Decades of neglect have left the subway in shambles. Can Andrew Cuomo solve the mess he’s done so much to create?
I always thought it would be nerve-gas or a nuclear bomb that brought down the city of New York. But perhaps the worst threat is internal: The thread that holds this city together will simply unravel, rip and give way under the strain of neglect.
There were glaring signs of the coming collapse in June. Reports of passengers jumping out of stranded subway trains and making it to stations on foot. The words “I will survive” scrawled in the fog of human body heat coagulating on the windows of a packed, air-conditioner-less F train dead on the tracks. An A train smoking off the rails with 800 riders on board.
We hardened New Yorkers can handle swastika-scrawling graffiti artists, dadaists hawking live crickets, break-dancers swinging their sneakers within inches of our skulls, doomsday preachers hollering at the top of their lungs. We can coexist remarkably well with all manner of odorous bodily discharge and vermin that crawl and ooze about our feet under the jaundice-lamps beneath the earth. We’ve learned to bear the cross that is our daily commute with a sigh, to gaze vacantly into infinity until it’s over. Delays, now and then — not a problem. But more and more, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is failing to accomplish its basic mission: To take New Yorkers from point A to point B safely and faster than a horse-drawn omnibus.
Why do our commutes suck? Our 113-year-old subway system has been underfunded for decades. It moves 5.6 million passengers per day using technology that dates back to before World War II. Rather than modernizing, the MTA is accumulating debt and spending billions of dollars on superficial alterations, quick fixes and projects that provide photo opportunities to politicians but do little to address its systemic weaknesses. While the number of delays each month has climbed to 70,000 — up from 28,000 five years ago — one out of every five dollars the MTA spends from its operating budget goes to servicing debt on capital bonds.
It’s anyone’s guess what the governor hates more: funding the MTA or taking responsibility for it.
A lack of accountability and long-term planning has plagued the MTA since its founding. This has meant that spending all too often follows the whims of constituencies that have the most clout beyond the ballot — real-estate developers, big construction firms, construction unions and the finance companies that underwrite the MTA’s bonds and profit handsomely.
In May, the authority released a six-point plan to improve service. Don’t get your hopes up.
“Who’s in Charge?”
The plan allocates $20 million on top of the current capital budget for improvements like new subway cars, increased inspections, new track and more emergency responders to treat sick passengers. But signifying its real priorities, the MTA issued $1.6 billion in bonds that same month, adding $5 billion more to its already bloated $38 billion debt load. Instead of improving service, the money raised will go towards blockbuster expenditures like extending the Second Avenue subway and polishing our transit turd by beautifying stations — all priorities of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
While Mayor Bill de Blasio gets a lot of flack from New Yorkers over the subway’s deteriorated state, most riders do not understand that it is actually the governor’s office that has the most sway over the MTA. Their confusion is understandable.
“Who’s in charge?” Cuomo asked on June 22. “Who knows! Maybe the county executive, maybe the president, maybe the governor, maybe the mayor.”
Cuomo was hyping his last-minute proposal to have the state legislature grant him a controlling stake on the MTA’s board. But the governor already appoints six of the board’s 14 members, including its chair. Together with members from the counties surrounding the city — mostly plucked from local chambers of commerce and corporate-law firms — Cuomo has a working majority on the board. He has the strongest grip on the authority’s purse strings as well. It was his brilliant idea to cut $65 million from the MTA’s budget this year, for instance.
The fact that Cuomo did not submit the bill to give him control of the MTA until the end of the legislative session indicates that his proposal wasn’t serious. He also called on Mayor de Blasio and the city to match state contributions to the authority. Currently, the state chips in about $32 billion and the city $8 billion towards the MTA’s five-year capital plan. If he had actually received what he supposedly wished for, that too would have been a win for Cuomo. Upstate lawmakers are loath to meet the MTA’s budgetary needs. Cuomo’s bill would have meant the city contributing more than twice as much to the MTA as it does now while possessing even less control over it.
