Having Resolved One L Train Headache, The MTA Sets Out To Make New Ones

On Wednesday, MTA Managing Director Ronnie Hakim briefed reporters and local officials on the alternate service plan for the L tunnel work. In lieu of repeating what others have written elsewhere breaking it down, I’m going to summarize.

Hakim dropped a bit of a bombshell that L service will ramp down starting at 8 PM every weekday, so that an unknown number of scheduled L trains can be either short-turned or replaced by work trains getting into position for one-tunnel operation, which will begin at 10 PM nightly.

And, as of now, they’re not planning to do a whole lot in the way of alternatives, other than an increase in service on the G, M, 7, and the M14 on weekends. Almost every important question—HOV lanes on the bridge, 14th St busway, station metering at several L stops, who the independent consultant for the board will be, what the new contract with Judlau will be like, how much it will cost, and what the work timeline will be—remain unknown or still up for debate, yet another reminder that nobody at NYCT was prepared for this abrupt change handed to them just a few weeks ago.

If the MTA’s goal for these briefings was to make everyone feel better about their mitigation plan, then they miscalculated. A number of electeds and advocates expressed concern over what they learned Wednesday, and in general there seem to be more questions than answers, an increasingly common outcome for the L tunnel repairs these days.

Another common outcome has been the worshipping at the altar of Community Outreach, and Wednesday was no different. Hakim told reporters a lot of the unknowns regarding the mitigation plans will be determined after yet more of that community outreach. Apparently, three years of community outreach is not enough outreach, and there needs to be even more outreach to decide how to provide alternate service for work that is supposed to begin in ten weeks.

All this outreach has crossed the line from seeking input to expressing uncertainty. After all, if you ask someone dozens of times what they think about your plan, it becomes less and less clear whether there’s an actual plan.

Of course, the irony here is that there was an actual plan. A very clear and robust one, put in place for the full tunnel shutdown. I’d link to it here, but the MTA took down the page the same day it sent out the “L Shutdown Averted” press release.

I, perhaps more than any other reporter, wrote extensively about the real shortcomings of the full shutdown’s alternate service plan. It had, for example, the potential for severe crowding on the JMZ and at Court Square. But, the difference is there wasn’t much the MTA could do about it at the time other than crowd control. They were already planning to run all of the involved lines to capacity. Short of ripping up stations and re-building them from scratch years ago, they had to play the cards dealt (the lack of bus lanes on the Williamsburg Bridge was another matter, but complicated by DOT’s hesitance to implement them).

Again, it’s ironic that the original mitigation efforts planned for weekends during the full shutdown would have adequately handled 20-minute L train headways, but rather than take the relief that one-tunnel ops presented, the MTA appears poised to hand itself a new set of challenges. The added potential for station crowding and other unpleasantness in the new plan comes down to political limitations. The more alternate service the MTA provides, the less heroic the new L plan appears, and the whole point of the new L plan is political heroism.

Fortunately for us, the alternate service plan is not yet finalized. The most important input will not come from the community, but from within. Several sources told me there are still ongoing efforts within the agency to take a serious look at incorporating more of the elements from the original alternate service plan. But as with so many questions these days, I worry it won’t come down to what’s operationally correct, but what’s politically expedient.

Some good news: the newest model of subway cars, the R179s, are years late on delivery which is hurting the reliability of older models on the J/Z, A, and C lines. OK, that’s not the good news, but the A is finally starting to get deliveries of the R179s, as spotted by The City’s Jose Martinez.

The city released its first preliminary budget, which includes some (more!) good news for bus riders. As Streetsblog reported, the city has budgeted $2.66 million per year through 2023 to install transit signal priority at 300 intersections per year, giving buses more green lights. That averages to $8,800 per intersection, or about the city’s share for subsidizing 880 ferry rides.

If you are sick and tired of reading about fare beating, I don’t blame you. I’m tired of writing about it. But if you for some reason want to read what I think about that Inside Edition TV spot, which made me upset about this topic all over again, here you go.

For those who may have missed it, Inside Edition confronted a bunch of fare beaters at Times Square to find out why they didn’t pay. The piece, from conception to final editing, is solely designed to make you angry at other people for not paying their fare.

