EDITORIAL: The crumbling M.T.A.

Two reports released by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and City Comptroller Scott Stringer this week highlight the woeful conditions that straphangers who rely on subways and commuter rail lines can attest to daily.

And while it’s easy to see the neglect and incompetence, it seems much harder to find a way to fix the damage.

The city’s subway system and the LIRR are in a sorry state, according to two new reports. (File photo)

DiNapoli announced the results of a study that revealed something that seems obvious by now: Most New York City subway stations are crumbling.

The run-down components cited in the study range from from platform edges to ventilators, both of which are quite obviously key to rider safety.

Broken platform edges increase the risk of potentially tragic slips and falls, and malfunctioning ventilators are both short- and long-term health hazards for anyone who sets foot on an underground subway station platform. 

The second half of this one-two transit punch came from Stringer’s letter to Long Island Rail Road President Phil Eng, criticizing the commuter rail line for its own station problems, namely a lack of accessibility. 

For example, just five Long Island Rail Road stations in all of Brooklyn and Queens meet federal A.D.A. (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance. And yet, the LIRR has either dragged its feet on — or scrapped altogether — projects designed to bring the stops up to code.

The portrait of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 2019 as painted in the reports is far from flattering. 

Politicians have been quick to condemn the M.T.A. and promise reform and “transformation” to make everything better. We’ve heard this before, and the end result has always equated to reshuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. 

City and state leaders should streamline the authority’s overhead and empower it (financially and politically) with the means to get things done — and then, do them. 

We don’t need another Robert Moses — an all-powerful master builder who treated the public with contempt — but rather leaders who can at least get the M.T.A. and the riders it serves out of this mess.

Enough talking about it. Let’s get the M.T.A. moving toward progress again.

2 Responses to EDITORIAL: The crumbling M.T.A.

  1. NYS Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s recent audit report “MTA Subway Station Repair List Is Growing” told us nothing anyone in the transit industry did not already know. Not only Di Napoli and other previous State Comptrollers, NYC Comptroller, NYC Office of Management and Budget, NYC Independent Budget Office, the Regional Planning Association and others have issued reports going back decades on NYC Transit station shortfalls, The MTA and NYC Transit have internally tracked the state of good repair for stations and individual station components for years.

    In 2016, the NYC Citizens Budget Commission issued a report which said, it will take 52 years or until 2067 when all 468 NYC Transit Subway Stations reach a state of good repair. (Doesn’t count 3 new Second Avenue subway stations opened on January 1, 2017). Governor Cuomo in 2016 said “New, modern subway stations across the system are an essential part of our efforts to rebuild and re imagine the MTA for the 21st century.” He talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk when it comes to providing the additional billions necessary to reach these goals.

    The MTA’s own twenty year Needs Assessment Report is in the process of being updated. It will tell you the same information provided by this audit.

    At the end of the day, it is a question of sufficient funding not only for maintenance but also upgrades to various components to bring each station up to a full and complete state of good repair. Comptroller DiNapoli bears part of the blame for “years of under funding for the MTA Capital Program has resulted into a longer list of needed repairs in NYC subway stations and fewer stations in good condition. Di Napoli served as a State Assembly member from 1987 to 2007 and State Comptroller from 2008 to the present.” When did he ever introduce legislation, cast a vote or lobby any Governor to increase funding during the past 32 years to finance MTA NYC Transit shortcomings as identified in his MTA audits past to present? .

    Most of the original IRT (NYC private franchised Independent Rapid Transit system operated 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, Franklin Avenue and Times Square shuttle lines stations) and the old BMT (NYC private franchised Brooklyn Manhattan Transit system B, D, J, L, M, N, Q, R, W & Z lines stations) were built between 1900 and 1920. The IND system (Independent municipal NYC built, financed and operated A, C, E. F & G lines) was built in the 1930’s.

    At the end of the day, it is a question of available funding to keep the 471 subway stations in a state of good repair. You also have the added challenge of making many more stations ADA compliant by adding elevators.

    One challenge facing the MTA as it develops the next $40 billion 2020 – 2024 Five Year Capital Plan is to come up with funding. It is dependent upon a number of taxes and fees including Real Estate Transfer Tax and Congestion Price Tolling which combined equal $25 billion plus $7 billion in anticipated Federal Transit Administration funding. This totals $32 billion. This leaves a shortfall of $8 billion. Neither the MTA nor any elected official has yet to identify the source of funding to close this $8 billion gap. Congestion Pricing does not kick in until January 2021 or the second year of a five year capital program. The final details of who will pay what have yet to be worked out. In the meantime, many elected officials are lobbying for exemptions for those who provide essential services such as police, fire or teachers, low income, outer borough residency, seniors, small commercial based delivery businesses or other special niches. Some of these exemptions will be adopted to placate different elected officials constituents. As a result, the MTA may not be able to count on all $15 billion in congestion pricing funding. A downturn in the economy could also result in less revenue from the Real Estate Transfer and other tax income sources. The $8 billion shortfall could easily grow by billions more.

    The MTA has been working behind closed doors on this document. It is scheduled to be released in October 2019. They first have to find $4.3 billion balance needed to fully fund the $6 billion Second Avenue Subway Phase 2, $1 billion to complete $11.2 billion LIRR East Side Access and $600 million to complete the $2.6 billion Main Line Third Track along with NYC Transit President’s Andy Byfords proposed $38 billion accelerated NYC capital improvements program. He calls it Fast Forward: The Plan to Modernize NYC Transit subway and bus system. This is looking for $19 billion under the next Five Year Capital Program. Some want billions to accelerate bringing more of the 471 subway stations into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Others want billions more to increase the numbers of new and rehabilitated subway cars and buses. Historically, these plans are adopted up to one year late.

    The real battle is between reaching a state of good repair versus system expansion. I would argue that it would be better to place the $6 billion Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 project on hold. Use those funds to accelerate bringing more subway stations up to a state of good repair and into compliance with ADA by adding elevators.

    The MTA must stop wasting millions on transportation feasibility studies for future system expansion projects that will never happen in our life time. Do not initiate any new system expansion projects until each operating agency, NYC Transit bus and subway, MTA bus, Long Island Rail Road and Metro North Rail Road have reached a state of good repair for existing fleet, stations, elevators, escalators, signals, interlockings, track, power, yards and shops. This should also include insuring a majority of subway and commuter rail stations are in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities (ADA) Act. Ensure that maintenance programs for all operating agencies assets are fully funded and completed on time to ensure riders safe uninterrupted reliable service. Let us see if adequate funding is provided to support all of the above in the upcoming $40 billion MTA Five Year 2020 – 2024 Capital Plan which is promised to be released this coming October.

    Larry Penner

    (Larry Penner is a transportation historian, writer and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the United States Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road MTA Bus, Nassau County NICE Bus, New Jersey Transit along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ).
    . .

  2. Meanwhile…
    “China has also pursued electrification at an eye-popping pace. It now has almost half the world’s electric vehicles, half the world’s charging infrastructure, and 99 percent of the world’s electric buses”
    — 99% of all electric buses! China is doing for mass transit countrywide what we should be doing in this City.

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