Home MTA Politics Cuomo, taking some responsibility for MTA woes, proposes another panel

Cuomo, taking some responsibility for MTA woes, proposes another panel

by Benjamin Kabak
The Governor's presentation hit the right keywords but can it deliver on its substance?

The Governor’s presentation hit the right keywords but can it deliver on its substance?

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, is our Governor insane or are we, the subway-riding public of New York City, simply being played for a bunch of fools? And how many times can the same governor do the same thing in response to the same problem while being the same cause of the same bottleneck he always is? If I sound a bit cynical, well, I think I have good reason.

On Tuesday, after a week spent claiming the MTA wasn’t his responsibility or his problem, Governor Andrew Cuomo did an about-face and decided that, this week, while the headlines out there are for the gettin’, the MTA is once again his state agency. He took a well-deserved beating from transit advocates, and with the MTA facing mounting problems and a growing sense that the system is collapsing rapidly in on itself, Cuomo, with a rather tongue-in-cheek presentation [pdf] announced that not only will he be dead before the MTA finishes its signal system upgrades but that he may actually try to pretend to nudge the agency toward a faster solution. The whole thing is part of his new “MTA Transit Genius Challenge,” yet another attempt by the Governor to reinvent the New York City transit wheel.

The Challenge is a Cuomo special. It’s a panel that will hear ideas from other people, award someone $1 million in prize money and do nothing with the results. The panel is being billed as part of an “international competition” that will “convene participants from the technology, engineering and business sectors to address the subway’s three most vexing technology and design challenges.” These three areas are: 1) An aging signal system and a replacement plan that’s far too slow; 2) aging cars that are breaking down more often and the slow pace of development and delivery of new rolling stock; and 3) the, uh, lack of cellular and wifi connectivity in subway tunnels. I have no idea how number 3 made that list, but wifi/USB ports/”21st Century Technology” has been a Cuomo fetish for a few years.

(At the same time, Cuomo announced another panel of unqualified experts who are being tasked with solving Penn Station. One of the options they are considering involves turning operations over to the Port Authority. This is somehow going to fix something. I have no idea who thinks of these things, but I digress.)

If Cuomo’s panel idea sounds familiar, well, that’s because it is. Do you remember the 2014 MTA Reinvention Commission? Cuomo convened this panel to advise on the 2015-2019 capital plan and longer-term challenges facing the MTA. It barely met, was stonewalled by Cuomo himself and then released an underwhelming report nearly eight weeks late. The MTA has implemented none of the buzzword-y recommendations that commission suggested and remains very much un-reinvented.

So will this be any different? Early assessments are not optimistic. Max Rivlin-Nalder, writing at the Village Voice, seemed skeptical; Streetsblog wants to see the MTA pay more attention to its internal experts whose voices have increasingly been lost to culture, bureaucracy and brain-drain over the past five years; and Stephen Miller rightly mocked the presentation, which seemed almost to be poking fun at subway commuters and their problems rather than taking these concerns seriously.

I can’t praise Cuomo for taking credit and responsibility for the MTA here because he’s not doing anything to fix it. He’s simply responding to a cavalcade of bad press from The Times opinions pages to the paper’s news coverage to Daily News opinions pages. He’s also not taking on the key obstacles — procurement reform; capital cost reform; and union work rules. Without a holistic approach to MTA reform, we’ll get snarky PowerPoints, a contest that will sputter out, and a promise that maybe the MTA will consider contracting with the person who comes up with the winning idea. Is this a fix or is this just business as usual for a governor constantly talking about reinventing the MTA but not actually doing anything about it?

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Larry Greenfield May 24, 2017 - 8:29 am

Here’s a million-dollar suggestion: Use the MoveNY plan to help fund the capital needs of NYC subways. It’s a ready-made plan to provide the long-term funding required to upgrade the signal system and whatever additional capital projects are required. There isn’t any problem facing the subways that doesn’t require a long-term guaranteed source of funds.

