Home View from Underground Urban Future report highlights NYC’s infrastructure deficit

Urban Future report highlights NYC’s infrastructure deficit

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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sonicboy678 March 12, 2014 - 2:15 am

Obviously, some politicians don’t give two shits about what the international masses rely on. It’s a shame, really. The focus is mostly on reelection and/or artificial approval ratings, not the important things like education and transportation.

John-2 March 12, 2014 - 5:26 am

Preventive maintenance is always the first thing that’s cut around the margins when funding is limited, because it’s the area where the current politicians in office think they can get away with it best (or get out of office into a better job) before the bill comes due.

And as a place where few if any of the passengers go or even see, it’s no shock the yards would be one of the places most starved for modernization funding — the MTA spent the first 15 years of its existence not dealing with the system’s physical collapse, much of it in areas outside the decrepit stations and graffitied rail cars, until it reached the point in the early 1980s that the politicians in office were going to be held accountable unless something was done. We’re not back to 1982 levels year, and chances are funding won’t become a priority for Andrew as it was for his dad until the system gets back to 1982 levels.

Larry Littlefield March 12, 2014 - 7:36 am

This is an advocacy group and frankly, advocacy groups exaggerate. For one thing, the measure of “obsolescence” in these reports is typically very aggressive. If written in 1950, the “infrastructure deficit” probably would have included enough road capacity to completely replace the transit system.

In a physical sense, today infrastructure deficit is probably greater in the suburbs and sunbelt areas that are aging. They are where NYC was in the 1950s — an originally installed infrastructure that is wearing out and needs to be replaced, just as population stagnation, economic decline and exploding costs for seniors (former public employees etc) set it.

But there is an issue in NYC, and it is this.

If you go back to 1980, NYC had a real, enormous physical infrastructure deficit. But capital reinvestment has been massive since then, shrinking that deficit considerably. That’s why the subways run, the bridges didn’t fall down, more highways were not abandoned, the schools are not worse than they are, etc.

But money was BORROWED to pay for this, and not just at the MTA, even though all it did for the most part was allow NYC to keep the infrastructure it had, not to grow. And ongoing reinvestment is an ongoing expense. So the PHYSICAL deficit has been changed to a FINANCIAL debt. Worse, starting in the mid-1990s the city, state and MTA have gotten very poor value for their “capital dollar.” So the financial debt is greater than the physical deficit used to be.

Now debt service is crowding out maintenance. Without big increases in taxes that are already the highest in the U.S. (and might be diverted to even richer contract prices and public employee compensation in any event), cuts in other services, etc. the FINANCIAL DEFICIT is likely to be converted back into a PHYSICAL deficit as ongoing normal replacement ends.

Justin Samuels March 12, 2014 - 9:46 am

The IRT has a whole got signal replacement, which is why it has Countdown Clocks. The L train has CBTC. The Flushing line is being upgraded to CBTC and so is the Queens Boulevard line.

It’s always going to cost a lot of money because this is not something everyone has the skill set for. And there aren’t many contractors interested in being in the business.

I would say as far as de Blasio goes, give the guy at least a year in office before commenting on his transit policies. There’s a lot more to running NYC than transit. Keep in mind he ran on a Stop and Frisk and end police brutality platform. He ended the city’s appeal of the court decision restricting Stop and Frisk, and ended the city’s lawsuit again the bill making it easier to sue police officers.

So he’s been busy with other things.

I would also say Larry Littlefield is right, advocacy groups exaggerate. Obviously the system is in a much better state of repairs than it was in the late 70s/early 80s. In terms of the debt payments, the MTA will service them off raising fares again. NYCTA fares are cheap compared to what most of the country spends on transportation. The MTA has a lot of real estate it can further develop for revenues.

Larry Littlefield March 12, 2014 - 10:42 am

“I would say as far as de Blasio goes, give the guy at least a year in office before commenting on his transit policies.”

A lot of people are certainly taking unfair shots at the Mayor. Of course, he built his career on taking free shots at others while promising the moon, so there is that.

