A crisis is spreading across the region. Let’s not waste it.
The execrable performance of the Long Island Rail Road and New York City Transit, as well as the intolerable experience that is Penn Station, won’t be tolerated any longer. The summer of hell and the ripple effect of more cars on the roads will expand the misery through the region. The economic consequences are real and the quality-of-life declines are unacceptable.
This breaking point can be a memorable time of transition — with new leadership and new voices — and bold decisions on big projects, including the LIRR’s third track.
With his appointment of Joseph Lhota as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s new chairman, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo provided the agency with a proven leader and perhaps broke the fever of outrage holding him accountable. Lhota served the MTA well as chairman during and after superstorm Sandy, skillfully steering it through the disaster.
But today’s challenges may be larger.
First, there’s the short-term pain. It seems that everything is breaking at once, as antiquated signals, tracks and trains lead to delays. Cuomo may regret the wireless network he enabled for commuters, for now we see some of the horror in real time, flowing through Twitter and Facebook. Posts about LIRR trains with leaky roofs, and stopped, steamy F trains form a running commentary about a miserable life on the rails. Is it really worse, or are we just more aware of the service flaws?
It doesn’t make a difference.
Then, there are vitally important long-term projects. First among them is the $1.95 billion third track along 9.8 miles of the Main Line between Floral Park and Hicksville — a plan Lhota fully supports. In addition to providing many new benefits to communities along the route, the third track would allow for more service at peak times and provide an escape hatch when one track goes down, minimizing disruptions. The capital plan goes into effect at the end of this week, unless Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan orders a veto. He should know that blowing a plan almost 40 years in the making will be a mistake.
The third track is part of a far bigger picture. The LIRR is a vital economic engine for the region. Commuters bring $30 billion in wages home to Long Island each year, and delays and cancellations can result in tens of millions of dollars in lost productivity. The third track and a better commute would add to home values, increase business and job opportunities and improve life here.
Lhota has to simultaneously work on both short-term fixes and upgrades, and long-term infrastructure planning. Then, he has to navigate the politics. Cuomo is in charge of the MTA, but Lhota has to have a free hand to make decisions. In overseeing a system responsible for an average weekday ridership of 8.7 million, he has a lot to do.
- The Team: Lhota first has to appoint a permanent executive director to oversee the MTA’s day-to-day operations. The interim director is Veronique Hakim, who was the head of NYC Transit. Would Lhota choose an insider like her, or someone more outside the box? Changing the MTA’s culture starts at the top.
- The Board: Last week saw a newly engaged, energetic and, at times, angry MTA board. That’s good for the MTA, and good for riders. Change can come — and the board can help push it forward.
- Communicating: It’s never been more important. Lhota has to get the right people to communicate with passengers in a timely manner, with constant updates. There’s an opportunity to use social media, including crowdsourcing, to pinpoint problems, to provide progress reports on the work being done, and to make sure riders know what’s closed when.
- Expertise: To bring the MTA into the 21st century, its management and workforce have to have skill sets for the 21st century. If they don’t have the skills, train them, or hire those who do.
- The Plan: Lhota should develop a specific plan to handle signal and track upgrades, tunnel improvements, new cars and more. Establish a clear timetables, address critical choke points and trouble spots first, and accelerate the work, even if it means closing subway lines temporarily to get it done more quickly. As one MTA board member said, we can’t wait decades to fix what took decades to fall apart.
- The Big Projects: Lhota can take a fresh look at big plans. Get the third track started, make it happen on time and on budget. Get East Side Access back on track, and commit to future phases of the Second Avenue Subway.
- The Funds: It’ll take more money and that means new funding streams. Start with congestion pricing and other elements of the innovative Move NY plan, such as tolling the East River bridges.
Lhota’s job is a big one. But before he rolls up his sleeves, the State Senate must let the third track become a reality. Then, the rest of the work can start.