Daniel May 24, 2017 - 4:14 pm

The problem here is that, no matter how much legal red tape you tie around keeping MoveNY money connected to NYC-based MTA capital projects, we’ve already seen the MTA funding raided by this governor. As a result, I can’t trust Cuomo (or any New York politician, tbh) with this cash cow farther than I can throw them or it.

Larry Littlefield May 24, 2017 - 8:47 am

Genius plan

When Cuomo talks about a “genius plan,” how many are reminded of Schemer from Shining Time Station?

How about installing fare control on the commuter railroads, with cameras to identify and later arrest scofflaws, saving the cost of most of those conductors? Sorry, the unions control Albany.

How about allowing the fintech industry to create new, less corrupt banks while providing the new MTA fare technology, starting with a card that all those using mass transit in the region would have to have?

The station agents could be become bank tellers doing a variety of transactions mostly paid for by the new bank (s). New banks could start without the excess compensation levels that can never be really earned, and without a legacy of financial crime for which $billions in fines were paid. The millions of MTA customers, many of them quite affluent (particularly on the commuter railroads) would give the new banks an instant customer base, and MTA stations would give them an instant branch network. Perhaps they could eventually be assigned some of the MTA payroll processing and pension investments, now handled by the too big to fail.


Sorry, the unions control Albany, and the rich and the organizations they control run Washington. No new competition for the existing financial oligopoly, and no new work for those who pretty much have very little to do since the advent of Metrocard vending machines.

They don’t want a “genius plan.” They want to keep the game going for a few more years before retiring to Florida.

Larry Littlefield May 24, 2017 - 8:56 am

The $1 million dollars! also reminds me of Dr. Evil.

paulb May 24, 2017 - 9:24 am

Good one.

Alon Levy May 24, 2017 - 10:57 am

So I’m the only person here who thinks there are a few ways tech people (i.e. not me) could help with subway technology, if not in the ways the grant wants?

The biggest one is countdown clocks. As many of us in the comments know, the reason there are no countdown clocks on the non-L BMT and IND is that the signaling system knows where each train is, but doesn’t know which train it is. Hence, station announcements like “there’s an uptown train on the express platform one station away” – they can’t know if this express train is an A or a D. Fixing this is a matter of software: pattern recognition that is in many cases (different colors) not hard, plus keeping track of which train went where earlier in its journey. If your uptown express train was previously on 6th Ave, it’s a D; if it was on 8th Ave, it’s an A.

JJJ May 24, 2017 - 1:41 pm

A $10 webcam can read the train sign. A $30 tablet has enough processing power to turn that image into an audio announcement.

BruceNY May 24, 2017 - 1:43 pm

Countdown clocks have now been installed on the Broadway BMT line, including the Q Train going up 2nd Avenue. However, I have found them to be greatly inferior to the clocks on the IRT. They only seem to see the next two trains ahead, and only if they’re relatively close. So, if you’re waiting for an uptown Q at 34th Street, the display tends to show you only the impending arrivals of R and W trains since they show up more frequently, leaving you to wonder if your Q is 5 minutes away or 15. They don’t list the next four trains as the IRT clocks do.

And speaking of the brand spanking new 2nd Avenue Subway, there is a countdown clock installed at the turnstile at 63rd & 3rd, but none at the platform level!

Joe Shmo June 10, 2017 - 9:41 am

I’ve noticed that the algorithm on the IRT in anticipating the next train has gone wonky as well ever since the BMTs got theirs. They often anticipate the train arriving when it’s already arrived in the station. Sometimes, they misread a train coming before the station and don’t count it as part of the arrivals.

Peter May 24, 2017 - 12:08 pm

The “Challenge” is a smokescreen designed to provide Cuomo with cover to claim he’s “doing something” about the MTA’s woes without undertaking any of the hard work of actually DOING SOMETHING.

