- Crowding and ridership: 40 percent of delays in 2014. Ridership is up—way up. That’s great for revenue but tough for crowding. Even a short delay of a rider holding open a door can set a train behind schedule and cause it to bunch up with another train behind it. With 15 of 20 lines at track capacity, there’s little the MTA can do to alleviate this type of crowding.
- Ongoing maintenance: 26 percent. These are things like repairing aging infrastructure. Sometimes this maintenance is done during off-hours or route closures, but much of it gets done during regular service operation, which requires trains to slow down through work zones.
- Unplanned work: 22 percent. These delays are the result of incidents like power outages or signal failures that need immediate attention.
Thomas DiNapoli has served as New York State Comptroller nearly as long as I’ve run this site. He’s outlived governors and MTA Chairs alike at this point, but he’s still chugging along. One of the problems I’ve had with his “audits” of the MTA is that, for those who pay close attention to these sorts of things, they aren’t too insightful. He hasn’t identified the key problems plaguing the agency — namely, the insanely high capital construction costs and lack of productivity for the dollars — and his reports generally take public information and condense them into soundbites. His latest audit is no different, but it’s worth spending some time with it and the MTA’s response.
In his latest report — the PDF is right here — DiNapoli took all of the MTA’s on-time performance numbers the agency shares once a month at its board meetings and determined what Transit officials have been saying for some time: The subways’ on-time performance has been dreadful, and it’s getting worse. In 2013 and 2014, Transit had set an on-time performance goal for itself of over 91 percent, but weekday trains were on time 80.5 percent of the time in 2013 and just 74 percent of the time in 2014. Instead of combatting the problem, the MTA has instead lowered its on-time performance goal to 75 percent, far below national average.
“The subways are New York City’s arteries yet on-time performance continues to be an issue,” DiNapoli said. “The MTA has actually lowered its own expectations for addressing subway delays. We’re encouraged that MTA has put more money toward improving the ride for straphangers, hopefully it will help improve on-time performance.”
The audit’s recommendations aren’t much. DiNapoli has asked the MTA to identify the sources of delays, come up with a plan to mitigate these delays and then track performance monthly. Yet again, that sounds like something the transit agency already does even if their mitigation plans aren’t particularly effective.
Things got interesting though in the back-and-forth between the New York comptroller and agency officials responding to the audit. Transit has long maintained that on-time performance — the time a train actually arrives at a terminal — doesn’t much matter so long as even headways are maintained. I believe the agency is ultimately correct, but it’s not a point that’s going to win them much sympathy from a public that, by and large, has no idea what “headways” mean. Riders will hear trains are late; nod their heads in agreement; and sigh in exasperation.
Anyway, in response, the MTA highlighted wait assessment as their primary internal metric of even and reliable service and claimed that they already know why trains are delayed. They cited fallout from record ridership, new flagging rules and ongoing maintenance, and unexpected and emergency maintenance as the main causes. “New York City Transit does not have a single policy or directive on reducing delays and improving on-time performance, nor should we,” agency officials said in response. “Providing high-quality service is our central objective, and it is inherent in everything we do…We do not wish to compartmentalize responsibility for improving service performance. Therefore, it is neither practical nor desirable to condense our performance related activities into one policy (or even several policies).”
DiNapoli, in his response to Transit’s response, noted that wait assessment has also declined and urged the MTA to attempt some sort of root-cause analysis. Of course, the root-cause analysis should recommend more subway lines and faster upgrade to a technology that allows for more trains per hour. That recommendation carries a high price tag and a multi-year lead time that won’t do much to solve the current problem. Thus, it’s not one designed to appease politicians who must run for office every few years.
Ultimately, no matter how you slice or dice it, performance has suffered, and the MTA hasn’t been able to overcome ridership that isn’t showing signs of doing anything other than increasing. DiNapoli may have pointed out the obvious, but sometimes, the obvious needs pointing out. Is it going to get better? Can it?
Coney Island Overhaul Shop (Riel, 2015)
Westchester Yard (Riel, 2015)
Snow Removal Train at 36th-38th Street Yard (Riel, 2015)
Pump Train at 36th-38th Street Yard (Riel, 2015)
Recycling Construction Debris at 36th-38th Street Yard (Riel, 2015)
D Line at 9th Avenue and 36th-38th Street Yard (Riel, 2015)
Continuous Welded Rail (CWR) Installation on BMT Brighton Line (Riel, 2015)
- To seek out and take advantage of mentoring opportunities.
- To have a sense of responsibility and a high awareness of safety.
- To be clear and direct and listen well.
- To balance the coaching with the telling, and with humor.
- To create a community and bring people in, treat them, and praise them.
- To allow the team to have a say in the decisions and own the success.
- To respect and inspire people so that everyone is working together.
- To have a strong work ethic and save and invest for my future.
- To have a sense of urgency about what I want to accomplish in life.
- To take blame when things go wrong and allow the team to get praise.
- To recognize talent and different perspectives.
- To recognize factors that motivate people.
- To realize that people are the most important asset of any organization.
