A bold plan to heal ailing transit system

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Cost, funding sources of MTA modernization proposal remain unclear


  • New York City Transit President Andy Byford unveiled "Fast Forward," a proposal to modernize the city’s subway and bus systems. Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit

“Not acting now is not an option. It will only get more difficult and more expensive.”

Andy Byford, NYCT president

By Michael Garofalo

Five months after he arrived in Manhattan to take charge of New York City Transit, Andy Byford’s comprehensive pitch to repair the city’s struggling public transportation system is on the table.

Byford presented what he called “a bold, imaginative, ambitious plan” to “modernize New York City transit from top to bottom” at the MTA Board’s May 22 meeting. The proposal, dubbed “Fast Forward,” calls for the rapid implementation of a variety of measures overhauling bus and subway service, accessibility and corporate organization within the transit authority.

“It won’t be easy to perform such massive upgrades on such a compressed time frame in such a busy system, but we can do it,” said Byford, who took office as president of NYCT in January after previously heading Toronto’s public transportation system. “Transit is in a trough right now, but we can and we must come back.”

Among the plan’s most significant proposals is an initiative to accelerate the replacement of outmoded subway signals with state-of-the-art computerized systems, a step Byford called “the most transformative thing we can do to improve subway service.” Computerized signaling, Byford said, “adds capacity and exponentially improves reliability,” allowing trains to run more closely together than currently possible.

NYCT hopes to install new signaling systems on 11 lines over the next decade as part of the plan, and aims to complete five lines in the next five years. This ten-year timeline is significantly shorter than previous estimates, which projected that resignaling the system at the current pace could take 40 years or longer. The faster pace will require additional station closures on nights and weekends, but NYCT has no plans to close full lines on weekdays.

Station infrastructure is another key focus of the plan, which calls for the MTA to conduct critical structural and functional repairs at over 300 stations in the next decade. Additionally, NYCT aims to install elevators at 50 stations in the next five years, spaced so that subway riders are never more than two stops away from an accessible station. Less than a quarter of stations are currently accessible to disabled riders; the transit authority hopes to bring accessibility measures at all stations where installation is possible by 2034.

Other measures in the plan include:

- Updates to the bus route network to respond to ridership patterns and demographic changes

- A new “tap-and-go” fare payment system to speed bus and subway boarding

- Procurement of 3,650 new subway cars and nearly 5,000 new buses over the next decade, including 1,800 electric buses.

The MTA has not yet attached an official price tag to the plan, but several outlets reported leaked internal estimates ranging from $19 billion to $43 billion. Before Byford’s presentation to the board, MTA Chair Joe Lhota called the plan’s cost and funding sources “a subject for another day” and said “all estimates are premature and, inevitably, not accurate.”

“The point of today’s presentation is not about numbers, but it’s to show that we can and we will modernize the New York City subway system,” Lhota said.

But the numbers quickly overshadowed the fanfare surrounding the plan’s release, as Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio engaged in public wrangling over where funding should come from — a familiar back-and-forth that has reliably followed any significant transit-related news over the last year.

Cuomo, who personally interviewed Byford before he was hired as NYCT president, has not yet publicly endorsed the plan, but told reporters that both the city and state would both need to contribute funding. The Mayor called the plan “a step in the right direction” but said that he would continue to push for a tax on millionaires — which would have to be levied by the state government — as a new long-term funding stream for the MTA rather than send additional money to the MTA from city coffers.

Byford stressed the urgency of the situation as he closed his presentation, seemingly appealing to the MTA board, transit riders, and political leaders alike. “Not acting now is not an option” he said, “It will only get more difficult and more expensive.”

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