You don’t need a genius to tell you how to improve reliability and frequency in the subways; the solutions are already well-known in transit circles and are increasingly bubbling up even into mainstream news coverage. What’s needed is smart, qualified transit professionals empowered to put reforms into action, and money (meaning both dedicated funding streams and cost control). If Cuomo thinks the MTA leadership is too hidebound and calcified to achieve change (and there’s surely some truth to that critique), it is within his power to bring in new leadership.

Cuomo grasps some of the answers (speeding up CBTC, modernizing rolling stock), but he lacks the political courage to take on the tough fights, like installing independent reformers at the MTA and taking on the transit and construction unions to lower costs and reform work rules. And he’s constantly seduced by his cozy business world relationships into mistaking giveaways to real estate developers for meaningful transit improvements (e.g. the Moynihan mall).

Someone May 24, 2017 - 1:22 pm

Much has been discussed about fixing the issues with the subways and a significant amount of people (including the governor) have suggested that way forward is to accelerate the deployment of CBTC across the system. This is in fact not the best solution for a short term fix.

CBTC requires equipment to be installed in 2 locations: on the right of way and on the train itself. To accelerate installation on the right of way we can simply take the line out of service more often. This will inconvenience people but is no major road block if we really want service to be fixed. The car equipment is more complicated. For CBTC use the MTA has ordered cars to be “CBTC – Ready” meaning they are ready to accept CBTC equipment. But this has only been done on some of the NTT class of cars (R143,R160,R188) which is 37% of the entire fleet.[1] What do we do about the remaining cars that were not design to accept the CBTC equipment? Do we do costly custom integration on cars that have 10 years of life left? Do we order all new cars? The MTA’s plan today is that when it finished installing CBTC on the property all the cars would be compatible anyway due to subsequent car procurements.

This the real problem (along with old signals) that the MTA faces today is that it does not know where its trains are in real time on the B division. It has no automatic scheduling system on the B division. It has no central control on the B division. It has no ability to quickly respond to issues when they occur. CBTC is a way to rectify these problems, but not the only way. Its is seldom mentioned that the A division lines 1-6 had a significant signaling system upgrade beginning in the mid 90’s. This system is called Automatic Train Supervision (ATS). It is a intermediate signaling system between decentralized towers (on the B division) and CBTC (on L or soon the 7). Like CBTC, ATS provides real time train location (however only at the block level resolution) and has the ability to remotely set switches and routes. The main difference between CBTC and ATS is that CBTC has higher resolution train location information and CBTC has capability for Automatic Train Operation (ATO).

ISIM-B is a project the MTA currently has underway and its goal is to implement a system similar to ATS on the B division in a phased fashion.[2] The ATS and ISIM-B projects give the MTA real time information and control of the entire signaling system from a central location. By accelerating the ISIM-B project the MTA will be able to centrally control all its trains via computer, rather than controlling trains from independent signaling towers over voice radio.

The advantage of ISIM-B is that it does not need any car borne equipment. The same trains we have today and in the future will work since ISIM-B is only on the wayside. Another byproduct ISIM-B installation is that since part of the project involves modernizing interlockings, the reliability of the system as a whole will increase. Additionally, ISIM-B can support CBTC overlay meaning the work is not for waste and can be used in the future when CBTC is installed. Finally, ISIM-B requires significantly less work to install and commission when compared to CBTC. Upgrading the interlockings seems to be the main time consumer and this is something NYCT regularly does around the system, so accelerating it shouldn’t be to difficult.[3]
By accelerating the ISIM-B project the MTA can use it as a stop gap while they figure out how to accelerate the CBTC installation on the entire system which is a much more complicated task. Is ISIM-B the best solution for the long term, no. But we’re looking for stop-gaps anyway and it does fix some of the fundamental problems in a shorter and more realistic time frame.

I am however now afraid that any useful suggestions will be buried under the flood of non-sense that MTA will receive, due to the governor turning transit development into a hackathon.

If I have made any mistakes or omissions in my analysis feel free to let me know.


