Southern Brooklyn

The MTA’s Image Problem


THE COMMUTE: A system that is over 100 years old needs to be rebuilt and it also needs to be expanded. Since the MTA provides service 24 hours a day, maintaining the system is difficult. Several years ago, there were TV stories about how track workers were being paid for an eight hour shift and actually worked for only four hours a day. The reasons were several:

  1. It takes time to transport the workers to and from the job site;
  2. All work must take place during non-rush hours so work must stop at a certain time even if the job is incomplete, and
  3. Sometimes there are delays in delivering materials to the job site.

Recognizing these problems, the MTA recently started a program called FASTRACK, whereby an entire line is shut down for a week or so from 10:00 p.m. to about 6:00 a.m. to speed up the work to be done. They claimed that on the three subway lines — the Lexington, the Broadway-7th Avenue, and the Sixth Avenue — where it has already been tried, it has been a huge success.

Reviews from commuters have been mixed. Some do not mind the inconvenience if the work is speeded up. Others think the inconvenience of having an entire line shut down at 10:00 p.m. is too great of an inconvenience.

I tend to support the MTA on this one. If greater efficiencies can be attained through closing an entire line for four consecutive weeknights, rather than working mid-days for a much longer period of time, then it is the correct approach. But here is where I have a problem. In a statement made by Chairman Joe Lhota last week, in an interview with The New York Daily News, Lhota stated:

“It will never be smooth sailing across the 468-station subway system on weekends because there are so many repairs to be made. When you look at how old the system is, I don’t think I can tell you that there is ever going to be a time when we will not be in need of repair and renovation and rehabilitation of our system.”

So what he is saying is that the system is falling apart at the same or a faster rate than which it can be repaired. While there will always be needed repairs, he doesn’t state or imply that the need to shut down lines on weekends will ever decrease. Perhaps he is just being honest and giving us a fair assessment. But how do you ask people to put up with the inconvenience of taking an entire line out of service for four nights in a row, tell them that this is a more efficient way of doing business, and at the same time also say that the work will never be completed and weekend closures will need to continue at the same pace indefinitely?

If FASTRACK is not intended to reduce the need for weekend closures, Lhota needs to make that clear, because many are assuming that it is. Back in the 1960s and 1970s it was unheard of for a subway line to be taken out of service. Occasionally on mid-days, expresses would run on local tracks or vice-versa so that repairs could be made. It is also true that during that time much of the needed maintenance also was deferred.

In the 1980s, the MTA started to play catch up. Every weekend, portions of one or two lines would shut down. This slowly started to increase to three to five lines. Now it is not uncommon for maintenance to be done on 12 to 14 lines on any given weekend. One would think that the MTA has been making some progress. Now they have introduced FASTRACK to speed up the maintenance even more.

So Lhota’s most recent statement, that it will never be smooth sailing on weekends, is disheartening, especially when the city is asking everyone to leave their cars home and use mass transit. How can they if it is not running? We seem to be getting mixed messages. FASTTRACK is great but your weekend commute will never get any better.

Lhota’s First Hundred Days

From Capital New York:

“When I asked Lhota what his tenure would be judged on, he said, ‘I think it will rest on bolstering and enhancing the image of the M.T.A., both with the riders, our customers, as well as elected officials, union leadership, board members and the media. I think that is instrumental to putting the M.T.A. back on good financial footing. We’ve got to enhance the image of the M.T.A.’”

The way to do that is to build up credibility. To say that FASTRACK is a success, but it will have no impact in making weekend subway closures more bearable by reducing the number of lines closed or rerouted each weekend seems contradictory.

One reads stories about a newly-built subway station that is already leaking and will require constant maintenance, one sees floor tile installed only a few years ago that is already cracking and poorly patched, and escalators and elevators that are constantly out of service, and you start to question the quality of the work performed, and begin to suspect that perhaps the reason it takes so long to repair the system, is that repairs either are not properly made in the first place, do not last long enough or have to be constantly redone.

Lhota is trying to improve communications to change the image of the MTA. He’s traveled seven times to Albany to discuss transit issues, where he lobbied alongside union leader John Samuelson on February 13.

