Do we really need a competition to fix the MTA?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is organizing a contest to find ideas to modernize the MTA. That's not a terrible idea, but will it really make the trains run on time?
Gov. Andrew Cuomo is organizing a contest to find ideas to modernize the MTA. That’s not a terrible idea, but will it really make the trains run on time? Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

With the subway so delay-prone and packed, it’s now possible to read five riders’ subway-horror-story tweets over their shoulders at the same time (thank you underground Wi-Fi). The always-simmering MTA issue has reached political consciousness.

That means that advocates and straphangers are pressing Gov. Andrew Cuomo because he appoints the MTA’s leaders and a plurality of its board.

Given the growing subway woes, he spent much of last week trying to convince New Yorkers that he wasn’t responsible for the terrible service. But Tuesday, he reasserted some measure of control, with a free-wheeling speech and Power Point presentation including a suggestion for state control of Penn Station and the strident words “I understand the challenge, but I reject that it is impossible” written on a slide.

Recruiting big thinkers on transit

As for the subways, he came up with a new idea for the MTA: an international “Genius Transit Challenge” that would award $1 million each to winners who come up with a way to modernize and improve the system.

What kind of ideas, if any, will this elicit, and will they have an impact? To get a sense, I talked to one of the unpaid judges of the new contest: Balaji Prabakhar, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford University who says Cuomo’s representatives reached out to him last week.

Prabhakar got into transit by designing an incentive system to reduce bus crowding for an information technology company in Bangalore, India.

The idea was to offer “travel rewards” such as points toward lotteries to get people to commute at off-peak times. That can reduce congestion. The system doubled the number of off-peak commuters to the Bangalore facility, according to a report in The Economist. Prabakhar’s idea was soon taken up by places like Singapore and Stanford, leading to a transit tech company Prabakhar started with colleagues and ex-Google employees.

In Cuomo’s challenge, there are eight judges who range from transit professionals to venture capital managers to the incoming chancellor of SUNY, who was trained as an engineer. Prabakhar might be the most unusual and potentially dynamic

The system Prabakhar is known for is a sort of happier take on congestion pricing, the controversial idea that has been a lodestar in NYC: charge drivers who come into the city and use those funds to improve mass transit.

Perhaps the contest will bring to light tech solutions to some of the longstanding problems that Cuomo identified in the subway’s signal system and its old and often malfunctioning cars.

Prabakhar says he has been to NYC and ridden its subways “as a visitor” and will withhold his own suggestions until he learns more about NYC’s specific problems: just as a doctor won’t know what prescription to make pre-examination, “one must understand more before one speaks.”

Ideas aren’t our problem

Still, the underlying issues are well known; in particular the ancient signal system that slows down cars, parts of which date to when the New Deal was new.

On Tuesday, some subway advocates applauded Cuomo’s interest in those granular, perennially tough to fix issues but worried that the new plan didn’t include any definite new monetary commitments to make some fixes beyond the contest prizes.

Jon Orcutt, advocacy director of the think tank TransitCenter, also pointed to a come and gone 2014 MTA “Reinvention Commission” — the agency hasn’t exactly been reinvented since then — saying he hoped the contest wasn’t a “distraction from buckling down on clear needs like expediting subway signal replacement.”

Cuomo seems to like to govern by contest: he runs similar trials to spur statewide economic development with mixed results, sometimes dubbed the Cuomo Hunger Games.

The MTA did not release a full schedule for the contest, but Cuomo “challenged” the agency to get started within a month. Maybe that will unearth a fresh solution to trim off some of the expected half-century wait for modern subway signals.

In the meantime, expect things to stay crowded.