At one point during Tuesday’s “emergency” board meeting about the L shutdown, interim MTA chairman Freddy Ferrer, somewhat exacerbated by a perfectly reasonable line of questioning from board member Polly Trottenberg, said, “Look, if you’re for inconveniencing 275,000 people, say so! If you’re not, then, then that’s OK too.”
Normally, such bluster might be shrugged off, but it was one of the more revealing moments from Tuesday’s meeting, in which the brute logic of the plan’s boosters was laid bare for the first time.
Unfortunately, it’s not particularly sound logic. Gothamist did a helpful roundup of where things stand and what we still don’t know. There are a number of important questions that we simply don’t have any answers for. But, to recap, we still don’t know how much this new plan will cost. Absolutely no estimates have been put out there other than “We do not believe the cost of reconstruction will increase,” as a late Thursday press release assured, which the MTA is using as justification for circumventing the board. We still don’t know how much bench wall needs to be removed. It might be 40 percent, or maybe 60 percent; they still need to do an actual survey to figure it out. We still don’t know how the toxic chemicals this will release will be dealt with. “We are confident,” consultants said on Tuesday, that they will figure something out. Nobody knows what the Federal Transportation Administration which is paying for the project will have to say about the new plan or whether the work has to legally be bid out again due to the changing scope of the project.
In short, when asked by board members, the press, or both, consultants and senior MTA officials tended to answer any and all concerns with we don’t know yet but we’re confident it’ll be fine.
As much as I appreciate that the MTA is suddenly very concerned about inconveniencing New Yorkers, this “for or against inconveniencing 275,000 people” contrast completely misses that avoiding inconvenience is not the MTA’s sole or even primary consideration for this project. This became obvious in one key moment from Tuesday’s meeting. Board member Neal Zuckerman (appointed by the Putnam County executive) asked the consultants a very basic question: “What are the cons of this approach?” Fifteen seconds of silence ensued. Finally, WSP’s Mike Abrahams, who has made a career working on bridges, answered the question:
“It certainly would have been advantageous for long-term service life to completely tear out the duct banks and completely replace them. There are certainly service life advantages to doing that. By not completely replacing the duct bank and only removing certain portions of it, reinforcing certain portions of it, and leaving certain portions of it in place, that is not as advantageous as a complete replacement. That is true.”
Hey, what? Why was this the first time we heard of this trade-off, hours deep into a special board meeting weeks after the announcement that the new plan had been accepted by the MTA with absolutely no public review or oversight? Why do we not have a complete cost-benefit analysis on what those “long-term service life” advantages would be versus the new approach? Why wasn’t this fact in the PowerPoint presentation to the board? Why is all of this so vague? And why did this appear to concern absolutely nobody except a few board members?
It’s becoming increasingly clear these are two different plans for accomplishing two different outcomes. The shutdown prioritized ensuring the integrity and service life of the tunnel for up to a century even if it meant inconveniencing 275,000 people for more than a year because the tunnel is important. By contrast, the new plan started from an order of “don’t shut the tunnel down” and worked backwards, leaving us with a plan that could last up to 50 years if the tunnel is properly maintained.
About that: POLITICO’s Dana Rubenstein asked if the MTA can be trusted to maintain the tunnel given the MTA’s spotty record of maintaining things, to which Ferrer replied, “That’s a fair and honest question,” before going on about how important the tunnel is, how important it will be to maintain, and how the board—which has thus far not been allowed to make one decision regarding the new L plan and, based on a press release issued Thursday evening, probably never will be—has a responsibility to see to it that it’s maintained.
I, for one, see this as yet another con: why give the MTA one more extremely important thing it has to regularly maintain when it can’t even properly maintain all the other extremely important things? How is this not burdening the authority with a major cost over the coming decades when, thanks to climate change, it’s almost assured it will be facing profound resiliency challenges far in excess of its current ones? How is this the responsible course of action for the L riders of 2039 and 2049, who are just as important as L commuters in 2019? How is this not patently short-sighted?
On top of that, I asked what exactly maintaining the tunnel will consist of and how onerous that will be on riders over the coming decades. MTA managing director Ronnie Hakim replied, “Part of that is going to require the final design that’s being worked on right now.”
The bigger picture here is that, completely overnight, the MTA went from being conservative, safety-obsessed, and over-engineered to a fault to happily embracing a plan that is the complete opposite of all of those things without any pretense of checks or balances. Every person or entity that has tried to push for a full, independent review of this decision has been steamrolled or circumvented (after Andy Byford spent a week assuring the public he would conduct a full, independent review of the project with outside experts he selected, the L tunnel project was swiftly removed from his purview and his review elevated to the board; when the board refused to let MTA management choose the independent reviewers and demanded they choose them instead, the MTA announced the board would no longer be voting on anything). The plan’s boosters say this is just what the MTA needs to break through the bureaucratic morass. I see it more as having replaced one broken corporate culture with another.
