The Subway Is No Longer a Daily Disaster. But Can It Be Great Again?

It was only two years ago that New York City’s subway fell into such a dire crisis that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo took the extraordinary step of declaring a state of emergency, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the system and hiring one of the world’s most respected transit leaders.

The subway has rebounded from its nadir, when significant disruptions regularly upended the city, and riders lost faith in the system.

The on-time rate for trains has jumped to 80 percent this summer, up from 65 percent in 2017. Subway cars are breaking down less frequently and the number of major delays are down.

But as the subway continues to dig itself out of a deep hole, its leaders are left facing an even bigger challenge — transforming the system into a modern subway worthy of a global capital.

Many daunting obstacles exist: Mr. Cuomo and the subway leader, Andy Byford, have not gotten along; the governor has balked at the $40 billion price tag for Mr. Byford’s sweeping plan to modernize the system; and the transit agency that runs the subway is facing a growing budget crisis that could lead to service cuts.

Experts agree that the only way to rebuild the system is by installing modern signals to replace the antiquated equipment — some built before World War II — that directs train traffic.

Last year, Mr. Byford introduced an ambitious plan, known as Fast Forward, to overhaul the signals on most lines over the next decade.

Mr. Byford said in an interview that the plan is crucial to achieving one of his main goals — pushing the on-time rate back above 90 percent.

“I want to see it in the high 90s,” he said. “I want us to be on par with the very best — Hong Kong, Singapore, London. What will get us there is fundamental, comprehensive re-signalling.”

So far, the agency has installed modern subway signals on just two of its 22 lines: The L train and the No. 7 train. Those lines now have the best on-time rates on the system at more than 90 percent each.

The plan to improve the subway scored a critical victory in Albany this year when state lawmakers approved congestion pricing, a plan to toll drivers entering the busiest parts of Manhattan that could raise $15 billion for the transit system.

But the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the agency that oversees the subway, buses and commuter railroads, is facing gaping deficits in the coming years, which could worsen if the economy falls into a recession.

At the same time, Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Byford have disagreed over the best way to fix subway signals. At one point, Mr. Byford grew so frustrated that he considered quitting, though he insisted that he wants to stay and fix the subway.

“100 percent — rock solid,” Mr. Byford said in the interview, describing his commitment to the job.

Nope. New York City’s subway was once pretty great.

In 2003, the on-time rate was a near-perfect 97 percent. Then the subway began to decline after years of disinvestment.

Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, said in an interview that he moved to the city in 2001 and remembered when you could count on the subway.

“It feels like a bygone, nostalgic era of reliable service,” he said. “It was a totally different time.”

Mr. Byford said that it was unfair to compare the current on-time rate with the early 2000s for several reasons: ridership is higher now, making it harder to run trains on time; a new electronic system to tally delays captures more incidents; and new rules protecting track workers have slowed down trains.

Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Byford have both taken credit for recent improvements. There were nearly 40,000 train delays in June, about half as many as occurred during the summer of 2017.

Trains have also become more reliable. The average distance that subway cars travel between breaking down rose to more than 130,000 miles this summer, from about 115,000 two years ago.

But many New Yorkers say the subway has a long way to go. Sara Smith, a lawyer who lives in Brooklyn, was delayed on a recent morning by a train with door problems.

“This is the third or fourth day this week that my commute was 30 minutes longer than it should be,” she said.

Curtis Harris, a mail deliveryman who lives in the Bronx, gave the subway an F grade.

Making it reliable again “would take a lot of work,” he said, “and I don’t believe that they’re really putting in that time.”

Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat who controls the subway, has faced criticism for letting the system deteriorate on his watch. Now that the subway has stabilized, it remains to be seen whether Mr. Cuomo is committed to a full overhaul.

A spokeswoman for the governor, Dani Lever, credited the recovery to the “Subway Action Plan,” an $800 million effort by the transit agency to make urgent repairs. Mr. Cuomo now wants to reorganize the agency and increase spending on signals, elevators and new trains.

“The governor supports Andy and thinks he’s doing a good job and supports the elements of Fast Forward, especially signal modernization and accessibility,” Ms. Lever said in a statement, adding that Mayor Bill de Blasio and state lawmakers must help pay for the plans.

Mr. de Blasio, who is running for president, has been happy to let Mr. Cuomo take the heat for the subway.

But Mr. Johnson, who is likely running for mayor in 2021, wants the city to retake control of the subway. He argues that the system is too critical to the city’s success to let it be run by state leaders who do not even use it.

Mr. Johnson has also been a cheerleader for Mr. Byford, joking that if he ran for president the subway leader would be Mr. Johnson’s pick for a running mate. In an interview, Mr. Johnson said the subway can return to its glory days, if “we can unshackle Andy Byford from the dysfunctional bureaucracy of the M.T.A.”

A critical moment will come this month, when the authority releases its five-year capital plan, which will outline its priorities for 2020 to 2024. Transit advocates say Mr. Cuomo must prove that he is committed to fixing the subway by supporting a major increase in spending.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher for Governor Cuomo and the M.T.A.,” said Colin Wright, a senior associate at TransitCenter, an advocacy group. “To provide New Yorkers with a reliable, accessible transit system, they need to get the next capital program right.”

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