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).