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Everything you need to know about the MTA’s emergency plan to fix the subway

Written by
Clayton Guse

At the end of June, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the MTA. The announcement came just a week after he appointed Joe Lhota as chairman of the authority and came with an order for an emergency plan within 30 days.

On Tuesday, Lhota announced the first version of that plan, chock-full of details that could bring some relief to straphangers who have endured a year filled with subway delays, derailments, fires and other infuriating incidents. The plan isn't cheap. Its estimated cost exceeds $800 million, and precisely where those funds will come from is not yet clear. 

There is a lot to unpack in the plan—Lhota tried his best to do so on Tuesday during a press conference that lasted nearly an hour. Here's everything you need to know about the upcoming repairs, restructuring and reorganization of the system that schleps more than five million New Yorkers across the city each and every day. 

The plan is broken up into two phases

Fixing the subway isn't going to be accomplished overnight. Bringing the system into the 21st century could be a decades-long process, but Lhota's plan outlines a set of 30 immediate changes and upgrades that he aims to complete in the next year. The first phase of the plan addresses the "key drivers of 79 percent of the major incidents" on the subway. The second phase is not so clear-cut—it will tackle long-term solutions and promises to incorporate winning ideas from the MTA's Genius Transit Challenge, which will award three $1 million prizes to teams with the best ideas for revolutionizing the subway. 

The signaling system is getting a major overhaul

One of the leading causes of subway delays is the city's arcane signaling system, which is still running on 70-year-old technology in some areas. In key parts of the subway system, there is no way to track exactly where a train is located, which prevents trains from running closer together during peak hours. There are thousands of signals across the roughly 700 miles of subway track in the city, and the MTA has isolated 1,300 of the "most problematic" locations for expedited updates. It's unclear exactly what these updates will entail both in terms of infrastructure and station closures, but upgrading the signaling system is something that has been kicked down the road by the MTA for decades.

Some interesting changes to trains are on the way

Perhaps the most interesting detail to come out of Lhota's announcement was that the MTA will begin a pilot program to remove the seats from some subway cars. Trains operating on the L line and the Manhattan Shuttle between Grand Central Terminal and Times Square will be fitted with cars that are entirely chair-free. There will still be cars with seats on these trains, but Lhota said that each seatless car will allow for an additional capacity of 25 riders and will be painted a separate color to let riders know that they won't find a spot to rest their rumps upon entering.

On top of that, trains across the system will be getting longer. Lhota singled out the C line as one that has platforms that are long enough to be served by additional cars. It's unclear which other lines will see the rollout, but at the very least it means riders can expect even more of the oldest running subway cars in the world

The MTA is bulking up its emergency response staff

When a train breaks down on the New York City subway, it runs the risk of gumming up the entire system. There are a few groups that are tasked with minimizing the effects of a breakdown, the most notable of which is the Combined Action Teams. These folks respond to track, power and signal issues as they arise—and Lhota is tripling the number of those teams to 12 and placing them at strategic locations across the system. The goal here is to reduce the average response time for infrastructure issues from 45 minutes to 15 minutes.

The other key group that responds to subway issues is the Emergency Subway Car Response Teams, which rush off to fix things like malfunctioning doors (often resulting from overzealous passengers jamming themselves into a train car). Lhota said that the MTA would be adding 20 of these teams. 

Additionally, the MTA is adding 12 pre-positioned EMT teams to the system in order to prevent delays when passengers fall ill or get injured. 

The NYPD may be unleashed on subway litterbugs

Earlier this month, a track fire on the A line caused one of the more hellish subway delays in recent memory. Track fires of that sort are almost always caused by debris on the track (the MTA removes 40 tons of trash from the system every single day). Lhota's plan calls for the MTA to crack down on littering in subway stations as well as a handful of other illegal acts like "aggressive panhandling" and sexual harassment. In a further effort to reduce subway garbage fires, the plan also promises to increase the frequency of track cleaning by 30 percent. Currently, much of that cleaning is done during FASTRACK work, which comes with frustrating station closures. 

Countdown clocks are a-comin’

The MTA's 2015-2019 Capital Program already includes the rollout of countdown clocks on all lettered subway lines, but Lhota's new plan could bring them to the entire system at an even quicker clip. The plan notes that the MTA will accelerate the system-wide completion of countdown clocks, giving riders a clearer picture of delays. Lhota also promised a new integrated MTA transportation app, which could be a useful resource for tracking buses and trains in real time. It's unclear what it will look like or how it will work (and we don't have very high hopes).  

The fight for funding isn’t expected to end anytime soon

Over the past month, Cuomo, Lhota and Bill de Blasio have gone back and forth over who is responsible for paying for the MTA's subway repairs. The MTA is calling for the city to split the cost of the $800 million plan, but the mayor has other ideas. He's recently criticized the governor for spending an exorbitant amount of money to fit the city's bridges with dazzling lights. On Tuesday, he responded to Lhota's call to split funding for the plan by saying, "The State of New York controls the MTA and the State of New York needs to own up to its responsibilities because it controls the MTA."

It didn't take long for Lhota to fire back. 

“It is befuddling that the mayor praised the MTA repair plan but said he would not agree to fund it 50/50 with the state," he said in a statement. "One half of a repair plan won’t make the trains run on time."

On Wednesday, Cuomo traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for funding for the new plan. If he secures that, it could keep some of the most powerful people in New York out of an embarrassing funding battle. 

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