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Tunnel Vision

New York Finally Has a Plan to Fix Its Crumbling Subway System

Seats? Who needs 'em!?
MTA Chairman Joe Lhota, photo courtesy John Moore via Getty

In early 2019 the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here .

When Joe Lhota was first appointed to chair the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in 2011, New York City's subways were notably better than they are now. Delays were down, ridership was up, and it didn't seem like the entire system was on the verge of collapse at any given moment.


Fast-forward to the summer of 2017.

At the end of June, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a "state of emergency" for America's busiest transit network, with derailments and debilitating delays happening daily. He demanded that the MTA conduct a top-to-bottom analysis of its protocols, and put Lhota—who had left for an unsuccessful mayoral run in 2013—in charge again with the mission of saving the damn thing. And on Tuesday afternoon, at the MTA's headquarters, Lhota stood in front of a packed room of reporters with what hopefully will be transit salvation for 7 million riders each day: a PowerPoint presentation entitled "NYC Subway Action Plan."

"We're here because the New York City subway system, no doubt, is in distress, and we're looking for solutions," he said.

The majority of the plan Lhota laid out focused on Phase I—a short-term, year-long effort to "stabilize" the system and jolt it back to life for full-on modernization in the future. That overhaul seeks to immediately address five components of the city's subway system: signals and tracks, cars, stations, communications, and management.

The first part has been painted by many as the system's core flaw: that the signals and tracks are borne of a different age, or, as Lhota described them, "World War II–era" equipment. The average track, he said, was laid 41 years ago, and 40 percent of the signals used each day are more than half a century old. That infrastructure is largely the reason why, in 2017, transit controllers are still unable to pinpoint exactly where every subway is at all times.


To combat this aging foundation, the MTA says it will hasten the pace of repairing track issues underground, honing in on the most problematic areas. The agency also hopes to triple the rate of continuous welded rail, which makes for a more comfortable ride, and install 50,000 friction pads on cars systemwide. While brand-new vacuums have already been dispatched to clean off the tracks, a newly minted Water Management Initiative will seal leaks, clean thousands of street grates, and prevent drain clogging from disrupting the system.

Upgrading the subway cars—which, as Lhota noted, are 22 years old on average—are another main tenet of the plan. The MTA will seek to expand major overhaul capacity from 950 to 1,100 cars a year, and have a maintenance shop running 24/7 for fixes. It also plans to extend cars on shortened lines, like the C, but most notably the agency will follow Boston's lead and begin ripping out seats from cars to expand capacity under a pilot program. While details were scarce, Lhota said at least 25 more riders could fit on each car, and that the program would start with the L train and S train shuttle.

In regards to subway stations, a program will be launched to clean the neediest structures, fix elevators faster, and increase the frequency of heavy duty cleaning from every six weeks to every four. The MTA has also asked the NYPD to increase their police presence there, encouraging a more intense "broken windows" approach to policing underground, and with the news of the "homeless sweeps" ahead of Mayor Bill de Blasio's subway ride on Sunday, heighten outreach to the most vulnerable. In order to expedite the "sick passenger" scenario, a pilot program with EMTs at heavily frequented subway systems will be expanded from five to 12 teams in the coming weeks.


Communications-wise, the MTA hopes to actually give a reason as to why your train has been stuck for 20 minutes underground, rather than a muffled voice over the loudspeaker, or a pre-recorded message. Any service shutdowns will now include exact reasons as to why they're happening, and countdown clocks will be installed at every station by year's end. And there will also (hopefully) be a new MTA app out by then, too, that would integrate more accurate arrival times, and any delay information.

And lastly, since no action plan would be complete without it, the management structure for maintenance and operations is promised to be "streamlined." Although a "war room" has been set up for the current crisis, a permanent "emergency operations center" will be installed to better address emergency service outages. And to ensure capital projects are done on budget and on time, the MTA hopes to expedite its procurement process.

Phase I's overall cost? $456 million in operating expenses, $380 million in capital dollars, and a headcount increase of 2,400 people. And once that's all done—or, better yet, if—phase II will be a five-year capital plan that focuses almost entirely on new cars and a modern signal system like that of London or Tokyo. The price tag, Lhota gulped, will be upward of $8 billion. (When asked, Lhota said the L train shutdown would not affect the agency's plans.)

Yet the biggest linchpin to this plan is the question of who's paying the bill. When Governor Cuomo declared a "state of emergency," state officials called upon the city to dedicate more money to the ailing subway system, which, although the city owns the assets, is technically run by the state. But New York City mayor Bill de Blasio balked, recently asserting that the city would not cough up any more money than the $2.5 billion it's committed to the five-year capital plan. Lhota said he had the governor's backing in asking for an even 50/50 split, but given Cuomo and de Blasio's history, compromise isn't likely.

Yet on Tuesday, politics seemed like the least of the system's worries. Lhota had started the presentation off with a mea culpa: the agency oversees the only 24/7 subway system in the world, with more stations and track laid than any other system in America. In 1904, its first year of operation, 3 million people rode the subways; that's the ridership, he said, in just one week now. And the money put into the system, as many critics have argued, just hasn't been enough to address the system as a whole.

The first question Lhota was asked after the presentation seemed like the most obvious: How can New Yorkers know for sure that this will actually work? "Hold me accountable for everything I've talked about today," he answered. That's probably the best we're gonna get.