Sometimes, when I ride the subways during supposed off-peak hours, I’m reminded of a twist on a phrase Yogi Berra coined. Of a popular spot, the Yankee great once said, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” In a way, it makes perfect sense and no sense at all, but applied to the subways, the inverse is seemingly true. Unfortunately, it’s too crowded, and everybody keeps going there.
My personal anecdote spans the course of this week. Hot on the heels of the MTA announcing that they recognize they have a crowded problem came some of the more crowded rides I’ve taken in months. I had to let some early-morning Q trains pass me by at 7th Ave. because it was impossible to board. Then, on Tuesday night, while coming back to Brooklyn from the Upper West Side, I had to stand all the way from 96th to Grand Army Plaza, and on Wednesday, journeying at 9 p.m. from Union Sq. back to 7th Ave., there were no seats to be had on my Q trains.
Traveling companions who boarded at Canal St. were shocked to find the train so crowded at a relatively late weeknight hour. “It never used to be this crowded,” one said to the other, and I nodded to myself. As recently as a five, let alone ten, years ago, the subways just weren’t this crowded. We’re living through an historically unprecedented explosion in ridership, and the MTA can’t catch up.
Right now, the problems facing the MTA are those of the present and those of the future. In the short term, the MTA, still years away from fully recovering from the effects of Sandy, has a backlog of repairs that need to be initiative. In the long term, to meet demands of today’s ridership, the MTA needed to start planning a decade ago, but right now, they’re stuck in a neutral planning for demands of the next decade without a fully funded five-year capital plan. There’s no easy way out of this conundrum.
The news isn’t exactly getting better for the financially beleaguered transit agency. In a comprehensive report issued this week [pdf], the Citizens Budget Commission examined the MTA’s finances and determined that the agency may face a funding gap greater than $15 billion. In a nutshell, the non-partisan group doesn’t believe the MTA has the cash on hand to make certain contributions to the budget, and thus, the funding gap is closer to $20 billion. On the one hand, this is all accounting sleight of hand, but on the other, someone — future New Yorkers and subway riders — will pay for more debt financing through steeper and more frequent fare hikes or worse service.
As part of the report, the CBC examined numerous funding options, and while no one around here went for their plan to cap unlimited ride MetroCards, the CBC has largely examined driving as a potential source of revenue. The new report discusses the Move New York tolling plan and a variety of fees and taxes on driving to fund transit expansion. These are ideas the MTA tentatively endorsed yesterday, and promisingly, the Board’s Staten Island rep seems to be on board. (For more on the CBC’s ideas, check out this video.)
But I keep coming back to the crowds. The MTA’s system in 2015 can’t handle increasing volumes, and nothing indicates ridership is going to decline. The MTA needs to start planning now for a future with even more straphangers, and they need the money to do so. Every day we wait is another day with trains too crowded for rush hour passengers, delays due to signal problems, and every transit woe in between.