Why 2019 is a make-or-break year for NYC transportation

We journalists are a cynical lot. I will always treat everything public officials say with healthy skepticism because that is my job. But Andy Byford is unlike any other person, government or private sector, I have ever covered. He has managed to garner universal respect, even admiration, while running a transit system virtually everybody dislikes.

This isn’t because of anything having to do with the subway performance. Instead, I think it can be boiled down to one observation: after almost a full year, I have yet to catch him in a lie.

Sure, he has said things I disagree with, or has been mistaken and later corrected himself (no, seriously, he tracks you down to correct himself, no matter how trivial a point). But to the best of my knowledge he has not lied, or even, again to the best of my knowledge, said something demonstrably false.

I was sure I got him early on. “This is a dream come true,” he said at the beginning of his tenure, when he was often quoted or paraphrased as saying he had always wanted to run the New York transit system. I worked as a sports writer for four years, and this is a classic athlete line when players sign for a new team. It has always been my dream to play for [insert team name here]. But then, not long after, I stumbled upon this Toronto Star article from 2012:

The TTC post was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, said Byford. Toronto and New York were probably the only cities that could have lured him from his beloved Sydney…

Well, shit.

Looking back, 2018 was a year of trying to make dreams come true. Aside from Byford fulfilling his dream to run the subway and buses, various other entities dreamed of how to fix NYC transportation as a whole. The FixNYC report made the case for congestion pricing. Byford released the Fast Forward Plan with its ambitious goals. The Metropolitan Transportation Sustainability Working Group released their report on how to fix the MTA. The SPEED Unit is going around evaluating speed limits and signal timers. (Sure, the Subway Action Plan was a lot of “doing,” but the results are, frankly, underwhelming for an $836 million program. Anyways, it was fundamentally a program of doing stuff, not a program about getting results.) The real fixes, the kinds of things that will generate tangible improvement, are still largely in the planning and evaluating stages.

I look around at the last year or so of whatever shall be done about the MTA talk and see the tossing around of generally agreeable but vague ideas. Congestion pricing. Governance reform. Reduce costs. They almost always come with “devil in the details” caveats, but rarely, if ever, has anyone actually tried to wrestle with the devil. I wonder if we’ve reached a high water mark of consensus as various parties realize they have very different ideas of what all this ought to look like. Going back to my cynical nature, I have very little faith in our state government on this front because they haven’t done much to deserve it.

My lack of clarity over what 2019 entails is both exciting (maybe it will get better!) and terrifying (oh God, maybe it won’t). And by the way, the L Freaking Shutdown is less than four months away. Oh, and doubly by the way, the MTA will be run by a a new Chairman and CEO, identity TBD.

It is for these reasons I suspect 2019 will be the most important year in this city’s transportation history. Never before have so many issues culminated at once. Congestion pricing, MTA reform, the L shutdown, the legality of for-hire vehicle surcharges, the Fast Forward Plan’s future, and on and on. 2017 was the year we recognized we had a problem. 2018 was the year we got a prognosis. Now what? It’s make it or break it, put up or shut up.

As far as I see it, 2019 could go one of three ways.

One is that Albany breaks with its time-honored tradition, does the right things, and NYC transit finally gets the prescribed treatments it sorely needs. These include but are not limited to: automatically enforced bus lanes, congestion pricing, placard reform on the city level, and funding for the Byford Plan through robust but sensible value capture. In exchange, Albany also passes honest-to-God MTA reforms that include sweeping organizational and governance changes to create clear accountability and reduce obvious redundancies. Merging LIRR and Metro-North is tackled head on, something that ought to have been packaged with East Side Access and Penn Access and saved billions in the process. It streamlines a bloated and toothless board, reducing the number of people on it, makes its representatives proportionately reflect the MTA’s ridership base, eliminates “holdovers” whose terms have expired, and gives the board the authority—instead of the governor—to hire and fire the Chairman/CEO. The board is also given a budget to hire independent researchers so they have the resources they need to make informed decisions. It couples those reforms with legally mandated independent audits conducted by a firm that will also have a representative available at all MTA board meetings. Albany also creates a system by which the MTA must hit cost reform benchmarks that start off fairly small in the first few years but slowly increase (exempting any savings from death spiral-inducing efforts such as reducing service) thus placing the onus on the MTA to develop a new system for executing projects well. If the benchmarks are not hit, then revenues from congestion pricing and value capture get put into an escrow account until they are.

The second way is Albany does none of those things. Political bickering and infighting stymie any attempts to generate new revenue. Nearly every senator and assemblymember looks solely after themselves, refusing to accept anything short of a giveaway for their district. Parochialism rules the day. Nothing gets done, nothing gets fixed, but they declare victory by passing some toothless law that does nothing but is called something like the MTA Reform And Funding Act.

The third way is a combination of the first two ways. They pass congestion pricing, but it has carve-outs for for-hires and taxis and more closely resembles a toll than dynamic pricing. The value capture issue languishes as city and state fight about it. Automatic, camera-based bus lane enforcement passes, but has no teeth against government-owned vehicles. The MTA board gets “reformed”, but instead of having fewer members it gets more, all appointed by the governor. No meaningful MTA cost reform measures are enacted. At the end of the day, the MTA is given more money but implicit permission to continue wasting a great deal of it.

The third way seems the most likely to me, followed by the second way, with the first way a distant last. But political analysis is not my forte. Which is precisely what the subway problem is now, a political problem.

This leads to the fundamental question that needs to be figured out before all the others. The very purpose of the MTA, and the NYCTA before it, was to allow politicians to cowardly wash their hands of transit questions rather than face angry voters who didn’t want their fares hiked. And large fare hikes were necessary because of previous cowardice from politicians who enshrined the nickel fare into law to gain votes despite the obvious unsustainability of keeping the cost of a subway ride the same for almost 50 years. It was apparent before, but it’s plain obvious now, just how much of a failure all of that has been, structurally speaking.

It won’t be easy, but the fundamental question Albany must figure out is who will be responsible from here on out. The answer since 1968 of “a board of about two dozen people appointed mostly by various political offices and kinda the governor sometimes” is no good. They need to find a new one.

If the future of the MTA was solely a transit question, about whether Andy Byford can turn this ship around, I would be very optimistic. But it’s not merely that. It’s a philosophical, legal, and most of all political question. We, as a state, are not great at answering those. As far as the subway is concerned, we haven’t sufficiently answered it in the 114 years of its existence. Here’s to hoping Year 115 is the magical one.

This was the first edition of Signal Problems for paid subscribers only. Thanks again for supporting Signal Problems. Have a great holiday!