I’m writing this from an airplane over the Atlantic Ocean or perhaps Newfoundland by now. As those of you who follow me on Instagram know, I’ve spent the last week and a half in London on vacation taking in the sights of a changing city I haven’t seen since 2006 and enjoying a city with a functional transit network. Though the locals in London may complain about crowded rush hour trains and intermittent signal issues that make service less than reliable, outsiders can find a transit paradise.
Except for a weekend trip on the Overground, I never had to wait more than a handful of minutes for a train, and rush hour service means the next train arrives before you can even walk half the length of the platform. The buses run regularly and reliably, and the system is growing quickly. It shows what a city committed to transit can do.
On Saturday afternoon, while sitting in a brewery in a railway arch underneath the elevated Overground, I read Brian Rosenthal, Emma Fitzsimmons and Michael LaForgia’s stunning overview of a transit system in crisis. In what is the first in a series, three reporters from The Times held back no punches in blaming everyone, mayors and governors and labor leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, for the decline of the New York City subway system. As I sat in a revenue-generating productive reuse of potential dead space underneath transit, I absorbed this indictment via newspaper.
You can check out my overview on Twitter. I wrote up a series of threaded tweets with excerpts from the article, but let’s dive in. It’s well worth the time you may spend reading the entire piece if you haven’t already, but let’s discuss highlights. All excerpts below are from the piece itself.
How bad is it? Bad.
Signal problems and car equipment failures occur twice as frequently as a decade ago, but hundreds of mechanic positions have been cut because there is not enough money to pay them — even though the average total compensation for subway managers has grown to nearly $300,000 a year.
Daily ridership has nearly doubled in the past two decades to 5.7 million, but New York is the only major city in the world with fewer miles of track than it had during World War II. Efforts to add new lines have been hampered by generous agreements with labor unions and private contractors that have inflated construction costs to five times the international average.
New York’s subway now has the worst on-time performance of any major rapid transit system in the world, according to data collected from the 20 biggest. Just 65 percent of weekday trains reach their destinations on time, the lowest rate since the transit crisis of the 1970s, when graffiti-covered cars regularly broke down.
And whose fault is it? Everyone’s.
None of this happened on its own. It was the result of a series of decisions by both Republican and Democratic politicians — governors from George E. Pataki to Mr. Cuomo and mayors from Rudolph W. Giuliani to Bill de Blasio. Each of them cut the subway’s budget or co-opted it for their own priorities. They stripped a combined $1.5 billion from the M.T.A. by repeatedly diverting tax revenues earmarked for the subways and also by demanding large payments for financial advice, I.T. help and other services that transit leaders say the authority could have done without. They pressured the M.T.A. to spend billions of dollars on opulent station makeovers and other projects that did nothing to boost service or reliability, while leaving the actual movement of trains to rely on a 1930s-era signal system with fraying, cloth-covered cables. They saddled the M.T.A. with debt and engineered a deal with creditors that brought in quick cash but locked the authority into paying $5 billion in interest that it otherwise never would have had to pay.
At a high level, the article discusses the turnover plaguing the MTA, but it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of brain drain at an agency that cannot retain young talent and buries progressive voices underneath layers of bureaucracy. It talks about bloated management and salaries for thousands of people that outpace what New York City’s mayor or New York State’s governor make each year. “It’s genuinely shocking how much of every dollar that goes to the M.T.A. is spent on expenses that have nothing to do with running the subway,” former EDC head Seth Pinsky said to The Times.
The story The Times tells begins at a local level with Mayor Giuliani:
After more than a decade of spending, about $50 billion in today’s dollars, reliability soared. Cars traveled 10 times farther before breaking down. Riders returned in droves. It was a golden era; New York and its subway seemed to be on the rise together. Then, records show, officials pulled back.
It started with New York City’s mayors. While the M.T.A., the sprawling organization that operates the New York subway and bus lines, two commuter railroads and several bridges, is run by the state, the subway is owned by the city. In addition to creating confusion, this dynamic sparks funding battles.
Historically, the city has funded about 10 percent of the M.T.A.’s total budget. Mr. Giuliani decided to change that in 1994, when he became the city’s first Republican mayor in two decades. Facing a budget shortfall and eager to show he could run the city without raising taxes, he announced he would cut the city’s contribution to the M.T.A.’s operating and capital budgets by $400 million.
