Home MTA Economics Belated thoughts on Joe Lhota’s MTA return

Belated thoughts on Joe Lhota’s MTA return

by Benjamin Kabak

I’ve been thinking about some ways to keep this site moving in light of the time I have to spend on it these days. As you all know, new posts have been infrequent and without warning. The site isn’t dead, but I’m going to try a new format around these pages. My goal is a weekly post on Sunday nights/Monday morning with some key links at the end. I may try to do one or two posts during the week that are links to articles worth reading. You can also keep up on with my on Twitter as well. There’s a lot going on in transit these days — both noise and otherwise — and I don’t want to stay silent.

To that end, let’s dive into the news of last month: Shortly before the first end of the New York legislative session — in fact, with only a few hours to spare, Gov. Andrew Cuomo finally nominated a permanent MTA Chair. The move was a surprise as supposedly a committee was to be engaged in a big search for a replacement, but when the dust settled, Cuomo appointed Joe Lhota, the former MTA head, to resume his spot. Lhota agreed and was confirmed with hardly any hearing, a part of Albany’s continued failure to exercise its MTA oversight obligations. He’ll be the Chair but will keep his job at NYU Langone while delegating executive director duties to someone else. For now, that “someone else” is still Ronnie Hakim.

At the time, in June, Lhota’s appointment seemed to me to be a bit of a “Hail Mary” move by a beleaguered governor. Lately, the subway’s performance decline has been notable, and a growing drumbeat has emerged out of New York City ensuring that Cuomo is named as the source of the problem, as he in charge of the MTA, and calling for him to do something. Right now, Cuomo needs someone to project competency, and Lhota projects competency. After all, he was in charge of the MTA during the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and was credited with getting so much of the system up and running again relatively quickly after such a catastrophic storm. So Lhota, a member of the search committee, winds up with the job.

In the aftermath of Lhota’s appointment, Gov. Cuomo has declared a state of emergency for the MTA. It’s not quite clear if that has legal force, but it allowed Cuomo to garner headlines for promising an additional $1 billion in MTA funding. (It’s not quite clear where that $1 billion will go or if Cuomo understands how laughably small that amount is considering the cost of overhauling the signal system.) Lhota too in some of his first public comments, promised to overhaul the MTA too.

“Millions of New Yorkers depend on the MTA every day, and we must rebuild confidence in the authority with a complete overhaul of the system, he said during the Genius contest a few weeks ago, “identifying the root causes of our problems and taking immediate and decisive action to fix them. It is our responsibility to transport people as safely, quickly and efficiently as possible, and the current state of the subway system is unacceptable. In tandem with the Genius competition proposals, we will deploy a multi-faceted plan to restore confidence to the MTA and prove that we can deliver for our customers.”

Ultimately, though, the words are meaningless without actions, and actions haven’t come yet. To truly overhaul the MTA, as many have been saying for a while, requires a commitment to change at all levels. The MTA has to be able to deliver projects at a reasonable cost and in a reasonable timeframe. We need MTA projects to be competitive with European spending levels and not ten or even 100 times more expensive, and we need delivery timetables to be rapidly accelerated. The signal system project, for instance, is supposedly going to take decades, but the MTA should have a plan to shut down lines, one a time, and blitz the signal system. Could work be completed in 10 years instead of 40 with adequate attention, investment and mitigation? We the public do not know because the MTA itself, by all accounts, doesn’t know.

In Saturday’s New York Times, Joe Lhota responded to be an editorial calling for more MTA investment with a letter to the editor pushing the fiscal issue onto the shoulders of the legislature. He wants some attention on operations as well as capital. “The day-to-day operations of the subway desperately need an infusion of additional financial support from every level of government, including the city. Today, our customers pay a larger portion of the system’s operations from their daily fare than the customers of almost every other mass transit network in the country do,” Lhota wrote. “The burden of operations should not fall primarily on subway and bus riders; it’s time for all elected officials to use their budgets to support the transit system, which drives the region’s economy and makes New York possible.”

The MTA needs money, but funneling more money into a black hole won’t solve the problem. It needs to rethink who it is paying to do what, how much is being paid and how much productivity the money is generating. These aren’t easy questions, and they’ll face resistance from an entrenched bureaucracy and various special interests who don’t want the MTA’s monetary flood to slow to a trickle. These reforms — deep, structural reforms — are what Lhota must deliver to be successful. Otherwise, the state of emergency will deepen.

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Larry Littlefield July 17, 2017 - 8:45 am

How to fix the MTA? The first Governor Cuomo did it.

1) Appoint people like Ravitch, Gunn, Kiley. Are there any people like that around anymore?

2) People who are willing to confront labor when justified, and the state legislature. This requires a state legislature that is not completely beyond shame. It has been decades since we had one of those.

3) 100 percent inflation over a decade, as in the 1970s. In effect cutting the “real” cost of the debts and pension costs foisted on the agency from the past in half. Or cutting those costs in half some other way.

What are our chances?

