New York City subways are falling apart. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has a $38 billion debt and $18 billion in unfunded health-care obligations. Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio spend most of their time blaming each other for the region’s transportation woes.
The New York Times thinks it has a solution: “Make commuters pay their share again.” That sounds like a great idea! The people who ride the trains should be the ones to pay for them.
But that’s not what the Times means. Instead, it wants people who live outside the city to pay a commuter tax to work in the city. Such a tax, equal to 0.45 percent of each commuter’s income, once was in place, but was repealed in 1999. If renewed, the Times estimates, it would add nearly a billion dollars a year to the city’s coffers, which it could use to restore the subways, though it is more likely that it would spend it on such frivolities as extending the Second Avenue subway. Continue reading
A couple of weeks ago, there was a flurry of stories blaming New York subway problems on overcrowding. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) presented data showing that the number of delays caused by crowding had tripled since 2014, while the number caused by track maintenance or signal problems had remained relatively constant.
The MTA also helpfully pointed out that the number of trips taken on the subway had grown from 1 billion a year in 1990 to 1.8 billion in 2015, while the number of miles of subway lines and subway cars had remained relatively constant. That sounded persuasive, but the Antiplanner was suspicious. This explanation conveniently shifts the blame from MTA’s mismanagement to subway users and also invites the solution of giving MTA a lot of money to increase capacities–a solution MTA would be very happy to implement.
Besides, New York subway ridership first reached 1.8 billion way back in 1926, when the system had many fewer route miles than it has today. Construction of the Independent system, which is more than a quarter of the total, began in 1932 and wasn’t completed until 1940. Subway riders in 1926 complained the trains were crowded, but delays due to that crowding weren’t a significant problem. Continue reading
Back in 2010, when the Federal Transit Administration admitted that the transit industry had a $78 billion maintenance backlog, America’s largest transit system seemed to be in the best shape of those with legacy (older than 40 years) rail lines. Having undergone its own crisis in the 1970s, the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority appeared to be adequately funded and was not suffering the huge problems faced by transit agencies in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington.
No more. While Boston, Chicago, and Washington transit systems are worse than ever (and Philadelphia’s is only slightly better off), New York’s subways seem poised to catch up. According to Streetsblog, between November, 2012 and November, 2016, weekday subway delays grew by 322 percent.
To be fair, one month (November) is probably not a long enough period to measure a trend. Comparing MTA’s February 2012 and 2017 performance reports, the subway’s on-time record fell from 85.4 percent in 2011 to 66.8 percent in 2016. Part of the cause is an increasing failure rate of MTA’s rolling stock, which grew from one failure every 172,700 miles in 2011 to one every 112,200 miles in 2016. Both of those numbers indicate serious problems. On top of this, most of the subway system’s escalators and elevators are also out of service. Continue reading
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) was pleased to announce last week that it would not be delaying any rush-hour trains due to maintenance work for a few days. However, starting this week, rush-hour frequencies on the Yellow Green Lines would be reduced by 20 to 50 percent, and part of the Green Line will be completely shut down for two weeks.
All of which has just become business as usual in Washington. The real news is that WMATA plans to raise fares and cut service by up to 25 percent on July 1. Rush-hour fares will go up a dime, non-rush-hour by a quarter, and trains will stop running at 11:30 pm most days, instead of the current 12:30 am.
The big cut, however, will be to rush-hour service. Trains that now operate 10 times an hour will be cut back to 7.5 times an hour, effectively a 25 percent cut in service. Passengers can therefore expect a 33 percent increasing in crowding. Or, more likely, the system will lose even more riders.
Another transit agency is having financial problems. The San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District is seeing ridership decline and both transit fares and sales tax revenues are falling short of expectations.
BART’s staff has given the board a laundry list of things it can do to make up the shortfall: raise fares, crack down on fare evaders, increase advertising revenue, increase parking fees, charge companies that send buses to pick up employees at BART stations, and automate trains to eliminate drivers. Even if they do all of these things, however, they “will not be able to address the deficit we are facing” without major service cutbacks, BART’s budget director told the board.
Another thing BART could do, but probably won’t, is hire more employees so it won’t have to pay so much overtime. Last November, Transparent California found that a BART janitor whose base pay was $57,000 a year actually earned $270,000 in 2015 with overtime and benefits. To get this, he supposedly worked 114 hours a week, which is more than 16 hours a day, every day of the year. But a local television station tracked this worker and found he was spending several hours a day hiding in a storage closet, while the stations he was supposed to keep clean remained filthy.
New York City subways are becoming less reliable, with delays growing from 28,000 per month in 2012 to 70,000 in 2016. To fix the problems, MTA did a lot of maintenance work in 2016, mainly at night or on the weekends.
