There’s Nothing Wrong With the MTA That a Hundred Years and a Few Hundred Billion Bucks Can’t Fix


Gene Russianoff, who only seems like he’s been the head of NYPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign since the first IRT train left City Hall station in 1904, has a story he likes to tell about the predicament New York City’s transit system has fallen into as it enters its second century of use. He was touring the West 4th Street station, one of the system’s busiest and most complex, where seven subway lines come together on two different levels before diverging again to carry passengers into midtown Manhattan and beyond.

Part of the tour involved a peek behind the scenes at the control room that oversees all of the station’s traffic. Russianoff happened to notice a couple of vintage signal switches that, he says, “looked like the controls on the Love Boat.” Curious, he asked what special methods MTA workers used for handling such old equipment.

The answer: “We try not to touch it very often.”

Yes, the MTA is a punchline to a tired joke. Yes, the L train is shut down so much that it now has its own anti-fansite ( Yes, the price of a single ride has more than doubled over the past two decades, though it still retains its historic linkage to the price of a slice of pizza. Yes, the vaunted Second Avenue subway has already cost untold billions of dollars, is expected to rack up tens of billions more, and, with its first phase — an extension of the Q line from East 59th Street to East 96th Street — slated for completion in December 2016, will be nearly 90 years old by the time it’s born. And yes, cities like Shanghai and Beijing have erected nearly entire new subway systems practically overnight while New York’s remains stuck in time.

But the fundamental reason the MTA is so hard to fix, say transit experts both inside and outside the authority, goes back to those antediluvian switches. The MTA runs one of the largest transit systems in the world on a budget that’s dependent on the whims of elected officials in City Hall and Albany. It’s the equivalent of trying to change the engine and tires on a 1930 Studebaker while driving cross-country at top speed and hoping you can find enough spare change between the seat cushions to buy parts.

“We’re trying to address three or four decades’ worth of disrepair and disinvestment,” says MTA planning director Bill Wheeler. “The last time people sunk money seriously into the subway system was before World War II. It’s taken us a long, long time to come back, and that’s why much of the capital program is about rebuilding.”

“New York started off behind a lot of other places, because most other places haven’t let their physical plant deteriorate to the extent that New York has,” agrees Richard Barone, director of transportation programs for the Regional Plan Association (RPA), one of the local groups that has pushed hardest for improved transit infrastructure. It’s a problem that started in the 1950s and 1960s, when local budgets got tight and subway service for a shrinking (and increasingly nonwhite) city populace no longer seemed like a priority.

“New York really just ignored investing in its infrastructure,” says Barone. “So it took decades to rebuild what we had lost because of neglect.” And while the MTA has spent more than $100 billion on improvements since its first capital plan in 1982 — almost every subway car has been replaced in that time, for starters — Barone says the agency remains in “catch-up” mode.

Viewed one way, it’s incredible that New York’s transit system functions at all. The subway covers 232 miles of track (fourth in the world, behind only the London Underground and those newly expanded systems in Shanghai and Beijing) and carries 1.7 billion passengers per year (seventh, behind Seoul, Moscow, Tokyo, and three cities in China). At 421 stations, it easily makes the most stops of any transit system in the world (25 percent more than second-place Shanghai). It’s also one of the few systems in the world that runs 24-7, a fact New Yorkers become horribly aware of when visiting another city and suddenly having to plan ahead to catch the last train back to the hotel. It’s one reason more than half of New York households don’t bother to own a car, something that would be unthinkable in most other U.S. cities.

And compared to the bad old days of the Seventies and Eighties, the subway is a paragon of reliability. Derailments used to be a regular occurrence — in the peak year of 1980, no fewer than 30 trains jumped the tracks — and niceties like functioning air conditioning were a rarity on par with intelligible conductor announcements. Recent innovations like countdown clocks and the Bus Time tracking system have been popular, even if rollout has been slow (and even if there’s something ironic about the system’s best upgrades being the ones that warn you when it’s time to give up and walk).

