Home MTA Politics The Power Isn’t Out: Daily News report sheds light on the MTA’s Con Edison power play

The Power Isn’t Out: Daily News report sheds light on the MTA’s Con Edison power play

by Benjamin Kabak

One of the strange twists and turns of the ongoing saga over Governor Andrew Cuomo’s responsibility for the current collapse of NYC’s subway system involved a breakfast and some finger pointing at Con Edison this past summer. While I was on vacation (and subsequently recovering from a broken bone I sustained while on that vacation), this story of odd finger-pointing unfolded to a certain denouement that had Con Edison paying for some costs regarding power delivery to the MTA. It seemed strange at the time and raised eyebrows within the New York political landscape, and after a report this weekend in The Daily News, it seems that the MTA may have fudged some numbers to allow the governor to blame, and get money from, Con Edison for unrelated (or at best, quasi-related) subway performance issues.

The story goes a little something like: In July, Cuomo delivered remarks at a breakfast hosted by the Association for a Better New York in which he laid the blame for MTA performance issues on the shoulders of Con Ed. “Over the last 12 months, 32,000 delays because of power related issues,” he said of the subways, “and they can either be a power surge or power shortage, but 32,000 delays. The MTA doesn’t control the power, Con Edison does. Con Edison has a duty to safely, prudently and effectively provide electricity that powers the subway system. Con Ed is a regulated utility under the state’s Public Service Commission. April 21 after the last outage I ordered an investigation of the Con Ed infrastructure after a particularly devastating failure. The investigation goes on but PSC has already found that Con Ed must make immediate and significant improvements in this system because the reliability depends on it.”

In mid-November, Politico New York reported that Con Ed would be taking on the costs of electrical repair work required by the MTA. Marie French and Dana Rubinstein termed the whole thing an “unusual financial arrangement” that would eventually shift costs to Con Ed’s NYC and Westchester customers anyway, and no one could put a finger on why this arrangement was necessary or if it even made sense. Now it seems it does not make sense, at least not without some loose accounting. Dan Rivoli broke the news this weekend:

Internal emails obtained by the Daily News show an MTA honcho pushing staff to come up with a higher number of subway delays blamed on power issues, before Gov. Cuomo made a public show of citing problems with Con Edison as the single biggest source of disruption for riders. As the Summer of Hell was in full swing, NYC Transit brass found a creative way to make power-tied delays appear more common. They expanded the types of incidents that could be defined as power-related, including circuit failures, and emergencies — like a person on the track — where the power is intentionally cut off.

The broader definition detailed in emails from July 25 to Aug. 9 allowed the MTA to quadruple the tally of power-related delays, to 32,000 from 8,000…The real number of power delays, according to senior subways performance analyst Kyle Kirschling, was about 8,000. NYC Transit chief of staff Naomi Renek wrote an email to staff members at 6:03 a.m. on July 25, saying that she was “looking for a higher delay number for power.”

Kirschling initially appeared stumped. “I can’t think of a way to make the ConEd/External power figures higher,” he replied to Renek, NYC Transit Executive Vice President Tim Mulligan and other transit staffers. Kirschling, in a subsequent email, said Con Ed was at fault for just 3,422 of those delays.

So how did Con Ed’s responsibility increase ten-fold? As Rivoli details in his reporting, the MTA simply changed the definition of a power problem to those well beyond the scope of power delivery issues under Con Edison’s purview to bring the number up from 3400 to 32,000. He write of one particularly egregious exchange:

Cuomo’s deputy press secretary Maxwell Morgan checked in with Renek, emailing her and another governor’s aide, Maria Michalos. “Naomi, do we have the total real number of power-related delays over last 12 months? Higher than the 8k?”

Renek responded with an explanation. “The 8k is the real number of power-only incidents,” she wrote. “However, incidents coded as signal can also be power-related. We can safely say that track circuit incidents are power-related, although power is not the root cause.”

Soon, she and Morgan were hashing out how to spin the numbers to the public. “How would you massage that language?” Morgan wrote. “Could we say ‘power-related issues caused more than 32,000 delays?’ ” Renek replied that it was better to couch the numbers by saying power “caused or contributed to” the delays.

Hilariously enough, in initial comments to Rivoli, the governor’s team claimed Cuomo was only the messenger, and the MTA has vehemently defended its calculations, even claiming Con Edison is responsible in situations in which power is intentionally cut to the tracks by the agency to respond to a problem. “Are you gonna tell me power cut from the tracks is not a power-related problem?” MTA Chairman Joe Lhota said to Rivoli. (Don’t sleep either on Lhota, the MTA head, dismissing Kirschling, a six-year MTA vet, as a “bean-counter” in the Daily News piece. This has not gone over well with the rank-and-file at 2 Broadway as I’ve heard it.)

Under question later on Sunday, Cuomo repeatedly tried to shift blame to the MTA (which, for the record, he controls). “The MTA produced the numbers. The MTA says they’re accurate. I believe the MTA…I didn’t read the Daily News story. I was told about it briefly. I don’t know what the difference between power issues and power-related issues really are. You should talk to the MTA about that.”

