When I sat down with New York City Transit President Howard Roberts nearly two weeks ago, our talk eventually turned to the state of the system. We all know about the MTA’s attempts to restore the system to a state of good repair, and we all know that the trains are very crowded with many lines running at or near capacity. Roberts and I spoke at length about these two challenges New York City Transit faces in meeting customer demand.
“My personal estimate is that only about 100 of our stations truly qualify for the state of good repair,” Roberts said to me, and I couldn’t disagree with his estimate. Outside of the so-called Central Business District in Manhattan and a few flagship stations — Atlantic Ave. and Coney Island come to mind — in the Outer Boroughs, the number of stations with cracked walls , exposed pipes and decaying platforms far outnumber those in top shape.
As always, it’s a matter of money. Restoring the system to a state of good repair remains at the top of the MTA’s list of priorities, but the agency must first spend the available funds on maintenance and operations. As long as the tracks are in good repair, as long as the cars are running, the stations will come third even as they considered a major priority.
The other part of his equation is line capacity. “A significant number of lines are already operating at capcacity,” Roberts said. Almost wistfully, the NYCT head spoke about the progress in other parts of the world. Shanghai, for instances, has 89 tunnel-boring machines at work and by 2012, will have a subway system three-quarters the size of New York’s. Meanwhile, in a few years, the city will have tunnel-boring machines digging out the LIRR’s East Side Access route, the Second Ave. Subway and the 7 Line extension, but those projects pale in comparison to those underway in Asia.
While the MTA awaits this great awakening, to meet ridership demands, the agency will attempt to bring computer-based train control online over the next few years. In early tests, the returns are very promising. On a closed L line, NYCT was able to feed 31 trains per hour through the tunnels as opposed to the 23 trains per hour peak-use riders currently enjoy. These are, as Roberts put it, “huge capacity improvements that we can get without boring more tunnels.”
These CBTC plans though are still at least five to ten years away from reality. While the MTA is eying an outfitting of the newer signal system on the IRT lines and potentially the F line as well, again, the money just isn’t there. It will continue not to be there as long as the economy slumps.
But as some point, this lack of state and federal investment will come back to haunt our country, Roberts believed. “Either Americans wake up with respect to infrastructure needs or we will no longer be the preeminent power in the world,” he warned. I couldn’t agree more.