Without New MTA Funds, Transit Riders May Face Return of 70s-Era Disrepair

In 1974, the Franklin Avenue Shuttle derailed, a not infrequent occurrence as deferred maintenance took its toll on the transit system. Photo: Doug Grotjahn via ##http://www.nycsubway.org/articles/history-nycta1970s.html##nycsubway.org##.

Last week we wrote about how the looming $10 billion deficit in the MTA’s capital plan could lead to a $3.00 fare and $137 monthly pass within three years. That’s not the only way the transit authority could decide to respond to a lack of funding, however.

At the other end of the spectrum from fare-backed borrowing, the MTA could decide that it cannot take on any additional debt. In that scenario, the MTA would simply have to cancel or postpone every unfunded maintenance and expansion project — most of the next three years of the capital program. You can see those projects at the MTA’s capital dashboard, here. The result will be breakdowns, delays, and a slide back toward the decrepit and dangerous subway system of the late 1970s.

“You can expect to see the condition of the system decline pretty rapidly if you’re not doing this work,” said Felice Farber, the director of external affairs for the General Contractors Association of New York. “It’s not too hard to get back to the poor quality service of the past,” she said.

“You’ll have older buses, so they’ll be breaking down more often,” explained Pete Foley of TWU Local 100. “Subways will have to go slower,” as they pass over worn out tracks, he continued. “Eventually you’re going to have cracks. You’ll have derailments if you have a crack in the rail.”

Delays will be more common during rush hour as well, due to the lack of regular preventive maintenance. “You’ll be fixing things when they break,” said Foley. “They’ll wait until it’s an emergency.”

In the final three years of the capital plan, Farber said, 23 percent of the cost is network expansions like East Side Access, 27 percent are basic repairs to the system, 35 percent goes to regular replacement of tracks or buses, and thirteen percent to system improvements like new communications technology.

Expect to see more of this if the state doesn't fund the MTA capital plan. Buses and subways will start to break down pretty quickly without necessary repairs. Photo: Cory Doctorow ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/doctorow/2517340894/##via Flickr.##

Over time, said Farber, putting this work off would force riders to pay more for less. “What happened on the New Haven line is the perfect example of what happens when you defer maintenance.” In 2000, then-governor John Rowland refused to buy new Metro-North cars. That decision ended up resulting in a ten percent service cut during rush hour this winter, when the repairs needed to the old cars overwhelmed the MTA. “They also paid huge overtime expenses while they struggled to get their system up to speed,” said Farber.

Both Farber and Foley noted that even though the capital program is currently funded, the transit system is already starting to struggle. “If you ride the train now, we’re already starting to see train delays because of signals, starting to see the doors have only one side open,” said Farber.

Foley pointed to scaled back plans for the MTA’s mega-projects. One of the two stations on the 7 line extension won’t be built, for example, and the corridors connecting the different subway lines at the Fulton Street Transit Center were narrowed by around six feet.

Station repairs and customer service improvements could be some of the first to go if the MTA’s capital plan deficit isn’t closed. “That’s the direct passenger experience,” said Farber. The current round of station repairs are mostly in Brooklyn and Queens, she said.

The expansion of real-time arrival signs to the lettered subway routes, the new subway intercoms, and security cameras also won’t go into effect, said Foley. “They’ll just have to cut these out.”

In reality, of course, the MTA can choose to mix and match between fare-backed debt and deferred maintenance, putting off the features that might be nice to have and charging riders for the ones they need to have. The MTA could also potentially swap in service cuts or layoffs for fare hikes.

The bottom line is that without the revenue that a solution like congestion pricing or bridge tolls could provide, none of the MTA’s options are good for riders. Should our transit system buy what it needs by taking out a huge loan and sticking transit riders with the bill? Or just let the system begin to fall apart? Albany shouldn’t be content with either.

  • petemiller

    we can also crack downon labor costs, at all levels

  • Mark Walker

    Greg Mocker, how can you crank out so many stories about the MTA and not cover this?

  • Mark Walker

    Greg Mocker, how can you crank out so many stories about the MTA and not cover this?

  • JamesR

    this is already happening. About a month ago, I spent 40 minutes stuck inside an uptown A train between stations in Upper Manhattan at around 1am. The cause? A broken rail. Weekend service interruptions and reroutings are nothing new, but I had always thought that the reasons for the weekend service reductions were to prevent stuff like this from happening. I guess it isn’t enough when you’re running the system on a shoestring.

  • Anonymous

    Will all-city graffiti make a comeback? That I might be able to get behind.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The first effect of deferred maintenance will be track fires and dirty trains and stations.

    The first effect of deferred “capital projects” will be increasing delays due to signal problems, rising until you get an entire line shut down because service is no longer viable.

    The MTA heard several years of whining by Canarsie Line (L) riders, but now it has new signals and is isolated from the rest of the system. Good for 60 years. Let’s see if the finish the Flushing Line.

  • LazyReader

    “As deferred maintenance took its toll on the transit system”…….”The first effect of deferred maintenance will be track fires and dirty trains and stations”. It’s just the effect of these programs, you give them money, they’ll want more. Most federal transit grants are legally dedicated to capital improvements, but the recession has left most transit agencies short of operating funds, so they have been lobbying Congress to allow them to use more federal funds for operating subsidies. “The MTA could also potentially swap in service cuts or layoffs for fare hikes”. Why not eliminate these massive new projects their working on. But where is all the money going?? More than 8,000 New York City transit employees, most of them Union Workers, were paid more than $100,000 last year. Around 60 percent of the authority’s current budget — about $7 billion — is used to pay labor costs including payroll, pensions, and overtime.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/03/nyregion/03mta.html?_r=1&scp=3&sq=mta&st=cse

    Even if they completely sacrificed all bus services, it wouldn’t be enough to bring their rail lines up to a state of good repair.

