9/28/18: The sound of $836 million whooshing by

During this week’s Transit committee meeting, Subways head Sally Librera gave a presentation positing the Subway Action Plan did its job. In short, she argued that, through the lens of certain specific data points, the Plan stabilized the subway and slightly improved service.

I don’t fancy re-litigating whether the Subway Action Plan (SAP from here on out) accomplished the very narrow goals the MTA set out for it in terms of subway performance, to what degree it “stabilized” versus improved, or what the difference between stabilizing and improving actually is. Those are the arguments we have been having about the SAP. They’re largely semantic, and particularly fruitless at that, because all sides agree on the fundamentals: the SAP did not fix the subway. It didn’t even make it noticeably better to the average straphanger. Nobody, not even the MTA, argues otherwise.

What the SAP did do was make us talk about the SAP. We debated whether it was working or whether it wasn’t, who would pay for it, whether Cuomo or de Blasio won this round of bickering. To an unflattering extent, we lost the narrative.

Let’s put the SAP in perspective. The 2018 MTA budget is for something like $15.8 billion. Which is to say, the SAP, the vitally important plan required to stabilize the subway lest it spiral further into disrepair—should NYCT’s narrative be accepted—amounts to a whopping five percent of the MTA’s budget. It’s less than 10 percent of Transit’s budget.

The SAP did a fantastic job of distracting us, myself included, from all of this, all the bigger questions this subway crisis ought to have triggered about where this money goes if not towards running a damn good transit system. Or why an emergency plan would be needed to prevent a death spiral that costs the equivalent of MTA pocket change. And why the result of that work, this critically important work, is actually pretty basic running-the-subway stuff like unclogging drains and having emergency personnel close to stations (as opposed to far away, which they apparently were before) or ensuring signals and switches that fail often get serviced. More than a year on, those questions appear to have largely been forgotten, or at the very least tabled.

So allow me to belatedly re-frame the question: on average, the MTA spends $836 million every 19 days. The SAP captured our attention as we debated this $836 million instead of all the other $836 millions that pass through, week after week, year after year. For the most part, we stopped asking questions about why those $836 millions didn’t pay for any of this and why the MTA needed another $836 million to do its most important function.

It’s time to move on from the Subway Action Plan. It was a shiny object. It succeeded in dominating headlines and shifting the narrative. I stand by everything I wrote about the SAP not really improving subway performance in any noticeable way, but I also realize that’s not the important question. We bickered about it as more $836 millions passed us by. In the end, the Plan worked brilliantly.

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

  • Another ceiling collapsed in a Brooklyn subway station, this time at Atlantic Ave-Barclays.

  • You may have noticed MTA Chairman Joe Lhota’s absence from any mention in this week’s board meeting discussion. That’s because he didn’t attend, opting to celebrate his 35th wedding anniversary instead. How lovely.

  • East Side Access has a new project manager, because the previous one is retiring. The new guy, Arthur Troup, is coming over from MARTA, Atlanta’s transit system.

  • It sure is a hell of a coincidence that GOP governor candidate and current Dutchess County executive Marc Molinaro determined the best person to appoint to the MTA Board just so happened to be the best man at his wedding.

  • It’s probably not great that the MTA Chairman is a self-professed NIMBY.

  • Yet another Enhanced Station Initiative-esque rehab is complete, this time the 163 St-Amsterdam Av Station, which has been closed since March. Apparently, the USB ports have been cut from those station rehabs. I don’t really care—no one should be waiting at a subway stop long enough to charge a phone—but it’s an interesting bit considering USB ports were a highlight of the ESI program when it was announced.

  • Close observers may recall that NYCT president Andy Byford loved to talk about the three vacuum trains he ordered that would make cleaning tracks a snap. Well, one was delivered in May, but the other two are delayed. They’ll get delivered in December and April, respectively.

  • Byford announced the new Group Station Managers team, who will oversee every aspect of about two dozen stations per manager. The idea is clearer accountability will lead to better stations. I think Dana Rubinstein of Politico put it best when she wrote, “[Byford] contends that if the MTA can demonstrate basic competency at managing stations, elected officials will be more willing to entrust it with more money.”

  • S/P tote designer Adam Fisher-Cox is working on a new project and he needs your help. “What’s the most convoluted platform sign you’ve seen in the NYC subway? Gathering contenders for a new project.”

  • Extremely random, but I’m going to be a guest on a late-night style show that also has improv and I think some other stuff too. It’ll be weird! But fun I think? Anyways, the show is called The Breakdown with Boris Khaykin it’s Wednesday night at 7 PM at the Red Room at KGB Bar in the East Village. Tickets are $5 and there’s a two-drink minimum.

In Which I Make An Educated Guess About When Things Will Get Better

This week's estimate: June 2022

Change log:

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.


  • 2 – No service between Franklin Av and Flatbush Av

  • 4 – All service is local-only in Manhattan

  • 5 – No weekend service

  • D – All service runs via A and F lines between 59 St-Columbus Circle and Kings Highway

  • E F – All service is local-only in Queens

  • F – multiple diversions

    • All service runs via Q and D lines in Manhattan and Brooklyn

    • No service between Kings Highway and Coney Island

  • G – No service between Bedford-Nostrand Avs and Court Square

  • J – No service between Crescent St and Jamaica Center

Late Nights:

  • 3 – No overnight service

  • A – Brooklyn-bound service runs via F line between W 4 Street and Jay St

  • D – No service between 34 St-Herald Sq and Atlantic Av

  • F – Jamaica-bound service is local-only in Queens

  • L – No service between Broadway Junction and 8 Avenue

  • Q – Manhattan-bound service runs via R line between DeKalb Av and Canal St

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

  • Public transit consultant Jarrett Walker has been writing some excellent posts on the Dublin bus network redesign which he helped put together. His latest one, Why Your Bus Network May Never Improve, is well worth a read especially as NYC embarks on redesigning its bus networks.

  • DC Metro is looking to outsource maintenance and operations for the second Silver line extension in an effort, they say, to cut costs and reduce long-term pension liabilities.

  • Remember the brand new $2.2 billion bus station in San Fransisco that will hopefully one day be a train station? Well, in less than one month, they’ve discovered that the visitor walkway that encircles the rooftop park is crumbling and there are cracks in the steel beams. Oh, and the whole thing cost $800 million more than expected.

David Roth’s Esteemed Subway Rider of the Week

“I have another couple rides ahead of me but I'll be shocked if anyone beats the well-dressed middle-aged woman I saw carrying the biggest ice cream cone I have ever seen—like a mondo cone with four inches of ice cream sticking off the top—hustling down two flights of stairs and onto an arriving Q train. I wanted to high-five her.”

David further reports she was “smooth as hell” and “didn’t spill a drop.”

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 aaron.wittes.gordon@gmail.com.

Photo credit: Bee Cambell

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 aaron.wittes.gordon@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you. As someone on a stalled Q train once told me, we’re all in this together.