 - 10:19 am

It’s a step up from the usual. Another study, or a “cool” redesign of the subway map.

SEAN March 10, 2016 - 10:50 am

Unfortunately, the lipstick on a pig meme goes way beyond the MTA & reflects the state of the country on the whole. This is why Trump is so popular & yet so delusional.

Skunky March 10, 2016 - 11:39 am

Service expansion is too hard, so here are a few minor superficial upgrades to distract you from that fact.

LLQBTT March 10, 2016 - 12:11 pm

Addtions to proposed questions:

4. What is the roadmap (forget timeline at this point…haha) for system expansion, capacity addition and new service?

5. What is the plan, short term and long term, to (finally) fix bus speed and schedule adherence, to introduce proper BRT, the timeline, and to identify efficiencies and passenger improvements through a comprehensive bus routing study and proposed solution?

Larry Littlefield March 10, 2016 - 12:25 pm

You mean what gets cut or is allowed to deteriorate as the money runs out.

We are in this situation despite booming transit ridership, booming employment, booming real estate transfer tax revenues, another stock market bubble, an economy as good as it gets for NYC. That’s what is stunning.

JJJJ March 10, 2016 - 3:43 pm

Everybody in NJ already hates Chris Christie.

He has more to gain auditioning for a lobbyist or news personality job by fighting the evil unions than agreeing to their demands.

And its not like he cares about transit.

Larry Littlefield March 10, 2016 - 7:41 pm

My wife challenged me to a strike or no strike bet.

I bet no strike, with Christie agreeing to a very generous settlement…with not one penny of the cost due until after he is out office.

DeBlasio’s NYC contracts, timed to explode after his re-election during the next recession, are the model.

JJJJ March 11, 2016 - 10:37 am

Im betting a Sunday strike for sure. But I can see a 6am Monday resolution as calls by business owners wondering why their managers cant come in start getting made.

CSS March 10, 2016 - 3:52 pm

The focus should be in three areas:
1. CBTC for the entire existing system, and getting CBTC-compatible service cars so the entire 1930s era signal system can be dismantled (I read that the Canarsie L still has the bare-bones old signal system because the service cars for trash collection, track testing, vactrain etc. aren’t CBTC compatible. Just keeping the moving parts in working condition within the old system costs a fortune.
2. Phase 2 of SAS
3. Procurement of new CBTC-compatible rolling stock to serve the new signalling system and increasing the number to account for service increases made possible by CBTC.

Down the line, I would love for congestion pricing, in the form of tolling the East River bridges, for a start, to be back in the discussion. Until that happens, I feel that focusing efforts in these three areas are the capacity-increasing, delay-reducing measures this system is most in need of.

If we’re lucky enough to get new funding sources (such as from congestion pricing), then the focus can turn to complete station renovations and more ‘megaproject’ oriented construction (future SAS phases, extending the E, 1 or 6 trains to Staten Island from Lower Manhattan via transbay tubes, Nostrand Avenue extension, etc.)

adirondacker12800 March 10, 2016 - 4:38 pm

Extend the Harlem Line to Staten Island. Stop at the combined LIRR/Metro North/NJtransit station under Fulton Street, Grand Central and Mott Haven. Someplace in Downtown Brooklyn and the Brooklyn terminal for the Triboro too. Use the subway capacity to relieve the capacity problems in Brooklyn and Queens. IIRC the SIR ROW is wide enough for four tracks. Someday far far in the future when there is enough demand let the expresses from the North Jersey Coast line use Staten Island as a alternate route to Wall Street and Grand Central.

Stephen March 11, 2016 - 6:04 pm

I am going to focus just on the tolls portion of your comment.
The main reason I am against the tolling of the East River crossings is that I DON’T TRUST the folks who are collecting the money to actually spend it on the things that we all are expecting them to spend it on.
I will refer you to the lottery bait-and-switch. We’re told the lottery money is going to go to education. Sure, but not as an EXTRA amount, no, just to keep what little they were getting.
So, if the E.R. bridges get tolled, then I want every bloody nickel, dime, penny, quarter, and dollar to go to things like well, fixing potholes quickly (having hit a few in recent days, it’s a topic at the top of my mind), expansion of bus routes, as well as all the subway improvements we on this site and elsewhere have been clamoring for.
I don’t want any governor, mayor, council, or other politician being able to divert any money to any slush, excuse me, other, fund and have the toll money bucket get stuck with IOUs.

Stephen March 11, 2016 - 9:32 pm

Ok, Ben, you win the bet on this one. No NJ strike.


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