February 23, 2018: A Blank Sheet

Welcome to Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter helping you figure out what is going on with the subway. I’m Aaron Gordon, a freelancer writing about many subjects, one of which is transit for the Village Voice. If you’re a new or prospective subscriber, head over to the Subway Knowledge Base page for an introduction to the state of the subway.

It was MTA Board Meeting week and there’s a lot to get to. But first, I’m putting out a call for those subway questions you’ve always had. Does the train make a noise at the exact same point of the track? Have you noticed something odd about your station that you’ve always wondered about? Let me find the answer for you. Think of me as your own private subway detective.

Send me your subway question as well as any thoughts, feedback, 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.  

This Week In #CuomosMTA

After a long weekend of planned work, the subway promptly shit the bed on Tuesday morning in Queens. There were no N/W trains connecting Astoria to Manhattan, and the R was having issues as well. Passengers were advised to walk to Queensboro Plaza or all the way to Manhattan. At least the weather was nice?

While the signal problems there had nothing to do with the weekend’s planned work—that part of the line was not worked on last weekend—there’s a certain point at which riders will stop forgiving massive planned work inconveniences if they don’t see improved service, although long-time New Yorkers might counter that they’ve been dealing with weekend planned work for years and look at where that’s gotten us. As one Twitter user noted, the N/W has been a frequent target for planned work closures even before the recent ramping up of work across the entire system.

We all know the system needs work and therefore will tolerate some degree of planned closures, but people expect all this work to amount to something. Continuing meltdowns like this even as the system is supposedly getting “fixed” make people less welcome to future planned work.

In any case, the Astoria meltdown was an unmitigated disaster, which NYCT president Andy Byford acknowledged at the board meeting that very morning. “It has wrecked people’s mornings and we’re not too happy about that.” (I, for one, cannot recall a high-level executive so bluntly admitting the subway can ruin people’s days.) Speaking to the press after the meeting, he called for a full investigation into what went wrong. These are sometimes done internally for major disruptions, but it sure would be nice to have them made public (or at least have their Freedom of Information Law office respond to my damn requests).

At the board meeting, Byford said a number of interesting things during his opening presentation. You can read my Twitter thread on it here for the play-by-play if you’re so inclined, but the one that grabbed the most headlines was a plain admission that “overcrowding” as a major source of delays is not a real thing. I get why this made news, but Byford said as much during his first board meeting a mere five days into his tenure, demonstrating just how obvious it always was that “overcrowding” was a lame duck excuse.

For my eye, the two most intriguing revelations of Byford’s presentation were:

  1. we can expect a “bus action plan” to address the sorry state of the city’s bus system in April

  2. NYCT is undergoing a complete review of its organizational structure to eliminate bureaucratic pits and make it more customer-focused and “fleet of foot.” He said the review is beginning with a “blank sheet.” From what I hear, this is desperately needed. But file this in the Easier Said Than Done category.

Two days later, the full MTA board met and it mostly turned into a debate on the Enhanced Station Initiative, an approximately $1 billion plan to upgrade stations around the system in phases. The vote on about $200 million of that project was delayed last month because some board members protested it didn’t involve any elevator installations to improve accessibility and argued it may not be the best use of the MTA’s money right now.

Byford seemed to generally agree with these concerns last month, but he changed his tune basing his decision mostly on the fact that the work “isn’t merely cosmetic,” a straw man argument since nobody ever said it was. (This is a criticism Byford faced in Toronto: when his superiors want a project done, he toes the line.)

In a particularly telling exchange, board member Carl Weisbrod asked how the procurement for the next three stations will be broken down. Where does that $200 million go, exactly? What is being done and how much does each piece cost? The MTA contracts executive Steve Plochochi replied, “No one has ever asked for that level of detail.”

After about two hours of debate, the board ended up passing the package. The nay votes came from mayor-appointed representatives. Speaking of, let’s take a quick look at who exactly those mayoral appointees are. I’m just going to take the first line or two from their official MTA bios:

  • Carl Weisbrod, a senior advisor at an economic development and real estate consulting firm and and a senior fellow at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management

  • Veronica Vanterpool, former executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy organization

  • Polly Trottenberg, commissioner of NYC Department of Transportation

  • David Jones, president and chief executive officer of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that promotes economic advancement and full civic participation for low-income New Yorkers

So that’s four people with a wealth of public transportation/urban policy experience. As for Cuomo’s appointees:

  • Peter Ward, President of the New York Hotel & Motel Trades Council, AFL-CIO

  • Lawrence Schwartz, currently chief strategy officer at OTG, an airport concessions company, but from 2011-2015 he was…Governor Cuomo’s secretary

  • Scott Rechler, the CEO and chairman of RXR Realty LLC ("RXR''), a multibillion-dollar private real estate company

  • Charles Moerdler, a partner in the law firm of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. He has been with the firm since 1967 and is chair of its Litigation Department.