Capital New York continues:

“‘That never happened with Walder,’ said Jim Gannon, a spokesman for the T.W.U. who praises Lhota, even though the union is locked in contentious contract negotiations with the M.T.A. that may well influence the authority’s ability to carry out its capital plan. Gannon points out that before implementing Fastrack, Lhota even consulted with the union beforehand about workers’ concerns…Whereas Walder was very confrontational. You know, he just didn’t show the union much respect.’”

Much More Is Needed

While Lhota may be starting on the right foot using his interpersonal skills, that alone will not change the image of the MTA as an organization that cannot be trusted, as long as they keep sending mixed messages. Lhota’s statement regarding weekend service disruptions continuing at the same pace and FASTTRACK being a huge success seem to conflict with each other.

The MTA tells us that subway ridership is at an all time high since 1950. But how much of that is due to their cutting back on bus service, forcing riders to make longer indirect subway trips because their former direct bus route no longer exists? They tell us that the experiment to remove subway trash cans from two stations has been a success because those two stations have not generated more litter. But does that mean the MTA can now eliminate trash cans from the entire system, like they eliminated bathrooms, further reducing basic services? And with subway ridership at an all time high, they are providing less seating on subway stations. Just too many conflicting messages.

An MTA Board member recently suggested studying the use of smaller buses and lower off-peak fares to encourage people back to buses and to make it more economically feasible for the MTA to restore service on lightly utilized routes. But New York City Transit (NYCT) was less than enthused about that proposal. A few weeks ago I mentioned that one of NYCT’s own planners suggested studying separate Friday bus schedules to reduce unneeded service on some routes. NYCT was not enthused about that idea either.

Genting, the developer of the proposed Queens Convention Center, has offered to pay a portion for new transit services, which could possibly include the reactivation of the abandoned LIRR Rockaway Line north of Liberty Avenue. However, the MTA has remained silent on whether it would be willing to reactivate the line, questioning the MTA’s sincerity in improving transit services in the outer boroughs, with all planned improvements solely in Manhattan.

Then there is the story last week from Channel 2 News regarding EZ Pass glitches and the fact that EZ Passes purchased through the MTA and used on the New Jersey Turnpike result in higher fees being charged than from passes purchased in New Jersey. That was not supposed to happen, and there are no plans to fix the problem. That — coupled with the MTA not willing to rectify a MetroCard glitch, whereby the MTA overcharges if one attempts to use a second MetroCard on a bus if the first card does not have enough on it for a full fare — does nothing to improve the MTA’s image.

All these mixed messages lead to distrust of the MTA, since most riders do not distinguish between NYCT and the MTA. If Lhota really wants to improve the MTA image, he cannot do that by himself. He needs to correct known problems or explain why they cannot be corrected. He also needs to get everyone on board so that uniform messages are sent. When someone makes a suggestion, whether it is an MTA Board Member, an MTA employee, or a transit user, they must all be seriously considered.

The arrogance, that a single department or agency knows what is best, must end. NYCT President Tom Prendergast surely has his reasons for not wanting to consider smaller buses or lower off-peak fares, but if Lhota believes it is necessary to improve communication lines to improve the MTA’s image, his underlings must also show a willingness to listen and better communicate.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

Comment policy


  1. You wrote: “Then there is the story last week from Channel 2 News regarding EZ Pass glitches
    and the fact that EZ Passes purchased through the MTA and used on the
    New Jersey Turnpike result in higher fees being charged than from passes
    purchased in New Jersey. That was not supposed to happen, and there are
    no plans to fix the problem. That — coupled with the MTA not willing to rectify a MetroCard glitch,
    whereby the MTA overcharges if one attempts to use a second MetroCard
    on a bus if the first card does not have enough on it for a full fare —
    does nothing to improve the MTA’s image.”

    LOL! No, that’s not an E-ZPass glitch. The NJTP E-ZPass discount is only for NJ E-ZPass account holders. That is a recent change in policy and it was not only publicized, it is also stated outright in one of the articles linked within the article you linked to.

  2. You are correct.  It is not a glitch and it is clearly stated within one of the links to the article I linked.  I did not originally read that link because I didn’t expect any of the links within a link to contradict what the link stated.

    You can blame Channel 2 for the confusion since the link I used did not indicate that it was intentional for New Jersey EZ pass holders to be granted a discount which MTA EZ Pass holders would not be entitled to. So the MTA cannot be blamed for that one.

