Reading the signals: a long way to go to fix the subways

Reading the signals: a long way to go to fix the subways

Two things are clear to me from yesterday’s City Council hearing on the crisis facing NYC’s subways: First, there’s no quick & easy fix. Second, unfortunately, Governor Cuomo and the MTA are not yet serious about putting forward a real, long-term solution.

So, we’re going to need to keep organizing until they do.  

The governor’s newly-appointed MTA Chairman, Joe Lhota -- who has made plenty of time to play the blame-game in the media, and is demanding hundreds of millions from New York City for his short-term, band-aid approach -- did not even bother to show up.

Meanwhile, the MTA officials who did attend had almost nothing to say about the number one long-term need: replacing our 1930s-era signals with a modern, communications-based signal system.

According to the MTA’s own, 20-year needs assessment, signal failure is the leading cause of the subway delays. Research from the Regional Plan Association and the New York Times make it clear that modernizing the signal system is essential to bring greater reliability, speed, and capacity to the system.

And most of you agree. Of the 1,400+ of you who took our survey last week, 78% said that modernizing the signals should be the top subway improvement priority.

Unfortunately, the MTA is doing nothing to expedite its plans to modernize our signals. While London and Paris are moving quickly to replace their signal systems, the MTA “plan” would take 50+ years. We can dramatically accelerate the pace: we could modernize half the system over the next decade (and the full system in two) -- but only if we have a real leadership commitment, and sufficient, dedicated funding.

It will cost about $20 billion to get modern, communications-based signals on all 22 NYC subway lines. Right now, just $2.1 billion is set aside in the MTA’s capital budget to get these new signals on a handful of lines. That leaves an $18 billion gap -- or about $800 million per year, over the next 25 years.

That’s why I support the Millionaire’s Tax that Mayor de Blasio proposed this week, which would generate about that much each year (and as this stunning research shows, shows we could use this progressive tax to help balance the scales of our increasingly unequal economy). If you agree, you can sign this petition to Governor Cuomo (who, it bears repeating, controls the MTA).

I’m open to other ways of generating the needed revenue, as well. I’m a long-time supporter of the “Move New York” fair-tolling plan (aka congestion pricing), which would have the added benefit of reducing traffic. And we should definitely close the “carried interest” loophole (under which private equity & hedge fund managers pay a far lower income tax rate than the rest of us).

In last week’s survey, respondents spread out across these strategies: between the Millionaire’s Tax (which 25% of you chose), closing the Carried Interest loophole (35%), congestion pricing ( 21%) and reinstating NY’s Commuter Tax (10%). Some of you rightly pointed out that the MTA needs to get more efficient in its spending. But it is not an either/or. We need more efficiency, and we are also going to need more revenue. We got into this crisis through two decades of under-investment.

And let’s remember that while modernizing the signals system is essential, there are many other critical needs as well: Improving accessibility for people with disabilities (including an elevator at the 7th Avenue F station). Purchasing new subway cars. Adequate maintenance and staffing. Better bus service (including a restored B71/Union Street Bus line). We don’t have to choose between these essential needs -- but we will need to have the courage to pay for them.

Any of these options will require strong leadership from the Governor, the State Legislature and the MTA. As the 2018 State elections approach, we must insist that our State leaders create a serious plan for long-term investments and to have the political courage to fund those improvements.

Sign this petition with the WFP to tell Governor Cuomo to raise taxes on the wealthiest 1% of New Yorkers to fix our subway system. Or let him know about which other revenue options you support.

Our city can’t succeed if our subway system fails. So even as there are so many other urgent crises we are facing these days, I promise to keep working with you to make sure we keep focused on this one.   

-- Brad

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