So where does this leave everything? This is another story indicative of Cuomo’s attempts at blaming everyone else other than himself and his stewardship of the MTA for the MTA’s problems. It’s a tale of the governor’s people using downward pressure to force MTA employees to rewrite rules to make the governor look better while identifying a scapegoat dubiously responsible at best. It’s a story that demands an official investigation and again showcases how public trust in the MTA’s self-reported numbers should be essentially non-existent now. “It raises issues about accountability and it raises questions as to whether this is happening in other areas of subway performance,” John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany said to The Times on Sunday. “How far does this go?” How far, indeed.

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SEAN January 22, 2018 - 9:35 am

Two things come to mind… 1. lies, dam lies and statistics & 2. don’t let a good narrative go to waste.

BrooklynBus January 22, 2018 - 10:32 am

You are correct. The MTA’s numbers are lies and it goes past subway performance. Just look at their surveys that I wrote about at least a half dozen times stating 95 percent of the riders are satisfied with Select Bus Service or that SBS increases ridership and bus speed as justifications for adding another 20 routes that they have already decided and claim they evolve through a community involvement process. The Comptroller’s bus report showed that SBS bus speeds are only slightly higher than local and limited buses and in many cases ridership declined not increased. (There were 3 million fewer M15 riders than there were before SBS even before the SAS started.)

The methodology used to conclude 95 percent of riders are satisfied with SBS was flawed because if everyone rated SBS a 6 out of a possible 10, the MTA concluded 100 percent were satisfied. When I went to school a 6 out of 10 on a quiz (60 percent) was considered a failing grade, but not in the MTA world. When B44 local riders were interviewed after SBS took effect, the MTA couldn’t conclude that 95 percent were satisfied, so instead they stated that local riders were only interviewed before SBS took effect but not after. They also cited second year ridership statistics for SBS only, ignoring the local (where ridership declined) to conclude a 10 percent increase in ridership. On all other routes, first year ridership was cited. But in this case first year ridership declined on both the local and express so the MTA didn’t use that year to publicize. Today, three years after implementation B44 SBS and local is still lower. That didn’t prevent the MTA from instituting the B46 SBS which also lost ridership.

By picking and choosing what statistics they will show and then manipulating them in the fashion they want to, they can prove anything they want to prove. That is not how statistics were meant to be used. The new President must show he is serious about being honest in order to regain the public’s trust.

smotri January 22, 2018 - 10:36 am

The MTA needs to be ABOLISHED and Cuomo can’t be allowed anymore to have control over the City’s subway system. New York City should have 100% control.

Stephen Bauman January 22, 2018 - 11:33 am

This is one of Bloomberg’s campaign pledges that he ignored once elected.

NYC has the power to withdraw its subway and bus systems from the MTA. It should exercise that power. If the withdrawal follows Nassau County’s withdrawal of it bus system, then the withdrawal would result in a new operating entity. That entity would be free of existing union contracts.

SEAN January 22, 2018 - 2:09 pm

NYC has the power to withdraw its subway and bus systems from the MTA. It should exercise that power. If the withdrawal follows Nassau County’s withdrawal of it bus system, then the withdrawal would result in a new operating entity. That entity would be free of existing union contracts.

It would be interesting Stephen, but I do wonder if Union contracts would be void or not.

Now lets say the busses & subways were separated from the MTA & were a new agency – would it be through the city? Also what about Metro-North & LIRR – would they remain or would another regional rail agency be created. Because if a regional rail agency were to come into existence, then it should subsume NJT’s rail operations & PATH.

smotri January 23, 2018 - 11:01 am

I’m extremely lucky, living as I do less than a block from the 72nd Street station of the Second Avenue Subway. Modern, clean, more or less on time, accessible to the handicapped. I take the subway everyday to my job near City Hall and must change at Canal Street to the 6 down to its terminus at City Hall – Brooklyn Bridge. The contrast between my home station, the Q line itself in Manhattan, and the City Hall – Brooklyn Bridge station and the 6 train, is like night and day, or even a better way of putting it, first world and third world. The degrading experience of that one last stop on the 6 makes one wonder why things have to be so bad for so many other users of the subway system. The filthy Canal Street station, with narrow platforms, crumbling floors, walls, open sewer-like little rivulets of water (or some liquid) flowing, the stink, the garbage strewn about…painfully slow 6 train… I pity the 6 train users (I used to be one); they pay the same fare as I do, but the service they must endure is poor at best. This has got to stop and these self-serving politicians must be held to account. Don’t vote for these Cuomos and di Blasios any more! I don’t!

Stephen Bauman January 22, 2018 - 11:25 am

This is the latest instance where the MTA has shifted blame from itself for its many failures. Unfortunately, believing the MTA has resulted in adopting practices that have further deteriorated service.

