No More False Starts, Please

The New York subway system gets more crowded by the day, especially on the East Side, but it will still be years before the T line is working. (Alex Palomino/The Observer)

Contributing Writer
Published: February 26, 2009

“A heads up,” the new MTA ad reads. “Starting in 2015, the new Second Avenue Subway will help relieve overcrowding on the Lexington lines. Overdue, but excellent news.” But wait. Stop right there. Why is the MTA allowing the Lexington lines (4,5,6) to remain overcrowded until 2015? How will this new subway line fix the problem? And if they are acknowledging that the project they are supposed to be managing is overdue, why is it taking so long to build a single subway line?

The Second Avenue Subway has been a sort of New York running gag for decades, signifying something that will never be finished. This mythical subway tunnel, officially known as the T line, is currently planned to stretch from 125th Street in the Bronx to Hanover Square in Lower Manhattan, passing straight through the East Side of Manhattan. Cancelled after the stock market’s sudden collapse in 1929, the project was resurrected soon after World War II, but only a single part was built, the “Chrystie Street Connection.” After it was given “top priority” in a 1967 Transportation Bond—digging began in 1972—but stopped again soon afterwards due to another financial crisis, leaving sections of unfinished tunnel under city streets. In 2005, the Transportation Bond Act was passed by voters authorizing the construction to restart. Unfortunately, despite receiving a large amount of federal funding in 2006, the line may once again be in jeopardy due to our newest economic meltdown.

While the overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue line, with an astounding 1.3 million riders daily, is likely to become worse as local residential development continues, the Second Avenue Subway will not be completed for another 12 years. What’s worse, additional funding for three quarters of the project has not yet been approved. The currently under-construction portion of the line, reaching to 96th Street and serving as a Q line extension, won’t do much to ease the pain of downtown riders. Luckily, the building process, involving a tunnel boring machine, should be completed relatively quickly after the machine is installed in the ground. The problem is getting it there in the first place. It still hasn’t arrived from the factory, and construction crews are currently performing utility relocation and station-building using the “cut and cover” method. Since there is apparently no way to make construction move any faster, we must make sure it doesn’t stop again due to the MTA’s diminishing coffers. The fact that this subway line has experienced so many false starts and delays points to the MTA’s inadequacies: large amounts of red tape and budget mismanagement. The MTA needs a drastic rescue plan.

A solution that has been proposed by many is the idea of MTA privatization. Its proponents claim that, by making the MTA separate from the government, the red tape will disappear and it will become far more efficient. Unfortunately, there are many problems with this idea. Privatization could lead to a monopoly on transit or cause the company to save money by cutting down on maintenance. Privatization has failed in cities like Santiago, where bus service to poorer neighborhoods was cancelled due to lack of profit potential, or in London, where the lack of maintenance caused a 1999 train crash. The MTA is currently run under a strict doctrine of safety, and it is doubtful that any subway riders would want this to change.

As Mayor Bloomberg cautioned in July, “the potential for making a lot of money isn’t there.” In fact, transit systems are inherently unprofitable and depend on the government to subsidize them. Unfortunately, the federal government under the Bush administration wasn’t very receptive to subsidizing much of anything. The biggest boost to funding comes under the new stimulus bill, which, for the first time, provides a massive influx of money to infrastructure.

As such, it seems that the only solution would be to reform the MTA and its operating procedures. You can only raise tolls and fares so many times before people start to ask about where their hard-earned dollars are going. According to the Straphangers Campaign, the MTA has been plagued by scandals. Since there is limited oversight from the city and state governments, it was allowed to “cook the books” and spend wastefully on a host of projects that were not shown to the general public. It is integral that the New York State government adopt the plan drawn up about two months ago by the Ravitch Commission, led by Richard Ravitch, a former MTA chairman, for improving the MTA’s operating practices and digging them out of a massive budget shortfall. The report proposes a new Capital Finance Authority to organize the new funding gained from various, revamped toll collection methods. This way the MTA would be able to fund their new capital plan, including the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway.

In the meantime, the agency should invest more money into developing Automatic Train Control systems to reduce the time in between trains and therefore increase service to crucial, overcrowded stops. With the subway being stretched to its breaking point, this could provide a much-needed reprieve without the need to build new lines. While some may think that having their trains controlled by a computer is dangerous, it is actually safer than having a fallible human operator at the stick. In fact, it completely eliminates the sometimes abrupt train stops that cause people to fall over. If it still doesn’t appeal to you, bus lanes could be closed off, discouraging traffic and providing a faster ride. The city could license car services to carpool commuters and even lease their own “stops.” There are many possibilities for more efficient transit that can help us hold out until the T is in service.

The good news is that the Second Avenue Subway is closer to completion than ever before. Work crews are on the job, and the stimulus bill has passed. If the MTA divulges their plans (which, for the sake of greater transparency, they should), the general public could learn how much money they intend to devote to the project. However, this could be a double-edged sword: it must be budgeted wisely to fix the many crumbling subway stations, flooding problems and poor sound systems. So it’s time to decide; which would you rather want: a shiny new Second Avenue Subway or the comfort of not seeing that huge crack in your local station’s ceiling? While the ultimate fate of the new subway is still up in the air, it’s up to the federal government to devote more tax dollars to infrastructure, and up to the MTA to manage that money wisely. If this happens, the forgotten tunnels of the Second Avenue Subway just might see the light of day.