Gov. Cuomo underground (photo: The Governor's Office)
With the transit system in New York City in constant crisis over a sustained period of time, from delayed trains underground to ever-dropping bus speeds on the streets, the question of how exactly to fix mass transit has been on the minds of elected and appointed officials, advocates and analysts, and, of course, frustrated commuters. In the aftermath of the short-term Subway Action Plan, the effectiveness of which was somewhat difficult to quantify and apparently underwhelming, officials are trying to focus on how to provide more long-term physical and fiscal stability for the beleaguered Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).
While the ambitious plan to upgrade train signals, bus routes, and MTA spending practices that MTA New York City Transit president Andy Byford has called Fast Forward seems to be a universally agreed-on blueprint to improve city transit, how the plan gets funded and implemented is somewhat more muddled thanks to political disagreements between state and city leaders.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has embraced congestion pricing, a plan that would fund the MTA through tolls on vehicles entering Manhattan south of 60th Street, what the Fix NYC panel has determined should be the border of Manhattan’s central business district. Cuomo called the scheme -- which is aimed at both funding the MTA and reducing Manhattan roadway congestion -- an “idea whose time has come” last year, but the only part of the proposal that was agreed upon by state leaders this year was new fees on taxis and app-basd for-hire vehicles ($0.75 added to for-hire-vehicle carpool rides, $2.50 on taxi trips and $2.75 on FHV trips that go into Manhattan south of 96th Street), leaving the more difficult matter of adding a toll cordon in Manhattan to be dealt with later -- perhaps in the 2019 state budget, as Cuomo has indicated.
Cuomo is also demanding the New York City “pay its fair share” for any subway upgrades, an ask that observers have called dubious and one that seems wrapped up in his running feud with Mayor Bill de Blasio.
For his part, de Blasio has resisted embracing congestion pricing, calling it “regressive” even in the face of data showing car owners are wealthier than regular city transit riders, and has instead pushed a millionaires tax as a way of providing the MTA a new revenue stream. The mayor’s resistance to congestion pricing has drawn criticism from subway advocates, who have put together an advocacy coalition made up of anti-poverty and transit groups to push for the toll, and the millionaires tax is an idea Cuomo and even Democratic state Senators have dismissed as not having much support in Albany. In recent months de Blasio has appeared warmer to congestion pricing, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall as it gains support and appears to be a top Cuomo priority for the new year, pending his own reelection.
There’s also a coalition of elected officials who feel like the answer is to institute congestion pricing and the millionaires tax, in addition to reinstituting the commuter tax and getting the federal government to end the carried interest loophole. With the expected price for Fast Forward coming to close to $40 billion, these officials argue that neither congestion pricing nor a millionaires tax would provide the needed revenue for the MTA even when combined with contributions by the city and state.
Along with the policy-makers themselves, New York’s other top transit minds, who often influence policy outcomes, continue to assess ways to improve the subway and bus systems. Asked by Gotham Gazette how city, state, and MTA leaders can make real improvements, experts outlined roughly eight key steps, ranging from instituting the much-discussed congestion pricing and Fast Forward plans to more ambitious proposals that would encourage the city and state to look at mass transit as an all-encompassing ecosystem instead of separate pieces that happen to operate under a single public authority.
1. Fast Forward
The transit experts who spokes to Gotham Gazette pegged moving ahead with Fast Forward as an important next step in the life of the MTA. “The Regional Plan Association has long advocated for modernizing the signaling system in the subways, improving bus service, and making all stations ADA accessible, these are fundamental parts of Fast Forward,” said Kate Slevin, the senior vice president of programs and advocacy at RPA.
Not only does the Fast Forward plan include the physical improvements that Slevin noted, but it signals to riders and employees at the agency that there could be a new way of doing things going forward. “The MTA finally has a big picture vision, which is important for aligning the priorities of the many projects and fixes that have to be done,” Liam Blank, the advocacy manager at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign told Gotham Gazette. “They've lacked that for a number of years, and as a result we've gotten hodgepodge improvements that don't really show benefits to a majority of commuters.”
It’s the signal system upgrade at the heart of the plan, though, that Byford has suggested can be done on 11 line segments in 10 years, that could make the biggest difference according to Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute with a focus on transit. “The single-biggest thing we need to do is get more people onto the trains more reliably, and you can't really do that with the signal system the way it is,” she said. “Even if [the signal upgrades] aren’t on the exact schedule the Fast Forward plan laid out, it's a high-priority, I think it's important,” Gelinas said, noting that the communications-based train control-equipped L train has on-time performances over 90 percent compared to averages of 60 percent performance across the rest of the system, which Gelinas, Byford, and everyone else paying attention wants upgraded to CBTC as quickly as possible.
2. Congestion Pricing
Of course, implementing Fast Forward will require a large infusion of money for the MTA in order to get this work done. For revenue, and other reasons, transit experts peg congestion pricing as a necessary step to improve city mobility and livability. “There should be costs to bringing a large metal vehicle into the city,” Gelinas said, noting the effect that car traffic has on pedestrians walking around cars in crosswalks and cyclists having to dodge cars in bike lanes.