I have written at length about the fare evasion problem before, but I’m bring it up again because I hate, hatehatehatehatehate this approach to the topic. It doesn’t serve any functional purpose. It doesn’t educate. It doesn’t enlighten. It doesn’t help anything. It’s simply “good TV” and rouses my most cynical opinions about TV news that would fit in as a monologue in Nightcrawler.

Fare evaders are breaking the law, but they’re doing so in a very rational, predictable manner. They are responding to a clear set of incentives; or, more precisely, the absence of any disincentive. Turnstiles are poorly designed. Enforcement is barely existent. Exit doors are easy to stroll right through with absolutely no consequences. So instead on focusing on the people walking through the door, I’m more interested in why it’s so easy to do in the first place.

If fare evasion is as big of a problem as the MTA contends—$215 million a year is the number they threw out with absolutely no supporting evidence—enforcement would pay for itself. A $100 fine with no criminal charges is a perfectly reasonable punishment for fare evasion now that the Manhattan DA doesn’t pursue criminal charges. But even at major fare evasion locales like Times Square, there are rarely any cops—as Inside Edition found—which I find difficult to square with the MTA’s assertion that this is such a huge problem that needs to be urgently remedied.

As often happens with such matters, any rational discussion about the best way to enforce fares in an equitable, socially conscious manner is getting lost as each side caricatures the other. Those advocating for stronger enforcement cast their opponents as agnostic to theft, and people who don’t buy the severity of the problem with respect to the MTA’s larger issues accuse the other side of calling for a return to broken windows.

These caricatures fail us because there’s a tremendous amount of common ground. Vanishingly few people—and no one who ought to be taken seriously—is positing fare beating is OK (yes, lots of people argue we shouldn’t have to pay for lousy service, but I can tell you from my time as a customer service rep at a call center people will say this all the time about anything). Likewise, a dwindling number of people believe fare evasion should be a criminal offense instead of a fine. For one thing, arresting and booking someone takes a lot of time. That time is much better spent by officers in the station enforcing fare payment.

It seems any public policy debate nowadays is going to quickly become polarized, but I lay a significant portion of the blame here on—wait for it—the MTA itself. The fare evasion issue was hastily raised during contentious budget discussions and in the context of future fare increases, which had the unmistakable whiff of pitting some riders against others so as to shift blame away from the authority. After a brief, eight-slide PowerPoint scant on details but high on alarmism was presented to the board, the MTA board and leadership has thus far offered no follow-up whatsoever on what would actually be done about it. But, the authority did see fit to release edited security cam footage of people hopping turnstiles to news organizations to use in their broadcasts.

If the Inside Edition spot had any value, it was to highlight what a bizarre situation this is. Everyone knows precisely when and where a low-level crime is going to occur and enforcement would literally pay for itself, but instead everyone is arguing about other stuff. It’s silly. It didn’t have to be this way. The Inside Edition report never gets filmed if there were transit police standing right there, in the busiest subway station in the city, to address a problem we all know exists. It’s enough to make you wonder if the problem’s existence has more value to some people than the lost fares.

Scott Rechler, CEO of the mega Manhattan real estate firm RXR Realty, is resigning from the MTA board because his firm is set to develop the Hyatt property adjacent to Grand Central, which will require extensive negotiations with the MTA and therefore be a conflict of interest.

While clearly the right decision, Rechler’s resignation is a loss for the MTA. He was a very positive presence on the board. He led efforts on procurement reform—one of those boring but super important areas the MTA desperately needs to improve—and generally had valuable insights and recommendations.

Rechler was a Cuomo appointee, so Cuomo gets to choose his replacement, pending State Senate approval.

There are now a lot of vacancies on the MTA board! Not including Rechler, there are four board seats unoccupied: one appointed by the Nassau, Dutchess, and Rockland County executives each and an LIRR Riders Council rep. Because the MTA board has a bizarre structure, those five people combine for two and a half votes: Rechler and Nassau rep one each, Dutchess and Rockland a quarter vote each, and LIRR Riders Council rep has no vote.

LIRR riders will be the main beneficiaries of some of the MTA’s most expensive capital projects—East Side Access and Third Track—but in the meantime they’re getting hit by some of the most severe fare increases, a Newsday analysis found.

Perchance you heard that Amazon is not building an HQ2 to New York after all. Just as when they were coming here, this means basically nothing for transit. Moving on.

