March/April 1999, p.9

Subway Renaissance Spurs Ridership Explosion

New Metropolitan Transportation Authority figures confirm an explosive growth in subway ridership. Ridership over the past two years is up by a million passengers a day, from 5.2 million in December 1996 to a 30-year high of 6.2 million in December 1998. The MTA is proud of the increase, and credits cleaner subway cars, reduced crime, more reliable service and MetroCard discounts for the upsurge. The MTA has also announced plans to lay 500 miles of fiber optic cable by the year 2003 to connect electronic message boards, intended to better inform riders of arrival times and service changes.

Because there has been no comparable increase in service though, straphangers are a little less thrilled with the jump in ridership. Overcrowding is now common on many train lines, the worst of which, many say, are the IRT's East Side 4, 5 and 6 lines. Noting that there have been no new additions to the system in 60 years, the Regional Plan Association (RPA), a public interest group, recently issued its "Metro East" plan, which includes construction of the long-discussed Second Ave. subway.

An additional train line on the East Side is vital because the demolition of the Second Ave. El in 1947 and the Third Ave. El in 1955 reduced transit service and coincided with an explosion of large-scale residential construction. In return for the loss of the Els, New Yorkers were promised a Second Ave. subway, but they have seen little progress since the City first drafted plans in 1946 and floated $500 million in transit bonds in 1951. While some construction was begun, most of the funds for the new line went to other transit needs. East Siders thought things would improve in 1974, when the City set 1986 as the target date for completion of the line, but then-Mayor Abe Beame excluded the project from the MTA's capital plan, and precarious municipal finances have dashed any hope of new construction since then. In addition to East Side service, RPA's Metro East also proposes to add service to The Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, including service to Jamaica that would complement the proposed Manhattan-to-JFK rail link.

Despite a strong 78% approval rating for a Second Ave. subway (according to a February 1998 Quinnipiac College poll) and the endorsement of numerous elected officials, the MTA has shown little enthusiasm for Metro East. Unfortunately, MTA Chairman E. Virgil Conway, following the lead of his predecessors, asked for no expansion money in the agency's new five-year capital plan. For his part, the Mayor seems more concerned with the extension of the IRT 7 train to a proposed new westsidesports stadium. Popular support for major new construction is growing, however, and recent comments suggest the City's business community is prepared to back Metro East politically and pay for it with increased business taxes. T.A. supports RPA in its efforts to make Metro East a reality.

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