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MTA lags in repairing its aging signals, a key factor in current commuting crisis: report

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“What’s the alternative? Broken down lines all the time? Delays all the time?”

The subways, you may have noticed, have been just a little bit slow lately, thanks in large part to a continuous onslaught of signal malfunctions. And according to a new analysis from the city’s Independent Budget Office, there’s a reason for those: plans to repair ancient signal equipment keep getting delayed, sometimes by years.

At the behest of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, the IBO looked at three MTA capital plans—the 2005-2009 plan; the 2010 to 2014 plan; and the current 2015 to 2019 plan—which together have allocated $5.3 billion to “signal and repair upgrades.” But a whole lot of those projects are running behind schedule, the report found, if they’ve been started at all.

To be fair, delays are, to some extent, part of the deal; as the report notes, “it is not unusual for individual projects and their related spending to stretch past a plan period.” But of the 33 signal projects slated for completion between 2005 and 2014, 19 were either completed late or have yet to be completed at all, with delays ranging “from as little as two months to as much as four years.” Repairs at the Church Avenue station on the Culver Line, for example, were originally slated for completion in August 2014; now, it’s slated for 2021. Meanwhile, the current capital plan has 14 signal-related projects scheduled to begin by the end of 2017—more than half of which are now delayed.

The problem, though, is that the repair delays cause train delays. “Signal malfunctions can be devastating, creating a ripple effect from line to line that can last for hours,” explains the New York Daily News, noting that the problems are further complicated by the age of the equipment, much of which dates back to the 1930s.

The study, Brewer says, is proof that the MTA needs to focus on overhauling the whole obsolete system and replacing it with modern technology, rather than a constant parade of individual fixes. “What’s the alternative,” she asked the Daily News. “Broken down lines all the time? Delays all the time?”

But while modernity is chugging along slowly—right now, only the L line has the new communications-based train control system, though the 7 is slated to get it by the end of this year, barring further delays—the report showed signal repairs “now make up a smaller piece of the MTA’s capital repair program than in the past,” per the Daily News. Spending on signals has dropped from 20 percent in the 2005 plan, to 14 percent in the 2015 plan, even if the number of actual dollars spent has increased.

The MTA, though, says they’re doing everything they can. “The MTA continues to aggressively upgrade the subway’s antiquated 1930s-era signals, including with a record $2.1 billion allocated for signal improvements in this capital program,” agency spokeswoman Beth DeFalco said in a statement. “The IBO report fundamentally misunderstands how signalization improvements are made by equating dollars spent into delayed work. We’re laser-focused on improving signals and service.”