Without Action From Cuomo, Subways Doomed to Endless State of Disrepair

Governor Andrew Cuomo is pushing for $2 billion in tax cuts in his next budget, citing growing surpluses. But a new report on New York City’s infrastructure from the Center for an Urban Future makes it clear that there is no surplus — the state is responsible for billions in unfunded infrastructure repairs to city subways.

Like his toll cuts, Cuomo’s planned tax cuts will hurt New Yorkers who depend on transit. Photo: AP/SI Advance

All told, the city faces a $34 billion gap between basic repairs and maintenance and the amount of money available over the next five years. Surprisingly, a large chunk of this funding gap is attributable to New York’s subway system, which has a $10.5 billion backlog of needed maintenance and repair.

Thirty-seven percent of subway signals have exceeded their 50-year useful life, and 26 percent are over 70 years old. Signal upgrades are essential because modern signals dramatically increase the number of trains that can run in an hour. When the L train’s system was upgraded, the MTA increased the number of rush hour trains from 15 to 26.

Subway stations have gotten to such a state of disrepair, says the report, that a former MTA spokesman confesses, “The MTA has basically conceded that you will never get to a state of good repair… It’s simply not possible.” Under current funding levels, at least.

Funding the subways isn’t the city’s responsibility. The MTA is under the control of the governor, who appoints the authority’s president and nominates its board members. But the governor has largely ignored the MTA’s needs. Instead, Cuomo threatens to take $40 million in dedicated revenues from the MTA in the next budget.

He also pushed the MTA board to cut tolls on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (again, less money for the MTA), a move so fiscally irresponsible that it led former Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch to testify that it may be illegal.

The MTA’s shortfall isn’t entirely Cuomo’s fault. In 1975 the federal government contributed 78 percent of the MTA’s capital budget, “but only 25 percent of the MTA budget for 2010-11,” the report notes.

But that certainly doesn’t excuse the governor for actually taking money from transit. Cuomo should assume leadership of the issue and make the case for more transit funds to Congress and the president.

Instead, Cuomo focuses on cutting taxes for corporations and property owners. The governor argues that cutting taxes will make New York more “business friendly.” But to underfund critical infrastructure is to harm the state’s business climate. Until we fund basic repairs and maintenance, there simply is no surplus.

  • Mark Walker

    The MTA’s problems didn’t start with Cuomo — but he seems to be accelerating them at a radical pace. Is there any meaningful difference between Cuomo and transit-killing right-wing GOP governors? What Christie did for the ARC tunnel, condemning generations of NJ Transit riders to slower commutes, Cuomo is doing for the NYC subway. Let’s not talk about fare hikes and service cuts anymore. Let’s call them what they are: Cuomo Fare Hikes and Cuomo Service Cuts.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “in 1975 the federal government contributed 78 percent of the MTA’s capital budget, “but only 25 percent of the MTA budget for 2010-11.”

    Not right. Back then the MTA basically had stopped reinvesting, federal money aside. Which is why it remains behind the eight ball now.

    “Let’s not talk about fare hikes and service cuts anymore. Let’s call them what they are: Cuomo Fare Hikes and Cuomo Service Cuts.”

    Mark, if even you are mostly concerned with the operating budget, and not the ongoing normal replacement that is part of the capital budget, we’re going back to the 1970s. There is no need for fare hikes or service cuts in the short run if you stop maintenance. That was the plan from the 1950s to the 1970s.

    Basically, the report exaggerates how bad things are physically, but underestimates now bad things are financially. The PHYSICAL deficit of the 1970s was converted into a FINANCIAL debt. Now we have to pay back that financial debt AND pay for maintenance going forward. Otherwise the financial debt will be converted back into a physical debt.

  • Kevin Love

    I would prefer a New York that is “people friendly.”

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Thirty-seven percent of subway signals have exceeded their 50-year useful life, and 26 percent are over 70 years old.’

    Let me speak to the signal situation, which I happen to something about. Yes if costs were not an issue engineers would replace signals after 50 years or less, but NYCT has never done so. The replacement rate had been 60 years, and I’m told that 75 years is when you are really headed for disaster.

    But ongoing normal replacement stopped in the 1970s, before resuming again in the 1980s. As a result, while second generation signals will be in place throughout the IRT and BMT, once the Flushing Line project is complete, much of the IND is running with original equipment from the late 1920s and 1930s. That is going to cause more and more problems.

    What if ongoing normal replacement stops again, because the last 20 years of it has been funded by debt? The replacements for the original signals on the original IRT were put in during the early 1950s, and are themselves more than 60 years old, and will be approaching the critical list in a decade or so.

    Normal replacement is an ongoing expense. Generation Greed borrowed for it, and we’re screwed. The only question is how to allocate the losses.

