Signal Problems

A newsletter about what the hell is going on with the subway.

A Substack newsletter by Aaron Gordon

A newsletter about what the hell is going on with the subway.

Four More Years

Once upon a time, a guy named Cuomo ran for governor of New York on the platform of dismantling the MTA in order to fix the subway. And boy, did the subway need fixing. “It’s the simplest notion in the world,” Cuomo asserted during a primary debate. “All you need is a few lines and a bill to get rid of the authority.”

Cuomo thought it was a bug, not a feature, that the governor lacked direct control of the MTA. He wanted to cut through the backroom dealings, get rid of its designation as a public authority, and make it an office that reported directly to the governor so he could fix it himself.

I bring this up because that guy’s son, Andrew, coasted to victory this week winning his third term as governor. The Cuomo who wanted to dismantle the MTA was his father, Mario, in 1982. Andrew was his campaign manager.

As we know, Andrew has something bordering an obsession with legacy, his father, and his place in the family. He took most of his political lessons from the elder Cuomo. But Mario was a man of ideas, whereas Andrew thinks of himself as a man of action and pragmatism. Here’s Andrew from a 2010 New York Magazine profile:

Mario wanted to inspire from the podium. “He would say, ‘My mission was to lead, to communicate a vision,’ ” says Andrew. Andrew sees himself differently—he operationalizes. He’s not speaking directly about his father, but the undercurrent is unmistakable when Andrew tells me, “A thought without action is hollow at the end of the day.”

We see this dynamic in their handling of the MTA. Mario thought it would be beneficial to eliminate the MTA’s ostensible independence from the state, whereby the MTA asks the state for a big chunk of money, they negotiate, and at the end of the day the MTA either gets what it wants or doesn’t. If the state is going to be the major benefactor, then it ought to have total oversight, Mario believed.

In contrast, Andrew has never floated this idea publicly. But, as someone once said, a thought without action is hollow at the end of the day.

The generally accepted narrative about the current MTA crisis—that Cuomo neglected the MTA with an overall apathy manifested in the diverting of funds, resulting in lax maintenance and bad management—gets something wrong. At its most basic level, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of who Andrew Cuomo is. The suggestion that he would be apathetic about anything, much less the agency with the most capacity for big, flashy legacy-building projects, is absurd.

The subway crisis has not been the result of neglect from the governor, but the nature of his attention. He wants to build big things, make them prettier, host ribbon cuttings, and execute expensive undertakings anathema to the ongoing Sisyphean task of maintaining and upgrading a sprawling subway system under current MTA spending practices. Remember that kicker from the NY Mag profile on him earlier this year?

The interview has run long. I am halfway out the door, but Cuomo starts repeating his argument about how the city, not the state, has historically been responsible for the subway. “I seem to remember a governor building the Second Avenue line,” I say. “Yeah!” Cuomo says brightly, launching into a story about how, when contractors wanted to push back the deadline, he intervened, threatened to bar them from ever doing business with the state again, and floated the possibility of a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation. The job got done, and the story makes him grin wider than he has all afternoon.

The Second Avenue Subway was finished on December 31, 2016—thanks to a certain Governor, it was ready for a New Years Eve bash at one of the new stations, hosted by a certain Governor—months before talk of a subway crisis began. This is not a governor uninterested in the city’s transit system, but one with a very intense, narrow interest.

It is also a governor who managed to fulfill his father’s vision. Not only does he, for all intents and purposes, control the MTA in a way it was never meant to be controlled, he has transit activists and angry straphangers urging him to control it more. In the end, gaining control of the “independent” authority was even simpler than his father suggested it would be. He didn’t even have to change a few lines in a bill.

“It’s a game to him,” an unnamed Cuomo aide told NY Mag back in 2010. “He thinks he’s good at it, and he is.”

News You Probably Can't Use, But About Which You Can Certainly Brood

  • The other big subway-related news from Tuesday is that the state government is now solidly Democratic. I think it’s too early to say what this will mean for fixing the subway. After all, democrats representing suburban districts are going to want to horse-trade for their constituents, too. We’ll see how it plays out, but a lot of the analysis that a flipped senate will result in significant MTA reforms assumes it was not the structure and culture of Albany’s parochialism that resulted in such inattention and stagnation. I’m skeptical.

  • The other other big NYC news this week: Long Island City is one of two finalists for Amazon HQ2 along with Crystal City, a DC suburb. With full acknowledgement that the whole HQ2 thing has been an absolute embarrassment and the caveat we don’t know exactly where in LIC Amazon may go, this makes a lot of sense from a transit perspective. You’d be hard-pressed to find a neighborhood in America with more rapid-transit capacity connections—the 7, G, N, W, E, M, and R all stop in LIC—not to mention a one-stop ride from Grand Central, which in a few years will have extensive LIRR service in addition to existing Metro North trains. And, yes, the trains running through LIC are crowded, just like every other train in the city is crowded during rush hour. But the G and M in particular have a lot of extra capacity to give (the G runs only 10 half-length trains per peak hour as a cost-saving measure, for example). Starting next year the 7 can run two extra trains per hour during peak periods thanks to CBTC. In other words, the main transit question facing HQ-LIC is not whether it has the ability to cope with tens of thousands of new jobs, but whether the MTA will make any necessary and entirely realistic service adjustments/improvements to do so. For more info on why the NYC subway is not at capacity (except the L and 4/5, which are definitely at capacity), see this analysis from earlier in the year.

