Maybe we’re looking at the MTA’s financial crisis from the wrong perspective. Maybe, instead of asking a financially distraught state or city to pick up the tab, business developers, real estate mavens and local communities should pitch in and clean up.
That is at least what the New York City Transit Riders Council is suggesting. In a report that rehashes some familiar territory, the NYCTRC proclaims the subways to be in dire straits. As the council wrote in the press release (PDF) drawing attention to its survey of 50 stations (PDF), “The most common indicators where stations received failing grades include the presence of exposed wiring, the cleanliness and condition of station ceilings, the presence of tactile warning strips indicating platform edges, water leakage on ceilings, water leakage on walls, and cleanliness and condition of station walls.”
We know this already. We’ve had everyone from NYCT President Howard Roberts to the Straphangers Campaign and some local politicians tell us so. But the report contains some rather out-of-the-box approaches to combating both the decrepit stations and the finances involved in fixing them up.
The NYCTRC report begins with the regular litany of funding sources. The state should ensure a “steady, predictable source of revenue.” The city should “join with NYC Transit in a mutually beneficial effort to create a positive subway experience for users” — which is just a fancy way of saying, “Give the MTA more money.” But after that, things get interesting.
First, the NYCTRC suggests a “station impact fee.” Under this plan, the city would automatically charge a fee on any new development with walking distance of a subway station. The report says, “The presence of a subway station within walking distance adds great value to any development and increases the use of this transportation service; as such, new development and redevelopment should share in the care and maintenance of this important asset of the community.”
Next, the Council calls upon Business Improvement Districts to lend a hand in station maintenance. As clean and modern stations would attract more shoppers and business people to an area, the BIDs have a substantial interest in maintaining and improving conditions underground.
Hand in hand with the BID proposal is one calling for the creation of an “Adopt-a-Station” plan. Through this program, “neighborhood-corporate partnerships are formed to financially support capital improvements and maintenance of stations. Community residents and commercial establishments should have the opportunity to participate in the preservation of their local subway station.”
Why the MTA hasn’t implemented this idea in the past I do not know. By encouraging communities to take ownership of stations, the MTA can get its riders and those local business owners who rely on the stations to take command of some of the things the Transit Authority can’t. Critics will call this a dereliction of the MTA’s duties, but those same critics won’t fund the transportation agency to its fullest.
Of course, this idea gets to the very philosophical nature of the MTA. If the MTA — a public benefit corporation tasked with maintained and running the trains — can’t fulfill its overarching goal, should the public step in and rescue it through such a program? And while some richer neighborhoods have the disposable income to spend on subway station maintenance, do the city’s less well-off areas have to suffer as well?
Perhaps modeling such a plan on the successful Adopt-A-Highway program would be a good way to start. Perhaps the MTA shouldn’t come knocking, hat in the hand, to ask communities for such a direct contribution to station upkeep. But as it becomes more clear every day that the MTA doesn’t have the money, that the city and state don’t have funds, that congestion pricing remains a long shot, someone will have to step in and implement and out-of-the-box idea to rescue our subway system. If this one doesn’t deserve a shot, I don’t know what does.