New York MTA builds on innovation partnership to upgrade signals

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New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, as it prepares its $51.5 billion, five-year capital program proposal for a state review board, is looking for ways to modernize its aging mass-transit system.

The MTA and the Transit Innovation Partnership have launched their latest collaboration that will include a bidding conference to solicit technological innovations and proposals for reimagining signal systems.

The announcement builds on the association with the Transit Innovation Partnership, a public-private initiative between the authority and the business group Partnership for New York City.

It comes days after the MTA's release of its 2020-2024 MTA capital plan, on which the board is scheduled to vote Wednesday. The plan calls for more than $50 billion in critical infrastructure and modernization investments, including $7 billion that would go directly toward resignaling six subway lines through new technology.

The MTA is one of the largest municipal issuers with roughly $44 billion in debt as of August, including special obligation bonds and Hudson Rail Yards trust obligations.

“The reality is that the backbone of the subway system itself is its aging signal system. The MTA deserves credit for stabilizing the system over the last year but true modernization cannot take place without robust improvements to the subway’s aging signals,” Rachel Haot, executive director of the Transit Innovation Partnership, said during Friday's tech conference at the Javits Center on Manhattan’s West Side.

Haot is the former the former chief digital officer for New York City and New York State.

Accrding to MTA chief development officer Janno Lieber, the ongoing work on the L-train Canarsie tunnel between Manhattan and Brooklyn can be a model for innovation.

"We're going to have to develop lessons learned, both good and bad, from our recent experience on some of the projects that have gone well like this one, and projects that haven't gone as well, both for ourselves but also to frame our project approach for the next capital program," Lieber told members of the board's transit and bus committee on Monday.

"We hire a lot of very capable engineers, many through the civil service process. We don't generally hire project managers," Lieber said. "We don't generally cultivate a culture of project management, historically, and I think we need to do more of that."

Lieber said MTA officials plan to talk with academic institutions and sister agencies.

The subways have long run on a fixed block signaling system. Though still able to move millions, the aging infrastructure frequently poses challenges and requires near-constant maintenance work. Modern signaling like communications-based train control enables trains to interact more easily.

The MTA also announced the creation of the University Partnership for Adaptive Technologies & Mass Transit Innovation.

Under this partnership, Cornell Tech, New York University and Columbia University will create a joint working group that will coordinate with the MTA — particularly its new research, development and innovation office — as well as the Transit Innovation Partnership, to leverage the intellectual capital of faculty and students.

Friday’s conference featured presentations from executives from divisions and departments across the MTA.

The program includes full funding for Phase 2 of the north-south Second Avenue subway line along Manhattan's East Side from a mixture of federal and local sources.

Systemwide priority initiatives funded by the plan include signal modernization, new subway cars, station accessibility, station improvements and track replacement.

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Infrastructure Transportation industry Metropolitan Transportation Authority New York