August 24, 2018: Costed

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Back when NYCT president Andy Byford first introduced the Fast Forward plan in May, he originally promised to provide a “costed roadmap.” But by the time he formally presented the Plan to the MTA Board, there was no longer any mention of how much the plan would cost. This didn’t stop a few enterprising folks from leaking figures to the papers. The Wall Street Journal reported this de-costing was at the behest of MTA Chairman Joe Lhota—he refuted this, as seen below—and the cost was initially projected to be $43 billion. Other outlets reported $19 billion. Either way, it was clear it would cost a lot.

Joseph Lhota@JoeLhota

This is an untrue statement. If somebody actually said this, the name of the prevaricator needs to be disclosed. No such thing happened. New Yorkers deserve the truth. @WSJ https://t.co/9Hlr8VaRTb

May 23, 2018
Since then, much has been said about the Fast Forward Plan by many parties. It’s entirely possible I missed something, but in my mind, the cost of the plan had never been completely settled, although most outlets stick to the high-end estimate.

But tipster Shaul Picker alerted me to an unlisted “president’s message” video posted on the MTA’s YouTube account last week where Byford himself says about the Fast Forward Plan, “we’re talking about around $40 billion, that’s $4 billion a year for each of the next ten years.” (Around the 1:20 mark.)

So, in the end, the WSJ had it right.

That being said, I’m not sure how much the cost matters. Arithmetic aside, I don’t think the difference between $19 billion and $40 billion is all that important. Consider:

And these are just the lowest hanging fruits. A legislature motivated to find $2 billion a year can also find $4 billion. But a legislature that doesn’t want to pay $4 billion would probably also balk at $2 billion.

In any case, Byford said in the video that the money question is his problem to figure out. “You leave that to me. That’s my job. It’s a big challenge, but we’re going to get that money.”

Byford then goes on to address another WSJ report, which I discussed last week, about the budgetary challenges facing the transit agency. Byford’s angle on it:

We do need to make efficiencies. Don't be spooked when you read about that, don't think that suddenly we're going to lose jobs. We're not. We're not going to make big service cuts. What we are doing, though, is tightening our belt and minimizing any discretionary spend, money we don’t have to spend or any non-essential jobs we won’t be filling in the short term. So nothing to worry about.

This is a perfectly diplomatic take and encapsulates the challenges managers have cutting waste at big bureaucracies, especially ones with influential unions. You can’t just say you’re cutting waste. You need political cover. And that cover, in this case, may be be the Subway Action Plan.

I’m dubious NYCT is actually in any financial trouble due to the Subway Action Plan, considering the city and state both agreed to pay their respective halves to fund it. (They have other, grander financial challenges, but it’s not something a few cuts here and there will solve.) But that’s their story and they’re sticking to it, perhaps as a pretext for cutting what Byford calls “discretionary spend” on “non-essential jobs” that haven’t been filled.

But these cost savings are a drop in the bucket compared to overspending on mega-projects. And this has been the strongest point of resistance to the Byford Plan. Insofar as anyone objects, they don’t want more tax dollars to be thrown down the MTA money hole. Byford doesn’t oversee mega-projects, but what he can do is tighten his own belt, as he put it, so when lawmakers ask that same question six months from now, he has something to say about it.

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

  • New York Magazine ran a feature on Cuomo and his election challenges, with several sections on the MTA. It’s nothing regular readers of Signal Problems don’t know already, but here’s my favorite bit:
    “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 MTA’s old headquarters at Madison Avenue is sitting empty, costing the agency $4 million a year to maintain, because the city is holding up a sale for tax revenue purposes.

  • Signal Problems will not be making any endorsements in the upcoming primaries, but the StreetsPAC endorsements are a good guide for those concerned about transit issues. StreetsPAC is more focused on street-level issues like saver roads and bike lanes, but in general, candidates who get transit, get transit.

  • Mayor de Blasio gave a big nothingburger of a press conference on the L shutdown, but he did promise that “we can't let anyone be stranded." So keep that in mind, because that’s a big promise from a man who doesn’t actually know when the shutdown begins or how long it will last.

