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MTA Chairman Says NYC Subways Are Failing Customers, Pledges Fixes

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  • Increased city spending could help solve its problems, he says
  • Lhota’s plan clashes with de Blasio’s demands for change

Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joseph Lhota released a plan to fix New York’s problem-plagued subways that focuses on the parts of the system with the most failures and delays.

Lhota also proposed adding cars on trains to ease overcrowding, removing seats from some cars to increase capacity and prioritizing door maintenance. There will be more police in subways to reduce littering and the presence of homeless on the trains, and more cleaning and better maintenance of elevators and escalators, he said.

The subway system “is failing its customers" due to a combination of aging infrastructure, record volume and inadequate capital investment, Lhota said Tuesday during a press conference. The MTA needs $450 million in operating funds and $380 million in capital money to make these improvements in this year, and "I am asking the city and state to split the cost on this," he said.

While the city owns the subway system, the state’s MTA runs it. Lhota has said that the city should pay more to fix the system. Raising fares “is not an option,” he said Tuesday.

“My overall desire is to work with the mayor and try to persuade him that this is what the city needs to do,” he said.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio remained unpersuaded on the issue of spending more money while offering to help the MTA by paying to provide for more police, emergency-medical and fire personnel and homeless outreach workers. 

Shared Burden

De Blasio praised Lhota for adopting a data-driven approach to identifying where, when and why equipment problems occur, and for acknowledging the state’s past neglect of the system. He refused Lhota’s request to split the cost of repairs with the state, saying the city has already spent enough, and that city users of the subways and buses provide five times the revenue to the agency through bus and subway fares than suburban commuters on the Long Island Rail Road and the Metro-North line.

“The resources are in the hands of the state government right now,” the mayor said at a news conference held in a crowded subway station next to City Hall. "It needs to spend those resources.”

The subway failures have increased tension between de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo. While the two fight over money, they may be neglecting management issues that effect failing service as much as inadequate funding, said Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a civic group of corporate chief executives. Wylde praised Lhota’s plan as “spot on to deal with immediate issues,” while saying the agency needs more fundamental change.

‘Same Conversation’

“If the public thinks all that’s necessary is that the city and state should invest more, they may find we end up with more money spent and we’re still having the same conversation about the agency’s problems,” said Wylde. “The problems go deeper than that and they involve the management, the culture, the union work rules, and the need to involve the private sector as a source of new revenue and ideas.”

The city-state clash is occurring while the subway system experiences its first drop in ridership in several years, even as private sector jobs, tourist visits and city population have reached record highs. Passengers increased 60 percent from 1996 to 2012, and continued to grow by 3 percent a year until 2014 before slowing to 1 percent in 2015 and declining 0.3 percent in 2016, according to MTA statistics. 

The decline in ridership suggests the system has reached its point of overcapacity, and poor service and overcrowding have plagued daily commutes, said Richard Barone, vice president of transportation at the Regional Plan Association, a policy research group. The system will have to modernize and to improve its service if it’s to continue stimulating regional economic growth, Barone said.

Peer Pressure

“It’s not making the huge leaps forward and getting ahead of its state-of-good-repair backlog,” Barone said. “The subway system needs to be modernized, and New York has not made the strides that some of its peers, such as London, have made around the world.”

De Blasio released his own wish list of agency priorities on Monday. He called for metric-based management goals similar to that established for the New York Police Department, measuring on-time performance and maintenance, and shifting money from other MTA facilities, such as bridges, tunnels and commuter rail, to meet pressing demands. 

Instead of complying with Lhota’s demands for more city money, de Blasio countered by demanding that the state return more than $450 million the city has paid for MTA operations that de Blasio says the state diverted to its general budget since 2011. Tuesday evening, he said the state could keep the sum and apply it to fund Lhota’s emergency subway plan.

De Blasio, a Democrat, defeated Lhota, a Republican, in the 2013 mayoral race. His budget includes a record five-year, $2.5 billion commitment to the agency’s capital plan, of which the city has already given about $650 million, and he has said the city has no obligation to give more. 

The city also gives about $1 billion a year to the system’s operating budget. Lhota says the city could afford to give more at a time when its spending plan contains a surplus of about $4 billion.

Cuomo declared a subway state of emergency last month after weeks of delays and breakdowns. The situation has only become worse with derailments last week and in June, and a recent track fire that shut down service on several routes for a day.  

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