Standing on the precipice

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Something about the 2019 budget didn’t make a lot of sense to Mitch Pally. The board member who represents Suffolk County took issue with the fact that the budget they were asked to vote on this week assumes fare and toll hikes in January, even though they have not yet voted for them. Was voting for the budget an implicit vote for the fare hikes as well? Pally didn’t want to do that, since he wasn’t sure what his position on the fare hikes even was. After all, the public hearings on the issue aren’t over yet.

Couldn’t they hedge, Pally asked? Perhaps make that line item “City/State contributions” to pressure public officials to find the money instead?

No, he couldn’t do that, Foran said. Without talking to the city and state budget directors and getting some “comfort and assurance” that they would indeed be providing that money, he would find it “almost dishonest” to put it in the budget.

“But Bob,” Pally countered, “that number $270 million, from the state and the city and anybody else, is as good a number at the moment as a fare increase number. Because there’s no guarantee at the moment that either one will occur.”

“I disagree,” replied Foran. It would not be in good faith, said the finance officer, to assume revenue the MTA has no control over, such as subsidies that have not yet been promised. But, the MTA can assume in good faith that the board will do what is within its control. Those two things are to raise fares or cut service.

“Those are the only two levers you have,” Foran told Pally. “You’ll do one of them.”

Earlier in the exchange, Foran told Pally “the budget is nothing but a collection of assumptions.” They disagreed on how good of an assumption the fare hikes were. Pally thought it was just as up in the air as any other potential revenue source. Foran knew better.

The version of the budget the board approved on Wednesday was the only budget they were presented with. To not approve the budget would have meant working under the 2018 budget next year. Because the 2018 budget was about $850 million lower, Foran would have had to immediately cut that much from the 2019 plan somehow, making the draconian cuts in lieu of fare hikes look like child’s play.

This is why almost every board member voted for the budget—two city representatives, Veronica Vanterpool and Carl Weisbrod, abstained—despite expressing grave misgivings. Polly Trottenberg summed it up in explaining her vote: “we have no alternative.”

Does the MTA board have any choice regarding fare hikes now that they’ve approved a budget assuming it happens? I took a philosophy course on free will in college and I don’t intend to summarize my experience here, but the mere fact I’m invoking the definition and nature of free will ought to give you some idea of the board’s situation.

Of course, there are other ways to cut costs somewhere in the $16.7 billion budget. What assumptions in there can be changed? The board isn’t being told. Legally speaking, the board must be “good fiduciaries,” meaning they can’t intentionally plunge the MTA into financial morass. But unintentionally, based on assumptions? Well, that’s just a budget.

In the year and a half I’ve been covering the MTA, I’ve been trying to figure out what, exactly, the board does. The law, at least, is clear: they are the ones who are responsible the MTA, for its fiscal health and the best interest of its riders. As a collective entity, by almost any measure one can select, the board is failing on those two fronts. Service on every single MTA property is worse than it has been in decades. The agency’s financial state is similarly abysmal.

But, what does the MTA board actually control? Even Foran’s characterization of their available levers overstates the case. They can lodge what is essentially a protest vote against the budget to little practical end. They can demand information from the MTA, but can’t order action. They can’t hire Joe Lhota’s replacement, who will be the one making most of the important hires and decisions. They can decide to forgo fare increases, but that would simultaneously be a decision, in effect, to cut service, even though there are plenty of Secret Third Options no one is telling them.

This, perhaps, is why MTA board members were so exasperated just before voting in favor of the budget. They used phrases like “Extraordinarily difficult position,” “Standing on the precipice,” the need for “Real, meaningful action.” They spoke in vague generalities, the kinds of maxims to which anyone can agree.

What they didn’t do was give any indication of what they’ll do to make things better (the possible exception being Larry Schwartz, who vowed to be “the biggest pain in the ass” to the MTA in enacting real, meaningful change). Maybe this was because they don’t yet know what they will do, or perhaps because they can’t actually do much of anything.

Regardless, we have a 2019 budget, and it looks an awful lot like the 2018 one. It has slightly more in revenues and expenses, but the moral of the story is the same.

“What we have here,” said board member Andrew Saul, “is an operation that cannot last.”


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

  • Amidst the growing consensus that congestion pricing’s time has come for New York in order to raise the funds to fix the subway, I wrote a piece for Curbed NY about whether we’re losing sight of what congestion pricing was supposed to accomplish in the first place.

