Home MTA Politics Thing got bad; things got worse: the unfolding NYC transit crisis

Thing got bad; things got worse: the unfolding NYC transit crisis

by Benjamin Kabak

I’m writing this from an airplane over the Atlantic Ocean or perhaps Newfoundland by now. As those of you who follow me on Instagram know, I’ve spent the last week and a half in London on vacation taking in the sights of a changing city I haven’t seen since 2006 and enjoying a city with a functional transit network. Though the locals in London may complain about crowded rush hour trains and intermittent signal issues that make service less than reliable, outsiders can find a transit paradise.

Except for a weekend trip on the Overground, I never had to wait more than a handful of minutes for a train, and rush hour service means the next train arrives before you can even walk half the length of the platform. The buses run regularly and reliably, and the system is growing quickly. It shows what a city committed to transit can do.

On Saturday afternoon, while sitting in a brewery in a railway arch underneath the elevated Overground, I read Brian Rosenthal, Emma Fitzsimmons and Michael LaForgia’s stunning overview of a transit system in crisis. In what is the first in a series, three reporters from The Times held back no punches in blaming everyone, mayors and governors and labor leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, for the decline of the New York City subway system. As I sat in a revenue-generating productive reuse of potential dead space underneath transit, I absorbed this indictment via newspaper.

You can check out my overview on Twitter. I wrote up a series of threaded tweets with excerpts from the article, but let’s dive in. It’s well worth the time you may spend reading the entire piece if you haven’t already, but let’s discuss highlights. All excerpts below are from the piece itself.

How bad is it? Bad.

Signal problems and car equipment failures occur twice as frequently as a decade ago, but hundreds of mechanic positions have been cut because there is not enough money to pay them — even though the average total compensation for subway managers has grown to nearly $300,000 a year.

Daily ridership has nearly doubled in the past two decades to 5.7 million, but New York is the only major city in the world with fewer miles of track than it had during World War II. Efforts to add new lines have been hampered by generous agreements with labor unions and private contractors that have inflated construction costs to five times the international average.

New York’s subway now has the worst on-time performance of any major rapid transit system in the world, according to data collected from the 20 biggest. Just 65 percent of weekday trains reach their destinations on time, the lowest rate since the transit crisis of the 1970s, when graffiti-covered cars regularly broke down.

And whose fault is it? Everyone’s.

None of this happened on its own. It was the result of a series of decisions by both Republican and Democratic politicians — governors from George E. Pataki to Mr. Cuomo and mayors from Rudolph W. Giuliani to Bill de Blasio. Each of them cut the subway’s budget or co-opted it for their own priorities. They stripped a combined $1.5 billion from the M.T.A. by repeatedly diverting tax revenues earmarked for the subways and also by demanding large payments for financial advice, I.T. help and other services that transit leaders say the authority could have done without. They pressured the M.T.A. to spend billions of dollars on opulent station makeovers and other projects that did nothing to boost service or reliability, while leaving the actual movement of trains to rely on a 1930s-era signal system with fraying, cloth-covered cables. They saddled the M.T.A. with debt and engineered a deal with creditors that brought in quick cash but locked the authority into paying $5 billion in interest that it otherwise never would have had to pay.

At a high level, the article discusses the turnover plaguing the MTA, but it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of brain drain at an agency that cannot retain young talent and buries progressive voices underneath layers of bureaucracy. It talks about bloated management and salaries for thousands of people that outpace what New York City’s mayor or New York State’s governor make each year. “It’s genuinely shocking how much of every dollar that goes to the M.T.A. is spent on expenses that have nothing to do with running the subway,” former EDC head Seth Pinsky said to The Times.

The story The Times tells begins at a local level with Mayor Giuliani:

After more than a decade of spending, about $50 billion in today’s dollars, reliability soared. Cars traveled 10 times farther before breaking down. Riders returned in droves. It was a golden era; New York and its subway seemed to be on the rise together. Then, records show, officials pulled back.

