As the Antiplanner has previously noted, claims that transit ridership grew in 2014 and 2015 obscured the fact that all of that growth was accounted for by the New York City subway. But subway ridership declined in 2016, contributing to a 2.3 percent decline in nationwide transit ridership.
The drop in the Big Apple’s subway ridership was only 0.8 percent, but unlike most cities where transit fares bring in less than 20 percent of operating costs, the subway covers 60 percent of its operating costs with fares. So even a small decline hurts a lot more than a bigger decline would do elsewhere.
Money is particularly crucial now, as the subway and other New York transit systems have become increasingly unreliable. It is so bad that some transit riders have sued New York City transit for failing to provide safe and reliable service.
The situation is only going to get worse this summer. Last year, New York Governor Cuomo proudly announced renovations of New York’s Penn Station, which serves Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and Long Island Railroad commuter trains. Now he seems to have had second thoughts as he is predicting the renovations will result in a summer of hell for New York commuters.
A few years ago, when the Federal Transit Administration reported that the nation’s transit systems had a $78 billion maintenance backlog, New York’s systems seemed to be in pretty good shape compared with Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington’s, which were on the verge of collapse. What has happened to lead New York’s systems to become so unreliable?
The answer, as reported by a transit agency insider, is simple. In the 1990s, the region spent a lot of money restoring the various rail systems. But in the 2000s, rather than keeping up that investment, the city decided to blow billions of dollars on the Second Avenue Subway and a connection for the Long Island Railroad to Grand Central Terminal. Both of these routes were redundant as the Second Avenue Subway is just two blocks away from the parallel Lexington Avenue Subway, while the Long Island route duplicates a subway line between Penn Station and Grand Central.
In short, instead of keeping up on maintenance, politicians decided to go for the glitter. This is the same thing that has happened in Boston, which is spending $2.3 billion extending the Green light-rail line instead of reducing its $4 billion maintenance backlog; San Francisco BART, which is spending billions extending a line to San Jose instead of closing its $6 billion maintenance backlog; and Washington, which spent more than $3 billion on the Silver Line and wants to spend another $7 billion extending it to Dulles Airport rather than close its $7 billion maintenance backlog.
Transit ridership is declining nationwide. According to the Eno Transportation Foundation, from 2014 to 2016 ridership fell in all but seven of the nation’s major urban areas. Now that Americans have learned that fracking can keep gas prices low no matter what happens in the Middle East, it is likely that transit ridership has no chance of recovery before shared, self-driving cars completely destroy the industry.
Fiscal conservatives agree with the Antiplanner that Trump’s proposal to stop federal funding for transit capital improvements is a good thing. But the transit lobby is outraged, as it wants to keep building rail lines it can’t afford to maintain and that few people will ride. One congressman on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee says that people are in his office “every day” lobbying for more money for transit. The question will be whether Congress and Trump can resist that lobbying.