The MTA’s Misplaced Priorities

Source: Poster Boy NYC / Flickr

THE COMMUTE: This was a busy week in MTA-related news.

Former MTA Chairman Jay Walder’s push for new technology will be felt for quite some time. A few days ago, New York 1 reported that the MTA intends to provide every subway station with a new emergency intercom system. The pilot cost is $300,000 per underground station. While currently there is no money for the program, the cost has been figured into the MTA’s Capital Plan.

The day before, the MTA also announced that it wants to install 47-inch interactive touch screen tablets in all stations to provide customers with directions and service status updates. The cost as of yet is unknown as the MTA is first exploring having corporate sponsors pick up the tab in exchange for receiving a portion of advertising revenue.

Proposed Fare Hike

Both of these announcements come on the heels of another MTA announcement, in which they plan to raise the fare and tolls to increase revenue by 7.5 percent not only in 2013, but in 2015 and 2017 as well. That 7.5 percent is a little misleading because the base fare itself is proposed to actually increase by 50 cents or 11.1 percent. The Queens Chronicle has a nice summary of the fare history here.

But it gets worse folks. These fare and toll hikes, at least for 2013 and 2015, will not go toward any restoration of services that were cut back in 2010, or to any service increases. Instead, most of the anticipated $900 million in additional revenue will go toward funding pension and retirees’ health care costs, according to Capital New York: “It’s hard for me to believe that we’re going to have that type of an increase and we’re going to have no restoration and no improvements in services,” said Council transportation chair James Vacca.

No More Service Cutbacks

The silver lining is that the MTA is not planning any more service cutbacks (at least not on the scale of 2010), according to a recent statement made by MTA Chairman Joe Lhota to the MTA’s Permanent Citizen’s Advisory Committee (PCAC). The words within the parentheses are mine because every three months, the MTA makes what they call routine service adjustments to reflect ridership changes.

As I warned the Plumb Beach Civic Association at their last meeting, if even a few current B4 riders decide to switch to the B44 Select Bus Service when it commences operation next winter, continued operation of the B4 in Sheepshead Bay could be in jeopardy. The temptation to switch from the B4 to Sheepshead Bay Station (for the B/Q) to the B44 to the Junction (for the #2/5) will be great with B44s arriving every five minutes and B4s every 15 or 20 minutes, although both routes will only carry a handful of riders in Plumb Beach. The MTA is looking for any reason to discontinue the B4 in Sheepshead Bay at all times, and a 10 percent decrease in patronage would provide the perfect excuse.

More Trains Needed But Not Planned

Yet in other news, the MTA announced that subway ridership is at its highest levels since 1950, and we also know that bus ridership is on a steady decline. What is the MTA planning to do about that?

Lhota told the PCAC that we need more trains, more frequently, to handle more riders. Yet, according to Hilary Ring, the MTA’s director of Government Affairs, the MTA isn’t planning any for at least the next three years. This is not the way for the MTA to begin restoring its credibility.

They plan to add additional station entrances in areas such as Williamsburg, where conversion of industrial areas to residential has caused ridership to swell. Regarding buses, they propose to expand Bus Time, another new technology, system-wide as well as Select Bus Service (SBS). But are those measures enough?


Since the MTA has the power to change its crowding guidelines (officially known as planning and service guidelines) at will, all they have to do is alter them to allow for additional crowding on the trains. They are already experimenting with taking some seats out of service during rush hours by having them fold up to allow for additional standees. More crowded trains also mean slower trips since the trains will take longer to load and unload.

Regarding buses, I have written prolifically how SBS has its place in speeding up service. It is no panacea to improving the bus system, since it will never be expanded to more than a dozen of the hundreds of bus routes the MTA operates, and certainly is no replacement for subway expansion. It also makes it more difficult for seniors and the handicapped to navigate the system, with bus stop spacing up to three quarters of a mile apart. The proposed B44 SBS eliminates two thirds of the current limited stops and does not allow for additional free transfers to a third bus or a subway if the local is used to access the SBS. This means that if you do not want to, or cannot walk to the closest SBS stop, you are stuck with the local for your entire trip, when you previously took the Limited, and your trips will now be slower.

