The Antiplanner has often said that New York City is the one city in America that truly needs rail transit because the concentration of jobs in midtown and downtown Manhattan is too great to be served by surface streets alone. But can New York afford rail transit? The city’s transit system has been getting by on bridge tolls, loans, deferred maintenance, unfunded pension and health care obligations, and turning a blind eye to major structural problems with its rail system.
The New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) latest financial statement says that, at the end of 2016, the agency had long-term debts of $37 billion (p. 25). By now, it is above $38 billion, more than that of many small countries. The statement also says the MTA has $18 billion in unfunded pension and health-care obligations (p. 83).
Unlike some transit agencies, MTA hasn’t made public any estimates of its maintenance backlog. But its latest capital improvement program calls for spending more than $32 billion over the next five years, mostly on maintenance and rehabilitation of the subways, Long Island Railroad, and Metro North railroad. This is more of a goal than a plan, as it will require $7.5 billion in further borrowing plus getting several billion dollars from federal grantmaking programs that the administration wants to cut. Even if fully funded, it probably would not completely eliminate the rail systems’ maintenance deficits. Continue reading →
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.
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 →
New York City subways have been in the news lately. A passenger thought they heard a gun, which lead to a stampede of people trying to get out of the Central Park North station in a case of what authorities called “mass hysteria.” Second, the Wall Street Journalreports that the number of reported gropings, public lewdness, and similar sexual offenses has gone up 50 percent in the last year. City police attribute this to more victims reporting crimes more than an actual increase in the crimes, but the Antiplanner is dubious about that.
Are New York subways really overcrowded? MTA claims that some subway lines are running at capacity.
These problems result, at least in part, from overcrowding. As the Antiplanner has noted before, transit ridership is declining in most cities, but continues to grow in New York due to increased jobs. This ridership growth, however, doesn’t come without cost, including more than a doubling of the number of delayed trains. Even if trains aren’t delayed, they might be so crowded that passengers have to wait for two or more full trains to go by before one arrives that has room for them to board.
“Why are our transit systems faltering just as more people than ever want to use them?” asks Thomas Wright of the Regional Plan Association, which has advocated urban planning in the New York metropolitan area since 1922. His answer is that it has to do with “with the way our government institutions are structured.” He is right in general but wrong on the particulars.
Transit, at least in the New York metropolitan area, did just fine, he says, until the 1950s, when “the federal government started building the interstate highway system, offering big subsidies to states to connect to it.” When that happened, “mass-transit operators struggled to compete with these roads and started going bankrupt.” They were unwillingly taken over by the government, which “merged the workings of mass transit and toll roads to provide cross subsidies.”
The Antiplanner spent part of yesterday in Washington DC stuck on a train while Metro was suffering yet another service disruption. I eventually got off and took a taxi, and soon after reaching daylight I received a call from a New Jersey reporter asking what I thought about a revised plan to build new tunnels under the Hudson River to supplement the North River Tunnels Amtrak and New Jersey Transit use today.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed the tunnel project in 2010 because he didn’t want New Jersey taxpayers to have to pay most of the cost including the inevitable cost overruns. Christie is perfectly happy to have the tunnel built so long as New York pays more of the cost. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wants the federal government to pay the vast majority of the cost (it was already going to pay 51 percent) because, after all, this is interstate commerce. Now Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) has a grand plan to create a quasi-governmental corporation to build it, as we didn’t already have enough of those. The two governors claim to love this plan even though Schumer still doesn’t say where the money is going to come from.
The justification for building the project is completely unrealistic. As the Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Wendell Cox, noted when Christie first cancelled the project, Amtrak and New Jersey Transit predicted that Midtown Manhattan would soon gain 500,000 new jobs. That as many jobs as are inside the Chicago Loop and far more than any other downtown in America, and there is little evidence that Manhattan job numbers are growing that fast (and little reason why taxpayers outside of New York or New Jersey should subsidize that growth).
The Antiplanner once wrote that “the definition of a socialist is someone who doesn’t understand that subsidizing something is not the same thing as making it affordable.” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has often been called a socialist, and seems to fit the mold, proposing to make some housing “affordable” by confiscating money from others.
Specifically, de Blasio’s administration has demanded that, in order to get a permit to build a new school building, Collegiate School–a private school that traces its roots back nearly 500 years–must contribute enough money to build 55 units of “affordable housing.” Worse, those 55 units are estimated to cost at least $50 million (nearly $1 million per unit is affordable?), and if they cost more, Collegiate has to pay the difference. (If they cost less, the city pockets the difference.)
Even if the housing cost far less than $1 million per unit, 55 units of affordable housing aren’t going to have any influence on the affordability of New York City housing. Nor is it likely that whoever ends up living in those housing units falls into a conventional definition of the truly needy. Instead, like many of the beneficiaries of New York’s rent control and other housing laws, they will probably be middle- or upper-middle-class people who happen to be friends with the right people.
Port Authority officials “hope” that the federal government will pay for most of it, just as the feds paid three-fourth of the cost of the World Trade Center transit hub, which came in at $2.8 billion. Much of the current terminal is used for parking, shops, advertising, and other income-producing activities, yet it still manages to lose $100 million on operations.
LaVonda Atkinson, the cost engineer for San Francisco Muni‘s $1.6 billion Central Subway project, has found so many problems with the project–and so little interest within Muni or the Federal Transit Administration in fixing those problems–that she has given hundreds of pages of budgetary and internal documents to the San Francisco Weekly. “Your article” about these documents “is going to get me fired,” she told the Weekly‘s reporter.
Politicians such as then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (center) love to have their photos taken breaking ground or cutting ribbons, in this case for the Central Subway project.
As just one example, Muni told the San Francisco city controller that it spent $110 million on preliminary engineering, when it told the Federal Transit Administration that it spent only $70 million. The extra $40 million went into a slush fund for other stuff.
If you thought Mayor Michael Bloomberg was bad, with his proposed ban on large sodas and other attempts at social engineering, just wait for some of Mayor de Blasio‘s ideas to become law. De Blasio has gained attention for wanting to ban horse-drawn carriages in Central Park because they are “cruel” to the horses. It’s apparently much less cruel to simply send the horses to glue factories, but that’s a leftist for you: it is more important to put people (and creatures) out of work because you don’t think their jobs are dignified than it is to let them work for themselves.
De Blasio says he wants to replace the horses with electric cars. That’s so environmentally thoughtful of him, especially since half of New York’s electricity comes from burning fossil fuels. It might promote global warming, but at least it’s not cruel to horses. Whatever you think of the treatment of horses who live in roomy barns, get a minimum of five weeks of vacation per year, and see their doctors far more frequently than most humans, the point is that de Blasio is going to try to micromanage everything.
Case in point: de Blasio has appointed Polly Trottenberg as his new transportation commissioner. As undersecretary of transportation for policy, Trottenberg is probably the source of most of Ray LaHood’s crazy ideas about streetcars, livability (=living without cars), high-speed rail, and other transportation issues. New York’s loss is America’s gain.