News & Politics

Five Ways To Fix NYC’s Subways Right Now

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You don’t need to dig into Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Twitter mentions to know that the situation regarding New York City’s subway system is beyond dire. Daily commutes have become productivity-sucking slogs. Cuomo, who controls the MTA, appears more fixated on easing the commutes of Long Island drivers than actually fixing the subways that move 5.7 million New Yorkers every day, while the agency itself seems to not be all that sympathetic to commuters’ immediate concerns. Fixes proposed by the governor have been half-measures at best and do nothing to return the system to a state where it isn’t constantly buckling under the weight of its ridership.

But New Yorkers have begun familiarizing themselves with the acute causes of their misery — decrepit signals, cramped stations, a massive decrease in funding — and deserve an equally precise plan to address them. Governor Cuomo has announced a grant competition to generate ideas, but transit experts the Voice spoke to all agree the answers to the MTA’s problems are so obvious, it wouldn’t take some sort of “genius” to figure them out. Here are five concrete steps the MTA, the governor, and yes, Mayor Bill de Blasio can take right now to fix the subways.

1. End The MTA’s “Bunker Mentality” 

Last week, when commuters were stuck on an overheated F train for almost an hour, the conductor announced that they were being held because of “train traffic ahead.” But riders knew immediately from the train’s loss of power that the train itself had become disabled. This incident is indicative of how the MTA treats its riders; both its leadership and employees operate as if riders can’t deal with the reality of what’s going on with the system. And when the riders complain, the MTA exhibits a bunker mentality, acting as if the agency itself is under siege from its riders.

Divestment in subway infrastructure has led to an overreliance on a decrepit signal system that has outlived its usefulness, but the MTA doesn’t want you to know the full extent of the problems. When repair projects fall behind schedule, or when trains have to be taken out of service for long periods of time, the MTA keeps it under wraps, as if the public won’t be able to handle the truth.

“You need to take all the service disruptions and have a grown-up conversation and an announcement of a plan to fix the system,” Jon Orcutt, the director of communications and advocacy at TransitCenter, told the Voice. “It’s not easy stuff to talk about — it involves things like shutdowns and money — but we need to have that conversation.”

Orcutt continued, “If you’re the governor, you have to convene a small group of leaders of all the different divisions of the subway, and go through what’s been going wrong and hold these guys brutally accountable. You need to have people constantly explaining what’s going on and what they’re doing about it and not explaining all the reasons why they can’t do things. Those people need to be tossed out of the room and probably demoted. This is real life for New Yorkers, and the MTA doesn’t quite get that.”

2. Use The L Train Shutdown As A Model For Getting Things Done

When the MTA finally announced that the L train’s Canarsie Tunnel would need serious repairs as a result of Superstorm Sandy, it gave the public two options: drag out the work and retain some level of drastically reduced service for years, or shut down the line completely for around eighteen months to complete the repairs. At community meetings it held about the matter, MTA officials were surprised by the overwhelming response in favor of a total shutdown

“This shutdown is giving the MTA the opportunity to transform the L line, to improve it, to make the changes they couldn’t have made if service was running,” said Rich Barone, vice president of transportation at the Regional Plan Association. “Having access for almost a year and a half, 24-7, you can really get a lot of work done and ultimately save us money.”

To replace the ancient signal system with new computerized signals as quickly as possible, the MTA will likely need to resort to further shutdowns of subway lines instead of dragging out the work forever (see the interminable disruptions on the 7 line over the past decade while signal installation was done without a shutdown). But this allows the MTA to increase capacity in stations at the same time, as well as make them more accessible. It can also give the city an opportunity to redesign the streets above to make them more friendly to mass-transit needs.

“Trying to work around train schedules is one of the reasons why we’re in this situation,” Barone said. “These lines should be taken down completely and put back together again. The MTA has such a small little window to make repairs now — breakdown, setup, breakdown, setup. Imagine the time and money saved by being able to keep the equipment in the tunnel. Multiple months and years shut down on pieces of infrastructure have to be considered to allow things to be done quicker.”

The L train shutdown has spurred conversations about how to make 14th Street more pedestrian- and bus-friendly, as well as increase bus capacity on the Williamsburg Bridge.

