By Joy Bergmann
Standing before nearly 200 residents filling the sanctuary of Rutgers Presbyterian Church, New York City Transit President Andy Byford preached the gospel of frank choices and serious-minded cooperation as he addressed Upper West Siders’ transit concerns during a town hall meeting hosted by Assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal on Thursday evening.
“The biggest, toughest, hardest job in transit right now is New York,” he said during his off-the-cuff opening remarks. “But that’s the reason I came here. I’ve always enjoyed a challenge and always loved New York. Sometimes I have to pinch myself that some spotty kid from Plymouth, England, is running New York City transit.”
Byford has no illusions about current MTA customer satisfaction. “I know that you guys are not happy,” he said. “I do believe in accountability. I don’t think anyone else at MTA wears a name badge. I do.” He wears it daily during his transit commute and as he chips away at his goal to visit each of the subway system’s 472 stations and ride its 300+ bus routes. “I’ve never owned a car in my life.”
He believes “radical” action is required to fix the dire state of MTA infrastructure and service reliability. “I am writing a comprehensive corporate plan to explain to politicians – and everyone else – what needs to happen to completely modernize New York’s transit, top to bottom. It’s not tinkering. It’s a radical plan.”
Riders like Brian Gari came prepared with lists of beefs.
The plan’s top four priorities? “Number one: Transform the subway to get it to be the world-class system it needs to be. Number two: Arrest the decline in bus patronage and make buses a more attractive form of transit. Number three: Relentlessly accelerate the drive to be a fully accessible system. And number four – the glue that holds it all together – motivate, encourage and re-engage the staff to deliver world-class customer service to you.”
He promised to make the corporate plan publicly available at the May 23rd MTA Board meeting, and teased a Bus Action Plan that was announced on Monday. None of it will be easy. “It will cost money. It will take time. It will take more patience from all of you in order to get it done.”
Byford then took audience questions for 90 minutes. Joining him on the panel were Jaqi Cohen, campaign coordinator for the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign and Stephanie Burgos-Veras, senior organizer with the Riders Alliance.
For brevity and clarity, WSR has condensed and edited the conversation to focus on issues raised by multiple participants.
“Lockbox” Transit Funding
Q: The MTA has tens of billions in debt, plus is facing this expensive capital plan. How is this debt going to be paid off and improvements paid for?
AB: It won’t be through the fare box. We must have a predictable, affordable, adequate, sustainable funding source. Maybe congestion pricing is part of that. I’m agnostic about congestion pricing.
LR: I’m in favor of a transit funding “lockbox” that cannot be raided by Albany. Transit funds meant for New York City should not be diverted to other projects.
SBV: Like bailing out upstate ski resorts.
Subway Signal Replacement
Q: What are the main obstacles to improving service?
AB: With buses, it’s road congestion. With the subways, it’s the sheer age, unreliability and lack of capacity of the signalling system (circa 1930s technology).
What we’ve got to do is bite the bullet and re-signal the whole subway. There’s a proven methodology called communications based train control where – if properly implemented like in London – you can run up to 36 trains per hour. We can only dream of that here, but it does exist and it can be done if we bite the bullet.
Q: How long will that take?
AB: If we continue at the current rate, one line at a time taking about 7 years each – which is ludicrous – it would take 40 years. That is untenable. I’ve seen plans doing two lines at once that could have 80 percent of customer journeys being made with a modern signalling system in 10 years. It will require people’s patience and a lot of money.
If we are serious about speeding up the re-signalling, that will come at a cost of convenience. It’s inevitable. There’s no easy way to do it.
Twenty years ago, the London tube was in a similar mess. But through 20 years of lockbox funding, the tube is transformed. If they can do it, we can do it.
M104 Service Cuts
Q: The M104 was just cut for the third time in eight years and is now a shell of its former self. It’s a downward spiral. Cut service, then fewer people can rely on it, so ridership goes down and you think it should be cut further. It’s especially important for disabled veterans to get to the Vets Hospital on 23rd Street.
AB: I do know it is a critical route for this community. But if we find we got it wrong (in cutting the M104) we can act fairly rapidly to rectify it. We will keep a close eye on it.
Generally speaking, each route is reviewed every four years for ridership. With the M104 we’ve seen a decline in ridership, and perhaps relatedly an increase in subway use.
We have made some run-time adjustments, trying to avoid the bunching and gapping which causes bus ridership to be so unattractive. We’ve also increased bus service on the M50 in this neighborhood because of its increase in ridership.
Function Over Form
Q: Can we make function our major task?
AB: Prettying up stations is last in the pecking order. Everyone would prefer to stand in a shabby station knowing the next train is coming in 90 seconds, than looking at your watch in a pristine station asking, “Where is it?”
[Byford believes there’s been a misunderstanding that the current and impending B/C closures are about aesthetics and consumer technology.] This is not a cosmetic exercise. The fundamental reason is that these stations have higher than average ratio of components in disrepair — approaching a critical state — and the plans are to attack those issues quickly and get out in 140 days.
Select Bus Service: Boon or bane?
Q: SBS is the most insane idea they have come up with. You’ve got to race up out of the subway at 79th Street and get that little piece of paper, hoping the bus doesn’t pull away. Which it often does. You’re a nervous wreck.
AB: I missed the M60 SBS bus once myself at the airport, fiddling with the machine.
LR: In a lot of areas SBS works well and speeds up service.
JC: SBS is typically better and more reliable for riders.
SBV: SBS has a bus lane and the ability to load all at once through three doors.
AB: Some people love it, some people hate it. It’s up to us to make it better. And it will be better when we move to a new tap-to-pay system where you just touch your smartcard or phone to a pad as you enter and you’re good to go.
Q: What is being done to improve Access-A-Ride? My elderly parents need the service, but it’s often late or makes them late to appointments with too many stops along the route.
AB: I have heard some horror stories about Access-A-Ride. One of the first things I’ve asked our new Chief Customer Officer Sarah Meyer to do is to have a look at all our policies with Access-A-Ride, given that those services are all contracted out.
I want to know how we can make it more of a “turn up and go” service, how we can make it more dignified, how we can make it more like the services that we enjoy where we can be spontaneous and just take transit.
I see plenty of opportunities for improvements in the short term. They don’t need money. They just need data, management and focus.
Increasing Bus Service
Q: Can we get more M72 and M57 buses?
AB: I’ll add that to my ride-along list.
Reduced Fares for Students
Q: How about reduced fare cards for CUNY students?
AB: Fares get changed by the MTA Board. There is a case to be made for reduced fares for students, seniors, veterans. If someone wants to make up the difference through a subsidy, fine.
Q: Whose team are you on: Mayor de Blasio’s or Governor Cuomo’s?
AB: My job is to be a public servant. I’m on the customers’ team.