The part of the 10 point plan that bothers me

Cuomo and De Blasio issued a rare joint statement today announcing a 10-point plan “to transform and fund the MTA.” Here’s a very quick summary:

  1. Restructure the MTA to centralize shared operations

  2. Congestion pricing, weed tax, and internet sales tax to generate revenue for capital needs

  3. Cap fare increases at two percent per year (not far off from what the current hikes do)

  4. MTA board appointments end when their elected official leaves office

  5. Combat fare evasion “with both personnel and station design modifications that do not criminalize fare evasion but instead prevent fare evasion, sanction violators and increase enforcement”

  6. An independent audit of the MTA because Cuomo doesn’t believe their numbers

  7. A Regional Transit Committee will review toll/fare increases and the capital plan (although it’s not clear what power they have will have)

  8. Implement design-build for all projects, and all major construction projects will be reviewed by “construction and engineering experts who are not affiliated with the MTA or its consultants.” Cuomo’s favorite University deans will head that review team.

  9. Finish the Subway Action Plan (at Sunday’s presser, the MTA estimated about $700 million of the $836 million has been spent)

  10. Work with the legislature to do all the above stuff

As you can tell, pretty much every single one of these points is a huge devil-in-the-details wasp nest, and Reinvent Albany has already raised concerns a few potential stingers. There will be plenty of time to discuss all of it.

For now, I want to highlight one line that’s flying under the radar but deeply concerns me because it demonstrates a lack of attention to detail and reveals the underlying thesis driving this entire plan.

In Point 8, the plan calls for the construction review group to “also review the plans for signal system upgrade methodology and decide the best system to use, specifically comparing Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) to Ultra-Wide-Band (UWB) technology for safety, timeliness and cost.”

This demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding about what CBTC and UWB are. CBTC is an umbrella term for any signaling system that automatically controls trains using a communications network to monitor their precise train locations. This can be done using a variety of techniques and approaches, but the basic concept is in use in Hong Kong, Paris, Singapore, and London (incidentally, a pretty solid short list of some of the best metro systems in the world).

UWB, however, is not in use in any rail system anywhere in the world. As a result, I have found it exceedingly difficult to get precise details on how it would work in a signaling capacity. But, it’s basically a sub-system that would govern the “C” part of CBTC. Rather than having to use fiber optic wires or other cables that are labor intensive to wire and secure, UWB uses wireless transponders to relay information down the tunnels to a central point, probably a station. In other words, it’s kind of like upgrading from having to plug in all your devices with an Ethernet cord to using wireless instead.

None of this is to knock UWB. Should the technology work out—the MTA is still conducting tests but Andy Byford expressed optimism about its viability during Monday’s committee meeting—it would make rolling out CBTC on future lines faster and probably cheaper. But, to continue the analogy, this line in Point 8 would be like calling for these engineers to determine if we should still be using the internet, or to put in wireless routers instead. It just doesn’t make sense as an either/or. When advocating for its implementation, it’s probably best to know what you’re advocating for.

A key assumption embedded within the ten points is that these outside academics, panels, and experts know how to do all this stuff better than the MTA. Certainly, the MTA has made itself an easy target, taking the better part of a decade to upgrade the L and 7 respectively. The prudent course would be to execute full, transparent independent reviews of what went wrong with those projects. That hasn’t happened, nobody has committed to it happening, and we’re simply to trust that Byford and his new signals chief, Pete Tomlin, can do it better and faster.

This, along with the MTA’s many other inefficiencies and ills, has created a massive opening for the governor to exploit. He’s hellbent on being the savior, first with the Subway Action Plan, then with the L tunnel, and now he wants the same exact “experts” (they have zero expertise in signaling technology) to sign off on UWB. All the while, it’s less and less clear he even knows what it is.