Larry Littlefield May 24, 2017 - 4:09 pm

“What do we do about the remaining cars that were not design to accept the CBTC equipment?”

EZ Pass tags?

I realize the railroad market is smaller than the auto market, and that’s part of the reason things are moving forward so slowly. And I realize that the occasional “crashes” of your home PC and its software are not acceptable for a rail system.

But at this rate we’ll have self-drivng cars before self-driving trains.

And electronics get cheap so fast, and are so fast despite being cheap, that two systems could be deployed and cross checked against each other every few seconds.

bigbellymon4 May 24, 2017 - 7:52 pm

For the cars that have 10 years left (R32/42, R46 has a little more than 10) all you have to do is retire them. For the R68/As and R62/As, it would be beneficial to gut them and rewire those cars for CBTC equipment. San Francisco Muni Metro did it when they rolled CBTC, and Paris did it also when they rolled out CBTC on Line 1, as it was cheaper to gut and rewire them than procuring new cars. Gutting and rewiring will also extend the life of the cars, which will result in cost savings as the need for new cars is not as necessary.

mister May 31, 2017 - 8:03 am

A couple of things:

1. Technically, ATS-A is not a signal system, it is a supervision system that was made possible by the upgrade of the A division’s signal components that you mentioned. ATS (or the similar ISIM-B) will not fix the problem of failing signals.

2. Actually, NYCT doesn’t upgrade the interlockings regularly, which is one of the reasons that there are so many signal failures. Much of the IND portion of the B division’s signal equipment is original; including the interlockings. Furthermore, upgrading these interlockings is costly and time consuming: The West 4th street interlocking upgrade was awarded in 2014, won’t be done until 2018, and the award to the contractor was almost $90 million. If it were easy to upgrade these interlockings, most of the signal problems we are seeing today would be significantly mitigated.

Someone May 31, 2017 - 3:21 pm

Thanks for your comments,

In response to point 1 your correct ATS does not implement the actual interlocking functionality (that’s reserved for relays or SSI) but its still indirectly part of the signal system as it allows control over the interlockings. But the larger point I was trying to make was that installing a supervisory system (whether ATS-A or ISIM-B) gives the MTA real time control and information about the position of trains allowing it to respond faster incidents or other issues. Even with consolidated master towers, voice control is still backbone of the B division.

To your point about the frequent failure of old signals, you rightfully point out that the MTA has been slow to upgrade its interlockings but I don’t buy the excuse that is difficult and time consuming. A core competency of any organization should be the knowledge and process of maintaining and upgrading the infrastructure it owns. This failure in my opinion highlights another issue with the MTA which is the perpetual addiction to consultants meaning over the long term little institutional knowledge is built up. Consultants are fine for subject area expertise but interlocking modernization should be routine work at this point from all the experience they have from CBTC and ATS which both had a interlocking modernization component, in addition to other upgrade work they have done throughout the system.

If we are serious about modernization, maybe its time we take out an interlocking out of service for 3 or 4 weeks and work 24/7 to upgrade it, rather than do it on weekend shutdowns for a year. From the ISIM-B project the following interlocking are scheduled to be modernized:

2 Interlockings: Union Turnpike & 71st Ave,
Dyre Avenue Line Signals
34th Street Interlocking
W. 4th Street Interlocking
Kings Highway Interlocking,
Roosevelt Avenue Interlocking, QBL

Maybe its worth spending some time and seeing how these can be accelerated simply for the benefit of more reliable signals with the secondary benefit of more train information. Beyond those listed above it would be interesting to see how much of the B division remains to be modernized.

If I have made any mistakes or omissions in my analysis feel free to let me know.

Subutay Musluoglu June 1, 2017 - 6:49 pm

With the exception of the Dyre Avenue project, the interlockings you name are actually being modernized under stand alone contracts as a precursor to CBTC installation on the lines to which the interlockings belong. They are not part of the ISIM-B effort, though once the CBTC projects are complete the lines in question will be visible in, and controllable from, the RCC. The Dyre Avenue resignalling is a conventional fixed block installation.