    A wise man once said…….. “Rail transit is like an expensive toy for cities. They all want one because it makes them feel like a “world-class city” or green or something. In a healthy economy, we can afford the toy, especially since hardly anyone really uses it so it doesn’t cost a lot of money. But when the economy stumbles, we can’t afford the toy anymore. The problem is that the people who rely on the toy — mainly the people who operate it — are politically powerful and want their money no matter what it costs everyone else.”

  • LazyReader

    “sticking transit riders with the bill” They’re the ones who want the transit…duh..Why shouldn’t they foot the bill. People who are typically disabled, too old, too young, too poor, or otherwise unable to drive have long been the major users of public transit; Nothing wrong with that. But in the late 20th century, the planners tried to attract a new regime of upper or middle-class commuters out of their autos by building expensive rail projects. In attempts to compete for federal handouts they campaigned their ideas and tried to rationally explain it to the simple folk. These expansions and start ups came with enormous costs that must come from somewhere. These initiatives have often hurt transit-dependent people as fares increase and service is cut back in order to pay for rail construction. We need only demand responsive systems that operate to scale on any given day. Ones that rely less on government to run them. It also means demonopolizing public transit and opening the door for private enterprise to pick up slack; Yes for profitable reasons. But done so in a cheap, reliable fashion. Other cities, Austin for example have had a history of uncontrolled costs and overspending region’s The regions commuter-rail line, which just opened in March, 2010, “climbed from $60 million to almost $140 million.” This dragged the agency’s reserve fund down from $200 million to less than $5 million.

    By focusing on capital costs, Congress is giving transit agencies incentives to use their “federal money” to buy things they don’t really need: overly large buses with fancy paintjobs, little-used transit or multi-modal centers; expensive rail lines where buses would do. Why spend federal money on what is essentially a local problem? In truth most cities are lucky that transit is functionally irrelevant. Imagine if more cities were like New York City, where more than half of all workers rely on an expensive form of transportation that the city can barely afford to maintain even in a good economy. Of course, if smart-growth advocates and urban planners had their way, a lot more cities would be in this financial mess.

  • Lazy,

  • Maris

    Okie dokie Lazy. No more government subsidies to transit. Got it. Everyone pays for their ride. Great. Are you suggesting the same deal for other transit modes as well – specifically cars? Automobile users (and trucks, etc.) will now pay the entire tab for roads, DMVs, snowplowing, traffic enforcement, etc.. I assume that automobile users (and trucks, etc.) would pay for damages caused by their vehicles (replacing the things they inadvertently run over and into) as well as associated medical costs. Would it be going too far to have automobile users (and trucks, etc.) pay for environmental impacts as well – e.g. asthma, toxic run-offs, etc.? As you state in your case regarding transit, these are “enormous costs that must come from somewhere.”

    Can anyone come up with what a gallon of gas should cost? Ooops – forgot about electric vehicles – dang – a miles-traveled-tax?

  • LazyReader

    If we are going to subsidize passenger ridership, give them transit vouchers so they can get around the way they need to go. Typically by bus or even Jitneys and vans. In response to New York. The New York City subway is the most cost effective transit system in America……..still it’s very costly. They’re behind on their maintainence, deferring it for other priorities. A Transit official said “We will never have enough money to keep the system maintained”, “It doesn’t matter how much you give us it’ll never be enough”. ‘Cause everytime you give them more money, they’ll just go out an build more. Keep in mind…”In the final three years of the capital plan, Farber said, 23 percent of the cost is network expansions like East Side Access”. So almost a quarter of the capital money is not going towards maintainence, it’s going towards a bouncing baby train. I think the MTA needs a little planned parenthood, maybe get it’s tubes tied. And we need to “abort” some of these more expensive new projects and it’s gonna take more than a coathanger. Now people say transit is good for the environment……which may have been true in the 60’s and 70’s when cars had been gas guzzlers. Nowadays, automobiles have improved in fuel economy by 41 percent since the 70’s. Energy consumption per-passenger-mile has gone way down for automobiles. Energy consumption for transit has gone up, because they keep building transit in places where few actually use it. The average bus or passenger rail car is never more than one-sixth filled to capacity. If your five passenger car has only you in it and some environmental pussy is trying to make you feel guilty about it, relax, simply point out the car has a higher occupancy ratio than their trains. In the next two decades, the car will be even more efficient.

    In order to achieve our greenhouse gas reduction targets, one can reduce it at a cost of no more than 50 dollars a ton. Now I’m not really convinced that global warming is as catastrophic as others point out. But if we take simple steps that are cheap, it’s not a bad idea overall. Enhancing traffic signal coordination, cars built of lighter weight materials. Hybrid cars not so good, that’s nearly a hundred dollars per ton. Trying to get people onto transit; that’s nearly two-thousand dollars per ton.

    As for commuter rail: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qi0ZCc8OV_Y
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4fdjvkCOQU

  • Seriously, Randal? You just referred to yourself as “a wise man” with your own sock puppet? You’re pathetic.

  • Take your lies and distortions somewhere else, Randal. You don’t care about saving money, you don’t care about greenhouse gas reductions, you don’t care about congestion. You just care about your nice fat paycheck from the oil barons that fund Cato.

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