It started with New York City’s mayors. While the M.T.A., the sprawling organization that operates the New York subway and bus lines, two commuter railroads and several bridges, is run by the state, the subway is owned by the city. In addition to creating confusion, this dynamic sparks funding battles.

Historically, the city has funded about 10 percent of the M.T.A.’s total budget. Mr. Giuliani decided to change that in 1994, when he became the city’s first Republican mayor in two decades. Facing a budget shortfall and eager to show he could run the city without raising taxes, he announced he would cut the city’s contribution to the M.T.A.’s operating and capital budgets by $400 million.

After Giuliani instituted disastrous cuts, neither transit-loving Michael Bloomberg nor pseudo-progressive Bill de Blasio did anything to reverse this lack of support. In today’s dollars, the city gives 75 percent less cash to help MTA operations than it did in 1990, and despite owning the subways, the city and its leaders spend more time fighting with state officials than working to solve the crisis. As the city has boomed, transit investment has lagged far behind, and we feel the effects every day.

But it’s not just a city problem.

Lawmakers in Albany trimmed funding for subway maintenance throughout the 1990s, records show, even as the state budget grew from $45 billion to $80 billion. Then they kept funding mostly flat for years, despite the surge in ridership.

Under Mr. Pataki, the state eliminated subsidies for the M.T.A., opting to make the authority rely entirely on fares, tolls and revenue from taxes and fees earmarked for transit. It also ended state funding for capital work. The move rankled the state comptroller at the time, H. Carl McCall, who warned that taxes and fees were unstable.

Mr. Pataki also started a trend of redirecting revenues from taxes. In 1995, he pushed through a state income tax cut and helped pay for it by taking more than $200 million in tax revenues that had been set aside for transit. His three successors followed suit. At least $850 million has been diverted in the past two decades, records show.

Bear Stearns helped refinance the MTA’s debt and helped fund Pataki reelection efforts, and the MTA’s debt bomb looms large over everything. It seemed at one time that Eliot Spitzer may have been keen to reverse this trend, but he was ousted by his own scandals. And we all know what Andrew Cuomo has – or hasn’t – done with transit over his tenure in Albany.

Meanwhile, The Times details the myriad ways the city and state has hobbled the MTA. The pieces tells of a bond issuance fee that has cost the MTA $328 million over 15 years, and Sheldon Silver’s threats to withdraw funding if the MTA didn’t sink over $750 million to fund cost overruns for the largely superfluous transit hub at Fulton St. Cuomo lately has pushed for his enhanced station initiative, targeting stations the MTA didn’t feel required renovations and without needed dollars for ADA compliance efforts, a potential source of liability for the MTA.

The Times also takes on the TWU and exposes Cuomo’s stunning hypocrisy at the same time. The article notes that subway works average $170,000 in salary, overtime and benefits. Their raises over the past 10 years far outstrip other public sector unions, and their current salaries dwarf average salaries in other major American cities. Plus, New York trains are still operated by two workers, a oddity that makes us unique the world over.

Union rules also drive up costs, including by requiring two M.T.A. employees on every train — one to drive, and one to oversee boarding. Virtually every other subway in the world staffs trains with only one worker; if New York did that, it would save nearly $200 million a year, according to an internal M.T.A. analysis obtained by The Times. Several M.T.A. officials involved in negotiating recent contracts said that there was one reason they accepted the union’s terms: Mr. Cuomo.

The governor, who is closely aligned with the union and has received $165,000 in campaign contributions from the labor group, once dispatched a top aide to deliver a message, they said. Pay the union and worry about finding the money later, the aide said, according to two former M.T.A. officials who were in the room.

Mr. Cuomo’s office said in a statement that the M.T.A. handled its own labor negotiations and that campaign contributions had not influenced any of his actions.

Cuomo, of course, was singing a different tune two years ago when he trumpeted his own involvement in TWU negotiations.

