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The New York City subway is stuck in the past, but it can glimpse the future

Money for USB chargers, but not the next phase of the Second Avenue Subway

Preston Rescigno/Getty Images

New York City's subway system is many things: huge (469 stations); long (233 miles); old (112 years); valuable (the entire system is worth $1 trillion); and insanely, annoyingly, and dangerously congested (1.75 billion trips were made in 2014). One thing it is not, however, is futuristic.

Aside from a handful of touchscreen displays intended for lost tourists, and a limited train arrival countdown system that's about as modern as a sundial, the subway is decidedly stuck in the past. The equipment is old — some of it dates back to the 1930s — and it breaks down a lot. And when it does, people get delayed in the best-case scenario. In the worst, they're hurt, and sometimes die.

Hot, crowded, and flat funding

But over the next few years, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will undergo a series of upgrades intended to usher the aged, ungainly, and often broken transit system into the 21st century. Or at least it will look that way on the surface.

By the end of this year, all the underground stations will have Wi-Fi. Subway cars and buses will be equipped with USB charging ports. Thirty stations will be completely closed for several months to facilitate a total redesign. And the MetroCard, that flimsy, yellow piece of plastic that sometimes takes a dozen or more swipes at the turnstile to work, will be retired and replaced with a new payment system that will be mobile and contactless.

This was the vision that was sketched out last week by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in a speech delivered at the New York Transit Museum (an odd choice of venue, with its mise en scène of rusty signage and antique train cars). And to understand why the MTA is just now deciding to give its old, grizzled appearance a much needed facelift, you need to understand Andrew Cuomo's brand of governing.

For the better part of 2015, as train cars got slower and more crowded, Cuomo was content to completely ignore the MTA. The MTA's capital budget, a five-year, $32 billion plan that outlines how the subway system will both maintain its current level of service as well as expand and improve, was partially unfunded and way past due. The MTA's CEO and chairman, Thomas Prendergrast, spent the early part of 2015 crisscrossing the city, predicting further doom and decay if the MTA's capital budget was left to languish.

This was all very odd, considering the MTA is a state entity, and is completely under Cuomo's control. He appoints the chairman and a plurality of seats on the agency's Board of Trustees. And while most people would associate the MTA with New York City, it is very much a regional system, encompassing both the Long Island Rail Road and Metro North Railroad.

When he wasn't ignoring the MTA, Cuomo was throwing shade, like calling the capital budget "bloated" and suggesting its needs could be met without any new revenue sources. He tossed the MTA $750 million in early 2015 — just 5 percent of what it said it needed to fund its capital plan — and later demanded that capital plan be reduced by $3 billion. And when summer rolled around, the governor suddenly decided to make it his mission to needle New York City mayor Bill de Blasio to pay more into the capital plan than the city had historically contributed.

In the end, Cuomo won

The result was a bitter back-and-forth between the governor and the mayor, delicious fodder for the media but little solace for the millions of commuters forced to endure a stranger's armpit in their face while riding another crowded train.

In the end, Cuomo won; de Blasio promised to kick in $2.5 billion, or about 280 percent more than he originally said he would commit, while the state would contribute $8.3 billion. The mayor was able to eke out a few promises from the governor to stop raiding the MTA's budget for non-transit-related projects. But most experts saw the deal as a huge win for Cuomo. And to the victor, goes the spoils: the governor now could shape the MTA's plan for the future to his liking. Thus, Wi-Fi hotspots, USB charging stations, more countdown clocks, and a new fare payments system.

"Cuomo now wants to position himself as someone who can get the big ticket items accomplished," said Benjamin Kabak, who runs the transit blog Second Avenue Saga.

But whether Cuomo will get the money to kick off his modernization plan will rely on the approval of a handful of state lawmakers from upstate New York and Long Island, many of them Republicans, who view the MTA as a money suck of little use to their suburban and rural constituents. (Never mind the fact that workers who commute to the city from the suburbs using the MTA bring home $36 billion in income each year, according to a recent study.)

