Needless to say, taking the subway these days is a bit of a crapshoot. Last week, before it even started snowing, the MTA couldn’t sustain semi-reliable service during Wednesday night’s rush hour commute as crews were working to move trains out of the way of an incoming snow storm while dealing with the fallout from a mid-morning assault at Jay St. and a signal problem along 4th Ave. in Brooklyn. It resulted in multi-hour commutes for thousands of people who just wanted to get home before a winter storm descended on the city, but it even seemed very familiar to anyone watching the subway system’s slow-and-then-fast descent into unreliability and madness. Things are a mess. When will they get better?
Riders aren’t the only people wondering about the fate of the subway. Following The Times’ exposé before the New Year on the MTA’s out-of-control cost problem, the Grey Lady took another deep dive underground this weekend. In a magazine piece that’s been months in the work, Jonathan Mahler made the case of the subways, as his headline suggests. The idea that New York City must absolutely invest in its subways seems like one you and I may take for granted, but Mahler’s piece is somber reminder of the path we may face if our politicians do not find a way to fix the subways.
Coming just a few days after Brian Rosenthal’s magnum opus on costs, Mahler’s piece overlooks the reality that the MTA probably shouldn’t be trusted with massive amounts of dollars before reforms are implemented, but that is besides the point. In fact, the editorial board of the paper cleared up that conflict today, and more on that later. Mahler’s piece takes a deep dive into the importance of the subway to very fabric of New York City and concludes that we simply cannot afford to whiff on the opportunity to fix the subways. Doing so could lead to an inexorably decline in the success of this city. Mahler too pinpoints the class issues inherent in the discussion, a notable aspect of any discussion of public transit. “Can the gap between rich and poor be closed,” he asks, “or is it destined to continue to widen? Can we put the future needs of a city and a nation above the narrow, present-day interests of a few? Can we use a portion of the monumental sums of wealth that we are generating to invest in an inclusive and competitive future?”
The essence of his piece is laid bare in a comparison with international views on subway systems:
Most countries treat subway systems as national assets. They understand that their cities are their great wealth creators and equality enablers and that cities don’t work without subways. The public-private corporation that runs Hong Kong’s subway expects 99.9 percent of its trains to run on time, and they do. (If you are traveling to the airport, you can also check your luggage at a central downtown train station and not see it again until you’ve landed at your destination. Imagine!) China has been feverishly building new metro systems in cities across the country, a recognition that subways are the only way to keep pace with the nation’s rapid urbanization and the needs of its citizens. And it’s not just new cities that are seeing major investments in their subways. Two decades ago, the decline of London’s Underground became a national crisis; now it’s moving toward running driverless trains. For that matter, Los Angeles — Los Angeles — recently embarked on a 40-year, $120 billion project to build out its mass-transit system.
New York City’s subway, meanwhile, is falling apart. If you are a regular rider, you know this firsthand. But even if you aren’t, it has probably become difficult to ignore all the stories about the system’s failure: the F train that was trapped between stations for close to an hour without power or air conditioning, the Q train that derailed in Brooklyn, the track fire on the A line in Harlem that sent nine passengers to the hospital. The cumulative impression of all these miserable underground experiences — and all these stories about miserable underground experiences — is that the situation is hopeless, that the subway cannot be fixed. The subway has been wrecked, and in this era of short-term thinking and government mistrust, public-works projects with benefits larger than any single mind can realize are no longer possible. But it is possible to fix the subway. And we must. Our failure to do so would be a collective and historic act of self-destruction.
Mahler’s piece, magazine-length at that, deserves a close parsing, and he traces the political machinations over responsibility for the decline of the subway. It features stunning photos by Damon Winters of a system falling apart, and it concludes that no amount of money is too little to spend on the subway:
Just this partial list — I haven’t included the platform doors, for instance — brings the total to about $111 billion. It’s a big number. But not when you put it in context. New York City and its environs generated $1.7 trillion in gross metropolitan product in 2016. That’s roughly 9 percent of the nation’s overall G.D.P. How much of that activity is dependent on the subway? About a year before Hurricane Sandy, a state-funded group of scientists and engineers produced a comprehensive (and as it happens, prescient) report on the damage that a hundred-year storm surge could cause to the system. One of the study’s authors, Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist at Columbia University, told me that losing the subway for a month would cost the city about $60 billion in lost economic output.
