When Governor Andrew Cuomo and MTA CEO Tom Prendergast appeared at the New York Transit Museum last week, the duo held a press conference that could have rivaled an Oprah giveaway show. But instead of new Sparkle Uggs or a Pontiac G6, riders were promised a litany of technological upgrades and renovations that would vastly improve their experience: new USB ports on hundreds of buses and subway trains; faster rollout of Wi-Fi hotspots and of new countdown clocks for all the lettered trains; a new contact-less payment system by 2018; and makeovers for thirty stations throughout the system.
Many of those technological improvements were already included in the MTA’s $26 billion capital plan, which was unveiled months ago (and to which Cuomo has pledged $8.3 billion). But the governor promised the transit agency would implement many of the upgrades ahead of schedule and work to address basic operational problems such as overcrowding. “I don’t [want] to get in a train and feel like a sardine for an hour and a half on the way to work. I don’t want to do that,” he told reporters at the press conference. It’s unclear exactly when the capital program will be officially approved or where the state’s share will come from — though transit advocates are hoping Cuomo will elaborate at his State of the State address this afternoon. But one thing is clear: Despite technological improvements and a bigger capital budget, riders are still going to resemble sardines, at least for the foreseeable future.
Part of the reason for that is a dramatic increase in ridership over the past few decades. Daily transit ridership is up 61 percent since 1992, and for the first time in its history the subway system is regularly clocking 6 million rides a day. There were more than forty days with that level of ridership in 2015; as recently as 2013 there were exactly zero, according to the MTA’s Prendergast. That volume, without proportional increases in service, is precisely why so many riders are literally feeling the squeeze. But given the specter of long-term capacity problems, some observers have criticized Cuomo for paying too much attention to flashy infrastructure projects and tech upgrades, and not enough to making the city’s transit system actually run.
“If Cuomo is intent on delivering a reliable system that ‘allow[s] a growth and an expansion that far exceeds anyone’s expectations,’ USB charging stations and countdown clocks won’t bridge that gap,” wrote Benjamin Kabak, who blogs at Second Ave. Sagas. “Knowing that my train is 12 minutes away doesn’t make it emptier or faster.”
Asked whether focusing on technology upgrades might take away from efforts to ease overcrowding and make the system more reliable, MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said the two aren’t mutually exclusive. The costs of tech upgrades are manageable in the context of a $26 billion capital program, he said, and stations that have better technology make people feel better about the system. “I think countdown clocks are perhaps the most popular thing the MTA has done in the past twenty years,” Lisberg said, adding that the transit agency has done research that shows the technology makes people more likely to think the stations are cleaner. “The MTA is not just about pushing people through tunnels as fast as we can.”
The basic problem is the subway’s aging infrastructure, which is both expensive to maintain and time-consuming to fix. The system is approaching the limit on the number of trains per hour it can fit on the tracks without a massive overhaul of its signaling system, a project often referred to as CBTC, which essentially automates the trains but could take decades to install. (It took about ten years to complete on the L train alone.) The MTA is planning to complete a similar upgrade on the 7 line next year, and its most recent capital plan calls for CBTC on portions of the Queens Boulevard and Sixth Avenue lines. But don’t expect systemwide changes to signaling anytime soon. “There are twenty major subway lines,” noted Gene Russianoff, who heads up the Straphangers Campaign, a rider advocacy group. “If they continue at that rate, it will be a long time before people have what remotely looks like breathing room.”
The other way to dramatically increase service is by building new subway tunnels. The MTA says it will open the first phase of the Second Avenue line late this year; it has allocated $1.5 billion in its upcoming capital program for the second phase.
The other way to dramatically increase service is by building new subway tunnels. The MTA says it will open the first phase of the Second Avenue line late this year; it has allocated $535 million in its upcoming capital program for the second phase, roughly $1 billion less than what was originally proposed. “I’m very nervous about attributing nirvana to its arrival,” said Russianoff, who points out that the first phase will represent only the first three stations out of a planned sixteen. Still, Russianoff and other rider advocates are generally happy with the roughly $4 billion (or 18 percent) increase expected in the capital budget and support technological upgrades that they say will attract people to the system.
In the meantime, the MTA says it’s working on stopgap measures to alleviate overcrowding and argues that the opening of the Second Avenue line could have a significant effect. According to Lisberg, the agency is deploying more platform controllers — who help get people on and off trains more efficiently in crowded stations — as well as experimenting with briefer announcements and more maintenance crews in the field to respond to potential disruptions. But should riders expect those efforts to noticeably affect overcrowding in the short term? “It’s a good question and I don’t have an answer,” Lisberg said. “We’re up against the surging human tide.”