What Is Wrong With the MTA — and Can It Be Fixed?

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People wait on the subway platform during rush hour at the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station in June. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A southbound A train scraped the wall of the subway tunnel Tuesday morning, sending two cars jumping off the tracks before the 125th Street station in Harlem. The power went out. Smoke filled the cars. About 800 riders evacuated themselves from the train, relying on phones and FDNY flashlights to lead them aboveground. Almost three dozen people were hurt, though none faced life-threatening injuries.

The derailment — which the MTA said was likely caused by a replacement rail that wasn’t stored properly on the tracks — sparked immediate service disruptions across the system. It also did real damage: train tracks broken, signal lights knocked down, concrete punched out of the subway walls. Delays and service changes dogged the system into the overnight hours as crews worked furiously to get the lines back up. The MTA had both the express and local trains up by the morning rush — with, of course, “extensive delays.”

That phrase is a tired refrain for riders in a system where overall delays have spiked and the horror stories have piled up on social media, meticulously documented, now that all the stations are wired online. Subway woes go hand in hand with the “summer of hell” for regional commuters on the LIRR, who face disruptions — along with NJ Transit and Amtrak riders — because Penn Station’s tracks are in dire need of repairs. The solution to all of this seems obvious: infrastructure investments to upgrade and restore and fix our system — and to build it out a whole lot more. Which still isn’t going to solve our problems overnight, says Richard Barone, a transit expert at the Regional Plan Association. Daily Intelligencer spoke with Barone about how the MTA and the city ended up in subway crisis mode, and what might get us out.

Tuesday’s derailment feels a bit like a breaking point. Do you think we’re there, or is it going to take a lot more than that?
We don’t know all the details. I know initially people were getting stuck and they were kind of clueless about what was going on. As the day progressed the MTA seemed to get a better handle on things. Still, it’s a big problem and people were struggling with commutes. But it took years for us to get to where we are. We are not going to fix the overcrowding, rehab stations, make more trains materialize to serve all the people we have to serve, and prevent all the mechanical failures right away.

The MTA said in a statement that an “improperly secured” rail might have been responsible, adding that “storing equipment in between tracks is a common practice … to accelerate rail repairs.” Is this an example of a trade-off between getting it done fast, but maybe not as efficiently or safely?
I think we don’t know enough about this. I assume the safety board is going to look into this with an inquiry. They’ll determine what actually happened. That’s always my cautionary note. There’s a lot of pressure to say what caused it, but there is something to be said about letting the investigators get the facts together.

A train derailment. Photo: TWU Local 100

But there’s no disputing that the subway is facing difficulties because of outdated technology and other infrastructure challenges. How did we get here?
The organization in the past was more about fixing what it had and not really upgrading. This idea that it’s been working for 60, 80 years and we don’t want to change the way we do things. It also comes down to money: You know you can only get this much money, what do you do with it? New technology upgrades might come second after we have to replace the track or this train is going to go off the track. Replace this analog system with another one because you don’t have time to modernize this whole thing.

What about overcrowding?
Ridership blew up because of the MetroCard and free transfer to buses, and the unlimited 30-day pass removed the barrier to people having to pay per trip. The system’s been buckling under the pressure for three years now. Crowding has been very extreme in certain places and the system is struggling to serve all the demand that has been placed on it. What you’re starting to see is the shedding of some of that ridership now.

The question that comes up among frustrated riders lately is “who’s to blame?” The MTA is a state-run agency, so Governor Andrew Cuomo is rightfully under pressure. But Mayor Bill de Blasio has also gotten flak. And they’re both blaming each other. So whom should I, as a New York City subway rider, blame?
The governor runs the system. It’s a state authority and he has the primary responsibility. But the governor and the mayor should be working together to fix this problem. They should both be held accountable and be pressed by the public to set aside their differences. For the mayor to say, “Hands off. It’s the governor’s problem” — it’s the city’s problem if the subway doesn’t work. The city loses. Its economy loses; its residents are impacted.

One way to deal with the pressure on the subways would be to improve our surface transportation system: better and more reliable buses. The city is a huge player on that. The city brings in land use — control of the streets and zoning. The city provides financial resources: If the MTA needs supplemental funding to improve a station, the city — which is in pretty decent financial shape right now — could potentially provide resources to make that happen. But if there’s no dialogue, why’s the city going to do that? So [the mayor and the governor] need to listen to each other. If New York City doesn’t work, everybody in New York will pay a price.

And yet, to use a very cliché analogy, it seems the MTA has become the third rail for New York’s leaders. Why does it seem no one is willing to touch it?
Because it’s so political. Politicians are concerned about overpromising. We didn’t get here overnight and we can’t all of a sudden turn around the whole system. There are things to do that will help to improve things in the short term, but the larger issues — the infrastructure backlog, signaling upgrades, bottlenecks in the system — those are going to be longer-term investments.
So there’s been a reluctance to look outside of the relatively near-term agenda when it comes to a term or two in the political timeline. With infrastructure you have to look much further out. Maybe in your elected cycle you’re only planting some seeds, and you’re not getting as many opportunities to benefit from those openings.

