The state of the NYC subway, one year after Cuomo’s state of emergency
Transit experts weigh in on how the MTA has fared one year after a state of emergency was declared
At the end of June last year, an A train derailed in Harlem, injuring 34 people and shining a bright light on the decay eating away at the New York City subway system. Days after the derailment, Governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the subway system and vowed to remake the MTA from the ground up.
But almost exactly one year after Cuomo’s declaration, a ceiling collapsed at the heavily-trafficked Borough Hall subway station in Brooklyn, injuring one person and throwing the day’s train service into chaos.
That event, along with the myriad delays and other subway problems that have plagued the system in the past 12 months, might have you wondering: Did that state of emergency help things at all?
According to transit advocates and experts, the answer is a solid maybe. “[It] helped to the extent it shed some light on how bad the situation is, and brought more outward publicity to it,” according to Benjamin Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas. But the temporary fixes that have been made since then will be meaningless without a concerted effort to modernize the subway system.
The state of emergency served as an important rhetorical milestone; Jaqi Cohen of the Straphangers Campaign says that it “marked the moment where the governor and the MTA acknowledged that subway service was getting worse and something needed to change.”
When Cuomo made the announcement, he promised to slash red tape that held up subway repairs, and put $1 billion into the MTA capital plan to speed things along. But the degree to which that helped is “hard to say because we don’t have the counterfactual,” says Nick Sifuentes, the executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “We don’t know what things would have been like if they hadn’t done it.”
Some of the transit experts Curbed spoke to agreed that at the most real-world impact from the declaration was the implementation of the Subway Action Plan, though Sifuentes called it more of “a Band-Aid as opposed to a real repair.”
According to the MTA’s own numbers, since the Subway Action Plan was announced last July, the beleaguered agency has repaired over 10,000 track defects, fixed over 1,000 leaks, and cleared garbage and debris from hundreds of track miles. Those improvements have led to what Jon Orcutt of TransitCenter calls “modest improvements” in areas like extra wait time and the amount of miles subway cars travel between breakdowns.
“But the bad news for the MTA and Governor Cuomo,” Orcutt continues, “is that major incidents—what everybody calls meltdowns—have been stubbornly high.”
Those incidents, which are classified as “major” when they affect 50 or more trains in a day, never rose above 69 per month in 2017 after the state of emergency was declared. However, the numbers skyrocketed to 105 in January this year—remember the absolutely miserable two days where almost every line was affected by rail, signal or electrical problems?—while March, April, and May saw 84, 76, and 85 such incidents, respectively.
The fluctuations themselves are somewhat random, in Kabak’s opinion, and at best we might see the MTA respond better to service interruptions. “The problem is the underlying cause of these incidents hasn’t been resolved, and will take a long time to get resolved,” he explains, singling out the subway’s outdated signals as the primary culprit.
“The persistence of these major incidents suggests there’s still a huge amount of work ahead of us,” Orcutt says. Between those major incidents and high-profile disasters like the collapse of the ceiling at Borough Hall, it can be hard for the average subway rider to feel like service is getting better, even with the modest improvements the MTA has pulled off.
And riders are still angry, according to Cohen, who says straphangers are “more frustrated than ever” by the state of the subways. “They’re paying too much for service that doesn’t get them where they need to go on time or get them where they need to go effectively,” she notes.
But rather than focusing on the past year, transit advocates are looking towards the future, specifically the Fast Forward plan recently introduced by NYCT president Andy Byford. But in order for that ambitious plan to actually be effective, it must be embraced quickly. “This is a 15-year plan,” Danny Pearlstein of the Riders Alliance notes. “The sooner we fund it sustainably the sooner it can get done. It’s a tremendous undertaking but we have to do it.”
“Unless there’s funding and political support for what the Fast Forward plan says, then it’s just a piece of paper with a bunch of words on it that won’t make anything better on its own,” says Kabak.
When and how that will happen is less clear. Congestion pricing is the most agreed-upon solution to net the billions of dollars the MTA needs to do everything from upgrading the ancient signals to improving accessibility to reforming the way the agency spends its money. Pearlstein called congestion pricing “the appropriate lens to which anything else must be held up to;” Sifuentes says it’s the most progressive option on the table; and Orcutt notes that congestion pricing “obviously comes with other benefits in the age of Uber-clogged streets.”
Other ideas, like value capture, have also been floated as possibilities. “If you are a property owner with commercial, industrial or non-residential property near transit, you get benefit from that but you don’t pay more for that than someone further from transit,” Sifuentes notes.
But questions remain about the political will that exists when it comes to funding and starting the ambitious modernization plan. After it seemed like political leaders had put the question of who runs the MTA (spoiler: it’s New York state) behind them, Cuomo suddenly reopened the debate in an effort to blame the current crisis on Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“Legally, it’s a city obligation because the city owns the New York City Transit Authority. They own the subway system, the law says they pay for the capital repairs,” Cuomo told reporters last week, while threatening to raise fares. Orcutt calls the most recent rhetoric from the governor “a sad regression” and said that “we need a grand deal that comes out of Albany next budget season if we’re gonna get the show on the road in terms of fixing the subway.”
Sifuentes, meanwhile, says that city and state leaders need to stop playing “funding chicken.”
“The right message from the governor would be ‘We’re going to make congestion pricing happen. We’ll need the city to contribute, but regardless the state will do what it needs to do to fix the subways,’” Sifuentes says. “It would be great if the mayor said ‘Yes this is a state run system, the state owns it and runs it, but the city will step up in a time of dire need.’ That those kinds of conversations aren’t happening do leave me kind of worried.”
In addition to the governor funding the plan, Kabak suggested the mayor could be a more effective advocate for the the subway. “If he were out there saying ‘We need congestion pricing and we need Albany to act now,’ that lends more force to the request from the city,” he notes.
Without the mayor leading the way, and with his previous calls for a millionaire’s tax instead of congestion pricing, you wind up with muddled messaging, which was on display at a recent press conference near the Borough Hall station where some lawmakers shied away from fully embracing the toll. “Legislators are taking their cues from what the mayor is saying, from what other people are saying,” says Kabak. “If you change that conversation you can change the policies.”
In addition to sharpening his messaging on the question of congestion pricing, Cohen said the mayor could be making more of a difference in the lives of bus riders, where service has also suffered across the city, by establishing dedicated bus lanes and actually enforcing them in order to let buses avoid getting stuck in traffic.
Ultimately though, advocates said it’s time for the governor to step up and be the leader he claims to be every year during budget negotiations.
“It’s the governor’s job to run the subway. He controls the MTA, he dominates the state legislature,” Pearlstein says. “He’s the popularly elected governor of the state. If he can’t effectively advocate for riders, we need to keep pushing him, because it’s his job.”