MTA Research Memo

On June 2017, New York governor Andrew Cuomo declared New York City’s transit system (mainly the city’s subways) to be in a “state of emergency.” Stating that subway “delays are maddening New Yorkers” who are “infuriated by a lack of communication and unreliability,” the governor ordered the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), whose chairperson he nominates and whose board nominations he controls, to reorganize its operations.

Though the long-term goal was for the MTA to modernize its physical assets, including its outdated signal infrastructure, the MTA’s more immediate goal was to better manage its short-term inspection, repair, and replacement schedule for tracks, signals, and subway cars to avoid unexpected disruptions to the schedules of nearly 6 million daily subway riders. The MTA’s task here was partly to repair the damage done by cutbacks to inspections, maintenance, and repairs made in the wake of the 2008 financial and economic crisis—cuts made even as ridership continued to soar as the local economy recovered; and even as the MTA’s budget for pensions, health care, and debt continued to grow. The MTA also announced plans to deploy medical crews more quickly to passengers in need of assistance, thus reducing delays due to sick or incapacitated riders.

Seventeen months into this plan, it is possible to use the MTA’s own performance reports to assess the early results. Each month, the MTA reports information to its board on specific areas of subway performance, including the percentage of subway trains that arrive at their stop on time; the average distance, in miles, that a subway car can travel before breaking down; the number of “major incidents” that disrupted service for 50 or more subway trains at once; and the percentage of weekday passengers’ journeys that arrive within five minutes of the scheduled time. The good news , however, is that over the past three years, the MTA has stabilized its operations, stemming the dramatic declines in performance over the previous half-decade. Cuomo wasn’t wrong to note, upon Joseph Lhota’s departure as MTA chairman in November 2018, that Lhota had “stabilized the subway system.”

Nevertheless, the MTA has not yet regained its performance levels of the early 2010s. Despite modest improvements over the past year, nearly three times as many weekday trains experience delays compared with 2011, when Cuomo first took office. Trains are still nearly 30% more likely to break down. The MTA has not stemmed the decline in ridership that resulted from its recent declining performance. A month after Governor Cuomo’s declaration of emergency in 2017, the MTA, under former chairman Lhota, launched a “subway action plan,” promising to “deliver improvements within the year.” The MTA would primarily focus on track and signal-system improvements and train-car reliability, deploying hundreds of new workers toward inspecting, repairing, and replacing track segments as well as ensuring that the system’s early-20th-century signal system did not break down as often.

The plan had a steep price tag. Though the MTA never promised a finite time frame for the “action plan,” the first phase was to cost $836 million: $456 million in the form of higher labor and other operating costs for expedited repairs and cleaning; and $380 million in the form of higher capital-asset costs for newer and better track, subway cars, and cleaning and inspection equipment. But the subway action plan is not a one-off cost. The MTA expects extra operating expenditures attributed to more aggressive inspection, repair, and maintenance schedules to be ongoing. On top of (a revised) $508 million in operating costs for the first year, the MTA expects to spend another $365 million in 2019 and $365 million annually thereafter, largely to pay the wages and benefits of newly hired union employees who will do much of this in-house work.Between 2017 and 2019, for example, the MTA expects that the workforce for New York City Transit (the MTA’s subway and bus division) will grow by 1,095 workers, to 51,246, largely as a result of the subway action plan.

The MTA has also made management changes to ensure professional implementation of the plan. In January 2018, Andy Byford, a veteran of mass-transit systems in Toronto and London, joined the MTA as president of New York City Transit, in charge of subways and buses. In late October, Byford told 60 Minutes’ Bill Whitaker, “I absolutely want New Yorkers to start feeling, by the end of this year, it’s definitely getting better.”

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