State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

It’s Time for New York to Save its Mass Transit System

In the 1960s and 1970s New York City’s mass transit system fell apart, resulting in its takeover by the state and the creation of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. When Richard Ravitch ran the MTA from 1979-1983 he was able to develop a long-term capital campaign that resulted in the system’s rebuilding, a process that continued until the past decade, when disinvestment set in and the system once again started to fall apart. While the repair and reconstruction of our transit system continues, its pace is too slow and we are seeing a growing number of delays and breakdowns. This past February, Emma Fitzsimmons of the New York Times reported that some elements of ridership had begun to decline:

“Annual subway ridership fell slightly in 2016 for the first time since 2009, according to statistics from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Weekday ridership was at its highest level since 1948, but weekend ridership fell about 3 percent, suggesting that New Yorkers and tourists were finding other ways to get around.”

New York City’s population continues to grow, from 8,175,133 when the last census was taken in 2010, to an estimated 8,537,673 last July. This growth rate of 4.4% is putting pressure on all the city’s infrastructure: energy, water and transit. It’s also pressuring housing costs and possibly adding to homelessness. Still, population growth is a welcome change from the declines of the 1970s. In 1970, New York’s population was about 7,895,000, by 1980 it was down to 7,070,000.  After 1980 the city started to grow again and in the 2000 census we topped 8 million. Today there are 8.5 million people living in New York City and we are projected to grow to 9 million within the next decade. If people find it more and more difficult to move around the city, gridlock could discourage growth and those population projections could prove inaccurate. Another half million people will not only crowd the roads it could overwhelm the subway system if it is not expanded.

A larger city is more capable of incurring and retiring debt and infrastructure should be funded with borrowed capital. If a facility’s useful life is measured in decades it can certainly be paid for over the same decades. Some infrastructure could be privatized in the hope of deploying private capital and expertise against the problems we face. We should remember however that issues of equity and access cannot be papered over. A private piece of infrastructure must still be regulated in the public interest, and subsidized if necessary. The New York City subways were once private but heavily regulated utilities. The city starved the subways by not allowing them to raise fares, eventually forcing their bankruptcy. Financing and rebuilding infrastructure must be carefully and strategically planned. We can’t give away the control of vital public resources for the sake of privatization, but a set of well-crafted public-private partnerships could benefit everyone.  Unfortunately ideology and interest group politics make it difficult to develop an effective strategy to build and maintain infrastructure. Everyone wants the benefits, no one is willing to incur the costs.

When we build mass transit, subsidies are needed for low income workers, students, and the elderly to ensure access. We are going to need to develop new sources of revenue to provide subsidies and funding for maintaining and expanding the system. Congestion pricing in Manhattan south of 59th street could be designed to reduce traffic and generate new revenues.  A congestion fee could be crafted to be less unpopular than earlier proposals. For example, the city could provide exemptions for residents living in the congestion zone and for New Yorkers driving to receive medical treatment at the many hospitals south of 59th street. Nevertheless, I see no way either Mayor de Blasio or Governor Cuomo would support these charges with their reelections coming up. Even worse, I can’t imagine the two of them rising above their petty and pathetic political posturing to work together to develop a creative strategy for rebuilding and expanding mass transit. But maybe we can shame them into it.

New York City’s subway, Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road are like the circulatory system for the region’s economy. The economic heart of the city cannot beat without an effective subway system. The presence of Ubers and new forms of surface transportation make it even more important that we make the subways more attractive. When they don’t break down, subways have the advantage of speed. But during too many parts of the day people are packed tightly into overcrowded cars. Too many trains are delayed, and too many have broken air conditioning, heat or ventilation systems.

Our political leadership in New York needs to rise to the challenge as they did over four decades ago when the city nearly went bankrupt. The problem is, we don’t have a crisis that is capable of bringing people together to deal with these needs. The city is wealthier, safer and cleaner than it’s ever been. The trains may be falling apart, the middle class is struggling to stay, but residents, tourists and businesses keep coming anyway. The closer analogy would be New York at the start of the 20th century when the city was booming and in order to continue growth we figured out how to invest in a water system and build a mass transit system. Without both, the modern city of New York could never have been developed. New York’s transition to a 21st century sustainable city will require strategy, vision and investment. We will certainly get no help from the federal government, although with the exception of the New Deal, that’s always been the case. The challenge is for New York’s political, institutional and business leaders to somehow come together. Perhaps if our mayor and governor could learn to play well together this could happen.

Transportation seems most urgent now. Michael Bloomberg made sure the water system received sufficient investment. Governor Cuomo has committed the state to reinvestment in its electrical grid. The governor is rebuilding some bridges and airports, and has been paying more attention to subways and rails lately, but the effort is falling short.

The transit dispute between the city and state seems to be over money and politics.  In 2016 the MTA approved a $27 billion capital plan, but there are disputes about how much capital should come from the city government. In late May, the MTA board increased capital funding by $2.9 billion. NYC MTA board members voted against the increase and Wall Street Journal reporter Paul Berger observed that:

“Spending increases in the plan included several projects championed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. They included $1.5 billion for the addition of a third track on Long Island Rail Road’s main line, $750 million for a program to enhance 32 subway stations and $700 million for the next phase of the Second Avenue Subway extension to East Harlem. The plan reduces spending on new subway cars by $1.2 billion, deferring that expense for a future capital plan. It also reduces spending on subway signals and communications, a common cause of delays, by $38 million.”

But money is only part of the story. A lot has to do with politics, as J. David Goodman reported recently in the New York Times:

“Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Cuomo had been mostly mum amid a surge in delays on New York’s subway system, hoping to avoid riders’ ire and, in the case of the mayor’s aides, believing that sounding off could be a counterproductive strategy for dealing with Albany. But as attention on the problems began to increase, each sought to blame the other this week a finger-pointing political ritual between the men that in this case cast Mr. de Blasio as the one with the upper hand.”

New Yorkers deserve better leadership than this. It’s time for the mayor and governor to act like grown-ups, to compromise and develop a fully funded, well thought through strategy for mass transit in New York City and its nearby suburbs. It’s time for New York to save its mass transit system.

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