The State of New York contributed $0 to the MTA’s 2000-2004 capital program, saddling riders with fare hikes and spiraling debt payments. Now, with the 2005-2009 capital plan in the works, the State must step up as it did in the early eighties, when it funded 20% of the program. Otherwise, New York City faces more fare hikes and a return to the broken transit system of the 1970s.
Subway fare jumpers are New Yorkers who evade their responsibility to pay their fair share to keep New York City’s subways and buses running smoothly. The heyday of the fare jumper was the 1970s when the villainous vaulting of turnstiles was as frequent an underground event as track fires, breakdowns and muggings. According to the NYPD, it was the fare jumpers who most embodied the neglect that plagued New York City transit.
Today, subway cars today are fourteen times less likely to break down, trains are faster and crime is a small fraction of what it once was. But while fare jumping has also declined markedly, the extent of fiduciary evasion is at an all-time high; the petty fare jumpers of yore have been replaced by the State of New York, which is now contributing $0 to the MTA capital program.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority’s capital program is what keeps New York City Transit from backsliding to what city official Ethan C. Eldon characterized in a 1976 New York Times article as a state worthy of Dante’s Inferno. By funding the replacement of tracks and train cars as well as necessary expansion projects like the LIRR link to Grand Central and the Second Avenue Subway, and continuing to fix infrastructure that deteriorated in the seventies and eighties, the MTA capital program keeps New York City subways and buses—a key component of the New York City economy—on the right track.
During the mid and late eighties, the State and City funded over 30% of the MTA’s capital program to help the subways and buses make their great comeback. It worked; since 1982, subway trains have increased ridership by 39%. Yet in the early nineties, the State and City reduced their contributions towards 0%; in the MTA’s 2000-2004 capital plan, the State and City contributions were 0% and 2% respectively. To bridge this chasm, the MTA was forced to borrow very heavily. Now the MTA is mired in debt. The State Comptroller predicts that the interest on the agency’s debt alone will amount to $1.7 billion per year in 2007 and $2.4 billion per year in 2014. These are not just numbers on paper. Because the MTA is very near its legal debt ceiling and the interest payments are made largely out of fare revenue, the starved MTA may have to consider yet another fare increase in 2005.
Both Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg have given good lipservice to new big transit projects included in the new 2004-2009 MTA capital plan. And the media and public have spent considerable time debating the relative merits of the LIRR connection to Grand Central, the Second Avenue Subway, the #7 train extension to the West Side and other projects. But the debate is not just about which of these mega projects deserve funding; it is about whether, at its current funding level, the MTA and New York City can afford to put these projects ahead of keeping the entire system in a state of good repair. David Gunn, a former MTA official and one of the people responsible for bringing the subway back from the brink recently warned against trading “nuts and bolts” for “big sexy projects.”
As we go to press, the MTA is scheduled to release its draft 2005-2009 capital plan at the end of July, with deliberations extending through the fall. Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg have both already weathered a contentious fair hike. With elections coming up, will they avoid another rancorous fair hike debate by putting their money where their mouths are and providing adequate State and City funding for the MTA?
BRT: A Wise Capital Investment
New York City buses— which travel at an average speed of 7.5 mph— are the slowest in America. T.A., together with the Straphangers Campaign and the Regional Plan Association, are recommending that the new 2005-2009 MTA capital program include $75 million to develop five bus rapid transit (BRT) avenues in each of the five boroughs. The planning for these corridors, already funded with $5 million from current MTA and DOT funds—is set to get underway this autumn. In the past few years, BRT systems featuring physically separated bus lanes, signal priority, and fast boarding and alighting, have come into operation in dozens of cities throughout the world. The best systems, like Bogotá’s TransMilenio, afford subway quality service and capacity at a fraction of the cost.