The MTA's Tortured Path to Subway Security

Email a Friend

In early July 2005, three bombs exploded on London trains and buses killing 52 people. Almost immediately, politicians and newspaper editorial boards began attacking New York’s transit authority for being unprepared for a similar terrorist attack. Six weeks later, the MTA announced a $215 million contract to Lockheed Martin for a surveillance system.

Right now, only half of the cameras in the city’s subway system are working properly. That’s why it was hard for police to track down the suspects in the fatal stabbings on the No. 2 line in the West Village last month. But that wasn’t the first time people have raised questions about the MTA’s security cameras. Some observers wondered from the beginning whether Lockheed Martin was taking on more than it could ever deliver.

MTA watchdog Bill Henderson, the executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, remembers the press conference at which the contract was announced.

"One of the major parts of the system was this remote sensing capability that would allow the security personnel to tell whether a package left on a subway platform posed a potential threat or not," Henderson says.

The press conference featured a video that showed how cameras would be able to zoom in on a briefcase that could be a bomb. Then the cameras would alert security specialists which spots, among thousands of locations in the sprawling system, deserved their attention.

Henderson was skeptical.

"I remember thinking, Gee, a lot of this is what they used to call vaporware, where you go out and sell software to someone without the software having been written," he says.

The zooming camera that could detect an abandoned briefcase was known as "intelligent video." It soon came out that London’s transit agency had rejected that system as unworkable.

The fine print of Lockheed’s contract with the MTA treated intelligent video as a pilot that might not work. But when it came up at a City Council hearing in February 2008, the MTA said it was working out and would largely be implemented as planned.

"Would you say that most of that is intact?" asked John Liu, then the chairman of the council’s transportation committee.

Ronnie Hakim, an MTA executive, said it was.

"Substantially?" Liu said.

"No, I would say that most of it is intact. It was successfully piloted. It’s going in," Hakim said.

But a year later, with the Lockheed contract collapsed in a sea of litigation, Hakim testified again, this time admitting that intelligent video had failed dramatically. The MTA had abandoned the program.

"As they sought to highlight in the flashy news conference the ability of software to pick up a suitcase left alone on the platform, I believe one of the questions we asked was, 'Well, there’s no one else on the platform. Nobody else is moving,'" Liu said recently.

It was too hard for cameras to detect stationary objects when set against a hundreds of moving forms. Even though the intelligent video failed, the Lockheed contract still should have provided a lot of surveillance. Except that it doesn’t. None of the roughly 2,000 cameras that Lockheed installed in the subway are fully hooked up to surveillance rooms where employees can monitor them.

MTA Chairman Jay Walder declines to speculate on what went wrong.

"It’s hard to look backwards. I think decisions were taken at the time," Walder says.

Walder says the MTA’s trying to salvage the project using the equipment that Lockheed left behind.

“My priority right now is to make those investments to be usable, workable, to be able to improve the safety and security for all the people in the system," he says.

Lockheed sued to get out of its contract. In a statement to WNYC, the firms says it worked “diligently” to make the cameras work, but encountered problems beyond its control. In its response to the lawsuit, the MTA says Lockheed repeatedly breached its contract.

At the Christopher Street station of the No. 2 train, where one passenger was stabbed and the suspects fled, the camera wasn’t even supposed to be wired under the Lockheed contract. That contract focused on major terrorist targets, such as Grand Central Station and subway tunnels under the East River. The police ended up apprehending three suspects in the stabbing the old fashioned way, based on pencil sketches and descriptions from eye-witnesses.

For a transcript of the 2008 City Council hearing, in which the MTA defended the Lockheed contract, click here. (Microsoft Word file)

For a transcript of the 2009 hearing at which the MTA declared that the pilot project didn’t work, go here. (PDF)