Not only would congestion pricing compel drivers to pay what Blank called “their fare share” for using public infrastructure, it would also free up street space in Manhattan which helps improve bus speeds there. “Fewer cars on the road means that the buses can start to move at speeds comparable to other cities. Right now they're stuck in the same traffic as the rest of the cars, so we have a transit system that's ineffective down below and on the surface,” Blank said.
And the need for it, according to Slevin of RPA, is almost impossible to overstate. “I can't stress enough how the key is congestion pricing to help us fix the subway, fix the buses, and provide the revenue for Fast Forward. And we have to get it done in 2019, we have to,” she said.
3. Control Costs
Whether or not a new revenue source for the MTA comes to fruition, the authority must look at how it actually spends the money it has at its disposal, according to transit watchers. The good news, on that front, is that members of the MTA board have spoken up about cost-controls recently, including a well-received report by Scott Rechler that laid out how the MTA could cut costs by reforming the agency’s bidding and project management processes.
“I think the board has laid out some common sense changes to how the MTA does business that will make things more cost effective and done in a more timely manner,” Slevin said, about proposals like simplifying contracts and making it easier to change projects on the fly. “But the leadership of the MTA and the whole agency has to be on board with implementing those changes and explain to the public how they're going about that.”
Like with many governmental agencies and authorities, personnel costs loom large. A coming jump in employee healthcare costs to $2.6 billion in 2022, according to Gelinas, means the authority should take a look at those and other costs as a preparation to make a bigger ask. “I would like to see a full audit of every single cost. Not even start with cutting health benefits, but are there better ways to deliver this healthcare, look at the labor rules, really justify spending every dollar before you do congestion pricing and say, ‘Oh by the way we need more money too.’"
There’s also an upcoming opportunity for the MTA and the Transportation Workers Union to find savings in staffing rules when they negotiate a contract in 2019, according to Jamison Dague, the director of infrastructure studies at the Citizens Budget Commission.
“What you'd like to see is some coordination between management and labor to improve productivity,” Dague said. “Whether looking at some of the work rules and the staffing as far as how flexibly you can deploy certain workers for different types of tasks, or even when it comes to hiring, can you can be less specific in the types of job requirements.”
Public-facing introspection could help make the case for more funding. “Byford could use a set of talking points on how the MTA is changing inside,” said Jon Orcutt, director of communications and advocacy at TransitCenter. “The line station managers are achieving X, we brought this project to a close under budget, we have our procurement process under review and will be instituting reforms by X month and so forth.”
Part of the spending fix can be as simple as the MTA taking a more active role in buying work materials. “Contractors and subcontractors buy the materials like cement and steel,” Gelinas said. “You'd think it would make sense for the MTA to buy those because it's a much bigger purchaser on the world market, and then give them to the contractors. Materials procurement is very opaque and there's a lot of room for corruption and middle men and padding and all kinds of things there,” she said, but the process still flies under the radar and delays projects that are as simple as repairing some stairs.
4. Use Current Projects as Proof Points
It’s also important for the MTA to prove they can actually improve the lives of New Yorkers, in order to build political support for the authority’s larger plans. The upcoming completion of the 7 train’s much-delayed CBTC signaling system is another opportunity for the MTA to show off what service improvements actually look like, while also explaining how other lines will be upgraded more efficiently, per Fast Forward.
“[Andy Byford] needs to deliver on that, and he needs a huge communications push to show why it's gotten better,” Orcutt said. “It would be great for everyone in Queens and also the whole city to see, ‘We re-signaled a line and it's great. And if you want more of that on your subway you have to fund Fast Forward. Delivering something tangible is really key for them.”
“The more the MTA can do to build its credibility in the near term will help with some of these longer term funding discussions,” said Slevin of RPA. “The L train shutdown is an opportunity to show you can get a big project done faster and cheaper by ripping off the Band-Aid and having a shorter period of time when there's more pain for riders,” she said, an especially salient point as Fast Forward fixes will most likely come with massive service disruptions.
5. Remember the Buses
There is one area where New York City government can exert more control on its own, advocates say, which is the bus system. “The city has [bus lane enforcement] cameras,” Orcutt said. “They can move them around, they can broadcast the fact that the cameras are out there more vigorously,” he said, and can also ask the NYPD to actually enforce the rules against driving and parking in bus lanes, a subject that Orcutt said the mayor “has been completely obtuse about.”
And as budget season starts in 2019, Blank of Tri-State Transportation said the city and MTA should lobby state lawmakers for even more bus lane cameras, an improvement that advocates called for in a recent “Fast Bus, Fair City” report. Blank also said the city should follow another one of the report’s recommendations and add 100 miles of bus lanes in the next five years, on top of the city’s existing 120 miles of lanes.
Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute suggested a more radical redesign of the city’s streets if human-based enforcement didn’t speed the buses up. “The city can do more with the physical infrastructure itself, something like building out a curb so the traffic can't easily get into a bus lane. They do that in Paris, with reverse bus thoroughfares, so buses come in the opposite direction of traffic. So you'd have to be very stupid to go into that lane and be hit by a bus. When human enforcement of things like speeds and double parking doesn't work, use the physical environment to nudge people in the right direction,” she said.
6. Don’t Silo; See an Ecosystem
Taking care of the bus system is part of an overall attitude shift that needs to happen, one that sees transit as one interconnected system instead of competing ways of getting around. “I think that for far too long transit has been seen in silos, and as a result it's created a disjointed transportation network that we have today, mainly in terms of how it functions,” Blank said. “Things don't have proper transfers, the investments are clearly unequal between the systems and especially between different neighborhoods. So we need to start seeing these things as complementary and operating like an ecosystem.”
Taking care of the buses, in an example Slevin laid out, would make it that much easier to work on the subways during Fast Forward. “You have to make the bus system faster so you have a reliable alternative when you're fixing the subway,” Slevin said. “So if you have a bus system that functions better you can have longer term windows to work on the subway.” Slevin also gave an endorsement to Scott Stringer’s new proposal to provide a single-ride ticket for use among the subway, bus, and LIRR and Metro-North stations located in the city.
A vision of interconnected transit can even extend to pieces of it outside of the MTA’s purview, according to Associate Director of NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Sarah Kaufman. “I imagine an app like Citymapper, which already integrates multiple modes seamlessly into its direction platform, also providing a payment option through pre-loaded funds. Perhaps 10 Citi Bike rides would lead to a free ride, or 20 subway trips earns the user a discount. During gridlock alert days, prices could surge on Ubers while remaining low on transit in order to modify New Yorkers' behavior,” she said.
While New York isn’t set to completely phase out the MetroCard in favor of a contactless fare payment until 2023, the city can look to places like Chicago where transit users can connect to the subway, buses, and bike share system with a single app..
7. Expansion’s Also a Must
While the MTA has to make sure the trains and buses they actually have now are running effectively, there’s still a need to grow the transit system according to some experts.
“I don't think we can afford to wait another 20 years to add three stops to the Second Avenue subway. We have to be doing [Crossrail-type] of things here too if we want people to have a good quality of life. I don't think it's too ambitious,” Gelinas said in response to the question of whether the MTA should have to choose between bringing the subway system up to good repair or expanding it.
Slevin at the RPA made the case that the MTA should study expansion now, since it typically takes so long to get a huge new project off the ground. “It takes many years to build new transit lines so the MTA could start studying the Triboro now, and then be ready to build once resources become available,” she said, making the case for the Brooklyn/Queens/Bronx line that the RPA has endorsed and which would largely run on existing little-used, above-ground railroad tracks, thus requiring significantly less construction than another new subway line, while also providing much needed access between boroughs that doesn’t rely on trips into Manhattan.
“Part of the reason we are in the transit mess we are in now is because we failed to invest in the system, modernize it, and build new lines to meet growing demand. We can’t make that mistake again,” said Slevin, also arguing for expansions like the Utica Avenue line in Brooklyn, building the Q into the Bronx, and a Jewel Avenue line in central Queens, all subway extensions into dense, transit-starved neighborhoods.
Gelinas echoed Slevin’s argument that a current lack of real planning could doom the city down the road. “We should be able to do two things at once, and if we can't, we're really harming the future of the city.
8. Communication is Key
As any perusal of Twitter will show you during a morning commute meltdown, transit riders are almost as annoyed by a lack of information about delays and trains getting rerouted as they are by travel disruptions themselves. Beyond confusing and irritating commuters, a lack of communication saps enthusiasm for proposals that would improve the system. “People understand when there's a real problem, but what they hate is not getting straight talk about it,” said Orcutt of TransitCenter. “If people don't feel like the MTA is levelling with them, it's much harder to get them to rally around more funding,” he explained.
“Multiple studies have shown that passengers mostly trust the transit agency when they are provided real-time information -- even when it's bad news,” Kaufman told Gotham Gazette. “The information gives the perception of control over the system, whereas only sharing the word ‘delay’ does not.” Kaufman recommended the agency lean on specifics when telling riders why their train is delayed, especially since clearly communicating something like a signal failure could encourage riders to lean on elected officials to focus more on the issue of signal replacement.
“[Communication] should just be a management thing. You don't need new anything for that, you just run it well and have somebody in charge,” Orcutt said. It’s a step the agency has made some movement on, hiring Sarah Meyer as the agency’s chief customer officer, but the effort at clear, timely, and focused communication is obviously still dogging the MTA with the occasional management failure and inaccurate countdown clock and website information.
While improving the way the MTA shares real-time problems plaguing the subway system won’t actually fix those problems the way other solutions can, it will at least help with the perception of screaming, or tweeting, into a bureaucratic void when something goes wrong.