In Transit: Once and future plans to improve the MTA


This article is part of In Transit, an ongoing series of articles, essays and illustrations about transportation in New York City. To pitch a story or submit an idea, email

In September, Governor Andrew Cuomo told a press conference that “if you look closely, you see improvements,” in the New York City subway, as the room full of reporters presumably combusted in a cloud of transit-based rage.  Or I certainly did when I read about it. 

In my 33 years of life in New York City, getting around town on public transportation has never been as difficult as it has been over the last three or so years. There are nearly 75,000 subway delays per month, and only a small handful of lines have a more than 70% on-time rate. I used to live a life blissfully unaware of transit infrastructure. When a train stopped between stations, I did not always imagine that the train car was my new apartment, the other passengers my new roommates. I did not spend hours of my life researching signaling systems, reading transit blogs or detailing to the staffers answering the phones at Governor Cuomo’s Albany office how he’s ruining my life.

Complicating the situation, and preventing progress, is the question of who is responsible for the subways, which the mayor and the governor have spent much of the year arguing about, though to be fair, it’s not a new conflict. The MTA owns the subway, and the New York State governor controls the MTA, appointing the chairman and the majority of the voting board members. Still, New York City is responsible for capital funds, and some mayors, like Bloomberg and Koch, have had a more hands-on approach when it comes to advocating for the subway than say, de Blasio, who has faced criticism from many transit advocates. Still, said advocates generally suggest that New Yorkers direct their subway ire toward Governor Cuomo, as he still technically controls the MTA. And around it goes.

There is a glimmer of hope, though. Some of my research has pointed to very reasonable options for improving the system. Below is a sampling of solutions–funding mechanisms that could improve service, the signaling system (and resulting on-time trains) that Londoners currently enjoy and New Yorkers may someday benefit from, a new line nearly lost to the dustbin of history, and what transit advocates would like to see happen when the L train shuts down for long overdue repairs in 2019.

The funding fixes: Congestion pricing and the millionaires tax

Congestion pricing means charging drivers to enter the highest-trafficked areas of the city during the busiest times, and adding tolls to the currently free Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro Bridges bridges. The details vary, but one plan, developed by Move NY and former NYC traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz, recommends a $5.54 toll on the bridges, as well as for drivers coming into Manhattan below 60th street during peak hours. The funds would be used for the MTA. Governor Cuomo has belatedly, and reluctantly, embraced this plan. Move NY estimates that it would raise approximately $1.5 billion per year for our ailing transit system.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is against congestion pricing, which former Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried and failed to put into place nearly a decade ago. De Blasio claims that it unfairly hurts low-income, car-owning New Yorkers. He prefers the millionaire’s tax, which would impose a .5% increase in income taxes for the wealthiest New Yorkers, raising the rate to 4.4% from 3.9% for married couples who earn above $1 million and for individuals who make more than $500,000. This plan would earn less than congestion pricing; the projections predict about $700-800 million in revenue yearly. Given the mayor and governor’s long-standing feud, it’s hard to say whether they’ll be able to pause their pissing contest and agree on a solution. Though, there’s nothing that says they couldn’t approve both proposals and fund some gold-plated G trains. Just saying. 

L Train Shutdown Help

Starting in April of 2019, the L train will be shut down between Brooklyn and Manhattan for 15 months in order to repair the damage that Hurricane Sandy caused to the Canarsie Tunnel. The line will continue to operate in Brooklyn, between Bedford Avenue and Rockaway Parkway.

The MTA is already looking at increasing service on G, J, M and Z, as well as expanding options for bus service, both from Brooklyn to Manhattan and across 14th Street in Manhattan. As AMNY reports:

  • J and Z trains would run local between Myrtle and Marcy avenues in order to support increased demand at stations in South Williamsburg.
  • Free transfers would be available between the L train at Livonia Avenue and the 3 train at Junius Street, and between the G train at Broadway and the Lorimer Street J, M and Z.
  • The M train would run to and from 96th Street-Second Avenue on weekends and overnights.

Transit advocates believe both the MTA and the Department of Transportation can do more to support and expand bus service, as well as use the shutdown time to make additional improvements to stations.

“Right now some of the stations will not have any circulation improvements or accessibility improvements, or aesthetic improvements made while they’re closed,” says Kate Slevin, Vice-President of State Programs and Advocacy for the Regional Plan Association. “If you made some improvements to the 8th Avenue station, you could have the trains come into the station faster. And this would allow more service, more trains per hour to run, which would benefit the entire L train corridor.”

In terms of buses, Slevin and RPA want the MTA to go beyond adding additional lines and improving the infrastructure available to those lines. “Get them designated lanes,” she suggested in a phone interview, “Get them out of the traffic. Install something called transit signal priority, that allows buses to speed through traffic lights. It gives them priority when they come up to a light to turn the light green so they can go. That all can help improve the bus system and be a model for fixing the rest of the citywide system.”

