It’s Time for New York To Save Its Mass Transit System

06/12/2017 08:24 am ET Updated Jun 21, 2017

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 re-elections 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.

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