Looked at another way, of course, it’s still the MTA: You’re paying a lot for a service that, at best, works well some of the time and leaves you trapped miles from your destination when it doesn’t. In fact, it’s how well the subway works when it is running — luring us into relying on public transit in a way most other U.S. citizens would never dream of doing — that makes its flaws all the more painful: When the L train shuts down, it’s not like your average Williamsburger can just hop in the car and drive to work.

For every woe, though, there’s at least one corresponding potential solution on a drawing board in an MTA planning office or at one of the many good-government groups that have spent decades dreaming up ways to improve the city’s transit system. The only difficulty: Fixing the MTA is likely to cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and even then might not be finished within our lifetime, or our children’s.

But hey, let’s dare to dream.

Signal Problems

Transit riders may gripe about filthy platforms or getting stuck with thirteen cents left on their MetroCards, but the most fundamental problem with the subways these days is that there aren’t enough of them. New Yorkers want more trains, more buses, more ways to get them from point A to point B before they’re late for work.

It’s not as simple as buying train cars and hiring people to drive them. In order to keep subways from crashing into each other on a regular basis, the system relies on a series of signals to make sure each train is isolated on its own section of track. If you’ve seen the original version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), you’ll be familiar with the setup: If a driver tries to cross into a sector that already has a train on it, his train will hit a red light, which will automatically trip the brakes, and Robert Shaw won’t get to escape with the ransom money.

That system, which was old when the movie was made, remains largely in place. The problem, says MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg, is that breaking up the track into large sectors means controllers are forced to leave more space between trains than is necessary for safety. The result is a system that’s so packed to capacity that even a minor delay — “a signal doesn’t clear for a minute or two, a bag is stuck in the door” — can create ripple effects throughout.

This is why when both MTA officials and transit geeks talk about improvements, they typically start with the city’s signaling system. “It’s unsexy — nobody wants to really talk about it,” Barone says. “But they’re absolutely critical for its operations and reliability.” If you’ve been on a train that was delayed recently, odds are that faulty signals were to blame: A Straphangers report from 2012 found that signal problems were responsible for 36 percent of train delays lasting more than eight minutes.

The MTA’s solution is Communications Based Train Control, a GPS-like switching system that would track trains much more precisely than current methods, enabling them to safely run much closer together — no longer would passengers be stuck “waiting for a red signal to clear” thanks to a previous train that might be a station or two away. The MTA has already installed CBTC on the entire length of the L train, a project it completed in 2009; it’s now working to add the new signals to the 7 line. “If we had not installed that on the L, it would be utterly unusable” owing to soaring ridership, Lisberg says.

The problem with replacing signals is that to do so, you have to shut down the trains, resulting in the all-too-familiar weekend outages and parade of shuttle buses. “[Riders] quite rightly complain that they don’t have enough trains and want better service, and they quite rightly complain that they don’t want the trains shut down every weekend,” Lisberg says.

It doesn’t help that the average signal-upgrade project has taken approximately forever: The L train took ten years, and the 7 train is scheduled for completion in 2017, at which point the MTA will move on to the Queens Boulevard and Sixth Avenue lines. “We really need to get them down to three to five years, or else we’re never going to get this done,” says Barone. When the RPA analyzed how long a complete overhaul of signals on the current system would take at present rates, he says, the group calculated that “it could take over 100 years to transform the current system. That’s crazy.”

The Bulging Apple

Adding more capacity to the transit system isn’t important just because it would give today’s riders some breathing room. By the time the MTA completes its current round of upgrades, there are going to be a lot more people in New York City, all of them trying to cram themselves onto subways and buses.

One thing subways had going for them in the bad old 1970s: It was always easy to find a seat. Annual subway ridership, which fell to a low of 989 million in 1982, ballooned to 1.7 billion in 2013. Lisberg says MTA subways “now carry more people on a weekend day than on an average weekday in the Eighties.”

