Getting Off Track: Evaluating MTA Construction Priorities

The New York City Subway system is in a state of complete disarray. Currently, only 65 percent of subway trains arrive at their destination on time, the lowest on-time performance in decades. In March 2017 alone, there were 78,500 subway delays, a 14 percent increase from the previous year. Countless New Yorkers miss meetings, appointments, or interviews on a daily basis due to delays. At the same time, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA)—the public corporation responsible for overseeing the subway system—is in the process of spending $12 billion on a completely new rail line. However, this massive and expensive project, though too far along in its tracks to be halted, does not represent a comprehensive or sustainable solution to the chaos of the subway system.

The current subway difficulties can largely be attributed to funding gaps and weather damage. For one, the MTA has faced staggering budgetary issues in recent years. Adjusted for inflation, the MTA has approximately the same budget it did 25 years ago, despite the fact that ridership has increased over time. As a result of this state of tight funds, the MTA has had to cut hundreds of jobs for mechanics. Additionally, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 led to devastating flooding and tunnel damage in the subway system. To fix this existing damage from the hurricane, the MTA plans to shut down significant portions of the L train, which runs from Brooklyn to Manhattan, beginning in April 2019. These repairs are expected to cause even more delays and added pressure on other lines. As a result of all these issues, along with a subway derailment that injured more than 30 people, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a subway-related state of emergency in June 2017.

Why, then, is the MTA spending around $12 billion on a completely new track? The “East Side Access” project, predicted to be completed around 2023, will connect the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) to Grand Central Terminal on the East Side of Manhattan. Currently, LIRR trains are only able to enter Manhattan via Pennsylvania Station. Plans for a connection to Grand Central have been around since at least the 1960s but received renewed interest after the 9/11 attacks, since many people saw a need for increased transportation capacity in NYC. As then-President of the LIRR Kenneth J. Bauer put it, “If something happened at the East River tunnel, you wouldn’t be able to run trains to Penn Station.” This past September, the MTA began to lay the track in the East Side Access tunnel. Costs will be higher than initial estimates due to a greater staff demand than anticipated. At $3.5 billion per mile of track, this project will cost about seven times more than the average railroad track across the world.

Yet East Side Access is not the only large-scale subway project in the works—the Second Avenue Subway is another long-term project that is proving to be extremely expensive. The first phase, which consisted of three stations that now form part of the Q train, cost $4.5 billion and began operations in January 2017. The second phase is expected to cost around $6 billion and will add three additional stops serviced by the Q and N trains. After a planned third and fourth phases, the entire line will be serviced by a novel T train and will consist of 13 total stations.

At first glance, it seems quite strange that the MTA is funding such costly projects when the organization has been experiencing immense budgetary issues and the subway is fraught with delays and cancellations. The reason for this conundrum is in part that East Side Access and similar projects often receive widespread political support. Officials face pressure to focus on more flashy pet projects rather than addressing the fundamental issues of the subway system. Individual politicians tend to prioritize projects that are attractive to voters in order to get re-elected. New stations and lines are more tangible than repairs or updates, making them easier to sell to the public. For example, a former New York General Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver made the Fulton Street station a pet project in hopes that the station would serve as a Subway hub.

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Funds for massive projects such as East Side Access detract from the ability of the MTA to address structural issues that are in greater need of fixing.

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In order to address the deep issues of the subway system, the MTA ought to stop constructing so many ostentatious projects. Funds for massive projects such as East Side Access detract from the ability of the MTA to address structural issues that are in greater need of fixing. The most frequent complaints about the subway system are delays, breakdowns, and crowding. Expansions of existing rail lines seldom fix these issues. Instead, the MTA should focus on repairing old lines and modernizing subway technology. In particular, train signals are in desperate need of modernization. Currently, train operators do not know the precise location of trains since they rely on antiquated technology from the 1930s. Despite this clearly dangerous situation, at the current repair rate subway signals will not be fully modernized on all lines for another 50 years. Moreover, delays are often attributed to “signal problems,” which suggests that improving signaling technology would cut down on the frequency of delays. Therefore, voters should voice their concerns about delays to politicians, and elected officials should explain to voters that fixing structural issues will address the frequency of delays head-on.

Furthermore, flashy projects such as East Side Access typically serve to help affluent areas and suburbs where people often already own cars. Few, if any, of these large-scale projects are geared towards increasing transportation access for marginalized communities. For instance, the LIRR has no current plans to integrate the East Side Access project with Nassau Inter-County Express (NICE), the bus system on Long Island. Since many low-income individuals rely on NICE due to its lower cost compared to the LIRR, East Side Access can only truly improve access if it involves coordination with NICE. Therefore, if novel projects must be constructed, the MTA and LIRR should at the very least seek to improve opportunities for public transportation among underserved communities.

There are some signs that the MTA and LIRR are recognizing the need for structural changes. When Governor Cuomo declared a Subway-related state of emergency in 2017, he also announced a package for emergency repair. The MTA has allocated $378 million for the emergency plan, of which $58 million has been directed toward signal modernization. This amount pales in comparison to the $12 billion being spent on East Side Access, a sign that even small efforts in shifting MTA priorities can go a long way. Additionally, LIRR President Patrick Nowakowski announced a “performance improvement plan” in February 2018 that would address frequent problems such as rail freezing and would install countdown clocks at LIRR stations. Despite these signals that the MTA and LIRR are recognizing the need for structural improvement, the East Side Access project is probably too far along for construction to be stopped. Nonetheless, going forward the MTA should prioritize fixing fundamental issues over initiating completely new projects. There’s no time to delay repairing the Subway system.

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