Brooklynite July 17, 2017 - 7:54 pm

Two thoughts, one political and one technological:

-Tech first. The idea of “blitzing” CBTC upgrades is a poor one, since CBTC is a poor idea (as currently implemented in NYC) to begin with. Our block signalling system (if properly maintained, of course) for many years allowed higher frequencies than we run now, and will permit them again given competent operation (dwell time management, good terminal practices, etc.) and proper signal system design without excessively long block lengths, slow/miscalibrated timers, and so on. CBTC, aka Catch Bus to Canarsie/Corona/Continental, does not improve frequencies sufficiently to justify the years of disruption and hundreds of millions of dollars in cost that accompany it. Instead, a properly supervised and organized maintenance programme, along the lines of Fastrack but with more than three hours of work per night, would overcome the maintenance backlog without requiring prolonged rush hour disruptions.

-Politically, the culture of the MTA needs massive reform, on all sides – labor, management, and contractors. This isn’t easy at all, but the first step would be appointing someone who understands the problem from the inside out and is knowledgeable enough to solve it (in other words, not a political hack), and giving that person the necessary political support to make tough choices. Otherwise, the lumbering mass of status quo will continue to be so.

Someone July 18, 2017 - 12:21 am

Im curious, what specificity about NYCT’s CBTC implementation is lacking?

You hit the larger issue though not being addressed by the general media or the governor (and his insulting Genius Competition), in that looking for a technological solution to a principally managerial and operational problem, can only ever yield marginal results.

Brooklynite July 18, 2017 - 7:30 pm

I’m not familiar enough with the innards of CBTC to comment on its technological prowess, but on that subject I will say that it has demonstrated single-point-of-failure vulnerabilities several times which is obviously suboptimal for such a critical system.

As we’ve seen from the documents released as part of the CBTC upgrades and now the Sandy work, the capacity of the L line in the early 2000s was 18tph. CBTC increased that to 20tph. Alongside the Sandy upgrades a few new electrical substations will be added, allowing 22tph. Tail tracks at 8th Avenue are claimed to be unnecessary because the capacity of the current terminal is 28tph. And I’m not even getting into the dwell time management issues that we have in this city… do you see the problem?

For context, in 1954, 24tph ran on the Canarsie line, and 32tph was considered capacity. Source: http://transitmap.net/image/55177865550#_=_

Larry Littlefield July 18, 2017 - 6:54 am

The lumbering mass is the only reason service is provided at all. All those manuals and procedures built up over decades, with replacement schedules in scheduled maintenance, winter operations plans, etc.

Not getting better is one thing. Getting worse is another. Someone needs to investigate the following.

1) Money — was scheduled maintenance cut back on, leading to problems now?

2) Labor — after management pay and numbers were cut, did the managers stop managing and the workers stop working?

3) Suppliers — are all the new parts being installed on schedule, but more of them are faulty? Why are is MDBF falling for new subway cars as well as older ones? Why are signal systems installed in recent decades seeming to fail as often as those in stalled in the 1930s?

4) Absenteeism. Used to be lots of runs didn’t happen because workers didn’t show up. Now that we have a Mayor for whom tardiness is constant, has that problem returned?

LordDeucey July 19, 2017 - 9:52 am

To me, the funding issue is a simple one to solve: do like California does and levy local sales taxes that are specifically dedicated towards transit and transportation improvements – whether adding lane capacity on highways or building rail extensions, a dedicated stream separate from monies from the state is necessary, and a sales tax collected on transactions in NYC means everyone in the city – whether resident, tourist or worker, will be contributing equally.

Secondly, to facilitate getting construction costs under control and the system expanded, there needs to be a narrow-scoped construction authority separate from the MTA. Like is done with Metro in Los Angeles, this authority handles construction funding and builds rail lines and then turns it over to Metro when it’s approved for operation. Staffs are separate from Metro but do consult, and it delivers cost savings and quality.

MTACC was supposed to be that, but it’s clearly not since it’s too cozy with Transit Operations and contractors to be effective. Nuke it and replace it with a separate and separated organization.

Brooklynite July 19, 2017 - 7:37 pm

There are already cell phone taxes, taxi taxes, commuter-region taxes, and numerous others. 35% of the MTA budget comes from dedicated taxes, while only 8% come from direct subsidies. (farebox: 40%, tolls: 12%, other: 5%) Before we dedicate additional funding to the MTA we should make sure that they’re using what they’re getting effectively. That’s an open question at the moment…

MTACC is a fairly separate organization from what I’ve heard, although I might be wrong. Being cozy with contractors isn’t just an MTA issue – our neighbors in Boston and their highway tunnel are a prime example of problems similar to ours.

mister July 20, 2017 - 7:59 am

MTACC is separate from any of the other agencies, but very few of the capital program’s projects fall under MTACC and the workforce is largely pulled from the other agencies. In addition, often the MTA still makes extensive use of consultants, so the costs for design and management of projects are significant, not to mention the amount expended on force accounts.


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