Metro rid­ers can re­late as NYC sub­way ser­vice fails

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MAR­TINE POW­ERS

When Metro Board Chair­man Jack Evans ar­rived at the panel’s gen­eral meet­ing last month, he car­ried a copy of the New York Post fea­tur­ing a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally provoca­tive front page re­count­ing the lat­est trou­bles of that city’s sub­way.

“For F’s sake,” read the head­line, with a clever in­ser­tion of the or­ange sym­bol for New York’s “F” train. “Fix the sub­ways!”

Evans used the head­line as an op­por­tu­nity for re­flec­tion on his own trou­bled tran­sit sys­tem.

“Not that mis­ery loves com­pany . . . but I think this is an­other in­di­ca­tor that ev­ery one of the six sub­way sys­tems through­out Amer­ica is strug­gling with the same is­sues,” Evans said. “We’re not alone in this.”

Evans, it seems, is suf­fer­ing from the af­flic­tion af­fect­ing many in the re­gion: an acute case of sub­way schaden­freude — a slightly per­verse sense of sat­is­fac­tion in watch­ing the fail­ures of the na­tion’s pre­miere tran­sit agency.

A look at the re­cent state of af­fairs at New York’s Metropoli­tan Trans­porta­tion Author­ity (MTA) will prob­a­bly ring fa­mil­iar to D.C.-area commuters. In the last sev­eral months, chronic break­downs and track prob­lems have caused rush-hour melt­downs and lengthy, wide­spread de­lays. Late last year, pro­tec­tions for work­ers be­came a ma­jor cause for con­cern af­ter one long­time em­ployee was struck and killed by a pass­ing train in a tun­nel.

Two weeks ago, a de­rail­ment in Up­per Man­hat­tan may have been caused by equip­ment left on the tracks, re­sult­ing in at least 30 in­juries. And soon there­after, New

York Gov. An­drew M. Cuomo (D) de­clared that the MTA was in a state of emer­gency and pledged an ad­di­tional $1 bil­lion to the MTA’s cap­i­tal bud­get to ex­pe­dite im­prove­ments.

Sud­denly, Metro isn’t look­ing so bad, right?

“Some of th­ese sto­ries about what’s go­ing on in New York — you could take out the proper nouns and in­sert ‘Wash­ing­ton’ and they’d make sense,” said Zachary M. Schrag, a his­to­rian at Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity and au­thor of the sem­i­nal Metro tome, “The Great So­ci­ety Sub­way: A His­tory of the Wash­ing­ton Metro.” “So I guess that’s some­what of a con­so­la­tion.”

That’s how it looks on Twit­ter, where Metro rid­ers — their tweets drip­ping in the usual #WMATA lev­els of sar­casm — seem down­right de­fen­sive about the New York sub­way, Amer­ica’s busiest pub­lic tran­sit sys­tem, mak­ing moves to un­seat Metro as Amer­ica’s most dys­func­tional one.

“I guess New York felt left out with all the pub­lic­ity @wmata got by be­ing a bloody aw­ful mess,” quipped one Metro rider.

“Hey look at New York try­ing to be like DC, im­i­ta­tion is the sin­cer­est form of flat­tery @wmata,” joked an­other.

“Maybe we should in­vite folks to DC & show them what a truly aw­ful com­mute looks like,” added an­other.

“WMATA should send the MTA a fruit bas­ket with a note along the lines of ‘thanks for tak­ing the heat off us!’ ” an­other tweeted.

But the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the strug­gles at the MTA and Metro also point to a larger story — about the state of the na­tion’s in­fra­struc­ture, the chal­lenges of se­cur­ing long-term in­vest­ments for dull but nec­es­sary main­te­nance work, and about just how quickly a pre­miere tran­sit sys­tem can be­gin to come apart at the seams.

“It is a na­tional prob­lem. It’s some­thing that’s hap­pen­ing in lots of dif­fer­ent Metro ar­eas across the coun­try. And New York is start­ing to get a taste of it,” said Robert Puentes, pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Eno Cen­ter for Trans­porta­tion, a na­tional think tank on trans­porta­tion is­sues.

