“Hold me accountable,” MTA Chairman Joe Lhota told reporters last July when he introduced the Subway Action Plan, the authority’s $836 million initiative to “stabilize and improve the subway system and lay the foundation for modernizing the New York City Subway.”
On Monday, the New York Times ran an article setting out to do just that, essentially declaring the Subway Action Plan a failure — noting that MTA statistics “show minor progress in some areas, but no major boost in reliability, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on repairs.” Lhota immediately pushed back, calling the premise of the article “pure fiction,” and insisting the Subway Action Plan was only supposed to “stabilize the system to prevent a continuation of the free-fall.”
The problem is, they’re both right. Because, pledges of accountability aside, the Subway Action Plan was designed to be amorphous enough that it’s nearly impossible to judge whether it was a success or a failure.
The official MTA press release on July 25, 2017, announcing the plan vowed: “The first phase starts immediately and will deliver improvements within one year.” But for all it offered in dollars and big numbers, parts to be fixed, or maintenance schedules to be accelerated, it lacked in hard, fact-checkable promises. Even the fully fleshed-out plan was all inputs, no outputs: Clean 40,000 street grates, triple the rate of installing continuous welded track, put in 50,000 friction pads on the rails, overhaul more cars, and station more emergency response personnel throughout the system. While nobody questions that these things were worth doing, there was also no consensus on how much it would help.
In May, AM New York reported that one small aspect of the plan, removing seats from some E trains to increase capacity, was impossible for even the MTA to judge. The authority couldn’t figure out how to measure its impact, it turned out, because even if it had the intended effect of increasing capacity, the impact was so marginal that it would not have registered in any of the statistics the MTA uses to measure performance. Jaqi Cohen of Straphangers Campaign put it best: “If the MTA can’t quantify how much performance has improved or not improved due to the removal of these seats, that’s a problem.”
So, too, with the Subway Action Plan as a whole. At the time of the plan’s release, the MTA bragged that it “addresses 79 percent of the major incidents that cause delays in the system.” But as I wrote back in March, the Subway Action Plan did not even target the cause of most delays, which are largely not the result of major incidents.
In fact, during this Monday’s MTA board committee meeting, Senior Vice President of Subways Sally Librera said that the 40 percent of delays — 22,350 in June — attributed to “Operating Environment” are “the delays we absorb as a system that aren’t tied to a single incident.” These would be things like signal timers slowing trains down, which reduces capacity, which in turn creates delayed trains. An additional 25 percent of delays are caused by trains slowing down to 10 miles per hour near work zones, while 14 percent more are due to “external” causes such as police and emergency responses, sick customers, and weather. Which is to say, using June’s figures — which were representative of previous months — four out of every five delayed trains were not the result of the types of delays $836 million was supposed to fix.
In the entire Subway Action Plan, in fact, there was not a single solid declaration for what success would look like, unless you count reducing EMT response time from 45 minutes to 15 minutes — something that’s impossible to verify with publicly available figures.
The unavoidable takeaway from current performance stats — not to mention the daily experience of riding the subway — is that we’re basically where we were a year ago; definitely not worse, maybe slightly better, but $836 million poorer. Meanwhile, the meltdowns keep coming, routine delays are a fact of life, and weekend subway service is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure exercise.
Yet it’s difficult to argue with Lhota’s assertion that the subway has been “stabilized” because, as Nick Sifuentes of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign told Curbed NY, “we don’t have the counterfactual.” As in, we don’t know what would have happened to the subway if we didn’t spend $836 million to clear drains or install 50,000 friction pads. Lhota and the MTA can always argue things would have been worse had we not done those improvements. Fair enough, but what we do know is that delays in the categories the Subway Action Plan was supposed to address had only marginally increased from 2012 through 2017. In that sense, the Subway Action Plan couldn’t possibly fail, because the statistic it was meant to stabilize was already fairly stable.
This is in stark contrast to the culture Andy Byford is now fostering as president of NYC Transit. His Fast Forward Plan, a comprehensive reimagination of the entire agency, calls for “a clear, time-bound mandate to which we expect to be held accountable.” Although he’s still seeking funding for it, Byford is already putting this principle into practice. On Monday, his team vowed that by the end of the year they would reduce weekday delays by 10,000 per month, a statistic that is publicly released every month in the NYCT committee materials. Whether they succeed, at least, come 2019, we won’t be arguing about what the goal was in the first place.
And even if we wanted to hold Lhota accountable for this $836 million stabilization program, good luck figuring out how. He’s appointed to his position by the governor. You could vote against Cuomo in the primaries if you so desire, but aside from that, Lhota is virtually untouchable. The only other option is to tweet at him and hope he actually reads it.