  • Naturally, Friends of the BQX didn’t miss the opportunity to link the HQ-LIC news to their maligned project. I reserve the right to revise this analysis once the exact location of HQ-LIC is known, but this doesn’t change any of the BQX’s fundamental flaws (see the note about the G train above). Further, I’ve never given much credence to the argument the BQX will hasten gentrification—does Brooklyn/LIC really need any assistance with that?—but tying the project to a sudden influx of up to 25,000 highly-paid employees for one of the world’s richest companies is not going to dampen that perception.

  • Even with all the attention signal timers have gotten, it’s possible we’re still somehow understating the degree to which they have slowed down the system. During NY1’s ride-along with the group testing the timers, the emergency brakes got tripped five times, meaning on just that one ride they found five timers that weren’t working properly.

  • NYCT is re-writing their announcement scripts for when things go wrong on the subway. Maybe it’s just me, but parsing the verbiage conductors use when telling me why I’m going to be late has never been of tremendous concern. I would say it’s a 50/50 shot whether the PA system is functioning, anyways.

  • If you’ve traveled abroad, especially in Europe, you’ve probably had the experience of a waiter or cashier looking at you all cockeyed because your credit card has to be dipped or swiped instead of tapped. But, thanks in part to the MTA’s new fare payment system set to debut in 2019, credit card companies are *finally* going to introduce tap-to-pay cards here in the good ol’ You Ess of Eh.

  • As bad as you think the subway is, NJ Transit is worse.

  • 100 years ago last week was the deadliest crash in subway history, and quite possibly American train history. So many things went wrong it’s hard to know where to begin, but the 25-year-old operating the train was a dispatcher by trade and filled in as a motorman as a scab. He’d been given 2.5 hours of training, blew through a stop to make up for being late, and approached a 5 mph curve at 30 mph. About 100 people died. The motorman’s now-67-year-old granddaughter, when reached by the Times, said she had no idea her grandfather—who survived the crash and lived to be 91—had briefly been a subway motorman.

  • A jury found the guy who blew up a pipe bomb in the Times Square station corridor in the name of ISIS guilty of federal terrorism charges. I guess the jury didn’t buy the defense’s argument of “he meant to blow himself up during rush hour in the subway’s busiest station but not anybody else.”

  • More unforced errors in the Staten Island bus route redesign: a “mislabeled” press release thought an old stop had been restored when it in fact had not yet been restored. The plan was to restore it later, but because the press release was sent out announcing it was, the MTA decided to restore it immediately.

  • I spoke with VICE about what flipping the Senate means for fixing the subway.

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):

May 25, 2018: June 2022

March 30, 2018: 2030

March 16, 2018: 2024

February 2, 2018: 2021

January 20, 2018: 2020

Your Upcoming Service Advisories, Provided by Lance from Subway Weekender

Note: the service advisories reflect the most disruptive changes. Be sure to check the maps or the MTA website for a full list of service changes.

Weekend:

  • 2 D N – Slight reduction in service levels

  • 4 – No service between Bowling Green and New Lots Av

  • 4 6 – Uptown service is express-only between Grand Central and 125 Street

  • 5 – Reduced service

  • A – Downtown service is express-only between 168 Street and 59 St-Columbus Circle

  • E R – Manhattan-bound service is express-only in Manhattan

  • J – No service between Crescent St and Jamaica Center

  • L – No service between Broadway Junction and 8 Avenue

  • N – All service runs via R line between Canal St and Atlantic Av

  • Q – No service between Prospect Park and 96 Street

Late Nights:

  • 1 – No service between Dyckman St and 137 St-City College

  • 3 – No overnight service

  • E – Jamaica-bound service is express-only in Queens

  • L – No service between Broadway Junction and 8 Avenue

  • Q – Uptown service runs via R line between DeKalb Av and Canal St

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

Subway Eating Story: A Beautiful Sandwich

Reader Zora O. writes in with what is my new favorite New York story:

I had gotten a "Bomb" sandwich from Sal, Kris & Charlie's deli in Astoria, and I guess I was on my way somewhere but very hungry, so I went straight to the subway platform at Ditmars and sat down to eat my sandwich while I waited for the next train. When the train pulled in, the conductor hopped off and saw me eating. He did this massive double-take and said, "Lady, where did you get that byooooo-tee-ful sandwich?" It sounded like a line out of a 1940s advertisement. So of course I told him, and he went running off down the stairs double-quick.

I was surprised he didn't know about the place! Pretty much every time I'm in there, the line is mostly MTA staff and cops. He must've been new to the job.

If you have a subway eating story (that doesn’t involve someone making a mess because we don’t want to encourage that type of behavior) send it along to signalproblems@substack.com.

Dog in a Bag

MTA Rules of Conduct Section 1050.9 Subsection (h) Paragraph 2: no person may bring any animal on or into any conveyance or facility unless enclosed in a container and carried in a manner which would not annoy other passengers.

Have a dog in a bag photo? Reading this on the subway and see a dog in a bag? Take a picture and send it to signalproblems@substack.com.

Photo credit: Peter Barker-Huelster

This has been another edition of Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter helping you figure out what is going on with the subway, made every week by Aaron Gordon, freelance transportation reporter. Read on the web or view the archives at signalproblems.nyc.

If you’re enjoying this newsletter, please share it with others. It’s the best way you can say thanks.

As always, send any feedback, subway questions, or Dog in a Bag photos to signalproblems@substack.com. I’d love to hear from you. As someone on a stalled Q train once told me, we’re all in this together.  

A newsletter about what the hell is going on with the subway.