Someone June 3, 2017 - 4:13 pm

Thank you for bringing to my attention that these interlockings are in fact under a different contract. I misinterpreted the slides on the CPOC presentation.

Correct me if im wrong but isn’t the point of ISIM-B to get information from and control interlockings (and other signaling elements) from a central location? You say these interlockings being upgraded wont be visible and controllable in RCC until CBTC is deployed, I thought Phase 3 of ISIM-B would allow for central control?

Thank you.

Subutay Musluoglu June 6, 2017 - 10:47 am

I am not up to speed on the exact nature of how ISIM-B functions, but it is my understanding that it will receive train location information from the master towers out on the lines, which are the only locations on the B Division where trains are actually currently visible and controllable. As interlockings are upgraded, the towers from where those interlockings are controlled have more direct control and more precise location information, which can then be transmitted back to the RCC. It is important to note that this means you are seeing the trains at select timepoints from which arrival information can be deduced within a certain level. Only after a line has completely changed over to CBTC, however, will the entire line be seen and controlled in its entirety from the RCC.

Subutay Musluoglu June 6, 2017 - 10:49 am

If I am mistaken in my take on this, I hope someone else can elaborate further.

mister June 2, 2017 - 8:08 am

I will say that NYCT actually had a pretty robust signals engineering/management team within CPM. I don’t think the problem has anything to do with an addiction to consultants, but it is a complex issue with a number of causes. Sometimes these rooms are overbuilt (larger than needed). Other times, the need to continuously operate service hurts things. For example, in order to overhaul the W4th street interlocking, would we be willing to completely shutdown the 6th avenue line for a few weeks? How about Gold street?

As mentioned by Mr Musluoglu, the interlocking projects you listed are already either substantially complete or well underway, perhaps with the exception of Kings Highway. That said, the 2015-2019 Capital Plan shows the next series of interlockings to be overhauled.

Someone June 3, 2017 - 3:04 pm

Thank you for bringing to my attention that these interlocking are in fact under a different contract. I miss interpreted the slides on the CPOC presentation.

The question I was trying to ask is with taking the interlocking out of service is how fast could this work be done if there is an outage? If this track work does bringing substantial benefits to riding public in terms of reliability this is an option that needs to be explored. If it turns out an entire interlocking can be replaced in 2 weeks time for example, though the inconvenience will be high, it will be short and the benefits will come quickly.

We can draw parallels between Canarsie full shutdown vs partial shutdown and taking area out of service vs weekend closures. Maybe its time we “rip the band aid off” so to say and clear out the maintenance/ upgrade backlog. The real question is how fast can the installation schedule for some of the work be accelerated if we do have a continuous outage? I feel 2 weeks would be a nice number but if its around a month people might get more restless.

If I have made any mistakes or omissions in my analysis feel free to let me know.

Subutay Musluoglu June 14, 2017 - 10:03 pm

Even with a full shutdown, an interlocking cannot be replaced in two weeks. The amount of work required within the relay rooms is quite complex and challenging, especially if conventional relay based technology is employed instead of a modern solid state installation. NYCT still uses relays to replace interlockings in some cases – I am not aware of the criteria that determines whether to use relays versus solid state, but these decisions are made on a case by case basis. Regardless, there is still a fair amount of cabling and circuitry involved. The size of the interlocking itself is of course the most important factor – is it one diamond crossover such as at Nassau Avenue on the Crosstown Line, or is it 4 diamonds and 2 single crossovers as found at 34 Street on the 6th Avenue Line? This is just an educated guess, but I think that even with a full shutdown, a minimum of one year is not beyond the realm of possibility.

