New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a plan to bring the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the world’s largest subway system, “into the 21st century,” including mobile payments, USB charging stations, and W-Fi for all 278 underground subway stations by the end of 2016.
That represents an acceleration of the timeline laid out by Transit Wireless, the company contracted with the MTA to provide wireless to the subway system. Previously, the company had said it would have all 278 stations wired by the end of 2017. Now the governor has said he wants it done by the end of this year, as well as cell service installed by 2017. More than half of the city’s subway stations already have Wi-Fi.
“The MTA is absolutely vital to the daily functioning of New York City, but for too long it has failed to meet the region’s growing size and strength,” Cuomo said. “This is about doing more than just repair and maintain — this is thinking bigger and better and building the 21st century transit system New Yorkers deserve. We are modernizing the MTA like never before and improving it for years to come.”
It's a bold and challenging set of proposals from Cuomo, who months before faced criticism that he was letting the MTA languish while ridership skyrocketed, congestion worsened, and travel speeds plummeted. And if successful, it will signal a huge facelift for New York City's subway system, which has come a long way from its graffiti-wrapped days of the 1970s but still stands as a symbol of the city's grimier side.
Cuomo’s promise to replace the MetroCard system with a mobile, contactless payment system will likely be his biggest challenge. Under his plan, riders would simply wave their smartphones or a bank card at a sensor installed in the turnstiles to pass through onto the platform. This type of payment is already available in a number of transit systems, in the US and around the world.
The MTA’s board of directors said last year that replacing the MetroCard would take at least five years. Under the governor’s accelerated time schedule, installing a new payment system will happen by the end of 2018 — and even sooner for the region’s two commuter rail systems, the Long Island Rail Road and Metro North, which will get mobile payments in just six months.
The age of the system is just one of the obstacles Cuomo will face in bringing his vision into reality. He will also need to come up with a plan to pay for it. Earlier this year, the governor was locked in a politically acrimonious battle with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio over their respective responsibility to fund the MTA’s five-year capital plan, the primary fund for infrastructure improvements like this. Cuomo was ultimately able to squeeze more money out of the city, but the state legislature in Albany will still need to come up with sources for the plan’s $26 billion price tag.
At the New York Transit Museum, Cuomo acknowledged he was subverting expectations for how the MTA was supposed to look. "Let people walk in there and say, ‘Wow! This is the MTA? This is a train station? Amazing!,'" he said, according to Politico New York.