It’s anyone’s guess what Cuomo hates more: funding the MTA or taking responsibility for it.
“The MTA is a state-run agency and the ultimate executive of that is Gov. Cuomo,” says Masha Burina of the Riders Alliance, a 1,000-member straphanger advocacy group. “The state has been steadily removing funds from the transit authority. It’s indicative of a reluctance to invest in this public good.”
A citizen lobbying effort the Riders Alliance initiated was instrumental in halting the governor’s yearly habit of removing funds from the MTA’s operating budget and putting the money towards its general debt-service fund. Cuomo removed $270 million from the MTA’s operating budget in his first term, between the 2011 and 2015 fiscal years. The money went to servicing debt that the MTA was forced to accumulate because of a lack of state funding.
Meanwhile, the MTA has squandered the funds that haven’t been raided, spending lavishly on multibillion-dollar ventures dear to the governor’s heart like the new subway for the Upper East Side, accumulating more debt in the process.
“Real estate is the only reason that the Second Avenue extension was built,” says Tom Angotti, professor emeritus of urban planning at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “It was supported by a political base which is largely real-estate interests on the Upper East Side, the most expensive real estate in New York City and perhaps in the world. Adding that stub of a subway line jacks up land values, property values, rents and potential profits. Development opportunities become more abundant in the area.”
The cost of the Second Avenue subway at this point — three new stops near Millionaire’s Row and refurbishing of the station at Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street? $4.45 billion.
The extension of the 7 line to Hudson Yards is another money pit the MTA has dug its gilded shovel into. “That was an expensive stub essentially for billionaires and millionaires and very well-paid people, financed through a public-private partnership,” says Angotti.
Cuomo gets a pass on that boondoggle. It was the brainchild of our billionaire former mayor, Michael Bloomberg. Under his administration, the city’s Economic Development Corporation issued the bonds that paid for the $2.37 billion extension, just one station at 34th Street and 11th Avenue.
“We have taken on projects that have been expensive,” MTA board member James Vitiello lamented at the board’s monthly meeting in June. “I think we’re coming around to seeing we may have done some of that at the expense of day-to-day maintenance. We’re adding new rooms to a house that had a roof falling in and water in the basement.”
Some observers, however, contend there is a false equivalency in this analogy.
“Why should we have to choose between the continued improvement of what we already have and additions to a system that hasn’t seen a lot of additions really since the 1940s?” asks subway historian Clifton Hood, defending the capital expenditures. “I think that’s absolutely false thinking that buys into this ideology that we have to choose one or the other. There’s a lot of waterfront development happening now.”
But “waterfront redevelopment” is often code for upscaling undervalued real estate and longtime dockside residents are fighting plans for luxury high-rises from the Bronx to Sunset Park. Opponents of the recent subway expansions aren’t against extending the system. They just want it to extend to meet real needs.
“We need a bigger vision for how the transportation system is going to be expanded throughout the city, but also expanded in terms of its capacity,” says Masha Burina. “That means buying new train cars, laying down new tracks. We need to actually invest in purchasing these capital goods.”
Most importantly, the subway needs a new signaling system. Its current assemblage of mechanical levers, glass-encased switches and cloth-clad wiring is prone to breakdowns. Even when they’re functioning, the signals slow down service by forcing the MTA to maintain a safe distance between trains. Since it’s impossible to determine precisely where trains are at any given time, transit workers log their locations with pen and paper. The MTA’s program to update the signals is on a pace to be completed in 50 years. Only the signals on the L line have been entirely upgraded since it began, and the L will be shutting down between Brooklyn and Manhattan in April 2019 for 15 months of repairs.
“There’s room for us to begin enacting a multitude of solutions to the city’s transit woes,” says Burina. “That would include improving the system as it is so that trains are more reliable so that the number of delays decreases and crowding on platforms and inside the subway cars is addressed. But, at the same time, we should be thinking about where we are headed as a city when it comes to our growth and development, and really consider what does it mean to have an inclusive transit system that can address [the needs of] and be accessible to New Yorkers everywhere.”
