New Yorkers who rely on the subways for their daily needs are prone to complain, and everyone knows the typical refrains. “Another delay on the 7.” “The L train stalled just past Bedford Ave.” “Signal problems on the A/C/E again.”
At times, subway complaining can almost seem like a game. It’s Subway Misery Poker. Did you have a worse commute than your co-worker? And sometimes, it’s hard not to think that we’re all exaggerating how bad we have it. After all, twenty-five years ago, track fires were a common occurrences and train doors often broke, stranding passengers up and down entire subway lines. The MTA in 2008 is a far cry from the MTA of 1980.
Yet, here we are again in 2008, and maybe things are that bad. Much like in 1980, Richard Ravitch has again been asked to ride in and gallantly save the MTA from sure doom. But just what is the extent of that doom?
In an extended post on amNew York’s Subway Tracker blog today, Matthew Sweeney expounded on the precarious state of the New York City subway system. Those complaints of poor service and frequent delays may be more valid than we as a city would like to admit.
Trains are falling farther and farther behind since at least March 2006. It’s worst in the evening rush where NYC Transit rates itself as running 88% of trains on time in March — the most recent data available — down from almost 92% in March last year…
The number of delays is up as well — an average of 27% over the last 12 months. Delays are counted as any train “abandoned en-route, abandoned at the terminal, and arriving late to the terminal due to any incident.” Anything from a signal problem, a sick passenger or track work can cause a delay. Track work is the most common cause of delays. In March, delays spiked upward with 1,361 more incidents than February. Delays have been on the rise for a couple of years. There were 105,290 train delays in 2006, and 138,446 last year…
Another indicator — the mean distance between failures, which is the number of miles divided by delays caused by the cars themselves — has a bleak prognosis. In March 2008, cars traveled 12% shorter distance before having a problem than they did during the same time last year.
“Every month we’re showing record ridership and we’re not putting any more service out there to accommodate the ridership,” MTA Board Member Andrew Albert said at Thursday’s meeting. “Right now it is crush conditions.”
On top of — or is it behind? — all of these problems with the physical plant, the MTA is suffering an acute money crisis, spurred in part by congestion pricing, in part by a terrible economy and in part by decades of government neglect at the city and state levels. That is where Richard Ravitch comes in. Ravitch has been tasked with finding viable options for the MTA to fund its projected $17 billion capital budget gap. But besides the expansion plans that are in jeopardy, a gap this large would seriously impact the MTA’s ability to maintain what the agency calls a “state of good repair” which, as you can see from stations and cars, isn’t a very high standard.
Without the money, the system will quickly tumble from good repair to bad repair. While it’s hard to imagine returning to those dark days of the 1970s and 1980s simply because the city is safer than it was twenty and thirt years ago, the subways will quickly become grimier and more unreliable than many New Yorkers ever remember them to be.
Eliot Brown writing in The Observer earlier this week profiled Ravitch’s tough task, and there’s plenty to like about Ravitch and his commission. I’m eagerly awaiting their recommendations.
So it is left to Mr. Ravitch and his commission, with members expected to be named in coming weeks, to sort through the mess and chart a viable course for the M.T.A. and State Legislature to follow.
Commissions such as these often follow a similar formula, as politicized members produce a report with a more or less predetermined outcome so as to give the commission’s creators a perceived mandate to proceed with whatever policy action they had intended, perhaps with a few tweaks.
But such a result is unlikely from Mr. Ravitch, those who know him say, as he has a well-known reputation for freely speaking his mind and fiercely defending his independence, an element considered key to his successful track record.
“He’s incredibly blunt about things, and may put some people off, but on the other hand you can depend on what Richard is saying as being what he really believes,” said Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association. “He is a remarkable man.”
And that is where we are now with the subways. The system is nearly maxed out in terms of capacity, and the MTA is without the money — thanks to anit-congestion pricing foes — to address the situation. For the second time in less than thirty years, New York and the MTA will turn to Richard Ravitch to rescue their subway system. This time, the system is simply on the brink of collapse instead of a full-fledged nightmare, and we all have to hope that Ravitch can pull this rabbit out of his hat. The future health of New York depends on it.
The 1972 New York City Subway Guide courtesy of the Field Guide to New York City Subway Maps.