Byford aims to clear the tracks on New York City Transit

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Andy Byford emphasized at Tuesday's committee meeting that his tenure as New York City Transit president won’t be business as usual.

Underscoring his challenge was the wave of questions he faced afterward from reporters about another major signal-related subway breakdown. This time, four signals went blank at the 59th Street and 5th Avenue station on the Upper East Side, affecting six lines.

“Days like this drive me crazy,” he said at Metropolitan Transportation Authority headquarters on 2 Broadway in lower Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon. “These things within our control, we will be exponentially better.”

Overhauling the MTA's subway and bus unit is no small task, he admitted. NYC Transit is responsible for 493 stations, including the Staten Island Railway, with an average age of 95 years; plus 913 platforms and 1,100 mezzanines.

Byford, the former head of transit systems in London and Toronto, struck an assertive tone in his thick British accent as he promised “a comprehensive review, pretty much from a blank sheet of paper.”

Amid the authority’s ongoing battles for operating and capital dollars, its quest for a reliable funding source and with federal, state and city support an open question, Byford is setting out to shake up the agency – and its seemingly intractable bureaucracy – from within.

“You have a monumental task ahead of you just to stabilize the current system,” said board member Scott Rechler.

Byford’s imprint even includes making meeting booklets easier to read and requiring managers to drill down further on data beyond the monotonal recitation of numbers that has been the bane of many board meetings.

“Our [senior vice presidents] are not going to read out what’s in the book,” he said. “They will summarize the key points because that’s a more professional and a more businesslike way of doings.”

Overcrowding, a convenient catch-all phrase of late for many of the MTA's maladies -- even regarding signal malfunctions -- is a symptom and not a cause, according to Byford.

“We’ll be drilling down into the data,” he said. "'Overcrowding’ is a fairly unscientific pot into where to put delays. It’s important how we categorize delays if we are to truly improve service. What is the underlying root cause and what compels a signal to fail in the first place. It’s like peeling back an onion.”

After rising for years, ridership has dropped off of late.

"It’s interesting that for the first time in our history, ridership is not keeping pace with the growth of population, which means something is wrong with the public transportation system because people are using alternative means of moving around,” Richard Ravitch, former MTA chairman and architect of its initial five-year capital plan in the early 1980s, said on a Bond Buyer podcast.

“The simple truth is that we always play catchup in a democratic society. We recognize the realities that are occurring and then adjust to them.”

New York City Transit has a $16 billion capital program for 2015 to 2019, a station improvement component of which totals $4 billion. That, said Byford, includes $950 million for station accessibility, $820 million for state of good repair and $425 million for elevator and escalator improvements.

The authority has spent $9 billion on station improvements since 2005.

Overall, the MTA is one of the largest municipal issuers with roughly $38.6 billion of debt as of Feb. 2.

According to chief financial officer Robert Foran, advance refunding transactions in December, before their expiration under the new federal tax law, resulted in net debt service savings of $161 million over the rolling financial plan.

In addition, said Foran, the authority will draw down $1.7 billion of capital cash balances in lieu of additional bonding this year, which will generate $252 million in debt service savings.

Safety components, said Byford, include fixes to platform edges, handrails and lighting elements.

Also under way is platform rebuilding along the N line, also called the Sea Beach Line, whose end point is Coney Island in Brooklyn. “You can’t call them cosmetic,” said Byford. “These stations are in a pretty dreadful state, actually.”

The fixes, said Byford, will help the authority prepare for its planned shutdown of the Canarsie Tunnel, which carries the L subway line from Eighth Avenue and 14th Street in Manhattan to Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. The shutdown will last for three months, starting in April 2019, to repair damage Hurricane Sandy inflicted in 2012. The L is one of only three crosstown subway lines in Manhattan.

The capital plan also earmarks $300 million for city-sponsored station projects designed to alleviate crowding; support key city economic development and housing strategies; and add capacity in areas undergoing rezoning.

Separately, the MTA appointed Catherine Rinaldi as the sixth president of Metro-North Railroad. Rinaldi has been its acting president since July 2017, and previously was its executive vice president.

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Infrastructure Transportation industry Joseph Lhota Andy Byford Metropolitan Transportation Authority New York