  • Fernando Ferrer, aside from being vice-chairman, is co-chairman and a partner at Mercury, a public strategy firm. He also serves as a director of Sterling Bancorp and Sterling National Bank.

  • Joe Lhota, Vice Dean and Chief of Staff at NYU Langone Health

So, to recap, Cuomo appointed a union president, his former secretary, a real estate executive, a lawyer, a banker, and a hospital administrator to sit on a public transportation’s board. De Blasio’s people with actual expertise on the subject are outnumbered.

The majority of board members have no relevant public transit experience, except for the ones they gain sitting on the MTA’s Board. Is it any wonder they have a history of rubber-stamping proposals?

This is how Cuomo controls the MTA.

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

  • Con Ed is spending $200 million to repair and inspect power equipment on the MTA’s turf, costs that will be passed directly onto you and me in the form of higher utility bills. Considering the order to inspect the power equipment came from the state, this feels part and parcel with Cuomo’s effort to blame Con Ed and pretty much anyone else who isn’t him for subway issues.

  • Three UWS stations—110th, 86th and 72nd Street stations on the B and C lines—will be closing for up to six months for station repair and upgrades. While this is not merely cosmetic, according to Byford, it doesn’t include elevators or other significant accessibility upgrades. And according to West Side Rag, it doesn’t sound like the MTA is planning to do anything for the 30,000 or so customers who use those stations every day. “To the astonishment of many at the [community board] meeting,” one member of the board said, “no mitigation whatsoever is planned.”

  • “A significant portion of New York City property owners may soon find themselves giving the Metropolitan Transit Authority more money to fund new construction,” says me, in my latest Village Voice piece. “Thanks to a provision in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2019 budget proposal, the MTA may soon be allowed to tax not only properties that will benefit from new construction going forward but also ones that have financially benefited from any major infrastructure project in the past 37 years.”

  • Rider’s Alliance is running a weekly Worst Commute contest. If you’re so motivated, you can enter your submission here.

Line Ratings 

Using the fantastic Subwaystats.com website, I've compiled weekly ratings for each line. Each number represents the percent of time the last week (Monday-to-Sunday) that the line had "Good Service." For example, if the number is 70 percent, that means the line had "Good Service" 70 percent of the time and any form of disruption—planned work, delays, service changes, etc.—the other 30 percent.

This is not a particularly good way to measure a line's performance. For one, it relies on the MTA's definition of "Good Service," which there are very good reasons to doubt. On top of that, most people would prefer a line be down all weekend for planned maintenance but not for the two hours during rush hour. I wish the MTA compiled Lost Customer Hours like Transport for London does, but then again I wish the MTA did a lot of things.

If you’re having trouble viewing the graph below in the email, check it out in your browser by clicking the “view in browser” button at the top-right of this email or going to signalproblems.substack.com.

Best line: the L

Worst line: the F

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

This week's estimate: 2021

Still no change, mostly because I can’t decide whether 2021 is optimistic of pessimistic.

Your Upcoming Service Advisories, Provided by Lance from Subway Weekender


1 - No service between 137 St-City College and 96 Street

3 - No service; 1 trains run between South Ferry and Harlem-148 St

4 - No service between Utica Av and New Lots Av

7 - No service between Times Sq-42 St and Queensboro Plaza

A D - All service is local-only along Central Park West

E F - Manhattan-bound service is local-only in Queens

F - No service between Church Av and Coney Island

J - No service between Broadway Junction and Jamaica Center

M - No mainline service between Broadway Junction and Essex St

Full map here.

Late nights:

4 6 - All service is express-only between 125 Street and Grand Central-42 St (M101 LTD buses provide alternate service)

1 - No service between 137 St-City College and 96 Street

3 - No service; 1 trains run between South Ferry and Harlem-148 St

D N R - Manhattan-bound service is express-only in Brooklyn

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

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

N - multiple diversions

  • No service between Queensboro Plaza and Times Sq-42 St

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

Full map here.

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

MTA Mention of the Week

From user @heydejan:

The MTA really makes me hate a good chunk of the alphabet.

Dog in a Bag

Photo credit: Ryan Cunningham strikes again

Hey, since you made it all the way to the end, you may be enjoying this newsletter. If so, please help spread the word, perhaps by using the nifty sharing buttons below or telling a few friends using out-loud words. A lot of work goes into making this newsletter every week. Sharing it with others who might enjoy it too is the best way you can say thanks.