That’s a nice thought, but putting it into reality would first require Cuomo to gird his loins and take responsibility for the MTA. In late June, the governor, who is up for re-election next year, declared a “state of emergency” and directed the authority to draft a plan to address the mounting delays within 30 days. (In the spring, he’d offered $1 million in genius grants to anyone who could provide a plausible quick fix.) Joseph Lhota, Cuomo’s newly appointed MTA chair, will be the man holding the mop. Lhota won accolades during his previous tenure as chair for steering the authority through Superstorm Sandy, but he left the post after less than a year to run for mayor in 2013 as a Republican.
“Joe Lhota is a respected professional who has valuable experience as MTA chair,” Riders Alliance executive director John Raskin said in a statement. “The question remains, what is the governor’s plan to fix the subway, and will he give Chairman Lhota the funding he needs to get the job done?”
Lhota will not work full-time as the chair. He wants to keep his day job as an executive at NYU Langone Medical Center, a $1 million-plus per year position.
City officials, particularly Mayor de Blasio, bear some responsibility for the subway clusterfuck too. The city, for instance, could free up more traffic lanes for express buses, which would ease the burden on the subway system. Instead, de Blasio, like Bloomberg, has his eyes on costly waterfront development. His administration has approved tax breaks exceeding half a billion dollars for high-rise developers surrounding the Hudson Yards site — but the mayor’s personal pet transportation project is the BQX, a $2.5 billion trolley system that would run along the waterfront and connect Astoria to Sunset Park. The project would allegedly pay for itself with a $2.75 fare, but a leaked memo from de Blasio’s BQX advisors suggested the actual price tag could be much higher. Construction costs alone, the memo projected, will rise by $100 million a year due to inflation.
The trolley won’t “serve the transportation needs of the vast majority of people living in Brooklyn and Queens,” says Angotti, co-author of Zoned Out! Race, Displacement and City Planning in New York City. “Again, it’s planning transportation around real-estate speculation.”
Angotti also takes issue with the city’s habit of allowing luxury high-rises to be built on top of major transit hubs. Nearly one in three of the city’s most expensive apartments sit empty for at least 10 months out of the year. Why is the city squandering its housing stock by providing easy public transit access for rich ghosts who prefer to be elsewhere?
“We have to stop believing in the myth that there is this invisible population of people with a lot of money who are coming to New York City and the city is obligated to provide them housing, transportation and services,” says Angotti. “That was the Bloomberg Luxury City myth. The biggest vacancy rates in New York City are in luxury housing. They’re not being built to meet people’s transportation needs. They’re being built as vertical safe-deposit boxes.”
Reclaiming Our Subway
For a brief period, beginning in 1940, the subways were actually operated by the city.
“I’ve gone through those records, and you can see City Councilmen got letters from constituents complaining that the buses now stopped every four blocks instead of every two blocks,” said Clifton Hood. “That’s a legitimate thing to complain about because if you’re 80 years old or if you’re a mother with two kids in a stroller, walking four blocks instead of two blocks is a real handicap. Their feet were really put to the fire, and that doesn’t exist anymore.”
From its earliest inception as the New York City Transit Authority in 1953 — it was put under the MTA umbrella in the 1960s — the authority structure was established “to insulate politicians from accountability for what is an extremely expensive system,” says Hood. “What you could say is the problem with the subways in New York City is that they are extremely expensive, there is a lot of public demand for good service and cheap service, and yet there is not the wherewithal to provide the funds from anybody for that service.”