That’s great for MTA revenues — it costs the same to run an empty train as one that’s packed to the gills — but it causes other problems. These might best be seen any rush hour at the E/F station at 53rd Street and Third Avenue, which increasingly resembles the Pot O’ Silver coin-pusher arcade games: Every new escalatorful of passengers disgorged onto the platform brings the crowd ever closer to tipping onto the tracks.

“If the congestion continues, we might have to say, ‘We can’t have any more people in the station right now.’ ”

London’s Underground, notes Barone, has recently taken to closing ten of its high-traffic stations during rush hour, forcing passengers to either take another line or wait until the platforms are no longer dangerously full. “We’re getting to the point where, if the congestion continues, you could see us having the same problem,” he predicts. “We might have to say, ‘We can’t have any more people in the station right now,’ and start selectively holding people back, queueing them up so that we don’t have problems.”

Add in projections that New York will continue to add population in coming decades, and the result could be a looming crisis, not just at 53rd and Third but all across the system, as stations reach their carrying capacity. “By my back-of-the- envelope calculation, twelve of the twenty subway lines are at capacity in the morning rush hour,” Russianoff says. A 2007 study by the MTA, he notes, found that at peak hours the 4, 5, and 6 lines, and the pre–Communications Based Train Control L line, were filled beyond 100 percent of capacity.

New signals could help by allowing more trains per hour, as could articulated trains that allow passengers to fill in the space between cars, à la tandem buses. Paris, Shanghai, and Munich recently installed such endless caterpillars, while London revealed “New Tube” trains, which on the inside look like eternal corridors lined with cushioned seating from end to end. It’s something the MTA says it’s looking into. But there’s no price tag yet, let alone a budget to pay for it.

Expanding the Map

The subway system goes a remarkable number of places — Roosevelt Island, the Rockaways — but it doesn’t go everywhere. Most of eastern Queens and all of Staten Island are off the subway grid, for starters. And speckled within the five boroughs’ central region are some transit deserts, areas bypassed by subways and express buses alike.

Take a look at the map included in an RPA report titled “Tomorrow’s Transit,” and the neighborhoods with no nearby subway stations or express bus stops jump out. A large swath of the central Bronx has been without an easy transit route ever since the Bronx stretch of the Third Avenue elevated — by then dubbed the 8 train — closed in 1973. Trains entirely bypass Maspeth, one of the Queens neighborhoods closest to Manhattan, unless residents want to make the long slog north to the 7 or south to the L.

And then there’s East Flatbush, a two-mile-wide chunk of densely packed central Brooklyn equally distant from the 2/5, 3/4, and L trains. Utica Avenue, the main shopping drag that runs down the spine of the neighborhood, was once targeted for a subway line under the proposed “Second System” back in the 1920s, but nothing ever came of it.

Enter New York mayor Bill de Blasio, who surprised transit watchers in April of this year by calling for the MTA to study a possible Utica Avenue line. De Blasio provided no funding, however, nor any details of whether this would be a southward extension of the 4 train from Eastern Parkway or an entirely new line heading south from Williamsburg, as the Second System plan would have had it.

It’s an open question, though, whether a new subway line is East Flatbush’s most pressing need: Utica Avenue already offers access to the 3 and 4 trains via the B46 bus, which runs every minute or two during rush hours, as well as popular dollar vans.

Of course, costly subway tunnels are only one way of getting people around the city — express buses, or the super-express Select Bus Service routes that have cropped up in recent years, are other options for underserved areas. London, which faces similar problems of a growing population and an aging transit system, recently launched what it calls the “Overground,” a collection of trains running on underutilized existing lines around the city’s outskirts.

The RPA has proposed its own version of the Overground: the Triboro Rx, which would run along the barely used New York Connecting Railroad freight tracks through an open cut from Bay Ridge through Borough Park, Midwood, and East Flatbush before turning north through Jackson Heights and Astoria and ultimately into the South Bronx. The group has suggested that such a line could be built for a mere $1 billion — less than the cost of one additional stop on the 7 line extension on Manhattan’s West Side.