The first instance that comes to mind is the MTA’s excuse for the Williamsburg Bridge collision in 1995. The MTA asserted the collision was due to higher speed for the new cars on that stretch of track. They ignored evidence that had the train’s braking system performed as per spec, a collision would have been avoided by 48 feet. Instead, they noted that had the train been traveling at 28 mph with the collision train’s braking rate, a collision would have been avoided by 45 feet. The MTA’s “cure” was to slow down all trains, this increased running time. Slower running times mean that more trains are required to maintain the same service level. The MTA did not increase the number of available trains but decreased service levels.

A second instance is dual assertion that increased patronage has overwhelmed the signal system’s ability to handle increased service levels. These assertions overlook two inconvenient facts. First, patronage during the peak periods has continued to decrease since the 1960’s. Second, peak hour service levels in the 1960’s and before were greater than they are today. Acceptance of the MTA’s excuse has meant purchasing a “state of the art” signal system that will deliver no increased service level capacity. The high cost for this new signal system, which vendors are delighted to supply, has diverted funds from the two items that would provide higher service levels: more trains and the facilities to maintain them.

The recent summer meltdown has resulted in a couple of more poor performance excuses and false cures.

The first is that removing seats will reduce dwell time and provide faster service. The reverse is true. More people per car means more people will be entering and leaving the cars at each station. With doorway widths remaining the same, the result will be more not less time spent in stations.

The second assertion is that Con Edison caused power failures were a significant contributor to the spate of delays. Con Edison’s responsibility ends at the point of entry to customer’s property. Any failures within the customer’s property are the customer’s responsibility.

Somebody has investigated this last excuse and found smoking guns for the MTA’s blame game. They should investigate the MTA’s many other excuses for poor service. They may not find smoking guns but they will find the MTA’s solutions for poor service to be faulty.

SEAN January 22, 2018 - 2:15 pm

It’s hard to tell the difference between MTA operations & dare I say it, the Trump presidency. Both spin lies that a 4-year old could see through.

Nyland8 January 22, 2018 - 11:43 am

Ironically enough, if Con Ed is forced to upgrade their electrical service to better accommodate the MTA – as is suggested by Cuomo – then the bill simply falls on the rate payers in a different way. Does it really matter if we overpay for the subway, overpay for our electricity, or both? We remain at their mercy.

SEAN January 22, 2018 - 2:20 pm

You don’t have to use MTA services, but you do need to pay Con Ed. So there is a slight difference, but I do understand your sentiment though.

dannyb January 23, 2018 - 12:47 am

Just as an historical perspective: Until roughly 1960 (I’m sure someone here will have the exact date…), the Transit Authority operated its own generators, substations, and “rotary converters” (changed the high voltage AC to the 600VDC needed for the third rail).
Not sure who physically maintained the high voltage cables from the generators to the substations.
I have a fascinating picture from the NYC 1977 blackout. It shows the 110th street and Broadway station, with a _fully lit_ #1 train illuminating the station while all the other lights are out.
Explanation: while the Con Ed takeover was two decades earlier, this specific circuit was still physically isolated enough that the power kept flowing.
(When I saw this I headed to the basement of the building I lived in a couple of blocks away. We had a DC feed for the elevator and I was hoping it was still live and I’d set up some lights from it. Alas, only the subway had power).
Unfortunately I’ve long since lost the negative. This photo is a scan from a poorly stored contact sheet:

dannyb January 23, 2018 - 12:49 am

hmm, tried adding the url. Lwt’s see if this works:

Stephen Bauman January 23, 2018 - 7:23 am

Here’s the 1960 comparative kilowatt-hour cost for several subway operators in North America (cents).

Cleveland: 1.672
Toronto: 0.57
Philadelphia: 1.54
Chicago: 1.876
New York: 2.22

SEAN January 23, 2018 - 3:05 pm

Is that why it’s called “Con” Ed?

Duke January 30, 2018 - 8:34 pm

Electricity is more expensive in New York as a matter of supply and demand. The city uses more electricity on peak days than there is transmission capacity avaiable to get it into the area. As a result, electric customers in NYC have to pay for expensive local “peaker plant” capacity that doesn’t operate most of the time but needs to be kept available for the small amount of time that it’s needed.

Adirondacker12800 January 30, 2018 - 10:45 pm

The MTA whether it’s for the subway, Metro North or the LIRR, bus garages, maintenance yards, offices doesn’t pay retail.

Larry Littlefield January 23, 2018 - 12:47 pm

I had been checking the MTA Budget to see if maintenance staff was being cut as pension and debt costs soared. But there was very little decrease in the number of workers reported in the documents.

Then the NY Times reported that budgeted positions were left unfilled to save money.

That’s fraud, isn’t it? I mean, if they are having trouble hiring skilled workers its one thing. But if that money was just shifted to the LIRR or Upstate under the table, that’s another.

SEAN January 23, 2018 - 3:03 pm

That’s fraud, isn’t it? I mean, if they are having trouble hiring skilled workers its one thing. But if that money was just shifted to the LIRR or Upstate under the table, that’s another.

If money was diverted in that way as you suggest,, yes it is fraud. However there is a little something to think about – it’s one thing to send money to the LIRR & another to send it to places like Rockland or Dutchess counties. The latter is more an apezement to republicans there who want out of the MTA district & some $$$ will keep them quiet.


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