A new report suggests the MTA can’t be trusted to fix the system’s massive problems.
In brief, New York’s subways are in no short supply of two things: deep-seated, systemic problems and people who propose ways to fix them. Almost every day, a solution is put forth to unwind decades worth of deferred maintenance, bad political decisions, and infrastructure that ages by the minute. We look for answers abroad, nationwide, and often, here at home. In fact, there’s a vast community of NYC-based transit thinkers and tinkerers who have dedicated their lives to devising ideas on how our commutes can be a little less shitty.
However, most of the time ambitions fall upon deaf bureaucratic ears: after being asked at a recent board meeting about making the system more handicap-accessible, Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) Chairman Joe Lhota was reportedly overheard on a hot mic muttering, “Like I don’t have enough fucking problems.”
With that said, the Regional Plan Association’s (RPA) Fourth Regional Plan couldn’t have arrived at a better time.
Amongst critics, the 95-year-old urban research nonprofit—the oldest of its kind in America—is seen as a sort of master of ceremonies, crystal-balling development issues, and mega-projects in the tri-state region of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut years in advance. In its time, RPA has released three such plans: in 1929, as the region was urbanizing; in 1968, during the great suburban sprawl; and in 1996, as the region recovered from two decades of decline. Then, the group called for, and ultimately influenced the creation of, transit improvements like the Second Avenue Subway and the East Side Access for the Long Island Rail Road.
The fourth plan, released on Thursday after five years of research, comes at a time when the transit landscape appears grimmer than ever, with delays and breakdowns now daily occurrences, and short- and long-term improvements measured both in years and billions of dollars. RPA argues that, although the economic picture now may look rosy for the region, dismal transit networks could hamper growth going forward. As we already know, New Yorkers are losing jobs and money due to subway woes.
The 25-year plan touches upon a number of issues and ultimately offers 61 recommendations to amend areas like housing, affordability, and the growing spectre of climate change. But since Tunnel Vision is a blog about subways, we’ll keep it to just transit. And to get the subways up and running again, RPA’s plan offers two major pathways forward.
The first would be, perhaps, the most shocking to New Yorkers: switching the subway system over to a ‘24/3’ model, where New York’s subways would shut down from 12:30 AM to 5 AM on weeknights, but stay open entirely from Friday to Sunday. As it stands, New York’s metro is known internationally for being the subway that doesn’t sleep. “But that’s why the stations look like they do,” said Rich Barone, RPA’s VP of transportation.
Shutting down the subways overnight would allow for more routine maintenance, which other cities that do close temporarily are better able to complete, Barone argued. The report found that only 1.5 percent of total daily ridership actually occurs during those hours, and asserts that the population can instead be serviced by overnight buses. The idea here is that buses would be able to better move people at that time, with less-congested streets. But few things piss off New Yorkers more than hearing that a shuttle bus is running in lieu of a subway.
Secondly, the plan asks New Yorkers to improve their tolerance for—or, really, get used to—12-18 month-long shutdowns like the one that inspired this blog. Using the L train shutdown in 2019 as an example, RPA says that wholesale closures of entire lines are really what’s needed to make them palatable to the modern age. (It was RPA that told VICE in April that the L train shutdown could be an “opportunity.”)
In order to do this, the report calls on New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo to create a ‘Subway Reconstruction Public Benefit Corporation,’ an independent entity, separate from the much-maligned MTA, whose single task would be to overhaul the city’s subway system in 15 years flat. This would include speeding up the modernization of the much-decried signal system (critics say it’d take 50 years at the current pace), and switching to a universal payment system, à la London (which is in the works). The latter would be beneficial for the myriad of transit projects—new and expanded subway lines; regional light rails; reactivated railroads on former freight lines; tunnels; etc.—that the report puts forward to keep up with the region’s rapid growth.