Home MTA Economics Assuming the way to a better subway system

Assuming the way to a better subway system

by Benjamin Kabak

I found myself glancing over a map of the New York City subway and in a sense, marveling over the expansiveness of the subways. The current system may fall short of the dreams from the 1920s and 1930s; after all, where are those grand Second System routes or the Utica and Nostrand subway extensions? But we live in an age in which it takes a decade to build a two-mile, three-stop subway, and the system as it exists represents a fortuitous alignment of political will and corruption, reckless spending and a disregard for the lives of construction workers.

Today, subway expansion moves at a far more leisurely pace. A one-stop extension of the 7 line to 11th Ave. and 34th St. won’t be ready until late 2013, and Phase 1 of the Second Ave. subway is still at least five years away. After that, the MTA’s capital plans slow to a halt. With no long-term environmental studies under way, the best hopes for subway expansion rests on the shoulders of Phases 2-4 of the Second Ave. Subway. We’ll probably find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow before that comes to pass.

Right now, the MTA is working to find a way to continue even its current meager slate of very expensive construction projects. The authority has put forward a budget for the next three years that rests on assumptions. It assumes that the city will fork over some dollars. It assumes that the federal government will sign a check. It assumes that Albany will do something, anything, to help continue infrastructure construction projects in New York City. Few people are comfortable with those assumptions.

The voices speaking out the loudest have come, of course, from the advocacy arena. The politicians have been deadly quiet. Kate Slevin of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign expressed her concerns that the MTA’s proposed spending plan relies on too many assumptions, and already those assumptions are breaking down. “If any of them,” she writes, referring to and listing the various assumptions, “don’t play out as the agency hopes, the whole plan could fall apart.”

The first to go, as TSTC itself noted, is federal funding. In the latest infrastructure bills making the rounds in the House, the MTA comes out behind. TSTC provided this dire summary: “In particular, House Transportation & Infrastructure Chairman John Mica’s proposal for the next federal transportation bill would cut federal funding to the state by $7.2 billion over the next 6 years and would cost the state almost 45,000 jobs in the first year alone. If the House bill is enacted, federal transportation aid to the state would be cut by about a third, which would decimate both the MTA and the New York State Department of Transportation’s unfunded capital construction plans.”

The MTA’s current funding plan assumes over $4 billion in federal grants. If even $1.2 billion of that is stripped away, as TSTC notes, the impact could be devastating. That cut would be the equivalent of canceling all Metro-North maintenance and improvement work for the next three years; or canceling all subway station renewal, rehab and accessibility work for the next three years; or delaying much of the East Side Access project indefinitely. That is a future no one wishes to contemplate.

Streetsblog sees these assumptions and fears that the MTA will take on more debt to fund projects whose revenues cannot truly support bonded debt. A financial crisis then is ticking ever nearer for the MTA. Forget, then, about dreaming big; forget even about dreaming small. We likely won’t see any semblance of a fantasy map pass for reality any time soon, and the system we have soon — along with the few additions currently under construction — are all that we’re going to get for some time. That’s a shame.

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Miles Bader August 5, 2011 - 2:20 am

Hmm, so why does Albany seem to have direct control over all this stuff, when they apparently don’t care about what NYC wants in the least…?

Marc Shepherd August 5, 2011 - 9:40 am

If the city had direct control, do you think it would do any better? Albany has more financial levers at its disposal than the city does. The mobility tax, for instance, is a huge boon to NYC, because every MTA-served county pays the same rate, regardless of the amount of service they get. All the city could do is raise taxes on NYC residents.

Bolwerk August 5, 2011 - 10:56 am

Yes, absolutely. The city loses more than it gains from the status quo. Billions$ flows from the city to the rest of the state. Give that money back to let us maintain our own infrastructure, or simply stop taking it to begin with and let us have a congestion fee or toll the east rivers – and do all kinds of other things we shouldn’t need permission from Buffalo’s suburbs to do. Further, the inability to do anything about the MTA and its ineffectiveness is wholly in the state’s lap; the city can’t do anything about it.

For that matter, the MTA-served suburban counties probably should pay more mobility tax. Their services are more expensive to maintain, and have less potential to be covered by fares. They presumably want their train service, so….

Marc Shepherd August 5, 2011 - 1:21 pm

Silliness and double-silliness.

Congestion pricing and East River tolls were killed by New York City’s own outer-borough legislators. You can’t blame Albany, when the city’s own representatives helped kill it. Legislators from Buffalo don’t care whether the Brooklyn Bridge is tolled. If NYC wanted it, they could have had it.

The suburban counties are net payers of the mobility tax. They are taxed at a greater rate than what they get back. This is why the loudest complaints about that tax are from outside the city. There is a net flow of money into NYC, as a result of that tax.

By the way, when the city did control the subway, many decades ago, they did not exactly cover themselves in glory. Read the history.

Bolwerk August 5, 2011 - 4:21 pm

It took more than just outer borough legislators to kill congestion pricing. Regardless, I blame Albany for keeping the city on such a tight leash period. I said it about Bloomberg’s taxi proposal, and I say it about congestion charging: those are citywide policies, and they should sink or swim locally. The outcome for the taxi bill has been one I agree with (so far, I guess Cuomo is still sitting on it?), but I disagree with how it was achieved. We shouldn’t have petty interest groups running to their mommies and daddies in Albany when local government does something they don’t like.

I haven’t seen a detailed analysis about the cost-benefits of the mobility tax, but of course they’re going to get less bang for their buck. They have rail and bus systems that travel longer distances and have fewer passengers, while they have fewer payroll expenses. Hell, given the LIRR’s lousy financial performance, maybe NYC is the one getting raped by the mobility tax.

I’m well aware of the history, thank you. But historical problems are just that: historical. I’m more worried about the present day, and Albany’s inability to “cover themselves in glory” now. (Oh, and Albany can be partly blamed for some of the problems going on then too.)

Al D August 5, 2011 - 9:19 am

With the Tea Party effectively in charge in Washington, forget about federal $ for something like urban mass transit.

In all these grand plans to grow the city, new development, growing population, seemingly no attention has been paid to the transit infrastructure required to support it.

Joby August 5, 2011 - 9:52 am

That’s the fundamental fallacy of the entire Bloomberg era. Hizzoner used every trick in the book to encourage developers to build housing capacity. He should have been focusing on adding subway capacity, stations and lines.

Perhaps the mayor would have needed to invent a new MTA-independent way to build this infrastructure – but building it would have done more to accommodate those 1 million extra NYers than anything else.

But let’s be honest, the main reason infrastructure projects especially big ones like subways etc don’t get built in this country have nothing to do with financing. Whereas your constituents can actually see the new highway or expressway coming in, it is not so easy with subways. By the time its time to cut the ribbon at the photo op another guy is mayor.

Bolwerk August 5, 2011 - 11:07 am

If you believe statistical estimates, we’ve had a pretty moderate population growth rate since the year 2000 – and if you believe the Census Bureau, we’ve had a very light growth rate. If most of that new housing went near existing subway lines, it’s probably not a big burden for the transportation system.

I think Bloomberg’s biggest failure has been in making local land use regulations more sensible so transit would even be worth the trouble. There should be no parking minimums, and it building four stories anywhere in New York should not be controversial (make that 10 stories if you’re within 10 blocks of a subway station). If there are to be minimums in new construction, there should be retail minimums that make parking undesirable. The other thing is, even though Bloomberg’s administration has made rather conservative efforts to improve street viability, many of his efforts have been undermined by the EDC – which must be spending hundreds of millions$ and maybe billions$/year on parking lots and malls, which is neither good for transit or neighborhoods.

FWIW: my solution would be a bureaucracy with a fixed budget, inside or outside the MTA, dedicated to building new transit. Make it the EDC’s new mission, maybe.

Al D August 5, 2011 - 11:33 am

An example of the over development:subway access is the Williamsburg waterfront. Mostly centered around the already overcapacity L at Bedford. So what is the solution? Offer a ferry of very limited application instead.

Bolwerk August 5, 2011 - 11:46 am

I’m afraid I don’t see a problem with this. Most of those people boarding at Bedford are going a few stops, and the worst-case scenario for them is standing room only. Most likely, they want to transfer at Union Square, so they aren’t well-served by a ferry.

Maybe when the uptown 6 transfer opens at Broadway-Lafayette, the J will become a suitable relief valve for that waterfront development, taking some pressure off Union Square. (Of course, another problem is most of that development inevitably is far away from any subway station.)

Alon Levy August 5, 2011 - 10:04 pm

Why the J rather than the M?

Bolwerk August 6, 2011 - 2:24 pm

Misspoke, meant the M. I should have said the Marcy Ave. stop on the J/M/Z.

The J would kind of work now, but it’s a roundabout trip to the 6.

SEAN August 5, 2011 - 10:03 am

With the Tea Party effectively in charge in Washington, forget about federal $ for something like urban mass transit. Or any social programs for that matter.

In Troy MI. & greater Oakland County, the T party is so strong there that every time a tax is proposed to fund a government service it always gets voted down. It got to the point that the Troy library was totally shut down & half of the fire & police departments were let go. There was an article in the NYT a few weeks ago on this.

Bolwerk August 5, 2011 - 11:29 am

They’re a short-term problem, probably. The Tea Party’s power, and the press it gets, far exceeds what is warranted by the viability of its (often contradictory) ideas or the intelligence of its followers or even its popularity. Either they’ll be voted out this coming election, or they’ll hang around and keep crippling the U.S. with their stupidity and arrogance and get voted out the next time. (I’d say they’d definitely lose this time, except their opponents are the most predictably incompetent candidates: the Democrats, who are setting themselves up to be blamed for assenting to economy-destroying TP policies.)

SEAN August 5, 2011 - 12:46 pm

The answer to that is simple. They aren’t going away anytime soon since they have corporate backing & news outlets like Fox to get there message out no matter how strange it might be.

Bolwerk August 5, 2011 - 4:29 pm

They’ll likely be impotent by 2014, particularly if Obama loses, and probably back under some other guise by 2018. Something like that anyway. These people all came out of the woodwork under Clinton too.

John-2 August 5, 2011 - 10:14 am

Part of the problem also goes back to the 1950s, and wasn’t even the subway systems fault. That was when opposition to Robert Moses’ ongoing series of highway infrastructure and housing projects began producing a successful backlash to major public works projects in the city. The problem was that mindset spread by the 1970s from things like running a highway across 30th Street or Central Brooklyn to doing any sort of cut-and-cover type of subway construction that required wooden planks across avenues for years at a time.

After the battle fought in the media over the Central Park playground and the budget-based scuttling of the lower Second Avenue subway construction in the mid-70s, you were never going to see another example of shallow tunnel construction, and other regulations enacted over the years have made deep tunnel bore (with the required additional space for vent houses) the only option. Combine that with the always high-than-other-places cost of heavy construction in New York and you’ve got a situation where the cost of any expansion project increases at the same time the amount of outside funding is on the decline.

Bolwerk August 5, 2011 - 11:37 am

People don’t see the value of having a political/bureaucratic framework in place that makes these projects run smoothly. Elected officials (especially?) don’t even see it. Advocates don’t understand that either, so they don’t push to get one in place…which would eventually make it easier to change work rules, get congestion charging passed, etc., etc.. Instead, they keep trying to play by the same rules they keep losing by.

Jerrold August 5, 2011 - 4:20 pm

And remember that the playground matter happened because of the usual bureaucratic bungling when the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. AFTER a fancy new Heckscher Playground was built, it turned out that it had to be torn up for the building of the tunnel running from the BMT line on Seventh Ave. northward and eastward to the new 63rd St. line. (I remember a picture caption in the News or the Post which said, “Now bulldozers romp there.”) Then, the playground had to be built all over again.

Andrew D. Smith August 5, 2011 - 12:58 pm

The notion that a rich place like NYC — and the city is reasonably prosperous by pretty much any standard — expects anyone else to help fund its local transportation is crazy.

Does the federal government hand out big transportation subsidies to other places? Yes, sporadically, but the people of the city cannot afford to rely on sporadic money. The system needs a steady stream of revenue for projects and the only people who care enough about NYC transit to make the revenue steady are people who live in NYC.

Can the city afford to do it all? Not at current operation and capital costs, but that’s why we need to implement some best practices get the costs down, perhaps not to Spain levels but in the ballpark and what now seems impossible will suddenly seem easy. It’s just a matter of will. (And, yes, implementing best practices would be easier with local control because people in Albany are a lot less worried about screwing the city to help donating contractors than city officials would be.)

Jerrold August 5, 2011 - 4:23 pm

“……..and the city is reasonably prosperous by pretty much any standard…….”

Per capita, maybe!
But NOT in terms of the resources of most New Yorkers.

Bolwerk August 5, 2011 - 4:30 pm

Actually, the feds hand out a rather tremendous stream of transportation money to other places – much of it taken from places like New York.

Adirondacker12800 August 5, 2011 - 6:25 pm

And Albany hands out all sorts of goodies to upstate, financed by New York City taxes.

BrooklynBus August 7, 2011 - 9:46 am

In fact, Obama campaigned saying he will increase funding for transportation and infrastructure rebuilding. Being from a big city himself, he should know the transportation needs here are great. Instead they are now talking of cutting federal help.

Bolwerk August 7, 2011 - 10:58 pm

My take is he underestimated the political effort needed to get a lot of things he campaigned on done. Clinton era GOP batshittery barely receded under Bush.

Remember in 1994 when the Republikans got the Contract with America passed through both houses so quickly? The intra-party horse trading was mostly done by the time the new Congress was seated. Obama should have done the same with healthcare and transportation at least. It would have made the biggest issue in early 2010 the repeal of DADT. It maybe would not have saved the Dems in 2010, but it at least would have left them with a better legacy.

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