Over the weekend, Dan Rivoli of the Daily News wrote a feature on the MTA’s capital funding woes. For the transit literati, Rivoli’s piece travels no new ground, but it’s an important one for the debate and discussion over the MTA’s funding. While Gov. Cuomo shows no willingness to act before the legislative session ends in two weeks, Rivoli’s piece allows the MTA and its supporters to drive the conversation and keep the pressure on the governor to respond.
In the piece, Rivoli runs through the laundry list of projects the MTA can’t see through in the short- and long-term if the funding doesn’t materialize. Future phases of the Second Ave. Subway would be in jeopardy; rolling stock upgrades would be delayed; countdown clocks, a MetroCard replacement and other technological upgrades wouldn’t be funded. The money would go toward maintaining the current system and generally keeping the trains running without allowing the MTA to meet demands of high ridership and a growing city. “The status quo,” Allen Cappelli, an MTA board member, said to Rivoli, “is not good enough.”
Of course, Cappelli is right, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought about how right he is, capital funding or not. Right now, today — and especially during the weekend — the status quo isn’t good enough. The Daily News published Rivoli’s article on Saturday night, a few hours after I had gotten a text from my sister complaining about a 20-minute wait, with no announcement of a problem, for an N train on Saturday afternoon. It was also a few hours after I had to wait eight minutes for a 4 train at 7 p.m. and when headways were nearing 10 minutes on Brooklyn-bound 2 and 3 trains. It came after a week during which I saw similarly lengthy headways during peak-hour, mid-week service and at a time when it’s getting tougher to find seats on just about any train on a weekend.
The MTA has long maintained that service is good enough. But recall that they changed their own internal load guidelines back in 2010 so that a line isn’t eligible for more service until a quarter of a subway car’s off-peak passengers are standing. If we’re not there yet, we’re getting awfully close. These load guidelines, meanwhile, lead to longer waits and generally disgruntled riders.
As many of you know, I spent much of May traveling. I rode the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn in Berlin, the Tunnelbana in Stockholm, the CTA’s subways in Chicago and Boston’s T. The longest waits I’ve had for a train during mid-day, off-peak and peak hours have all been in New York City. If that’s the status quo the MTA is seeking enough money to maintain, the status quo is not good enough.
It’s hard to say what the best solution is. Any increase in service involves massive costs in that the MTA would need to hire more employees (already a source of lost cost cavings opportunities thanks to Cuomo’s utter capitulation to the TWU last year), buy more rolling stock, and upgrade the signal systems. Running more frequent four- or five-car sets during off-peak hours could solve some of the problems associated with headways but not necessarily address the issue of crowding. And of course, without action from Albany one way or another, the money to improve the not-good-enough status quo isn’t there.
The MTA certainly isn’t wine and roses. They bleed money on capital side at rates well above any comparably system or city throughout the world and haven’t shown much willingness in recent years to push for OPTO or ATO measures that would save oodles of money. The governor isn’t listening to its leaders or the people of New York who need investment in transit, and we’re stuck with this insufficient status quo. If you think too hard about the future, it’s not necessarily a pretty picture, and it’s one New York, Albany and the MTA may be rushing headlong toward.
As Denise Richardson, the head of the General Contractors Association said to the Daily News, “We’re violating one of those cardinal principles of long-term capital planning, which is to take a long-term view and not just be responding to the emergency priorities.” Waiting for the emergency will mean it’s already too late.