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The howling you’ve been hearing from deep beneath city streets over the past few weeks isn’t the sound of steam escaping, or our overstuffed sewage system nearing capacity, but rather thousands of exasperated subway commuters experiencing yet another catastrophic delay. Take last Wednesday morning for instance by 9:30, the 1/2/3, A/C/E, B/D/F/M, and (don’t forget) G lines were not running their normal routes, while the 4/5/6 and 7 were running with delays.
This was separate from a meltdown on the D and N/Q/R trains the prior Sunday, which was caused by a Con Edison transformer failure (which, in turn, leaked toxic oil into the East River, which, later in the week, caused delays on the ferries), and wholly separate from a (bigger) Con Ed failure the following Tuesday (the day the Sunday spill was announced in the press) that caused massive delays on the C, F, N, R, Q, and W, which were compounded by signal problems along the E, G, L, 7, 1, and 3. Wednesday’s headache was due to a fun collision of signal malfunctions, injured passengers, and “rail conditions,” which paralyzed much of the system.
Last week might have been particularly wretched for commuters, but it does lead one to ask does it seem like these day-ruining, job-losing, money-wasting delays have been happening far more often than they used to? They have.
According to the MTA’s own data, subway delays were up some 332 percent between November 2012 and November 2016, a staggering breakdown in reliability. At the same time, the man responsible for funding the MTA, Governor Andrew Cuomo, has been playing games with the agency’s funding, reducing the total amount of money committed to the subways while also withholding large amounts promised to the MTA’s capital plan.
“People are mad,” said Nick Sifuentes, deputy director of the Riders Alliance, which issued a fiery statement on Tuesday calling for immediate action from the governor to help fund and fix the subway system. “There’s been a pattern of disinvestment to the system. Governor Cuomo has raided the transit budget in prior years, and the obvious result of that is that the system is going to fail.”
This year, Cuomo shifted $65 million from the agency’s operating budget the day-to-day costs of running the system to its capital plan, making it harder for the MTA to fix worn-down tracks and signals. Even with that $65 million, the state doesn’t contribute much money to the $29.5 billion capital plan, with the majority of funds coming from federal grants and fare-backed debt (whereby fares and tolls would be increased to help pay down the debt). If Cuomo were to get state money back into the picture, the MTA could begin to think bigger about confronting its most dire crisis since the 1970s.
Sifuentes said that even if the capital plan were fully funded at this moment, it would just be enough to maintain the status quo, not to pursue projects that will help cut down on delays, like a system-wide revamp of a century-old signal system that sorely needs to be updated and computerized. At the moment, the MTA is predicting that it will be able to roll out the new technology on all lines by, at the very earliest, 2045. Given the agita of the daily commute until then, most New Yorkers’ hearts will simply give out, or they’ll run off screaming into the woods, or even worse, move to the suburbs.
For years, transit advocates have warned of what would happen to New York City’s subway system if ridership continued to surge while the existing infrastructure were allowed to deteriorate. Much of what the governor has offered by way of signature subway-related projects has been cosmetic, not infrastructural. Cuomo announced last January the refurbishing of more than thirty subway stations, which wouldn’t do much to help the trains run on time (but would give riders access to Wi-Fi, countdown clocks, and charging stations as they waited). New Yorkers need only look across the river at the disaster that is New Jersey Transit to see what can quickly happen to a transit system when its funding no longer matches its popularity.
Signal replacement would be the most obvious answer for what ails the subway system, but given that work on installing the computer-based signals on the 7 train has already taken seven years and is still not complete (the L train got the computer system after ten years of work), the MTA needs to either rethink its approach to the new signals or consider options like shutting down entire lines for months at a time to do the job quicker.
Sifuentes believes, given the speedy and exhaustive deterioration of the entire system, that people understand that something needs to be done to make the system reliable once again. At its current pace of installation, the MTA would blow well past its 2045 prediction, and instead need 175 years to update all the subway lines. “It’s going to be complicated and expensive, but it’s not something we can run away from,” he said.
Kate Slevin, the vice president of state programs and advocacy at the Regional Plan Association, sees the crisis of the city’s subway system in the larger context of interconnected systems like NJ Transit, which, along with the MTA, leases a dilapidated Penn Station from the equally deteriorated Amtrak.
“It points to how undervalued our infrastructure is from a broader perspective, and commuters in New York City are now feeling that daily as they see increasing delays and service changes,” Slevin told the Voice. She remains hopeful that Cuomo will come through with funding adequate to make the drastic improvements the system needs. “The governor is interested in infrastructure. He’s brought some new energy to some projects like the Tappan Zee Bridge, cashless tolling, redoing the airports. There’s a lot of potential there for him to show interest in improving the existing subway network.”
In response to questions about the subway’s chronic delays, Cuomo spokesman Jon Weinstein gave us this statement: “Governor Cuomo is leading the way with unprecedented investment to improve our subways and all of our infrastructure after decades and generations of neglect. These problems were not created overnight but there is no one more dedicated to fixing them than Governor Cuomo.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has no real power over the MTA aside from contributing a handful of its board members and almost 70 percent of its operating budget, has been touting his brand-new ferry system this month, which will do almost nothing to alleviate subway overcrowding, as it will mostly serve residents who currently lack easy access to the subway system.
“How many people think more New Yorkers need to get out of their cars?” asked the mayor at an urban planning conference last week this from a man who gets driven halfway across the city and back when the MTA literally just built a subway line that would take him directly from his home to his office.
Even as you read this article, somewhere deep beneath the streets of New York, a century-old machine is about to malfunction, and thousands of people will suffer delays because of it, missing work, leaving their kids stranded at school, or just generally driving them insane. Is New York a city with a bright future? Not if its most important asset remains stuck hopelessly in the past.