NY subway system is in a state of emergency

Few know better than Mr Joseph Lhota, the returning chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), just how bad New York city's subway system has become. And now that Governor Andrew Cuomo has declared a state of emergency for the subway system in the wake of Tuesday's derailment on the "A" train service and the constant delays for commuters, he has his work cut out.

The first thing Mr Lhota will need to tackle is the inadequately maintained signal system, which accounts for almost 15 per cent of all subway delays. It is a huge problem and puts the city's regional economy in jeopardy. But there are other basic issues - track work, communication, power - that must be addressed, and difficult decisions will need to be made.

Cries for "bottom-to-top reviews" are designed to convince the public that swift action is coming. But commuters have heard this before, and they are rightfully sceptical. Money is only part of the problem, and not the heart of it: To get real results, the governor needs to insist on accountability and strong MTA leadership.

During the city and statewide fiscal crisis of the 1970s, the transit system faced a true crisis. The regional economy and its transit system were in a shambles. Through hard work and political persuasion, Mr Richard Ravitch, who was chairman of the MTA from 1979 to 1983, developed the authority's first five-year capital plan. This ambitious US$8.7 billion endeavour was followed by six other multibillion-dollar plans to address the system's needs.

The current capital plan, which runs from 2015 to 2019, contains US$32 billion (S$44 billion), half of which is dedicated to New York City Transit.

Critics decrying the lack of investment in the system ignore the billions available and provide no real solution for attacking today's problems. Money is available; accountability and prioritisation are what's really needed.

Mr Charles Moerdler, who has been an MTA board member for seven years, recently said that the system is suffering from insufficient investment over the past four decades. But how about stewardship of the existing billions of dollars the authority receives? Board members are responsible for holding the MTA accountable for spending money effectively where it is critically needed. Mr Cuomo and the board must insist on answers and results.

The board and committee meetings must be genuine forums for holding agencies' and contractors' feet to the fire. They must push senior leadership to keep projects on schedule and within budget. Once a project is set, changes that could result in delays and added costs should not be allowed, except in extreme circumstances.

Of course the MTA could always use more money, but the bottom line is that it should be able to provide safe, reliable service with the money it has in its capital plan. Certainly, with this level of funding, we should not be facing the crisis we are today. The current US$32 billion plan contains about US$21 billion in what is called the "renew" category, which is the nuts and bolts of the system - track, signals, stations, fleet replacement. Another nearly US$10 billion is for service enhancements or system expansions.

The 80-year-old signal system must take precedence over enhancement and expansion projects, which, with the minor exception of those under way, must be halted.

This may mean that extension of the Second Avenue Subway and the Long Island Rail Road third track may have to be deferred, but this is the price to pay for ensuring an existing system that is safe and reliable. While new projects like the Moynihan Station are nice, they deliver little transit benefit. The MTA board, along with Mr Cuomo's office and state legislators, must immediately review the capital plan and determine which portion of the funding for enhancements or expansions can be redirected towards more urgent repair projects.

Mr Cuomo and the board also need to look at cost overruns. Capital projects invariably result in delays and added expenses, and they shouldn't. Just look at the Long Island Rail Road's East Side Access into Grand Central. This project, which was slated for completion in 2009, for a price of US$4.3 billion, is now expected to be completed by 2022 at a cost of more than US$10 billion. A lot of signal systems could have been replaced for that cost overrun.

And leadership counts. From late 2007, when I stepped down as head of the MTA, until Mr Lhota became chairman the first time around in 2012, there were a couple of unimpressive chairmen who lacked the management skills and gravitas to head such a crucial agency. Bad decisions were made that cost the agency millions of dollars.

The MTA chairman must be able to run and inspire a large organisation and select people who can execute a plan. He or she must have a solid relationship with the governor and legislators in Albany and Washington as well as the respect of federal and state funding partners. The ability to give the governor candid, and not always pleasant, advice is crucial. In this regard, we're lucky: It sounds like Mr Lhota has Mr Cuomo's ear.

Commuters should not have to wonder when or if they will arrive at their destinations. Accountability, prioritising capital spending and real leadership will go a long way towards restoring safe, efficient mass transit to the people of New York and the economy they power. NYTIMES

  • Peter S. Kalikow was chairman of New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority from March 2001 to October 2007.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2017, with the headline 'NY subway system is in a state of emergency'. Print Edition | Subscribe