Ultimately, Slevin believes that the L train shutdown, if done right, could be a model for future shutdowns that might even finally implement other long overdue repairs, like the signal system we’ll talk about in a minute. Slevin says that it’s a chance for the MTA to “show riders that this is something that could really be modern, and that these shutdowns are worth it, they might be something you’d consider to fix other parts of the subway system. And do it faster and cheaper.”

The Signal Overhaul: Communication Based Train Control

Signals are the nervous system for New York’s 472 subway stations. Unfortunately, the system that is currently responsible for hauling about 5.7 million passengers each weekday date back to the 1930s. Block signaling, as it’s called, is so outdated it can’t determine exactly where trains are on a given line.

As a recent Village Voice article explained, “Each signal indicates the status of one segment of track, generally around one thousand feet long. If a train is anywhere in that stretch—even if it’s just the last wheel of the final car—the block is marked as occupied and any trains in the block behind must halt.” This means trains have to run further apart, and if there’s a signal problem in one section, the remaining sections behind are screwed.

Twenty years ago, the MTA began planning to upgrade the entire system with Communication Based Train Control (CBTC), a computerized system for coordinating train traffic. It allows trains to run closer together, so more trains can run at the same time, and can absorb more riders. London installed CBTC on four of its 10 lines, and it has allowed the city to accommodate an increase in riders without an increase in delays. Twenty years into the MTA’s planned upgrade, only the L train has CBTC, and the still-unfinished process of upgrading the 7 train has already taken seven years. At this rate, it will take until 2045 to update the entire system, unless the state and city manage to agree on a new funding source for the project.

The Utica Line would run along Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, the green line, above.

A Line a Century in the Making: Utica Avenue

Delays have been a part of the subway experience, both for daily commutes and for new service, and the long-promised Utica Avenue line is a prime example. A 1910 article in The New York Times said there was a “strong movement” in favor of constructing a new line along Utica Avenue, which today would be a spur off the 4 train, serving East Flatbush down to Flatlands, currently a transportation dead zone. A 2015 Times article points out three major campaigns for it, in 1910, 1928, and and the 1970s. That last attempt was foiled by then-City Council Member Monroe Cohen, who claimed there weren’t enough people to support the line.

In 2015, Mayor de Blasio disagreed, and once again revived the idea as part of his OneNYC plan. He asked the MTA to study the potential for bringing 3 and 4 train service from Eastern Parkway through East Flatbush.

The Shiny, Futuristic Streetcar: BQX

In February of 2016, the BQX was announced with much fanfare as the shiny, new answer to the city’s transit woes, particularly along the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront. It was a proposed 14-mile route from Astoria, Queens to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, along the way linking Long Island City, Williamsburg, DUMBO, Red Hook, and other waterfront neighborhoods. While it would use already installed rails from other abandoned projects along the route, the cars would still need to be built.

The city estimated the cost would be $2.5 billion, generating an estimated economic impact of $25 billion over the following 30 years, mostly because the city assumed that the property taxes of the neighborhood along the line would increase, a process known as value capture. Opponents were rightfully concerned that value capture was a euphemism for displacing the former, poorer residents of the neighborhoods along the BQX line, and replacing them with wealthier residents who could afford the higher property taxes.

A confidential memo leaked to Politico NY in April 2017 however, reveals that perhaps the project won’t pay for itself, as de Blasio administration officials initially thought. As Dana Rubinstein in Politico NY wrote:

“Among the ‘four serious challenges’ listed in the memo is the following: ‘Value Capture not providing sufficient revenue to fund the entire project as originally stated.’  In part, that’s because, as the memo also notes, it’s really expensive to move and rehabilitate the water, gas and sewer mains that lie along the streetcar’s proposed path between Sunset Park and Astoria.”

While the city is unsure, the non-profit organization created to develop the project, Friends of the BQX, remains optimistic. They expect a new feasibility analysis to be complete by the end of the year, and executive director, Ya-Ting Liu, told Greenpointers that they’ll break ground by 2020, and that “New Yorkers can expect to take their first ride on the BQX by 2024.”

These are just a few of the many complex ways in which getting around New York City may, or may not improve over the next few years. What’s clear is that this is a watershed moment as the city’s population grows, and questions of access and affordability multiply. While Americans are becoming civically engaged at a national level, this is one area where you could direct some of that energy locally, to positive effect. Go to City Council hearings on transportation, call your council members, and most importantly, call the governor. Our city’s infrastructure and livability depend on it.

One Response

  1. Tony Geinzer -

    I hate to make it more about Cuomo and less about the MTA, but, I feel like Cuomo has not won any favors either upstate or in the 5 Boroughs. And, as a Racing Fan, I feel Cuomo lost my back when he prorated Super Dirt Week and made a mockery after freeing up the Moody Mile which I felt Richie Evans would have been flip over that, even though he passed 32 Years Ago Today, even though I hate to be a rehash just to be one. And, I feel the root of letting the MTA rot is cavalier mayors/governors who let themselves go on a great state..


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