In a few hours, the polls in New York will open on an election that, at one point, may have been viewed as a referendum on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s leadership of the MTA. For a few months, before the noise from Washington overwhelmed local issues, it seemed as though Cuomo was going to have to take responsibility for the ongoing decline of the subways during his eight-year watch. But after dispatching Cynthia Nixon, who failed to turn the subway crisis into a campaign issue with traction, and drawing Marc Molinaro, a largely ineffectual candidate with a semi-decent plan to reform MTA (while also defunding it, in part), Cuomo will waltz to victory on Tuesday with some vague promises to push through an overtaxed congestion pricing and fight for the subways.
A few weeks ago, on the eve of Cuomo’s primary, I wrote that the governor doesn’t like the subway and isn’t going to save it. That largely holds true tonight as well. There’s a chance Cuomo, who believes he can run for the White House in 2020, will embrace saving the subway as his signature moment and devote the right energy to Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan, but there’s a better chance he’ll use the region’s infrastructure for a bunch of photo ops while highlighting projects that don’t solve our problems. The area’s best hope is for a Democratic-controlled State Senate to pass congestion pricing and perhaps exercise its oversight powers more often than once every three years. To that end, those in Bay Ridge should consider a vote for Andrew Gounardes, and those of us who live in former IDC districts should consider a vote for the challengers. Otherwise, #FlipYourBallot and vote YES on proposition 3 to impose modest term limits for Community Boards and hope for the best for transit.
With that said, it’s worth looking at the state of subway ridership on the eve of Gov. Cuomo’s second reelection effort. As I hinted at a few weeks ago, it’s not a pretty picture as ridership has essentially started to crater. After months of a steady decline, August saw a steep dip as average weekday subway ridership fell to just over 5 million riders a day, a drop of 2.5% from 2017, and combined weekend ridership fell by nearly 9%, the steepest year-over-year decline in decades.
With the city’s economy continuing to add jobs, it seems that riders are fleeing the system and turning to other modes of travel for their commutes. The factors I explored a month ago are still at play, but this nosedive in August raises some serious red flags. Even during the slow summer months, when the MTA anticipates a dip, ridership was nearly 2 percent below projections (and the resultant farebox revenue missed its target as well). As ridership declines, the MTA’s finances grow strained, and city streets grow more crowded from the congestion caused by erstwhile subway riders resorting to for-hire vehicles. We head further toward that downward death spiral.
It’s not quite clear what anyone’s plan for this alarming modeshift may be. Cuomo is talking about congestion pricing which could push some folks back to the subways, and the MTA itself is touting Fast Forward. The latter though is a long-term solution with fewer short-term gains, and it’s not clear the powers-that-be are picking up on the problem. Make no mistake about it: A significant mode-shift away from transit to less sustainable modes of travel is a problem for the city’s productivity and environment, and a culture shift away from traveling anywhere, especially on the weekends, is a problem for the vibrancy of New York City. Without the subways, the city can’t function, and right now, month by month, we inch closer to that breaking point.
I worry about a disengaged Andrew Cuomo after the election when the subways aren’t fixed but no one is running against him on the issue. Will he still care or will we be stuck with what we have until he’s out of office? Photo ops won’t be enough to save the subways or our congested streets, and the transit death spiral could lock the entire region in its sour embrace sooner than we’d all like to contemplate.