MTA subway system could improve with monthslong shutdowns, experts say

Short-term train pain could lead to long-term gain, experts say, if the MTA would consider increasing the volume of weeks- or monthslong service outages along subway lines.

Consider it like a smaller-scale version of the impending 15-month long L train shutdown beginning in 2019. Several stations along a line could be taken completely out of service, full-time, for weeks or months as the agency makes infrastructure improvements.

It’s an idea gaining popularity as riders fume through an ever-increasing number of service interruptions, including on Tuesday when signal problems hobbled the morning rush hour along at least seven trains. With such a high frequency of delays, the logic holds that maybe it’s worth shutting down service and updating aging equipment all at once.

“It’s almost like ripping the Band-Aid off and dealing with the problems in a concentrated way,” said Veronica Vanterpool, an MTA board member and executive director of the Tri-State Transportation campaign, who pitched an expansion of the agency’s Fastrack program at an MTA committee meeting on Monday.

Introduced in 2012, the program brings full overnight service closures — usually for five days at a time — to expedite construction and maintenance on segments of different lines.

“If the MTA expanded the Fastrack program, it would certainly be an inconvenience. But we’re inconvenienced already,” Vanterpool said.

Agency brass are quick to point out that 24-hour subway service complicates efforts to tackle routine infrastructure maintenance and modernization because workers only have so much time on the tracks. A recent analysis from the city’s Independent Budget Office looked back to 2005 and found that the majority of repair projects to the MTA’s signal system — essentially the traffic lights of the subways — were delayed.

“These things take so long because, if you’re doing work during an overnight period, you spend all this time setting up and breaking down at the site every night,” said Rich Barone, vice president for transportation at the Regional Plan Association, who also supports the concept of longer-term shutdowns. “So in an eight-hour shift, you might get three or four hours of work out of it.”

Meanwhile, subway service delays have soared by more than 200 percent, from 18,255 in November 2012 to 60,274 in November 2016. The network’s ancient signal system is a common culprit.

About 30 percent of that system hasn’t been updated since 1965, agency officials said earlier this year. The MTA in a tweet blamed Tuesday morning’s service meltdown on “1930s era” signal interlocking at the 34th Street-Herald Square station. At its current rate, the MTA believes that it would take 50 years to install a modern signaling system such as Communications-Based Train Control throughout the subway network.

“Don’t have us down there for half an hour or 45 minutes because that’s not acceptable,” said Melquan Middleton, 21, of East New York, on subway delays. “I’d rather them start shutting down service that won’t affect as many people and make it better for the future than to keep having these delays.”

Barone stressed the agency would have to prove to the riding public that any extended outages would bring tangible improvements in areas ranging from service to the physical elements of subway stations.

While he’d like to see more station improvements included in the L train shutdown plan, he said it could be a test for this type of work: If the MTA could successfully reroute about 250,000 L train riders each day, it could manage outages elsewhere.

“There’s been a realization for the last decade or so that trying to work within the 24-7 confines of the subway system is a big disadvantage that doesn’t allow us to maintain and improve and modernize the system,” Barone continued. “The MTA has been incrementally leaning towards longer service outages with Fastrack and other station closures. This is the next logical step.”

Other riders see it that way, too.

“The fares keep going up too and nothing is being fixed,” said Faith Hoops, 24, of the Upper East Side. “You need the lines, but in order to progress in the future they need to be shut down. I’d like to see some sort of shuttle service while they shut down lines for repairs. Or an app that provides alternative routes for you, as opposed to just finding out you can’t take the train you need to this weekend.”

Though the MTA hasn’t announced any such plans, a source with knowledge of the agency’s planning said the idea of full-time service shutdowns is being considered seriously.

“Certainly the issue of providing better track access is something that we need to continue to look at and to continue to improve, while at the same time minimizing the impact, obviously, on our riders,” said Wynton Habersham, the acting vice president of the Department of Subways, at the MTA committee meeting Monday.

It’s unclear what such a program would look like and there are a lot of questions. How long would the outages last? How often would they occur? And how would they be funded? John Raskin, the executive director at Riders Alliance, is open to the idea, but warned that even if it’s a success, it wouldn’t be the cure-all for an agency that still faces managerial and operational issues.

“There needs to be a comprehensive vision for improving subway service that has to address equipment, management, construction practices and a whole host of different issues,” Raskin said. “That said, improving the subways is going to require some inconvenience of riders. Riders will understand that and deal with it in the short term if it leads to long-term improvements.”