Ridership data for 2016 are now in, and they show that weekday ridership grew slightly but weekend ridership fell by 3 percent. So who do they blame? Uber. Isn’t it more likely that the decline was due to all the maintenance work done over the weekends?
Perhaps so, but it is still possible that Uber is having an impact. In 2015, New York subways carried an average of around 4.4 million trips on a typical weekend day, so a 3 percent decline is about 133,000. Based on an analysis by Todd Schneider, Uber and Lyft carried about 141,000 trips on January 9, 2016 and 270,000 trips on January 7, 2017 (both of which are Saturdays), an increase of about 129,000. Taxi ridership declined by about 32,000 in that time period, so it appears possible that Uber and Lyft may have captured up to 97,000 riders away from the subway, or about 73 percent of the subway’s weekend decline. We don’t know that all of those 97,000 people would have taken the subway, so the actual capture is probably less.
The Antiplanner has been writing about Washington Metro’s downward spiral for nearly two years, but the end may be in sight. According to Metro’s general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, after 2018, “the game’s over.” Or, as Metro board chair Jack Evans says, if the problems aren’t solved by then, “the only option I see is to cut back on service enormously.”
That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Census data indicate that, in 1970 before any Metro lines were built, 17.61 percent of DC-area commuters took transit to work–virtually all on buses. In 2015, between buses, Metro rail, and Maryland and Virginia commuter rail lines, transit’s share was 17.58 percent. In the years since 1970 in which the census has surveyed people (every decennial census and every year since 2005), the highest it has ever been was 17.70 percent in 2005. So going back to buses wouldn’t need to reduce transit ridership. Since bus riders don’t have to worry about broken rails or smoke in the tunnels, replacing trains with buses might even increase ridership.
All of the delays suffered by passengers so Metro can do maintenance hasn’t seemed to improve reliability. Just a few days ago, trains on three lines were delayed so much that one rider tweeted, “An hour and 45 min into my @wmata commute, I’m finally BACK WHERE I STARTED! Gave up and went home.”
Third-quarter 2016 ridership on the DC Metro rail system was 13.5 percent less than in 2015, according to the American Public Transportation Association’s recently released ridership report. Of course, the Metro had frequent delays due to the “surge” maintenance work, but many of the riders lost may never come back.
More immediately, lower ridership means lower revenues, and that means Metro is forced to consider cuts to both rail and bus service. To fill in the gaps, Metro’s general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, has proposed to apply some of the federal dollars that are supposed to be dedicated to capital improvements to operating costs instead.
Worse, the agency’s inability to fix its poor safety record has led the Federal Transit Administration to punish it by reducing federal support by 5 percent. Five percent doesn’t sound like much, but when you are in a deep financial hole with a $6.7 billion maintenance backlog, every dollar counts.
New York City celebrated the new year by opening the insanely expensive Second Avenue Subway. Just two miles and three stations long, this subway line cost nearly $4.5 billion, or more than $35,000 per inch, making it the most expensive subway in the world.
Of course, not all of that money went for digging tunnels and laying track, which cost “only” $734 million (which is still more than $5,000 per inch). The three stations cost $800 million each. But that’s not all: to complete the Second Avenue subway, the city also spend $500 million on engineering and $800 million for “management, real estate, station artwork, fare-collection systems and other sundry items.” If the entire New York City subway system cost that much, it would have cost more than $500 billion, or roughly the cost of the entire 47,856-mile Interstate Highway System in today’s dollars.
Of course, the city didn’t pay for it alone. The federal government chipped in at least $1.3 billion. The state of New York put in some money, but much of the money probably came from bridge tolls paid by auto drivers. Actual riders of the Second Avenue subway will pay very little of the cost and what they do pay will be paid indirectly.
Judge Richard Leon apparently invalidated Maryland’s Purple Line project just in time to prevent the Federal Transit Administration from giving the Maryland Transit Authority nearly a billion dollars for construction. Naturally, rail supporters are outraged by his decision.
The Washingtonian, for example, calls the decision “ridiculous” because it was based on declining Metro rail ridership and “the Purple Line will not be part of Metro.” But the article admits that 27 percent of the projected Purple Line riders will be transfers to or from Metro, so if Metro ridership declines, the Purple Line’s will as well.
The National Environmental Policy Act is supposed to be a procedural law, the Washingtonian complains, so why is Judge Leon allowing substantive issues such as ridership influence his decision? The author of this piece is obviously not an attorney and probably didn’t even read Judge Leon’s decision, or he would understand that getting the numbers right, as the judge demands, is procedural. He might also be able to read between the lines of the decision and see that Leon realizes this project is a turkey, and is using ridership as just the most obvious reason to overturn the decision to build the low-capacity rail line.