A little over a year has passed since an A train derailment in Harlem injured 34 people, prompting Governor Andrew Cuomo to declare a state of emergency for the subways, and to set about overseeing a slew of varyingly useful initiatives aimed at stemming the ongoing collapse of the city's transit system. As you've probably noticed, service is about the same.
Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent as part of ongoing rescue efforts—as well as the arrival of New York City Transit President Andy Byford, and return of MTA Chairman Joe Lhota—the authority's own numbers show little in the way of actual improvement. The on-time performance rate—around 65 percent on weekdays—is still worse than any major rapid transit system in the world, equivalent only to the system's darkest days in the 1970s. "Major incidents" (classified by the MTA as the simultaneous delay of 50 or more trains) are down just 6 percent since the state of emergency was declared, and have spiked several times, including in May, where there were 85 documented meltdowns. Communication with riders, which both Lhota and Byford have identified as major priorities, remains wanting:
A Monday morning @NYCTSubway special! Crowded C train left the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station and then stopped and the lights and AC went out. The only info we got as we stood there sweating and dying was that the station lost power. pic.twitter.com/iESzcAEKDD
— juliamaya (@juliamaya) July 23, 2018
Trains canceled and delays across multiple branches of the #LIRR after weekend derailment. @MTA failed to disclose the incident for nearly 24 hrs, until @ABC7NY raised questions on Sunday afternoon. Repair work still ongoing. pic.twitter.com/dCKP7E72hF
— N. J. Burkett (@njburkett7) July 23, 2018
Meanwhile, representatives for the MTA maintain that on-time performance is not a good metric of the customer experience. They say that the complex repair effort has contributed to the appearance of worsening service, and point to progress in fixing track defects and signal components, unclogging drains and addressing persistent leaks. In total, around $333 million of the $836 million Subway Action Plan unveiled last July by Joe Lhota has been spent, with the goal of "stabilizing and improving the system."
While Cuomo noted in September, just two months into the action plan, that service improvements were apparent "if you look closely," those who've actually ridden the subway since 2016 tell a different story. "One year into the Subway Action Plan, it's clear that the needle has barely budged," said Danny Pearlstein, Policy & Communications Director of the Riders Alliance. "Riders need genuinely reliable train service, enough capacity that we no longer feel like sardines, and transit accessible to all New Yorkers. We can have those nice things. But Albany must act because they won't come cheap."
Like just about every other transit advocacy group, the Riders Alliance is calling on the governor to fully fund the Fast Forward Plan, which could reportedly cost between $19 billion and $30 billion. (The MTA has not revealed the price tag.) Proposed by Byford in May, the major overhaul effort would update all signals within a decade, drastically improve accessibility, and bring a full redesign of bus routes. The new NYCTA president has also vowed to literally make the subways run faster, after it was revealed that the widespread slowdown of trains decades ago is one of the leading causes of the MTA's plummeting service.
But the enormous cost of the plan, and how to pay for it, remains a sticking point, and a full trip around the sun has done little to sway Cuomo in his steadfast belief that the city and state should split the bill for repairing the subway. In a nearly identical repeat of last summer's fight with de Blasio over Lhota's emergency action plan, the governor is once again quarreling with the mayor about who will pay for Byford's widely-supported proposal.
(Both Lhota and Byford were appointed in the past year by Governor Cuomo, as were a majority of the MTA's board members. Nearly 70 percent of the MTA's operating budget comes from taxpayers and businesses in New York City. And according to just about everyone besides the governor, funding the regional transit authority is the sole responsibility of the state.)
During an MTA Committee meeting on Monday, Byford addressed the progress—or lack thereof—made in the last year, noting that "the first objective is about making the system today better, pushing on with the Subway Action Plan, which has arrested the previously precipitous decline in subway performance, and the benefits of which are now bearing fruit."
But, he added, "the Subway Action Plan can only do so much. We still have Cold War signaling and 1960s subway cars—they're still here and they have to go. I understand it won't be easy to get the billions to deliver Fast Forward, but we have to make a compelling case, and we have to prove ourselves worthy custodians of the massive investment that will be required."