The MTA’s multi-billion-dollar quest to speed up subway trips by replacing ancient signals is running into delays and cost increases.
The transit agency plans to spend more than $7 billion for new signals on sections of six lines as part of its 2020 to 2024 capital program. But snags with ongoing signal replacement projects in Queens and Brooklyn underscore the headaches and challenges that can accompany such ambitious and intricate projects.
“In terms of the daily experience that riders encounter, this is the biggest issue in terms of reliability,” said Ben Fried of TransitCenter, a transit research and advocacy organization.
On many lines, the traffic lights and indicators can date to the 1930s, limiting capacity on a system strained by high ridership prior to the pandemic. But with commuters steadily returning, state-of-the-art signals are key to MTA’s $51 billion five-year capital plan to upgrade the transit system.
“The benefits are great,” Robert Gomez, the MTA’s chief signals engineer, told the agency’s board Monday. “They provide for better service, faster running times, more capacity, shorter [waits] and bring the system to a state of good repair.”
The only two lines in the subway system equipped with modern so-called communications-based train control (CBTC) signals — the L and the No. 7 — produced some of the highest weekday on-time performance in October, MTA figures show, at 93% and 91%, respectively. That’s above a systemwide average of 83% last month.
Meanwhile, the latest estimates for “substantial completion” of launching a similar signal system along stretches of the E, F, M and R lines that run beneath Queens Boulevard and the elevated F and G lines in Brooklyn have been pushed back, MTA officials said this week.
The $663 million Queens Boulevard CBTC project, which was supposed to be in service this past March, is now scheduled to be operational by the end of the year, according to MTA documents — with its budget increasing to $729 million.
“It does happen far too often,” Andrew Albert, an MTA board member, said of the delays. “There will be some growing pains as different signal systems are phased in and phased out.”
And the project along Brooklyn’s elevated F line — aka the Culver Line — to modernize signals along nearly five miles of track between Church Avenue and West 8th Street, is experiencing COVID-driven delays that have pushed the substantial completion date from August 2022 to June 2023, MTA documents show.