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Report: MTA Is Years Behind On Desperately Needed Signal Repairs

The MTA's plan to fix its crumbling signal system, one of the biggest factors in NYC's deepening transit crisis, is years behind schedule and desperately in need of funding, according to a new analysis released Tuesday by the city's non-partisan Independent Budget Office.

Of the 14 signal updates or repairs scheduled to begin this year, the report found that eight are currently delayed. Only one signal project in the current capital plan, which covers 2015-2019, will be done before 2018. And the soon-to-be-completed 7 line signal upgrade is now expected to cost $405.7 million, up $140.1 million from the original estimate.

In some part, this is the result of more than a decade of delays. Looking back at the two previous capital plans, the report found that 19 of 33 signal updates planned between 2005 and 2014 were completed late, or are expected to be completed late—in some cases as much as four years. Nearly a third of repairs planned for that time period still aren't finished.

"If the subway is New York City's heart, then the mounting delays and catastrophic service failures we're seeing are congestive heart failure, threatening the very life of our city," Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who requested the study, said in a statement. "Our state government—which actually controls the MTA—must do its part by finding and appropriating the $20 billion needed to overhaul the signal system."

Jon Weinstein, a spokesperson for the governor's office, pushed back on the idea that the state wasn't doing its part to fix this root issue. "Governor Cuomo secured the largest capital plan in MTA history—which includes the single largest investment in signal upgrades in the agency’s history," Weinstein said. "While others are focused on failures of past administrations, we’re continuing to support the MTA with record financial support as they do the hard work of upgrading an outdated, Depression-era signal system."


Data released by the MTA in February shows that delays have jumped to about 70,000 per month this year, up from 28,000 in 2012. In that span of time, the share of the capital budget devoted to solving these signal problems dropped by 3 percent, down another 3 percent from the plan put forth in 2005. At the current pace, sufficiently modernizing the signals on every subway line could take another 50 years and cost $20 billion, according to a recent Times article.

In the short term, the MTA's new 6-point plan to reduce delays, which includes a focus on "key causes" such as track and signal issues, would cost an additional $20 million on top of the current capital plan, according to MTA Interim Director Ronnie Hakim.

"The MTA continues to aggressively upgrade the subway’s antiquated 1930’s era signals, including with a record $2.1 billion allocated for signal improvements in this Capital Program," MTA spokesperson Beth DeFalco said in a statement. "The IBO report fundamentally misunderstands how signalization improvements are made by equating dollars spent into delayed work. We’re laser-focused on improving signals and service."

As for the MTA's $29.5 billion 2015-2019 Capital Program, Cuomo has so far appropriated around $5.4 billion of a promised $8 billion, while the city has committed $2.5 billion—an unprecedented amount, but $700 million less than the governor originally demanded. Part of the money from that plan will go toward the creation of new signaling systems, while money from the MTA's general fund is used to maintain existing infrastructure. Earlier this year, the governor slashed the state's contribution to the MTA operating budget by $65 million—a 21 percent cut, down to $244 million from $309 million last year.

Cuomo's representatives have maintained that the money was redirected to the MTA Capital Program, and that MTA ultimately ended up with $30 million more than the previous year, but transit advocates and increasingly frustrated riders have argued that the governor isn't doing nearly enough to fix the decaying system.

"It's hard because repairs for cars and other things are easier for people to see, but this is the crux of the problem," Brewer told Gothamist. "People wonder: Why is my train breaking down? Well it's because of the signal system, and it needs an infusion of cash now to get it fixed."

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