Until last week, the MTA hadn’t had a chairman for months.
We’ve had a tremendous amount of turnover [at the MTA] because of politics and lack of autonomy. The MTA needs to have stable leadership, and its leaders should be given the autonomy to execute their vision. Because if they’re able to do that, they might want to stick around and stay for six, eight, ten years. The problem now is you had so many different leaders come in. Every time a new leader comes, they have to evaluate what’s been done before. That takes a while. So the staff, which may have started executing one plan, has to stop, and now they have to evaluate another approach. They’re constantly course-correcting.

Such as?
A great example was the idea of getting the countdown clocks on the division B, which are the lettered lines. About a decade ago, the MTA had a plan to do what they did on the numbered lines, but it was decided at the time, politically, that it would take too long and they had to go about it another way. So the agency went through this whole other evaluation process that took a couple of years. That process came up with another approach, and then there was more pressure to deliver the countdown clocks, so it went through another series of tests and demos to determine whether the MTA could do it faster. Finally, after all these years and years, now they have a plan to use beacons and Bluetooths for the countdown clocks. The ironic thing is the plan to do those upgrades is going to take about a decade, maybe a little more. So if the MTA would have just done its original plan, the countdown clocks might be a couple of years away still, but you’d have a system similar to what you had on the other lines.

And I’m sure that’s just the beginning.
These changes in leadership stall progress. The same with the fare-payment system. There was a plan to start replacing the fare-payment system by 2014. We’re now looking at 2019 or 2020. It keeps getting pushed out. The administration under [MTA chairman] Jay Walder had a plan. That plan was overturned and reevaluated. We were the first system in the world to test what they call an open-fare payment system, which is using your RFID-equipped credit card or your phone to access the transit system. New York piloted this stuff way back in 2009–10. We were the first. Now London has the system that we piloted. Chicago has the system we piloted. Philadelphia has the system we piloted. The MTA is likely to be one of the last systems.

And I imagine that also deeply affects more essential planning, like vital system upgrades.
The success of the subway system hinges on the organizational culture and the resources that it’s given. And culture can’t be underestimated in all of this. I have no doubt that a technical solution to fix the subway already exists and people are very much aware of what needs to be done. We need to make the MTA a place where people are going to want to clamor to get a job. This is not saying that there are not a lot of smart people at the MTA – there are. But you have to give them the ability to shine.

People on an idling train at the Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway station, April 21, 2017, in Brooklyn. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Well, Joe Lhota — who previously served as MTA chairman before running for mayor — is now back. How do you view that move?
Lhota was with MTA for over a year and went through a very major crisis in Hurricane Sandy as chairman. He was very good at interfacing with the governor and creating a space so that he was out there advocating for certain things with the cooperation of the government and [the MTA] board and the folks operating the systems. It also won’t take him as long to get up to speed when it comes to how the MTA works and the actual system itself.

Given the MTA’s straits, it almost seems as if he was selected because of his reputation as a good crisis manager.
I do think he’s a good fit for the circumstances we are in right now. We’re cautiously optimistic that we’ll start seeing some improvement soon. But to be clear, the fixes all take some time. This is a good first step.

As you mentioned, resource constraints are also an issue. The MTA seems perpetually strapped for money, or funds are going to big projects instead of system upgrades. The MTA has its operating budget, and then its five-year capital plan. Can you explain how those work when it comes to funding the system?
They are kind of mixed because the capital plan is funded by debt and debt service is paid for in the operating budget. Seventeen, 18 percent of the operating budget goes for debt service. The five-year capital plan also receives funding from the federal government and state and city supplemental funding, and it focuses more on new projects — even though it does include a lot of station and track work. The operating budget covers maintenance — maintaining the bus fleet or rail car, cleaning stations. But if you have to start replacing pieces of that station, or replace the track rather than just cleaning trash off of it, then that’s capital. Anything that requires replacing or building a new asset. This five-year capital plan — which some argue should be even longer, like ten years — was done as a way to get additional funding for the MTA for these projects and it was also done strategically on the labor side so when it came down to collective bargaining, it did not seem as if the MTA had this massive pot of money.

How does the MTA come up with the capital plan?
There’s a legislative approval process. The MTA estimates funding needs and tries to get the funding sources. It petitions the federal government for money and applies for different grants. Then they go back and they ask the city for money. And then it goes to the state and says, “This is what we need from you.” The state has to appropriate the funding for the MTA and approve the plan. In the end, the state will either suggest the MTA issue more debt, or the state provides the debt for them. Or the state will say, “We’re going to raise the MTA debt ceiling,” which is cumulative. This way the MTA doesn’t have to pay out of the fare box. But the number is huge now, something like $40 billion, and they keep raising the ceiling so the MTA can issue more debt. The danger zone is about 20 percent or above. So far we’re below that, but it’s been going over the last couple of decades.