  • The Staten Island express bus network redesign finally launched and is going…pretty much as expected. Some people like it, others don’t, and adjustments had to be made on the fly.

  • I’m not sure why the MTA is holding town halls on the Fast Forward Plan—it is not the type of thing on which non-experts will have particularly helpful notes—but they are, and they have to sit and listen to people complain at them. Or as, Vin Barone of AM New York diplomatically characterized it, “Speakers at the event tended to focus on specific service issues, rather than the plan itself.”

  • Really good article by Alphonso Castillo on the $432 million LIRR double track project, which will add a second track between Ronkonkoma and Farmingdale. LIRR officials have rushed to finish the project this summer so they can move workers onto other projects like Third Track (which will add, you guessed it, a third track between Floral Park and Hicksville) and the federally-mandated positive train control installation. Between those projects and East Side Access, there is very much a sliver of light at the end of the very dark LIRR tunnel.

  • MTA Board member Veronica Vanterpool is now the Deputy Director of the Vision Zero Network, an advocacy group committed to safer streets. Appointed to the board by de Blasio, she continues to be one of the few MTA Board members who actually works in the transportation industry, an issue I wrote about way back in February.

  • Feel free to read about the subway goats rescued by Jon Stewart which some outlets covered.

  • I don’t know, you guys, I think this tagged Q train looks pretty good. (My potentially controversial idea of the day that will never happen is there should be an MTA Arts program for street artists to paint trains.)

  • Columbia Journalism Review did a short profile on me and Signal Problems, which was awfully nice of them.

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.

Weekend:

  • 2 – No service between E 180 Street and 135 Street

  • 4 5 – Downtown service is local-only in Manhattan

  • 5 – No service between E 180 Street and 149 St-Grand Concourse

  • A – No service between 181 Street and 207 Street

  • A C – multiple diversions

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

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

  • D – multiple diversions

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

    • All service is express-only between Atlantic Av and 36 St/4 Av

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

  • F – Jamaica-bound service runs via C and E lines between Jay St and Roosevelt Av

  • J – No service between Myrtle Av and Crescent St

  • N – All service is local-only in Brooklyn

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

  • R – No service between 36 St/4 Av and 95 Street

Full service change map here.

Late Nights:

  • 1 – No service between Chambers St and South Ferry

  • 2 – No service between 3 Av-149 St and 135 Street

  • 3 – No service

  • D – multiple diversions

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

    • All service is express-only in Brooklyn

  • F – multiple diversions

    • All service is local-only in Queens

    • Queens-bound service runs via E line between Rockefeller Center and Roosevelt Av

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

  • L – No service between Lorimer St and Broadway Junction

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

Full service change map here.

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

Not a lot of transit news this week as it’s August and sensible people are on vacation. So here’s a bigger-picture observation.

Like millions of other Americans, I grew up within a few miles of I-95, but I didn’t know it was unfinished until this week, which I only learned because, after 60 years, it’s finally finished. It reminded me of a great Yonah Freemark article on America’s generational failure to invest in not just high-speed rail but any new transportation system over the last generation.

In this failure, high-speed rail encapsulates the American experience in general: A nation now fundamentally unprepared to change, whether in terms of transport, climate change, or healthcare.

My indictment of the U.S. is not founded on a claim that Americans are bereft of “ideas,” or that other countries’ populations are smarter, or wealthier, or more risk-taking than them. It’s just that our society suffers from a malaise resulting from its dysfunctional, irascible political system that is woefully unprepared to commit to anything particularly significant.

This is a perfect example of my theory that transit is one of the best ways to learn about a place, its people, and its priorities. Please do read the whole article.

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: Matt Lurie

David Roth’s Esteemed Subway Rider of the Week

David is one of those sensible people who is on vacation, so no esteemed rider this week. To keep the masses from taking up arms in protest, here is a bonus Dog in a Bag.

Photo credit: Seth Rosenthal

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.