Thirteen years after the grim reality of terrorism hit New York City in 9/11, one of the city’s most vulnerable and crowded venues, the subway system, still doesn’t have a functioning security system that can deter or detect terror attacks.
That’s right. After years of promises to implement a system similar to that of the London Tube, the cameras in the subways and tunnels, according to testimony by former NYPD police commissioner Howard Safir, “don’t function at all.” Safir testified last week in a federal court that is hearing the lawsuit between Lockheed and the MTA. The MTA is suing Lockheed for a $200-million breach of contract.
Safir, hired as a consultant to evaluate the system developed by defense contractor Lockheed, visited MTA command centers where the cameras were supposed to be monitored, and found them totally “inadequate” to perform properly. The cameras lacked the ability to quickly play back videos, a vital feature if security personnel need to identify an individual who may have left a suspicious package on a subway platform or in a tunnel.
Not only do the cameras lack important capabilities, but MTA monitors aren’t alerted if a camera is out of service or has been deliberately damaged. A terrorist can disable or smash a camera, and no alarm bells will go off in the MTA command center. Similarly, the MTA has thousands of entry points to its system that should be off-limits to the public. As part of the contracts with Lockheed, those entrances were supposed to be alarmed — but those don’t work, either.
Safir also found the video images on LIRR cameras too dark to be of much use, and that the entire system was primitive, with significant delays in video transmission.
The MTA and Lockheed have been playing the blame game, each pointing fingers at the other for the debacle. The MTA blames Lockheed for not delivering on its promises, breaching its contract; Lockheed has pushed back, claiming that the MTA didn’t cooperate with its contractors, denying it the ability to implement its system. The system was to go live in 2008.
While this blame game is going on, straphangers have seen $200 million wasted, a project that’s six years late and leaves the millions of New Yorkers who take the subways every day without a basic viable surveillance system in place. The MTA has now hired a team of private contractors to install the system, which won’t be ready until 2017. By then the MTA will have plowed more than $500 million into its security system.
New Yorkers should be outraged, but not so surprised. The MTA has a track record of going off the rails when it comes to staying within budget and meeting timelines.
One of the MTA’s most highly-touted projects, the Fulton Street Transit hub, has been a boondoggle from the start. The project was designed to make it easier for commuters to switch between the 12 subway lines serving downtown Manhattan. When the MTA first announced the project in 2002, it put the cost at $750 million, with construction to be completed in 2007. That estimate zoomed to $900 million in 2008, even though it wasn’t nearly complete. The hub is now slated to open this week, after the MTA ended up burning through $1.4 billion, or about double the original estimate. And even now, the hub is only partially complete, with the much-advertised retail space not open for business. In addition, not all the subway lines promised by the MTA are accessible at the hub: the MTA created a $200 million-passageway to connect the R train to the Fulton hub, but now has deemed that the walkway would be too underused and would only serve as a congregating place for the homeless. New Yorkers are stuck with a bill for a passageway to nowhere.
Meanwhile, the MTA’s capital spending plan for the next five years calls for $32 billion in spending, but the agency will only have $15 billion to spend based on current funding projections. Where the money will come from is up in the air, but we would be naïve to think that massive fare hikes are not being mulled over to bridge the shortfall.
Clearly, the MTA needs greater scrutiny and independent financial oversight. An independent board outside the MTA has to oversee its expenditures, contracts, and budget, a budget that has been a continual runaway express train, only to get more out of control as the promised 18-percent pay hikes to its workers begins to kick in during the next 6 years.
Unaccountability and the fast and loose way the MTA has played with the public’s money may be excused as ineptitude, but it’s inexcusable that after all that the city has been through with 9/11, the subway remains a sitting duck for terrorism.