And the operating budget?
The operating budget is essentially fixed to the MTA’s income. There are two general ways the MTA raises money. One is revenues from the fare box. A process was put in place several years ago that pushed for making biennial fare increases standard because the MTA did not have regular fare increases and it wasn’t able to keep pace with the increased costs of labor and fuel. The other side is subsidies. Roughly half of your trip is subsidized, though it varies by mode — buses require greater subsidies than subways. The subsidies are made up of a series of taxes: mortgage-recording tax, petroleum business tax, payroll mobility tax. All these taxes are collected in the downstate region, in counties served by the MTA. That money is appropriated to the MTA by the legislature. Every once in a while the state says, “We don’t have to give you that much, we’re going to use part for something else.” But most of the time, the MTA gets pretty much all of it. The only thing the MTA can itself do as an organization to deal with ebbs and flows of revenue is to cut service or raise fares. Everything else requires it to go back to the legislature and say, “We don’t have enough money, can you get a new revenue stream?” Which is what the MTA did with the payroll mobility tax, which generated another billion dollars or so annually.

But it often feels as if the MTA doesn’t use those funds wisely or efficiently. The Second Avenue subway took a decade to build — or 100 depending on how you look at it.
We shouldn’t underestimate how difficult it is to build a subway expansion in a city like New York, especially in a neighborhood like the Upper East Side. It’s one of the most complicated construction environments on the planet. But clearly there are efficiency issues. There’s no disputing that on a per-mile basis Second Avenue is the most expensive subway extension in the world. That’s just the honest-to-god truth.

But if you look at how much we spend on infrastructure in this country and in the city versus what other people spend as a percentage of their GDP, it’s low. If you look at how much we spend compared to how much our assets are valued [at], it’s low. We have this weird conundrum where we’re not really spending enough, but what we do spend on a per-unit basis is high. It’s this terrible argument: We have to be spending more, but at the same time we have to be doing things more affordably.

But there’s this sense of “the MTA can’t get me to work on time.”
I worry that the crises we’re facing now will force us to even walk away from bigger infrastructure projects because there’s going to be this mentality: “We’ve got to fix it first, and that’s that.” No other major global city that competes with us thinks that way. They’re always looking at how to improve commutes, extend access, create more capacity, speed up travel. Not even around the globe — we have some pretty interesting examples in the United States. I would say Los Angeles and Denver are two places that have done a lot when it comes to building out and extending their public-transportation systems. It’s comparable to stuff New York City did back in the teens.

And these projects we have in the pipeline now, while they’re important — the first phase of the Second Avenue subway, the extension of the 7 line, East Side Access — they’re relatively modest and they shouldn’t be considered the end-all to fix because they’re not. The no. 7 is not going to fix any real problems. It generated a new area of the city, it created change for development, but it’s not addressing capacity or any mobility challenge. It’s only been the Second Avenue subway and East Side Access, but those projects are just the beginning of what we should be doing.

Based on everything you said, subways delays are going to be a reality for a while. But what’s one thing the MTA could theoretically do very quickly to improve service?
The thing that could be done almost immediately is the MTA rethinking how it communicates with customers. Pruning back all the extraneous stuff customers are bombarded with, messaging like how many track fires we have and terrorism messaging the NYPD pushes them to put on the PA. Make messages more timely and accurate: “This line is down. If you’re going here, transfer there. If you’re going here, transfer there.” Simplify the website. System map. Boom. The MTA has proven that it can do it in disasters like Hurricane Sandy. But the MTA doesn’t succeed now. We know that every day: The MTA is saying it’s delays. Delays, sure. The service is not operating right now.

How about the signal system we’re always hearing about?
Some [signaling systems] date back to the 1930s. Some of the surgical relays are that old. When the RPA looked at it in 2014, we suggested the MTA could try to do this in 30 years or maybe less. The MTA, at that time, was suggesting they would get part of the system done in 50 years. But there was no actual defined plan that was made that was public.

But signaling-system improvements don’t remove the other physical brick-and-mortar constraints that curtail throughput and capacity — track geometries, terminal configuration, and station crowding. The current signaling system should be able to handle 30 trains per hour. Not all of our lines are able to carry that much because of other bottlenecks.

What are some steps to accelerate such repairs?
Look at Governor Cuomo’s station redesign plans in the boroughs. The way he is going to accelerate them is by closing them for an extended duration. And we’re going to fix the tunnels on the L train faster by closing it for 15 months. You want to be able to get in and spend a fully productive eight-hour day or two or three shifts constantly working? You can’t do that when you’re running a 24/7 system. I think the L train closure could potentially serve as a model for how we might be able to transform the subway over time because it’s an opportunity to have a 15-month closure of five stations in Manhattan and do some serious improvements on each of those stations.

So the L-train apocalypse might end up being a good test case?
The problem I foresee is that the MTA has a relatively modest plan — the tunnel repair isn’t modest, but these station projects are. The MTA is planning on fixing the tunnel and doing an entrance on Avenue A and an improvement on the Driggs entrance on Bedford [in Williamsburg]. They’re not planning on doing anything at other stations. So people come back after 15 months, and it’s about the same. The public might say, “This was painful, we don’t want to do this again, because you know what? We’re back to the same old thing.”

This post has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What Is Wrong With the MTA — and How Could It Get Fixed?