    However, the article also did state that there have been numerous problems with MTA EZ passes where users have been overcharged and despite many  attempts to get the errors corrected, many have not been. The AAA said that they have received thousands of EZ Pass complaints.

    In one case after the MTA promised someone a refund, they later reneged saying since the disoute had been ongoing longer than 180 days, they no longer had to pay. There is no excuse for that. Later after more complaining they agreed once again to pay.

  3. I think you might have misunderstood Lhota’s statement or at least took the pessimistic interpretation, but I’ll chalk that up to the MTA’s image problem. I understood it as at least one portion of the system will undergo maintenance at any given weekend, not the whole system. One week there might be work on the 456, the next the 123. I prefer having 1-2 weeks of FASTRACK work for routine maintenance much more than having a year of overhaul/rebuilding stations and tracks like we had on the Q line. So yes there won’t ever be a moment where the __entire__ system is clear sailing, but huge portions of it will.

  4. Yes, Channel 2 was a little unclear, and they used a dumb, misleading quote, but I don’t think they should take the blame. I think it is up to you, as the author, to actually investigate the factual claims made in news articles before you restate them as fact. For example, to you the article seemed to be saying that it is a glitch that thousands of out of state drivers are paying more than the instate drivers along the same highway. Doesn’t that sound a bit ridiculous? It’s one thing to believe that there are select cases of overcharging as stated elsewhere in the same article. But to believe that thousands of people a day are being overcharged and nothing has been done about it and no one has raised a big stink, is ridiculous. You, as a “journalist”, should be looking out for things that sound ridiculous and then instead of mindlessly repeating them, you should investigate and confirm them before using them as examples in your articles.

    This fake “glitch” is orders of magnitude larger than the other E-ZPass problems you posted. I’m not so concerned about the other problems because they are likely small in number and only affect a tiny tiny percent of all MTA E-ZPass users. So I disagree with your point that E-ZPass problems are making the MTA look bad.

  5. If you are correct that what Lhota meant is that there will always be a portion of the system that will need fixing, he needed to be clearer. His statement should have said something like — Although there will always be repairs that need to be made, Fastrack will enable us to reduce the amount of weekend work that will be needed to be done. That would have been reassuring.  He made no such promises. Instead, he made it seem like we are losing the battle to adequately maintain the system.  Perhaps it was intentional so that the State starts chipping in some more.


  6. Agreed on all points. He made that statement in an interview, not a prepared statement, so I can’t fault him too much for not choosing his words as wisely as we expect. Plus, it doesn’t help that the Daily News’s article is all of 1 paragraph and 1 quote so it seems like they’re jumping on a sensationalist and out of context point.

  7. A higher resolution photo, less bitmapping, and the problem should go away. Oh… not that kind of image problem…

  8. You just reminded me of something.  When the MTA first created that logo they only made copies available to the Presidents of it agencies.  Of course each department needed a copy also, but the MTA refused to widely distribute it or let the specifications to be known, due to their paranoia fearing unauthorized use.  They also banned use of the old logo.  So the departments had little choice but to create their own.  No one could get the angles exactly right, so for at least six months, there were at least half a dozen different MTA images floating around internally.  Although none were blurry, none were exactly like the original either. The “A” in the version I created actually was easier to read than the original. They finally relented and let everyone have a copy of the logo and the counterfeits disappeared

  9. It gets worse. At least he has a news article to fall back on here, even though you are correct that he should have investigated further.

    But he also claims that there is less seating in subway stations. How did he arrive at that conclusion? Was it stated in an article or press release? No. Did he do a thorough systemwide count? Of course not. So how does he know that seating is being reduced? He saw a picture of a prototype three-seat bench in an article about the new stainless steel benches that will be replacing the current wooden ones, and he concluded that they will be replacing larger benches one-for-one. Is it possible that the actual benches will have as many seats as the ones that they’re replacing? Of course. Or is it possible that there will be twice as many three-seat benches as there are now six-seat benches? Obviously. Did he bother to call the MTA’s press office to find out what the plan is? Of course not. It’s easier to jump to conclusions.

    The MetroCard “glitch” that he mentions is not a glitch either – it’s a deliberate design feature of the system, that has been in place from day one, that allows bus riders to use MetroCards with insufficient balances to pay their fares by supplementing with coins. (If the farebox simply rejected MetroCards with insufficient balances, bus riders would have to make their way to subway stations to refill their cards – that’s not very practical for a lot of bus riders.) The farebox even specifically flashes the message ADD COINS.