Meanwhile, no one wants to take responsibility for this mess. We have no champion to save the system, and those in charge are avoiding culpability. The MTA has cooked its books to show better performance than it has delivered, and Joe Lhota, brought in recently to oversee the MTA, seemed to avoid taking ownership of the problem.

Mr. Lhota said that quirks existed in all data and that M.T.A. officials handled the classification consistently. He rejected any suggestion that officials were manipulating numbers to make themselves look better or blame customers for problems. “The delays are solely the responsibility of the New York City Transit Authority,” he said, referring to the agency that runs the subway.

I’m not sure where we go from here but down. No one is stepping up to bring in direct funding for maintenance or a congestion pricing scheme that will rescue our streets and fund transit investments. We’re not getting an Overground or a Crossrail to save the city, and we can barely build capital projects, let alone at cost or on time. The newly reelected mayor doesn’t care, and the governor cares only to the extent he can trumpet his poorly-thought-out support for infrastructure into some kind of platform for his doomed 2020 White House run. For me, coming home from London, New York City’s transit looks bad, and it’s only going to get worse.

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Rex Gatch November 20, 2017 - 1:18 am

I was a little disappointed neither you or Alan Levy got a name check in the piece
But acknowledging some great journalism, you have to ask where were the NYT for the last twenty plus years
Was in London in June and was blown away with the comparisons to NYC, even Boston last week impressed me
Enjoyed your tweets and glad you had a good time, but it’s a huge mountain to climb here

al November 20, 2017 - 1:30 am

Blogs, tend to still get short changed, especially if content gets a little thin, doesn’t go viral, or doesn’t predict something sexy, like a housing bubble. As much as I wish it were, subways and buses, especially maintenance and repair, aren’t sexy.

Alon Levy November 21, 2017 - 5:01 am

Who’s Alan Levy? Not sure who that is, but they did talk to me when they were writing the piece; what I told them isn’t exactly what they wrote about, so either they cut it due to tl;dr or they’ll talk about it in future installments.

Rex November 21, 2017 - 8:26 am

Sorry, bloody auto-correct and I missed it

Larry Littlefield November 21, 2017 - 10:05 am

Yes they hunted me down too, for public finance data, and the nycsubway.org crowd as well.

What appeared is a small fraction of what I told them, but I showed them the National Transit Database and evidently they started re-compiling it themselves, based on what was in the article. There is tons of stuff just in there.

And yes, I believe there will be future installments.

Nathanael December 4, 2017 - 2:27 pm

Looks like they *really* did their research. Good for the reporters.

It is sadly true that the MTA is the most disastrously mismanaged large transit system in the country, if not the world, with graft at every level and very little interest in serving the public. I don’t see how to change this without changing the governor and/or the mayor, and it’s also necessary to break at least some of the unions (the LIRR unions are the worst by an extraordinary margin).

Nathanael December 4, 2017 - 2:31 pm

Specifically, there’s massive amounts of camera-documented “getting paid to go drink” timesheet forgery among LIRR maintenance workers, and they’re still getting away with it. There’s massive disability fraud, and they’re still getting away with that. And if that’s ever cleaned up there’s the massive overstaffing.

al November 20, 2017 - 1:22 am

The Times missed the TA decision to scuttle/scrap hundreds of the (all stainless steel) R32 prematurely. SMS on the R32s would cover for the late R179, and ease the recent ridership surge. The MTA is planning to repeat this with the R46 as part of their R211 order, while incurring extra debt.

Stephen November 20, 2017 - 1:02 pm

For me and most others, SMS = Short Message Service. But I don’t think that’s what you’re referring to here. So, what does SMS mean in your comment?

Ian November 20, 2017 - 1:32 pm

I was curious too so I Googled it.

It stands for Scheduled Maintenance Service. Found an article the MTA published a couple of years ago –

The mechanical reliability of MTA New York City Transit’s fleet of 6,200 subway cars has been a major source of pride for employees. That achievement stems from a simple idea; fix things before they break. That is the philosophy behind the Scheduled Maintenance System (SMS) program developed by the Division of Car Equipment as a way of maintaining the reliability of new subway cars and older subway cars that had gone through the General Overhaul (GOH) program.