So far the MTA hasn’t bitten.

Cash Crunch

Building any of these improvements, let alone all of them, will require a massive infusion of money. The MTA’s capital plan for 2015 through 2019 would cover such items as completing the Second Avenue subway up to 125th Street, running Metro-North stations to Penn Station and Long Island Rail Road trains to Grand Central, building a new transit line on Staten Island, and lowering rates for city residents on LIRR trains and express buses, along with instituting smart cards for fare payment, accelerating signal upgrades, and undertaking some station improvements. For that, the MTA says it needs $32 billion over the next five years — only a little more than half of which has been approved.

It’s not that $32 billion is outrageous for a system that, based on how much it would cost to rebuild from scratch, is valued at $1 trillion.

It’s not that $32 billion is outrageous for a system that, based on how much it would cost to rebuild from scratch, is valued at $1 trillion. A standard rule of thumb is that a capital budget should amount to between 3 percent and 4 percent of total value. In other words, the MTA should be socking away another few billion on top of what it’s seeking.

But getting that kind of money approved is another story. The MTA could borrow it, but given that it already spends $2.2 billion a year — 17 percent of its annual operating budget — to pay off past capital spending, that’s not a very tempting option. New York State comptroller Thomas DiNapoli calculated last year that riders should expect a 1 percent fare hike for each $1 billion the MTA borrows — meaning putting another $15 billion on the authority’s tab would jack up fares from the current rate of $2.75 per ride to $3.16.

That leaves the state and the city, and the two have mostly engaged in finger-pointing over who’s responsible for the MTA’s budget gap. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s latest budget mostly shuffled money around (including raiding the agency’s operations budget to pay for capital expenditures) without coming close to finding even $15 billion. De Blasio, meanwhile, has upped the city’s ante $157 million over the next five years but otherwise described the MTA’s plight as “an Albany question.”

With neither party wanting to blink first, proposals for plugging the budget hole have largely focused on options that would either split the difference or raise money via a new revenue stream. In April State Assembly Member Jim Brennan of Brooklyn announced a bill to create a Transportation Infrastructure Finance Authority, funded partly by a ten-cent increase in the state gas tax and a half-percent income tax surcharge on individuals who make more than $500,000 a year, and partly by a required increase in city spending to fund capital improvements. It promptly sank without a trace.

Potentially more politically promising is the so-called Move New York plan that transit consultant Sam Schwartz — better known as “Gridlock Sam” for the term he popularized in the 1980s — has floated in concert with a collection of transit advocacy groups. This would be an update of former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ill-fated “congestion pricing” proposal, revised to make it more palatable to the outer-borough and suburban residents and politicians who killed it the first time around. An $8 toll would be instituted on bridges over the East River, and anyone driving into Manhattan below 60th Street would be socked with a similar fee. (E-ZPass users would get a discount to $5.54 per trip.) This strategy would allow officials to spread the pain around — lowering current tolls on outer-borough bridges and during off-peak hours — and, likewise, to distribute the benefits, earmarking 25 percent of the estimated $1.5 billion in annual revenue from the plan for road and bridge repair. The rest of the nut would go to the MTA, which would “instantly plug their gap,” says Schwartz: An influx of $11.25 million per year should be enough to finance $15 billion in bonds.

Of course, $1.5 billion a year has to come from somewhere, and as with Bloomberg’s plan, it would mostly come out of the pockets of those who drive cars into Manhattan. Lightening those wallets would be uncontroversial in many other global megacities — Barone notes that Paris’s system is up to date in part because “they tax themselves tremendously for it” (not only individuals but businesses as well) — but so far Move New York has proven unpalatable. Another option — using surcharges on new development opened up by additional train lines, a strategy London has employed to help fund $25 billion in upgrades — has failed to catch on here since the mid–nineteenth century, when a similar model funded construction of Central Park.