  • What does NYC political leadership want its streets to look like? It’s an open question, and that lack of vision will cost us dearly in 2019. Over at CityLab, I wrote about why NYC needs to figure this out.

  • I spoke to Walt Hickey for his excellent newsletter Numlock about the subway, the MTA, signal problems, and Signal Problems.

  • Byford’s efforts to make trains go faster appears to be paying dividends. This week, the MTA announced higher speed limits on the N and R in Brooklyn, with many more increases to come. With 95 percent of the subway tested, 267 faulty signal timers have been discovered out of approximately 2,000 such devices.

  • Other tidbits from this month’s board materials:

    • Here is how often the L shutdown replacement bus services will run. I’m very concerned about the midday frequencies of 8.5-10 minutes per line. The L has pretty high ridership throughout the day. For what it’s worth, Byford said he’s confident that it will be enough and, if it isn’t, they can ramp up service. (If this chart is too small to read, you can also find it on page 240 of this PDF.)

    • Staten Island express bus service speeds improved 10 percent versus the same period last year, providing some evidence the network redesign is paying off.

    • 48 bus lines are getting schedule changes in the spring. 22 will have increased frequency, 13 reduced, and another 13 will account for longer running times. Notably, the Bx36 will be converted to articulated buses which will reduce the frequency but increase capacity, to replace buses that need to be retired this year. Overall, these adjustments will save the agency $2.5 million, although the Bx36 change alone will save $3.1 million.

  • Citi Bike is only adding five new docking stations in Bushwick in advance of the L shutdown.

  • Apparently NYPD is testing metal detectors at some subway locations, including the passageway between Times Square and Port Authority. NYPD waited until the one-year anniversary of the attempted terrorist attack in that very passageway to debut this initiative, which is perhaps the biggest security theater tell in history.

  • The NY State Senate announced the chairs for its committees, and the chair of the transportation committee, which handles all MTA matters, goes to Tim Kennedy, from the 63rd District up in Buffalo.

  • LIRR and Metro-North have both expressed some concern that they won’t hit the 2020 deadline for Positive Train Control implementation, which would fit in with the MTA’s larger problems of hitting project deadlines.

  • “‘They talk to you like you’re nothing -- all they care about is their numbers,’ said Rashad Long, who makes $18.60 an hour and commutes four hours a day to work at the [Amazon Staten Island] warehouse. ‘They talk to you like you’re a robot.’” Four hours a day!

  • Subway booth station attendants are mostly relics from a previous era. That is to say, that specific job of sitting in a booth is a relic, not the people sitting in them. There are plenty of useful tasks for them in stations. But can that transition happen, given all the the MTA’s bureaucratic and institutional inertia?

  • Your feel-good story of the week: remember that six-year-old who dressed up as an MTA bus for Halloween? Byford gave him a personal grand tour.

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

This week's estimate: June 2022

Change log (the links are where I explain the change):

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:

  • D – All service runs via N line between 36 St/4 Av and Coney Island

  • E – multiple diversions

    • No service between Briarwood and Jamaica Center

    • Late night service runs via F and R lines between 21 St-Queensbridge and Whitehall St

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

  • F – multiple diversions

    • No service between Church Av and Coney Island

    • All service runs via E line between Roosevelt Av and Rockefeller Center

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

  • M – No weekend service

  • R – multiple diversions

    • All service runs via F line between 36 St/Northern Blvd and 57 St-7 Av

    • No late night service between Atlantic Av and Whitehall St

Late Nights:

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

  • 3 – No overnight service

  • 7 – No service between Queensboro Plaza and 34 St-Hudson Yards (Tue. early morning only)

  • A – No service between Euclid Av and Rockaway Blvd

    • No service to/from Lefferts Blvd

  • E – Downtown service runs via F line between 21 St-Queensbridge and W 4 Street

  • F – All service is local-only in Queens

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

  • J – No service between 121 Street and Jamaica Center

  • N – Manhattan-bound service runs via Manhattan Bridge

  • N Q – Uptown service is express-only in Manhattan

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

David Roth’s Esteemed Subway Rider of the Week

The rider of the week, for me, is the man who came tear-assing down the stairs as a train entered the station at 86th Street and sprinted and pivoted and skidded through the doors as they were closing. It was a dramatic entrance, if mostly by accident, which explains why I was so embarrassed to discover, in the very next moment, that my fly was down.

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.

Photo credit: Rebecca Heywood

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.

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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.