SMS essentially pre-determines the failure point for a subway car component or system and then refurbishes the systems by replacing or reworking key components prior to the point of failure. It’s like knowing that your automobile’s timing belt will be good for 100,000 miles prior to failure and then changing it out at 90,000 miles. By performing that task, you keep yourself from getting stuck on the side of the road. By renewing components through the SMS program, the likelihood of component failure which could leave customers stuck on the platform is substantially decreased and the need for a costly mid-life General Overhaul is eliminated.
SMS is the evolution of a two-decade maintenance philosophy that has seen subway fleet reliability rise from an average of 9,000 miles between mechanical failures in 1984 to the current level of 160,000 plus miles. A major element of the SMS program is the linking of cars into permanent sets of either four or five units. Permanent linking of cars in this manner allows for the elimination of redundant components, such as air compressors.

Tower18 November 20, 2017 - 2:24 pm

It’s a multi-part series, they may still. However, I’m not sure it would have done anything to have more R32 around. Aside from adding cars to the C, which I think the MTA said they were doing soon, there’s nowhere to use them. Sure, they could have more spares, break down less, etc., but there’s no room for more *trains* anywhere they’re actually needed.

AMH November 20, 2017 - 4:36 pm

Um, the crosstown line?

Tower18 November 20, 2017 - 10:37 pm

Used to live off it until a few months ago. I agree the trains could be longer, but as far as I know, the MTA disagrees and thinks things are fine on the G. Could you do a big move that puts R32s on the D or something, and takes those R68 to add to the G? Maybe. But the MTA doesn’t seem to think the G needs it, so why would they keep the R32 around for that?

But again, you’re not solving any major problems here. Sometimes the G is crowded, sure, but for a minute, and then everyone gets off to whatever line they *actually* need, and THAT one needs, but can’t have, more cars/trains.

Plus I think longer G trains are already in the works for when the L tunnel is shut down for repairs.

Robert Green November 20, 2017 - 8:48 am

extra points for Mudhoney reference

Larry Littlefield November 20, 2017 - 10:52 am

This isn’t a crisis. It’s an inexorable downward spiral that would continue for a decade even if great sacrifices were made (by the non-beneficiaries of past deals) to turn things around.

The crisis will occur when delays lead to a huge crowd on the platform, pushing out to the edge, there is a panic, some pushing, dozens of people fall to the tracks, and are killed by an incoming train. And the NTSB imposes a 15 mile per hour speed limit systemwide, with shutdowns and stations cleared anytime a line has a significant delay.

I hope the SOBs honesty celebrate when that occurs, rather than saying “isn’t this terrible.”

Brooklynite November 20, 2017 - 1:13 pm

The MTA’s capital plan is $30 billion. In a city where new subways cost an order of magnitude more than they do elsewhere – and where everyone who rides the subway has seen a dozen workers in vests standing around watching two guys swing a hammer – how much money is considered sufficient if $30 billion isn’t? The article talks a great deal about funding cuts, which are an issue but are far from the only problem. I know I’m conflating the operating and capital budgets, but the issue pervades both; both for management, ongoing maintenance, and major capital work, MTA gets a particularly poor return on investment. Before this is fixed, the subway will not recover.

mister November 23, 2017 - 10:49 am

Of course, there is not enough bang for the buck within the Capital Budget, or even the operating budget. $30 Billion over 5 years should include enough to get Phase 2 of the SAS started, CBTC rollout on two trunk lines, continued SoGR implementation, and substantial progress on adding ADA access throughout the system. MTA is not getting the bang for its buck that it needs, and that really is a shame.

The issue at hand, though, is that even this current level of funding, whether it is sufficient or not, is being provided by having the MTA assume massive amounts of debt. As this debt keeps piling up, the operating budget will continue to suffer. It will only be a matter of time before service cuts, maintenance failures and staff reductions become a necessity.