Not every U.S. locality has found itself mired in transit stasis. Los Angeles recently approved higher taxes to fund its expanding subway system. Iowa, Schwartz notes, hiked gas taxes by ten cents a gallon to fund new road construction. “If there’s a red state like Iowa taxing themselves, I wonder why New York can’t seem to get its act together on this.”

One difficulty is New York’s problematic political system, wherein a transit system that benefits mostly New York City commuters has its purse strings controlled from Albany. (Both of the chairs of the state legislature’s transportation committees are from Rochester.) That makes it difficult to build political support for new spending for city transit — a feat that’s doubly hard when upstaters see the MTA as mostly a giant money suck. At a March hearing into MTA finances held by state senators Carl Marcellino and Joseph Robach, the focus was on how the authority could “find internal savings, reduce their own costs, or streamline their operations,” none of which involved improving service through new spending.

Certainly, the MTA is less than a model of efficiency. In the 1990s, the authority spent $645 million on a mere 1,500 feet of tunnel to connect the F train to Queens Boulevard via the 63rd Street tube. That record rate of $2.27 billion per mile will be shattered in the next year or two by the Second Avenue line’s cost of $2.7 billion per mile. The MTA’s recently completed Fulton Center transit hub doubled in cost to an astounding $1.4 billion, missing out on being the most expensive train station in human history only because the World Trade Center PATH station across the street beat it out at the last minute. And the authority hasn’t even managed to direct this firehose of money in a timely manner: A recent Independent Budget Office audit found that only 37 percent of the MTA’s 2010–2014 capital budget was actually spent during that time period. (Some of last year’s expenditures, the IBO found, dated all the way back to the 1992–1999 capital plan.)

Wheeler, the MTA’s planning director, says such inefficiencies are inherent to the nature of construction in a densely built urban environment: Where a city like Washington, D.C., is building a new train line to Dulles International Airport across largely undeveloped land, in New York “there’s no real greenfield in the city where there’s nothing here.” Cities trying to dig new lines under populated areas will always encounter higher costs, Wheeler says — the sole exception being China, where “you have no environmental rules, you have no eminent-domain procedure. You basically just plow stuff under and you keep going.”

That said, spending watchdog Gene Russianoff counters, “There’s a lot to be wary about. They’re going to spend $4.4 billion on the Second Avenue line, and that’s for three stations” out of seventeen eventually planned. And with no express tracks (or room for them to be built), the eventual T line, slated to run from the Lower East Side to 125th Street, will be restricted to local-only service.

Most transit experts, however, seem less concerned about the possible risks of giving the MTA too much money, in light of the all-too-certain consequences of giving it too little. “People complain to me that the MTA is not terribly well managed, but I run a business in New York, and if I had a hundred million more customers in one year, which is what the MTA had, I’d say I’m doing something right,” says Schwartz. “More people than ever are flocking to the MTA — it is putting a strain on the system. Everything can be managed better, that’s true. But the MTA has shown that it can improve quite a bit.”

Should the MTA somehow find $15 billion for its capital plan, officials warn that it’s unlikely to bring about transit nirvana. “You’re not going to get Seoul, you’re not going to get Shanghai,” cautions Lisberg. Concurs Wheeler: “The enormity of the system is such that every capital program that we’ve had, including this one, sets aside the majority of the resources to return the system to a state of good repair.”

By the time the subway system celebrates its 150th birthday in 2054, it may be upgraded, but it will still be the same old hole in the ground that riders love to hate, serving an ever-more-crowded city with most of the same slow-moving construction and aging infrastructure that it has since time immemorial.

Which, if nothing to exactly get excited about, is at least better than the alternative. “The MTA’s current proposed plan will do more than just tread water, but it’s not going to transform things dramatically,” says Barone. “I have a wish list of stuff I’d love to get. But I think we are at risk right now of going backwards.”