Those legislators want equal funding for upstate roads and bridges before approving such a large allocation of cash for the MTA, a "level of parity that just doesn't make sense," Kabak said. But once Cuomo works out a deal, the capital plan will get the green light, and then the real fun starts.

The governor has set a tight deadline for many of these projects: Wi-Fi by the end of the year; mobile ticketing for LIRR and Metro North within six months and the subway system by 2018; USB ports in 1,500 buses also by 2018. The station closures will create headaches for commuters, but will accelerate a redesign process from years to just a few months.

"It is very frustrating for subway riders."

"It is very frustrating for subway riders to have a station closed every night, or every weekend, for an entire year," said John Raskin, executive director of the Riders Alliance. "If you're able to get the work done quickly, keep nearby stations open so people don't have to go very far, and then restore the station to service soon, that's actually something people could appreciate."

Meanwhile, repairs from the devastation from Superstorm Sandy continue to cause their own brand of consternation. The L train tunnel, which connects Midtown Manhattan to hipster friendly haunts like Williamsburg and Bushwick in Brooklyn, could be completely shut down for a year to repair the damage wrought by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, according to a report in Gothamist.

Adam Lisberg, chief spokesperson for the MTA, said he was well aware of the agency's reputation for system failures and indefinite repairs. "We're trying to break that paradigm, that it's too slow and takes too long," he said. "That's why the governor is using design-build and new construction methods. But the onus is on us to improve."

A number of software and technology companies, like the California-based defense firm Cubic, have been waiting patiently for many months for the MTA to release its request for proposals for a new fare payment system. But the MTA can't release that request until it gets final approval for its capital plan from state lawmakers in Albany, who won't sign off until they get a cash commitment from the governor for upstate roads and bridges. It's a morass of red tape and political horse-trading that keeps New York's transit system tethered firmly in the past, while other cities' metro systems and subways get glossier and more high tech. (Countless metro systems already have contactless fare systems, and London is getting fully autonomous train cars by 2022, while everything about Singapore's metro "oozes future," according to CNN.)

East Side Access photos, November 2015

Some critics say the new improvements announced by Cuomo amount to creature comforts that don't address the core problem with the MTA: dangerously overcrowded, out of date, with no relief in the near future. The big, expensive infrastructure projects designed to address the exploding ridership — the Second Avenue Subway on the east side of Manhattan, and the East Side Access project to bring the LIRR to Grand Central Station — are over budget and behind schedule.

Which is not to say the MTA isn't working diligently to make the subway system work more efficiently. It is laboring to replace the current fixed-blocked signals with a Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) system, which would essentially put computers in charge of running the trains, making it easier for the MTA to know where certain trains are and how fast the trains are traveling, and allow the agency to increase the number of trains on each line. To do this, the MTA needs to shut down trains for long periods of time, increasing delays and further complicating commutes.

We still don't know how much some of Cuomo's flashy proposals will cost, but it seems fair to ask why that money isn't being spent on fast-tracking CBTC, or funding the second phase of the Second Avenue Subway, or finishing East Side Access before we're all dead and buried.

"This stuff matters to people too," Lisberg said of the Wi-Fi, USB charging, and mobile payments. "As long as the region is growing, we have to build out the Second Avenue Subway to its full length, we have to finish East Side Access and look at things like Penn Station access and building four new Metro North stations in the Bronx. We need to keep expanding to handle ridership of a growing region. But at the same time, people need to know what they're getting for their money, for all the billions of dollars that the state is investing."

"Expectations are rising," he continued. "Thirty years ago, people were lucky to get a subway car with air conditioning. Twenty years ago, no one expected to talk on a cell phone in a subway station. And now people want it done as fast as possible. People want to be able to charge their phones on trains. You have to meet customer expectations and show you're with the modern era."