No more promises of “three to five years.” After over half a decade of promises, the MTA Board is set to vote Wednesday on a plan that would finally bring countdown clocks to the B Division trains — the subway’s lettered lines — by the end of March of 2018. Based off the current pilot running at eight stations along the BMT Broadway line, the new system will be run by Transit Wireless infrastructure and will be a part of an initiative to bring wifi to the system’s outdoor stations. It’s not based on the same signal system upgrades as the A Division countdown clocks but should cost under $32 million to install.
Following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s push to speed up the installation of the underground wireless and cell network so that all underground stations are wired by the end of this year, Transit Wireless has the capacity to implement additional technological upgrades, and the MTA and Transit Wireless are set to expand wifi capabilities at the 109 aboveground stations. The cellular carriers are on board — especially for popular stations where their networks can be overloaded — because of the ability to colocate cellular equipment within Transit Wireless base stations, and Transit Wireless is on board because this gives them an opportunity to expand their footprint in the subway system.
But the wifi is just a benefit. The main attraction are countdown clocks using commercially available off-the-shelf components that won’t run the MTA a bill in the nine-figure range. The technology will utilize Bluetooth, sensors, beacons and wifi to determine train arrivals times. Each of the B division stations with two LCD screens per platform and one outside of fare control. The data will run from the beacons to a cloud-based system that will determine arrival times, and all of the data will be available in the MTA’s Subwaytime app.
One way or another, Transit Wireless will bring these countdown clocks online, and if the MTA chooses to expand Transit Wireless’ wifi capabilities to the above-ground stations, the agency will save money on installation. The total installation costs for wifi and the countdown clock technology will be a little over $211,000 per station for the aboveground stations and around $54,000 per underground station (which are already wired for certain Transit Wireless capabilities). The total capital costs would run around $31.7 million with $5 million in annual operating fees, subject to a CPI multiplier each year.
The low cost is an extension of the wifi expansion plan I mentioned. If the MTA and Transit Wireless don’t agree on a wifi franchise license for the aboveground stations, the train arrival boards will move ahead but at a cost of about 50% more. Eventually, the wifi capabilities are going to be necessary for the MTA’s new fare payment system, but more on that soon. Meanwhile, the agency also let slip that it is in discussions with Transit Wireless for a plan to wire the tunnels as well, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
This is a pretty fast turnaround for a project we haven’t really been expecting. In spite of a funding request in the current capital plan, the MTA has given no indication that a systemwide plan was in the works. The BMT pilot came through via pressure from the governor’s office, and an ambitious 16-month rollout seems set to follow. It may not be the perfect system — but it’s far better than the current non-existent system. And after years of hearing that B Division countdown clocks are still three to five years away, we can say with some certainty that, if all goes according to plan, B Division countdown clocks are now just 16 months down the tracks.