JJJ November 20, 2017 - 2:26 pm

Rudy, Bloomie, Blasio, Cuomo….

Different parties, but what do they all have in common?

Extremely wealthy, 100% out of touch white men who couldn’t find their way to a corner store if not driven there in a limo.

Maybe stop electing these sorts of folks?

resident native November 20, 2017 - 3:25 pm

What I find quite mysterious is the refusal to name the “Bear Stearns executive” responsible for that debt bomb. He’s current MTA CFO Robert Foran.

Rob November 21, 2017 - 6:11 pm

Of course it is. What a f—– up system we have.

Thanks for pointing this out.

Nathanael December 4, 2017 - 2:28 pm

Thanks for pointing this out.

Alon Levy November 21, 2017 - 5:04 am

Small nitpick: two-person train operation isn’t quite globally unique. Toronto has it (in order to reduce turnarounds – the guard is at the back of the train, and becomes a train driver when the train changes direction at the terminal). Most lines in Tokyo do, too, but they’re slowly transitioning to OPTO. It’s certainly unusual, but not globally unique.

rewenzo November 21, 2017 - 10:56 am

It seems inefficient to have a second guy ride the whole length of the trip just to avoid having the first guy walk two blocks to the front of the train. Even to avoid the walk, why not have the second guy wait at the other terminus?

Someone November 21, 2017 - 11:35 am

Toronto is also transitioning to OPTO. Line 4 was switched last October 2016, and Line 1 will be switched over once ATO is installed.

The TR’s have in-cab platform camera feeds which is a nice touch (http://bejsment.com/wp-content.....erator.jpg). Where as the MTA has monolithic external screens. https://i.ytimg.com/vi/YzTNfRkzbsg/maxresdefault.jpg

K November 21, 2017 - 2:00 pm

Buenos Aires also has two per train.

Paulb November 21, 2017 - 12:34 pm

How many people work for NYT?

smotri November 21, 2017 - 12:53 pm

In my recent experience, it seems that whenever I hear that there are delays on subway lines, it’s very often because of signal problems. The MTA seems always to close down various sections of several lines on the weekends, over night during the week…yet it’s never for signal work. This is appalling. Not that there are aren’t many other things to which the MTA should turn its attention too, but when something so central as signals is having a big impact on train performance, something should be done. Yet, incredibly, even with the state of emergency label slapped on the system by Cuomo, there is no movement to address this. For how long are subway users, taxpayers, just plain old people, going to take this before they start leaving the City?

paulb November 22, 2017 - 1:05 pm

I am probably being too glibly cynical, but sometimes I think the interests of the customers of gov’t agencies–students at public schools, bus and train riders at the MTA–are seriously considered only when they don’t conflict with the interests of those who view themselves as the most important agency stakeholders–the teachers, and the MTA employees, and contractors. It makes me think of a Yes, Minister episode and how irritated Nigel Hawthorne got when Paul Eddington hesitantly replies, “To educate students?” to the question, “What’s the reason for universal education?” “To employ teachers!” Hawthorne corrects him, impatiently.

Larry Littlefield November 23, 2017 - 7:53 am

“When Paul Eddington hesitantly replies, “To educate students?” to the question, “What’s the reason for universal education?” “To employ teachers!” Hawthorne corrects him, impatiently.”

Not in NYC, it’s to pay pensions to retired teachers, and to collect dues that can be sent to the state legislators as political support.

The money goes to Florida.

Ben November 22, 2017 - 3:21 pm

How do you all feel about hiring Andrew Byford from Toronto?

Larry Littlefield November 23, 2017 - 7:52 am

What will he cut the next time the stock market corrects to normal, and there needs to be another big increase in pension contributions while real estate transfer taxes continue to fall? That’s what I want to know.

He doesn’t know that’s his job. But it is.

