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Is The MTA's 'State Of Emergency' Being Used To Push Through Non-Emergency Projects?

7 train delays cause massive backups in 2016
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7 train delays cause massive backups in 2016 Amha Mogus / Flickr

A full year has passed since Governor Andrew Cuomo declared the subways to be in a state of emergency, thereby allowing the MTA to bypass the usual contracting process and cut red tape in an effort to speed up repairs. But it wasn't until Wednesday that some MTA board members questioned how a $15 million study could be considered part of an emergency order. Several members questioned the no-bid contract for a study of ultra-wideband technology for new signals.

"How can you possibly classify that as an emergency order?" Board member Andrew Saul said at Wednesday's MTA meeting. "We're under all this pressure, we've got all this debt and here we go giving out major contracts without a bidding process and I can't see how anybody here can justify this."

The contract wasn't really up for a vote—it was a done deal—the board just had to formally ratify it, which the majority of the members went on to do. All but four voted to formalize the contract, with four abstentions.

Board member Peter Ward defended the governor's definition of an "emergency."

"If you're a person who relies on mass transit to get to work on time every day and you fail to do that and you're going to lose your job as a result of that, that's an emergency," Ward said.

The order, first issued on June 29th, 2017 (PDF), has been renewed every month since.

Chairman Joe Lhota said Wednesday that going through the old system, the formal procurement process, would take three months to secure contracts.

"We have been in an unstated state of emergency, I think for 25-30 years," Lhota said Wednesday. "I didn't put a time frame on the emergency. To me, doesn't matter where I am, no matter what I do, I'm going to act as if everything is an emergency."

He said when customers believe they're getting where they need to in the "time allotted" the emergency will be over.

Good government groups aren't buying it.

"The governor's never-ending MTA disaster declaration is an abuse of emergency powers," John Kaehny, Executive Director of Reinvent Albany, wrote in an email. "By suspending competitive bidding requirements and independent review by the comptroller, the governor is increasing the risk of bid rigging, waste and abuse at the MTA."

"A closed-door process for contracting—which raises pay-to-play questions from voters—hurts every day New Yorkers,” Sarah Goff, Associate Director of Common Cause/NY wrote in a statement.

Ultra-wide band technology uses radio waves to send a lot of information using a minimal amount of energy. Most of us are familiar with WiFi, but the military has been using ultra-wide band for radar surveillance for awhile. The MTA began testing ultra-wideband technology on the F and G line last year. The wireless technology could be used to replace the current, fix-blocked signal system, which relies on century-old technology.

The MTA clearly wants ultra-wideband to work. It awarded Thales Inc. with a $15 million contract for an ultra-wideband study. And two of Cuomo’s transit genius winners (The company Metronom Rail and an engineer Robert James) submitted proposals to use ultra-wideband technology for new signals. “This next-generation technology eliminates the need to acquire and install expensive, cumbersome equipment required by Computer Based Train Control (CBTC) signal technology,” the winning press release noted. “A UWB-based network has the potential to provide precise and accurate locations for subway cars within centimeters. UWB sensors can also be placed in work trains and even on personnel, to add an additional level of safety for track workers and contractors working near passenger trains.”

Yet, it remains unproven whether it can handle the daily demands of a transit system like New York’s.

After a dismal review of the MTA’s economic forecast with major deficits expected in the next two years, some board members also raised the possibility that it may be time to rethink the bi-annual fare increases. The next fare increase of 2% is slated for 2019, to be followed by another in 2021.

“I have serious questions about the fare and toll increase,” board member Mitchell Pally said after noting that there’s been a 33% increase in fares since bi-annual fare increases began in 2009. “In this time period of economic uncertainty, and while we all agree all of our system are under duress…it is my opinion not the appropriate time to ask our riders for more money.”

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