Deficit Dread in the Subways

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority found itself in a somewhat paradoxical position at the end of last week. On the one hand, a state review panel turned down a request to plug a huge hole in its $32 billion five-year capital plan; on the other hand, the subways broke ridership records with over six million in a day during five days last month, the latest chapter in the system’s historical turnaround since the 1990s.

Despite understandable disappointment at the MTA and among straphanger advocates, the matter should not be overdramatized. The state did not say flatly it would not help; nor did the rejection signal a financial crisis of the kind the city was up against when President Gerald Ford told the city that the feds wouldn’t lift a finger to rescue New York.

The MTA must now revise the plan and re-submit it. Either that, or find somebody else to cover about half the cost of its program. Worthy of concern, but not catastrophic.

In a report released at the same time, the watchdog Citizens Budget Commission highlighted what could be the key to solving much of the MTA’s budgetary problem. The CBC recommended that the MTA make better use of what it has before embarking on expansion projects like the Second Avenue subway. It should, they said, concentrate on improving safety, comfort and efficiency in the existing transit system, before adding more lines.

The increase in ridership is an argument for both sides. More trains are needed; but the ones they have, which will continue to serve the overwhelming majority of passengers in any case, need upgrading. Actually, most of the allocations in the proposed budget were not for expansion but for upgrading. In the worst-case scenario, the MTA could postpone or downscale expansion, and thereby reduce its deficit, while making those improvements. If so, state legislators would presumably be more inclined to give over at least some of the money it’s asking for.

The New York City subway system is one of the great success stories of urban America. By the 1980s, the subways were a dark and forbidding place, plastered with graffiti and rife with crime. Only those too poor to afford other modes of transportation would brave the dangers, the filth and the horrors of rush hour.

Current ridership represents a near doubling, from a low of about 3.5 million riders in the early 1990s. Some attribute the increase to the comparative costs of private transportation. Rising tolls, sky-high insurance rates, endless traffic congestion and parking woes have combined to reduce the distance between the conveniences above ground and the inconveniences below.

No doubt, the Zero Tolerance campaign had a great deal to do with it, as well. Car lovers could only be driven underground if they perceived it as a viable alternative. The crackdown on every class of crime, from armed robbery to turnstile jumping and vandalism, resulted in what many had lost hope for: a relatively safe and hospitable subway system.

We can safely ignore the counter-intuitive carping of a few academics who claim it was a myth; that certain demographic factors, such as a drop in the high-crime cohort — 18–25 age group on the loose — were the real cause of the drop in crime. The police campaign made sense, still does, and should continue to be pursued with vigor. Only if the crime rate should rebound, should it be reconsidered. (This is not a swipe at academics in general; after all, Zero Tolerance itself was the product of academic research.)

Regarding room for improvement, we have a few suggestions, beginning with rest rooms. Currently, there are only 129 open restrooms in 77 of the system’s 468 stations. Most of those previously open to the public have been converted to storage spaces or restricted to employee use only. (A few major stations have operating restrooms, including on the concourses of 42nd Street – Port Authority Bus Terminal; Chambers Street; 57th Street – Seventh Avenue; Coney Island – Stillwell Avenue; and Lexington Avenue/59th Street.) There should be more of them.

The MTA has been slow in answering the needs of some 800,000 New Yorkers living with disabilities. Almost 25 years — a generation — after the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 became law, the subway system remains largely inaccessible to them. Only 82 out of the 468 subway stations in the city are fully accessible, with 89 set to be completed by the end of this year. There should be more of them.

There are other bugs in the system — like Cimex lectularius, a.k.a. the common bedbug. Health authorities say that a subway traveler need not fear infection with Ebola; but bedbugs are another story. There were 21 bedbug sightings in the subways during the month of August, on the A, L, N, Q, 3, 4, 5 and 6 lines. The MTA has been fumigating. Zero tolerance is already in effect. We are in favor of less bedbugs.

The bottom line, though, is that there should be zero tolerance for regression in mass transit. The MTA and Albany must find a common ground to maintain the hard-won success of decades. Nothing less will do.