Wanted: Subway Genius

Wanted: Subway Genius by Ari KellenThe song “Charlie on the MTA”, made famous by the folk group the Kingston Trio, tells the story of a man trapped on the Boston subways because of an MTA fare hike.  It’s a goofy song, and the story behind it is absurd, but it highlights the people of Boston’s dissatisfaction with their subway system.  And while New York and Boston are different in numerous regards, in that they can at least agree (even if their reasons for dissatisfaction are a little different).  Even Governor Cuomo seems to agree; yesterday, when addressing a crowd at CUNY Graduate Center, he challenged the MTA to look internationally for “groundbreaking and innovative solutions” for the crowding and delays for which our subways have become infamous.  And if the best solution requires funding beyond the $8 billion committed by the State to the MTA, then Cuomo has promised to find a way to pay for it.  

Cuomo’s “MTA Genius Transit Challenge” has called for three different categories: 1) signal system overhauls, 2) new subway car designs or overhauls to the preexisting ones and 3) WiFi and cell service throughout the subways.  The winner in each category will win $1 million.  When discussing the challenge, Cuomo compared other cities and their metro systems.  Copenhagen, for example, has driverless electric trains with open-ended cars, while every station in Hong Kong has high-speed Wi-Fi.  He argued that the technology is out there in different cities, for New York it’s just a matter of utilizing that technology to good use.

This comes as a different approach from before; as recently as last week, Cuomo was trying to distance himself from the MTA.  Watchdogs and advocates have expressed their approval of Cuomo’s initiative, but still have concerns about what an actual plan would entail.  Under Cuomo, the State has appropriated $5.4 billion of a promised $8 billion in capital funding for the project, yet that only becomes available after the MTA drains all of its capital resources from previous years.  To be implemented in New York City, many of the transit innovations that have worked in different cities could end up being more costly due to both a 24-hour system and the complexities from navigating preexistng infrastructure.  

Cuomo has also expressed his willingness to take over renovations of Penn Station from Amtrak and prioritize the Gateway Tunnel project, which would expand the rail line between Newark and Manhattan.  Doing this, however, would require federal, State and private funding, and how that’s going to happen remains to be seen.  

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