Whither Gotham's Transit?

Here’s the central challenge New York City faces if it wants to keep growing: the way New Yorkers get around has changed. With some nudging from city government, people have made it clear that they want to get from there to here every day on subways, commuter trains, bicycles and feet—not stuck sitting in car and truck traffic. That’s great. But it’s also hugely expensive, and getting more so—at least the way New York does it. The political class has got to come to terms with how much it costs to move a growing city, and they’ve got to get smarter in how they spend this money.

Over the past 20 years, something happened that nobody noticed: the private automobile stopped being New York’s growth engine. Car and truck traffic had fallen before, yes—but that was when New York itself was shrinking, not growing. Between 1960 and 1980, the number of people using cars or trucks to get into Manhattan each day fell by 2.5 percent—the first time traffic fell since we invented the internal combustion engine. New York marked those two decades with a falling population and rising crime. The number of people living in the five boroughs fell 9.1 percent and the number of people murdered more than tripled. As Wall Street started to take off in the early Reagan years, the people started coming back. Traffic, too, rose again, soaring 41 percent between 1980 and 1998.

But that late Giuliani era was the high point—or low point—for Manhattan gridlock, with more than 1.3 million people driving or car-pooling in every day that year. Since then, car and truck traffic has fallen 29 percent, back to the 934,000 people who drove in daily way back in 1980. If this had happened half a century ago, you’d think we were in recession or a depression.

Nope. New York has a record number of jobs and a record population. What’s happened is that those 382,000 people who used to drive in, now take the train—and then some. Since 1998, we’ve added 526,000 daily subway, bus, rail and bicycle commuters, and the majority of them—406,000—onto the subways. Consider that before last October, the MTA never clocked a day with more than six million subway riders. Now, it breaks this onetime record regularly. That’s not what happened the last time car traffic fell: between 1960 and 1980, transit ridership fell, too, by 312,000 daily commuters.

Back then, the population drop-off hurt the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and its predecessor agencies. The city was dying, and nobody wanted to re-invest in its assets. This time around, New York’s resurgence can hurt the MTA. Last year, the MTA’s wait times were up, with only 78.8 percent of weekday trains coming in on or close to on time, down from 80.3 percent the previous year. Overcrowding was the single biggest reason for delays. When too many people try to pack into a 4 train, they delay the next train, and so on.

More ominous, though, trains are breaking down more often. The MTA’s average “mean distance between failures”—a wonkish term describing how far a train can go before it unexpectedly breaks down, often causing headaches for stranded passengers—fell 7.9 percent, from 153,382 miles between failures the previous year to 141,202. Since 1980, the MTA has improved this reliability measure by more than twenty-fold; any slide-back on the indicator most predictive of whether you’ll get to work on time or arrive an hour late and exhausted is a bad sign.

What does the MTA need to keep New York growing? The short answer is money: the authority’s five-year capital investment plan, which began earlier this year, calls for spending $32 billion, but the authority has no idea where it will get $15 billion of that figure. Most of that money is not for expansion projects. It’s just for normal repair and replacement, plus long-overdue upgrades like being able to pay for your train by quickly tapping a chip card.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo lost his chance to wring some of that money out of labor savings in the MTA’s everyday budget. Thanks to bad MTA deals with Long Island and New York City labor unions over the past two years, the MTA will soon spend $379 million more annually than it had expected to spend on salary, wage and overtime costs. That’s easily $5 billion in lost capital spending. There is always time, though, to save money on construction-labor costs. New York spends 14 percent more on construction in general than runner-up Chicago, and 26 percent more than Boston, thanks mostly to higher labor costs, according to the Engineering News-Record.

Absent such savings, the MTA will need a lot of new revenue. It will most likely come from some version of the Move NY plan to charge drivers coming into and riding around in core Manhattan and put $1.1 billion of the proceeds each year into transit investment.

Yes, congestion pricing is inevitable, even if Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who are studiously neutral for now, are the last to know. The alternatives—higher payroll, sales or income taxes or an increasingly decrepit transit system, and, from the politicians’ perspective, labor savings—are worse.

Politicians are fooling themselves, too, if they think they can avoid putting more billions into heavy transit with a focus, instead, on light transit: ferries and bicycles.

Ferries and bicycles are important. The mayor, in particular, is right to encourage their expansion. But we can quadruple the number of daily ferry passengers into Manhattan, and boat riders still would only amount to 4.4 percent of the people who take the subway in every day. Similarly, on a good day, the Citi Bike bike-share program serves 40,000 people. We could—and should—more than double that figure, too. But we cannot move a whole city on blue bicycles.

Nor can we avoid transit upgrades by simply building new housing and new office buildings where trains aren’t too crowded already. As de Blasio launches his housing plan mostly in the outer boroughs, more people may start their commutes in less dense areas of the city. But they’ll end up where the jobs are: busy Manhattan. Over the past decade, Manhattan has created more than half of the city’s new jobs. Yes, other boroughs grew at faster rates. But they grew in large part because of the money people brought home from Manhattan; workers in the Bronx and Brooklyn, for example, overwhelmingly serve the residents of these boroughs at places like restaurants, stores and doctors’ offices. It’s a good bet that if Manhattan stops creating jobs, the outer boroughs won’t pick up the slack.

That congestion pricing is coming, though, doesn’t mean our transit problems are fixed. First, all that money only pays for the borrowing for one MTA capital plan. In five years, we’ll be right back where we started. Second, a new source of revenue is no guarantee that the pols will build the right projects. In fact, the political wrangling needed to get a successful vote in Albany may guarantee the opposite. Long Island politicians, for example, are already angling to electrify the eastern parts of the Long Island Rail Road, even though Long Island isn’t the part of New York that’s growing, and the $10.2 billion project to bring the railroad to Grand Central, five times the size of its initial budget and more than a decade late, has already overwhelmed a decade’s worth of MTA capital spending.

New York’s transit infrastructure struggled when the city was shrinking five decades ago. Now, it’s struggling as we grow.

Nicole Gelinas (@nicolegelinas on Twitter) is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.