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In sweeping plan to fix the subway, MTA cuts 24-hour service

In sweeping plan to fix the subway, MTA cuts 24-hour service
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Marcin Wichary

New York City Transit president Andy Byford released his highly anticipated plan on Wednesday, which outlined a medley of initiatives to rapidly modernize the city's transit system. Titled “Fast Forward,” it proposes sweeping changes to the city’s bus system, handicap accessibility and management structure. But the real crux of it, of course, is to fix the subway.

The biggest piece of the plan involves an aggressive approach to upgrading the subway’s signaling system, much of which is more than 50 years old and is considered the single biggest cause of delays and slow service. Currently, the L is the only line that has been fitted entirely with communications-based train control (CBTC), a signal system that allows trains to run faster and closer together and is less prone to malfunctions than the old infrastructure. The MTA is behind schedule and over budget on rolling out the technology on the 7 line, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2018. Those two lines cover just 900,000 of the subway’s 5.7 million daily riders, and previous estimates have said that it will take another 40 years to get CBTC rolled out across the system.

Byford aims to change that.

In the first five years of the plan, the MTA aims to upgrade five different lines with the new technology, including the busy Lexington Avenue Line, which carries the 4, 5 and 6 trains, and the Eighth Avenue Line, which carries the A, C and E. The entirety of the G, chunks of the E, F, M and R in Queens, and the F in South Brooklyn will also see upgrades. Those lines would bring the number of straphangers taking lines equipped with CBTC to 3 million—the plan aims to bring that number to 5 million within 10 years.

In slashing the time it will take to overhaul the signals by 30 years, service will inevitably have to be cut during construction. The MTA does not have a clear idea of what those cuts will look like, but the plan does say that there will be continuous night and weekend closures for up to two-and-a-half years on each line that is being upgraded. Byford says that weekday service will be maintained during the CBTC implementation and additional bus service will be provided where necessary during outages, but the general gist is that subway service is going to get even worse before it gets better.

This temporary elimination of 24-hour service on some lines will surely be a hard pill to swallow for many New Yorkers, but it’s not something that should come as a shock. In November, the president of the Regional Plan Association said that “the era of the 24/7 subway system in New York City has come to an end” during a presentation of the local think tank’s 61-point Fourth Regional Plan.

What’s sure to be even more controversial than the service cuts is the actual cost of the plan—MTA chairman Joe Lhota was mum about its price tag.

“All estimates are premature and inevitably not accurate,” he said at Wednesday’s MTA Board meeting. “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.”

Still, sources leaked estimates to both The New York Times and the Post on Tuesday night, projecting the total cost at $19 billion on the low end and all the way up to $37 billion on the high end. If those numbers are even remotely accurate, it presents a massive challenge for transit advocates and politicians alike. The funding would have to be approved in Albany and signed off on by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who controls the MTA. Considering that the $880 million price tag on last year’s Subway Action Plan led to months of quibbling between Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, one shouldn't expect that Byford’s plan will have an easy approval process.

Even so, MTA Board members hailed the plan and were optimistic that it would garner funding and support.

“While the cost of these initiatives over the long term is being formulated, I think it’s important for us whenever this number does come out to not be affected by sticker shock,” MTA Board member Veronica Vanterpool said during Wednesday’s meeting.

“At the end of the day, what it’s really going to come down to is how much the citizens of the state of New York are going to be willing to pay to have a world-class transit system,’ added Peter Ward, another member of the board.

Byford is no stranger to this kind of political vitriol surrounding massive transit projects. A veteran of the London Underground, Sydney’s transit system and the Toronto Transit System, he says he's up for the fight.

“I was used to a tough political environment in Toronto,” he said on Wednesday. “I like the fact that transit is a hot potato. If people were passive about transit it would suggest to me that they didn’t really care about it, but it's good that there's this very active debate.”

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