A life-long New Yorker, Benjamin Kabak has riddenand been fascinated bythe city's transit system since before he could walk. In 2006, he turned his obsession into a blog, creating Second Avenue Sagas. While the site initially focused on the construction project for a Second Avenue subway, it quickly became one of the city's premiere outlets for all train-related news.
"There’s no one really fighting for transit policy; it’s mostly politicians trying to earn points with voters unhappy with the state of the MTA."
Second Avenue Sagas informs New York City's five million daily riders about service changes, construction projects, and breaking news. Besides issuing APBs, though, Kabak also serves up informed analysis and commentary on the MTA's performance and its proposed plans. (When he's not keeping his nose to the tracks, Kabak runs the Yankees blog River Ave. Blues and attends NYU law school.)In the following interview, edited for length and clarity, Kabak talks to Gelf about the proposed fare hikes, the MTA's financial struggles and how running the blog is different from working for a paper.
Gelf Magazine: How do you balance life, school, and the two blogs you run?
Benjamin Kabak: I tell people I don't sleep a lot, which is sort of true. But it's mostly about making sure I'm doing a good job balancing my time. Law school takes a lot out of me. It helps that the Yankees blog that I run has two other writers. Second Avenue Sagas is an outlet. It's something I'm really interested in, and something I can do in my spare time really quickly depending on what I'm writing about. It gives me a little break from school.
Gelf Magazine: How do you think your work on Second Avenue Sagas differs from that of a newspaper reporter covering the MTA?
Benjamin Kabak: I'm writing to an audience that has more background in transit policy, and I also have more space and more leeway to write longer pieces. So I can examine something more in depth that maybe a newspaper would not be interested in. I can delve into the history of issues, history of certain changes, or subway extension plans. It's more of an open forum than a newspaper column can be, because they need to make everything relevant for everyone. Some of my stuff is more policy-based for policy people, some of it is more history-based to appeal to history buffs, and some of it is more technical. I think overall I have more flexibility.
Gelf Magazine: Are there any disadvantages to running the blog instead of writing for the paper?
Benjamin Kabak: The MTA has been very open about including me in their press releases and they're always willing to talk to me about issues. They'd rather they have me get right what I'm talking about. I think they understand that it helps them to have an open dialogue. I think sometimes my work suffers from not having editorsnot having someone sit down and say, "Have you considered this aspect of it?" And bloggers don't carry the same sort of weight with readers as a New York Daily News transit writer like Pete Donohue does.
Gelf Magazine: You seem less critical of the MTA than other writers. For example, you've taken the position that MTA officials' hands were tied when the state cut their funding.
Benjamin Kabak: I've certainly been accused of being too sympathetic to the MTA. I know that I come across as being somewhat more sympathetic. I think the organization itself is not as efficiently structured as it could be, and if you were building a new transit authority from scratch in New York, it wouldn't look like the MTA. But at the same time, you're in a situation where the MTA is tasked with running our subways, and that isn't changing anytime soon. So you can either fight against the MTA and point out how disorganized they areand there's a place for thator you can fight for the MTA and say, "Hey, Albany shouldn't be taking dedicated money away from the subway," or "Hey, this isn't the best way to go about doing something, because if we want better subway service, we have to work with the people there to make sure that happens." I find New Yorkers sometimes have a hard time divorcing the idea of better transit offerings from the MTA, when the knee-jerk reaction is to say the MTA is terrible and will never improve. We have to realize the MTA is what we're stuck with, for better or worse.
Gelf Magazine: Ultimately, what is the state's and city's responsibility to help fund the MTA?
Benjamin Kabak: It's a state and city responsibility. The subway is one of the major economic drivers in New York City. It's a key part of the city economy, and the city economy is a big part of the state economy. The city and state should be willing to be more committed to making sure transit is funded properly so we don't have to suffer through service cuts and fare hikes six months apart.
But you don't really see that happening. You see the state pointing fingers and taking money away. You see Mayor Bloomberg running a campaign and dropping the issue eight months later. There's no one really fighting for transit policy, and it's mostly people trying to earn points with voters unhappy with the state of the MTA.
Gelf Magazine: What are your thoughts on the fare hikes the MTA has proposed?
Benjamin Kabak: I don't like the idea of a fare hike. I'd rather never see a fare hike if that were at all possible. I don't like the idea of limited unlimited cards because you want people to ride the subway. I favor the proposal where it's a $104 unlimited card instead of a 90-ride cap. I think that's what a lot of people will say in the public hearings. But the MTA has to figure out a way to meet their projected costs.
Gelf Magazine: How would you rate MTA CEO Jay Walder's efforts so far?
Benjamin Kabak: I'm a fan of Jay Walder. He came in with a set of promises from the state. They said, "We saved the MTA economically so you don't have to deal with it, so you should focus on technological innovation and modernizing the system." And when he came in, he found out there was an $800-million budget gap. He's had to make some tough choices, but he has also been working to make sure the MTA is still working towards modernization while also making sure his budget is in shape. I don't know if he's the most political of choices. He has Governor Paterson's backing, so who knows what will happen after November's elections. But he's the guy there right now and I think he's a good guy for that job.
Gelf Magazine: You talked about Walder coming in to modernize the system. Recently a fire at an LIRR switching station that was 90 years old crippled LIRR service. How much modernization needs to occur in the system?
Benjamin Kabak: That's a tough question because that depends on where people think the system should be. The MTA is now now putting in countdown clocks, which is something that's been in Washington, DC, and London for the better part of two decades. The signaling system, which does work, is very antiquated. You saw what happened on the LIRR. There was a fire at one signal tower and 200 sources had to be inspected manually to make sure they were OK. The MTA is putting in a computerized signal system that should go online in November. Had it been on schedule, it would have been online eight or nine months ago. Inside the subway, the MTA has been updating their subway signaling system as well, which is much more redundant so a fire can't knock down anything for too long. But the agency is upgrading the system for communication-based train control and other innovations that will allow the MTA to run more trains on the line. It's a slow process because you're dealing with something that was built in the early 1900s.
Gelf Magazine: Are there any construction projects you're excited to see the MTA complete?
Benjamin Kabak: From my perspective, the blog was born watching the Second Avenue Subway get built, so I'd love to see the MTA do that. I'm not confident the agency will get more done right now than the subway extension. I think there should be more emphasis on expanding the subway, just because it's something that has to be done as the city keeps growing. That said, it costs a lot of money. Spending $5.4 billion for a two-mile subway extension is just astronomical. The plan to build what the MTA calls a circumferential subway that would run from Bay Ridge in Brooklyn and swings around the outer boroughs and up through the Bronx. It would be a great project. It just depends whether the money or political will exists to see something that complicated through.
Gelf Magazine: Finally, what's your favorite subway line?
Benjamin Kabak: I think my favorite subway line is the 2, because I grew up off the 2 in the Upper West Side. In Brooklyn now, I'm right by the 2. When it's running at express speeds, it takes me 30 minutes to get from Park Slope to the Upper West Side, and it's a great ride. It runs frequently and it's pretty clean.