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‘Emergency’ Break: Why is MTA Locked in Crisis Mode?

A look at the new "directional floor decals" through the new "double loop high ceiling stanchions."
A look at the new “directional floor decals” through the new “double loop high ceiling stanchions.” Both features were paid for under contracts struck during the MTA’s ongoing emergency period. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

As the subway slowly climbs out of its lowest point in decades, the MTA remains stuck in a state of emergency – as it has been for nearly two years.

And there doesn’t appear to be any end in sight to an executive order that’s allowed the MTA to sign off on more than $327 million in contracts to private companies without oversight from its own board since June 2017.

“The justification for a state of emergency gets weaker and weaker, the further away we get,” said Rachael Fauss, senior research analyst at Reinvent Albany, a good-government group. “It’s gone on much too long.”

It was June 29, 2017 — at the height of the so-called “Summer of Hell” and just days after an A train derailed in Harlem, injuring more than 30 subway riders — when Governor Andrew Cuomo declared, under something known as Executive Order 168, that the entire MTA was in a State of Emergency.

The 30-day order followed repeated subway meltdowns and other equipment failures that, according to the governor, “pose[d] an imminent threat” to the health and safety of commuters, as well as businesses in areas served by the MTA.

Intended largely to speed repairs throughout the subway system and at Penn Station — where multiple trains had derailed in the prior months — Emergency Order 168 suspended a series of laws so fixes could be put on a fast track.

A 22-month Renewal Streak

The governor has renewed the order for 22 straight months, allowing for purchases that have included: a $9.2 million consulting contract to boost signal and track reliability; $40 million for emergency signal power upgrades and; $3.1 million for mobile wash units to clean subway stations. Last week, a $17.9 million contract for signal and cable upgrades was approved.

The order also has allowed for somewhat seemingly less urgent “emergency” spending that included:
• a $188,892 contract for 6,600 “directional floor decals” pointing riders on where to turn when entering a subway train
• $2 million for PriceWaterhouse Coopers to administer last year’s “MTA Genius Transit Challenge,” an open call for ideas on how to improve the subway
• $200,823 for 1,356 “double loop high ceiling stanchions” for subway riders to clutch
•$971,000 to develop a “Trip Planner” using MTA data.

“I’ve seen some of the items and I don’t know what the emergency is,” said Andrew Albert, an MTA board member who represents the New York City Transit Riders Council.

And with MTA statistics pointing to an upswing in subway performance for the sixth straight month — the 37,119 weekday delays in February were the fewest in a month in nearly five years — critics question whether the state of emergency is still necessary.

“The state of emergency laws were no more intended for the MTA than the federal procedures were supposed to be for something like the border wall,” said Richard Brodsky, a former 14-term assemblyman and a frequent critic of the agency. “There are unfortunate parallels between the border wall declaration and the MTA declaration.”

No End in Sight

MTA officials defend the long-running state of emergency, saying it has been “very useful” in the push to turn around a subway system that, in February 2018, had 60,446 weekday delays.

“Significant improvement has been made,” Patrick Foye, the MTA’s new chairman, told reporters last month. “No one’s happy with the MTA’s current state of operations — New York City Transit, Long Island Rail Road or Metro-North — we’ve got a long way to go. Happily, we’re heading in the right direction.”

When asked by THE CITY, neither the MTA nor the governor’s office would commit to a date when the state of emergency could end.

An MTA board member who has frequently questioned some of the emergency spending said the handling of the executive order points to a lack of transparency.

“It matters,” said board member Veronica Vanterpool. “If the public feels their tax dollars are not being spent in the spirit of an emergency, then how does that impact public confidence in the MTA?”

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