The ‘Fast Forward’ Plan to Fix the Subways Shows Just How Broken the Subways Are

Now all Andy Byford needs is billions of dollars from Cuomo, a competent government, and a rational populace


Sometimes you don’t know how broken something is until you go about fixing it. You find the termites under the floorboards, the rusted piping, the boiler on its last legs, windows that don’t open, doors that don’t close, and a refrigerator that always runs. You can only patch things up for so long. Eventually, you need a plan, and the first step is figuring out everything that’s broken.

So it is with yesterday’s New York City Transit announcement of its “Fast Forward” Plan for the subways, a dizzying litany of overhauls, initiatives, programs, and improvements that, incidentally, provides the first official accounting of everything at the city’s transit agency that needs fixing.

There are a lot of things.

“I think if you look at this plan, and the depth and breadth of this plan compared to the trajectory we were on,” MTA board member Norman Brown observed during yesterday’s meeting, “you get a real measurement of what the true deficit is at the MTA.”

Fast Forward is a fleshed-out version of the four pillars of his job that NYCT president Andy Byford announced when he left his post as head of the Toronto Transit Commission to come to New York in January: fix the subway, reverse the city’s abysmal bus ridership trends, improve the system’s accessibility for disabled riders, and change NYCT’s culture to empower its workers. The plan gives the most complete detail of what that will actually take. It is nothing short of monumental.

If the plan has a headline item, it’s the subway signals. Byford plans to speed up implementation of communications-based train control, or CBTC, to five more lines within five years — portions of the A/C/E, 4/5/6, F/M, R, and G lines will be shut down on nights and weekends, express and local tracks included, for up to 2.5 years per line — with the majority of the system to follow within ten years. If enacted, this would drastically speed up the rollout of CBTC — currently on pace to take some forty years, give or take — which would enable more trains to be run more often far sooner than previously planned.

The next round of signal installation — and the train shutdowns — is unlikely to begin until 2020 at the earliest, according to Byford. The plan explicitly bases its timeline on utilizing existing technology, but leaves open the possibility of an accelerated pace if something like ultra-wideband radio proves viable as the “communication” part of CBTC.

In addition to new signals, the subway portion of the plan would bring 150 stations up to a “state of good repair,” and add elevators and other ADA-compliant infrastructure to at least 50 more subway stations — ensuring that subway riders are never more than two stops away from an accessible station. It would also boost the existing subway car order from a maximum of 1,612 to over 3,000 in ten years, ensuring that by the end of the ten-year period all cars are CBTC-ready.

But the plan will also address a bunch of “little” things that are not so little, such as setting new speed limits for the unnecessary signal timers that are slowing down trains, a story first reported by the Village Voice. It also calls for creating group station managers, individuals responsible for every aspect of their respective stations. It will also improve logistics to ensure work is done more efficiently, and allow for other administrative improvements (which are, frankly, difficult to evaluate without more details)

And that’s just the highlights for the subway. The plan goes on like this, for the buses and the accessibility issues and the authority’s culture. It even highlights initiatives to eliminate wasteful spending on massive projects, a pivotal endeavor if the MTA is going to receive some unspecified billions of dollars to enact this plan (more on that in a bit). It’s top-down stuff, the kind of deep clean you only get with the super-expensive power washers that will either make the house look good as new or knock it over.

It’s absolutely necessary, and nobody has any idea if it will happen.

The plan’s executive summary clearly states, in impossible-to-miss font size, that the plan is “Subject to the following assumptions”: “commitment and support from city, state, and federal agencies and elected officials,” “sufficient timely funding” to implement the plan, and “the patience and support of New Yorkers and all stakeholders.” You know, just a functioning government and rational populace. Nothing outlandish.

It’s worth remembering what the point of this plan is. Until today, Byford referred to the proposal as his “corporate plan,” which in the business world is used to get buy-in from key investors, shareholders, or executives. That is very much what Fast Forward is about: proving to everyone that the MTA is worth investing in, that any of the billions of dollars they might give to the transit agency from here on out won’t be wasted. There is a plan, and it’s a good one.

The MTA board, which had been briefed on the plan before Wednesday’s presentation, wasted no time in calling for the entire state to rally around the proposal. “I heard you say that New York is the greatest city in the world a couple of times,” remarked board member Peter Ward, before adding, “We don’t have the greatest transit system in the world.” Ward continued that New York’s status was “not just simply bequeathed to us that that’s who we are. A failure to invest in mass transit means that industry, businesses, people, intelligentsia, will leave New York. I agree completely that it’s going to take a massive investment, and part of that investment is going to require an adult conversation with the people of the state of New York.”

Unfortunately, we as a society are not exactly excelling at having adult conversations at the moment. Nor has the L train shutdown controversy spurred any optimism that neighbors can unite behind a single cause, even when that cause is the city’s storied mass transit system.

Byford purposely didn’t attach a dollar figure to the plan, but the New York Times reports the plan will cost some $19 billion. The exact number, though, is almost beside the point, largely because we have become conditioned to mistrust MTA cost estimates. It’s a catch-22: In order to get the money for widespread reform, the MTA must first institute meaningful reforms. The question is not how much it will cost, but who is willing to pay for it. But it’s a false choice. We’re all going to pay one way or another, either in billions of dollars soon or even more billions later, not to mention decades of transit woes to come. The greatest worry — because it’s disconcertingly likely — is that Fast Forward will become just another Fix NYC, the congestion pricing plan that was widely praised by transit advocates only to be watered down in the state legislature into a for-hire vehicle surcharge.

During the presentation, Byford remarked that his 50,000 employees work miracles every day to make the system run at all. Like any rehabilitation, the prospects are daunting. Yet there is nothing in the plan, no bullet point, no highlight, no suggestion or item that isn’t worth doing or wouldn’t pay for itself in the long run several times over.

The fact that fixing the subways will take an entire decade of nonstop work butting right up against the limits of what a functional city can tolerate is a testament to just how badly the transit authority and past lawmakers have let us down, just how deeply they allowed the system to crumble and waste away. Early indications are our current leaders may let us down just as unceremoniously, with Cuomo and de Blasio already rehashing the same, tired talking points that mature, civic-minded adults could have easily worked past years ago. The plan to fix the city’s transit system, the best plan we have, the only plan worth doing, may end up being best remembered as an indictment of those who let it get this broken.