The bottom lines are the city budget and the MTA capital plan. Bloomberg took a shot at more funding for the MTA, he and Christine Quinn took all the political heat, and the legislature shot it down. This time the heat should be on the legislature first, Cuomo second, DeBlasio third.

Bolwerk March 12, 2014 - 11:01 am

De Blasio has a transit policy?

The first high-profile case of police brutality under de Blasio’s watch had him rationalizing it away. This is why almost everybody hates so-called “liberals”: they make promises – often good, well-meaning promises that would improve society over where is now – and end up breaking them to please so-called “conservatives,” who will never like the “liberals” anyway.

So, please, please, please, let’s hope he doesn’t have a transit policy. Everyone will have a government-issued Hummer by the time his first term is over!

Douglas John Bowen March 12, 2014 - 11:22 am

Concur with Mr. Littlefield re: the “alarmist” nature of the advocacy group. I’ve been unable to find any press coverage of what New York *has* been doing other than a small nod to the L Line. But “disaster crumbling infrastructure” has been a staple of press coverage in New York since the 1980s, with TIME Magazine once opening an expose with a Godzilla-like thesis of everything collapsing at once, including the Brooklyn Bridge.

Of course, few of the scenario-lets took place.

Unaddressed as well are any comparison to New York infrastructure items vis a vis other U.S. cities. Even during the dark days of the 1970s, New York water mains had 1/2 the breaks that Houston had, despite having roughly twice the mileage at that time. I can cite other reasons why New York’s water works today, while not ideal, aren’t victim of overneglect that the Center for Urban Future alludes it might be.

And while everyone here, adroitly led by Mr. Kabak, can identify beaucoup shortcoming to subways and rail systems and the like, is anyone seriously going to venture that New York is in a worse place than it was in the 1970s?

The issue is serious; it is not dire. Indeed, if I were the average New York City *suburb* in Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Bergen, or Essex County, I’d be far, far more worried about my built-on-the-cheap, now-coming-due infrastructure than I’d be about Gotham’s. Perspective matters. New York’s problems are real, but not desperate.

sonicboy678 March 12, 2014 - 12:01 pm

Keep in mind: some of our elevated structures are very old and are literally raining crucial parts. The Jamaica Line can barely handle the R160s, which are the heaviest cars that can be used for the structure.

Larry Littlefield March 12, 2014 - 1:38 pm

Would that be the portions of the Jamaica line that were never upgraded to subway standards? That section then needs to be upgraded. So add some pillars.

If it were critical, it would (or at least should) have already happened.

sonicboy678 March 12, 2014 - 8:13 pm

Probably, but just adding pillars won’t tackle the problem head-on. We need better structures and better maintenance to reduce these issues now and in the future.

Larry Littlefield March 12, 2014 - 12:45 pm

“Even during the dark days of the 1970s, New York water mains had 1/2 the breaks that Houston had, despite having roughly twice the mileage at that time.”

One thing that really ticks me off is when newly installed infrastructure fails even as the old stuff keeps working. It would be nice if the oldest water and sewer mains were failing, because then we’d no which ones to replace, but it isn’t always so.

johndmuller March 13, 2014 - 6:43 pm

Take for example yesterday’s gas explosion. I heard a reporter going on about century old cast iron pipe and how brittle it is … cold weather … etc. As if getting to be a century old is not some sort of statement as well.)

What they replace gas lines with is not terribly thick flexible plastic pipe. I’m not a materials engineer, but I wouldn’t be betting that this plastic pipe is more resistant across the board than the cast iron (or intermediate time ago galvanized steel) would be. Perhaps the plastic can handle some things better (like rust, for example), but accidental jackhammer strikes, truck/pothole vibrations, chemical spills, nearby fires, who knows.

It looks scary even when they are first laying the pipes – dump truck loads of gravel on top of this flimsy plastic street line, pulling replacement pipes through the ground on the heels of the pipes being replacing. And this is stuff that is reasonably out of the way – what of you or I putting a nail in the wall to hang a picture with that plastic pipe underneath?