When you can barely afford to keep the system operating, and have to increase the fare every two years without having a positive impact on service levels, does it make sense to invest in new technologies and replace subway benches that do not need replacing, rather than restoring some of the service cutbacks that have left some communities virtually isolated, such as Plumb Beach, which now relies on only one north/south bus route on weekends and evenings?

I am not saying we must not look toward the future, but let us look more closely and realistically at the MTA’s probable motives for their proposed innovations and what we can expect from them.

The Help Point Intercom

Is the MTA going ahead with this project because it is concerned with the safety of its customers, or is the MTA’s primary goal to save money in the long term by eliminating every station agent from the system? Would the MTA be spending in the neighborhood of $140 million for customer safety? Think about it. Why would you need any station agents if machines are dispensing MetroCards and you could go to a terminal to seek emergency help and directions instead of to a station agent? The MTA could at least be up front about its intentions if they really want to improve their image. I would be in favor of these machines, but not if it means the elimination of all human presence in the system for assistance. Just think of the first lawsuit if someone is mugged or raped and cannot get help because a machine is not functioning and there is no station agent to hear the person’s cries for help. The MTA never calculates the cost of potential lawsuits in its forecasts when it is projecting its monetary savings.

Interactive Touch Screen Tablets

Also, sounds like a great idea at first, but if the MTA cannot control ‘scratchiti’ and already has to spend money on removing graffiti, how useful will these machines be after a few years when the technology will already be outdated and the MTA is first installing them? Not to mention, it will take additional funding to maintain these units even if the MTA were to work out a deal whereby they would not have to pay for the machines.

If that were to be the case, those tablets probably would look more like bus shelter advertisements than information centers, with the useful information most likely delegated to a small section of the screen, or there might be annoying pop-up ads from neighboring restaurants blocking the directions you are trying to obtain. Instead of all the service disruptions being displayed at once, customers would have to press icons for additional information. They would also have to wait on line to use the machine if all the service information is not displayed at once, as is the case with the present paper notices, which the MTA recently spent money to redesign. How efficient is that?

Also, if the fare keeps going up, the trains get more crowded, service is not improved, and human presence is reduced, what do you think will be the targets for vandalism in low income neighborhoods when the public wants to express its displeasure with the MTA? If that happens, the MTA will most probably abandon its plans to install these tablets in all stations, and only install them at major stations.

What is the MTA’s real motive here? Do they really want to install these tablets to improve information? Or, such as with the Help Point Intercoms, is the MTA’s real motive to reduce the amount of human labor needed to post all those weekly service update notices, enabling them to further reduce its workforce? Is serving the customer their primary goal, or is monetary savings, disguised as improved customer service, still their primary mission?

MTA’s Boondoggle Costs Riders $6 Million

While the MTA has no money to restore any service cuts, amazingly they can find an additional $6 million to rip out granite barricades, just installed in 2010 at the renovated Atlantic Terminal, and replace them with less intrusive metal bollards.


The MTA continues to speak out of both sides of its mouth, saying more trains are needed but none will be provided. They find the money when they want to do something like remove granite barriers, or implement new technology, but not when they do not want to do something such as restore badly-needed services. They still do not recognize the need to update New York’s antiquated bus routing system, a major reason why bus ridership is decreasing and the reason why the use of car services keeps increasing. I counted more than 20 car services illegally parked, some even double-parked, outside of the Sheepshead Bay Road train station the other night. These cars would not be there if they were not profitable.

Yet, the MTA shows no interest in trying to recoup lost bus ridership, or even estimate it. Once it is lost, the MTA just responds by further reducing bus service. Yes, it is nice to know when the next bus is coming, but it is more important for buses to arrive on time. The MTA considers that to be largely out of their control. What do you think? Where should the MTA be concentrating its limited resources? In new technology, or in providing basic, reliable service? Bus Time may be able to do both, but that remains to be seen.

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).


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