The reality of this apocalyptic scenario hasn’t sunk in. Absent sufficient resources, the subway has been left with diminished ambitions and empty spectacles…
New York won’t die, but it will become a different place. It will happen slowly, almost imperceptibly, for years, obscured by the prosperity of the segment of the population that can consistently avoid mass transit. But gradually, an unpleasant and unreliable subway will have a cascading effect on New Yorkers’ relationship with their city. Increasingly, we will retreat; the infinite possibilities of New York will shrink as the distances between neighborhoods seem to grow. In time, businesses will choose to move elsewhere, to cities where public transit is better and housing is cheaper. This will depress real estate values, which will make housing more affordable in the short term. But it will also slow growth and development, which will curtail job prospects and deplete New York’s tax base, limiting its ability to provide for citizens who rely on its public institutions for opportunity. The gap between rich and poor will widen. As the city’s density dissipates, so too will its economic energy. Innovation will happen elsewhere. New York City will be just some city.
I generally agree with Mahler though believe cost reform must be a key part of any effort to fix the subways. After all, $100 billion spent efficiently will go a lot further if 30-40 percent of those dollars aren’t assumed to be the cost of corruption right off the bat. In a real city not beholden to corruption in fact, $100 billion could lead to a completely updated and modernized subway system, but we ad the people we elect to represent us seem stuck in this rut of ignoring the 800 pound gorilla in the room.
Mahler’s piece wasn’t the only one to make the case for the subways this weekend. Today, the edit”orial page of The Times includes a call for our leaders to do something. “Billions of dollars that could have gone to maintaining and improving the subways,” the piece notes, “have been wasted on exorbitant costs. Projects have also been delayed by mismanagement.” In fact, The Times notes that based on Alon Levy’s calculations, the first phase of the Second Ave. Subway could have cost a quarter of its $4.5 billion price tag were it built literally anywhere else in the world. Without cost reform, the editorial states, “no amount of revenue, whether it comes from higher fares, from a tax on millionaires as Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed, or from congestion pricing as Mr. Cuomo has suggested, will be enough to fix the subways. Too many of those added dollars would be frittered away.”
And that’s the key. We can spend $100 billion; we can, as David Leonhardt eloquently argues, implement congestion pricing in a way that makes sense and improves New York city for everyone; we can vow to fix the subways. But until cost reform are part and parcel of any reform effort, no amount of money will fix the subway because it will all just be siphoned away into the great unknown of the New York City subway system’s blackhole of institutional corruption.
Fixing the subways and expanding the subways are two distinct, if equally troubled issues. Keeping what’s in place today operational is more of a preventive maintenance problem similar to the one the TA faced in the final years prior to the takeover by the state in the mid-1960s, when the reliability of the older rolling stock started falling apart. The arrival of the second-generation rail cars to replace the system’s original equipment mitigated those problems for a while, but the new MTA continued to ignore the other breakdowns linked to the ever-aging physical plant, and the result was the near collapse of the subways by the early 1980s (by which time the new late 60s rolling stock had also become unreliable).
Preventive maintenance of what’s in place has to be funded, even though it’s money people only notice when it’s not allocated or isn’t used correctly and things start falling apart. The costs overruns aren’t as horrific there as in new construction, but new construction is the thing politicians prefer because they can put their name on it and have voters notice, unlike, say, a signal system or track switch. The new construction, whether it’s Second Avenue or the LIRR’s East Side Access, are the places which turn into literal money pits because the players who can handle those huge projects are so limited that the city and state seem to only have two options — go with the limited few firms whose prices always spiral out of control, or just don’t do the projects.
Until there’s a consensus at the political level — prodded by the voters — that the construction woes of the past half-century can’t be allowed to continue, better to put what funds are available into keeping what’s already there operational, and don’t repeat the errors of the late 1960s and 70s.
Agree 100% with this:
The biggest problem here are the pols who are more concerned about being re-elected and/or running for higher office and in many cases having to answer to their “masters” (i.e.: Donors) who want certain things done. Until this changes, working on making sure existing infrastructure is up to snuff is paramount, especially the subways and elected officials need to realize this even if it doesn’t resonate with voters the way it should.
New York won’t die, but it will become a different place. It will happen slowly, almost imperceptibly, for years, obscured by the prosperity of the segment of the population that can consistently avoid mass transit.
You are starting to see that with ride hailing aps like Uber.