SEAN May 24, 2017 - 3:54 pm

Genius plan? Is Apple going to upgrade the MTA? LOL

smotri May 25, 2017 - 1:23 pm

Giving $1,000,000 for a great idea or two really means this: the people already in charge – up to and including Cuomo and also di Blasio – have not had the brains enough to deal with the MTA and its problems. All those MTA executives should be replaced, and Cuomo and di Blasio don’t merit reelection (or election to another office, in the case of Cuomo). It’s as simple as that, and yet the voters will (a) continue to vote for these politicians, and (b) continue to whine about poor MTA service.

crescent May 26, 2017 - 4:37 pm

It’s really not like the MTA has been tightfisted- debt has gone up from $7 billion in the late 1990s before the big investment in the R142 cars for the IRT to $37 billion today. Despite historically low interest rates, debt service is $2.5 billion or 17% of today’s yearly budget and obviously crowds out potential contemporary spending. It’s not clear where people expect the money to come from- if more money did come, one might argue MTA should cut its debt first. I shudder at wondering what a graph comparing transit systems’ debt-to-revenue around the country looks like.

Eric May 27, 2017 - 8:27 pm

Someone killed a congressional inquiry into America’s sky-high transit construction costs

Spendmor Wastemor May 28, 2017 - 7:44 pm

If I sound a bit cynical, well, I think I have good reason.

The young man is developing wisdom.

Jim May 30, 2017 - 9:31 am

We need to get Andy to own up to his responsibilities once and for all, not just on the third Tuesday of every fourth month.

From now on, I’m calling him Governor SlowMo.

Larry Littlefield June 2, 2017 - 10:27 am

I’ll say it again, a large part of the cost of any MTA project is paying for past retroactive pension increases and pension underfunding for now-retired union workers.

The private sector has gone non-union, and left the MTA will the bill, and Cuomo is backing it — and borrowing for it and sacrificing future transit riders to pay for it. Transit riders who generally will get no pensions at all.


Aside form laborers, the AVERAGE NYC construction worker on an MTA job costs more than I do at the peak of my career. But relatively little money goes to those actually doing work right now.

Like many policies that redistribute money from the less well off to the better off, and from younger generations to older generations, this is under Omerta.

James C June 11, 2017 - 5:51 am

One thing the politicians could do that would immediately make things better: stand up to the labor unions. End the pensions, overtime, exorbitant pay, and fire ineffective employees.

In my opinion, technology will solve the MTA’s woes in a ~10 year timeframe. We’ll have the driverless cars that will very efficiently coordinate traffic, taking some strain off the MTA. In addition, robots could play a major role in upgrading the signals.

TimK June 13, 2017 - 2:03 pm

One thing the politicians could do that would immediately make things better: stand up to the labor unions. End the pensions, overtime, exorbitant pay, and fire ineffective employees.

The American impulse toward a race to the bottom mystifies me. What’s attractive about making things as bad as possible for as many people as possible?

And if your proposal were implemented, within a few years the system would stop running because no one would be willing to work there. Transit operating jobs are kind of crappy in many ways, and without generous pay and benefits, no one would want them.

Spendmor Wastemor June 13, 2017 - 9:51 pm

In theory at least, there are ways to curb union abuses without turning it around into employee abuses. But the problem behind either runs to things like political incentives, and more fundamentally to a corrupt culture. There are many, many crappy jobs and public transit is far better than most. For one, the other ones don’t offer a rest-of-your-life paid vacation after 23 years.

Spendmor Wastemor June 13, 2017 - 9:53 pm

uh, need an edit function.

by ’employee abuses’ I meant ‘abusing the employees’.

Adirondacker12800 June 13, 2017 - 10:39 pm

Either we are the richest country in the world and can therefore afford things like universal health care, generous pensions and low cost or free college or … we aren’t. Whining about people who get decent benefits is barking up the wrong swimming pool. The question should be why the richest country in the world can’t afford decent benefits.

smotri June 14, 2017 - 1:08 pm

Can’t agree more with TimK and the rest of you. Yes, there are excesses and corruption and waste with unions, but look at the rest of the economy, with sky-high executive pay, stagnant wages for the rest of us, and benefits that are subject to the whims of the employers.


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