  10. FASTRACK takes the place of much of the maintenance work that normally is done between trains on live tracks. Getting the trains out of the picture allows the work to be done much more efficiently. It’s specifically being used now to address a maintenance backlog that developed in large part in the Howard Roberts days.

    Weekend work is used for larger scale jobs, mostly capital improvements, that need more than 7 hours at a time.

    There was never any intent for FASTRACK to replace weekend work, and the MTA made this quite clear in December:

    I guess Allan didn’t notice this back then, and he’s surprised now, so he’s accusing Lhota of changing the rules of the game. But Lhota didn’t change anything, and if Allan had bothered to do five minutes of research before posting his article, he would have known that.

    What Lhota says is obviously true. The system is made up of thousands of components, none of which lasts forever. There will always be something reaching the end of its useful life and needing to be replaced.

  11. The article never called that the fact people with EZ passes bought in New Jersey pay less than those bought in New York a “glitch.” It called the other instances of overcharging “glitches.”  That dumb misleading quote it never should have used because it was inaccurate caused me to make the error of believing it was not intentional. As far as me researching every source I quote as to its accuracy is a little ridiculous. You have to make some assumptions. If I am quoting from the NY Times, am I supposed to call its sources to confirm the story’s accuracy? I admitted the error and that should be the end of it.

    As for the other glitches, as a percentage of all transactions, it probably is very small, but as a number it is in the thousands.  But just because something is small, it does not mean it should be ignored.  The story is how quick those glitches are resolved by the MTA. If that were the case, there would be no story, but apparently some of these cases are dragging on and on and that does affect MTA credibility.

  12. Listen to what you are saying. The MTA shows a picture of a three-seat bench it put in at Whitehall Street replacing a five-seater and I am wrong to assume that they are reducing available seating when the MTA says nothing about replacing each five seater with two three seaters. Of course they could do that, but that is not what they said they will be doing. And if they did do that, don’t they need to say how much they will be spending on doubling the number of benches if that is the case? You think the stainless steel benches are so much cheaper than the wood benches?

    And you actually think the MTA’s press office would give me an answer? Yes it’s easier to jump to conclusions that seating will not be reduced and two benches will replace each one removed?  Did you call the MTA press office to confirm that?

    As far as the MetroCard glitch, what if someone does not have enough coins to add?  Is the MTA just supposed to take the money they already deposited and give nothing in return? You call that fair?  Many riders carry more than one card with them and if the card with insufficient fare was rejected, they could just use another card which has a sufficient amount.  The system could be reprogrammed so that if someone does use a card with insufficient fare, the card could be rejected and a message given to resubmit the card a second time if they wanted to complete the transaction with coins. It would occasionally slow down passenger loading, but no one would be cheated by unknowingly paying more than they should. On an express bus you could lose $5 if you are 50 cents short and are not carrying enough change. 

  13. I did not accuse Lhota of changing any rules of the game. The press releases say that most of the weekend work is capital, not all. Fasttrack also includes “upgrades.”  I take that as including some capital. If they can do the work so much more efficiently under Fastrack, why wouldn’t they increase the amount of capital work under Fastrack, thereby reducing the need for so many weekend diversions?

    Yes, something will always need to be replaced, but I still believe it is disheartening to hear that the number of weekend diversions will always stay the same or will increase further to include more lines each weekend and the MTA will never be able to catch up with needed maintenance, replacements and repairs.

  14. For months, there have been two test benches, each with three seats, side by side at Whitehall. The wooden benches with six (not five) seats each haven’t been removed – they’re still there.

    One of the two test benches was selected as the style for the station bench of the future. That’s what the article was about. The photograph was included to show what the new style of bench looked like.

    You then took it to the absurd conclusion that the pictured bench with three seats was the exact bench that was being ordered, and that the new three-seaters were replacing five-seaters one-for-one. That was neither stated in nor implied by the article. It was purely a product of your imagination. It’s been two weeks since you first raised the issue – have you bothered to call the MTA’s press office for confirmation during that time?

