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MTA chair unveils extensive, $836M action plan to fix ailing NYC subway

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The MTA’s plan includes both short- and long-term solutions

Power Outage Affects MTA Subway Service Citywide Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Today, MTA chairman Joe Lhota unveiled the agency’s action plan to address both immediate and long-term issues with the New York City subway. In a press conference at MTA headquarters, Lhota ran through a presentation that outlined both concrete fixes and slightly radical changes (removing seats?!?) that the agency hopes to make to the system, along with the all-important cost of implementing those changes.

“We’re here because the New York City subway system is in distress,” Lhota said at the top of the presser, which is the understatement of the year—the meltdown of the subway has been well documented since the beginning of the year. And even though Lhota noted that the problems we’re seeing today pale in comparison to the subway’s bad ol’ days, when track fires and other problems reached all-time highs, he didn’t mince words: “We are failing our customers.”

And while the various issues contributing to the MTA’s decline—the aging infrastructure; the crowds jammed onto trains every day; and the disinvestment in the system—are all bad enough on their own, they’ve “come to a head,” per Lhota, and have led to the problems we’re seeing today.

So how does the MTA hope to address this? The agency has a short-term plan to fix the ailing system and improve service for commuters, who Lhota says are “at the heart of our strategy.” Short-term goals, as outlined in the presentation, are to improve reliability and capacity; make stations cleaner and safer; and to communicate with passengers more clearly. Lhota broke this down into phases, the first of which will “attack the key drivers” that account for 79 percent of delays, including sick passengers, signal problems, and issues with subway cars.

Here are some of the specifics of the MTA’s 30-point (!!) action plan:

  • A dedicated team will be created to fix 1,300 signals most in need of maintenance between now and the end of 2018. (A map of “signal breakdown hotspots” shows that most happen in Manhattan, unsurprisingly.)
  • Replacing tracks and friction pads, as well as placing Combined Action Teams at high-volume stations to help address issues as they happen.
  • Launching a “water management initiative” to ensure that water isn’t clogging up drains and bringing debris onto the tracks (“the greatest enemy to having an efficient subway system is water,” Lhota noted).
  • Regularly cleaning the subway system using new equipment, such as mobile track vacuums, along with increasing the frequency of station cleaning.
  • Repairing cars more quickly, and keeping the car repair shop open 24/7 to address issues when needed.
  • Increasing the number of cars on trains “wherever possible,” and beginning the process of removing seats from some cars on some trains, namely the Times Square shuttle and the L train, which will increase the capacity of those cars. “We’re not doing this citywide yet; we want to understand the best way to reconfigure our cars,” said Lhota.
  • Launching a public awareness campaign will advise passengers about the harm of littering, and fines may be implemented for those who break the rules.
  • Pre-positioning EMTS along the A/C/E line, which has the highest number of sick passenger incidents overall, in order to cut down on delays because of sick passengers.
  • Improving communications with passengers in real time, both about delays and larger problems affecting service (i.e. telling commuters what, exactly, Fastrack repairs entail).
  • Launching a public dashboard (similar to the NYPD’s CompStat) that will measure customer satisfaction across metrics like reliability and safety.

As for the cost: Lhota said that the short-term fixes will cost about $836 million to implement, which breaks down to $450 million in operating costs and $386 in capital investment. Phase 2—new signaling systems, new subway cars, and other items that he said would be part of the next MTA Capital Plan—is estimated to cost about $8 billion. (The first phase of the Second Avenue Subway, mind you, cost $4 billion.)

In the short term, Governor Andrew Cuomo has committed to ponying up half of the cost, and Lhota said that the MTA wants to work with the city to finance the other half. That may prove tricky, considering that Mayor Bill de Blasio recently said that the MTA has more than enough money to implement fixes, and shouldn’t ask the city for money. (Lhota dodged a reporters’ question about that comment after his presentation concluded, saying only that he was confident that financing would come through.)

Responses to the plan have already started rolling in. John Raskin of the Riders’ Alliance released a statement, calling the extensive proposal “the first breath of relief for beleaguered transit riders”; however, he noted, “A truly transformative plan to fix the subway will require a transformative revenue plan to make it possible. The greatest act of leadership that riders need from the governor is to set up a source of revenue that will stand the test of time.”

The MTA’s plan also jibes, to some extent, with the recommendations released earlier this week by the mayor’s office, which called for more accountability and immediate fixes for the decaying transit system.

Update, 5:55 p.m.: Mayor Bill de Blasio has responded to the MTA’s proposal at his own press conference at the City Hall subway station, calling it a “positive step” in addressing the subway crisis. “I think the MTA is finally beginning to own up to his responsibilities,” he said.

De Blasio also emphasized that the MTA “has to spend the money it has effectively, efficiently, and on a real schedule.” But, he noted, “our $2.5 billion commitment is already there”—and that the money for the capital budget, along with the $456 million for the operating budget, is already available to the MTA. “The state has the money right now that it’s taken from the MTA budget,” he said. “That’s the way to solve that problem.” (He also brought up the Kosciuszko Bridge lights again.)

You can watch Lhota’s presser yourself, if that’s your thing, below:

And De Blasio’s response is available on Periscope: