A fundamental question that isn’t often considered about New York City’s transit network concerns the adequacy of current service. Is a transit network that is essentially the same as it was in 1970 sufficient for New York City in 2014? Even if we flip ahead to 2020 when the 7 line extension, presumably, will be open, and the first phase of the Second Ave. Subway, presumably, will be open, not all that much will have changed over the past 50 years. Other than the advent of the MetroCard, improvements have been around the margins.
Very few things that are so integral to our everyday lives last five decades without change. Now, we can’t overlook new rolling stock and around $70 billion of investment in the region’s transit network, but we also can’t grow complacent. Complacency — or outright complaint — has led to where we are now. The MTA is reviled, and worse, the MTA’s forward progress seems to involve hauling a two-ton rock up a steep hill.
Nothing proves this point quite like the MTA’s Reinvention Commission report. I spoke earlier this week on my disappointment with the commission, and on Tuesday — two days before Thanksgiving — at 5:30 p.m. in a blatantly obvious attempt to bury a much-anticipated report that wound up saying very little, the MTA released the final draft. From the image on the cover of the sun setting on New York City to the fact that the report skirts the very issues that are fundamental to reinvention, the thing was designed to be good P.R. that’s ultimately ignored.
Over at Pedestrian Observations, Alon Levy has printed his very thorough examination of just why this report is so underwhelming. You should read his piece; there’s no reason for me to rehash his (or my) arguments. Instead, I want to look at three ways in which the MTA must be reinvented. I don’t the answers as to how — that’s a question above my current pay grade. But these are issues that have to be addressed for NYC to grow, and shockingly, it’s not all about a steady revenue stream.
1. The cost is too damn high. It’s been repeated everywhere for years, but the MTA’s construction costs are too high. For the amount of money they’ve spent on rather piddling subway extension north on 2nd Ave. or west to Hudson Yards, other countries build massive systems. The MTA’s construction costs are up to ten times higher than they should be. Why? Don’t ask the Reinvention Commission; they’re content with urging the MTA simply to “get the right work done faster and cheaper.”
2. Challenge the GCA … and the unions. A committee brought together by a politician isn’t about to go after two of the stronger interest groups in politics, but two of the main drivers behind the MTA’s high costs are contractors and labor. Someone with political capital will have to go after these two groups in order for the MTA to drive down its costs. Cuomo could have done that four years ago, but those were two interests that helped him gain office in the first place.
3. It all takes too long. Ask the MTA how long until we get countdown clocks at B Division stations, and the answer is, as it has been since 2011 or 2012, “three to five years.” Ask the MTA about a MetroCard replacement and the answer is still unclear. Figure out why it’s going to take over eight long years to build 2.5 miles of subway tunnel and three new stations along Second Ave., and you could win some sort of award. It’s been nearly 11 years since the MTA issued its Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Second Ave. Subway. Does that mean what we plan today won’t see the light of day until 2025? Considering that we as a city are barely planning anything, that’s not a good sign.
Start there; reinvent something. Otherwise, nothing will change.