“Extended shutdowns have to be coupled with robust alternatives above ground,” Barone continued. “The surface has to be recalibrated to give a better balance between single-occupancy vehicles and mass transit. I would stress that there’s a lot of knowledge already in the city, focused on the subway system and mass transit, that knows how to help the system get better, and when we’re working together, like people are doing on the L shutdown, we can get this done.”

3. Pass A Capital Program That Helps Riders, Not Just Politicians 

As the subway system entered a death spiral of delays this summer, the MTA board itself had the opportunity to amend its capital program, which would have allowed the agency to funnel more money from huge projects like the second stage of the 2nd Avenue Subway to immediately restoring the existing system to a state of good repair.

Instead, the MTA chose to fund expensive new additions to the system.This decision directly illustrates the MTA’s function in the political sphere; the governor, who controls the system, has focused on glitzy station openings and expansions — things he can cut ribbons on — rather than on something significantly less flashy but nonetheless far more important, such as restoring reliable service.

“One of the biggest changes that can be done moving forward is to finally put forth a capital program that reflects the needs of the system,” said Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, and an MTA board member appointed by Mayor de Blasio. “This plan would lay out exactly what the system needs each year in order to keep running, and expand, and modernize. We’ve never had a capital program that adequately reflects those needs.”

Vanterpool noted that the MTA’s current five-year capital plan is $29.5 billion, leaving around $6.5 billion a year to maintain the subways and build new infrastructure.

“We know our system requires more for that for a state of good repair. We know that,” she told the Voice. “We need to start putting out capital programs that are accurate. The size of the capital program ends up being a political decision. It ends up being the size of a program that is politically palatable instead of a program that reflects the needs of the system. Maybe that program is $75 billion, and we can finally start to tackle these big projects on a timeline that is reasonable.”

4. Open Up New Revenue Streams That Don’t Involve Jacking Up Fares

For the capital plan to be expanded to a point where it returns the system to a state of good repair, more money would have to be allocated to the system by both the city and the state, and not off the backs of riders, who are already facing fare increases for the foreseeable future.

“There was a time when the state legislature enacted actual taxes to help fund the MTA and bring it back to a state of good repair,” said Gene Russianoff, the senior attorney of NYPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign. Russianoff was one of the main forces behind the reinvestment in the subways following the city’s turn toward austerity in the 1970s.

“You need a new revenue source if the state wants to keep the trains running as well as invest in the huge expansion projects,” said Russianoff. “It’s proven it can chew gum and walk at the same time in the past, it just needs the money to do it. But taxes are unpopular, you might have noticed.”

One plan that Russianoff and transit advocates almost universally support is the Move NY plan, which would put tolls on the East River crossings, as well as decrease the cost of tolls at less popular crossings, thus decreasing congestion and raising money needed to bring the system back to a state of good repair. Plus, with Governor Cuomo’s preference of cashless tolling plazas, there’s no need to worry about massive changes to iconic entrances at the Brooklyn and Queensboro bridges. 

The state can also bring back the commuter tax, which up until its repeal in 1999 (an effort led by State Senator Dean Skelos, who is currently serving five years for corruption) brought millions of dollars into the city’s transit infrastructure from people who work in the city and use its transit services but don’t pay any taxes for their upkeep. If the state senate were to be flipped back to Democratic control come 2018 (or sooner), then it’s very possible the tax would be reinstated.

5) End The Feud

Because the MTA is so vulnerable to the political agenda of the governor, it has been sucked into the vortex that is the long-simmering feud between Cuomo and de Blasio. Cuomo chides de Blasio that the city isn’t paying its fair share toward the MTA (and, to be fair, it certainly could pay more), while de Blasio throws up his hands at the idea of paying more for a service he has no control over. This leads to empty threats from de Blasio, petty intimidation by Cuomo, and ultimately a subway system failing without a single politician standing up for its riders. Because the MTA and the city’s department of transportation must coordinate on shutdowns like the L train (and the future shutdowns recommended by transit experts), the feud has to end for the subways to finally heal up.

“Providing a reliable subway that is competitive with our peers’ is the standard function of what government does. It’s a marker of how that city competes with other cities globally,” Barone said. “They’re not just hurting each other. They’re hurting the city and they’re hurting the state. Each of them can bring something to the table, certain powers and resources, but a city without the subway hurts them both greatly. The two complement each other, and together, they could get this fixed. It would be a lot better if they worked together on this, but maybe that’s too radical an idea.”

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