Whenever I read another report about the state of New York City’s infrastructure, I think both of the boy who cried wolf and of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. As the trains continue to run everyday, the average New Yorker who pays no attention to these sorts of things must think we’re all crying wolf while the politicians who are aware of the problem but do nothing seem to be the ones fiddling while New York City slowly crumbles around them. The ultimate outcomes — spend lots of money or watch the city lose its global status — aren’t alluring, but something has to give.
The latest warning comes to us from the Center for Urban Future and focuses on the $50 billion in outstanding investments needed to bring our infrastructure up to par. It includes sentences such as this: “LaGuardia’s main terminal is 50 years old and in terrible condition, while two of JFK’s six terminals have stood for over four decades.” In essence, the CUF report doesn’t sugar-coat anything, and the city’s key pieces are, by and large, in terrible shape.
While the state controls most of the transit spending, the report (available here as a PDF) spends some time focusing on the subway. The picture it paints of key systems we don’t usually see or appreciate on a daily basis is grim. According to the report, 37 percent of the system’s signals have exceeded their 50-year useful lifespan, and yet, they keep on ticking.
The MTA’s signaling system is old and obsolete. Of the 728 miles of mainline signals, 269 have exceeded their 50-year useful life. Twenty- six percent are more than 70 years old and 11 percent are between 50 and 69 years old. The equipment is no longer manufactured, forcing the Transit Authority to build and replace parts at its own signal shop…Expediting signal modernization would require a tremendous infusion of money or a significant redistribution of capital dollars among MTA subsidiaries. Even with unlimited funds, replacing signals would be exceedingly difficult and disruptive…
In addition to funding and track access is- sues, the MTA is hobbled by a dearth of qualified contractors. At the moment, only three to four contractors are available to perform signal installation and modernization work. This limits com- petition, increases expenses and caps the amount of signal work that can be performed at any one time. To address this constraint, the MTA recently began a mentoring program for training contractors.
The problem isn’t limited to signal systems. The report takes on station conditions as well.
New York’s subway stations are chaotic and beleaguered. Trash is sometimes strewn across the platform and between the tracks. Leaking ceilings and water-damaged walls are pervasive. Paint peels from the ceiling. Columns rust. Bottlenecks form at narrow stairwells, choking the circulation of foot traffic. “New York’s subway stations are terrible,” says Paaswell of the University Transportation Research Center. “They’re dirty. They’re dingy. They need painting. They need new architecture. They need better lighting.”
While MTA officials recognize these deficien-cies, in recent years they have scaled down their approach to rehabilitation. “In stations, the MTA has basically conceded that you will never get to a state of good repair,” says Jeremy Soffin, the for- mer MTA spokesperson. “It’s simply not possible. There are so many tens of billions of dollars of repair needs.” Since 2010, the MTA has opted to replace individual components in stations rather than perform comprehensive renovations. According to officials, the old strategy proved too slow and too costly.
And what about maintenance shops?
Like the system they service, subway shops and yards are old. The 13 facilities opened nearly 90 years ago on average. Two buildings at the Concourse Yard were recently placed on the Na- tional Register of Historic Places. The East New York facility, originally built in 1880 as a horse and carriage depot, still relies completely on hand- thrown switches. The narrow aisles at the Livonia and 240th Street facilities are ill configured for modern maintenance and repair practices.
In a recent survey of each of its capital asset categories, the MTA found its yards and shops were in the worst state of repair. Fifty-four per- cent of the components at these facilities exceed their useful life. Thirty-eight percent of lighting is in poor condition and does not meet current standards. The MTA has not increased investment to address the decay at its critical maintenance facilities. Instead, capital outlays have fallen from $455 million in the 2000-2004 capital budget to $263 million43 in the current five-year budget. If greater attention is not paid to rehabbing these facilities, subway car maintenance will suffer and train delays will become more common.
Beyond the subway system, you can read about the sorry state of the city’s airports, the rough condition of the roads, and the structural deficiencies that will impact bridges, utilities and schools in the coming years. With at least $50 billion investment pending, this report hardly paints the picture of a city on the rise.
What’s the answer? How do we find a solution? We’ll need leadership and money. Infrastructure upgrades can spur on job creation and economic growth, but neither Andrew Cuomo nor Bill de Blasio has embraced spending on capital projects. The MTA, on the other hand, has proposed a five-year capital plan worth over $20 billion that would address exactly the issues named in this report — at least on the signaling front. They can’t do much beyond that without an infusion of dollars.
Still, this need for investment will require leadership to make uncomfortable and unpopular decisions. It’s not likely to happen soon, but I wonder how long New York can thrive without it. The situation sounds needlessly dire, but that’s because soon it will be. Invest. Fund. Grow.