Those in favor of the plan, including Cuomo himself, hail it as innovative, as if this word alone can assuage all doubts. But innovation is not a magic wand that can be use to cast away uncertainty. It is not a puff of smoke into which doubts disappear. It is just a word, a particularly vapid one at that, frequently deployed by those who wish it was all of those things. In the infamous “L shutdown averted” press release, the MTA used the word “innovative” four times.
But there is something innovative about this whole mess. This plan three years in the making got reversed on a dime. Nobody could stop it. Nobody could challenge it. And the person who made it happen, the only person whose opinion truly matters, says he doesn’t even control the MTA. To exercise complete control over something you don’t actually control? That must have taken some serious innovation.
Thanks to everyone who sent in questions for the mailbag edition! It will go out this weekend to paid subscribers, who will find out whether reviving the F express makes any sense, what to do about TWU labor costs without advocating for union-busting, what city control of Transit might look like, and what I would do to fix the MTA (gulp!).
If you become a paid subscriber, you’ll not only get answers to those questions (and more), but you’ll help keep Signal Problems going and receive 50 percent more editions per year.
Anyways, there’s all kinds of transit-related stuff in the state budget proposal, but probably the most important bit for now is Cuomo is threatening to withhold the remaining $7.3 billion state contribution to the MTA 2015-2019 Capital Plan unless the legislature passes congestion pricing and some unspecified MTA reform. It’s entirely too early to tell what this means for congestion pricing or MTA reform but it’s definitely a heavy-handed move by Cuomo’s office. Then again, no one ever accused him of being subtle.
MTA board member and very Cuomo guy Larry Schwartz wants to tie fare hike revenue to increased performance, mainly via on-time performance. This is precisely the kind of idea that may sound good in theory but will have brutal unintentional consequences. The obvious course of action will be a rampant padding of schedules to ensure that every agency hits their on-time metrics. Padded schedules will result in less frequent service, more crowded trains, higher dwell times at stations, and therefore longer run times, which may lead to more schedule padding, less frequent service, and so on.
I recommend this Q&A with various folks about Cuomo’s involvement in the MTA, particularly for Nicole Gelinas’s assessment of whether Cuomo controls the authority. It’s the kind of nuanced, historical answer the question rarely gets.
According to NYCT Chief Customer Officer Sarah Meyer, the NYPD asked Transit to re-enable the alarms on the emergency exit doors at high-capacity stations to see if it helps fare evasion. According to reports, some of those stations are Times Square, Columbus Circle, and Union Square, among others. “We will have an update for you in a couple weeks,” she said.
“In an acknowledgment that the alarms had done little to discourage fare evasion as intended, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said on Wednesday that it was disabling them at all of its stations.”
The Mayor’s office announced another expansion of NYC Ferry service, which will come with even higher per-rider subsidies, making it one of the most expensive subsidized forms of transportation in the city (aside from driving). At this point, you can roughly break down NYC Ferry routes into two types: those that serve as short cross-river trips and those that run long routes to far outer borough neighborhoods. The shorter routes generally serve expensive developments and neighborhoods but have (relatively) lower subsidies, whereas the longer routes have higher subsidies but tend to serve lower income neighborhoods or ones without good transportation options.
Despite the higher subsidy, I think there’s a stronger argument for the longer routes, especially as an economic development tool (it is, after all, run by the NYC Economic Development Corporation). But there’s still a desperate need to rationalize the fare structure. I, for one, support making single rides about $10 to more adequately reflect the operating cost but provide weekly or monthly passes that keep the $2.75/trip fare.
If anyone at NYCEDC disputes the above characterization, please respond to the FOIL I filed in May that your office keeps delaying without explanation.
“The agency was created a half-century ago to build, among other things, the Second Avenue subway (still unfinished) and a new tunnel for the Long Island Rail Road into Grand Central (the tunnel was finished in 1989 but the connection into Grand Central is years away). In 2002, the chairman of the agency announced a series of streamlining reforms. Today, there are about 10,000 more employees and less actual service.” –Jim Dwyer, NYT
The MTA has to be in the discussion as one of the worst mergers in American history.
In Which I Make An Educated Guess About When Things Will Get Better
This week’s estimate: June 2022
Change log (the links are where I explain the change):