Public transit — like health care, public housing, higher education, public broadcasting, and the Post Office — was once thought of as a costly but necessary service for the general good. Now it is looked upon as a burden to taxpayers, expected to be sustainable on its own, though it lacks the capability to do so. Nobody in Washington, Albany or City Hall wants to fund the MTA or be accountable for its mounting shortcomings. In the absence of any significant voter pressure, our political system operates in default mode, retooling a public benefit to satisfy the whims of a wealthy minority.
Once upon a time, the interests of real-estate tycoons and other corporate elites went nearly hand in hand with those of the workaday straphanger. In order to support New York’s extraordinary commercial growth — fueled in the 19th century by the export of slave-picked cotton and maintained into the 20th Century by a continuous supply of hungry immigrants — the city’s housing stock had to expand. Land speculators were only happy to oblige, and employers needed a way to transport their growing workforce to downtown docks and factories.
“Where are the business foundations and major corporations based in New York City?” asks Hood. “Where are the major New York City corporate law firms, which, after all, have a lot of money and a lot of clout, with respect to what’s going on with the subway?”
Noisy complaints from business leaders helped rescue the MTA in the 1980s when, as novelist Paul Theroux described it, the subway had “the filthiest trains, the most bizarre graffiti, the noisiest wheels, the craziest passengers, the most macabre crimes,” and, one might add, the least dependable service in its existence. Hood blames Reaganism for the idea that “we should starve the public sector.”
Another lingering question: Where is the Transport Workers Union? Their working conditions are our riding conditions.
In an email to The Indypendent, TWU Local 100 spokesperson Jim Gannon blamed the subway trouble on a “confluence of factors” including the system’s advanced age and the need to conduct repairs overnight and clear out before the morning rush. The “MTA’s capital plan is good and totally necessary, but the result won’t be felt for some years to come,” he wrote. “We’ve been pressing for more money to be sunk into the operating budget which could then be used for maintenance of the current system. There’s no easy answer.”
On June 27, when secured pieces of rail, loosened by tunnel vibrations, fell on tracks and caused the derailment of a packed A train, Local 100 and the supervisors union blamed the MTA — but pointedly, not Gov. Cuomo. While transit workers guided rattled passengers to safety through the smoky dark beneath Harlem, Cuomo was in Albany horse-trading for the new $4 billion Tappan Zee Bridge to be named after his father, Mario. Meanwhile, a proposal by state Senator Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) to tax millionaires to fund the subway was left on the table. The money, to be raised from wealthy residents in the MTA’s service area and by upping the state’s hotel tax by $5, would have been devoted exclusively to the MTA’s maintenance and modernization needs.
Interestingly enough, in an era when Cuomo has fought for capping state workers’ salaries, Local 100 members received pay bumps in 2014 and again this year. The union endorsed Cuomo’s re-election bid after the contract settlement in 2014 and has stuck by his side since, despite the growing amount of shade cast in his direction.
“The governor is not shirking responsibility like some politicians. He’s out in the open, meeting this decades-old challenge head-on,” Local 100 President John Samuelsen said of Cuomo’s gambit to control the authority he already controls last month.
Gannon insists the union “invested a lot of resources into [its] contract campaigns” and credits Local 100’s “strongly united membership standing behind the leadership” for the raises. “Cuomo had nothing to do with the recent contract,” he said. “I’m sure the MTA had to clear the final document through him, but negotiations were strictly between us and the MTA.”
With businesses passing the buck and the transit workers’ union sitting in Cuomo’s lap, it looks as if the task of creating political pressure to address the crisis at the MTA will ultimately fall to the millions of riders suffering on the trains every day.
The way to win “meaningful improvements to the subway is to continue to beat the drum of accountability,” says the Riders Alliance’s Masha Burina. “And again, that means making sure that New Yorkers, every time that they go underground, they know that they are stepping not into just New York City territory, but they are stepping into Gov. Cuomo’s territory. He is the one who is ultimately accountable for fixing the subways. The only way we can win that is if there’s enough pressure on the governor to ensure that he knows that he has to satisfy the growing frustration among the ridership.”
Illustration (top): David Hollenbach.