    As I said before, there’s no MetroCard glitch – there’s a design feature that you disagree with. If NYCT paid Cubic to redesign the system as you suggest, you’d no doubt complain that the MTA is spending all that money to change the MetroCard system a few years before it’s replaced by smartcards. (Besides, in practice, the bus operator will almost always wave people on if they’ve only paid a partial fare, so this issue is hypothetical.)

  15. Strange assumptions. Some capital work already takes place during overnight shutdowns, but a lot of capital work either physically cannot be done in the brief overnight period (concrete takes more than 7 hours to cure), or relying on overnight work only would seriously delay the project and increase the cost.

    Why are you so surprised about this all of a sudden? The MTA said very clearly in December that FASTRACK wasn’t a substitute for weekend work.

    The system is still a long ways off from a state of good repair. Lots of stations still haven’t been fixed up. The IND still has many of its original 1930’s signals. This isn’t a process that’s going to be finished tomorrow.

  16. It really makes a lot of sense to test one type of bench and then order another you didn’t test? And if something goes wrong with the bench they ordered, they can say, it wasn’t our fault, the prototype was fine.

    And if the MTA were to reduce seating you actually expect them to admit that in a press release that they were doing so?

    And don’t tell me what I will say when I haven’t said it. That’s pure speculation. Oh I forgot speculation is okay when you do it. It’s just that I am not allowed to speculate.

  17. Stating when the work will begin to taper off would instill some confidence in the MTA. But stating we are accelerating the work but you won’t notice it because your trips will still be delayed indefinitely by weekend work does not instill confidence. As I stated, it makes one wonder if any of the work is being redone twice because of a snafu like the one in the 80’s on the Brighton Line where the local tracks were made too high and wood had to be placed on the concrete platforms to make the stations level with the doors.

  18. The Channel 2 article did several things wrong, and one or more of them led to your misunderstanding. The specifics are not important. Channel 2 was very misleading, but you were just plain wrong.

    I never said that that you had to research every source. I said that “You, as a ‘journalist’, should be looking out for things that sound
    ridiculous and then instead of mindlessly repeating them, you should
    investigate and confirm them before using them as examples in your
    articles.” And as I also already I wrote, the idea that all these people are being overcharged is ridiculous. It is such ridiculous claims that you should be researching before using as fact in your articles to prove some point. Claims that sound reasonable AND are difficult to verify, you can probably use with caution. But as a “journalist” you should be checking out all claims that are easily verifiable AND/OR sound completely ridiculous. And if they are ridiculous and you can’t verify them, then don’t use them!

    The reason I brought all this up is to just show one example (of many) of why many of the points and conclusions in your blog posts seem to be misleading, unsubstantiated, unreasonable, or completely incorrect. I feel that your propensity to use false information shows that you often don’t do the proper research and/or often misinterpret what you read or hear, and thus your conclusions are often way off base.

    Again, I don’t think these other E-ZPass issues are affecting the MTA’s credibility in any way except in your head. Many/most businesses have some outstanding customer issues. As long as the issues are not particularly egregious and are not affecting a significant portion of their customers, then the issues likely do not affect credibility. 

  19. Yes, you are wrong about many things. You are wrong to assume that seating would be reduced. You are wrong to assume that you can make damning claims without doing any sort of research or verification. And you are wrong to call it a Metrocard glitch when it is quite obviously a deliberate and quite useful feature of the fare collection system.

  20. I don’t think you’re grasping the magnitude of the work that’s going on during weekend shutdowns.

    I mentioned signals, so let’s continue discussing signals. The Flushing signal system replacement started last year and is scheduled to wrap up in 2016. The (more complex) Queens Blvd. line is next for signal system replacement, scheduled to begin in late 2014. After that come the rest of the unsignaled IND: the two Manhattan trunks, Fulton St., Culver, and Crosstown. Each will require years of night and weekend shutdowns.

    That alone will take decades. And by the time it’s finished, the resignaled parts of the IRT and BMT will be due for replacement again.

    And that’s just signals.

    Keeping the system in a state of good repair is an ongoing process.

    Generally, FASTRACK isn’t accelerating capital work of this sort, since the bulk of capital work needs weekend outages. As I said last week, “FASTRACK takes the place of much of the maintenance work that normally is done between trains on live tracks. Getting the trains out of the picture allows the work to be done much more efficiently. It’s specifically being used now to address a maintenance backlog that developed in large part in the Howard Roberts days.”

    The work will not taper off. Sorry.


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