The latest global traffic study found New York has the 40th worst traffic in the world and the fourth-worst in the US behind Boston, D.C., and Chicago. Moscow ranks #1, but my heart will always belong to Sao Paulo, a city I once spent 10 days in while reporting on an amateur soccer team. The team had to cancel a whole bunch of planned events because they horrifically overbooked their schedule by failing to take into account the fact that they would spend seven hours each day in traffic.

There’s a math riddle about fuel economy that goes like this: Which saves more gasoline, going from 10 to 20 miles per gallon, or going from 33 to 50 MPG? If you answered 33-50, you’re wrong. You save five gallons of gasoline per 100 miles going from 10 to 20 mpg, but only one gallon over 100 miles by going from 33 to 50.

I bring this up because 1. everyone should know that MPG is a stupid metric and 2. the same principle holds for travel speed and trip time. Raising the slowest speeds over the course of a trip saves much more time than large increases of high speeds. This is not only worth keeping in mind with the Save Safe Seconds stuff, but I was reminded of this by an Alon Levy post about increasing Metro North speeds into Grand Central terminal:

“The most important part of a regional railway to speed up is the slowest station throats, followed by slow urban approaches if they prove to be a problem. The most important part of a subway to speed up is individual slow zones at stations or sharp curves that are not properly superelevated. The most important part of a bus trip to speed up is the most congested city center segment.”

This is also relevant to the ongoing discussion about high speed rail and the Green New Deal:

Nope. Nope. nopenopenopenopenope.

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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.


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

  • F – No service between Church Av and Coney Island

  • J – No service between Crescent St and Jamaica Center

  • L – No service between Broadway Junction and 8 Avenue

  • N – No service between Queensboro Plaza and Ditmars Blvd

Late Nights:

  • 2 – No service between Chambers St and Atlantic Av

  • D – No service between 161 St-Yankee Stadium and 205 Street

  • E – multiple diversions

    • No service between Briarwood and Jamaica Center

    • Manhattan-bound service is express-only in Queens

  • L – No service between Broadway Junction and 8 Avenue

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

  • The big news this week came out of California, where Governor Gavin Newsom (I know nothing about California politics but that is a great villain name) significantly scaled back CA’s high speed rail project so instead of connecting major urban areas it now will “focus on the central valley” part of the line between Bakersfield and Merced, which resulted in a lot of jokes about who would want to go to Bakersfield or Merced followed by the inevitable backlash of hey people live there you know.

    Once that settled, pretty much everyone began speculating about the future of CAHSR in general. Is it dead? Is it not dead? Is it some kind of half-conscious zombie shuffling along the margins between man and beast? Should we spend the money building one of those instead?

    Rather than read rampant speculation on that, here’s a good article on the seven really bad things CAHSR did that made the project such a disaster. Fundamentally, the lesson here is that until and unless this country learns how to build big, expensive projects well through the political mechanisms available, nothing will be viable. Or, as Alon Levy put it, "Chickenshit governors like Newsom, Andrew Cuomo, and Charlie Baker are not an immutable fact of life."

  • DC Metro is on the verge of subsidizing late-night Uber/Lyft commutes rather than providing service. If they follow through, DC Metro would be the biggest agency to subsidize e-hail by a pretty large margin.

  • The Dutch have plans to make inter-city rail run every 10 minutes, which would be better than pretty much every NYC subway line on any given weekend, and don’t even get me started on commuter rail.

  • Staying in the Netherlands, here’s a delightful story about Amsterdam’s nine year old Junior Bike Mayor. “NS [Amsterdam’s bike share company] congratulated Lotta on her idea and offered to equip the railway station near where her grandparents live in Haarlem with a child’s bike. But the junior cycle mayor was not that easily satisfied: ‘I told them it was not enough. I am not bicycle mayor for myself, but for all children in Amsterdam.’ NS is now considering a pilot with children’s bikes in one station.”

    Lotta for New York City Mayor. No, I didn’t forget a word.

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.

I cannot vouch for the authenticity of this image. It looks very much like a dog’s head photoshopped onto the side of a backpack. But if that is the case, it’s excellent photoshopping craftsmanship and deserves recognition nonetheless.

Photo credit: Amanda Maduri

I want to take a minute and thank Pigeon, the subway app from Google’s Project 120. Many more than 20 students emailed asking for one of the gift subscriptions and Pigeon stepped up and sponsored all of them. So thank you!

I know I only send you a dog in a bag once a week, but they’re on Pigeon all the time. Check it out.

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.