Anon March 12, 2014 - 7:39 am

ask about NYCT’s data leak

Larry Littlefield March 12, 2014 - 10:44 am

For purposes of this report, should NYCT have any non-public data to be leaked?

Simon March 13, 2014 - 1:38 pm

Is that a reference to the leak of employee identification info?

BoerumHillScott March 12, 2014 - 8:24 am

$50 billion does not seem bad in the context of the MTA, DOT, and PA maintenance budgets.

anon_coward March 12, 2014 - 9:32 am

for the station rehab, there has to be something better than tile

expensive and time consuming to install and the cement between the tiles will almost surely start leaking

lawhawk March 12, 2014 - 9:48 am

The $50 billion isn’t just for the MTA and mass transit or transportation generally. It’s the shortfall in covering all aspects of infrastructure.

A sewer or water main break can have serious consequences for adjoining infrastructure, as we’ve seen water main breaks force closures of subway lines for prolonged periods. It degrades those systems, and there has been a perpetual lack of investment in upgrading systems that are in dire need.

Out of sight – out of mind.

That’s why we are reminded of water mains and the porous water delivery system only when there’s a water main break and the detours/closures associated with them, or the complaints when those replacement plans shutter roads for extended periods to update key infrastructure.

The NYS DEP is almost at a point where they can shutter one of the water tunnels upstate for the first time in 100 years to check it for leaks and make repairs. Another section of the aqueduct upstate has to be bypassed entirely with a new tunnel because of a major water leak. There are smaller leaks elsewhere throughout the distribution system, but it’s only in the last decade or so that water rates have begun to address the critical needs, and they aren’t enough to get ahead of the problems.

The MTA faces a task of trying to keep things running, all while operating a 24/7/365 system. Fastrak was one way to try and expedite repairs to critical sections but there are some kinds of repairs/infrastructure needs that can’t be addressed that way.

Borrowing for capital projects is one thing. Borrowing for operating budgets is something else entirely, and it again shows the lack of state interest in keeping the City’s economic engine running properly. Without the subways and buses functioning, the region’s economy will grind to a halt – Sandy showed that.

Yet, Gov. Cuomo’s idea of mass transit is to trim the budget around the edges and propose a $1 billion highway in the North Country (between Watertown and Plattsburg that already has an existing highway sufficient to handle traffic without having to disrupt the Adirondack Park. It’s an election year ploy to be sure, but if the budget has $1 billion for this spurious project, then it surely should have the funds to do Phase 2 without borrowing. Also, Cuomo’s tax cut plan ignores that he could repurpose the tax revenues he’s suggested cutting and putting them towards infrastructure statewide in a way that people would support since it would deliver tangible results and/or reduce the debt load accordingly.

Douglas John Bowen March 12, 2014 - 11:27 am

Leehawk’s example of NYS DEP is, in my view, a *strength* of the current water supply situation, and not (as some might interpret it) a weakness.

And he’s right to note that “There are smaller leaks elsewhere throughout the distribution system.” That said, average daily water use in the five boroughs is down 25% (and that’s a conservative number) in the past decade. People are using water more wisely. As well, some of those leaks are being fixed.

Same for the subways. Lots of stuff to do. Some of those things are being addressed.

Larry Littlefield March 12, 2014 - 12:48 pm

It is also worth noting that, prodded by the EPA, virtually all of the city’s investment in new (as opposed to replacement) infrastructure in the past 30 years has been environmental. That’s where all the new things are, mostly for better sewage treatment and fewer combined sewer overflows.

The elephant in the room is the separate sewers in the suburbs. They never had the CSOs, but never had any treatment of runoff either. Thus the quality of surrounding waters continues to degrade despite fare less pollution from NYC. Imagine if the EPA made the suburbs pay to treat runoff water and eliminate cesspools, the way it has imposed costs on NYC.

Nathanael March 12, 2014 - 5:17 pm

The prodding by the EPA seems to have gotten us most of the improvements we’ve gotten in my lifetime.

Imagine if we’d had similar prodding from a powerful Urban Mass Transit Administration.

Or, better yet, prodding from a functional Federal Elections Commission.

