NEW YORK — Day after day, subway riders in New York City have voiced a steady drumbeat of grievances as the century-old system has descended into disarray.
Trains are unreliable. Rush hour malfunctions paralyze the city. When a train derailed in Manhattan this week, injuring dozens of people, it raised concerns over whether the subway was even safe.
On Thursday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the person most responsible for the subway’s fate, signed an executive order declaring a state of emergency, pledged $1 billion for improvements and moved to make it easier for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to buy badly needed equipment.
But even as Cuomo sounded the alarm, it remained to be seen whether his call to action would actually reverse the subway’s decline and change the daily experience of frustrated riders.
It had taken some prodding and a fusillade of criticism to bring Cuomo to this moment, but in his comments he seemed to acknowledge the immensity of the problem — and the potential political fallout if he did not address it quickly.
“The delays are maddening New Yorkers,” Cuomo said after rushing to Manhattan, from a special legislative session in the state Capitol, for an event organized to solicit ideas to fix the system. “They are infuriated by a lack of communication, unreliability and now accidents. Just three days ago, we literally had a train come off the tracks. It’s the perfect metaphor for the dysfunction of the entire system.”
Cuomo ordered Joseph J. Lhota, the new chairman of the authority, to provide a reorganization plan within 30 days.
Lhota should “design the best organization to get the job done,” the governor said, denouncing the performance of the authority, which he has controlled for more than six years. Within two months, Lhota is to present a detailed plan to address the subway’s most pressing ills.
Lhota said the authority would focus on customer communication, new technology and training of personnel. Transit officials also are examining new approaches to upgrade the subway’s antiquated signal system — a frequent reason for delays — and to buy new subway cars.
The governor’s comments came days after the derailment, an accident in Harlem that subway officials blamed on the failure to secure equipment during track repairs. Riders on a southbound A train had feared they would die after the train struck a tunnel wall and began to fill with smoke.
The number of subway delays has skyrocketed, and several recent disruptions have snarled service across the city, exacting an economic and mental toll on many residents. Transit activists have urged riders to send their complaints to Cuomo, since he controls the authority.
It turns out that the governor has been listening. The riders, Cuomo said Thursday, “they tweet nasty things about me all day.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio has quarreled with Cuomo over who should be held responsible for the subway’s dismal condition. But he praised the decision to hire Lhota, who helped bring the subway back after Hurricane Sandy during his previous tenure as chairman — and whom de Blasio defeated in the 2013 election. A spokesman for the mayor, Ben Sarle, said Thursday that New Yorkers deserved a transit system that worked.
“We are heartened to see these new resources and focus to reverse the deteriorating state of our subways,” Sarle said in a statement.
After facing criticism over choosing chauffeured rides over the subway, de Blasio has recently tried to display empathy for suffering riders. On Thursday, de Blasio took the subway from Madison Square Garden to City Hall, and his spokesman posted a photo of the mayor’s trip on Twitter to make sure it did not go unnoticed.
Cuomo’s executive order would allow the authority to accelerate efforts to improve service by temporarily suspending certain laws that might “hinder or delay action necessary to cope with the disaster.” Cuomo said the authority would need more resources to improve the system and called on state lawmakers to identify new funding sources.
“Today, New York state is going to put its money where its mouth is,” Cuomo said in announcing an additional $1 billion for the authority’s $32.5 billion capital improvement plan.
Still, transit activists wanted to know more details about where the money would come from and how quickly riders would see improvements in their daily commutes.
“The governor has stopped ignoring the problem, which is a vital first step,” said John Raskin, executive director of the Riders Alliance, an advocacy group. “Now he needs to produce a credible plan to fix the subway and to put together the billions of dollars we will need to make it happen.”
On Thursday, Lhota said he had not had much notice of the governor’s $1 billion pledge. “I heard about it a few seconds before you heard it,” he told reporters at the transit conference after Cuomo spoke. “My immediate thought was, it’s a new day in New York.”
Cuomo left the conference immediately after he addressed the group to return to Albany. Lhota said the executive order’s easing of procurement rules was “probably worth more than the billion dollars.” He said it would allow the authority to hire contractors to make repairs faster.
“The governor has made it clear he wants a new MTA, a new approach,” Lhota said. “We know what we need to do. He mentioned the subway’s aging signal system. We live in a digital age. Our signal system isn’t even analog. It’s mechanical.”
Parts of the signal system date to the 1930s, and without modern signals, the subway cannot run more trains to accommodate surging ridership.
Cuomo said it was unacceptable that it took seven years to install modern signals on a single line, and five years to build a subway car.
“That is just ridiculous,” Cuomo said. “I could build a car in five years.”
Richard Ravitch, the former MTA chairman credited with turning around the subway system in the 1980s, urged Lhota to focus on analyzing the immense needs and prioritizing “state of good repair,” an industry term meaning a system is receiving proper maintenance.
“What the authority needs,” Ravitch said, “is a board that is independent and spends its energy understanding what a state of good repair requires, and petitioning all political levels — state, city and federal — to get the resources it needs to achieve that.”
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