Nathanael December 4, 2017 - 2:29 pm

Byford doesn’t do crap like that. He outright refuses. He has a really great record at Toronto, including standing up to *Rob Ford*.

Expect him to resign in protest!

Benjamin November 24, 2017 - 3:18 pm

Out of the city transit systems I have used in the last 5 years(London, Amsterdam, Vienna, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul, Osaka, Beijing, Shanghai) my home town, NYC, rates dead last, by a large margin. Only one word is needed to describe it. Embarrassing.

There are folks from around the world who have proven track records of success in this area. It’s time to clean house at the MTA and bring in professionals.

Lady Feliz November 25, 2017 - 5:29 pm

“After more than a decade of spending, about $50 billion in today’s dollars, reliability soared. Cars traveled 10 times farther before breaking down. Riders returned in droves. It was a golden era; New York and its subway seemed to be on the rise together. Then, records show, officials pulled back.”

All you newbies who didn’t move here until 2013 and constantly trash Mayor Giuliani, please read the quote above. Amazing how quickly this city can deteriorate if left unattended for a few years.

Mr. Styles November 26, 2017 - 9:56 am

Lady Feliz, can you math? Read the paragraph before your quote. The crisis was in the 70’s. The decade of investment was the 80’s. Rudy became Mayor in 1994 and began the decline by slashing the budget. Rudy is directly responsible for the start of the sad state we’re in and had nothing to do with the status of the system described in the quote. He’s trash.

Lady Feliz November 26, 2017 - 8:31 pm

So the awesome subways we had when Giuliani was mayor was somehow not his doing? I guess you can thank Saints Koch and Dinkins for that amazeballs system we had in the 1980s. Starting to wonder if you “can math.” Everything good = Democrats, everything bad = Republicans. Got it!

mister November 27, 2017 - 7:55 am

The article was pretty clear that the disinvestment in the system began with Guiliani. Literally, he major contribution to the system was pulling funding out of the system; neither he, nor any other mayor, have any real decision making power regarding the subways.

Me Styles November 27, 2017 - 12:56 pm

You clearly didn’t bother to read the article. Or you have low comprehension skills. I’m not saying any of his successors did anything good related to the subway but Rudy started the systems turn to shit by stripping it’s budget.

Relevant portion posted for you:

“New York’s subway system has always struggled to get the money it needs.

Decades of cost-cutting and deferred maintenance led to the darkest days in the history of the 113-year-old system: the crisis in the 1970s, when the subway became a symbol of urban decay.

Officials rescued the subway with a simple formula: Invest in the system, and it will improve.

After more than a decade of spending, about $50 billion in today’s dollars, reliability soared. Cars traveled 10 times farther before breaking down. Riders returned in droves. It was a golden era; New York and its subway seemed to be on the rise together.

Then, records show, officials pulled back.

It started with New York City’s mayors.

While the M.T.A., the sprawling organization that operates the New York subway and bus lines, two commuter railroads and several bridges, is run by the state, the subway is owned by the city. In addition to creating confusion, this dynamic sparks funding battles.

Historically, the city has funded about 10 percent of the M.T.A.’s total budget.

Mr. Giuliani decided to change that in 1994, when he became the city’s first Republican mayor in two decades. Facing a budget shortfall and eager to show he could run the city without raising taxes, he announced he would cut the city’s contribution to the M.T.A.’s operating and capital budgets by $400 million.

Mr. Giuliani defended the reduction by calling the authority bloated and noting that it had a surplus the previous year — but he did not suggest any reforms to increase efficiency. Critics were outraged. Hundreds protested at public hearings, chanting, “No more cuts!” At one hearing in Manhattan, attendees waved posters depicting a two-headed mutant with the faces of the mayor and Mr. Pataki, who was proposing his own cuts. “Monster That Ate Mass Transit,” the posters said.

“We’ve spent 10 years clawing our way back,” one M.T.A. official said at the time. “You’ve only begun to turn the corner. It would be easy to go backward.”

The mayor made the cuts nonetheless.“


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