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MTA’s plan to fix subway needs city, state

The MTA unveiled its $836 million subway improvement

The MTA unveiled its $836 million subway improvement plan Tuesday, July 25, 2017. Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

After decades of letting its 665 miles of subway track and 472 subway stations deteriorate, of letting drains clog, roofs leak, signals break down, and cars fall apart, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority finally is ready to fix its own house.

But we are left with two questions: Will New York City pay its fair share, and can the MTA get the job done?

The city should, and the MTA must.

Now, MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota has to prove the agency is up to the task. Six million subway riders a day are depending on him.

The subway plan Lhota unveiled Tuesday has practical fixes to problems he says account for nearly 80 percent of major incidents impacting subway service. There are 1,300 signals to fix and 40,000 street grates to unclog. There are rail joints to remove, power systems to upgrade, and specialized track-repair teams to dispatch. There’s equipment to bring in, staff to hire, and communication efforts to improve. And there are pilot programs to try, like removing seats on the L train and Times Square shuttle.

What’s more, Lhota is putting himself in the conductor’s seat. “Hold me accountable,” Lhota said. We will.

But such responsibility has to seep through the MTA, where employees need clear goals and timelines, along with consequences if neither is met. The unions must be partners, willing to do the work and take ownership of it.

Then there’s the question of how to pay for it. Lhota is right to suggest the state and city split the $836 million bill to fix the subway system — $456 million in operating funds and $380 million in capital investment. New York City owns the subway system; the state controls the MTA. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo committed Tuesday to the state’s share; Mayor Bill de Blasio wasn’t ready to do that, but he should meet with Lhota and find common ground. Going forward, the system can no longer be the subject of a political prize fight. The time for blame or taking subway rides for photo-ops has passed. Subway riders don’t care about that. They just want to get to work on time.

But de Blasio and Cuomo need assurances the MTA will do its job, the money will be spent properly, and the work will get done on time. City officials are right to have doubts, as the MTA doesn’t have the best track record on delivering projects on time or on budget. This subway rescue will require a culture shift at the massive bureaucracy. Communication is key. Lhota plans to create a public dashboard, similar to the New York Police Department’s Compstat, in the next six weeks. That should help.

Lhota said he hopes the work will make a difference within the next year. But that’s just the beginning, because to truly upgrade the system, the MTA needs to modernize its signals, cars and communication — work that could amount to $8 billion in the years to come. For that, the MTA will need to consider new revenue sources, including congestion pricing and East River bridge tolling.

For now, the initial plan will likely mean more fast-track programs, which could mean more short-term pain for riders when service is stopped at night or on weekends. But if that effort results in a stronger, safer, more reliable subway system, it will be worth the price.