Puentes said sig­nif­i­cant re­spon­si­bil­ity for the MTA’s prob­lems lies with Cuomo, who has pri­or­i­tized projects such as the re­cent open­ing of the Second Av­enue Sub­way and the com­ple­tion of the 34th Street-Hud­son Yards sta­tion — per­haps at the ex­pense of pay­ing ad­e­quate at­ten­tion to state-of-re­pair needs.

“He has fo­cused on newer in- vest­ments and ma­jor in­fra­struc­ture build­ing projects, and now he has to play catch-up,” Puentes said, “be­cause while you can cut a rib­bon in front of new in­fra­struc­ture, the un­sexy stuff like day-to­day main­te­nance is much tougher to pro­mote.” Sound fa­mil­iar, Wash­ing­ton? And though Puentes said he cer­tainly does not re­joice in the chal­lenges faced by rid­ers and tran­sit ex­ec­u­tives in New York, he does feel like he has first­hand knowl­edge of their trou­bles.

“My brother calls me from New York and asks, ‘Can you fix this?’ ” Puentes said, chuck­ling.

Un­til re­cently, the MTA was per­form­ing bet­ter than Metro in a few cat­e­gories, but much worse in oth­ers. Ac­cord­ing to the Fed­eral Tran­sit Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Na­tional Tran­sit Data­base, New York City Tran­sit — the part of the MTA which runs sub­way, bus and para­tran­sit ser­vice — re­ported 0.053 de­rail­ments per mil­lion train rev­enue miles in 2015, while Metro’s rate was much larger — 0.26 de­rail­ments per mil­lion miles. But the MTA also re­ported a col­li­sion rate of 2.5 per mil­lion rev­enue miles, vs. Metro’s rate of 0.51, and New York ex­pe­ri­enced 28 fires per mil­lion miles vs. Metro’s 4.2 fires.

In 2014, the to­tal me­chan­i­cal fail­ure rate at New York City tran­sit was 36 fail­ures per mil­lion miles, com­pared with 20 me­chan­i­cal fail­ures per mil­lion miles for Metro.

But Metro Gen­eral Man­ager Paul J. Wiede­feld has been care­ful not to use New York’s wors­en­ing prob­lems as a foil for what’s hap­pened with Metro — es­pe­cially be­cause his high-pro­file hires, Metro’s chief safety of­fi­cer Pa­trick Lavin and chief op­er­a­tions of­fi­cer Joseph Leader, were both brought to Wash­ing­ton last year af­ter spend­ing most of their ca­reers at the MTA.

“It’s not just the MTA,” Wiede­feld said re­cently. “We all have sim­i­lar is­sues that we deal with. San Fran­cisco is deal­ing with ma­jor is­sues, Philadel­phia, Bos­ton . . . . It’s across the board. There are things we could learn from each other.”

And, in Schrag’s mind, New York’s strug­gles also high­light the com­plex­ity of Metro’s prob­lems. To many Wash­ing­ton-area res­i­dents, the root of Metro’s re­li­a­bil­ity and safety is­sues are found in sim­ple, struc­tural is­sues: It lacks a two-track sys­tem. There’s a com­pli­cated multi-ju­ris­dic­tional gov­er­nance struc­ture. There’s no ded­i­cated rev­enue source.

But New York’s MTA has all of those things, Schrag pointed out — and yet still couldn’t man­age to avoid a pre­cip­i­tous de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in the qual­ity of ser­vice.

“Tran­sit is hard,” he sum­ma­rized.

But the shared woes at Metro and the MTA are even more stark be­cause of the his­toric dif­fer­ences be­tween the two agencies. The Wash­ing­ton Metropoli­tan Area Tran­sit Author­ity was con­ceived and de­signed in large part to be ev­ery­thing the MTA wasn’t, ac­cord­ing to Schrag. New York’s sub­way was con­sid­ered dirty and crime-rid­den, and its sta­tions cramped and in­el­e­gant. (The New York sub­way had such neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions in Wash­ing­ton that of­fi­cials avoided call­ing their plans for Metro a “sub­way” sys­tem, and in­stead opted for the more be­nign sound­ing “rapid tran­sit” sys­tem.)