  • Bolwerk

    I’m pretty diehard anti-Republikan myself, but I can’t see much of one in terms of outcome with transportation or land use. The difference is in social issues.

    New York blew it with two reasonably progressive governors (transportation-wise) in a row. For that matter, Pataki and Bloomberg were less hostile to transit than Cuomo or a good portion of the legislature’s Democrats. Pataki did a lot of damage, but that was mainly because he was corrupt and goofy rather than because he was ideologically a train/bus hater. (I don’t really know how to comment on Giuliani, but I guess he simply had less to work with for a long time.)

  • Bolwerk

    I guess we can just replace the Subway with BRT.

  • neillevine

    Does not appear to be capable management much less an interest in rail automation or collision avoidance

  • neillevine

    Sure

  • Kevin Love

    The US government spent about $80 billion bailing out GM, Chrysler and several automotive industry suppliers.

    Perhaps the wrong vehicle is being shown in the cartoon.

  • neillevine

    Excuses

  • Larry Littlefield

    As per Pataki vs. Cuomo. Cuomo has done the same MTA raids as Pataki, but also was the first governor to put actual cash money into the MTA capital plan since his father. Money in, money out.

    I don’t see Pataki as goofy or corrupt. I see him as a future-selling careerist member of Generation Greed. And more blameworthy than Cuomo.

    I’ve got my issues with Cuomo, but like Quinn I get the feeling everything positive he has done gets forgotten around here, because he isn’t “one of us.” Which he isn’t, but still.

    The best might have been Paterson. At least his heart was in the right place. I’m probably known as an angry crank, but whenever one of these pols does the right thing, I remember that too.

  • Turbo

    Where’s Quinn when you need her insane proposals?

  • neroden

    All I have to say is: Who’s running against Cuomo in the primary? I can guarantee a lot of support. Frankly, just take the right side on three major issues Cuomo took the wrong side on, and I can probably connect you with money, grassroots advocates, and entire local political party committees.

  • neroden

    Cuomo’s actively supporting Republicans. He just hired the Republican State Senate campaign director as his campaign director, and he’s acttually been advocating for Republican control of the State Senate.

    Has Cuomo done anything positive? Well, he hasn’t allowed fracking to ruin the state. Yet. He seems unable to commit, though.

  • neroden

    I liked Paterson too.

  • Bolwerk

    Hopefully retired to the countryside, where she can harm New Yorkers no more.

  • Bolwerk

    Gay marriage is about it.

  • Bolwerk

    I agree about future-selling, but that would seem to be the height of corruption to me given the political class is the main beneficiary of it.

    Anyway, I haven’t forgotten Cuomo’s positives, but when it comes down to it there really aren’t many for transportation. So he put money into the capital plan. Are we really going to bleed to death anymore slowly because of it?

  • Adam Forman

    I mentioned the debt issue in the report: “The MTA also has grown increasingly reliant on borrowing to finance its state of good repair needs as well as its ambitious expansion projects. From 2000 to 2011, the MTA’s outstanding debt increased from $14 billion to $32 billion, and its annual debt service increased from $1 billion to nearly $2.2 billion.”

    An earlier draft had a more thorough discussion of MTA financials. It was cut because a) the report was getting too long and b) the focus of the report was more about the PHYSICAL than the FINANCIAL.

  • How can they ever consider automation when there is absolutely no chance they would ever be able to get the money to afford that?

  • Bolwerk

    Why would you suppose they would not be able to get money to afford that? If it can reduce payroll enough in the long run to pay the costs of implementation, it’s a pretty low risk for bondholders.

    And bondholders thus far don’t seem too worried about their borrowing. Maybe not worried enough.

  • WoodyinNYC

    We had a mob scene of Mayorial candidates just a few months ago. Now when we need one we can’t find a candidate high or low. Lessee, Quinn, Thompson, Liu, Weiner, I could be forgetting one or two more not counting Repubs.

    Not an outstanding bunch but I’ve vote for anyone of them over Cuomo.

  • There are other obstacles that they face before that can happen as well (namely the people on that payroll that will be reduced), among other things. Much of that will need motivation from the governor’s office to make those things a reality, and at the moment, Cuomo doesn’t seem all that interested (think about the trouble they’ve gotten with OPTO, make it ZPTO and you’ve got one heck of an uphill battle).

    I’d like to see it happen one day, but in the present political and economical climate, it’s a bit easier said than done.

  • Bolwerk

    Well, I agree with that. But that’s rather why it’s not so much affording anything. We already afford it; we more than afford it.

    Too many stakeholders in New York make money from not adopting best practice found in other world cities, whether it’s automation or better construction practice or trams or rational fare collection.

  • neillevine

    For collision avoidance, you adapt what is used in cars. Cuomo likes to dawdle. And his allies like to spend like drunken politicians.

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