On Thursday morning, Governor Andrew Cuomo christened the “MTA Genius Transit Challenge,” his most tangible solution to date to address the crisis in the subway system.
“We know the system is decaying, and we know the system is decaying rapidly. I think of it as a heart attack — it happens all of a sudden and the temptation is to say, well something must have just caused it,” the governor told the assembled “geniuses,” who are all vying to generate nonbinding ideas for modernizing the MTA for the governor to pick and choose from, in exchange for $1 million.
“No, a lifetime caused it. Bad habits caused it. Lack of exercise caused it. Smoking caused it. Cholesterol caused it. This has been caused over decades, we understand that.”
Cuomo — who time and again has insisted he’s not the one feeding the MTA cheeseburgers and cigarettes — also announced a “state of emergency” underground, which would allow the MTA to speed up procurement and repairs. He claims this will allow him to invest an additional billion dollars into the system without legislative action, and told the crowd he has ordered newly installed MTA Chairman Joe Lhota to conduct a thirty-day review of the agency’s organizational structure, as well as a sixty-day review of the system’s capital plan for equipment and maintenance.
But the stately pace of the competition and some administrative tweaking do not reflect the anger bubbling up from underground, where riders are facing worsening delays and conditions. Despite his supposed non-control of the agency, Cuomo has been able to push through favored (and highly visible) projects like Wi-Fi, USB charging in buses, and the opening of the first leg of the Second Avenue Subway.
Transit riders were more concerned with actually getting to work than with charging their phones.
“We are not asking for more USB ports, we are not asking for more Wi-Fi, we are not asking for more ribbon cuttings, we’re asking for reliability, accountability, and discipline in the delivery of the service we depend on,” David Bragdon, the executive director of TransitCenter, said at a rally outside Cuomo’s Manhattan office on Wednesday evening. “And we’re asking this of the one person who can do it, the one person who is in charge of the MTA.”
Those angry mass transit riders were protesting just a day after an A train derailed in Harlem, leaving more than thirty people injured and adding to the litany of horrors into which the subway system has devolved on Cuomo’s watch. “We’re in trouble underground, Cuomo’s nowhere to be found,” the protesters chanted.
Cuomo was not, in fact, anywhere near his midtown office on Wednesday night, but rather deep in negotiations in Albany, where he spent the last few hours of an extended legislative session renaming a bridge for his dad, extending mayoral control of schools for two years, and doing nothing to address the dire situation under the streets of New York City, where the subway system remains in immediate need of maintenance and hard funding.
“It’s the worst I’ve seen the system, ever, and I’ve been riding for forty years. It’s dirty, unsafe. You’re waiting for almost an hour for the bus, same for the train,” said Maria Nunez, a Bushwick resident who attended the rally with the group New York Communities for Change.
“If you do not fix the subway, 2018 will become a referendum on your handling of the subway,” said Michael Sciaraffo, who has become a vocal critic of the subway system after he was stuck on a sweltering F train for an hour earlier this month. “We are tired, we are ready for change. This isn’t an inconvenience anymore, this is dangerous. Governor Cuomo, it’s time to lead, it’s time to act, right now.”
The myriad of problems with the MTA all stem from a decades-long lack of funding for basic maintenance problems, which puts the MTA so far behind in repairs it will need to take drastic action to catch up. For years, however, the MTA has insisted that the main cause of delays isn’t an aging system, but rather overcrowding. Yesterday, the New York Times relayed that MTA talking point in an article that essentially argued the MTA was a victim of its own success, with too many passengers for a system that’s just too small.
“This ridership growth is not a surprise,” said Yonah Freemark, Ph.D. student at MIT who has written extensively about the subway system. “It has been a two-decades-long trend at this point. MTA should have been working harder to adjust its system to more people riding, including improving the signal system, buying trains with higher capacity — such as those with what are referred to as open gangways between cars — and upgrading the bus network to attract more riders. Instead, it has done little more than stick to the status quo, running similar service that it ran in 2000.”
Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the Straphangers Campaign, agrees that overcrowding was something the MTA should have anticipated.
“They knew what was coming and have always been behind the curve,” Russianoff said. “They’ll wait a few years, study ridership, and maybe put in one new bus. It’s a very anti-service mentality. This is a problem that’s worldwide, increasing ridership, and places like Paris and London have been building and rebuilding constantly, which we haven’t done.”
While Cuomo charges up would-be geniuses on generating ideas to fix the MTA, and declares a state of emergency to take action for a subway system that has been running on austerity budgets, it seems like just funding the system adequately would be the smartest idea of all.
“They tweet nasty things about me all day, the riders, but we can’t figure out how to communicate with them,” Cuomo said on Thursday morning.
The good news: All that intense pressure he’s been receiving from New Yorkers, both in the streets and on the tweets, seems to be making an impact.