Metro, in com­par­i­son, was con­ceived to be much grander, brighter and more fu­tur­is­tic. Of course, the re­al­i­ties of the two sys­tems have often over­lapped. In 1977, just a year af­ter Metro opened, a rider be­moaned to The Wash­ing­ton Post that the break­downs and de­lays he ex­pe­ri­enced on the new sys­tem re­minded him of the worst of the MTA.

Then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, New York’s sys­tem got much worse. Sched­uled main­te­nance fell far short of the sys­tem’s needs. De­rail­ments were a weekly event. Rid­er­ship de­clined rapidly. The MTA em­barked on an ag­gres­sive turn­around cam­paign that re­built a large por­tion of the sub­way’s tracks and put the sys­tem on a path to suc­cess for years to come.

That come­back was part of what in­spired Metro’s year-long SafeTrack main­te­nance project, which con­cluded last month. With short, in­tense pe­ri­ods of round-the-clock re­pair work, a tran­sit agency could wrench it­self back from the brink and win back le­gions of rid­ers.

Mor­timer L. Downey, a for­mer Metro board chair­man and for­mer ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer at the MTA, said New York’s re­cent chal­lenges demon­strate the pre­car­i­ous state of any tran­sit sys­tem de­pen­dent on decades-old in­fra­struc­ture.

No mat­ter how good a sys­tem might ap­pear, he said, just a few years of in­ad­e­quate main­te­nance can bring an agency tee­ter­ing to the edge of fail­ure.

“It’s aw­ful easy to slip back­ward,” Downey said. “You’re only as good as your last rush hour.”

But, he pointed out, Metro must also use New York’s chal­lenges as a warn­ing of prob­lems that may come down the road. The MTA, he said, is “a pris­oner of its own suc­cess.” The sys­tem is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing its high­est rid­er­ship in decades, and the chronic over­crowd­ing on trains leads to sys­temwide de­lays when trains at sta­tions through­out the rail net­work must idle for longer to al­low throngs of rid­ers to alight and dis­em­bark.

Some­day, Downey said, that might be a press­ing prob­lem for Metro, too.

“Metro bet­ter start think­ing about what hap­pens if they ever get to a mil­lion pas­sen­gers per day,” he warned.

Metro rid­ers, mean­while, say New York­ers’ whin­ing about the MTA is much ado about noth­ing.

D.C. res­i­dent Matthew Ja­cobs, 37, was among those who took to Twit­ter to make his own (slightly off-color) jokes about Cuomo’s dec­la­ra­tion. He com­mutes daily from his home near Shaw to his of­fice near the Fran­co­nia-Spring­field sta­tion. De­lays are a given. No way New York’s prob­lems are even close to Metro’s, he said. Be­sides, he vis­its New York fre­quently and never has prob­lems.

“Here in Wash­ing­ton, this is a sys­tem that’s been in de­cline at least since the early 2000s,” Ja­cobs said. “The MTA stuff — they’ve had some hiccups lately, but it’s noth­ing like this, like SafeTrack. They still have a world-class sys­tem.”

SALWAN GE­ORGES/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Commuters in­side the Wood­ley Park-Zoo sta­tion. Af­ter a year of SafeTrack, Metro rid­ers are fa­mil­iar with New York’s sub­way woes.

SPENCER PLATT/GETTY IMAGES

ABOVE: Peo­ple wait for a sub­way to ar­rive in New York City. Fol­low­ing a se­ries of break­downs, de­lays and po­lit­i­cal fin­ger­point­ing, Gov. An­drew Cuomo has de­clared a state of emer­gency for the sub­way sys­tem, just as Metro chief Paul Wiede­feld did in 2016 when he launched SafeTrack re­pairs.

KATHY WILLENS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

RIGHT: New York Pub­lic In­ter­est Re­search Group’s Straphang­ers rep­re­sen­ta­tive Jaqi Co­hen, far left, and Michael Scia­raffo, second left, join tran­sit ad­vo­cates in a rally out­side Cuomo’s of­fice. Protesters are de­mand­ing ad­e­quate fund­ing to fix the city’s ail­ing sub­way sys­tem.

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