An undated photo of an LIRR train. The MTA has...

An undated photo of an LIRR train. The MTA has been having a rough start to 2020 following the removal of 300 subway cars from the tracks and the resignation of New York City Transit chief Andy Byford. Credit: Newsday File/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority had a tough first five weeks of the year.

Most recently, the MTA was faulted by its inspector general for how the Long Island Rail Road addresses derailments and other safety incidents. The LIRR has promised to look for ways to improve.

Last month, the MTA had to take a fleet of 300 relatively new subway cars off the tracks after problems with their car doors, the latest in a series of issues for one of the MTA’s key contractors, Bombardier Transportation.

Then, the authority lost its rock-star New York City Transit chief, Andy Byford, who announced his resignation late last month. A day later, Byford’s signals guru, Pete Tomlin, announced plans to follow suit.

Amid those efforts to reform its operations, the nation’s largest public transit authority is on the cusp of beginning an enormous $51.5 billion capital program. It’s a pivotal moment.

And while it has seen improvements in on-time performance and ridership for both the subway and the LIRR, the MTA also faces significant budgetary concerns and key questions about how it attracts and oversees its contractors, keeps talent internally, and completes critical construction projects.

Good help hard to find

In the short term, finding a new New York City Transit head is key, as is keeping the talented managers underneath that top spot. Similarly important is maintaining progress at the LIRR, and opening the door for continued new thinking there. LIRR President Phillip Eng told the editorial board that he’s “not going anywhere.” That’s a good sign.

Even as the authority tries to retain personnel, it also must address how it handles its outside contractors. The subway cars problem highlights what has been a constant trouble spot for the authority. The same few contractors with whom the MTA regularly works have spotty records and, in the past, there hasn’t been enough oversight or sufficient repercussions for jobs poorly done.

Bombardier, for instance, was delayed in delivering the new subway cars, only to have door problems once they were in place. It’s also partly responsible for delays and issues with getting new safety technology known as positive train control up and running in the LIRR.

Then there’s Judlau Contracting, which was just awarded the contract to build the new Elmont station along the LIRR’s Main Line on the north end of Belmont Park. The station, and its timely completion, are instrumental to the ongoing development at Belmont, and important for the region’s continued need for expanded public transit. Yet Judlau may be best known for delays and complications in completing the Second Avenue Subway stations, and for the additional problems it had in reopening a downtown Manhattan subway station.

MTA officials note, however, that Judlau more recently was tasked with rehabbing the Sandy-damaged L subway train tunnel, and that work is on schedule. The MTA also promises times have changed, that oversight is far better now, and that its ability to use a more streamlined process known as design-build is game-changing.

But the onus is on the authority to better coordinate with and manage its contractors, to make sure deadlines are met and that the quality of the work isn’t subpar, and to do its part to provide the workers, track outages to allow for work, and time to allow the work to get done. Greater scrutiny, added metrics, and more monitoring to catch problems before they happen, are benchmarks that must be part of the mix. The success to date on the LIRR’s third-track project can be a model, but the MTA still has a lot to prove.

Way forward

Ultimately, finding new partners to build train cars and stations, rehab tunnels and install new signals also has to be part of the answer. As the MTA attempts to transform itself into a better-run organization, it should look for additional ways to upend its contracting process, to make it easier and more enticing for new companies to work here.

MTA officials and state lawmakers also should reevaluate new legislation that mandates the debarment of contractors under certain circumstances. While it could help keep contractors on track, the measures must not go too far, to the point of frightening potential bidders away.

Thinning the ranks even further is the broader national concern over doing business with foreign contractors, particularly those in China like CRRC Corp. National security concerns must be addressed, but the MTA must find ways to welcome international firms with new technology and innovative products into the mix.

As the MTA tries to remake itself, its executives, including new leaders who are brought in, must have the freedom and latitude to present new ideas.

Also important: New York State and New York City must contribute their share, at $3 billion each, to fully fund the capital plan, which includes important initiatives to make the system more physically accessible. Meanwhile, to get the rest of the money it needs, the MTA must get on with its plan to toll New York City roads. That starts with forming the Traffic Mobility Review Board, whose work should be public, that will establish the pricing and other details.

After a rough start, the MTA has a lot to do to smooth the ride ahead. 

—The editorial board


Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months