But gradually, an unpleasant and unreliable subway will have a cascading effect on New Yorkers’ relationship with their city. Increasingly, we will retreat; the infinite possibilities of New York will shrink as the distances between neighborhoods seem to grow. In time, businesses will choose to move elsewhere, to cities where public transit is better and housing is cheaper. This will depress real estate values, which will make housing more affordable in the short term. But it will also slow growth and development, which will curtail job prospects and deplete New York’s tax base, limiting its ability to provide for citizens who rely on its public institutions for opportunity. The gap between rich and poor will widen. As the city’s density dissipates, so too will its economic energy. Innovation will happen elsewhere. New York City will be just some city.
If you remember Sarah Palen’s comments from a decade ago & I’m paraphrasing, real America is suburban & away from the coasts. And if you notice the actions taken & proposed by president Trump, they are strickly anti-urban & especially anti NYC. Ironicly one of the backers of this agenda is the Mercer’s, the wealthy Upper West Side family behind Brightbart.
One reason we haven’t invested $billions to fix the subway is that we invested $billions to fix the schools. What we got were pension increases for teachers cashing in and moving out.
And the schools are demanding even more money, or else.
At the federal level, we haven’t invested in infrastructure because all the money has gone to giving the “tax cut generations” everything they promised themselves but refused to pay for. That isn’t just past money. They are spending future money on themselves too.
You can’t talk about where money isn’t going, without talking about where it is going. Read those two posts on education finance, and tell me why that isn’t worse than NYCT.
So here is the problem Twenty years ago, the NYC schools were bad, but had low funding. I was among those who showed the latter. Funding subsequently soared, but NY taxpayers are still being sued for more funding, and told how much we don’t deserve because the schools aren’t getting enough. There were given more, and took more, in earlier retirement and more out of classroom assignments for those cashing in and moving out.
So here we are with the subway. Given the findings of various arbitrators over the years, that NYCT can afford bigger raises because it could divert money from maintenance and the capital plan, what are we to believe would happen to anything we agreed to pay. The bottom line is the PTB don’t use mass transit, and don’t care about those who do. Including the hierarchy of the TWU.
As I remember & this is coming from a special education point of view, it is illegal in NYS to spend less on services on a given year than the previous year . Put another way, budget increasesYOY regardless if the increases are warinted. And I can tell you first hand how the DOE wastes dough through such service providers as VESID & it’s spawn agencies.
In NYC the big cost is the pension increases for teachers. The rest of the state spends more on ancillary.
And don’t forget that big strike for 20/50 at NYCT back in 2003 or 2005. Imagine what would have happened if that deal went through. I don’t think there was a vote against it in the legislature, but it was vetoed.
How much does NYC money support “upstate” ?? Doesn’t it seem like every publicly funded project from Buffalo to Albany, from Plattsburgh to Ploughkeepsie, is subsidized by our fair city? What % of our revenues are not spent here?
Well, because Upstate is poorer, that may be fair.
For a discussion of things along those lines that are not fair, you can read this post to the end — where a whole series are listed.
What was also unfair is how the rest of the state kicked NY City when it was down. NYC was getting drained when it had a million people on welfare.
Back then it was you don’t deserve it.
Today it is you don’t need it.
In the next recession — sorry, we don’t have it.
“Billions of dollars that could have gone to maintaining and improving the subways,” the piece notes, “have been wasted on exorbitant costs.”
I’m going to assume the author means the billions of dollars of waste/fraud/abuse could be used on maintenance and not the hundreds of billions for the project. Just the, um, overage. Because, like the highways, I don’t see the Powers That Be lining up to spend money on necessary maintenance, only on shiny new things. With highways, they used to build new but really can’t any more so they rip down the old and rebuild as new (rather than doing maintenance) but that’s harder to do with subways.
For those who don’t know much about real estate, there is a term called “the thirty year cycle. It refers tom the fact that it is cheaper to replace a building than rehabbing it. This mostly applies in the commercial side, but may apply in the residential area as well at times.
I bring this up in the context of our needs for infrastructure. In some cases it’s time to totally replace certain elements as apposed to a rehab job. I know with the subway that maybe just impossible, however it’s something to think about.
Fire your thoughts.
The holes the subways run in are expensive, so no for entire lines. And anything else consists of replacing elements, aside from stations. And entirely new stations would require new holes.
Transit-oriented retail is the hottest thing in the property sector (see Wall St Journal story 1/24). So one wonders why, in three spacious mezzanine areas at new subway stations on the Upper East Side, the MTA cannot even get a newsstand open? How much $$$ is being forgone?