Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Reconsidering the varying faces of infrastructure and their sometimes competing imperatives 4.5: an addendum update on the New York City MTA as a case study

Posted in business and convergent technologies, strategy and planning, UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on January 7, 2019

This is my fifth installment to a series on infrastructure as work on it, and as possible work on it are variously prioritized and carried through upon, or set aside for future consideration (see United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID), postings 46 and following for Parts 1-4.) And this is also an unplanned for addendum posting to this series that I have chosen to insert into this blog here as a breaking news and commentary update to a case study example that I have been developing and offering here since Part 2.

Let’s begin this posting’s narrative with a brief recent history-based digression and with Hurricane Sandy as it made landfall in New York City and its vicinity on October 29, 2012. Global warming with its resulting increased ocean water temperatures in the Atlantic and along the coast of the United States led to this storm remaining a strong Category 2 hurricane when it arrived there. And it did so, making landfall during high tide for the area and during a full moon, meaning that this would be an unusually high, high tide anyway. And when Sandy struck, it did so on a path that took it straight up the Hudson River and into lower Manhattan, creating storm surge flooding that inundated lower coastal areas throughout the City.

Large sections of the New York City subway system: their MTA subway was completely flooded, with salt water filling up subway stations to their ceilings and completely filling long tracts of the underground tunnels that connect them. And this led to massive salt water corrosion and destruction throughout the affected areas of this system.

One of the key points that I have been raising in this series, and certainly when considering the NYC MTA and its management and development, has been how this vitally important infrastructure system has become a political football between competing politically motivated forces: one in New York City’s City Hall and the other in Albany in the state legislature and the office of the governor. And one consequence of that, is that here in month 75 after that storm landfall, when any clock would begin ticking for any response to that disaster, there is still a significant amount of even basic repair work that is still to be done. And this brings me to the late breaking, as of this writing, news story that has prompted me to add this posting to this series and this blog, and now.

Current, updated and more completely documented estimates for how much it would cost to correct all of the ongoing and developing problems that the MTA currently faces, total something just over twice the total capital plan budget that is (still officially) assumed necessary for that, at some $60 billion. That includes still ongoing and necessary repairs from damage incurred from Sandy, but it also includes updates and repair work that have in some cases been put off for decades and even for entire generations. As noted in earlier installments to this series, some of the switches and switching technology that control train traffic flow through this system date to as far back as 1934 for their initial installation! See:

7 Ways to Fix the M.T.A. (Which Needs a $60 Billion Overhaul).

That expanded budget calculation includes in it fixing the still very extensive damage that Hurricane Sandy did to the MTA’s L Line. The MTA itself, carried out a three year study to find the most functionally effective, and cost effective and least disruptive approach to actually do this repair work. And they concluded after all of their onsite expert evaluations and all of the documentation and all of the hearings that that assessment work led to, that the best way to do this and at least limit the possible impact of a Sandy Part 2, would require shutting down the L line for a period of up to 15 months for systematic repair with much of that taking place in the L Line tunnels. And plans were developed to proceed with that. Then a newly reelected Governor Andrew Cuomo, feeling invincible and perhaps a bit omnipotent and omniscient from how he won and from how his political party took control of the state legislature too, stepped in.

It seems that he got into a conversation with an irate L line rider who told him in no uncertain terms that this shutdown would create problems for him and for others as well. And that is certainly true. Approximately 300,000 people take L Line trains between Brooklyn and Manhattan on an average day and depend on its being available for that. This impending closure has forced some people to move to new homes or change jobs and it has forced a great many to seek out least onerous travel alternatives that would still bring them where they have to go, and hopefully without tremendous extra delays or expense. Cuomo had his conversation when on a photo opportunity in New York City and in the MTA system as a part of that. And he unilaterally chose to override the MTA and all of its work related to this repair initiative, and declare by fiat (and by the power granted him by the New York State constitution to do so) that he would not allow the L Line to be shut down. The repair work that would be carried out now has to be completely reconsidered and redesigned and in such a way as to allow at least partial service throughout any planned and executed repair period.

Was the planned for 15 month shutdown that the MTA was expecting to follow, the best possible approach that they could have arrived at? I am fairly sure that there were other possibilities there that might have been as good or better, depending on precisely what criteria are considered. That certainly holds true when the balance between short-term commuter needs are balanced against long-term risk possibilities of the City experiencing a repeat of the type of storm damage that caused all of this here in the first place, from Hurricane Sandy.

But was Governor Cuomo’s knee jerk reaction to the political opportunity that this situation presented him with, the best alternative to what the MTA was doing and planning on doing? And can it be argued that his approach was intrinsically better than that? Cuomo made his decision strictly on the basis of short-term convenience and inconvenience measures, and from what has to be considered a smallest of all possible small sample, completely impromptu data sets, and on more here-and-now political polling number considerations where his being seen as taking action would impact upon them for him. See:

The L Train Shutdown Plan Was 3 Years in the Making. It Unraveled in 3 Weeks.

And note that unlike the MTA approach to this challenge, with its detailed costs and budget analyses for the various repair options that they considered over that three year period, Andrew Cuomo arrived at his executive order alternative, numbers-free at least for financial impact.

The MTA was already facing $60 billion in capital improvement needs, with their approved L Line repairs and their expected costs built into that. How much more would a complete, and I have to add unprepared-for replacement of those plans cost, when this was decided without even considering a bidding process as to who would be best suited to carry out the types of repairs now envisioned, and at what specific costs? Given the way this was so publically handled, it is safe to assume that costs of this restoration and repair work will only increase and certainly as Governor Cuomo has put pressure on the City government and the MTA to get this done as quickly as possible.

So who wins here? Subway riders who depend on the MTA’s L Line trains for their commutes will fare better – except for how this will force a prioritization lowering for other capital repair and maintenance work that might matter to them too, if the overall MTA budget is to be kept at least as close as possible to what it is now. The MTA and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s government have certainly lost in this. Andrew Cuomo has probably gained a boost in his statewide polling numbers and certainly given the all too often animus between Upstate New York and New York City, where too many Upstate residents seem to see the City as receiving undue preferential treatment and with that leading to an all but adversarial relationship between those parts of this same state, as a result. Ultimately though, I would argue that everyone loses, and certainly everyone who relies on this transportation infrastructure system and on a regular, ongoing basis. And this still unfolding but now more toxically transformed news story, highlights how politics and self-interest-based political maneuvering impact upon both costs incurred and repairs and maintenance needed, and how that work is or is not carried out.

Yes, Governor Cuomo would argue that I am fundamentally wrong here and in all that I write about this, and certainly where his decisions and actions are concerned. He would, among other points argue that he was acting in the best interest of MTA’s customers and that he did in fact base his decision on more than just a single round of casual chats with a few commuters during a photo op. But even allowing for a measure of truth in that, he did step into a complex situation and he acted and without more than just a superficial level of forethought or planning, or allowance for either. So how good can the results of this be?

I will continue this series with its planned for Part 5, set to go live on this blog on January 18, 2019. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at Business Strategy and Operations – 5, and also at Page 1, Page 2, Page 3 and Page 4 of that directory. I also include this in Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 3, and also see Page 1 and Page 2 of that directory. And I include this in my United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID) directory too for its relevance there.

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