- To build trust and communicate, and have a positive attitude.
Abandoned City Hall Loop Station (Riel, 2015)
Time and again, Mr. de Blasio leaves an impression that he understands very little about the dynamics of urbanism and the physical fabric of the city — its parks and plazas, its open spaces, libraries, transit network and streetscape, which all contribute to issues he cares most about, like equity and social mobility. Entertaining the demolition of the plazas, the mayor sends a message that New York can’t support the sort of great pedestrian hubs that thrive in competing cities around the globe.
The conversion of traffic-addled Times Square, one of the democratic crossroads of the world, contributed to making New York the most progressive city in the country, transportation-wise. Mr. Bloomberg and Ms. Sadik-Khan created pedestrian plazas in underserved neighborhoods, too, which were starved for public space. Many of those places are now havens and boons for jobs and local businesses.
Mr. de Blasio should be expanding the plaza program.What the city needs is serious thinking from the mayor about planning and public space. What it’s getting is zero vision.
This has been a tough season for commuters in the New York region: the Amtrak crash in May, trains stuck in Hudson River tunnels in June, subway service disrupted by never-ending summer construction. Still, more than 5.6 million people take the subway each weekday, the most since 1949; New Jersey Transit’s ridership into the city has risen 75 percent in the past 15 years, and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor carried a record of nearly 12 million riders last year.
Why are our transit systems faltering just as more people than ever want to use them? Part of the answer lies with the way our government institutions are structured, and New York offers a case in point.
Private companies built many of our subways, commuter lines and intercity railroads in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mass transit, like long-distance rail, was profitable then, especially when combined with speculation in land made accessible by new, fast rail connections.
Then came the automobile, and publicly funded highways. Public authorities like the Port of New York Authority (formed in 1921) and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (1933) took charge of building highways, bridges and tunnels for this liberating technology.
The demand was insatiable, and authorities were granted extraordinary powers. They could borrow money without having it count toward a city or state’s general debt. They were exempt from taxes on payments made to bondholders and on real property that reduced their costs by producing income. They could ignore local politicians and zoning and land-use laws as they seized private property — as long as they paid fair market value.
And at their best, they were governed by appointed professionals who reported to independent directors and served staggered terms, which diminished political influences. If a governor tried to interfere, they could point to covenants with their bondholders and argue that they could only invest in projects that would generate a reasonable return on investment.
For a while, the politicians were held at bay. Then, in the 1950s, the federal government started building the interstate highway system, offering big subsidies to states to connect to it. The combined might of the public authorities and federal outlays was astounding. From 1950 to 1975, the tristate region built more than 1,300 miles of limited-access highways.
Unsurprisingly, mass-transit operators struggled to compete with these roads and started going bankrupt. Against the operators’ will, the authorities merged the workings of mass transit and toll roads to provide cross subsidies. The Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority merged with the New York City subways, Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road; the Port Authority acquired the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad, renaming it PATH.
And that was a problem. The addition of money-losing transit operations left the authorities more vulnerable to political intrusion in decisions. For example, tolls and fares were kept too low to raise money for capital investment. And governors started pushing investment in pet projects, rather than broad regional goals.
Which brings us to today.
The leadership of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs New York’s subways and buses, has asked Albany for $26.8 billion over five years, to help replace its 50-year-old signal system and outdated subway cars, start the next phase of the Second Avenue subway and finish linking the Long Island Rail Road with Grand Central Terminal.
While that seems to be a lot of money, consider the needs. Thomas F. Prendergast, the authority’s chief executive, has said that the system’s railroads and real estate represent a $1 trillion capital asset. The M.T.A. would be spending just $5 billion — 0.5 percent of that asset — each year in maintenance and repairs. At that rate, it could replace every part in the system in 200 years. Unless the new signals are designed to last a really long time, we need to spend about $25 billion each year.
And those poor New Jersey Transit riders? Because of Gov. Chris Christie’s decision five years ago to cancel a new Hudson River tunnel, they are at least a dozen years away from seeing replacements built. What are the chances that the existing tunnels will fail by 2027? Very high.
Of course, we must find money to repair and expand our subway systems, and we must sort out the interstate political rivalries at the Port Authority. But it’s our crisis-driven approach to infrastructure that most needs to change.
We can learn from others. London and Stockholm have “congestion pricing” that generates revenue for mass transit while limiting the flow of cars in their central business districts. Hong Kong’s transit agency, the MTR, is a for-profit company in which the government holds a majority stake. Because it is publicly traded, it can avoid patronage hiring. By purchasing real estate and leasing property, it acquires revenue while keeping fares low.
Those examples — superior to any American model — recognize that it is appropriate for a transit system to have diverse sources for funds. Their decision-making structures are responsive to constituents, yet insulated from politicians. They allow long-term planning.
Crumbling Hudson River tunnels have become a national symbol of aging infrastructure and political shortsightedness. They represent nothing less than our failure to keep up with the rest of the world.
The social, economic, political, and physical state of our city and country is truly quite sad. But it can get better. How do we change the hearts and minds of New Yorkers, and New York’s leaders?