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Straphangers Will Have to Wait Years for More Subway Countdown Clocks

By Jill Colvin | October 24, 2012 6:04pm

CITY HALL — The MTA’s new subway countdown clocks are on pause.

While straphangers who ride the system’s numbered lines have known when the next train is arriving for years, many who ride lettered lines will have to wait at least another three to five years for the same service, MTA officials said Wednesday.

“It will take substantial time," admitted MTA senior official Craig Stewart in testimony delivered during a City Council hearing on transportation technology Wednesday morning.

Officials explained that the lettered subway lines are much older, larger and more complex, with an antiquated signal system, and that pilot programs aimed at trying to figure out how to deliver real-time information have so far failed.

"Those efforts have fallen short in yielding the level and type of information we are seeking to provide our customers," Stewart said in his testimony.

Commuters also shouldn’t hold their breath about seeing similar countdown clock at bus shelters.

Officials said it would be "cost-prohibitive" and too complicated to install the clocks because of an existing contract with Cemusa, the company that manages the city's bus shelters.

Instead, the city is planning to expand its cell phone-based "Bus Time" system that allows riders to find out out how far away the next bus is via text message.  The MTA expects the system, which is already up-and-running in Staten Island, to expand to The Bronx by the end of the month, and the rest of the city by the end of 2013.

The MTA is also working on developing a similar system for subways, officials said.

But City Councilwoman Gale Brewer said that text-based systems don't help bus riders, including many seniors, who don't have cell phones. Others said it's unacceptable that a contract would get in the way of providing a valuable service to riders.

“We’re hungry for this," said City Councilman Brad Lander, who blamed red tape for the delay.

The DOT, which oversees the shelters, did not immediately respond to a call for comment.

Still, officials discussed some high-tech improvements that are on the horizon.

The MTA is continuing to introduce wireless Internet to stations across the city, with 76 new stations in Midtown and Queens expected to be online in 2013, and another 40, concentrated mostly in Uptown Manhattan, set to go online in 2014. All stations are expected to be online by 2018.

The MTA is also experimenting with new ways to deliver information, including new "Station Advisory Information Displays" that display real-time information about the status of service on various lines inside and outside of stations. The signs are now up and running in 26 stations, with more anticipated early next year.

The city is also planning to roll out new touchscreen kiosks called "On the Go! Travel Stations" which will display information about service status as well as maps and guides. The effort launched in Sept. 2011 in five pilot stations, and will be expanded to 100 to 150 of the system's busiest stations, beginning in January.

The MTA is also in the early development stages of a new “tap and ride” fare payment system that will eventually replace the MetroCard.

“We’re also going to see new fare payments, with contactless technology deployed,” said Stewart, who envisioned a system that uses chip-enabled credit cards or smart phones "where customers can use a card that’s already in their wallet."

City Councilman James Vacca, chair of the transportation committee, said he was pleased to hear the MTA is experimenting with technology, but is concerned about the pace.

“New York goes to great lengths to tout itself as tech-friendly, looking to attract the most pioneering businesses and universities in an attempt to rival Silicon Valley as a hub of new innovation," he said. “We're talking horses and bayonets with many of these systems."