Ralfff March 12, 2014 - 2:41 pm

Worth nothing a couple of things about water specifically:

New York did not shut off ANY residential properties’ water for nonpayment for decades and as far as I know hardly ever does today:


Also, a portion of water bills goes to general revenue. I remember reading that John Liu took credit for uncovering this years ago, and that the fraction was 25%. de Blasio’s campaign page talks about this but doesn’t give a percentage.

Nathanael March 12, 2014 - 5:06 pm

Do we have a Democrat running against Cuomo?

If not, why not?

Even on a strict partisan basis, Cuomo is awful; he deliberately propped up the Republicans in the State Senate, which no Democrat other than a Quisling would do.

Larry Littlefield March 13, 2014 - 7:44 am

Because all the other Democrats and Republicans in this state are worse. I respect Tom Suozzi, but he couldn’t even get elected Nassau County executive again.

We need a whole new group of politicians. Starting in the state legislature. But I doubt we’ll get them. One member of the team finally dies or gets indicted, and a relative or crony takes their place in a special election no one even knows about.

John March 12, 2014 - 12:52 pm

Infrastructure investment is squeezed from both the left and the right. On the right, you have Tea Party morons who don’t realize that poor infrastructure is a tax on businesses, as it increases transportation and labor costs. On the left, you have the crooked union bosses driving up construction costs to astronomical, unjustifiable levels via arcane work rules and unsustainable pension demands.

I wish we had more pragmatic, non-ideological politicians who weren’t beholden to either the Ayn Randers or the self-serving unions.

Larry Littlefield March 12, 2014 - 1:40 pm

Who would pay for their campaigns? And without paid flacks, who would write about them in the media?

I say this as someone who did get fed up enough to run against the local state legislator as a low-budget, self-financed candidate a decade ago.

Larry Littlefield March 12, 2014 - 1:46 pm

And it should be noted that I did so after a decade of saying “someone should do something about this,” and finally realizing that was a little hypocritical. Your turn?


Nathanael March 12, 2014 - 5:15 pm

Thanks for this. I may actually run at some point.

It looks to me like I probably have to get the current implementation campaign finance laws thrown out through court action first, which will be pretty messy.

I’m quite sure it’s illegal to require the use of specific software which must be purchased from a specific private company, and I’ll bet you that that “software provides by the state” only runs on Microsoft Windows, which I do not own a copy of and will not own a copy of.

Larry Littlefield March 12, 2014 - 5:26 pm

The software is hardly the worst thing. The state elections staff up in Albany actually helped me figure out what to do.

Meanwhile, here in the city the goal is to make sure government is only of, by and for those in on “this thing of ours.”

Bolwerk March 12, 2014 - 3:24 pm

If the Tea Party is right, the union bosses are even more right. They do the same thing, only better.

nb8 March 12, 2014 - 4:42 pm


nb8 March 12, 2014 - 4:48 pm

Probably the saddest part of this report is the state of NYC’s airports. The rest of country has modern financially self-sufficient, there is no reason why NYC can’t have the same.

SEAN March 12, 2014 - 5:26 pm

Many large airports are increasing opperating costs to cover their expantions & upgrades. The worst US offender isn’t in NYC, rather it’s Miami intl. As a result, some lower cost international airlines are moving opperations to nearby Fort Lauderdale.

AG March 12, 2014 - 8:00 pm

The airports are not great – but they put a lot of money into the coffers of the Port Authority.

Larry Littlefield March 13, 2014 - 7:45 am

Right — the airports are a cash cow. But given the direction of the airline industry, I wouldn’t bet on that continuing.

SEAN March 13, 2014 - 12:29 pm

And what direction is that?

AG March 13, 2014 - 6:12 pm

Not sure I follow… Air travel is back to record levels.

Joel Azumah March 13, 2014 - 9:52 am

The problem is that these fixes will take a long time. So, if you don’t start now, you’ll get to the point in less than 5 years that you can’t fix it all. The most serious issues were fixed in the 1980s and 1990s, but signals are now failing left and right. Either you start now at $5B per year or you risk shrinking the economy.


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