After Giuliani instituted disastrous cuts, neither transit-loving Michael Bloomberg nor pseudo-progressive Bill de Blasio did anything to reverse this lack of support. In today’s dollars, the city gives 75 percent less cash to help MTA operations than it did in 1990, and despite owning the subways, the city and its leaders spend more time fighting with state officials than working to solve the crisis. As the city has boomed, transit investment has lagged far behind, and we feel the effects every day.
But it’s not just a city problem.
Lawmakers in Albany trimmed funding for subway maintenance throughout the 1990s, records show, even as the state budget grew from $45 billion to $80 billion. Then they kept funding mostly flat for years, despite the surge in ridership.
Under Mr. Pataki, the state eliminated subsidies for the M.T.A., opting to make the authority rely entirely on fares, tolls and revenue from taxes and fees earmarked for transit. It also ended state funding for capital work. The move rankled the state comptroller at the time, H. Carl McCall, who warned that taxes and fees were unstable.
Mr. Pataki also started a trend of redirecting revenues from taxes. In 1995, he pushed through a state income tax cut and helped pay for it by taking more than $200 million in tax revenues that had been set aside for transit. His three successors followed suit. At least $850 million has been diverted in the past two decades, records show.
Bear Stearns helped refinance the MTA’s debt and helped fund Pataki reelection efforts, and the MTA’s debt bomb looms large over everything. It seemed at one time that Eliot Spitzer may have been keen to reverse this trend, but he was ousted by his own scandals. And we all know what Andrew Cuomo has – or hasn’t – done with transit over his tenure in Albany.
Meanwhile, The Times details the myriad ways the city and state has hobbled the MTA. The pieces tells of a bond issuance fee that has cost the MTA $328 million over 15 years, and Sheldon Silver’s threats to withdraw funding if the MTA didn’t sink over $750 million to fund cost overruns for the largely superfluous transit hub at Fulton St. Cuomo lately has pushed for his enhanced station initiative, targeting stations the MTA didn’t feel required renovations and without needed dollars for ADA compliance efforts, a potential source of liability for the MTA.
The Times also takes on the TWU and exposes Cuomo’s stunning hypocrisy at the same time. The article notes that subway works average $170,000 in salary, overtime and benefits. Their raises over the past 10 years far outstrip other public sector unions, and their current salaries dwarf average salaries in other major American cities. Plus, New York trains are still operated by two workers, a oddity that makes us unique the world over.
Union rules also drive up costs, including by requiring two M.T.A. employees on every train — one to drive, and one to oversee boarding. Virtually every other subway in the world staffs trains with only one worker; if New York did that, it would save nearly $200 million a year, according to an internal M.T.A. analysis obtained by The Times. Several M.T.A. officials involved in negotiating recent contracts said that there was one reason they accepted the union’s terms: Mr. Cuomo.
The governor, who is closely aligned with the union and has received $165,000 in campaign contributions from the labor group, once dispatched a top aide to deliver a message, they said. Pay the union and worry about finding the money later, the aide said, according to two former M.T.A. officials who were in the room.
Mr. Cuomo’s office said in a statement that the M.T.A. handled its own labor negotiations and that campaign contributions had not influenced any of his actions.
Cuomo, of course, was singing a different tune two years ago when he trumpeted his own involvement in TWU negotiations.
Gov. Cuomo, 2017: “Mr. Cuomo’s office said in a statement that the M.T.A. handled its own labor negotiations.” https://t.co/KoFrHsaWId
Gov. Cuomo, 2014: https://t.co/PTHTj4CNEp pic.twitter.com/SlZMX4CQeC
— Kate Hinds (@katehinds) November 18, 2017
Meanwhile, no one wants to take responsibility for this mess. We have no champion to save the system, and those in charge are avoiding culpability. The MTA has cooked its books to show better performance than it has delivered, and Joe Lhota, brought in recently to oversee the MTA, seemed to avoid taking ownership of the problem.
Mr. Lhota said that quirks existed in all data and that M.T.A. officials handled the classification consistently. He rejected any suggestion that officials were manipulating numbers to make themselves look better or blame customers for problems. “The delays are solely the responsibility of the New York City Transit Authority,” he said, referring to the agency that runs the subway.
I’m not sure where we go from here but down. No one is stepping up to bring in direct funding for maintenance or a congestion pricing scheme that will rescue our streets and fund transit investments. We’re not getting an Overground or a Crossrail to save the city, and we can barely build capital projects, let alone at cost or on time. The newly reelected mayor doesn’t care, and the governor cares only to the extent he can trumpet his poorly-thought-out support for infrastructure into some kind of platform for his doomed 2020 White House run. For me, coming home from London, New York City’s transit looks bad, and it’s only going to get worse.