One more MTA-fix prize the gov should award

If Gov. Cuomo truly wants to spur innovation and improvement of New York’s faltering subway system, he should expand the new Genius Transit Challenge to include the most important missing ingredient for success: where to find the money for needed fixes.

As the trains break new records for unreliability — riders are currently experiencing 70,000 delays per month, nearly triple the rate of 28,000 in 2012 — Cuomo has unveiled a plan to offer three prizes of $1 million each to anybody who can provide a sweeping solution to three perennial technical problems that have hobbled the system.

Figure out how to swiftly upgrade or replace our outdated signal system, a leading cause of delays, and you could win $1 million. Another million goes to the tinkerer or engineering team that can shorten the manufacturing process that currently makes building new subway cars take three years.

The third million is for anybody can figure out how to upgrade communications so that high-speed data transmission, be it WiFi, fiber optics or other technology, can move through our ancient subway tunnels.

Politically, it might seem like Cuomo, who faces a re-election battle next year, is simply playing for time, hoping to get a miracle solution to transit problems on the cheap. But offering government cash for ideas has a long and honorable history.

The practice dates back the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Spanish crown and British Parliament offered cash prizes for a system that would allow the accurate measurement of ocean longitude, badly needed at the time to properly map the oceans for navigation and shipping and to prevent maritime disasters.

The ultimate winner was a working-class clockmaker named John Harrison, who invented a mechanical clock that kept accurate time on the ocean. Harrison took home most of the British prize of 20,000 pounds (the equivalent of about $3.3 million today).

In 1795, Napoleon offered a cash reward for a way to preserve food for his vast armies; the winner, 15 years later, was a chef named Nicolas Appert who devised a working method based on heating food inside a glass jar and then sealing the contents with wax.

And so on through the years. Charles Lindbergh, an airmail pilot who became a national hero by making the first nonstop airplane flight from New York to Paris, risked his life, at least in part to win a $25,000 prize put up in 1919 by a French-born self-made millionaire named Raymond Orteig.

Google is currently sponsoring a modern update of the Orteig prize: The Lunar X Prize will pay $30 million to one of five teams competing to assemble the technology and private financing to land exploration vehicles on the moon.

And government has jumped on board: the Obama administration made prize-offering an established part of how federal agencies seek new ideas and innovation. The best-known result is an app-driven service that blocks illegal robocalls; the Federal Trade Commission paid $50,000 for the solution.

I hope Cuomo’s gambit works. If the MTA gets an even halfway workable solution to the problems crippling the subway system, a $3 million cash prize will be a small price to pay.

But I strongly suspect that the MTA’s biggest problems are fiscal, not technical. The genius challenge should consider adding a fourth category with prize money for whoever offers a workable path to finance the major investments needed to enact any of the major MTA upgrades needed.

At present, the MTA capital plan has only allocated about half of the $35 billion needed to keep the system in working order. Ask state officials where the rest is supposed to come from, and you get shrugs.

But ask riders, and it’s a different story. Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, has suggested that the state add a $2 surcharge to every Uber trip, which would raise about $350 million a year.

I also like the menu provided by the Empire State Transportation Alliance, that lays out the revenue we’d get from solutions like a gasoline tax of a few pennies per gallon or by tolling local roads and bridges using open-road technology that doesn’t require stopping. Those changes alone could raise about $1.3 billion annually.

As with technology-oriented prizes, the point of a fiscal ideas competition would be to encourage discussion of a problem we’ve let fester for far too long.

Louis is political anchor of NY1 News.

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