The Subways Have Gone to Hell
Governor Cuomo has declared a state of emergency for New York’s subways. But he’s also the cause. Killing passengers, service declines, crumbling stations, corruption, waste and illegally discriminating against the disabled are just a few of its problems.
By Dan Smith
I doubt I’m going to shock anyone by pointing out that the New York City subway system is a mess.
When I first started riding the subways every day, almost 30 years ago, the system had just undergone a massive revitalization—new, clean subway cars and refurbished stations. But things are much different today. Crumbling stations and dilapidated cars are frequently the case.
Worse, service had declined dramatically. Ten years ago, trains ran on time 90 percent of the time. Since, that figure has fallen to 70 percent.
And more people are getting hurt, as there have been many notable derailments and track fires. As a result of these issues, and many more, in June 2017 Governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency. Cuomo was quoted as saying, the “state of decline is wholly unacceptable,” which sounds like he is just a casual observer of the situation rather than the person responsible.
For you see, while the NYC subway system is owned by New York City, it is run by New York State’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), with both its chairman and its CEO being appointed by Governor Cuomo (as well as several of its other board members).
So, when the New York Times chronicles in some detail, that the system is plagued with a “byzantine bureaucracy which has allowed transit leaders to avoid responsibility for problems,” they are referring to Governor Cuomo’s appointees and cronies—if not Cuomo, himself.
The New York Times lays blame on current and former administrations—both Republican and Democratic, both in Albany and in New York City for the long history of how we got here, but Cuomo has had more than seven years to deal with the problems and they’ve only gotten worse.
While riders pay fares to ride the subway, New York City contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the MTA. But that begs the question: why is the city diverting taxpayer dollars to a fee-based transit system? Why don’t rider fees, shop rentals and things like advertising fund the entire system? The answer to that is complicated, meaning that it’s political. And when government tries to run a consumer service, it gets complicated and this is the result—high costs, bad service, lost rights, waste, fraud and abuse. Everyone suffers—except those who benefit from the system: politicians and unions.
The MTA Breaks a Law Which NYC Strictly Enforces on Everyone Else.
As I’m writing this, I’ve just read that it’s been announced the U.S. attorney has filed a lawsuit against the MTA to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA is a 1990 law whereby those with disabilities must have access to all buildings and businesses which serve the public. This includes apartments, shops, restaurants and everyone else—including the subway. However, the MTA has ignored the law . . . because they can.
The MTA has had 28 years to comply with this law and it has done almost nothing. Only 20% of subway stations have elevator access. If that’s not bad enough, many of those elevators are 20 years old and many are regularly out-of-service. That’s an unwelcome but frequent surprise to those who depend it.
I have friends who are disabled and daily life getting around New York City is a nightmare. They tell me that, despite New York City’s strict access laws enforced against private businesses, the MTA aren’t even in the Top 10 cities in the nation in helping the disabled get around. As a substitute, the City provides a service called, Access-A-Ride which are shuttle buses for the disabled. But my friends complain that Access-A-Ride is terrible: slow and unreliable. Further, a recent audit by the Comptroller shows that complaints about the service’s safety and bad service are high and that the MTA is unresponsive to the issues.
In response to the federal lawsuit alleging that the MTA is violating the ADA, an MTA spokesperson said, “the MTA and NYC Transit are committed to adding and maintaining accessibility for the century-old subway system, and working hard to do so by investing more than a billion dollars over the current five-year capital plan alone.”
That statement is both an excuse and clearly a false promise . . . if not an outright lie. The MTA is blaming the age of the system, but they’ve had 28 years to comply. And they’re implying that a billion dollars will fix the problem in 400 stations, when it has cost $3.5 billion to lay one mile of track. The idea that $1 billion will make even a small dent in making the MTA compliant with federal law is laughable. Moreover, that billion dollars is likely the same billion dollars promised last June to correct the “state of emergencies” issues which led to the derailments and track fires.
It’s just another shell game by Governor Cuomo’s cronies. Neither they nor Cuomo are up to the monumental task of even beginning to address the issues which Cuomo is largely responsible for creating.
The Root Causes
Let’s look at the realities. The MTA is inherently flawed. It answers to politicians and unions, not riders. It is a monopoly and acts like one—it has no interest in controlling costs, obeying laws, nor pleasing its customers. It’s terrible because it can be. It takes in money from its ever-increasing ridership, from advertising, from shop owners, from New York City taxpayers, from New York State taxpayers and from bondholders. Yet it largely answers to bureaucrats, politicians and unions.
And New York City punishes competitors with high bridge and tunnel tolls, insane parking taxes and a highly regulated taxi system—all to compel people to use the subway.
Yet, the system is the most expensive at building new track and one of the most expensive to operate—all while getting ever-worsening results.
Another problem is the system’s debt. The MTA spends 17 percent of its budget paying interest on its ever-growing debt—three times what it did 20 years ago. Its debt is $35 billion, which is greater than 30 World nations. Despite all of its sources of revenue, it operates at a perpetual loss–$6 billion per year. The average MTA employee makes $90,000 per year and has the most generous benefits imaginable, while a typical worker anywhere else sees a fraction of that—and usually produces much, much better results.
These problems are symptoms of the immense, multi-layered bureaucracy to which the New York Times referred, as well as the control the unions have over the system and the corruption which both bring. In addition to the high profile pay-to-play corruption conviction recently, reports by the Times and others highlight overstaffing, hundreds of employees with no apparent job, highly slack bidding processes, and costly and useless consulting firms.
What Can Be Done?
Let’s address the incentives problem. The MTA has no interest in providing a good service, so they have to go. New York City should fire them—fire Cuomo and his cronies. I’m sure it’s illegal to do so, if not prohibited by contract. But the MTA has flouted the laws for decades. Shouldn’t a lawbreaker and lax provider of service be fired? New York City must find a way to do so.
This creates a few other issues. Two of them are: i) who will run the subways? and ii) who will repay the huge MTA debt?
These two problems can solve each other New York City should put the operation and perhaps even the ownership of the subway system out to bid to private entities. Just as New York has done to revitalize Bryrant Park, they could do with the subway—turn the operations over to those who know how to please customers and are incentivized by profit to do so.
It’s not a crazy idea. With a firm like SpaceX showing they can do things which NASA cannot and doing them much cheaper, one should question government monopolies over such things. Although some will say that only a city can run a transit system, airports around the World have privatized with a great deal of success—more efficiency, better service and benefits to taxpayers instead of costs. A private firm will find what customers value and drop nonsense. The city can set any rules it wants. And the money from a sale or leasing could address the $35 billion in debt.
And the city could require that the operator bring the system up to compliance with the ADA—something which the MTA has no interest in doing.
No matter what, a big change is essential. Expecting it from Governor Cuomo and his cronies at the MTA has proven a failure—as usual.