Can the city save its subway system before it’s too late? The Times Magazine Section asked just that question this weekend.
Needless to say, taking the subway these days is a bit of a crapshoot. Last week, before it even started snowing, the MTA couldn’t sustain semi-reliable service during Wednesday night’s rush hour commute as crews were working to move trains out of the way of an incoming snow storm while dealing with the fallout from a mid-morning assault at Jay St. and a signal problem along 4th Ave. in Brooklyn. It resulted in multi-hour commutes for thousands of people who just wanted to get home before a winter storm descended on the city, but it even seemed very familiar to anyone watching the subway system’s slow-and-then-fast descent into unreliability and madness. Things are a mess. When will they get better?
Riders aren’t the only people wondering about the fate of the subway. Following The Times’ exposé before the New Year on the MTA’s out-of-control cost problem, the Grey Lady took another deep dive underground this weekend. In a magazine piece that’s been months in the work, Jonathan Mahler made the case of the subways, as his headline suggests. The idea that New York City must absolutely invest in its subways seems like one you and I may take for granted, but Mahler’s piece is somber reminder of the path we may face if our politicians do not find a way to fix the subways.
Coming just a few days after Brian Rosenthal’s magnum opus on costs, Mahler’s piece overlooks the reality that the MTA probably shouldn’t be trusted with massive amounts of dollars before reforms are implemented, but that is besides the point. In fact, the editorial board of the paper cleared up that conflict today, and more on that later. Mahler’s piece takes a deep dive into the importance of the subway to very fabric of New York City and concludes that we simply cannot afford to whiff on the opportunity to fix the subways. Doing so could lead to an inexorably decline in the success of this city. Mahler too pinpoints the class issues inherent in the discussion, a notable aspect of any discussion of public transit. “Can the gap between rich and poor be closed,” he asks, “or is it destined to continue to widen? Can we put the future needs of a city and a nation above the narrow, present-day interests of a few? Can we use a portion of the monumental sums of wealth that we are generating to invest in an inclusive and competitive future?”
The essence of his piece is laid bare in a comparison with international views on subway systems:
Most countries treat subway systems as national assets. They understand that their cities are their great wealth creators and equality enablers and that cities don’t work without subways. The public-private corporation that runs Hong Kong’s subway expects 99.9 percent of its trains to run on time, and they do. (If you are traveling to the airport, you can also check your luggage at a central downtown train station and not see it again until you’ve landed at your destination. Imagine!) China has been feverishly building new metro systems in cities across the country, a recognition that subways are the only way to keep pace with the nation’s rapid urbanization and the needs of its citizens. And it’s not just new cities that are seeing major investments in their subways. Two decades ago, the decline of London’s Underground became a national crisis; now it’s moving toward running driverless trains. For that matter, Los Angeles — Los Angeles — recently embarked on a 40-year, $120 billion project to build out its mass-transit system.
New York City’s subway, meanwhile, is falling apart. If you are a regular rider, you know this firsthand. But even if you aren’t, it has probably become difficult to ignore all the stories about the system’s failure: the F train that was trapped between stations for close to an hour without power or air conditioning, the Q train that derailed in Brooklyn, the track fire on the A line in Harlem that sent nine passengers to the hospital. The cumulative impression of all these miserable underground experiences — and all these stories about miserable underground experiences — is that the situation is hopeless, that the subway cannot be fixed. The subway has been wrecked, and in this era of short-term thinking and government mistrust, public-works projects with benefits larger than any single mind can realize are no longer possible. But it is possible to fix the subway. And we must. Our failure to do so would be a collective and historic act of self-destruction.
Mahler’s piece, magazine-length at that, deserves a close parsing, and he traces the political machinations over responsibility for the decline of the subway. It features stunning photos by Damon Winters of a system falling apart, and it concludes that no amount of money is too little to spend on the subway:
Just this partial list — I haven’t included the platform doors, for instance — brings the total to about $111 billion. It’s a big number. But not when you put it in context. New York City and its environs generated $1.7 trillion in gross metropolitan product in 2016. That’s roughly 9 percent of the nation’s overall G.D.P. How much of that activity is dependent on the subway? About a year before Hurricane Sandy, a state-funded group of scientists and engineers produced a comprehensive (and as it happens, prescient) report on the damage that a hundred-year storm surge could cause to the system. One of the study’s authors, Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist at Columbia University, told me that losing the subway for a month would cost the city about $60 billion in lost economic output.
The reality of this apocalyptic scenario hasn’t sunk in. Absent sufficient resources, the subway has been left with diminished ambitions and empty spectacles…
New York won’t die, but it will become a different place. It will happen slowly, almost imperceptibly, for years, obscured by the prosperity of the segment of the population that can consistently avoid mass transit. But gradually, an unpleasant and unreliable subway will have a cascading effect on New Yorkers’ relationship with their city. Increasingly, we will retreat; the infinite possibilities of New York will shrink as the distances between neighborhoods seem to grow. In time, businesses will choose to move elsewhere, to cities where public transit is better and housing is cheaper. This will depress real estate values, which will make housing more affordable in the short term. But it will also slow growth and development, which will curtail job prospects and deplete New York’s tax base, limiting its ability to provide for citizens who rely on its public institutions for opportunity. The gap between rich and poor will widen. As the city’s density dissipates, so too will its economic energy. Innovation will happen elsewhere. New York City will be just some city.
I generally agree with Mahler though believe cost reform must be a key part of any effort to fix the subways. After all, $100 billion spent efficiently will go a lot further if 30-40 percent of those dollars aren’t assumed to be the cost of corruption right off the bat. In a real city not beholden to corruption in fact, $100 billion could lead to a completely updated and modernized subway system, but we ad the people we elect to represent us seem stuck in this rut of ignoring the 800 pound gorilla in the room.
Mahler’s piece wasn’t the only one to make the case for the subways this weekend. Today, the edit”orial page of The Times includes a call for our leaders to do something. “Billions of dollars that could have gone to maintaining and improving the subways,” the piece notes, “have been wasted on exorbitant costs. Projects have also been delayed by mismanagement.” In fact, The Times notes that based on Alon Levy’s calculations, the first phase of the Second Ave. Subway could have cost a quarter of its $4.5 billion price tag were it built literally anywhere else in the world. Without cost reform, the editorial states, “no amount of revenue, whether it comes from higher fares, from a tax on millionaires as Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed, or from congestion pricing as Mr. Cuomo has suggested, will be enough to fix the subways. Too many of those added dollars would be frittered away.”
And that’s the key. We can spend $100 billion; we can, as David Leonhardt eloquently argues, implement congestion pricing in a way that makes sense and improves New York city for everyone; we can vow to fix the subways. But until cost reform are part and parcel of any reform effort, no amount of money will fix the subway because it will all just be siphoned away into the great unknown of the New York City subway system’s blackhole of institutional corruption.