Suburban rail enjoys far fewer riders, more slush fund money


The daily weekday ridership for Metro-North is around 270,000. For the Long Island Rail Road, that figure clocks in at about 290,000. Meanwhile, in New York City last year, average daily subway ridership hit 5.2 million. So how would you expect funds from a New York State transit slush fund to be distributed? If you guessed “disproportionately favoring the suburbs,” congratulations. You’ve just won the Second Ave. Sagas Award for Ineptitude in Government.

According to a report in Sunday’s Daily News, state lawmakers have access to a $240 million transit slush fund. The fund — called the Customer Service Reserves — is supposed to spent on projects that could enhance, you guessed it, customer service. Somehow, though, around $190 million of this fund have gone to suburban-based projects while just $50 million has been invested into New York City Transit properties.

Of course, this story isn’t nearly as clear cut as that outrageous disproportionate dispersion of wealth makes it out to be. Allow me to quote Pete Donohue’s article:

The fund is part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s capital construction and maintenance program. Five-year spending plans are negotiated with the Legislature and governor’s office and need approval from representatives of the Senate, Assembly, governor’s office and mayor.

Between 1995 and August, approximately $195 million in reserves was assigned to the majority party – Republicans in the Senate, Democrats in the Assembly. Approximately $155 million has been spent or committed to transit projects through August.

Since just a few GOP senators represent city neighborhoods, the vast majority of Senate reserves has flowed to commuter rail projects in suburbs north and east of the city in counties like Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester and Putnam. About $40 million remains unspent.

Nearly $200 million in reserves was assigned to Assembly Democrats, who represent all but one Assembly district in the city. Approximately $40 million has gone to commuter rail projects, and another $45 million or so to subway upgrades – but more than half of the Assembly reserves remain unspent.

So, okay. Let’s reassess. The Senate and Assembly divide up a few hundred million based along party lines that ensures New York City Transit, with 91 percent of the MTA’s ridership, gets around 50 percent of the available funds. The suburban areas have enjoyed far more actual spending than the subways, and yet the subways need massive capital investments over the next few years and decades.

The assembly reps, meanwhile, claim that the money is unspent because, well, it’s hard to spend it. “It takes a while to decide how best this can have an impact … because of the limitations and how it can be used,” Sisa Moyo, a spokesperson for Sheldon Silver, said to Donohue. “We found it to be a slow-going process.”

News stories such as this and quotes such as Moyo’s make me want to slam my head against a wall. This is basically free money. It should be spent on projects, and the projects are out there. Invest it in a rehab of the 4th Ave. Culver Line stopped, shelved because of budgetary concerns. Buy some more trash cans for the perennially dirty subway stations. Further fund studies to replace the MetroCard with a contactless fare system.

For now, New Yorkers are used to a system that seems similar to an annoyance and not the convenience it should be all because the money isn’t there. When the money is there, it just sits there. All it takes to implement change and improvements is a little creativity and drive. Without it, the subway system just sits in neutral, underfunded, under-maintained and perennially in fiscal trouble.

Categories : MTA Economics

9 Responses to “Suburban rail enjoys far fewer riders, more slush fund money”

  1. john says:

    It sounds like we seriously need to secede from Albany. But everyone already knew that.

    Oh, sigh.

    • Alon Levy says:

      If New York City seceded, it’d probably take Long Island and Westchester with it. It’d create a state dominated by the city rather than the suburbs, which would somewhat improve transportation priorities, but it wouldn’t disenfranchise the suburbs the way some New Yorkers hope.

  2. Blasito says:

    Why the legislature gets to play with this money at all is my first question. I would think the MTA would be best able to determine the allocation of limited resources.

    But to be fair to the suburbs, I also wonder about a few other factors.

    Yes there are far fewer commuters on the trains vs. the subways, but they pay a lot more in daily fares. What is the difference in revenue between the subways and the railroads?

    And since railroad commuters travel much longer distances that the average subway commuter, is there any comparison of miles traveled?

    Another thing that many suburban leaders would point to is any dedicated taxes that are collected by the state for the MTA, and that in counties like Suffolk and Dutchess these funds pay for services that most of their residents don’t use.

    My gut tells me that the subway riders are still more important in most of these areas, but I don’t have the data to back it up. It is a more complicated picture than just city vs suburb.

    Lastly, the commuter trains would gain more support in the city if they provided better inter-city service like the RER in Paris does.

    • Alon Levy says:

      See revenue data here. Year-to-date as of March 2009, NYCT’s revenue is $795 million, the LIRR’s is $123, and the Metro-North’s is $125.

      The problem with RER-style service is that there’s no political will to engage in RER-style through-running. New York could start running its train RER-style tomorrow if it were willing to through-run New Jersey Transit and LIRR trains, with Penn Station becoming the city’s Chatelet-Les Halles. Then it could start working on new connections, like Hoboken-Fulton-Atlantic, Grand Central-Fulton-St. George, or an alternative to the ARC tunnel that connects to the existing tracks. That would massively improve connectivity in neighborhoods with commuter rail stations, like Sunnyside, Morris Heights, and East New York.

  3. Red says:

    Oh, Christ. If Assemblymembers invested this in BRT they could break ground by the time they’re up for reelection…

  4. Ariel says:

    Just another example of how Albany is broken and totally out of touch with the city’s transportation needs.

    I think Blasito got it right when he said that the MTA would be best able to determine the allocation of the resources. Is it too late to assure that happens in the future?

  5. In theory, the Legislature would know their constituents’ needs well and be the best allocation. In practice, the legislators don’t care about anyone who doesn’t drive, and use the money as bargaining chips, allocating them on the basis of power and what would make a good press release, not on the basis of need.

    So are you all ready to support insurgent candidates next year?


  1. […] New York state mass transit money is allocated to rails that serve suburban communities than to the subway, despite the glaring disparity between the number of daily suburban commuters […]

  2. […] might be biased against prioritizing commuter-rail projects (not without good reason), but I feel like dropping this plan would have the least […]

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